Winners and Losers of the NFL Divisional Round

Winners and Losers of the NFL Divisional Round

Every week this NFL season, we will celebrate the electric plays, investigate the colossal blunders. And explain the inexplicable moments of the most recent slate. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?

Loser: Mike McCarthy’s Big Trick Play
For years I have harbored a very specific and trivial theory about end-of-game trick plays. When a team has only one snap remaining and must go the length of the field. They forced to resort to a Stanford band–style lateral play—you know, the kind that went disastrously for the Patriots earlier this season. The theory is that in these situations, teams should remove their offensive linemen from the field. I love and cherish offensive linemen. They are critical for protecting quarterbacks and opening up run lanes—but that doesn’t really happen on an end-of-game lateral play. There’s only about half a second of blocking before the quarterback throws the very first pass, and after that, everybody on the field needs to be fast and good at throwing and catching in hopes of evading defenders and switching the field as many times as possible. The linemen often end up miles behind the play, blocking air. So why not swap out those linemen for speedsters and backup quarterbacks? It’s legal, so long as five players declare themselves as ineligible and don’t cross the line of scrimmage before the first pass.

The Jets tried this once 15 years ago, but nobody else had attempted this hack … until bold thinker Mike McCarthy. At the end of a game last year against Tampa Bay, the Cowboys sent out 10 skill-position players and one lineman; unfortunately, they failed to complete any laterals.

Winners and Losers of the NFL Divisional Round

Sunday, the ’Boys had another opportunity. Needing a touchdown to tie San Francisco, they lined up in an unusual formation. Running back Zeke Elliott lined up at center, with the rest of the team spread as wide as possible.

Finally, my dream play was happening! My unpopular tweets from a couple of years ago were about to shine. Someone in the NFL had the vision and was about to pull off one of the greatest endings in football history. It was time.

At no point in the Cowboys’ rambling, incoherent final play they even close to anything that could considered a rational football thought. Everybody watchingconfused about exactly what the Cowboys had even tried to do—everybody except for me, the guy sitting at home, realizing his one big football idea was dumber than any football idea anybody has ever had.

As it turns out, even on these trick plays, you need some sort of blocking. When San Francisco linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair looked up and saw a running back as the lone lineman, he decided to punish the Cowboys for their hubris and power-blasted Elliott into hell.

With Al-Shaair in his face moments after the snap,

Dak Prescott had to get rid of the ball quickly. He threw an off-target pass to KaVontae Turpin, basically the only player on the field who being covered by a defender. Turpin had to jump to catch it and tackled instantly upon landing. It’s not clear whether the Cowboys had a bigger plan—Elliott supposed to come get the ball on a lateral after he snapped it? Was Turpin even the intended target? the ball supposed to go out wide where there were blockers? We’ll never know. The play was completely dead on arrival because the Cowboys forgot to poke breathing holes in its travel container.

It was yet another poor season-ending performance from McCarthy. He chose to punt in a pair of questionable scenarios—first while facing fourth-and-5 at the opposing 40-yard line, a punt that led to the go-ahead touchdown for San Francisco, and later while trailing by seven with two minutes left—and attempted a field goal while trailing by seven, and the Cowboys never scored again. And once again, Dallas’s season has ended with a memeable final play against the 49ers that nobody besides McCarthy understood. You’d think he would’ve spent a full year thinking of something better. But I’m not even sure he spent the last year thinking about anything.

It felt like Joe Burrow was gonna spend all day on his ass again.

The Bengals almost won the Super Bowl last year but eventually held back by an IKEA offensive line—cheaply purchased, shoddily assembled, and constantly falling apart. Burrow took 19 sacks in the postseason (an all-time record) and seven in the Super Bowl alone. So the Bengals ditched the IKEA furniture and called an interior designer, spending big in free agency on left tackle La’el Collins, left guard Alex Cappa, and center Ted Karras. It worked: Burrow sacked 10 fewer times for 111 fewer yards in 2022. But at the end of the year, their designer line fell apart, just like the cheap one did. Collins tore his ACL in Week 16, Cappa suffered an ankle injury in Week 18, and right tackle Jonah Williams dislocated his kneecap in last week’s win over the Ravens.

On Sunday, the Bengals had to start three backups who essentially hadn’t played all season: at right tackle. Hakeem Adeniji, the player whose performance at right guard in last year’s Super. Bowl probably did more than anyone’s to win the Rams a title; at left tackle. Jackson Carman, the player who benched at right guard last year to allow. Adeniji to fall apart in the postseason; and at right guard, Max Scharping, who cut during the preseason by the 3-13-1 Texans because he couldn’t find a role on their offensive line. None of these three players had meaningful roles with the Bengals through the first four months of the regular season. And their average Pro Football Focus grade was 48.7 (out of 100). They should have been toast against the Bills.

Instead, Cincinnati’s makeshift line dominated against the Bills. Burrow sacked only once, for a loss of 2 yards. The Bengals ran for 172 yards—more than in 16 of their 17 previous games this season. With Joe Mixon having his second 100-yard game of the season. Look at the massive hole open up for Mixon on this run. Ending with Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds getting dump into the snowy sideline:

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