What We Learned in the N.F.L.’s Wild-Card Round

Blowouts in the N.F.L. playoffs are rare. In the absence of an injury to a major star, teams are too good, too focused, and have too many yards of film on their opponents by this point to be overwhelmed or surprised by a breakout performance.

That has not been the case so far in the wild-card round, with the Buffalo Bills routing the New England Patriots, 47-17, Saturday night and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 31-15 dismantling of the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday afternoon. The expanded postseason field does not augur much distinction to be had in the night game between Kansas City and the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose quarterback earlier this week admitted “we don’t stand a chance.”

There is no larger narrative to wrap around such unbalanced outcomes, and it is tempting to wonder if there was actually anything to be gleaned in this year’s wild-card weekend.

There was.

The Buccaneers can dink their way through as long as the defense holds.

Tampa Bay learned it wouldn’t have its lead running back, Leonard Fournette, available for Sunday’s game, and was already playing without the receivers Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, two of Tom Brady’s favorite targets. Still, the game could not have been teed up any better for the Buccaneers’ offense, stylistically.

The Eagles lack the top-end talent to create big defensive plays, ranking in the bottom 10 in sacks, tackles for loss and passes broken up. Their soft zone coverage and inability to create much pressure gave the greatest quarterback to ever “take what the defense gives” too much room to dink and dunk his way down the field. Brady finished with a sweatless 29-of-37 performance, including two touchdowns.

2021 N.F.L. Season News and Analysis

  • The Bills Are Near-Perfect in Win Over Patriots: Buffalo scored touchdowns on all seven of its offensive possessions against one of the N.F.L.’s best defenses.
  • What Happened in Saturday’s N.F.L. Playoff Games: Here’s how the Bills’ and Bengals’ wins could affect division-round matchups.
  • The Reason Every Playoff Team Will Lose: All but one remaining team have a fatal flaw.
  • The Buccaneers’ Offense Works Because of This Man (and Tom Brady): Byron Leftwich has customized gameplans to a hodgepodge of stars, injury replacements and holdovers.
  • Are the Cardinals Cursed?: Arizona has the longest championship drought in American sports. A long-forgotten N.F.L. title theft may be the reason.

Philadelphia led the league in rushing yards per game, but no team in the 2021 regular season threw the ball less often, and the threat of quarterback Jalen Hurts or any of the Eagles’ backs was not enough to manufacture alleys against a defense plugged by the gigantic combination of Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh on the interior.

Teams know better than to run against Tampa Bay: The Buccaneers saw the fewest rushing attempts of any team this season but still were in the top 10 in tackles for loss, remarkable efficiency for a front seven.

The Eagles’ only strength played to a buzzsaw performance by the Buccaneers’ defense. Hurts led all Eagles rushers with 39 yards, and a 34-yard touchdown in garbage time from Boston Scott inflated what had been a 3.8 yards per carry team average prior.

Worse, Philadelphia could not manage to exploit its opponent’s most glaring weakness. Key losses have dogged Tampa Bay’s secondary all season, forcing the defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to try cornerback Richard Sherman as a safety at one point. In his second season, Hurts had worked hard to improve his craft as a passer, but some key misses of receivers streaking up and across the seams cost his team opportunities to gain big yardage.

In the second half, Hurts’s indecision gave the edge rushers Shaq Barrett and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka time to flush him out of the pocket and force him to try to squeeze passes up the sideline. Hurts was intercepted twice, one a backbreaking pick before halftime when DeVonta Smith broke open on a double move before safety Mike Edwards undercut a low and late throw.

Sunday’s contest was over in three possessions, with Tampa Bay scoring rushing touchdowns by the backups Giovani Bernard and Ke’Shawn Vaughn on two of its three possessions. Ryan Succop’s 34-yard field goal in the second quarter ran the score to 17-0, ending an 11-play drive in which Brady barely had to exert himself.

While it was impressive to watch a quarterback in his mid-40s march up and down the field in the postseason, Sunday’s wild-card win didn’t provide any tangible answers as to whether Tampa Bay is equipped to defend its throne against the N.F.L.’s better teams, only that the team is wily enough to try.

Rob Gronkowski still has some of the best hands in football, but he has lost a step and a half, making Godwin’s injury and Brown’s exit stand out in obvious passing situations. Jonathan Gannon, the Eagles’ defensive coordinator, brought a few blitzes in the second half and played zone coverage behind it, and Tampa Bay’s backup receivers couldn’t find the open windows downfield on which this vertical passing game thrives.

Darius Slay and Steven Nelson couldn’t guard Mike Evans (117 yards, one touchdown) without help over the top, but the few times Philadelphia ran man coverage, there weren’t many other outlets available for Brady.

By then, though, Philadelphia had already been buried.

Around the N.F.L. Playoffs

Buccaneers 31, Eagles 15: The Eagles fell into a 17-0 hole early, and their vaunted running game was not equipped to shovel them out. Four players, including quarterback Jalen Hurts, combined for 95 rushing yards that mostly came in garbage time. Tampa Bay relied on rushing touchdowns to open up the field for Tom Brady, who threw for 271 yards on 29 of 37 passing, with two touchdowns.

Bills 47, Patriots 17: Buffalo scored touchdowns on all seven of its offensive possessions to dismantle New England in as decisive a playoff margin as there has been in Patriots Coach Bill Belichick’s tenure. Bills quarterback Josh Allen Allen completed 21 of 25 passes for 308 yards and threw five scores. He also ran for 66 yards.

Bengals 26, Raiders 19: Quarterback Joe Burrow led the Bengals’ high-powered offense on scoring drives in their four possessions in the first half, connecting for touchdowns with receiver Tyler Boyd and tight end C.J. Uzomah as Cincinnati secured its first playoff win in 31 years. On the Raiders’ final drive, a controversial roughing the passer call gave Las Vegas a chance to score but linebacker Germaine Pratt intercepted a Derek Carr pass at the 2-yard line to end the threat.

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