With this column coming hot on the heels of a Week 17 that determined the final playoff spots for the 2020 season, I should probably focus on the Cleveland Browns making the knockout tournament for the first time since 2002. Or the Washington Football Team getting into the playoffs while being led by a quarterback who shouldn't even be on the gridiron in Alex Smith.
But my biggest takeaway from Sunday was just how special the Buffalo Bills looked as they marched into the playoffs as the number two seed in the AFC with a 13-3 record. In a game that would have carried much more meaning in previous years, Buffalo dominated the playoff-chasing Miami Dolphins en route to a 56-26 victory.
After a slow start, the Bills really got rolling in the second quarter and opened up a 28-6 halftime lead as quarterback Josh Allen reminded us that even if he is not going to be the NFL Most Valuable Player this year, he deserves to be in the same conversation as Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers.
In just a half of action, Allen completed 18 of 25 passes for 244 yards and threw three touchdowns. His drastic improvement has been one of the biggest stories of this 2020 season. Allen has ended this regular season with a club record 4,544 passing yards, breaking the mark set by Drew Bledsoe in 2002. He is also the touchdown pass record holder for Buffalo with 37. The previous best was set by Hall of Famer, Jim Kelly.
What really impressed me about Sunday's win was the fact that Buffalo scored four touchdowns after the break while playing a lot of reserves against a team still desperate for the victory to get into the playoffs. That emphasised the gulf in class between these two AFC East rivals – one is in the early stages of a rebuild and the other is ready to compete for glory right now.
Allen and his offensive buddies get a lot of the attention in western New York, but Sunday was another complete performance with touchdowns coming on offense, defense (Josh Norman's 16-yard interception return) and special teams (Isaiah McKenzie's 84-yard punt return).
The offense has hummed for much of this season and ended the year averaging 31.3 points per game. That is another club record chalked up by Sean McDermott's men. That is hugely impressive because the K-Gun offense that helped Buffalo reach four consecutive Super Bowls from 1990-1993 is quite rightly judged as one of the best in NFL history.
As I mentioned before, it's more than just the offense. The defense has allowed just 18.3 points per game over the past six weeks of the regular season and they made Miami rookie Tua Tagovailoa suffer on Sunday. Buffalo intercepted Tua three times and forced four turnovers in total.
I truly believe this is a team ready to go toe to toe with the top-ranked Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC playoffs. This Bills squad has the quality and depth to go all the way and they most certainly have the form and momentum as they prepare to take on Indianapolis in the first round of the playoffs.
Buffalo ended the regular season with six straight wins with their last loss coming at Arizona on that now-famous Hail Murray pass. But for that miracle catch from DeAndre Hopkins, Buffalo would have ended the campaign with 10 victories in a row.
That miracle Kyler Murray touchdown pass is an interesting footnote. It was supposed to be a galvanising play for the Cardinals, but they lost five of their last seven and missed the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Bills march on and they are a genuine heavyweight contender as the knockout stages begin.
Tom Brady… With no sign of wear and tear on his 43-year-old arm, Tom Brady is leading his Tampa Bay Buccaneers into the playoffs in fine form. Brady threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns on Sunday in a 44-27 win at Atlanta. With the deep ball now back in his arsenal and Antonio Brown rounding into top form (he caught 11 passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday), Tampa are going to be a tough out when they begin postseason play for the first time since the 2007. The Buccaneers have won four in a row to end the regular season, averaging 37 points per outing. The last time Tampa scored fewer than 24 points in a game was during a Week 9 loss to New Orleans in early November. We've always known the Bucs to be dangerous on their day. Consistency was their problem. If they have found that, why not them to go all the way from the NFC side of the draw?
Jonathan Taylor… Rookies so often hit a wall and run out of gas as their first season in the NFL grinds along. But the Indianapolis Colts rusher is picking up a head of steam at the right time of the year. Jonathan Taylor carried 30 times for 253 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday's 28-14 win over Jacksonville that booked a playoff berth for the Colts. His 45-yard scoring run with 3:35 remaining was especially timely as Indy had seen their 20-0 lead turn into a nervous 20-14 scoreline. College football players often play 10 or 12 games per year, so they can hit that wall around the same time in the NFL. Not Taylor. Since Week 11, he has rushed for 741 yards – second only to Derrick Henry, of the Tennessee Titans. Taylor has averaged 123.5 rushing yards per game and scored eight touchdowns. So much of the Colts' offense now goes through him and that is sure to remain the case for the remainder of this campaign and into 2021.
Derrick Henry… The weather has turned cold in many NFL cities, the playoffs are here and Henry remains an unstoppable beast of a running back – in these tumultuous times it is good to have something familiar and constant to rely upon. Henry was a massive factor on Sunday night as the Titans snatched the AFC South away from the Colts with a late and dramatic 41-38 win over Houston that was clinched with a late Ryan Tannehill bomb to A.J. Brown and Sam Sloman's 37-yard field goal that doinked in off the post as time expired. Henry deserved to be on the winning side on a night when he became just the eighth player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season. Henry carried 34 times for 250 yards and two touchdowns. Most running backs would feel the effects of such a heavy workload. For Henry, it was just another day at the office and a nice warm up for a juicy playoff rematch with Baltimore – the team whose Super Bowl dreams he wrecked last January.
Minnesota's Defense… The Vikings ended a disappointing campaign with a 37-35 win over the Detroit Lions on Sunday, but it is clear there is much that needs to be fixed on the defensive side of the ball in the offseason. Mike Zimmer's job is safe but his area of expertise – the defense – has to become a strength once again in 2021. The offense has some genuine difference makers in place in running back Dalvin Cook and wide receiver Justin Jefferson. But the defense is flailing and struggling. Over the last seven games of the regular season – during which time the Vikings went 3-4 and fell out of the NFC playoff race – the defense gave up an average of 32.6 points per game. Only once this season did the Vikings hold an opponent under 20 points – a 19-13 win over Chicago in Week 10. I understand defensive standards have slipped a little bit in today's offense-heavy NFL, but that is nowhere near good enough, especially for a team with the defensive pedigree and reputation of the Vikings.
Carolina's passing attack… While it has not shown up in wins and losses this season, the Carolina Panthers have enjoyed some positive moments on the offensive side of the ball as they have battled on without injured running back Christian McCaffrey. And while he has not always been spectacular, 'Steady' Teddy Bridgewater has not been a disaster. He had only thrown nine interceptions heading into Sunday evening and what turned out to be a humiliating 33-7 loss to New Orleans. Bridgewater threw two picks and compiled a passer rating of 44.8 before being benched. P.J. Walker fared even worse in relief as he was picked off three times. As the Panthers head towards the offseason, I cannot help but wonder if Matt Rhule is happy with his quarterback situation or if he will make another move?
The Jacksonville Jaguars… The Jags were opening day winners in 2020 but went on to lose their final 15 games of the year. It's hard to believe that this 1-15 team was just five minutes from reaching the Super Bowl at the end of the 2017 campaign and would likely have been in the big game but for an erroneous call by the officials following a Myles Jack fumble recovery. Since then, the Jags have gone 12-36 and the lack of a big-time quarterback has been a major issue. They'll get one this spring as owners of the first pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. But will it be Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields? And who will be the coach overseeing the rebuild? Could it be Urban Meyer? It's been a turgid year, but brighter times are ahead for the Jags.
The Fast Five…
- I don't have the time or space to list all the indignities Cleveland Browns fans have been forced to endure over the years, but let's just say it has been a rough ride. A few spring to mind without going into years and years of detail and misery at The Factory of Sadness. The failed drafts of Brandon Weeden and Johnny Manziel to name a couple, along with the infamous 0-16 season of 2017. But that was all washed away on Sunday as the Browns made the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season with a 24-22 win over Pittsburgh. The running game is a big factor in the success in 2020, along with tidier play from quarterback Baker Mayfield in the second half of this season. But I think the biggest reason for the end to this long playoff drought is the grown-up and steady leadership of head coach Kevin Stefanski. No matter how far they go in the AFC playoffs, the Browns are in good hands for the future.
- The Green Bay Packers sewed up the number one seed in the NFC playoffs with a convincing 35-16 win over the Chicago Bears and Aaron Rodgers has probably secured the league MVP prize along the way. With another four touchdown passes on Sunday, Rodgers ended the regular season with 48 scoring strikes and just five interceptions. That touchdown to interception ratio was the best in the league this season, as was Rodgers' passer rating of 121.5. That was actually the second best of all time behind the mark of 122.5 set by Rodgers in his MVP season of 2011. The Packers are scoring points for fun and credit should also go to head coach Matt LaFleur, who has overseen a second 13-3 campaign in as many seasons.
- The Los Angeles Rams had to lean heavily on their defense during Sunday's playoff-clinching 18-7 win over Arizona. That's not to say that John Wolford was terrible at quarterback in relief of the injured Jared Goff. Far from it. Wolford put up 231 passing yards (Goff has averaged 225.8 per game since Week 12) and rushed for 56 yards. But it was clear that with another four sacks and just one touchdown conceded, the Rams are going to lean heavily on their D as they enter the playoffs for the third time in Sean McVay's four seasons in charge. The Rams held opponents to fewer than 20 points in eight games this season and allowed just 17 passing touchdowns in 16 contests. Can they do the same in the Super Wild Card Weekend and hold Russell Wilson down?
- Deshaun Watson was brilliant once again in a losing cause on Sunday, throwing for 365 yards and three touchdowns in Houston's 41-38 loss to Tennessee. This team needs to do everything it can to make things right with their elite quarterback for 2021 and beyond. But how do they do that when former head coach and general manager Bill O'Brien has already handed the third overall pick in this upcoming draft to the Miami Dolphins in a deal for offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil? Watson deserves better than the 4-12 team currently around him. He topped a quarterback rating of 100 in 12 games this season and his overall rating of 112.4 was a new team record. He is one of the best in the business on a team that has much to fix in the coming months.
- Chalk up another big sack for Carolina Panthers British defensive end Efe Obada and add another name to his hit list. Drew Brees was the latest stud quarterback to be taken down by the former London Warrior in 2020, joining Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford and Matt Ryan. It has been an excellent year for Efe as he recorded five and a half sacks for the Panthers. Also, how about a shout out for playoff-bound British defensive end Jack Crawford, who recorded a sack in Sunday's win for Tennessee over Houston?
Fact of the Week
The 2020 NFL season finished with a record 12,692 points being scored, marking the first time that the 12,000-point barrier has been broken in a single campaign. The previous record of 11,985 points was set in 2013.
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 Aidan McKenzie (@mckenzieaidan) The Super Bowl I would like to see would be between…_ two teams who can play an open, attacking and points-filled style of play. So, I would happily watch Buffalo or Kansas City out of the AFC and would love to see either Green Bay or Tampa Bay from the NFC. There could be some fascinating matchups there. The Bills and Packers would be great just to see two different teams in the big game and to see Josh Allen and Aaron Rodgers go back and forth. But I would also not mind a Tom Brady-Patrick Mahomes battle in Tampa or how about this one? Tom Brady returns to terrify and torment a Buffalo team that he dominated during his time in New England. The Bills would be more than capable of exacting revenge in a high-scoring game. So many great stories are still to be written in this 2020 season.
From Mikeness (@Mikeness18) The key points to a team's victory in the playoffs are as follows… be balanced on offense, opportunistic on defense and have enough in your locker to pass your way out of trouble if needed. This time of the season is always important when it comes to running the football and being able to stop the run. But we also see time and again that turnovers can be crucial in big games at the end of a season. Those are the more tried and trusted playoff methods but in today's NFL, you need to do what Kansas City did so often in playoff games last season – pass your way out of trouble if necessary. So when you're looking at those capable of making a serious Super Bowl run in the coming weeks, you need to look at teams with high-end quarterbacks and elite offenses who can score quickly and often. The old adage of defense winning championships holds true to some degree, but this playoff tournament will be all about the quarterbacks.
From The Dynasty Grill (@FFDynastyGrill)… The team that over-achieved the most in 2020 was… the Miami Dolphins. Sunday's loss to Buffalo was humbling and a sign that much work is still needed, especially on the offensive side of the ball. But I did not see the Dolphins winning 10 games this season and it appears the Brian Flores rebuild is ahead of schedule. With another two first round draft picks in their bag, this is a big offseason for the Dolphins. They have to put more offensive talent around quarterback Tua Tagovailoa so he can be properly judged in 2021. Because, right now, I have my doubts that he is the franchise quarterback the Dolphins have been looking for. That may seem harsh and that is why I want to see what Tua does with better skill position players in 2021. Then we can decide if he is the guy or not. But the Dolphins have much to be proud of in 2020, despite their season-ending and playoff-ruining loss in Buffalo.
And then there were 14. The playoffs are about to begin with a reminder that nothing lasts forever in the NFL and that turnarounds can come quickly for teams who seem to be downtrodden. Of the 14 teams ready for the knockout stages, seven are new to the playoffs when compared to a year ago. And two teams in particular cannot wait to get started after long waits… Cleveland have not been in the playoffs since the 2002 campaign and Tampa Bay since 2007. This is the best time of the NFL year. The stakes could not be higher. Win and you move along the road to Super Bowl 55. Lose and you head home with seven long months to think about where it all went wrong. The hours are crazy and the coffee needs to be attached to an IV drip, but I love this team of year. Let's get this thing going already. Saturday cannot come soon enough, for me.