Neil Reynolds’ Final Word on Super Wild Card Weekend: Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns rise up, Los Angeles Rams are for real

We put in a marathon couple of shifts over the weekend as Sky Sports NFL brought viewers six live playoff games with 11 hours of coverage on Saturday followed by another 11 through Sunday night and into the beginning of Monday morning.

But we were not alone. It was close to 5am on Monday and people were still tweeting to say that had been with us for every minute of the action.

That kind of fan support is mightily impressive and we all got to experience a playoff round that was both intriguing and highly entertaining…

Five Major Takeaways from Super Wild Card Weekend

1) The downtrodden rise up

This year’s 14-team playoff field featured seven sides who were not in the postseason at the end of the 2019 campaign. So, there is always hope that things can turn around quickly if your team is in trouble.

But the fans of three teams have refused to believe that league headquarters-driven mantra in recent years. How could they? After all, the Cleveland Browns had not won a playoff game since 1994, the Buffalo Bills since 1995 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers since their lone Super Bowl success at the end of the 2002 campaign.

All three won over the weekend and those victories were as much for the long-suffering fan bases as they were for the players and coaches involved. I spoke to Bills cornerback Josh Norman after Saturday’s win over the Indianapolis Colts and he had just played in front of the fans in Buffalo for the first time this season. There were only 6,700 in attendance and they sounded like 67,000. Goodness knows what kind of (ill-advised) group celebrations will take place if the Bills win it all.

2) Rams defense is for real

There is a wonderful statistic doing the rounds at the moment which shows that there have been eight defenses in the past 25 years to lead the league in the categories of points allowed, yards allowed and passing yards allowed in the same season. This year’s Los Angeles Rams are team number eight on that list. Five of the previous seven reached the Super Bowl.

The Rams do not boast the high-powered offense of their last Super Bowl run of two years ago, but their defense is beastly and played a major role in Saturday’s 30-20 win over the Seattle Seahawks, sacking Russell Wilson five times.

Aaron Donald and Leonard Floyd recorded two sacks apiece and the front is constantly in the opposing team’s backfield. But those menaces up front have the time to wreak havoc because the defensive backs – led by Jalen Ramsey – are locking down opposing receivers.

This is a complete unit that now gets to take on the man most likely to win this year’s NFL Most Valuable Player award, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

3) Ravens rounding into form

The Baltimore Ravens won five games to round out the regular season but the nagging thought in the back of a lot of minds focused on the suggestion that they had not really beaten anybody of note. They certainly did that on Sunday, taking down the AFC South champion Tennessee Titans.

The Ravens fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter and there were worrying signs for quarterback Lamar Jackson, who had struggled in his previous two career playoff games – both losses. Lamar could not get going on the ground and he threw an early interception.

But he bounced back to dominate a game with his freelancing style, rushing for 136 yards and scoring on a dazzling 48-yard run. The Ravens eventually squeezed out a 20-13 win that was notable for Jackson’s showing, but also for the fact that the defense held 2,000-yard rusher Derrick Henry – a virtually unstoppable beast of a back – to just 40 yards on 18 carries.

4) Deshaun up for grabs?

Even in the middle of all the playoff games being played on Saturday and Sunday, this was a huge story that got my attention. Superstar quarterback Deshaun Watson is reportedly not happy with the Houston Texans and would be open to an offseason trade, most notably, to the Miami Dolphins.

First of all, let me say that I don’t think this will end up happening. The Texans would be crazy to trade away an elite quarterback in his absolute prime at the age of 25. But if he were to hit the open market, very few NFL teams would consider their quarterback situation to be better than acquiring the man who threw for 4,823 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2020.

I think Watson is worth whatever price the Texans demand. He can instantly upgrade virtually every team in the league. As for Miami, they should offer up both their first-round draft picks for 2021, a first-rounder for 2022… AND their first-round quarterback from a year ago, Tua Tagovailoa. That is not too steep a price for a player of Watson’s calibre.

5) Six becomes seven on the coaching jobs front

There were six open head coaching jobs in the NFL going into playoff weekend… Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions, Houston, Jacksonville Jaguars, Los Angeles Chargers and New York Jets.

Make that seven, because Monday saw the Philadelphia Eagles fire Doug Pederson after a disappointing 4-11-1 campaign.

Less than three years ago, Pederson and back-up quarterback Nick Foles engineered a thrilling 41-33 win over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII. The defining play in that game was ‘The Philly Special’. which saw Foles catch a one-yard touchdown pass from tight end Trey Burton. It was a play so iconic that the Eagles built a statue memorialising the play outside their stadium.

Some 35 months after that play, Foles is already on his second NFL team and Pederson is out of work. Things move fast in the NFL.

To that point, Pederson won the Super Bowl in the 2017 season and followed up with repeat playoff visits in 2018 and 2019. He endured one really bad season in 2020 and obviously had little room for error due to a reported fractured relationship with quarterback Carson Wentz.

Player of the Week: Josh Allen

Buffalo’s star man delivered an assured display in Saturday’s 27-24 win over the Colts, which marked his first postseason victory after last year’s meltdown in Houston.

Allen looked comfortable, mature and talented from start to finish as he threw for 324 yards and two touchdowns, while also rushing for 54 yards and one touchdown. This young signal-caller has developed into the complete offensive weapon and is the main reason I’m backing the Bills to go all the way in this playoff series.

Play of the week

On his fifth NFL team and last seen playing for the St Louis Battlehawks in the XFL, Taylor Heinicke was an unlikely starter for the Washington Football Team in their 31-23 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday night. But Heinicke made the most of his opportunity as he threw for 306 yards and a touchdown and added 46 yards on the ground and another score.

And, for me, his eight-yard touchdown run was the most dramatic and incredible play of the weekend. Heinicke looked like he was going to be dropped in the backfield for a sack but he ducked under the defenders at the 19-yard line and took off downfield. At the four-yard line, Heinicke put it all on the line as he went airborne and just got the ball across the goal line before two Bucs defenders could get to him. It was the kind of play – and kind of day – that could earn Heinicke a long-term spot in the NFL. And a lot of money!

Coach of the week: Mike Preifer

With head coach Kevin Stefanski watching on from his basement back in Cleveland, the Covid-19-affected Browns were led into their first playoff game in 18 years by special teams coach Mike Preifer. And despite not getting on the practice field for the first time until last Friday, Preifer had his team ready to play.

The Browns jumped out to a 28-0 lead against their most hated rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers. And they held on for a famous 48-37 win. And it was a complete win – offense, defense and special teams played a role, as did coaching.

On my radar

I’m closely monitoring the news wires (are they even a thing anymore?) to see if retirement announcements come from two quarterbacks who entered the NFL in the same draft in 2004. Philip Rivers, of the Colts, and Ben Roethlisberger, of the Steelers, sure looked like guys knowing the end of the road was approaching.

Rivers choked up in his post-match press conference on Saturday night, while tears rolled down Big Ben’s face as he sat on the bench at the end of Sunday’s loss to Cleveland – a game in which Roethlisberger hurt his team with four interceptions.

Of the two, I think Rivers is most likely to return, although much will depend on whether the Colts find a younger and more attractive option. He won’t want to find a third NFL team and would rather retire. I think Big Ben is done. He doesn’t have much gas left in the tank.

While their immediate future is cloudy, I am happy to predict that both will take up residence in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in years to come.

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