- - Sunday, January 7, 2018


If the NFL was hoping to change the narrative defining its product this season —bad football, bad quarterbacking, bad officiating and frustration about replays and rules — this wild card weekend did little to do that.

While the weekend of NFL football had its moments — an impressive defensive performance by the Atlanta Falcons in their 26-13 win over the Los Angeles Rams, an exciting comeback 23-21 victory by the Tennessee Titans over the Kansas City Chiefs Saturday and a dramatic 31-26 New Orleans Saints win over the Carolina Panthers Sunday night — the weekend may best, or worst remembered, by the woeful 10-3 Jacksonville Jaguars win over the Buffalo Bills.

It was the fewest points ever for an NFL wild-card game, beating the 14-0 San Francisco win over Philadelphia 22 years ago.

All that was missing was players being carted off the field with concussions and players kneeling on the sidelines during the national anthem.

The NFL may be raking in more television advertising revenue than ever, because live television remains one of the few guarantees that the message from advertisers won’t be DVR-ed over by viewers. But for the second year, viewership numbers are down, and business partners are criticizing the product they are supporting.

That can’t be good business.

The weekend was salvaged by the finale, as Cam Newton nearly led the Panthers to a come-from-behind win before he was sacked on fourth down and 23 with just 11 seconds remaining, coming up short in a 31-26 loss. You had two of the best quarterbacks in the league facing each other — Newton and Drew Brees, and if you needed any more evidence that it is a quarterback league, just compare the best game of the weekend to the worst.

Newton threw for 349 yards, completing 24 of 40 passes and two touchdowns, while Brees completed 23 of 33 for 376 yards and two touchdowns — plenty of live-action football, with a 31-26 score adding up to compelling viewing.

Marcus Marriota may have saved his head coach Mike Mularkey’s job in Tennessee by leading the Titans to 22-21 win Saturday over the Chiefs, who led 21-3 at halftime. And Andy Reid may have wrestled away from Marty Schottenheimer the crown of the king of playoff coaching failures with yet another first-round loss. Reid is now 11-13 in the postseason, but 1-7 in his last eight playoff appearances.

The game was marred by bad officiating and confusion by head referee Jeff Triplette, who reportedly will retire after this season.

That would qualify as good news for the NFL.

There were many missteps over the weekend in the use of replay, publicly criticized by Al Michaels in the Saturday night Falcons-Rams game. But one thing worth noting – the outcome of the Titans-Chiefs game would have been dramatically different if not for replay – an outcome that would have been a nightmare for the league.

Near the end of the game, with Tennessee running out the clock leading by one, running back Derrick Henry was tackled. However, the ball came loose and was picked up by Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson, who ran the ball into the end zone for what appeared to be the game-winning touchdown for Kansas City. That was the call on the field.

But replay clearly showed Henry was down and the play had been called dead before the ball came out. Everybody saw that — the fans watching the giant screens in Arrowhead Stadium and the viewers at home. But without replay to overturn what was an obvious wrong decision on the field, the call may have stood — a far worse sin than the frustration over the use of replay.

We forget that replay exists because of egregious calls like that in the past. The use of replay is now used for the smallest, minute decisions when it was born as a result of massively bad decisions that clearly changed the outcome of games. Life without replay would be far worse than life is with replay.

By the way, how bizarre was it to have Jon Gruden – the Oakland Raiders new coach – calling the action in the game featuring his future rival, the Chiefs?

And another television note of particular interest to Redskins fans – on NBC’s Football Night in America show, Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy said one of the problems with West Coast offenses is once they get past the script of the opening 15 plays, the offenses sometimes slow down and struggle. Sound familiar?

There were no close controversies that put the result of Atlanta’s 26-13 win over the Rams in question. It appeared to be a case of one team — the Falcons, last year’s NFC champions — having the playoff experience that this year’s surprising Rams lacked. That, and Rams return man Pharoah Cooper, a Pro Bowl return man, suffering from a case of Jamison Crowder disease. Cooper miscommunicated on one punt return, then fumbled a kickoff return.

At least Redskins fans didn’t have to watch former offensive coordinator Sean McVay take his Rams deep into the playoffs. Many are already pained with the notion that Washington may have let the better head coach leave Redskins Park.

Sunday’s opener, though, between the Jaguars and the Bills was the signature moment for the NFL — two bad quarterbacks, Tyrod Taylor and Blake Bortles, leading two mediocre football teams, although the Jacksonville defense is among the best in the league. It is worth nothing that if either Jacksonville or Buffalo had Kirk Cousins as their quarterback, they would have likely won the game handily. And it is also worth noting that, unless you believe the Jaguars will actually invest in Bortles — 12 for 23 for 87 yards and one touchdown Sunday — Jacksonville could be a landing spot for Cousins if he becomes a free agent.

Now it’s on to the divisional round of the playoffs — the Falcons travel to Philadelphia to face the Eagles Saturday afternoon, while the Titans play the Patriots Saturday night, and the Jaguars go to Pittsburgh to match up with the Steelers Sunday and New Orleans plays the Vikings in Minneapolis for the final game of the weekend.

Let’s hope the NFL hits on more than one out of four.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

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