Key takeaways from Wild Card Weekend
The madness of an unusual 2020 NFL regular season only heightened in the first round of the playoffs, as Wild Card Weekend witnessed unexpected performances and edge-of-your-seat finishes.
Cleveland and Buffalo both ended lengthy playoff win droughts, while Washington’s fourth-string quarterback almost spoiled Tom Brady’s record-setting 42nd playoff start.
Before we look ahead to the Divisional Round, highlighted by Brady vs. Drew Brees, Part III, let’s look back on three key takeaways from an unforgettable Wild Card Weekend.
Josh Allen remained poised under playoff pressure
One year removed from a crushing collapse in the Wild Card Round against Houston, Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen showed a leap in maturity.
Ahead of Saturday’s matchup with Indianapolis, the third-year quarterback reflected on last season’s loss, in which Allen fumbled twice and Buffalo squandered a 16-point lead midway through the third quarter.
The 2020 NFL MVP contender, who ranked fourth in completion percentage and fifth in passing yards and touchdown passes this season, said his main lesson from the Houston loss was to “not press and understand the situation.”
He seemed to apply that lesson well, even as Indianapolis nearly mounted a 14-point comeback in the final minutes.
Aside from a late, fourth-quarter fumble, which Buffalo recovered, Allen was exceptional. After the Bills went down 10-7, he put up a five-yard rushing score and connected with Stefon Diggs for a 35-yard touchdown.
Allen finished with 324 passing yards, 54 rushing yards, and three total touchdowns to lead Buffalo to its first playoff win in a quarter century. If he can keep the same composure and play up to his potential in his meeting with Baltimore on Saturday, the Bills should be on their way to their first AFC Championship Game since 1993.
Packers should fear top-ranked Rams defense
Los Angeles’ quarterback conundrum hardly mattered Saturday, as the Rams’ No. 1 defense picked apart Russell Wilson and the Seahawks in a 30-20 win.
Wilson was sacked five times, including twice by two-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald. The Pro Bowl quarterback completed just 11 of his 27 passes for 174 yards, threw an interception returned for a touchdown, and recorded his lowest total QBR (17.6) in 16 playoff games.
The Rams did everything right on defense to frustrate the Seahawks and snapped Seattle’s home playoff win streak, which dated back to 2005.
Russell Wilson was pressured (sack or duress) on a season-high 50% of his dropbacks. That’s also the 2nd-highest rate he’s faced in his playoff career.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 10, 2021
Leonard Floyd (6) and Aaron Donald (5) combined to create 11 of the 18 pressures Wilson faced.
Now the top-ranked scoring defense will square off with Green Bay’s No. 1 scoring offense.
If Los Angeles can pressure Rodgers like they did Wilson, it could spell trouble for the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
In a 38-10 loss to Tampa Bay in Week 6, Rodgers faced his highest pressure rate (29.3%) and turned in one of his worst performances of the season, as a result. The MVP frontrunner was sacked four times for a loss of 42 yards, failed to throw a touchdown pass, and was intercepted twice.
On Saturday, the Rams pressured Wilson on 50% of his dropbacks, the highest pressure rate Wilson faced all season.
The Steelers were the NFL's biggest bust
Despite an unthinkable meltdown to close out the season, the Steelers still looked like a shoo-in to win their Wild Card matchup against the Browns — a team that had lost 17 straight games at Heinz Field, was missing head coach Kevin Stefanski and a handful of coaches and players, and had practiced just once in the past two weeks because of the team’s COVID-19 outbreak.
With all of that working against Cleveland, Pittsburgh managed to look completely outmatched, as it trailed 28-0 at the end of the first quarter.
The first play of the game resulted in a Steelers fumble returned for a touchdown. The following possession, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw his first of four interceptions.
Browns lead 28-0 with 1:56 left in the first quarter and have scored more points in the first quarter than any team in NFL playoff history. Ben Roethlisberger two interceptions. Browns 3 scoring drives after recovering opening fumble for a TD: 3 plays, 6 plays, 3 plays.— Ed Bouchette (@EdBouchette) January 11, 2021
Pittsburgh's third-ranked defense also surrendered a season-high 41 points and failed to sack Baker Mayfield, after the unit led the league in sacks all season.
On the flip side of the Steelers’ poor performance was a glimmer of hope for Cleveland, which won its first playoff game since 1994.
The Browns got a strong showing from Mayfield, and Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt continued to shine as the top running back duo in the league.
The group will have its work cut out for it against defending Super Bowl champion and No. 1 seed Kansas City on Sunday.
But dare we say, for the first time in a long time, don't count out the Browns.