There’s a common thread between playoffs across sports, whether it’s best-of-seven series, single-elimination, or even NASCAR’s weeks-long gauntlet to the Cup. If your team has a weakness, it’s going to get exposed.
Like, say, the Packers’ special teams. Kind of a problem. Kind of got exposed Saturday night. Also, they had an unvaccinated crackpot failed game show host playing quarterback, but that’s just funny now.
Last week, we saw the Raiders (red zone defense), Patriots (rookie quarterback, entire defense), Cardinals (not healthy quarterback), Steelers (washed-up quarterback), Eagles (seventh-best team in a conference with six good teams), and Cowboys (always find a way to blow it in the playoffs) bow out of the chase for the Super Bowl as they could not overcome those issues in the Wild-Card round.
But just because your team isn’t perfect, it doesn’t mean that you’re doomed. No team is perfect, and where the playoffs get really interesting is when teams take turns capitalizing on each other’s soft spots.
The Bengals are heading to their first AFC title game in 33 years, because even though their offensive line is thinner than the almanac of Cincinnati playoff successes, Joe Burrow is that guy. Just as importantly, Ryan Tannehill is not that guy, and that fact — the Titans’ big weakness — showed up at the worst possible time with three interceptions, including the one that set up Evan McPherson’s 52-yard field goal to win it for the Bengals.
It’s not that Tannehill is bad. He’s an above-average NFL quarterback, good enough to get the Titans to the AFC title game two years ago and two more playoff spots since. But the Titans were caught with Derrick Henry healthy enough to return to the lineup but not his usual superstar self, and there’s a big difference between asking Tannehill to marshal a winning offense and asking him to be the main part of it. Aside from the one 45-yard run that D’Onta Foreman broke off, the Titans had 95 rushing yards on 26 carries. Tannehill throws three picks, and that’s that, even for a team whose defense got nine sacks.
The Bengals overcoming their weakness being front and center does not guarantee that Cincinnati will follow its first-ever road playoff win with another next week. The previous record for a quarterback getting sacked in a playoff win was when Donovan McNabb was taken down eight times by the Packers in the 2003 divisional round. The following week at Carolina, McNabb was sacked four more times, and threw three interceptions in a 14-3 loss.
Kansas City and Buffalo saw that game the same as everyone else, and will go into a home game knowing that they can get to Burrow, and can get to the Super Bowl if they play a cleaner game than Tennessee did.
Likewise, the Buccaneers and Rams saw Saturday night’s game in Green Bay, and they’ll know that Jimmy Garoppolo is the 49ers’ quarterback. Somehow, that hasn’t been enough for the Cowboys or Packers to get past San Francisco, but also nobody is complaining about not having to pay attention to Jerry Jones or Aaron Rodgers for the next several months.
After the mess of Todd Graham’s reign there, Hawai’i absolutely nailed it in hiring his replacement, bringing back Timmy Chang, the best quarterback in school history, to be the new head coach. Chang was already on his way to a new job, having been an assistant at Nevada and followed Jay Norvell to Colorado State, but now he’ll have a top job of his own, a perfect fit.