NFL Divisional Round review: Terrible coaching decided an incredible weekend of football

It wasn’t exactly a banner weekend for the guys wearing the headsets. Three of the four games were essentially decided as much by terrible coaching as by the players, which is where we begin the review:

⋅ The Chiefs’ 42-36 overtime win over the Bills Sunday night will go down as one of the greatest games in NFL history. Quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen refused to be denied at the end of regulation, combining to score 25 points in a wild back-and-forth. Mahomes’s ability to drive the Chiefs 44 yards with just 13 seconds left is one of the most clutch drives in NFL history.

But Mahomes doesn’t get a chance to be the hero if Bills coach Sean McDermott didn’t whiff on the kickoff decision with 13 seconds left. Inexplicably, With his team leading, 36-33, McDermott had Tyler Bass kick deep out of the end zone for a touchback, giving the Chiefs the ball on the 25 and not taking any time off the clock.

Clearly, the Bills should have kicked to force a return. The clock would have started as soon as it touched a Chief’s hands, and would have consumed 3-4 seconds. McDermott’s decision perhaps would have been understandable if Tyreek Hill were back deep for the kickoff. But it was Byron Pringle, who had one kickoff return for 26 yards in the game and had a long of 39 all season.

Mahomes needed just two plays to get into field goal range — a 19-yard pass to Hill and a 25-yard pass to Travis Kelce, who was wide open over the middle. Not a moment of glory for Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, either.

Each play took five seconds off the clock. Had McDermott kicked the ball into play, the Chiefs would have had one play to get into field goal range. That one play made all the difference, and McDermott has a long, painful offseason to dwell on it.

⋅ The Rams-Bucs affair was not a coaching clinic, either. Sean McVay and Matthew Stafford almost became the new Dan Quinn and Matt Ryan by choking away a 27-3 lead. After going up by that margin early in the third quarter, the Rams’ offense went fumble, punt, fumble, missed field goal, punt, fumble. Brady and the Bucs’ offense didn’t even play that well, yet they crawled all the way back to 27-27.

But McVay and Stafford were bailed out by a baffling decision by Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Known as one of the league’s most aggressive coaches, Bowles sent a seven-man blitz at Stafford with just 28 seconds left, leaving Cooper Kupp, the best receiver in the NFL, one-on-one with a safety.

Kupp, unsurprisingly, ran right past Antoine Winfield to haul in a 44-yard catch and put the Rams in position for a game-winning 30-yard field goal at the buzzer. Even the mild-mannered Tony Dungy didn’t understand why the Bucs’ defense didn’t just play it safe.

Making matters worse was the postgame explanation by coach Bruce Arians, who blamed the players for not hearing the call correctly.

“Some guys didn’t blitz. I don’t know if we didn’t get the call. It was an all out blitz. We should’ve gotten a ton of pressure… Never second-guess. Just make sure all 11 [players] are on the same page.”

It took one look of the play from NFL Next Gen Stats to see that only one player didn’t blitz — middle linebacker Lavonte David. He had a clear lane to the quarterback if he had blitzed, yet instead he was out of position and Stafford had enough time to deliver the throw.

It’s understandable if Arians wanted to deflect blame away from Bowles, who appears to be a top candidate for at least one head coaching vacancy. But it’s poor form to point fingers at the players and throw David, the team’s captain and longest-tenured player, under the bus.

And the criticism is misguided. Not only was Bowles’s decision unnecessarily risky, but whose fault is it if the play doesn’t get communicated correctly? The coaches.

⋅ The Packers’ loss to the 49ers Saturday night was also decided by a vast coaching disparity, this time on special teams.

49ers special teams coordinator Richard Hightower, in his 14th NFL season, earned his playoff bonus. The Niners became the first team since the Bills in January 1989 to block a field goal and a punt in the same playoff game. The field goal block from 39 yards at the end of the first half kept the score 7-0. The punt block came with 4:50 left and was returned for a touchdown to tie the game. The Niners became the fourth team since 2000 to win a playoff game without scoring an offensive touchdown.

Richard Hightower has been the 49ers’ special teams coordinator since 2017.Gary McCullough/Associated Press

Hightower’s counterpart, Packers special teams coordinator Maurice Drayton, may have coached his way out of a job after just one year. Saturday night’s meltdown was totally in character. The Packers had two field goals blocked during the regular season, gave up a punt return touchdown, ranked 31st in field goal percentage (73.5), and had the worst point coverage in the NFL (12.8 average). Packers special teams were ranked 32nd this season by Football Outsiders, The 33rd Team, and Rick Gosselin. It bit them hard in this game.

⋅ Saturday’s Bengals-Titans thriller also featured two questionable coaching decisions by the Titans’ Mike Vrabel. In the second quarter, the Titans were stuffed on a 2-point conversion attempt from the 1-yard line to keep the score 6-6. With 7:21 left in the game, the Titans turned down a 52-yard field goal and were stopped on fourth and 1. In a 19-16 loss, every point mattered.

But criticism of Vrabel is misguided and a case of playing the outcome. When the Bengals committed a penalty to put the ball at the 1-yard line, the odds were overwhelmingly in the Titans’ favor of converting the 2-point conversion. For those who argue there is no difference between being up 8-6 vs. 7-6, I would counter that when you are up by 2, a touchdown then makes the margin 9, which is two scores.

The decision to go for it fourth and 1 in the fourth quarter was also the right call, according to the math. Per EdjSports, the NFL’s official analytics partner, going for it increased the Titans’ chances of winning by 6 percent. Also consider that the Titans don’t have a big-legged kicker in Randy Bullock, who was just 1 for 1 from 50-plus yards all season.

If you’re Vrabel, you’ve got to like your chances of gaining 1 yard when you’ve got Derrick Henry in the backfield. Both times he handed it to Henry. Both times he was stuffed.

Credit the Bengals’ defense for making the plays. Blame the Titans for not executing. Blame Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who threw an interception on his first pass of the game, his first pass of the second half, and his final pass of the game.

But don’t blame Vrabel’s decisions.

Quick Hits

⋅ As enjoyable as the games were, this had to be a bit of a depressing weekend for Patriots fans.

Josh Allen has blossomed into a full-blown superstar and will be a problem for the Patriots and the rest of the AFC East for the next decade. The Chiefs-Bills pinball match, featuring two electric quarterbacks who are 25 and 26 years old, showed just how far off the Patriots are from being a legitimate contender.

It also had to sting seeing Brady still playing well for a team other than the Patriots. He almost authored another incredible comeback, made it further in the postseason than the Patriots, and could be the league’s MVP at age 44.

The Patriots’ big draft misses at wide receiver also rubbed it in this weekend.

There was AJ Brown Saturday, catching five passes for 142 yards and a touchdown for the Titans. He had receptions of 40 and 41 yards, plus a ridiculous one-handed, 33-yard touchdown catch.

And there was Deebo Samuel Saturday night, gaining 83 total yards and making key plays in the 49ers’ big comeback win. He had a 45-yard kickoff return to set up a key field goal, and rushed for 9 yards on third and 7 to put the Niners in range for the game-winning kick.

N’Keal Harry, meanwhile, has been a bust. The Patriots have to regret drafting him ahead of Brown, Samuel, and others in 2019.

⋅ The Jimmy Garoppolo haters will say that the Niners again carried their quarterback to victory, with Garoppolo completing just 11 of 19 passes for 131 yards and an interception. But Garoppolo was nails in the fourth quarter, completing 5 of 6 for 55 yards and three big first downs. Garoppolo had a huge 24-yard pass to George Kittle on third and 11 in the fourth quarter, then two big completions at the end of regulation to get the Niners in position for the win.

To come up big in crunch time, in bad weather, on the road in the playoffs, against the No. 1 seed, shows why Garoppolo is 37-15 in his career as a starter, including 4-1 in the playoffs.

⋅ Aaron Rodgers is the favorite to win the MVP, but he played uninspired football in Saturday’s loss. Notably, he was too locked in on his top two receivers, Davante Adams and Aaron Jones, who combined to get 21 of Rodgers’s 27 targets and gain 219 of Rodgers’s 225 passing yards. It came back to bite the Packers late in the fourth quarter with the game tied, as Rodgers threw incomplete to Adams in double coverage and didn’t see Allen Lazard coming wide open across the middle.

Rodgers is now just 7-9 in the playoffs since winning the Super Bowl in 2010, with two straight home losses.

Stats of the Week

⋅ With the Titans and Packers losses, both No. 1 seeds lost in the Divisional Round for just the third time since the Wild Card was instituted in 1978. The other times were 2010 (Patriots and Falcons), 2008 (Titans and Giants), and 1979 (Chargers and Cowboys).

⋅ The 974 total yards in Bills-Chiefs were the eighth-most yards in NFL postseason history and the most since the Patriots and Eagles combined for 1,151 in Super Bowl LII.

⋅ Bengals QB Joe Burrow was sacked nine times, tied for the most in NFL history, and lost 68 yards, second-most of all time (Bart Starr, minus-76 yards in the Ice Bowl in 1967).

⋅ The Bengals’ franchise had been 0-7 on the road (and 0-2 in neutral sites) in the playoffs before Saturday’s win.

⋅ Rodgers is the only quarterback in NFL history to lose four postseason starts to the same team.

⋅ The 49ers earned their 17th appearance in a conference championship game, breaking a tie with the Steelers for the most since the 1970 merger.

⋅ Bills-Chiefs was the first game in NFL history with three go-ahead touchdowns scored in the final 2 minutes.

⋅ The Bills would have played Sunday night’s game at home if only they had defeated the Jaguars in Week 9. Every game counts.

Ben Volin can be reached at

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