What We Learned From the N.F.L.’s Wild-Card Weekend

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It was a supersize wild-card weekend, with the N.F.L.’s expanded playoff format requiring six games, rather than four, in the first two days of the postseason. There were no surprises in the results of the first five games, but Sunday night finished with a thrilling upset in which the Cleveland Browns won a playoff game for the first time in 26 years.

Here’s what we learned:

  • It is time for a new Lamar Jackson narrative. It was hard to tell if the Baltimore Ravens were a top contender or a beneficiary of one of the N.F.L.’s weakest schedules over the final five weeks of the regular season. And with consecutive seasons that each ended in a disappointing playoff loss, there were those who questioned whether Jackson’s run-heavy style could translate to postseason success. After watching Baltimore race for 236 yards on the ground in a 20-13 win on the road against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, those narratives can be retired. Baltimore won’t surprise anyone, but knowing what’s coming is a lot different from knowing how to stop it.

    With his first playoff win and his team’s defense playing well, Jackson should finally be able to relax. That should terrify opponents, because Jackson, who rushed for 136 yards on Sunday and 143 in last year’s playoff loss to Tennessee, already owns two of the top three playoff rushing performances by a quarterback in N.F.L. history.

The second round of the playoffs will have four games over two days.

Los Angeles Rams (10-6) at Green Bay Packers (13-3), 4:35 p.m., Fox

The Rams have a defense that is very easy to like, but it is going to get quite a test against the Packers, who led the N.F.L. in scoring this season. (Early line: Packers -7)

Baltimore Ravens (11-5) at Buffalo Bills (13-3), 8:15 p.m., NBC

The Bills offense is a handful, particularly at home in Orchard Park, N.Y., but is their defense up to the challenge of slowing down the Ravens? (Early line: Bills -2.5)

Cleveland Browns (11-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (14-2), 3:05 p.m., CBS

Sunday’s game proved that Cleveland’s defense can disrupt a game with turnovers, but there is a big difference between capitalizing on unforced mistakes from Ben Roethlisberger and forcing mistakes from Patrick Mahomes. (Early line: Chiefs -10)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) at New Orleans Saints (12-4), 6:40 p.m., Fox

The Buccaneers are on a roll, but it is hard to forget the Saints beat them twice in the regular season, with a combined score of 72-26. (Early line: Saints -3.5)

This weekend, we said goodbye to the following teams.

12-4 | N.F.C. West champions

In the first half of the season, the Seahawks appeared to have a Super Bowl-quality offense and a high-school-level defense. While Seattle ironed out many of its defensive woes, it was Russell Wilson and the team’s offense that looked overwhelmed on Saturday — that happens a lot against the Los Angeles Rams’ underrated defense. Where does that leave the Seahawks? They need to find upgrades on the offensive line to protect Wilson and should probably go back and study the tape of the early-season games in which they seemed far more aggressive with their passing game.

12-4 | A.F.C. North champions

The dissection of the 2020 Steelers will take weeks rather than days, but the team being robbed of a true bye week thanks to Tennessee’s coronavirus outbreak early in the season should be on the list somewhere. Pittsburgh began the season 11-0, but injuries added up — particularly on defense — and the Steelers wore down, resulting in a 1-4 finish to the season and a humbling first-round exit. No other playoff team this season has as big a conundrum going forward as the Steelers in terms of what the team will do with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The two-time Super Bowl winner threw for 501 yards in Sunday’s loss, but he also threw four costly interceptions. He turns 39 in March and while much of the team appears to be built for the future, Roethlisberger is increasingly looking like something from the team’s past.

11-5 | A.F.C. South champions

Derrick Henry had an incredible season, rushing for 2,027 yards and becoming the first player to repeat as the N.F.L.’s rushing champion in more than a decade. A blend of his running and Ryan Tannehill’s passing led the Titans to the fourth-most points in the N.F.L. While many will focus on Henry’s disappointing effort in Sunday’s loss, Tennessee’s biggest issue this season was its defense. The easiest way to support Henry and Tannehill is to not make it imperative that they score on every drive.

11-5 | A.F.C. Wild Card

There were a lot of positives for the Colts this season. Some shrewd off-season moves led to the team having its best record since 2014 — and just its second playoff appearance since then. Indianapolis is unlikely to get similar turn-back-the-clock performances from quarterback Philip Rivers and cornerback Xavier Rhodes going forward, but the team’s trading for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and drafting of running back Jonathan Taylor should set the Colts up for more success next season.

8-8 | N.F.C. Wild Card

What a weird season. Chicago got off to a superficially strong start, was badly exposed by a midseason losing streak, rallied to make the playoffs and then was overwhelmed by the New Orleans Saints. A No. 7 seed being crushed by a No. 2 seed isn’t exactly an endorsement of the expanded playoff structure, but the Bears could probably be a relevant team fairly quickly provided that they admit Mitchell Trubisky is not their long-term answer at quarterback.

7-9 | N.F.C. East champions

Laugh all you want about the team’s record — Washington matched the 2010 Seattle Seahawks for the worst record of a playoff team in the 16-game era — but the Footballers are walking away with their heads held high and their future looking bright. The rookie defensive end Chase Young is a top-shelf disrupter and poised to lead his unit into relevance for years. On offense, the team has found its answers at running back (Antonio Gibson) and wide receiver (Terry McLaurin). And after a gutsy performance against Tampa Bay, where he impressed with his arm and his legs, Taylor Heinicke should get some serious consideration as the team’s quarterback of the future.

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