What a weekend of Wild Card action that turned out to be. Arguably the greatest ever. Certainly the best I can remember. If the rest of the playoffs are anywhere near as good, we are in for a real treat.
All four games were close, exciting and packed with twists, turns, drama and plenty of storylines.
No story comes bigger than that which focuses on the future of New England Patriots legendary quarterback Tom Brady. New England went down at home to the Tennessee Titans and what could very well turn out to be Brady's final pass as a Patriot was intercepted by Logan Ryan and returned for a touchdown to cap a 20-13 win for Mike Vrabel's men.
It was a painful end to what has been a frustrating second half of the 2019 season for Brady, who threw just 11 touchdown passes in his last nine games of the year.
I'm more convinced than ever that he should retire. Brady has regressed, needs a lot of help around him and will turn 43 on the eve of the 2020 season. His physical skills are certainly not going to improve as he moves forward. But all the smoke signals coming out of New England suggest that Brady will play on in 2020 and beyond, as he has indicated for some time now.
I've long stated that one of the greatest assets on our Sky Sports NFL show is Peter King, of NBC Sports. Peter is widely regarded as the number one NFL journalist on this planet and he joins us via Skype at halftime of our second game every Sunday evening.
And Peter told me on Sunday that Brady was not all that shocked about Saturday night's loss. The pair spent 10 minutes together once the dust had settled on New England's defeat to Tennessee. But, interestingly, Peter also strongly indicated that he thinks Brady will return and play next year. In his view, it is not a 50-50 proposition between Brady playing or retiring. Peter thinks it is more of a case of whether Brady plays as a Patriot or finishes out his career with another team.
Listening to Brady's post-match press conference, he was hedging his bets when it came to his future with the Patriots. For the first time in his career, Brady is a complete free agent and cannot be franchise tagged. He can walk at any time and play for another team from next season. And reports suggest he is no longer willing to give the Patriots a hometown discount when it comes to his next contract.
And while that is becoming a very real possibility, I have some concern on that front. Given the proliferation of athletic, young quarterbacks coming into the league (Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen to name four in the AFC alone; who is going to want Brady at age 43 given that he needs to have a lot of talent placed around him and is only going to keep declining on the physical front?
Sure, Brady's receivers let him down at times this year and it was clear there were occasions when they were not on the same page as the Hall of Fame quarterback. But let's not sugar-coat over the fact that Brady was the NFL's lowest-rated passer in the second half of the season and he missed a whole collection of throws along the way.
When it comes to the Patriots, will they even want him back in 2020? There is no doubt in my mind that team owner Robert Kraft wants number 12 to retire as a Patriot and to never pull on another team's jersey. He told Peter King exactly that over the weekend. But what about the cold, calculating and historically-ruthless Bill Belichick?
Only time will tell. This much we know. Brady sounds like he is going to carry on playing. I wish he would walk away into the sunset but I also respect his competitive desire to keep on keeping on. With that in mind, I hope he does it in New England and we don't have one of those weird end-of-career switches that saw Emmitt Smith, long-time star running back of the Dallas Cowboys, in an Arizona Cardinals uniform for his final NFL action.
Brady has been the greatest Patriot. Shoot, he has been the greatest player this game has ever seen. And I hope he goes out as a Patriot, whenever he feels that time has come.
It just doesn't look like that time is now.
Derrick Henry...Defensive end-sized running back Derrick Henry looks like some kind of Marvel superhero when he runs the football and the NFL's rushing champ for 2019 was at full strength in Foxboro on Saturday. The power back rushed for 182 yards on 34 bone-crushing carries that sucked the energy and life out of the Patriots. And how about a nod to his offensive line? Henry can run over defenders on his own, for sure, but there were many occasions on Saturday where he was not even touched until he was five or six yards downfield. Henry was an absolute stud against the Patriots and the major reason the Titans were able to win with Ryan Tannehill throwing for just 72 yards.
Minnesota's pass rush...It's not like the Vikings' defensive front dominated the New Orleans Saints from start to finish en route to a 10-sack display. But there were some big moments that proved key in Minnesota's 26-20 overtime win in New Orleans. Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen raced each other to Drew Brees on several occasions and each ended up with one and a half sacks on the day. Numbers-wise, this Minnesota defense has slipped in 2019. But the numbers looked deceiving on Sunday because this unit is packed with talent and playmakers who can take over games in big spots. Hunter and Griffen can make playoff-altering plays the rest of the way.
Deshaun Watson...Down by 16 points in the third quarter in front of his own fans in Houston, Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson could have been forgiven for wanting the ground to open up and swallow him into blissful obscurity. Instead, he did what all the true champions do. He dug deep and led from the front as he inspired the Texans to a 22-19 overtime win over the Buffalo Bills. And Watson delivered arguably THE play of the NFL's 100th season as he spun away from two would-be tacklers to fire a strike to Taiwan Jones, who carried the ball deep into Buffalo territory to set up the winning kick in the extra period. Watson is a rare physical talent, but he also has a great understanding of the game and something pretty uncoachable and that is the ability to look as if he is enjoying himself in pressure moments. Watson has a championship mentality and he truly shines when the lights are bright. It may not happen this year, but if Houston put the right pieces around this kid, they will win Super Bowls with him at the helm.
Tom Brady's supporting cast...New England's receivers have struggled for much of this season and there has not been much for Tom Brady outside of Julian Edelman. And even he let Brady down in a big moment on Sunday, dropping an easy pass in the left flat late in that disappointing loss to Tennessee. N'Keal Harry also dropped an easy one on a wide receiver screen and his inability to get on the same page as Brady has been glaring. There has not been enough separation from defensive backs this year, nor any form of consistency and the gaping hole left by the retirement of tight end Rob Gronkowski has never come close to being filled in New England's passing attack.
New Orleans Saints' secondary...The Saints welcomed back safeties Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams for their game against Minnesota and Kirk Cousins rarely damaged them during regulation. But boy did Cousins deliver the dagger in overtime (more on that below). With their season on the line, the Saints were found wanting in their secondary. Patrick Robinson could not keep pace with Adam Thielen on Cousins' big overtime throw down to the two-yard line. And on the game-winning touchdown, P.J. Williams was no match for the bigger and stronger Kyle Rudolph, who resorted to his high school basketball background to secure the 'rebound'for the score that silenced the Superdome. It was only a couple of let-downs, but they were enough to end the Saints' season.
Dallas Cowboys...The Cowboys finally put Jason Garrett out of his misery on Sunday night, telling the out-of-contract head coach that he would not be brought back in 2020. It was about time! And I don't mean in terms of Garrett deserving to be fired. 'm talking about the fact that the Cowboys left him dangling, all the while openly courting the likes of Marvin Lewis and Mike McCarthy, who were flown in for interviews while Garrett was reportedly still in the building. That's not a very classy way to run an operation, nor the right way to treat a guy who played for and coached your team for a long time. Jason Garrett and the Garrett family have long been associated with the Cowboys and, frankly, they deserved better.
The Fast Five...
What a weird and wonderful opening round of the playoffs. Think about it for a second. Let's go back to the midseason and imagine I had told you the following would happen. New England will lose at home to a team whose quarterback throws for 72 yards, 40-year-old Josh McCown will lead the Philadelphia Eagles, Kirk Cousins will throw the Vikings to victory in the Superdome and Marshawn Lynch will score on a tackle-breaking run for the Seahawks. You would have thought I was crazy. Always expect the unexpected in the NFL.
Kirk Cousins gets far too much stick when the Vikings lose big games. You would think it was all on him given the numbers attached to his name and the criticism that comes his way when they come up short. So it's only fair now that we give him too much of the credit after Sunday's win in New Orleans. Kirk is one of the NFL's good guys and I'm happy for him. Oh and that throw to Thielen in overtime? One of the best you will see in this 100th season and the greatest of Kirk's career.
It was a shame - but also in keeping with the rest of their season - that the Eagles bowed out of the playoffs in another injury-hit game in which they showed tremendous fight and spirit. Carson Wentz was knocked out of his first playoff start after throwing just four passes and Josh McCown made his postseason debut while playing for his 11th team at the age of 40. And the man who threw for the first touchdown of Larry Fitzgerald's career and handed off for the final score of Emmitt Smith's career kept the Eagles competitive. McCown came up short in the end and now heads back into retirement. But I'm glad he got at least one moment in the playoff sun.
Dalvin Cook missed the final two weeks of the regular season with a shoulder injury but insisted he felt fresh heading into the Superdome on Sunday. The explosive runner certainly looked back to his best against a fierce New Orleans front that has still not given up a 100-yard rusher since Week 11 of 2017. Cook came close with 94 yards and two touchdowns and his success on outside runs will give the San Francisco 49ers plenty of food for thought heading into the weekend. Cousins delivered the final blow but Cook is the engine that runs the Minnesota attack.
JJ Watt was seemingly done for the season when he suffered a torn pectoral muscle in Week 8. And when he defied logic and returned to Houston's starting lineup after just 69 days, he was supposed to be a bit-part situational pass rusher in the Texans' wild card game with Buffalo. Watt was so much more than that - he, along with the aforementioned Watson, was the driving force behind Houston's comeback. Watt only shows up on the stats sheet with one tackle but that is so misleading. He was buzzing around in the Buffalo backfield the entire second half when most mere mortals would not even have contemplated playing so soon after what is normally a three to four-month injury. Watt has the heart of a lion and I love to see players like that succeed.
Finish That Sentence
Finish That Sentence returns for the home stretch and you have responded with plenty of talking-point starters following a sensational wild card weekend.
From Graeme Smith (@spiffcricket)... The Buffalo Bills touchdown at the start of the second half against Houston was reversed because...common sense prevailed. The letter of the law suggests it should have been a Buffalo touchdown because Houston's DeAndre Carter did not take a knee in the end zone for a touchback to start the second half. But it was so obvious that Carter had given himself up. He signalled to his teammates that he was not coming out and tossed the ball to referee Tony Corrente. It was treated as a live ball and Jaquan Johnson recovered for a Buffalo TD. But the extra officials in black jackets were quickly on the field and you can bet your bottom dollar New York was on the radio not wanting any part of such a controversy. I can see why Buffalo fans would be upset because rules are rules, but I'm glad common sense prevailed and there has been little outrage following the game, so it looks like the NFL made the right decision.
From Mark Fawcett (@mjfawcett)... In the playoffs, the New Orleans Saints are...hugely entertaining with all their close games, flawed and a little bit unlucky. We know all about the Minneapolis Miracle of 2017 and the pass interference debacle of 2018 and there was nothing like that in 2019. But the Saints might feel a little aggrieved that offensive pass interference was not called on the winning touchdown. Personally, I don't think a flag should have been thrown but I know my studio colleague Jeff Reinebold was adamant it was a foul. I'm glad they let the players sort things out but the Saints now have to think about another lost season with Brees running out of time at the age of 40.
From Lewis Wiltshire (@LewisWiltshire)... People think we've reached the end of a quarterback era as the dominance of Brady, Roethlisberger, Rivers, Brees and maybe Rodgers wanes. The truth is...that could very well be the case! And it's not just down to Father Time catching up to those ageing greats. It is more about the fact that those first four you mentioned are a dying breed and quarterbacks from what could soon prove to be a bygone era. Immobile dinosaurs, if you will. I still think Rodgers can move about a little bit but the others are pure pocket passers with little chance to escape from athletic defenders the way Watson did on Saturday night. At the moment, it looks like younger and more athletic quarterbacks such as Lamar, Mahomes, Watson and Josh Allen are the way forward, especially given the proliferation of such players at the college level and when you consider some of the athletic freaks playing defense nowadays. Quarterbacks have to be able to move and that is not something those guys you mentioned can do.
From Kenobi wan obi (@LFCObiwan)... The Super Bowl will be between...a champion of the AFC and one from the NFC! That's about as good as you're going to get from me. My Super Bowl Challenge bracket got broken early in the wild card round. I backed New England to beat Tennessee (after much flip-flopping) and I picked the Saints to go all the way to the Super Bowl. It is wide open now, especially in the NFC where Seattle and Minnesota have legitimate chances to win this weekend. But I have been on the Ravens' bandwagon for quite a while now and have tipped them to win it all. I think they will play and beat the 49ers in Miami, but who really knows in this unpredictable and crazy NFL? Here is a tip... whatever team I get behind, look for their opponent to fare very well indeed!
Fact of the Week
Parity rules in the NFL. When the Divisional Round of the playoffs begin this coming weekend, only one team -the Kansas City Chiefs - will have featured in successive final eights. The other seven teams remaining in this year's playoffs did not reach the Divisional Round a year ago. That is music to the NFL's ears.
I'm interested to see how well those teams coming off the first-round bye fare this coming weekend. It has to be a huge advantage. Think about it for a second. Every one of the winning teams this past weekend had to put their bodies on the line, with two of the games going to overtime and the others not being settled until the very end. Meanwhile, the top two seeds in each conference were at home with their feet up, enjoying a well-deserved and much-needed break after a long and grueling regular season. That is why most home teams in the divisional rounds start as strong favourites, even with those annual worries about shaking off the rust. But after a weekend in which three road teams won, we should not simply assume these games are going to play out according to the form book. That is not the NFL way at all, these days!