With everything that is going on in the world right now, I think we need these NFL playoffs more than ever. And that's why it was an absolute privilege to be in the Sky Sports studios for more than 22 hours of live television over this past weekend.
It was so much fun to cover six intriguing games in the very first Super Wild Card Weekend, although it was not the easiest of 90-minute drives home at 5am on Monday. While I absolutely loved spending time with Jeff Reinebold, Shaun Gayle, Brian Baldinger, Cliff Avril, Will Blackmon, Around The NFL Podcast heroes Dan Hanzus, Gregg Rosenthal and Marc Sessler; and Peter King, I also especially enjoyed getting messages from fans up and down the land who were clearly with us all weekend long.
That was further proof of how dedicated our fans are in the United Kingdom.
At the end of a marathon weekend, perhaps the final game was the most intriguing as the Cleveland Browns jumped out to a 28-0 lead and held on to record a 48-37 win at Heinz Field. It was remarkable because of the fast start but also because of the fact that Cleveland had not won in Pittsburgh since 2003 and had not won a playoff game since 1994.
But what was even more remarkable was the fact that they won the game in a week where they stepped onto the practice field for the first time last Friday, travelled in various ways to the contest in Pennsylvania and recorded an historic win with head coach Kevin Stefanski watching from his basement back home in Cleveland.
In the most 2020 of situations, the Covid-19-slammed Browns saw preparations for their first playoff game in 18 years thrown into complete and utter disarray. Not only were they without practices, their head coach and Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio; they were also without routine.
In fact, they travelled the 150 miles to Pittsburgh for this game in two planes and a fleet of 24 town cars that ferried the coaching staff and five close contact players who needed to isolate from the rest of the squad. This was great insight provided to us on Sunday night during a conversation with Peter King.
And then more adversity struck for the Browns as Pittsburgh began to fight back and made what was seemingly a blowout become something a lot more interesting. Michael Dunn was subbing for Bitonio and then he got hurt, meaning Cleveland had to lean on a guard who had driven more than 400 miles from his home in New Jersey to join the team.
That led to Baker Mayfield saying in his post-match interview: "Michael got hurt and then a guy named Blake that I introduced myself to literally in the locker room before the game stepped up in the fourth quarter."
Teams who want to remain on the road to Super Bowl 55 are going to need some of the flashy stuff that catches our attention… things like Josh Allen touchdown passes, dazzling runs from Lamar Jackson and sacks from Aaron Donald.
But they are also going to need the grit, determination, focus and flexibility shown by the Cleveland Browns in the days leading up to and during what will surely go down as one of the most memorable and remarkable wins in franchise history.
Josh Allen… Looking a million miles removed from the young quarterback who seemed to be on a stage that was too big for him in last year's playoffs, Josh Allen was brilliant in leading Buffalo to their first postseason win in 25 years. Allen threw for 324 yards and two touchdowns in Saturday's 27-24 win over Indianapolis and added 54 yards and a score on the ground. Most importantly, Allen looked like he belonged as one of the very best players in the league right now.
Lamar Jackson… Since coming off the Covid-19 list, Baltimore's quarterback has won six games in a row; including Sunday's 20-13 victory at the Tennessee Titans. And Lamar has opened up his style of play during that winning run that now has the Ravens as serious contenders in the AFC. Lamar is playing the kind of playground football that suits his skills. He threw for 179 yards against the Titans but did the serious damage with his legs as he carried 16 times for 136 yards and a touchdown. Letting Lamar play free is going to be a big factor the rest of the way for Baltimore.
Rams and Ravens Defenses… Defense still matters in these playoffs that are loaded with offensive stars such as the aforementioned Allen and Jackson, Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams, Patrick Mahomes and many more. The Los Angeles Rams flexed their defensive muscle in Saturday's 30-20 win over Seattle as they sacked Russell Wilson five times. They looked every inch the number one-ranked D in the NFL and they will present a stern test to Rodgers and the Packers. And how about the Ravens? After falling into a 10-0 first quarter hole, they held Tennessee to three points the rest of the way. More importantly, they held 2,000-yard rusher Derrick Henry to 40 yards on 18 carries (2.2 average).
Seattle's Offensive Line… The Rams were great on the defensive side of the ball, but Seattle's protection was awful and it affected Russell Wilson. He is normally so great at keeping his eyes downfield and ignoring any pressure – that was certainly not the case on Saturday. Priority number one for these Seahawks has to be addressing an area that has largely been ignored year after year. The offensive line must be fixed for Seattle to become a true contender in 2021.
Ben Roethlisberger… Tears streamed down Big Ben's cheeks at the end of Sunday's loss to Cleveland and I have to think that Pittsburgh's future Hall of Fame quarterback is thinking of calling it a career. Don't let the 501 passing yards and four touchdowns fool you – Ben played poorly, was picked off four times and those mistakes were too much to overcome. It didn't look like he had much gas left in the tank down the stretch. We may have seen one of the great ones in action for the final time on Sunday night. And where does that leave Pittsburgh? Does Mason Rudolph equate to a plausible succession plan?
Chicago's Offense… The Bears scored their first touchdown of the game so late in the day against New Orleans that tight end Jimmy Graham – who reeled in a sensational one-handed catch that will soon be forgotten – kept running off the field and straight down the tunnel. And he never came back out! It's time for Chicago to move on from Mitchell Trubisky – he is a major disappointment and simply not good enough.
The Fast Five…
- It was great to see the Bills Mafia in the stands on Saturday night and it helped the players. I spoke to cornerback Josh Norman immediately after the win over the Colts and he said the atmosphere was incredible and fueled the players on the field. I like Buffalo to ride this thing all the way to their first Super Bowl success.
- Philip Rivers went down with all guns blazing on Saturday as he threw for 309 yards and two touchdowns in Indianapolis' three-point loss in Buffalo. While I am sure Big Ben will retire, I don't know about the man who entered the NFL in the same 2004 draft. Rivers has never relied on his athleticism to get the job done – he gets by on smarts and accuarcy. It will depend on who else the Colts get a shot at. If they can get Carson Wentz, Rivers will retire. But there is a decent chance he will be back in Indy in 2021.
- Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay passing game is clicking and he fired strikes off his 43-year-old arm to the tune of 381 passing yards and two touchdowns in Saturday's 31-23 win at Washington. The power of the passing attack was evident throughout the night. One week after Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin both topped 100 receiving yards, Mike Evans caught six for 119. Brown and Godwin were also big factors as they found the endzone.
- Taylor Heinicke may have earned himself a few years in the NFL with his performance at quarterback for Washington. He may not be their starter in 2021 and beyond, but stranger things have happened and I did like the way he carried himself and played with great moxie. On his fifth NFL team, the young man last seen with the St. Louis Battlehawks of the XFL threw for 306 yards and one touchdown while rushing for 46 and an incredible diving score. Heinicke was given an opportunity and he seized it.
- Stepping away from the playoffs for a moment… could Deshaun Watson be done in Houston? The superstar quarterback is not happy and more and more reports are starting to surface about how he wants to be traded by the Texans. There was even a report on Sunday saying Watson would be open to a trade to Miami. The Dolphins should bite their hands off and give up their two first-round picks this year, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and a first-rounder in 2022. A steep price indeed, but the electrifying Watson is truly worth it.
Fact of the Week
The droughts are over. The 2020 playoffs are the first in NFL history in which three different teams broke a drought of 15+ seasons without a playoff win. Buffalo won for the first time since 1995, Cleveland for the first time since 1994 and the Buccaneers for the first time since 2002.
Finish That Sentence
Each week in this spot I ask readers - via Twitter - to randomly send me the start of a sentence and, as we do on our NFL UK Live stage show tours, I will finish the sentence with the first thought that comes into my head. Here we go…
From Kevin Hamilton (@reef4) It's the same old Browns didn't ring true because… this team has a quarterback who can lead from the front and also make accurate throws. Baker Mayfield is the real deal after years of disappointment at the position, including first-round busts such as Johnny Manziel and Brandon Weeden. Baker is growing in stature and in form and there is an additional backbone to this team in the form of Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, a fearsome offensive line and the ever-feisty Jarvis Landry.
From AFC Ben (@AFCBen19334) The team that impressed me the most on Super Wild Card Weekend was… the Cleveland Browns but I have already mentioned them above. Any team that wins in the playoffs deserves our praise, but I would also like to give a nod to a couple of losing sides who I think are on the right track in Indianapolis and Washington. Both have some question marks at the game's most important position – quarterback – but I think they are so well led in Frank Reich and Ron Rivera and will be back in the playoffs next season.
From Jonathan Pickering (@jonpickering25)… Tom Brady vs Drew Brees (Take 3) is going to be… much closer than the first two. New Orleans won 34-23 in Week 1 and 38-3 in Week 9 but I have to feel that Tom Brady will play much better this time around and he and Bruce Arians will come up with a better plan against a strong New Orleans defense. I'm actually going to pick the Bucs to spring what would only be a mild upset given how well their passing game is clicking right now.
As soon as the Buffalo Bills eked out their win against Indianapolis by knocking down Rivers' Hail Mary attempt, my thoughts turned to long-time Sky Sports partner and friend… the late, great Kevin Cadle. He would have loved the fact that his team won for the first time in 25 years but he would equally have loved just hanging out in the studio with his buddies watching the games all weekend. That is the legacy he left me. I love being around the guys, watching the drama unfold every January.