The last week of the NFL season is wrapping up, and we now have a pretty clear indication of what the 2020-2021 NFL playoffs will look like. In our Week 17 NFL Recap, we take a look at each of the six Wild Card matchups, while also breaking down our Studs ‘n’ Duds and other highlights from this action-packed Sunday.
Editors Note: If you also want coverage of the teams that missed out on the 2020-2021 NFL playoffs, check out Mike Tanier’s breakdown of each of the AFC and NFC teams, and what 2021 has in store for them.
The Bills appear to be true Super Bowl contenders. The Colts, on the other hand, merely look like Wild Card cannon fodder. Bills fans of a certain age, however, know (and the Patriots confirmed in Super Bowl LII) that it’s a bad idea to underestimate Colts head coach Frank Reich in a playoff game. NFL Recap doesn’t foresee any Reich comeback magic in this playoff preview between the Colts and the Bills. We’re willing to at least entertain the possibility.
That’s because the Buffalo Bills couldn’t look stronger right now. They’ve won six straight games and are coming off a 56-26 pasting of a Miami Dolphins team that was fighting for its playoff life. The Indianapolis Colts, on the other hand, look a little wobbly entering the postseason. First, they allowed the Pittsburgh Steelers to come back from a 24-7 deficit to beat them 28-24 in Week 16. Then, they allowed the Jacksonville Jaguars to hang around until the end of the 28-14 victory in Week 17 that clinched a Wild Card berth.
So, how will this game shake out? Our preview is below and you can catch this Wild Card matchup on Saturday, January 9 at 1:05 PM ET on CBS.
Colts/Bills Playoff Preview: Buffalo enters the postseason as one of the hottest teams
Buffalo Bills’ season in a nutshell
Josh Allen’s sudden and unexpected early-season rise from Walking Hot Take Factory to Actual Franchise Quarterback carried the Bills to a 4-0 start. Midseason losses to the Tennessee Titans and Kansas City Chiefs suggested, however, that the Bills might not be ready for the spotlight after decades as AFC East also-rans.
Head coach Sean McDermott’s defense did improve considerably in the second half of the season after a shaky start. In addition, Allen climbed out of a mild midseason slump to emerge as an MVP candidate. The Bills won the AFC East for the first time since 1995. This may be the best Bills team since the days of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, and Bruce Smith.
Indianapolis Colts’ season in a nutshell
The Colts meandered through the 2020 season. They lost to the weakling Jacksonville Jaguars at the start of the year but later upset the powerhouse Green Bay Packers. Overall, however, they feasted on a soft schedule and lost too much of the quality opposition they faced.
Philip Rivers didn’t look as overcooked as Ben Roethlisberger or Drew Brees, but it was still obvious at times (particularly in the second half on Sunday) that his thermometer popped some time in 2018. DeForest Buckner played at an All-Pro level, and others had eye-opening seasons (rookie running back Jonathan Taylor; reclamation cornerback Xavier Rhodes). While the 2020 Colts are good at a lot of things, they aren’t really great at anything in particular. That’s not an ideal formula for playoff success.
Playoff Preview: Buffalo Bills’ greatest strength
The Bills have the NFL’s best first-down passing game, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. Entering Week 17, Allen completed 72.1% of his first-down passes and averaged 9.0 yards per attempt. Stefon Diggs caught 57 of the 70 passes thrown to him on first down for 812 yards (11.6 yards per target) and five touchdowns.
Playoff Preview: Indianapolis Colts’ greatest strength
The Colts’ greatest strength is that they have no biggest weakness.
Buffalo Bills’ biggest weakness
The Bills defense entered Week 17 with 123 missed tackles per Pro Football Reference, the fourth-highest total in the NFL. Tackling is a particular problem when running backs bust into the open field. Buffalo allowed 11 running plays of 20-plus yards entering Week 17, tied with the Tennessee Titans for the highest total among playoff teams.
Indianapolis Colts’ biggest weakness
The Colts’ biggest weakness is that they have no greatest strength.
As alluded to in the intro, Reich led the Bills to the greatest playoff comeback of all time. He threw four touchdowns when Kelly was injured to lead the Bills back from a 35-3 third-quarter deficit to defeat the Houston Oilers 41-38 in the first round of the 1992 playoffs.
That game will be mentioned in every preview written about this game and about 4,000 times during the broadcast. And if you think it’s relevant in any way to what is happening in 2021, you missed subtle cues like “Houston Oilers” and “1992” in the opening sentence.
The Bills are a top-to-bottom better team than the Colts. They’ve also played better down the stretch. Unless Reich sprinkles some of his magical playoff dust on Rivers or Allen gets the playoff yips, this game has the potential to be over early.
Early Pick: Buffalo Bills
(All stats via Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise cited)
Seattle Seahawks vs. the Los Angeles Rams, again? Did the NFC run out of better ideas (Checks standings and playoff seedings)? Yep, the NFC DID run out of better ideas. So Russell Wilson gets another crack at a Rams defense that did a fine job shutting him down in their regular-season meetings. Particularly the first one, in which Wilson threw a pair of interceptions and lost a fumble in a 23-16 loss.
Meanwhile, Rams head coach Sean McVay will decide whether to rush Jared Goff back from thumb surgery or hope for another lightning-in-a-bottle performance from scramblin’ rando John Wolford. The Rams quarterback intrigue has NFL Recap leaning towards Seattle in this playoff preview. The Seahawks, however, won’t last long in the playoffs if they expect Wilson to perform as a one-man-band.
So, how will it all go down? Our preview is below and you can catch this Wild Card game on Saturday, January 9th at 4:40 PM ET on FOX.
Rams/Seahawks Playoff Preview: Russell Wilson will need some help
Seattle Seahawks’ season in a nutshell
Russell Wilson cooked early in the year but ran out of mesquite wood pellets for his smoker by midseason. The Seahawks defense started out awful but climbed toward adequacy when safety Jamal Adams returned from an early injury and edge rusher Carlos Dunlap arrived via trade.
The 2020 Seahawks look a lot like the 2017-19 Seahawks. They’re too reliant on Wilson to be the John Wick on offense and coast a little too much on fading Legion of Boom fumes on defense. Seattle is good enough to reach the playoffs, but not complete enough to do much once they arrive.
Los Angeles Rams’ season in a nutshell
Win, Win, Loss, Win, Win, Loss, Win, Loss, Win, Win, Loss, Win, Win, Loss, Loss, Win.
That’s Morse Code for “We’re also-rans with an unbelievably top-heavy payroll who reached the playoffs by sweeping the NFC East.”
Playoff Preview: Los Angeles Rams’ greatest strength
All-Pro Jalen Ramsey and rising star Darious Williams give the Rams the best cornerback tandem in the NFL. As a result, the Rams defense entered Week 17 ranked first in the NFL at stopping deep passes, per Football Outsiders. The Rams allowed just 723 yards and a 66.2 efficiency rating entering Week 17 on passes of 15-plus air yards per Sports Info Solution, both top-ranked figures.
Playoff Preview: Seattle Seahawks’ greatest strength
Wilson remains one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks under pressure. The Seahawks’ passer efficiency rating under pressure entering Week 17 was 89.7, the third-best in the NFL (“Under pressure” stats are always much weaker than stats when the quarterback has time to throw). As you have probably figured out over the past decade, there is no predicament that Wilson cannot Batman his way out of.
Seattle Seahawks’ biggest weakness
The Seahawks pass defense ranked 31st in the NFL at stopping passes over the middle and 27th at stopping short passes entering the final week of the season, per Football Outsiders. The Seahawks are among the most reluctant teams in the NFL to deploy a nickel/dime defense, and Adams blitzes far more often than most safeties.
As a result, Seahawks linebackers — most noticeably rookie Jordyn Brooks — are often saddled with difficult coverage assignments. That can be a big problem against McVay’s offense, which is designed to keep opponents in their base defense and force unfavorable coverage matchups.
Los Angeles Rams’ greatest weakness
Setting Goff’s status aside for the moment, the Rams special teams have been dreadful all season. They have gone through three kickers (current kicker Matt Gay is adequate at best), gave up a punt return touchdown, surrendered a blocked punt, and gotten little from their return game.
Per Jordan Rodrigue of The Athletic, McVay sounded like he was leaning toward giving Wolford another start after the former AAF standout caught the Arizona Cardinals off guard in Week 17. Maybe McVay just wants the Seahawks to waste time preparing for a scrambler. Maybe Goff has suffered a minor setback. Or maybe McVay has gone galactic megamind on us and thinks he has found his own Taysom Hill.
In any case, it’s hard to pick against Wilson when the opponent isn’t even sure who will start at quarterback. Look for a game more like Seattle’s 20-9 win over the Rams in Week 16 than Wilson’s Week 10 mini-slump. And remember, the goofier the game gets, the better Wilson gets.
Early Pick: Seattle Seahawks
(All stats via Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise cited)
Here’s our official early preview of the Buccaneers and Washington NFL playoff matchup, which is scheduled to kick off on Saturday, January 9th at 8:15 PM ET on NBC.
Buccaneers/Washington Playoff Preview: Tampa Bay heads into the playoffs on winning streak
Happy New Year, Tom Brady! Here’s another gift for a guy who has almost literally everything: the weakest playoff opponent we could possibly find! Sure, the Washington Football Team has a nasty defensive front headlined by rookie Chase Young, but their offense makes the New York Jets look like the Greatest Show on Turf, and they are only here because the NFC East is a cesspool of remorse and shame.
Washington is no match for Brady coming off a 40-touchdown season and a loaded Buccaneers offense that scored 122 points in its final three games. Or are they? NFL Recap sees a very, very slim potential path to victory for Washington.
Washington Football Team’s season in a nutshell
Washington started the season 1-5 as Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen took turns playing so poorly that not even the 1985 Chicago Bears defense could have helped them. Alex Smith returned to turn the Comeback Player of the Year vote into a landslide by turning the Washington offense from a net negative into something closer to a zero, while Young and Montez Sweat led a deep front seven that kept Washington in games by applying constant pressure to opposing quarterbacks.
Washington lost two of its final three games, and the less said about Sunday night’s 20-14 victory over the Eagles, the better; Doug Pederson’s dignity woke up on Monday morning beneath a Walt Whitman Bridge overpass. But they’re here, and they are better than the New York Giants, who would have reached the playoffs if the Eagles won. Seriously, writing a Giants playoff preview might have been enough to make NFL Recap quit and go back to teaching ninth-grade Algebra.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ season in a nutshell
Tom Brady’s All-Star Revue looked great against molly-stomping Jabronis like the Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions but surprisingly vulnerable against most of the quality opposition (New Orleans Saints, Los Angeles Rams, even the Chicago Bears) that they faced.
If any other quarterback were at the helm, the Buccaneers would be perceived as the Indianapolis Colts of the AFC: just good enough to beat bad opponents. But Brady has something that the other great quarterbacks of the NFC lack: a well-earned reputation for finding a way to come out on top in the postseason. And it looks like the Buccaneers are enjoying another Jabroni week, anyway.
Playoff Preview: Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ greatest strength
Mike Evans (who was injured on Sunday, but early reports are encouraging), Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, and the horn and percussion sections put every opposing defense in a bind, and Brady remains capable of finding the best matchups. Brady also knows that he doesn’t necessarily have to complete every pass when someone like Evans or Godwin has his defender’s number: Brady’s receivers drew 20 pass interference penalties for 362 yards entering Week 17, both the highest figures in the NFL.
Washington Football Team’s greatest strength
Out of everything in this Washington-Buccaneers playoff preview, this is the most obvious part. The defensive front seven is their only strength. Football Outsiders ranked Washington second in both pass defense and overall defense entering Week 17, and it’s all due to Young and Sweat’s ability to impact both the run and passing games, as well as Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen’s ability to collapse pockets and cause disruption up the middle.
Playoff Preview: Washington Football Team’s biggest weakness
Alex Smith averaged 5.0 Intended Air Yards per throw entering Week 17 per Next Gen Stats, the lowest figure by far in the NFL. Jimmy Garoppolo is second at 6.2 yards. Imagine a quarterback whose average throw is four feet shorter than the average Garoppolo throw, and you have a pretty clear picture of the Washington offense.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ biggest weakness
Opponents outscore the Buccaneers 100-88 in the first quarter. Do the Bucs run too often at the start of games? Does head coach Bruce Arians ask Brady to do things Brady cannot do or (heaven forbid) doesn’t want to do? Do the pass rushers commit too many penalties while trying to cover for an inexperienced secondary? Whatever the issue, the slow starts caused real problems against opponents like the Saints.
The Buccaneers lost to the Bears 20-19 in Week 4. Washington beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 23-17 in Week 13. Anyone seeking a formula for a Washington upset must turn to those games. If Young and the Sweathogs (we’re workshopping that nickname; it probably needs more workshopping) can harass Brady into some turnovers, Smith should be able to convert a few short touchdown drives and keep things close. As several midseason losses illustrated, Brady’s late-game comeback magic just ain’t what it used to be.
One thing to take from this Washington-Buccaneers playoff preview is that an upset is possible. And it’s a little like the Giants formula for victory against Brady’s New England Patriots in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI. But the more likely scenario is a Buccaneers rout that starts as soon as Washington goes three-and-out a few times.
Early Pick: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
(All stats via Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise cited)
This is what NFL playoff football is all about, folks. Lamar Jackson. Derrick Henry. Two of the league’s most explosive, unpredictable offenses, and storylines galore. Do the Tennessee Titans have another deep playoff run up their sleeves? Has Jackson overcome his midseason slump? Can he finally win a playoff game? Do the Titans have the Baltimore Ravens’ number after last year’s playoff upset and their 30-24 overtime win in Week 11? Does Tennessee even play defense anymore? NFL Recap is certain that this game will be something special. In this 2020-2021 NFL playoff preview between the Titans and the Ravens, we have a hunch that Baltimore may just be able to pull off an upset.
This Wild Card game will be on Sunday, January 10 at 1:05 PM ET on ABC and ESPN.
Ravens/Titans Playoff Preview: Ravens seek revenge
Tennessee Titans’ season in a nutshell
Derrick Henry smashed puny humans. Ryan Tannehill proved that his late-season surge in 2019 was no fluke. A balanced receiving corps led by A.J. Brown and Corey Davis made it impossible to key any one of the team’s weapons. Meanwhile, the Titans defense hoped opponents would be intimidated by head coach Mike Vrabel’s tough-guy reputation and not notice how weak it was, while the special teams let them down several times in the middle of the season.
Baltimore Ravens’ season in a nutshell
The Ravens were 5-1 and in cruise control when everything came unglued in November. Lamar Jackson endured a wicked midseason slump where the NFL appeared to catch up with him as a passer and a runner. An outbreak punctuated a three-game losing streak by forcing Robert Griffin to lead a team of backups in a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Jackson and the Ravens, however, stabilized in December, with an assist from an easy late-season schedule. They have won their last three games by a combined score of 80-30.
Playoff Preview: Baltimore Ravens’ greatest strength
Despite their midseason offensive swoon, the Ravens still led the NFL entering Week 17 with 177.8 rushing yards per game and 5.3 yards per rush. The emergence of J.K. Dobbins has helped the Ravens rush for over 200 yards four times in their final five games, including (holy moly) 404 rushing yards against the Cincinnati Bengals in the season finale.
Playoff Preview: Tennessee Titans’ greatest strength
It’s all about the Henry/Tannehill balance. Per Football Outsiders, the Titans offense entered Week 17 ranked third in the NFL in rushing, fourth in passing, sixth on first down, fifth on second down, fourth on third and fourth downs, fifth in the red zone, and second in goal-to-goal situations. It’s hard to stop an offense that is very good in just about every situation.
Tennessee Titans’ biggest weakness
The Titans recorded just 14 sacks entering Week 17 and ranked 28th in the NFL with just 189 pass pressures. All of their other defensive problems start with an inability to rush the quarterback.
Baltimore Ravens’ biggest weakness
Yes, Jackson really does struggle when throwing toward the sidelines. Here are his numbers entering Week 17 on passes marked “left” or “right” and 10-plus air yards (to take away swing passes and screens) in the Sports Info Solutions database: 18-of-46, 385 yards, five touchdowns, two interceptions, and a 78.6 rating that ranks 27th among NFL starters.
The most troubling thing about Jackson’s sideline passing figures is the low number of attempts. Ryan Fitzpatrick attempted 48 downfield sideline passes entering Week 17, though he was benched (sort of) weeks ago. Dak Prescott attempted 40 of them, and you probably forgot that he even played this year. Jackson’s downfield sideline passing became such an issue that the Ravens gave up trying for much of the year, though he appears to have improved a bit since returning from quarantine.
The Titans have a better offense than the Ravens. They have better balance, better weapons, fewer weaknesses, less of a dependence on options, and play action to set up everything else. The Ravens, however, have a far superior defense, and the league’s best special teams, including Justin Tucker, who may be the best kicker ever.
Yes, Jackson has come up short in playoff games in 2018 and 2019. Yes, the Ravens play poorly from behind. But the Titans just gave up 38 points to a Houston Texans team with nothing to play for but pride. The Ravens could drop 45 on them if Jackson plays the way he did in December instead of the way he played in Week 11. If that happens, all the stiff-arms in the world won’t save the Titans.
Early Pick: Baltimore Ravens
(All stats via Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise cited)
Every once in a while, a playoff game comes along that NFL Recap is excited to preview and cannot wait to watch. This is not that game. The Chicago Bears tumbled into the playoffs despite a 35-16 Week 17 loss to the Green Bay Packers thanks to some late-season wins against soup cans and the NFL’s decision to add an extra Wild Card team. The New Orleans Saints were hoping for a Bears win so they could enjoy a much-needed bye to get Michael Thomas (ankle) and Alvin Kamara (reserve list) back and allow Drew Brees (ribs) to rest, so his downfield throws don’t look like sinker-sliders.
Even if the Saints get Thomas and Kamara back, this has the makings of a grimy defensive duel. In this playoff preview, NFL Recap thinks that despite the Bears’ reputation, the Saints could have an edge in such a duel. You can catch this Wild Card game on Sunday, January 10 at 4:40 PM ET on CBS, Nickelodeon, and Amazon Prime Video.
Bears/Saints Playoff Preview: Brees looks for one last run
New Orleans Saints’ season in a nutshell
The Saints spent most of 2020 looking like the team to beat in the NFC. They even won three straight games with Taysom Hill starting in place of an injured Drew Brees. The Taysom magic wore off, however. Brees has looked extra rickety in his return from a serious rib injury, and the late-season absence of WR Michael Thomas completely nerfed the Saints passing game.
Still, a deep, disciplined defense, a formidable offensive line, Alvin Kamara’s all-purpose excellence in Week 16, and Sean Payton’s clever game planning carried the Saints to a pair of convincing late-season wins and the NFC South title.
Chicago Bears’ season in a nutshell
They were “frauds” when they started the season 5-1. They were “exposed” by a six-game losing streak. But as that streak wore on, Mitch Trubisky returned from his annual benching and looked a little better. David Montgomery returned from injury to provide more offensive balance down the stretch. They may not be great, and they sure ain’t pretty, but the Saints cannot afford to look past a Bears defense with a knack for dragging opponents down to their offense’s level.
Playoff Preview: Chicago Bears’ greatest strength
Trying to find positives in this playoff preview, the Bears defense entered Week 17 ranked first in the NFL at stopping opponents’ top wide receivers, per Football Outsiders. Cornerback Kyle Fuller deserves a share of the credit, although he generally lines up on the offensive right instead of shadowing top receivers. Khalil Mack and the Bears pass rush also do their part to suppress anything an opponent tries to do down the field.
Playoff Preview: New Orleans Saints’ greatest strength
The Saints have the NFL’s best first-down offense, per Football Outsiders. In large part, because they averaged 5.1 yards per rush on first downs entering Week 17, tied with the Tennessee Titans for second in the NFL (the Vikings led the NFL with 5.3). Credit goes to Kamara, Sean Payton’s versatile scheme, and an offensive line led by tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk, which has been among the league’s best for years.
New Orleans Saints’ biggest weakness
Kamara led the Saints with 83 receptions, but Emmanuel Sanders is the only other player with more than 50 receptions. Brees’ late-season struggles were exacerbated by the lack of reliable downfield targets.
Chicago Bears’ biggest weakness
Trubisky’s stats when throwing left entering Week 17: 25-of-45, 236 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions, a 55.6% completion percentage, 5.2 yards per attempt, a 92.5 efficiency rating. Trubisky’s yards-per-attempt ranks 39th among quarterbacks who threw at least 25 passes marked “left” in the Sports Info Solution database. That would indicate that he threw tons of screens and incomplete passes. So yes, this is still a thing.
The Saints (without Thomas) defeated the Bears 26-23 in overtime in Week 8. Nick Foles started for the Bears in that game, not Trubisky. There really isn’t that much of a difference, and this game promises to be a lot like that one.
Expect lots of super-short passes, third-down stops, and drives that end in field goals. The status of Thomas and Kamara makes a huge difference for the Saints, of course, but even in their absence, the Saints have multiple ways of manufacturing a win. The Bears will be hoping for a sack-and-turnover slop fest. Payton and Brees are unlikely to let that happen.
Early Pick: New Orleans Saints
(All stats via Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise cited)
Let’s preview the debauchery of an absolutely delicious AFC North rivalry game for the 2020-2021 NFL Playoffs between the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers. This WIld Card game will take place on Sunday, January 10 at 8:15 PM ET on NBC.
Browns/Steelers Playoff Preview: Cleveland actually makes the playoffs!
Good news, Cleveland Browns — you reached the playoffs for the first time since 2002! Bad news, Cleveland Browns — you must face the Pittsburgh Steelers for the second time in two weeks and the third time this season! And unlike in Sunday’s 24-22 Browns victory, the Steelers are likely to have Ben Roethlisberger, T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, and other starters in the lineup. The Browns looked better — and the Steelers quite a bit worse — than they looked in the 38-7 Steelers rout in Week 6. But NFL Recap doesn’t think the Browns have quite closed the gap.
Pittsburgh Steelers’ season in a nutshell
The Steelers started the season 11-0, and their fans were like, “Why aren’t we getting as much respect as the Kansas City Chiefs?” and the rest of us were like, “It’s because you’re facing a bunch of quarterbacks named Jake Luton and Ben Roethlisberger is washed.”
Then the Steelers lost three straight to Washington, the Buffalo Bills, and the Cincinnati Bengals. Then they fell behind the Indianapolis Colts 21-7 at halftime, and their fans were like, “OMG, what is happening?” and the rest of us were like, “LOL, told you so.”
The Steelers came back to beat the Colts, so now their fans are like, “See, Big Ben can still deliver when it counts, and our defense will get the job done,” while the rest of us are like, “Big Ben was given a rest week with playoff seedings on the line in Week 17. That doesn’t sound like someone who is quite as ready to deliver when it matters as you hope he is.”
Cleveland Browns’ season in a nutshell
On the one hand, it wasn’t that impressive — the Browns rode solid offensive line play, a balanced play-action heavy attack, a less erratic Baker Mayfield, a nasty Myles Garrett-led pass rush, and one of the NFL’s easiest schedules to a Wild Card berth.
But on the other hand, it was incredibly impressive. Rookie head coach Kevin Stefanski got one of the league’s most histrionic locker rooms to simmer down and play as a team, Mayfield showed broad-based improvement and the Browns pulled off a few upsets and persevered through some terrible weather games to enjoy what may have been their best season since the days of Bernie Kosar and the Dawg Pound.
Playoff Preview: Cleveland Browns’ greatest strength
Browns’ passers (mostly Mayfield) entered Week 17 ranked third in the NFL with 9.6 yards per attempt on play-action passes and third to the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers with an efficiency rating on play-action of 122.1. Play-action, the Nick Chubb/Kareem Hunt two-headed backfield, and an offensive line led by Jack Conklin, Wyatt Teller, and Joel Bitonio can all do their part to keep the Browns on schedule and slow the Steelers pass rush.
Playoff Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers’ greatest strength
Through Week 16, the Steelers’ defense led the NFL with 325 pass pressures; no other team had more than 300. T.J. Watt led the NFL with 77 pressures. No other defender had more than 65.
Pittsburgh Steelers’ biggest weakness
Ben Roethlisberger’s completion rate on passes of 15-plus air yards of 37.1% was 8th-worst in the NFL among quarterbacks with 25 or more such attempts, wedged just between Mitchell Trubisky and Andy Dalton. That may make it hard for them to exploit the …
Cleveland Browns’ biggest weakness
The Browns are vulnerable to deep passes — they entered Week 17 allowing 14 touchdowns on throws of 15-plus air yards, tying the Cowboys for the worst figure in the league.
The Browns have also suffered more than their share of special teams miscues, including several missed extra points and chip shots from kicker Cody Parkey.
It’s just hard to envision the Browns beating the Steelers in the playoffs, isn’t it? For it to happen, Stefanski must call an almost perfect game on offense, Mayfield must play mistake-free football, and Roethlisberger will have to look as rickety, if not worse, as he appeared to be in mid-December.
All of those things are possible, but all three of them happening at the same time is not likely, especially for an inexperienced playoff team on the road facing a roster full of players and coaches that are used to playing in January.
Early Pick: Steelers win
(All stats via Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise cited).
Running back Jonathan Taylor came up big in a must-win game for the Indianapolis Colts, while Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy came up small. Los Angeles Rams quarterback John Wolford came up big. Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski got his team ready when it mattered. Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, however, did not. The Week 17 edition of NFL Recap’s Studs ‘n’ Duds doesn’t have space for all of Sunday’s twists and turns — did I say Jonathan Taylor came up big?
We wrote plenty of 2020-2021 NFL Playoffs first-look previews (Editor’s note: those will be unveiled on the main page of the site ASAP) to help catch you up on all of Sunday’s action — but we did comb the NFL to provide all the catch-trapping, tooth-flossing, not-really-Kirk-Cousins-roughing action we could fit in one segment. And stay tuned to the end, where we announce our 2020 End of Year awards.
Week 17 Stud: Jonathan Taylor, Running Back, Indianapolis Colts
On a day when the rest of the Colts were playing not to lose (and nearly lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars), Jonathan Taylor did his best Derrick Henry impersonation by carrying his team with 27 carries, 241 yards, and two touchdowns. In the fourth quarter, Jonathan Taylor’s 45-yard score gave the Colts much-needed breathing room in a 28-14 win to clinch a Wild Card berth.
Derrick Henry also did his best Derrick Henry impersonation with 250 yards and two touchdowns in a 41-38 Tennessee Titans shootout win over the Houston Texans to clinch the AFC South. That’s just a typical winter Sunday for him, though. It’s OK to let Jonathan Taylor be Jonathan Taylor.
Week 17 Duds: The officials in the Vikings-Lions game
The ticky-tack roughing the passer penalty against Tracy Walker at the goal line in the fourth quarter of the Minnesota Vikings 37-35 win over the Detroit Lions was an example of everything wrong with NFL officiating.
It was a terrible call, for one thing. Walker’s sack of Kirk Cousins was clear and routine, but officials somehow claimed to see Walker land atop Cousins with his full body weight. It was devastatingly obtrusive. The call turned a clutch fourth-down stop by the defense into an easy scoring opportunity for the offense late in a close game.
And the officials doubled-down on the nonsense when justifying the call because the NFL doesn’t admit mistakes until the rules committee convenes and addresses the issue three years later.
NFL Recap didn’t care what happened in Vikings-Lions, and you probably didn’t care, either. If that call happened in a playoff-important game, it would be all we would be talking about on Monday and Tuesday. If it happened to the New Orleans Saints, Sean Payton would take it to the Supreme Court.
Week 17 Stud: Sterling Shepard, Wide Receiver, New York Giants
On an afternoon when running back Wayne Gallman and granite-handed tight end Evan Engram appeared to be competing to determine who was the most NFC East-like player in the NFC East, Shepard stepped up with eight catches for 112 yards and one receiving touchdown. Shepard also added two rushes for 24 yards and a rushing TD. A clutch player in the NFC East is like a diamond in a pile of elephant dung — it is worth cherishing in the unlikely event you find one.
Week 17 Dud: Mike McCarthy, Head Coach, Dallas Cowboys
Where was McCarthy when he should have been throwing a challenge flag after Dante Pettis trapped the 3rd-and-15 “catch” against the ground to set up the 50-yard Graham Gano field goal to give the New York Giants a 23-19 fourth-quarter lead?
What was going through McCarthy’s mind when he called an Ezekiel Elliott draw play and settled for a field goal late in the second quarter? What was he thinking when defenders Jourdan Lewis and Randy Gregory committed, inexcusably, foolish roughness penalties after the whistle to extend Giants’ drives in the first half?
The answers: 1) He was in the Happy Place Spa in his mind with cucumbers over his eyes, 2) He was thinking about how he could book an appointment at the real-life Happy Place Spa as soon as the Cowboys were eliminated from the playoffs, 3) Nothing: McCarthy doesn’t do defense.
Enjoy the offseason, Dallas Cowboys fans. Your coaching staff is a bigger problem than your front office. Somehow.
Week 17 Stud: Kevin Stefanski, Head Coach, Cleveland Browns
Maybe Sunday’s 24-22 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers backups was a little tougher than it should have been. Then again, the Browns were dragging the baggage of one-fifth of a century of meaningless Week 17 games (many of them against the Steelers) behind them on their way to their first playoff berth since 2002.
Stefanski kept an even keel through early-season routs at the hands of perennial contenders, some monsoon, and haboob wind games. There were also quarantines that took away his receiving corps (in Week 16) and a mix of key players and coaches (on Sunday). No matter how the playoffs shake out, he had a heck of a year.
Week 17 Dud: Brian Flores, Head Coach, Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins failed in all three phases in a 56-26 loss to a Buffalo Bills team looking for an excuse to rest Josh Allen and other starters for the postseason. The defense was leaky. The special teams gave up a punt return touchdown. Worst of all, Tua Tagovailoa looked like he was still waiting for Flores to teach him how to work the can opener.
NFL Recap is not here to bury Tua. Wide Receiver Isaiah Ford played like he went to the Evan Engram Clinic for Reliable Hands, and the Dolphins offense has many other issues. We do not want to unduly rip Brian Flores, who could have earned try-hard accolades for leading the Dolphins to 10-6 this year, but this performance warrants enough for him to be a Week 17 dud.
There is work to be done this offseason. Part of that work involves taking down the baby gate and letting Tua develop without Chad FitzBeardo lurking over his shoulder.
Week 17 Stud: Isaiah McKenzie, Wide Receiver, Buffalo Bills
Two receiving touchdowns and a punt return touchdown.’Nuff said.
Week 17 Dud: Stefon Diggs, Wide Receiver, Buffalo Bills
The only thing more disgusting than flossing your teeth on the sideline during a game is flossing your teeth on the sideline during a game while we’re in a global pandemic. Be more like Lamar Jackson, Stefon, and take the bathroom stuff to the locker room.
Week 17 Stud: John Wolford, Quarterback, Los Angeles Rams
An unknown scrambler comes off the bench and does just enough with his legs and his arm against an opponent that doesn’t know what to expect to manufacture a victory. It’s a tale as old as time. But John Wolford did it in a must-win game against an opponent that also needed a win in Sunday’s 18-7 Rams victory over the Arizona Cardinals — and John Wolford did just that.
No, the John Wolford Experience (I wonder if John Wolford plays the bass?) is not sustainable in the playoffs. But Jared Goff may soon ride to the (relative) rescue. And remember what John Wolford did the next time some Adam Gase-type coach throws in the towel the moment his starting quarterback gets hurt.
Best Supporting Actor in someone else’s highlight
Linebacker Danny Trevathan earned a Super Bowl ring with the 2015 Denver Broncos. He has been a stalwart force in the middle of two outstanding defenses — those Broncos and the 2018-2020 Bears. He’s the kind of veteran every defensive coordinator wants calling signals and setting the tone for his unit. And he has as much business covering slot receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling on a deep route as NFL Recap does.
Aaron Rodgers deserves credit for reading this blitz. But really, look at the defensive alignment. Who else besides Trevathan was supposed to cover Valdes-Scantling? It was a bad call by coordinator Chuck Pagano. And it put a distinguished veteran in an impossible situation.
And now for the NFL Recap 2020 Awards!
Defender of the Year
Sorry, Aaron Donald. Sorry, Xavien Howard. Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt led the NFL with 15 sacks, 23 tackles for a loss, and 41 hits on quarterbacks. He also deflected seven passes. Per Sports Info Solutions, he recorded 77 quarterback pressures through Week 16; Donald was in second place with 65. Watt was the most important player on a Pittsburgh Steelers team that finished 12-4. Yes, that includes the knuckleballer with the “7” on his jersey.
Offensive Line of the Year
They protected Drew Brees the way they have for years. Then, when the undersized 41-year-old could not escape injury, they downshifted into service academy mode and began blocking for power runs and Taysom Hill options. They spent Week 17 blocking for some running backs the Saints found wandering around the French Quarter this weekend. And they did it all while adjusting to a variety of injuries among their own ranks.
The 2020 Offensive Line of the Year award goes to the New Orleans Saints: left tackle Terron Armstead, right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, center Erik McCoy, left guard Andrus Peat, right guard Cesar Ruiz, super subs Nick Easton and James Hurst, and jumbo package specialist Will Clapp.
Justin Tucker Special Teamer of the Year
Tucker cannot win the award because the award is named after him. However, Jason Sanders performed his best Tucker impersonation in the heat of a playoff race this season. He was 34-of-37 on field goals entering Week 17, 8-of-9 from 50-plus yards, perfect on extra points, excellent on touchbacks, and money on a few game-winners. Sunday’s loss that eliminated the Dolphins from the playoffs was just about everyone’s fault but Sanders’.
Matthew Slater Non-Specialist Special Teamer of the Year
Slater cannot win the award because … you get the idea.
Cody Barton of the Seattle Seahawks, George Odum of the Indianapolis Colts, and Justin Bethel of the New England Patriots share this award. Barton recorded 10 special teams tackles, three assists, and two forced fumbles, including one that helped the Seahawks put their victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Week 9 out of reach.
Odum and Bethel tied for the NFL lead with 13 special teams tackles entering Week 17. Odum added six assists and a forced fumble. Bethel, picking up where he left off when he was the Arizona Cardinals’ special teams ace, added one assist and blocked an extra point.
Undrafted Rookie of the Year
James Robinson rushed for 1,070 yards and seven touchdowns this season, adding 49-344-3 as a receiver and keeping the Jacksonville Jaguars in some games they had no business being in. He did it all for the rock-bottom league-minimum salary. In fact, Robinson will probably continue making the league minimum, keeping the Jaguars’ offense viable during their Trevor Lawrence rebuild over the next two years.
Then, when it’s time for Robinson to make some Ezekiel Elliott money, the Jaguars will be like, “Nope, sorry. Analytics. You’ve been overworked by a bad team for the last three years. We can’t pay you.” And they will have a point.
So NFL Recap wants to see James Robinson in lots and lots of commercials. Insurance commercials. Fast food commercials. Daily fantasy provider and sportsbook commercials. Robinson is a WORKING MAN who deserves footlong hoagies and the fastest internet connection available, advertisers. He’s marketing gold. Get this young man PAID.
NFL Recap is powerless to change the system, but we’re dedicated to doing our part.
For shameless plugs beyond James Robinson, John Wolford, Jonathan Taylor, and more — bookmark profootballnetwork.com!