Jan. 16, 2020
Who Fed It And Who Ate It: 2019 Divisional Playoffs
After such a thrilling Wild Card round last week, could the Divisional round follow it? While the games may have lacked in tension, they were certainly not deficient in intrigue, as each game took its own twists and turns to decide the participants in next week's conference championships. But before we delve into those Elite Eight of the Shield, there's one piece of housekeeping to tend to.
The Cleveland Browns closed out the annual coaching carousel with the hire of Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski Well, someone had to take the job that even St. Jude would deem hopeless. And our poor soul who is next in the wheat thresher of professional coaching locales is Stefanski, who came up through the ranks with Minnesota. He showed his tenure with the Vikings served him well as he was their offensive coordinator for a year and change, finding ways to get the most out of that unit. With all the talent that the Browns possess on offense, hiring someone to get that lot cooking was fairly obvious. The big question about Stefanski is not can he accomplish that mission, but will he given the time to do so? The last Browns coach who stuck through three full seasons was Romeo Crennel (2005-08). That was over a decade ago. Plus, Cleveland is still searching for a general manager to replace the departed John Dorsey. Yet another person to take on an assignment that must rank among the worst in executive circles. Oh, how was Stefanski hired with Minnesota in the playoffs? Well...
The San Francisco 49ers dominated the Minnesota Vikings virtually from start to finish in a 27-10 performance It was a consensus belief that the Niners would defeat the Vikings. San Francisco was just the more complete team playing at a higher level than most of their opposition. They affirmed that in spades in their squash of the Vikes. The 49ers were firing on all cylinders, with the defense getting 6 sacks of QB Kirk Cousins while limiting Minnesota's offense to 147 total yards. To put this into perspective, the 49ers ran for 186 yards. That's right, ran. With that many yards on the ground, one could imagine San Fran holding onto the ball so long (38:27 time of possession), the Vikings could've been charged rent when they went on offense. The Vikings conclude the season losing both coordinators, with Stefanski heading to Cleveland and the defense's George Edwards was not retained for 2020. So the Vikings are heading into their third and final year of Cousins' fully guaranteed contract with two new coordinators, all the while trying to improve the roster under a salary cap crunch (currently $5 million in the hole for 2020 per overthecap.com). Meanwhile, the 49ers are heading to their first NFC Championship Game in 6 years, and the first time they will host in 8 years. They are primed and ready to make their seventh Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. They have only one more obstacle to hurdle.
The Tennessee Titans, the six seed in the AFC, defeated the 1 seed Baltimore Ravens 28-12, in such convincing fashion that it left the home Ravens crowd in stunned silence Your humble scribe believed that if an upset were to happen, it would be this game. Both teams play similar styles, which meant that whichever of the two can establish their game, that team would have the edge. Plus, the Ravens had not been challenged by their opposition regularly, while the Titans were playing for their postseason lives since mid-October. In watching this game, it would not have been evident. The Ravens were discombobulated, far from the well oiled machine that steamrolled the competition en route to a 14-2 regular season record. QB Lamar Jackson, the conceded NFL MVP of 2019, threw 2 interceptions and lost a fumble. The offense, a perfect 8/8 on 4th and 1 situations throughout the regular season, went 0/2, with both turnovers on downs turning into Titan touchdowns. Baltimore's fifth ranked run defense, giving up a little over 93 yards a game, were absolutely shredded by RB Derrick Henry for 195 yards on 30 yards. This was a clinic by the Titans, even as QB Ryan Tannehill only threw for 88 yards. In the Ravens' stunning loss, they discovered the fatal flaw to their run heavy attack, and that is it is ill equipped to come back from deficits larger than two scores. But more to the point, the Ravens were a team who play best running downhill, holding a lead and are playing effectively on both sides of the ball. Tennessee forced the Charmed City Blackbirds out of their comfort zone, and the home team never recovered. The Titans will head to their first AFC Championship Game since 2002, riding Henry's epic playoff run, and playing with house money. The Ravens, on the other hand, are left with a bitter taste in their mouths and wondering what might have been. And for the Jackson detractors who are dancing on the young signal caller's postseason grave, cool your jets, boomers. This was his second playoff appearance in as many seasons as he's been a pro. Mr. Jackson will get much more opportunities to go on deep playoff runs. This is the beginning of a career, not the end.
The Kansas City Chiefs make a 24 point comeback in one quarter(!) en route to a 51-31 runaway victory over the Houston Texans When the Texans took a three touchdown lead over the bumbling Chiefs, it appeared to be a redux of the events of the evening prior in Maryland. But little did anyone realize the turning point of the game would happen so early. With 10:58 left in the second quarter, Houston is driving practically at will on KC's defense. The Texans are faced with 4th & 1 on the Chiefs 13 yard line. Quarterback Deshaun Watson looked to be ready to go for the conversion, but head coach Bill O'Brien called a timeout. And instead of trying for it on fourth down to keep the pressure on Kansas City, Ka'imi Fairbairn came in to kick a 31 yard field goal to extend Houston's lead to 24-0. In that moment, the Chiefs would get on track on the ensuing kickoff, when returner Mecole Hardman would take the kick on a 58 yard return to set up the Chiefs offense in Texans territory, then QB Patrick Mahomes would hit RB Damien Williams on a 17 yard passing TD connection to get the Chiefs on the board. The momentum had flipped on a dime, as KC would score three more touchdowns to cap off the biggest comeback in Chiefs history... By the end of the half! Mahomes would throw for all four touchdowns in the second, the first QB to throw 4 TD's in a quarter in the postseason since Doug Williams in Super Bowl XXII. Besides Damien Williams, TE Travis Kelce caught the other three, which became a postseason record. But KC wasn't done, not by a long shot. In the third, the Chiefs would score 2 more touchdowns to pad their lead before the Texans would respond with a Watson 5 yard run late in the quarter. All told, the Chiefs would post 41 unanswered points to not make one of the biggest comebacks in postseason history, but beat their opponent by 20 points. Kansas City now advances to their second straight AFC Championship Game, hosting the Tennessee Titans and poised to finish the job KC began last year. And after watching what Mahomes & company did this past Sunday, the Chiefs are making a case for being the most dangerous team left in the playoffs. For Houston, they head into the offseason with a fan base seriously questioning the viability of O'Brien as head coach going forward. As far as the Texans organization is concerned, all is well and full steam ahead. So, is the biggest impediment to the Texans their head coach?
The Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks played a close one, with the Pack prevailing 28-23 at Lambeau With two great quarterbacks dueling one another, this had the potential to be a classic. Seattle's Russell Wilson and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers made their plays, got their numbers, and led their respective offenses exceptionally well. But it came down to who made the most crucial plays, and that was the Packers' defense, who sacked Wilson five times and were successful on third down with the Seahawks converting 3 times on 9 attempts. Now, Green Bay advances to the NFC Championship Game for the first time in three years and for the fourth time with Rodgers as their quarterback. The Pack head to Santa Clara to play the San Francisco 49ers in a regular season rematch as two renown NFL franchises fight for the right to be in Super Bowl LIV. The Seahawks ends a great season short of the conference championship, their fourth straight such elimination in qualifying years. With Wilson under center, it seems like the Emerald City Birds will remain in the NFC title picture, even as a dark horse contender. It will bear watching to see if GM John Schneider can put the pieces around his franchise quarterback to give Seattle a strong chance to win their second Lombardi Trophy.