Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 7, 2018

One Improbable Play Doesn’t Save Wild Card Weekend

Watching the NFL’s Wild Card games this weekend was more enervating than exhilarating. Perhaps it was the quality of play, which at times reminded viewers that the four contests included some teams that had squeaked into the playoffs. Dropped passes on the offensive side, breakdowns in coverage on the part of the defenses, and overall sloppy play abounded.

In the team’s first playoff game in more than a decade, the Rams’ special teams put Los Angeles in an early hole against the Atlanta Falcons. On a punt return in the first quarter, Pharoh Cooper signaled for a fair catch, but then started running around, leaving his teammates unsure what he was doing. Blake Countess took his eyes of the ball to watch Cooper, and the punt wound up hitting Countess on the foot and bounding down the field, where the Falcons eventually recovered it. That led to the first score of the game, a 29-yard field goal by Matt Bryant. Then after a second Atlanta field goal Cooper was stripped of the ball on the ensuing kickoff, giving the Falcons prime field position at the Rams’ 32-yard line. Quarterback Matt Ryan quickly drove Atlanta in for a touchdown that made the score 13-0.

Even when players weren’t bumbling and stumbling, the action, if one can call it that, all too often harkened back to the bad old days of “three yards and a cloud of dust.” In that same game Atlanta opened the second half by driving 76 yards in 13 plays, all but two of which were runs. On Sunday Jacksonville beat Buffalo 10-3, the fewest total points in a playoff game in two decades. It took until the second quarter for either the Jaguars or Bills to advance the ball into opposition territory. Buffalo opened the scoring with a second quarter field goal, after failing to reach the end zone from a first and goal just outside the 1-yard line. While that might be a testament to Jacksonville’s defense, it was that same unit that inexcusably gave the Bills a new set of downs deep in the red zone by earlier going offsides as Buffalo lined up on fourth down at the 3-yard line.

Or maybe it was the officiating, especially in Saturday’s first game between Tennessee and Kansas City, where the work by the men in striped shirts became one of the headlines. Referee Jeff Triplette twice ruled Titans’ quarterback Marcus Mariota down when he appeared to cough up the football. The first of those dubious calls allowed Tennessee to retain possession and get on the board with a field goal in the second quarter, cutting Kansas City’s lead to 14-3. The second call was even more consequential, as it came when the Titans were attempting a two-point conversion after scoring to go ahead, 22-21. Daniel Sorenson scooped up the loose football and ran it all the way back to the opposite end zone. Since it happened on the conversion attempt, had the call been a fumble, Kansas City would have been credited with two points and taken a 23-22 lead. In both cases Triplette’s call was that Mariota’s forward progress had been stopped, a call that isn’t reviewable.

That game’s crew appeared to miss another fumble, this one by the home team, when Travis Kelce was blasted after catching a pass from Alex Smith. Kelce was clearly wobbly and needed to be checked for a possible concussion. While the officials need to be alert to any player in distress, they should be paying attention to the play at the same time. Then when the Titans scored on a Mariota pass that was batted by a defender back into the quarterback’s hands, the referee announced that Mariota was an eligible receiver on the play because he had lined up in the shotgun formation. The only problem with Triplette’s explanation is that there is no such rule. What he should have said is that once a ball is deflected by a defender, any offensive player can catch it.

Mike Pereira, the former head of officiating for the league who now works as an analyst for Fox Sports, said it was a “horrible way to start the playoffs,” and added “teams and fans deserve better.” Kansas City coach Andy Reid was more circumspect, in the interest of protecting his wallet. Reid’s postgame comment was “I don’t really have anything good to say there so I’m just going to stay away from any comments about those guys. I don’t want to get fined. It’s not worth it.”

Kelce was by no means the only player who needed to be helped off the field during this weekend’s four games. Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor was knocked out of the game against Jacksonville with just over a minute left to play. Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton left Sunday’s final game against New Orleans briefly for a concussion evaluation. In every game there were shots of players being led to the locker room to quite literally have their heads examined. And that doesn’t count the less serious injuries like Saints guard Andrus Peat’s broken fibula or Jaguars linebacker Paul Posluzny’s bruised hip. The constant reminders of football’s brutal nature only added to one’s sense of disquiet as the four games unfolded.

Yet through all that the games still had their moments, with the last coming when the Saints defense stiffened and stopped Carolina’s final drive in Sunday’s late game, giving New Orleans a rare three wins over the same team in a single season. But surely the most memorable play was in that first contest on Saturday. Kansas City was a heavy favorite over Tennessee, and for the first two quarters the home team had its way with the visitors. Then at the start of the second half, with Kansas City on top 21-3, Mariota put together a drive from the Titans’ 9-yard line. For fifteen plays over almost eight and a half minutes, the young quarterback kept his offense moving down the field, overcoming three penalties, including one that nullified an apparent touchdown.

Then on third and goal from Kansas City’s 6-yard line, Mariota took the snap, dropped back, and briefly moved to his right as he scanned downfield for an open receiver. Coming under pressure he began rolling to his left, and then looked like he was going to attempt to run the ball. Just as he approached the line of scrimmage Mariota launched a pass toward to end zone. Cornerback Darrelle Revis leapt and batted the ball into the air. It went right back to Mariota, who grabbed it and dove for the end zone.

The unlikely score on an improbable play launched the Titans on a second half in which they tallied 19 unanswered points, recording the team’s first playoff win in fourteen years, while sending Kansas City to a sixth consecutive home playoff loss. The Mariota to Mariota touchdown pass was just the second such scoring toss in NFL history. In a forgettable Wild Card weekend, it was a rare and memorable highlight.


  1. Another great wrap-up, Mike. The Titan’s game was the highlight of them all.

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