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Friday, July 3, 2020

10 biggest disappointments of the NFL divisional playoffs

Marcus Williams play

The NFL’s divisional round was wild, unpredictable, and featured three incredible finishes — including one that will go down in NFL history. With that much drama, there was no doubt that there were going to be some glaring, high-profile errors and mistakes from players and coaches alike during crunch time.

That is exactly what happened. From curious coaching decisions to bad plays that will haunt certain players for a long time to come, the weekend really had everything.

Here are the 10 biggest disappointments from the divisional round.

1) Marcus Williams, safety, Saints

Williams will probably have nightmares about the final play of this game for the rest of his life. He had the opportunity to wrap up Stefon Diggs — or, at the bare minimum, shove him out of bounds and force a field goal attempt. Instead, he completely whiffed on his tackle attempt. Had Williams been able to wrap up Diggs in bounds, the Vikings wouldn’t have had a chance to set and spike the ball, which would have ended the game and won it for New Orleans. For whatever reason, he ducked the tackle, and there was no one behind him to stop Diggs in what instantly became one of the greatest plays in NFL history. Perhaps he was scared of committing a penalty, but at least that wouldn’t have been an instant loss. For every hero, there’s a goat — and on Sunday, that goat was Williams.

2) Pittsburgh Steelers’ mentality

Some would argue that the Steelers were overlooking the Jaguars. That may not be true, but based on the pregame comments of several of their players, they definitely had an AFC Championship tilt against the New England Patriots in the back of their minds even before kickoff on Sunday. Mike Mitchell was a particular target, and players definitely saw Le’Veon Bell’s tweet as well. Were the Steelers as focused as they needed to be? Did they take the Jaguars as seriously as they should have? The fact that these questions must be asked is an indictment of the team in itself.

3) Sean Payton’s challenges

In the span of roughly a minute in the fourth quarter, Saints coach Sean Payton made a pair of inexplicable decisions. The first came on a 27-yard reception by Minnesota’s Jarius Wright, who bobbled the ball but gained control before hitting the ground. Payton seemed pressured by some players on his sideline and the Vikings rushing to try to get a play off and threw the red flag, costing him a timeout. Three plays later, he made an even worse decision, challenging a Case Keenum incompletion and arguing that the quarterback’s knee was down, forcing them to take a loss. It wasn’t particularly close, and the Saints were left with just one timeout on a do-or-die drive because of Payton’s overzealous challenges.

4) Pittsburgh’s playcalling in key moments

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley will be answering questions about some of their decisions on Sunday for quite a while. Two calls on 4th-and-1 were particularly strange. Just outside of field goal range on both, the Steelers tried an outside run on the first which was blown up, then went to the air unsuccessfully on the second. Ben Roethlisberger could have probably done the job on a sneak either time. Then there was the decision to go for an onside kick down a touchdown with 2:18 left and a pair of timeouts plus the two-minute warning. Tomlin offered these defenses for his calls after the game, but that won’t quiet criticism after a game his team lost by three.

5) Atlanta’s goal-line playcalling

Things certainly looked good for the Falcons, who had first and goal at the Philadelphia nine with a chance to score a go-ahead touchdown and plenty of time to do it. Then they got too cute. A second down shovel pass was ill-advised, but even the Eagles defenders were stunned at the team’s easily identifiable fourth down call. When the opposing defense is on you before the snap — and thinks your playcall is bad — something has gone horribly wrong. Even worse, it happened on the most pivotal play of the team’s entire season.

6) New Orleans Saints’ defense

Though they picked up their play in the second half, New Orleans’ defense was comprehensively outplayed by Case Keenum and the Vikings in the first half of action. In total, the Vikings racked up 403 yards of offense, going 10-for-17 on third downs. That will be a particular sore spot for New Orleans, who missed numerous chances to get their unit off the field. One of the big talking points of the Saints’ season was how much their defense improved in 2018. On Sunday, it had not improved enough.

7) Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense

The Steelers would probably tell you that if you told them their offense was going to score 42 points on the vaunted Jacksonville defense, they’d be able to do the rest. That did not happen. The much-maligned Blake Bortles more than held his own, and Leonard Fournette repeatedly gashed the Steeler defense to the tune of 109 yards and three touchdowns. More importantly, though, was the fact that the Steeler defense simply did not force mistakes. The Jaguars barely had any negative plays, and they played a mistake-free contest that didn’t see them turn the ball over once. That was the difference, and it shows that the Pittsburgh defense simply didn’t do a good enough job.

8) Tennessee Titans’ offensive line

The New England Patriots pretty comprehensively smothered the Tennessee Titans in every facet of the game on Saturday, but the offensive line was a particularly huge problem for the losing team. Marcus Mariota suffered a strained quad, and then Jack Conklin got hurt. After that, it was a free-for-all on Mariota. The Titans quarterback was sacked eight times as the Tennessee protection collapsed repeatedly. He just had no help whatsoever.

9) Philadelphia’s ball control

Particularly in the first half of their game against the Atlanta Falcons, the Eagles were having serious trouble hanging on to the football. Philadelphia fumbled the ball four times on Saturday. Both of Nick Foles’ were recovered by the Eagles, but running back Jay Ajayi lost one and they turned it over a second time on a muffed punt. The Eagles mostly overcame their early jitters, but had Atlanta been sharper, they could have paid dearly for their first half miscues.

10) Devonta Freeman, RB, Falcons

Freeman has an excuse. By his own admission, he was playing extremely hurt down the stretch. Still, the two-headed monster of the Atlanta running game was missing a head against the Philadelphia Eagles. While Tevin Coleman held his own, Freeman offered virtually nothing. He and Coleman each got ten carries. Coleman went for 79 yards on his attempts. Freeman got just seven. That was certainly not part of the Atlanta gameplan.

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