The Baltimore Ravens crash out, while the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers remain on course for a Super Bowl meeting.
Bill O'Brien and John Harbaugh won't want to remember this weekend. Both the Baltimore Ravens head coach and Houston Texans head coach made critical errors on fourth downs as their teams crashed out of the playoffs. Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer will want to forget his weekend too, but he's tied to Kirk Cousins moving forward so he likely won't be able to.
1. Minnesota Vikings Sacrifice Future for Failure
You get what you pay for....unless you pay Kirk Cousins.
The Minnesota Vikings made the NFC Championship Game two seasons ago with Case Keenum. Then they gave Kirk Cousins a huge contract to take them to the next level. Cousins and the Vikings didn't make the playoffs during their first season together, then they were blown out by the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday. Not only did the Vikings lose, they lost in a fashion that was an indictment of their offence.
His offensive line was overwhelmed, but Cousins did nothing to help. He repeatedly forced premature checkdowns to put the offence behind the down-and-distance on third downs. He also never moved from his spot in the pocket, allowing the 49ers pass rushers to tee off on him. A quarterback who doesn't move and can't deliver the ball against pressure is easy to rush because the pass rushers always know the spot on the field they need to get to.
What makes this loss devastating for the Vikings is that they sold out their future to contend this season.
A team that loses in the Divisional Round typically wants to make a big splash in the offseason to take that step forward. The Vikings can't make a big splash in the offseason. They are already $9 million over the salary cap. In the NFL, you can't actually create cap space. You can move it around. So when the Vikings needed cap space to keep this team together prior to this season, they pushed money from this year into next year. That means they now will likely have to cut Everson Griffen and Xavier Rhodes just to be cap compliant entering the offseason.
The Vikings were already doing everything possible to hide Cousins with their offensive scheme and stockpiled talent on defence. Now they need to try and win with him making $31 million next year and a worse overall roster. They're far more likely to miss the playoffs than become a contender in 2020.
Mike Zimmer also needs to find a new offensive coordinator since Kevin Stefanski has become the Cleveland Browns head coach. Stefanski was the play-caller but he was running Gary Kubiak's offence. Coaching change shouldn't concern the Vikings. They need to be concerned about the franchise potentially extending Cousins to create cap space this season. If they don't extend him, they can move on to another quarterback after next season. If they do, they'll be locked into him as their starter for a long time.
2. The Tennessee Titans Are Going to the AFC Championship
Somehow, at the end of the first half the Baltimore Ravens still had a chance.
It was only an eight-point lead at halftime. The Tennessee Titans had scored two touchdowns, one through Jonnu Smith's spectacular catch in the corner of the endzone and one off a shot play to Kalif Raymond. That Raymond shot play came immediately after the Ravens failed to convert their first fourth down attempt of the day. They would fail on three separate fourth down attempts by the end of the fourth quarter.
Lamar Jackson had dragged the offense over 90 yards to the Titans goalline just before halftime. With 11 seconds left, he was forced to throw the ball away and accept a field goal. That felt like the game for the Titans. Had the Ravens scored on that drive, it would have been 14-10 despite the Ravens dropping passes constantly, giving up unnecessary penalties and playing awful defense. That stop was crucial. It set the Titans up to run away with the game in the second half.
Derrick Henry was dominant. He broke a Matt Judon tackle for a monstrous gain midway through the third quarter that put the Titans out of sight. Prior to that he had spun Earl Thomas around with a hand-off and consistently gained good yards to hurt the Ravens. Defensive coordinator Don Martindale had the wrong gameplan. Like the Patriots the previous week, the Ravens defense held Ryan Tannehill to under 100 yards passing. Unlike the Patriots, that was because the Ravens couldn't stop Henry.
Bill Belichick focused on taking away the passing game by keeping his coverage back. Martindale blitzed constantly and tried to match the Titans at the line of scrimmage. That opened up space for Henry to attack once he broke through the initial wave of bodies. Earl Thomas' usage was particularly problematic as he spent too much time near the line of scrimmage and not coming from a deep position. Tannehill's touchdown to Raymond off of play action highlighted this as Thomas played the running back in the flat while Chris Clark failed to read the play properly from the deep safety spot.
Martindale and Greg Roman were the Ravens' biggest problems. Lamar Jackson made his mistakes and the execution of the players as a whole wasn't good enough, but the Ravens have two offensive coordinators who refuse to adjust to their opponents. They do the same thing each week regardless of what the opposition excels at. It's been a catalyst in all of their losses this season.
Jackson will, of course, take the brunt of the blame, but he really shouldn't.
3. John Harbaugh and Fourth Downs
Earlier this season, when the Baltimore Ravens lost to the Kansas City Chiefs, John Harbaugh was asked to defend his decision to go for it on fourth down in a game the Ravens lost:
"These are not league average choices. These are determined by this game and for this game specifically, in that venue, weather is even factored into it. There’s a lot of factors that go into it that are mathematically calculated...It wasn’t a field position game. It was a possession game. And making the most of each possession was what counted and that’s what we were attempting to do and for the most part we did a really good job of it.”
The first sentence of that quote is particularly interesting. Harbaugh has gone for it on fourth down more often than anyone else this season. He's become the favourite coach of the analytics community for embracing numbers. Harbaugh suggested after that Chiefs game that he's not looking at the league average numbers to make his decision on fourth down, but his decision to go for it on Fourth-and-1 at the start of the second quarter when trailing to the Titans 7-0 on Saturday suggests otherwise.
Going for it in that scenario was only about the math. Against the Titans, you don't risk a two-possession lead because that empowers them to play to their identity. The goal of yesterday's game should have been to get them away from what works. Punting the ball and playing field position would have done that. Instead, the Ravens best starting field position on Saturday was their own 26, whereas the Titans repeatedly benefited from turnovers and fourth down failures.
Fourth down has become more of a topic ever since the NBA changed. Stephen Curry's success with the Golden State Warriors proved that shooting more threes was better than shooting twos even though threes convert at a lower rate. If Curry hit 4/10 three-point shots, it was the same as him hitting 6/10 two-point shots but with a higher upside.
The problem for the NFL is that sample sizes are tiny in this sport.
Curry can start a game 0-4 and keep shooting his way to the point that regression turns in his favour. NFL teams might not have four fourth downs to go for in a single game. So it's much easier to get trapped on the wrong side of regression. If that happens in the playoffs like it did for the Ravens, your season is over. Furthermore, if Curry misses four three-point shots, it's the same as missing four two-point shots. If an NFL team misses on fourth down, it's a lot worse of a punishment compared to punting.
4. Bill O'Brien Blows It
Speaking of fourth downs. Bill O'Brien completely mismanaged the Houston Texans early lead against the Kansas City Chiefs. Leading 21-0, O'Brien had the opportunity to go for it deep in Chiefs territory. He only needed to gain inches and the Chiefes defense hadn't gotten a stop to that point.
He lined up to go for it originally, but then took a timeout and changed his mind to kick the field goal. A fourth touchdown would have been a devastating blow to the Chiefs chances of coming back. Even if the Chiefs had got a stop, they'd have taken over deep in their own territory. Reaching the endzone from that deep would have been a major challenge because the Chiefs hadn't executed at all to that point.
Instead, O'Brien kicked the field goal, then kicked off to Mecole Hardman who ran the ball back into Texans territory. The Chiefs scored one touchdown, then got a stop.
O'Brien faced another fourth down. This time in his own territory. He lined up to punt, but inexplicably called a fake. The Chiefs reacted to get the stop, setting the Chiefs up for another score. Travis Kelce caught a touchdown. Within minutes, the Texans saw 28-0 in front of them but turned their backs to go to 24-14. To compound that sequence, DeAndre Carter fumbled the kick return so the Chiefs were in the redzone again.
Mahomes connected with Kelce again and it was suddenly 24-21. Kelce caught his third touchdown before halftime to give the Chiefs the lead at halftime. There was no coming back from there for the Texans.
The Chiefs were the first team in NFL history to trail by 24 points and still lead at halftime. They continued to assault the Texans endzone after halftime, reaching seven consecutive touchdown drives, another NFL record. Having taken the lead before halftime, the Chiefs spent the second half climbing above the 50-point mark.
5. Superstar Quarterbacks Collide in College
It's always easy to focus on the quarterbacks when two football teams meet. It's rare that you get two quarterbacks who deserve to get as much attention as they do. When Clemson and LSU meet on Monday night to decide college football's National Champion, Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence will share the same field. Burrow will be the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback next season, the first overall pick in the 2020 draft. Lawrence will be the first overall pick int he 2021 draft.
Knowing who will be the first overall pick in January is a rare thing. Knowing who will be the first-round pick in the next two drafts in January is likely unique.
As Ronan Mullen put it on this week's episode of The Snap, this is college football's version of Tom Brady versus Aaron Rodgers.
Lawrence is the Rodgers of the group. He's a very good athlete who has a big arm and is capable of making any throw. His Clemson side was struggling offensively in the semi-final against Ohio State until he ran in a 67-yard touchdown on a designed quarterback run. It was the type of play Clemson fans have come to expect from Lawrence. Whenever his team has needed him, he's shown up. Pressure doesn't bother him, his mistakes don't derail him. He can't be contained by specific defences and he can elevate those around him.
It's why he's never lost a game in college. His last loss came when he was still in High School.
Burrow, the man who threw seven touchdowns in the first half of his semi-final, is a better athlete than Tom Brady has ever been. But Burrow also is more noted for his nuance as a passer than he is his physical tools. He throws with timing and precision to every level of the defense. That's a rare trait. Even in the NFL most quarterbacks aren't good in the 1-10 yard range, the 11-20 yard range and on deep throws. Most have areas of strength and areas of weakness. Burrow understands touch and timing, he always throws with the right velocity and can lead receivers away from defenders to throw them open.
Monday night's game should be a high-scoring, exciting matchup between two great teams. Clemson were ranked third in the final College Playoff Committee rankings, but Dabo Swinney's team has won two of the last three National Championships. LSU is a premier program in the country, but they haven't won a National Championship since 2007 when former Packers and Seahawks quarterback Matt Flynn was the starting quarterback.