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Sunday, May 31, 2020

12 biggest standouts and disappointments of the NFL playoffs

Blake Bortles

The conference championships are set, with four worthy teams set to battle it out for a chance to compete in the Super Bowl in Minneapolis. The first eight games of the postseason have been a wild ride filled with upsets and surprises, as well as some great plays and controversies.

Here are 12 standouts and disappointments from the first eight playoff games.

1) Standout: Blake Bortles, QB, Jaguars

Admit it: You also thought Bortles was ultimately going to end up being the weak link that cost the Jacksonville Jaguars a chance to win in the playoffs. You thought it, I thought it, other teams thought it — pretty much everyone thought it. And yes, Bortles was ineffective against the Buffalo Bills, and the Jaguars had to lean on their defense to advance in that game. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers, though, Bortles played his part and then some. He threw for 214 yards, rushed for 35, and did not turn the ball over. not turning the ball over once. Is Bortles ever going to be an elite quarterback? No. But if he can make smart decisions and limit the mistakes, he can win, as he proved in Pittsburgh.

2) Disappointment: Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense

Pittsburgh has a reputation as a sturdy defensive team, so for them to give up 45 points to a Jaguars side not really known as an elite offensive team is a real shock. Two key turnovers did contribute to that point total, and the defense couldn’t do a ton about either of those, but they still gave up 378 yards and 22 first downs against a team that struggled mightily to move the ball the week before against the Buffalo Bills. That effort was not one for the highlight reel.

3) Standout: Jacksonville Jaguars’ defense

Is it silly to put a unit that just gave up over 500 yards on a list like this as a standout? Well, perhaps, but the Jaguar defense has a proven pedigree. First, they smothered the Buffalo Bills, limiting them to three points and 263 total yards in a 10-3 victory. And yes, while they did have their issues against the Pittsburgh Steelers, they stood strong on two key 4th and 1 plays, scored a defensive touchdown, and forced a second turnover to set up another score. That’s 14 points set up by forced turnovers in a game the Jags won by three. They were a huge factor despite the big numbers put up against them.

4) Disappointment: Kansas City Chiefs

At some point, the Chiefs really need to find a way to rise up and win a playoff game. As it stands, it’s another year of disappointment. This year’s disaster was made much worse by the fact that they were up 21-3 at home at halftime and promptly gave up 19 unanswered second half points to suffer a shocking loss. The Chiefs are quickly gaining a reputation as the team that can do well in the regular season and get to the playoffs, but flops once they get there. Only a good playoff run can change that narrative. They’ll have to wait until next season to get it.

5) Standout: Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, WR, Vikings

Despite their 13-3 record, the Vikings have flown somewhat under the radar in 2017. A big part of that is due to their lack of marquee stars. Their quarterback, after all, is veteran journeyman Case Keenum. Their top two wide receivers were a fifth-round pick and undrafted free agent. Stefon Diggs will live long in NFL lore with his 61-yard game-winning touchdown, capping off a six catch, 137-yard day. Adam Thielen was no joke either, racking up 74 yards on six grabs. These two are both stars, and if the Vikings keep winning, they’ll be right in the middle of it.

6) Disappointment: The coaching

It’s true that every big decision is magnified in the playoffs, when even the most innocuous calls can have massive repercussions on a team’s season. Still, even taking into account that coaches will be judged more harshly at this time of year, some of the decisions made in the first two rounds of the playoffs were confusing to say the least. Buffalo’s decision to try to pass instead of handing the ball to LeSean McCoy on the goal line was the standout of the first set of games. The divisional round was particularly rough for coaches — there was Atlanta’s doomed goal-line effort against the Eagles; there were Sean Payton’s ill-advised challenges in Minnesota; and there was a series of decisions that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was hotly criticized for. It’s no coincidence that all those coaches lost those games.

7) Standout: Philadelphia Eagles’ defense

Many wrote the Philadelphia Eagles off as Super Bowl contenders when Carson Wentz went down for the season, but it seems that a few people forgot that they still had one of the NFL’s best defenses. That was on show when the powerful Atlanta Falcons were held to ten points during the divisional round. One of the NFL’s better offensive units was limited to 281 yards and 19 first downs, putting together just nine drives. The Minnesota Vikings will be another tough test, but so far, the Philadelphia defense has looked up to the challenge.

8) Disappointment: The officiating

The first weekend of action was particularly bad for referees, from bad spots to confusion on controversial calls. That doesn’t even include the absolutely horrendous performance Jeff Triplette and his crew put in officiating the Titans-Chiefs contest. It’s a simple fact that the spotlight is going to shine brighter on the officiating in the postseason, so they need to be at the top of their game. At least for the first weekend of action, they really weren’t. And while it wouldn’t have changed the outcome, they weren’t exactly at their best during the Titans-Patriots game, either.

9) Standout: Jaguars in the trenches

How good have Jacksonville’s offensive and defensive lines been? They harried Tyrod Taylor in the wild-card round, but they were even better in the divisional round against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Blake Bortles wasn’t sacked once, and the Steelers didn’t have a single tackle for a loss in the game. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked twice. Le’Veon Bell managed to find some space, but with 67 yards on 16 carries, he didn’t find the success he normally might. That’s a testament to how good the Jacksonville lines were.

10) Disappointment: Home-field advantage

Home teams still won a majority of their games during the first eight NFL playoff tilts, but only barely. Teams playing at home are a modest 5-3 so far, with the Rams, Steelers, and Chiefs all crashing out of the postseason in front of their own fans. It’s less of a surprise for the Rams, who were a modest 4-4 at home, but the Steelers and Chiefs each won at home at a .750 clip this season. If not for the miraculous ending in Minnesota, the Vikings would have made it 4-4 overall. It’s not quite the sort of dominance one might’ve expected or home teams would have wanted.

11) Standout: The league’s younger, less experienced talent

There were a lot of questions regarding how some of the players in the playoffs for the first time — or facing unexpectedly high expectations — would fare. The answer so far is pretty well. The Jaguars have marched to the AFC Championship despite a young core featuring Bortles, Leonard Fournette, and Jalen Ramsey, all of whom have made big plays. They even beat the more experienced Steelers to get there. The Titans were far from overawed by the Kansas City Chiefs, while journeyman quarterbacks Nick Foles in Philadelphia and Case Keenum in Minnesota handled the spotlight admirably. For most teams, the pressure of the playoffs hasn’t had a negative impact.

12) Disappointment: The injuries

LeSean McCoy and Antonio Brown ended up playing through injuries, but it wasn’t fun watching some of the events on the field in the playoffs. Marcus Mariota really suffered against the New England Patriots, while Tyrod Taylor suffered a scary injury late in Buffalo’s loss to Jacksonville. Then, there was the outcry following the controversial handling of Cam Newton’s injury late on against the New Orleans Saints. That’s to say nothing of other serious injuries that hit players hard. It’s not fun to see such talented and important players go down in playoff games.

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