Two young quarterbacks with different styles, who have been critiqued and scrutinized, are reloading this week for a deep playoff run in the AFC. Lamar Jackson with the Baltimore Ravens and Josh Allen with the Buffalo Bills put their teams on their back over the weekend to progress to the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs. Their talents and toughness got their teams over the line at the weekend. The Kansas City Chiefs won’t be taking the prospect of facing either team lightly.
Both quarterbacks were drafted in the 2018 NFL draft class, which featured Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield as the number one overall pick. The Browns, decimated by COVID-19 and without head coach Kevin Stefanski, sprung the surprise of the weekend by beating the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road.
I’ll feature the Baltimore Ravens and Buffalo Bills games before looking at how the divisional round-up is shaping up. How Wild Card Weekend Unfolded Baltimore Ravens @ Tennessee Titans
The Baltimore Ravens overcame a 10-point first-half deficit to gain revenge on their nemesis, the Tennessee Titans, to win their first playoff game in the Lamar Jackson-era.
Having dealt with plenty of setbacks at the start of the game, Jackson turned the Ravens' fortunes around with an explosive 48-yard touchdown run in the second quarter that scorched the turf. After it, ESPN’s analyst Brian Griese described him as lightning in a bottle. Jackson slammed the ball into the hoarding and directed some steam at the doubters - “What the f*** y’all talking about”, he screamed. When his team needed him most, Jackson kept the offense in rhythm for the rest of the game to close it out 20-13. It all started upfront for Baltimore. The Ravens beat the Titans in the trenches. Baltimore’s defense was terrific - it held star running back Derrick Henry and Tennessee’s ground game to 51 yards. They set the tempo with their aggression from the start, leading to a series of Titans three and outs, stifling Henry. Pernell McPhee, Matthew Judon and Patrick Queen all stood out.
For much of the first half, the much maligned Titans defense set the edge on Jackson and contained him in the pocket for extended periods. We’ll shut down your running game and force you to throw, they seemed to say. Jackson connected repeatedly to his enigmatic receiver Marquise Brown, which helped move the chains. The NFL calendar for the next decade would be richer if we could have the spectacle of these teams facing each other once a season, with the animosity that exists between them. Lamar Jackson talked about changing the narrative when it came to the Titans-Ravens rivalry and the stunning upset Tennessee pulled off in last year's playoffs. The red zone efficiency will have to improve if they are to knock off the Bills next weekend, but Action Jackson has definitely changed the narrative.
Indianapolis Colts @ Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills saw off a late fight back by the Indianapolis Colts to win their first playoff game in 25 years. The Bills came out on top in an entertaining, tense encounter. This town, team and fans have known hardship after losing four Super Bowls (yes, FOUR) in the 1990s, and have spent the last quarter of a century as one of the NFL's laughing stock teams. Those days are over. The CBS call of Josh Allen’s first touchdown pass said it all: “He’s a runner, no he’s a thrower! He’s both!” Allen went for the quarterback draw, before seeing the oncoming coverage and flicked a touchdown pass. The evolution of Allen from talented, loose cannon to one of the elite quarterbacks in the league is complete. When Buffalo wavered, he consistently made plays and the right decisions. In his movement, power as a runner and ability to dart the ball away at lightning speed with his wrist, he’s become one of the best in the business. His sole mistake was a fumble with time running down that allowed Indianapolis back in the game. The Colts will be left to rue some costly drops, a terrible offside when the Bills had no intention of going for it on fourth down, a wicked field miss, a questionable coaching call, and a Hail Mary that fell short. It was a killer that they were only able to convert 2-of-5 of red zone chances into touchdowns. The Bills roll on. Wildcard Games Round-up In the NFC, the Los Angeles Rams came through a battle of attrition against the Seattle Seahawks. The defeat feels like the nadir of Pete Carroll’s tenure in the Pacific Northwest, given how promising the Seahawks season looked in the fall. Tampa Bay, with Tom Brady’s deep ball continuing to impress, beat a lively Taylor Heinicke and Washington Football Team. Heinicke, plucked off the street while studying for a degree, was the discovery of the weekend. The worst team to make the playoffs - the Chicago Bears - were put out of their misery by the New Orleans Saints. How ‘Bout Those Browns? The COVID-19 ravaged Cleveland Browns went into Pittsburgh and in one of the greatest nights in their history, they beat the Steelers 48-37. Remarkably, the Browns lost a host of starters and were hit by the gut punch of not having their coach of the year contender, Kevin Stefanski, in the stadium because of COVID. Cleveland didn't seem to be phased. Their spectacular opening salvo of scoring 28 unanswered points will live long in the memory. Baker Mayfield, augmented by the best one-two backfield in the NFL - Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt - pulled off an astonishing result. The game felt like a decisive change in the balance of power between the two teams. NFL Divisional Round Schedule Saturday, Jan. 16 Los Angeles Rams @ Green Bay Packers 4:35 EST Baltimore Ravens @ Buffalo Bills 8:15 EST
Sunday, Jan. 17
Cleveland Browns @ Kansas City Chiefs 3.05 EST Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ New Orleans Saints 6:40 EST Around the League - Trouble in Houston, Myer in demand What if you are the young franchise quarterback of an embattled NFL franchise and you’re shut out of the very decision-making process to find the new head coach and general manager, after the owner said you’d be consulted? In Deshaun Watson’s case, he’s pressed the nuclear option and canvassed confidantes whether he should seek a trade. The Houston Texans have a new general manager in Nick Caserio. He now has to contend with a very unhappy quarterback, one of the best in the league, while he scouts for a new head coach. While it's unlikely Watson is going anywhere, the Texans are off to a very Texans beginning in a new era. Last Monday, is the day after the regular season when many coaches move on. Dubbed Black Monday, it leads to intriguing names being linked to vacant positions. Urban Myer, national championship winner in college football with Florida and Ohio State, has emerged as the front runner for the Jacksonville Jaguars head coach . Myer is a big name candidate, despite the lack of NFL experience. At 56, he’s already quit football twice on health grounds. His legacy has taken a battering after accusations while at Ohio State that he mishandled domestic abuse accusations against one of his coaches. If he’s willing to say yes for his asking price, there are merits to his candidacy. He’ll operate essentially as a chief executive for a team that needs help with its organizational structure as much as its on-field results. The offer is likely to be conditional on Myer duties straddling head coach and front office duties - his legendary recruiting instincts would be a major boost for Jacksonville. Having the first round pick potentially for Trevor Lawrence and an army of draft picks will intrigue Myer. The question is: is he prepared to give up all the trappings of retirement? Shape of the Playoff Race We’re presented with a mouth-watering AFC Divisional round game between the Ravens and the Bills, in Buffalo next Saturday night. Josh Allen versus Lamar Jackson. The Bills offense meets the rejuvenated Ravens defense. How will the Bills adapt to Baltimore’s running game? There is a blueprint for how the Ravens should go about their business in watching tape of how effective the Colts running game was at dominating time in possession for large swathes of the game on Saturday. Jackson must look to get tight end Mark Andrews in the game early and often, to improve the Ravens chances. Elsewhere, the Cleveland Browns should go to Kansas City with hope and a little expectation, especially if they can unleash running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt as they did against Pittsburgh last night. The reigning Super Bowl champions will be fresh coming off their bye. The Browns ability to score points will concern Andy Reid and his defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. In the NFC, the pick of the games is the number one ranked Green Bay Packers hosting the L.A. Rams. Led by presumed-MVP Aaron Rodgers and with the league’s best receiver in Davante Adams, the Packers will match up against Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey from the league’s best defense. The stakes have just gone up again. Wake me up when Saturday comes.