Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 4, 2018

Long NFL Playoff Droughts End This Weekend

The NFL playoffs kick off this weekend with the four games of the Wild Card round, and this year’s postseason has a noticeably different look. Absent are some teams long considered playoff mainstays. There’ll be no football on Lambeau Field’s famous frozen tundra this postseason. After eight consecutive seasons in the tournament, the Packers’ playoff hopes were broken along with quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ right collarbone way back in Week 5. Missing too is Seattle. The Seahawks’ string of five straight playoff appearances was ended by a combination of injuries and age. After making the postseason four times in six years, the Houston Texans are also out, thanks to ruinous injuries to quarterback Deshaun Watson and defensive end J.J. Watt, among others.

In place of these familiar teams, this year’s playoff race to the Super Bowl includes some franchises whose fans have endured lengthy stays in the football wilderness. The Buffalo Bills lead that group, back in the postseason for the first time in this century. Buffalo squeezed into the Wild Card round when Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton shocked the crowd at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore with a 49-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd on a 4th and 12 play with just 52 seconds remaining in Cincinnati’s game against the Ravens. The score gave the Bengals an improbable 31-27 win and send Baltimore crashing out of the postseason. Dazed but happy Bills fans responded by deluging Dalton’s charity with contributions, many in the amount of $17 to commemorate the number of years since Buffalo’s last playoff appearance.

On Sunday the Bills will play another team back in the playoffs after a lengthy absence. The Jacksonville Jaguars haven’t played a postseason game since losing a Divisional Round matchup 31-20 to New England a decade ago. That was also the last time the team posted a winning record. But after winning a total of just 11 games over the past three seasons, this year Jacksonville came within one victory of matching that total. The Jaguars’ 10-6 record was good enough to claim the AFC South title.

It’s not entirely logical to credit someone in their first year in the front office with that kind of turnaround, but the return of Tom Coughlin to Jacksonville did coincide with the Jaguars developing the NFL’s top-rated pass defense. Coughlin was the team’s first coach, and in eight years forged the best early record of any expansion franchise. Under his leadership Jacksonville made four straight playoff appearances and twice went to the AFC Championship. Now Coughlin is back as Executive Vice President of Football Operations, and once again the Jaguars are in the postseason. Crediting Coughlin for that result is no more nonsensical than imagining quarterback Blake Bortles taking the Jaguars to the Super Bowl.

At this time last year, it was equally hard to picture Jared Goff leading the Los Angeles Rams deep into the postseason. The first pick in the 2016 NFL Draft did little to impress either pundits or fans in the seven games he played as a rookie. He completed barely more than half his passes, and threw more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (5). But in his second year Goff has more than justified the Rams’ decision to trade up in that draft to obtain his services. The California native threw for more than 3,800 yards and 28 scores, and his passer rating of 100.5 was third among NFC starters. One year after going 4-12, the Rams went 11-5 and finished two games clear of Seattle in the NFC West. Los Angeles will host Atlanta Saturday evening in the first playoff game for the Rams since the 2004-5 season. Now if they can just get some fans to come out and watch.

While the Rams young quarterback has blossomed, the signal-caller for the Tennessee Titans has given fans at Nissan Stadium in Nashville plenty to worry about. Quarterback Marcus Mariota endured a rough rookie campaign after being drafted by the Titans with the second overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, and while Tennessee’s record has improved each of the past two years, Mariota’s play has remained spotty. His 79.3 passer rating puts him dead last among the 12 starting quarterbacks in the playoffs. That’s a large part of the reason oddsmakers have made the Titans heavy underdogs against Kansas City in the Saturday afternoon contest that sets the NFL’s postseason in motion.

Even if Tennessee’s return to the playoffs after a nine-year absence proves brief, at least the Titans are still playing. That’s more than twenty of the league’s thirty-two franchises can say. Some fans of those teams can look forward to next season with genuine hope. A healthy Aaron Rodgers is likely to produce a better outcome in Green Bay, for example. Even among the NFL’s downtrodden there are reasons for optimism. Through eleven games this year the hapless 49ers had managed but a single victory. Then quarterback Jimmy Garappolo arrived from New England and led San Francisco to five straight wins, including victories over the playoff-bound Titans, Jaguars, and Rams. Can a Super Bowl be far behind?

But elsewhere among the playoff exiles hope is harder to conjure. Fans will do it of course, because that is what fans do. Against all odds, in places like Cincinnati and Washington, Tampa and Chicago, fans will convince themselves that with just a minor adjustment or one less injury a return to the playoffs and a chance at a Super Bowl will be at hand.

Except in Cleveland. On the shores of Lake Erie, fans who have not witnessed a playoff game in fifteen years are realists. Their team just became the second NFL franchise to go winless, a result that was only one victory less than the Browns managed a year earlier. Knowing that the playoffs are still very far away, fans of the Browns are holding a parade this weekend to celebrate their team’s “perfect season.” Now those are true sports fans.

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Responses

  1. A nice overview of the coming weekend, Mike.
    Stay warm,
    Ω


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