NFL opens playoffs with subpar showing

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons | Buffalo’s Josh Allen - pictured here in a Sept. 26 game - threw for five touchdowns in Saturday’s victory.

Luke Henne | Sports Editor

Jan. 20, 2022

The National Football League opened its 2021-22 rendition of the playoffs last weekend, with 12 of the 14 qualifying teams playing in an opening-round matchup.

Prior to the 2020 season, the league announced that it would expand its postseason, and the top-seven teams (as opposed to six in prior seasons) from each conference would earn a postseason berth.

This rule took effect during a 2020 season in which every NFL franchise was forced to limit or completely restrict attendance at its respective stadium.

Nonetheless, the league began branding the opening weekend of the playoffs as the “Super Wild Card Weekend.” This postseason, as fans returned to the stadiums in droves, was supposed to feature some of the most-entertaining games in what the league labeled as its “biggest season ever.”

After spending the entire weekend taking in the opening-round games, it’s safe to say that the majority of this weekend’s games were anything but super or wild.

While there were a few key storylines that consumed the slate, it’s hard for the casual viewer to be interested in games that saw an average margin of victory of 17.2 points, including three games where the winning team won by 20+ points.

Saturday’s action started at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati with a battle of American Football Conference teams looking to snap long droughts of playoff failure.

In what ended up being the second-closest game of the weekend, the fourth-seeded Cincinnati Bengals defeated the fifth-seeded Las Vegas Raiders 26-19, winning the franchise’s first playoff game since Jan. 6, 1991.

Quarterback Derek Carr led Las Vegas nearly the length of the field for a potential game-tying drive, but his interception in the red zone with under a minute remaining kept the Raiders from winning their first postseason contest since Jan. 19, 2003.

Although the final score reflected an exciting game, it was an erroneous whistle from a line judge that stole the postgame spotlight.

With just under two minutes remaining in the second half, as Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow’s momentum was taking him out of bounds, he let go of a 10-yard pass that was caught in the end zone by Tyler Boyd, giving the Bengals a cushioned 20-6 lead.

However, line judge Mark Steinkerchner blew his whistle to signal that Burrow had stepped out of bounds, although he hadn’t. By rule, an inadvertent whistle should result in the play being ruled dead and the down being replayed. Boyd’s touchdown stood, nonetheless, and those six points (plus an extra point from Evan McPherson) made the difference in Cincinnati’s win.

Officials were at the forefront again during Sunday’s late-afternoon National Football Conference showdown between the sixth-seeded San Francisco 49ers and third-seeded Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

With Dallas trailing 23-17 and 14 seconds left in the game, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott ran for 17 yards, getting his team into the red zone with one last desperation play coming. With no timeouts, however, Dallas couldn’t stop the clock after Prescott decided to stay in bounds.

Prescott and his teammates were trying to get to the line of scrimmage and spike the ball in hopes of having one last shot. Ramon George, the umpire who had to spot the ball before the next play could occur, rushed to the line, but time expired before Dallas could run a final play.

These two plays weren’t a great look for the league, but officials are human and are subject to making mistakes, just like everyone else.

These two games, littered with controversy, were the only ones that produced some sort of competition. With its six-point victory, San Francisco became the only lower-seeded team to win a game in the opening round.

Those who were expected to win, did (except for Dallas), but the wins were really never in doubt.

Saturday night’s AFC contest between the third-seeded Buffalo Bills and sixth-seeded New England Patriots at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., saw Buffalo score touchdowns on seven of its eight drives en route to a 47-17 dismantling of New England.

The only drive in which Buffalo didn’t score was on the final drive, when backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky went into victory formation and kneeled it three times. Josh Allen, Buffalo’s starting quarterback, threw for more touchdowns (five) than incompletions (four).

Sunday’s early-afternoon NFC game saw the second-seeded Tampa Bay Buccaneers take care of the seventh-seeded Philadelphia Eagles with ease in a 31-15 win at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.

Philadelphia, who went just 9-8 overall and 0-6 against fellow playoff teams during the regular season, scored each of its two touchdowns (one accompanied by a two-point conversion) in the fourth quarter, when the game was already well out of reach.

In the last game of the night, an AFC matchup between the second-seeded Kansas City Chiefs and the seventh-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., Pittsburgh sought revenge after a 36-10 blowout at the hands of Kansas City just three weeks prior.

After a scoreless first quarter, a fumble recovery and subsequent touchdown from T.J. Watt early in the second quarter gave the Steelers a 7-0 lead. It looked as if Pittsburgh, who was nearly a two-touchdown underdog, would be able to compete with Kansas City.

The Chiefs proceeded to find the end zone on six-consecutive possessions (three before halftime) and never let the Steelers back into it. Pittsburgh scored touchdowns on two-straight possessions and nearly found it for a third time to end the game, but Kansas City coasted to a 42-21 victory.

In Monday night’s NFC contest that wrapped up the weekend, the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Rams jumped out to a 28-0 lead and never looked back, blowing out the fifth-seeded Arizona Cardinals by a 34-11 mark at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif.

This week’s slate of games sees three of the four matchups comprised of rematches of regular-season contests.

On Saturday afternoon, the Bengals will head to Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn., to meet the top-seeded Tennessee Titans to open up the divisional round on the AFC side. The teams didn’t meet during the regular season.

At night, the 49ers will travel to Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisc., for a matchup with the one-seeded Green Bay Packers as things get back underway on the NFC’s side of the bracket. On Sept. 26, the Packers used a 51-yard field goal from Mason Crosby as time expired to slide past the 49ers 30-28 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

Sunday’s schedule starts with the Rams meeting the Buccaneers in Tampa. Los Angeles and Tampa Bay also met on Sept. 26, with the Rams beating the Buccaneers 34-24 at SoFi Stadium.

The divisional round wraps up with the Bills making their third trip to Arrowhead Stadium in less than a year. In last season’s AFC title game, Buffalo fell to Kansas City by a 38-24 tally. The Bills tried to avenge that loss with a 38-20 victory over the Chiefs on Oct. 10.

On the surface, this weekend should see competitive football return to the screen after a week characterized by mediocrity, controversy and disparity between the league’s elite and the rest of the playoff pack.

If the NFL wants this season to be remembered as the best ever, it needs quality competition to return this weekend.

If last weekend was a preview of this postseason’s trajectory, there’s room for concern.