The Winners and Losers From the NFL’s Divisional Round

Every week this NFL season, we will celebrate the electric plays, investigate the colossal blunders, and explain the inexplicable moments of the most recent slate. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?


Winner: Chalk

Nothing exciting happened in the divisional round of the playoffs. In the AFC, the top-seeded Chiefs beat the Colts by 18, holding Indianapolis without an offensive score until the fourth quarter, while the second-seeded Patriots took a 38-7 lead on the Chargers before coasting to a modest 13-point win. In the NFC, the top-seeded Saints ended the Nick Foles Genitalia Discussion era by beating the Eagles by six, and the second-seeded Rams led by two scores for most of the second half in a 30-22 win over the Cowboys. Of the four underdogs, only the Eagles covered the spread.

We’re told the NFL playoffs are awesome because the NFL is our favorite sport and these are the most important games. But it’s pretty chalky. In the past five Super Bowls, there have been nine 1-seeds and one 2-seed. No team that has had to play in the first round of the playoffs has made the Super Bowl since the 2012 Ravens, a trend that will continue at least until next year. No team that has had to play a road game in the postseason has made the Super Bowl since the 2012 Ravens, a trend that may very well continue.

There’s a reason for this. The NFL’s postseason format really sets things up nicely for the best teams in each conference, giving the top two teams a first-round bye and home field in their first playoff game.

Did the top seeds win this week because they had an extra week of rest? Did they win this week because they got home-field advantage? Did they win because they’re better teams? My guess is that they won because they’re better teams, and also had home-field advantage and an extra week of rest. The system is set up for the results we got.

Loser: Momentum

The four underdogs this week were billed as hot. The Colts had bounced back from a 1-5 start to make the playoffs with a 9-1 finish. The Chargers billed themselves as road warriors, having won all nine games they played outside of Los Angeles. They’d won 12 of their last 14 games. The Cowboys had won seven of eight to win the NFC East.

And we haven’t even mentioned Nick Foles, Momentum God. He began December 2017 as a meek backup, went into a phone booth after Carson Wentz’s injury, and emerged as a superhero and Super Bowl MVP. He seemed set to do the same thing after Wentz got hurt again this year, and he won back-to-back-to-back must-win games to close this season. It became common to mention Nick Foles’s penis in conversations where penises are not normally mentioned, like weekly winners and losers columns about football games.

I believe in sports momentum. Teams change! Bench players become stars! Some teams have mojos that rise; others have spirits that fall. But this year, the better teams beat the hotter teams. From now on, I’m going to try not to talk about penises in this column, even a little bit.

Loser: The Chargers’ Defensive Non-Adjustments

Last week, I couldn’t get over the brilliance of what the Chargers did on defense. Facing the one-of-a-kind spread-option attack of Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, Los Angeles cooked up a one-of-a-kind defensive package featuring seven defensive backs. They essentially replaced their linebackers with safeties, trading power for speed in an attempt to keep up with a Ravens offense that would challenge them horizontally rather than through the air. It worked, as Baltimore was completely flummoxed for 60 minutes. I was so impressed with Los Angeles for dialing up a one-off look perfectly designed to counter the specific traits of an opponent.

But this week, the Chargers revealed it actually wasn’t a one-off look perfectly designed to counter the specific traits of an opponent. They came out in the same seven-defensive-back look against Tom Brady and the Patriots. I’m not sure I need to say this, but … Tom Brady and Lamar Jackson are very different quarterbacks! They do different things! Trying to stop them in the same way was a bold call.

It was immediately clear that Los Angeles’s defensive strategy was doomed. Brady destroyed the Chargers’ zone, as New England scored touchdowns on its first four drives and finished the first half with 35 points. The game was over before the Chargers had a chance to adjust. The Chargers defense worked so well against Baltimore because it was so well-suited to what it was trying to stop. It’s just baffling that Los Angeles’s lesson from that was to change nothing against a drastically different opponent.

A pro tip to defensive coordinators in the future: Try not to unveil your radical defensive changes the week before you play Bill Belichick. Or at least change something.

Winner: Kickers

The highlight of Saturday’s football action did not come in a playoff game. It came in a Chicago parking lot, where 101 amateurs attempted to hit the field goal Cody Parkey double-doinked last week. The winner would receive a year of Goose Island beer and a trip to an NFL game of their choosing.

All 101 missed, most in hilarious fashion. One guy got hit in the dick.

(OK, next year I won’t write about penises.)

Many guys fell on their ass.

I watched all 101 kicks via Periscope, and it was brutal. Every 30 seconds, a confident kicker emerged, hyped up the crowd, and failed horrifically. It is always fun watching incompetent people who believe they are exceptional prove their incompetence.

Now, the odds were stacked against these faux-kickers. They were kicking in snow on a thin turf mat with the wind blowing in their faces. The space given to them for kicking wasn’t quite wide enough for them to take the proper angle. Pros would miss this kick, frequently. And these were not pros—Goose Island actually specified that current and former college football, soccer, and rugby players were ineligible.

But the noble kicker got a boost in that parking lot. Kickers are small and puny, and sometimes they miss kicks they should hit. We expect them to hit field goals, and mercilessly mock them when they miss. We assume their jobs are easier than those of other football players. What they do might be less physically demanding, but even bad NFL kickers are doing something relatively difficult. There was no better way to demonstrate that than allowing 100 bros to fall on their asses.

Loser: Running Backs

The co-leading rusher in the divisional round was Damien Williams, who had a career-high 129 yards and a touchdown for the Chiefs. Williams went undrafted in 2014 and never managed more than 181 yards in a season in four years the Dolphins. He joined the Chiefs this year, and had exactly 1 yard entering December. Then, Kansas City cut starter Kareem Hunt after video surfaced of him assaulting a woman. Williams stepped in, and the offense didn’t skip a beat. In fact, Williams has been arguably better than Hunt, who had just one 100-yard rushing performance this season. Williams has two in four starts.

The third-leading rusher in the divisional round was C.J. Anderson, who had 123 yards and two touchdowns for the Rams. It was his third straight 100-yard game—and also his third overall game for the Rams, who signed Anderson after he was cut by the Panthers and Raiders earlier this year. Los Angeles turned to Anderson because of an injury to Todd Gurley. Gurley is the undisputed best running back in football—but maybe not even the most productive running back on the Rams right now. He had 115 yards running, but Anderson seemed like the better option.

The reason Gurley and Anderson were so successful seems to be primarily because of a kick-ass offensive line that can open up cavernous holes like this:

I’m happy personally for the success stories of Williams and Anderson. These guys seemed like nonfactors just a month ago, and now they’re beasting for potential Super Bowl winners. But the fact that players with essentially no value have replaced Hunt and Gurley tells us all we need to know about running backs in the modern NFL: Great running back production has more to do with the rest of a team’s offense than it does with the actual running back. You could sign a nobody running back off the street and they could put up 100 yards a game for these Rams and Chiefs. In fact, that’s what both of these teams did.

Winner: Snow Throwers

It snowed in Kansas City on Saturday. This was big news for throwers of things. Whichever fan hurled a snowball out to the 15-yard line—a snowball throw of at least 100 feet from the closest spot in the stands—has both the arm and snowball-forming skills of an elf.

The person who threw this snowball deserves a tryout with the Chiefs—and also a lifetime ban from the stadium, which will probably make the whole “tryout with the Chiefs” thing hard.

But it was purportedly bad news for the Chiefs. Common logic is that cold weather and precipitation make footballs harder and more difficult to grip, creating problems for both passers and receivers. Considering this Kansas City team is built on a historically great passing game, this seemed to be a problem.

The spread in the game dropped a full point as it became clear snow would be a factor.

Snow, as it turned out, was not a factor.

Snow makes it harder to throw, right? So which team would you rather have—the team that is extremely good at throwing, or the team that already kinda isn’t that great at it? On Sunday, the answer was the team that was extremely good at throwing. The Chiefs had 433 yards of offense; the Colts had only 263. It’s always better to be great at passing in the modern NFL, even when common logic says it isn’t.

Loser: Sex

The NFL has made sweeping changes to its celebration rules, rendering the game significantly more entertaining. We love celebrations! But one thing is still illegal: Celebrations that are, in a referee’s eyes, “sexually suggestive or offensive.” (This implies the existence of a list of officiating guidelines on what is considered sexually suggestive. This hypothetical document is my white whale.)

This led to the NFL penalizing Denico Autry for being too sexy:

Autry opted to hump to celebrate a fourth-down sack, and specifically chose to hump directly in front of a referee. It was the humping equivalent of going 90 to pass a cop car. The referee watched Autry shove his junk in the air, thought, “Ah, well, that’s sexy,” and threw a flag. This is not a joke: That is what the NFL rulebook asks him to do.

If Autry had been sexy on third down, it would’ve given Kansas City a free first down, but since he chose to be sexy after a fourth-down stop, it just bumped Indianapolis’s ensuing drive back 15 yards. That drive went only 14 yards. The offense was less valuable than a pelvic thrust.

I’d like to backtrack on an earlier promise. I said that I would no longer talk about penises, but as long as a rule banning sexual celebrations exist, I have to stay alert on matters of genitalia in order to understand the league I cover. This column will be as sexual as it needs to be to explain football.

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