2018's Wild Card Weekend was one for the ages, following up last year's favorite fest with a thrilling quartet of close contests and stirring storylines.
If you didn't catch any of this weekend's action, here's what you missed:
- The Titans' offense floundered in first-gear for two quarters. The run game was stuffed. Marcus Mariota couldn't find the range. Receivers muffed passes and botched routes. Then Tennessee found its motor: Derrick Henry. The power-back bulldozed his way through a Chiefs defense that sorely missed Chris Jones (left with a knee injury). Henry chugged for 151 scrimmage yards in the second half. The Titans scored touchdowns on three straight drives. Henry appropriately iced the game with a 22-yard jaunt on the fourth second-half drive. The 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry was unstoppable, plowing through defenders for 156 rushing yards on 23 totes for a 6.8 average. The play of the former Heisman Trophy winner exacerbates the head-scratching fact that Titans coaches didn't ride the back all season.
- Speaking of former Heisman winners, Marcus Mariota found his groove in the second-half. Sparked by a wacky touchdown pass to himself, the quarterback tortured the Chiefs' defense with his legs and arm. His numbers won't pop off the page (19 for 31 for 205 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) but the third-year pro played his best half in months. It's not surprising that Mariota's play improved once the Titans were forced to go up-tempo after falling behind big. Putting the offense in the QB's hands is something for which teammates have begged to happen for weeks. Mariota's ability to make things happen when plays broke down made the difference in the second-half comeback. Mariota displayed steely resolve on the go-ahead scoring give, including a touchdown strike to Eric Decker. The Titans' best offense is a simple formula: Up-tempo with heavy doses of Henry. It's a recipe Mike Mularkey must stick with in the Divisional Round.
- Alex Smith went from the game's MVP to possibly playing his final game in K.C. The quarterback dominated the first half, tossing for 231 yards on 19-of-23 passing with two touchdown tosses. His play prompted Hall of Fame QB Steve Young to declare at halftime that Smith played "one of the best first halves of a playoff game in the history of quarterbacking." Sadly for Chiefs fans, there were two halves to play. Smith completed just five passes in the final two quarters for 33 yards. The entire K.C. offense was stymied, running just 21 second-half plays. Despite being in the MVP conversation this season, questions about Smith's future in Kansas City will swirl with Patrick Mahomes waiting in the wings.
-- Kevin Patra
- The Atlanta Falcons didn't blow a lead this time. Dan Quinn's team pounced on an early lead thanks to two Rams special teams turnovers and pulled away late on a Julio Jones touchdown catch. Atlanta's offense wasn't pretty, and didn't sport big plays, but moved the chains in the second half to dominate time of possession, 37:34-22:26. After a season in which he was consistently criticized, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian called a wonderful second half at the Coliseum, keeping the L.A. defense off balance. The Falcons powered down the field with Devonta Freeman and pecked away with short passes to dice up the Rams' D. A quick screen pass to Mohamed Sanu that went for 52 yards was a marvelous call by Sark, and it set up the game-clinching dagger to Jones.
- Quinn's defense deserves much of the credit for the win. The Falcons held Jared Goff to 5.8 yards per attempt and bottled up Todd Gurley most of the night. The MVP candidate bested the century mark, going for 101 rushing yards on 14 carries. But 47 of those yards came on a two-play sequence early in the fourth quarter (those two plays were more than the 43 yards he'd gained on every run prior). Led by speedy linebacker Deion Jones, the Falcons also pinned down Gurley in the passing game. The running back caught just four passes for 10 yards on 10 targets. Gurley averaged more than 175 scrimmage yards in each of his last five games before his 111 Saturday night. With Gurley stymied the majority of the game, the Rams' high-flying offense, which scored 29.9 points per game in 2017, was grounded by the Falcons' fleet defense.
- The Rams boasted three special teams players on the 2017 All-Pro team. On Saturday night, the return game let them down. The Rams botched a punt early in the first quarter, leading to a Falcons field goal. Pharoh Cooper, an All-Pro returner, then fumbled a kick return that Atlanta turned into the first touchdown of the game. With both teams starting out sluggish (five straight three-and-outs to open the game) the 10 points off turnovers proved to be devastating for Sean McVay's team.
-- Kevin Patra
- This white-knuckle affair resembled a brand of football your grandfather's grandfather watched on a 12-inch black-and-white boob tube in fire-lit parlors during ancient days of old.
A thing of beauty it was not -- not on offense, at least -- but the Jaguars are on their way to Pittsburgh after nabbing Sunday's physical throwdown. It marks Jacksonville's first playoff victory in 10 years, but knocking out the Steelers next Sunday will require this squad to double its efforts. The defense remains a glorious beast and deserves credit for keeping Buffalo's offense under water while patiently waiting for its own attack to awaken. Jaguars fans will quickly remind you that Pittsburgh stumbled badly against Jacksonville in a 30-9 battering in Week 5. Fair point. This defense is truly special and anything is possible in a week-to-week league, but the Steelers have evolved on offense while Jacksonville's attempt to the move the ball is a new adventure weekly.
- The Bills made their mission clear: Shut down rookie workhorse runner Leonard Fournette and force Jaguars passer Blake Bortles to make plays through the air. The strategy worked wonders out of the gate, with Bortles throwing for just 33 first-half yards while vastly struggling with accuracy. The bad moments were ghastly, with Bortles reverting to long streaks of ugly footwork, jittery tosses and a noticeable lack of confidence. Jacksonville was a raging, bubbling mess on offense before the break, but Bortles shook off his ugly handiwork to author a 15-play, 86-yard, third-quarter scoring march that milked nearly nine minutes off the clock before the signal-caller dialed up a daring fourth-and-goal, play-action touchdown strike to tight end Ben Koyack. Fournette served as an engine on that drive, piling up 48 yards off nine touches. Bortles, meanwhile, helped the offense with a team-leading and season-high 89 yards rushing. His ability to scramble for first downs remains his finest gift -- Bortles is truly fun to watch on that front -- but he wound up running for more yards than he threw. How long can the Jaguars survive with such a skittish performer under center?
- Tyrod Taylor was nothing to write home about, either, throwing a costly first-half pick and overseeing an offense doubling as a punt machine. With four chances to tie the game in the second half, Taylor couldn't move the ball. The Bills quarterback dialed up too many off-target throws and wasn't helped by a handful of drops. Buffalo's lone score came off an 18-play, 71-yard march capped by Steven Hauschka's 31-yard field goal on a blustery afternoon in Northern Florida. The eight-plus-minute march was the longest given up time-wise all season by the Jaguars, magnifying a first half that saw Jacksonville hold the ball for just under nine minutes. Buffalo was helped on the drive by a rash of killer penalties by the Jaguars, including a costly unnecessary roughness flag on Yannick Ngakoue, the result of a helmet-to-helmet collision with Taylor. Wipe this series away and Jacksonville's defense played a nearly perfect game.
-- Marc Sessler
- Carolina's defense stonewalled New Orleans' vaunted ground attack, giving Cam Newton a chance to play the hero just minutes after clearing a concussion evaluation that resulted from a vicious David Onyemata hit. Defensive Player of the Year candidate Cameron Jordan took over from there, hitting Newton three times over a four-play series in scoring territory. The first hit nearly led to a game-ending Marshon Lattimore interception. The second hit prompted an intentional grounding penalty that left Newton in a desperate third-and-23 situation. The third hit sealed the victory as Jordan and Vonn Bell drove Newton back 17 yards for a fourth-and-long sack. The best Cam on the field, Jordan finished with a sack, two pass deflections and four hits on Newton.
- After a slow start for both offenses, this NFC South grudge match turned in New Orleans' favor on a two-possession sequence late in the first quarter. An end-zone drop by wideout Kaelin Clay was followed by a missed chip shot from Panthers kicker Graham Gano. Clay's gaffe ultimately resulted in a 14-point swing when Drew Brees dialed up a bomb that Ted Ginn took 80 yards to the house for a 7-0 lead. Brees went on to hit nine consecutive passes, entering halftime with a 151.4 passer rating and a 21-9 lead.
In three victories over Carolina this season, Brees completed 70 of 96 attempts (72.9 percent) for 865 yards (9.0 YPA), a 6:1 TD-to-INT ratio and a sterling 116.9 passer rating. He's now averaging an NFL-record 326.3 passing yards in 12 career postseason games. If not for a desperation fourth-down heave that was picked by Mike Adams, he would also own the best TD-to-INT ratio (26:7) in playoff history.
- How has the Brandin Cooks trade worked out for New Orleans? Splendidly. The draft pick acquired in that trade was used to select right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, the best rookie offensive lineman in the league this season. Meanwhile, Michael Thomas has thrived as Brees' go-to target, breaking the NFL record for most receptions in a player's first two seasons. A Panthers killer, Thomas pulled off a spectacular diving catch to set up Zach Line's touchdown, gained 46 yards on a deep crossing route to set up Alvin Kamara's touchdown and came down with a back-shoulder grab versus Captain Munnerlyn to move the sticks late in the fourth quarter. It's easy to see why Brees told FOX's Troy Aikman that he's never been around a more competitive receiver than the man who goes by the fitting Twitter handle @Cantguardmike.
-- Chris Wesseling