NFL Playoff Diary: More Does Not Always Mean Better
As promised—and with the Cleveland Browns’ season having come to an unsatisfying but merciful end—today marks the debut of our weekly NFL Playoff Diary. For the next few weeks we’ll check in on the playoffs every Monday and continue with the Football 101 countdown on Wednesdays. Plus lots of Baseball Hall of Fame stuff, PosCasts, maybe some more tennis and movies and who-knows-what other surprises. So it’s going to be a fun month. If you’re not a subscriber, I hope you’ll consider coming along for the ride. And thanks, as always, for your readership and support.
OK, so as you probably know, when baseball returns — whenever that happens to be — there will be more teams making the playoffs. The specifics are still up in the air, nobody has agreed on anything, but it looks like 14 MLB teams will start making the playoffs beginning in 2022. That’s 14 out of 30. That’s almost 50%.
Here’s a quick timeline of how many baseball teams make the playoffs:
1884 (or so)-1968: 2 teams
1969-1980: 4 teams
1981 (strike year): 8 teams
1982-1993: 4 teams
1994 (strike year): 0 teams
1995-2011: 8 teams
2012-2019: 10 teams
2020 (COVID year): 16 teams
2021: 10 teams
2022: 14 teams?
I long ago stopped fighting the baseball playoff fight because it’s clear that I’m just not in the same place as most baseball fans. American sports fans, in general, love playoffs. And I get that. Hey, I love October baseball as much as anybody.
It’s just that, I love regular-season baseball even more, and the more teams that make the playoffs, the less that baseball from April through September means. I can’t for the life of me make sense of playing 162 games basically to eliminate the Pirates, Orioles, Diamondbacks and Marlins. I’ve always believed that so much of baseball’s joy is wrapped in a regular season that truly matters and pennant races with everything at stake.
But, like I say, I’m out of step with most people on that, and the baseball playoffs, like the universe, will keep expanding — I sincerely doubt it will stop at 14 teams for very long, especially because the only way to have a 14-team playoff is to mess around with byes and homefield advantage, and it won’t hold. I predict there will be a 16-team playoff, four series in each league, sooner rather than later.
It comes down to what my friend Bill Hancock — executive director of the College Football Playoff — calls “bracket creep.” His theory is that once you start adding teams to the playoffs, there will always be immense pressure to add more. It’s a never-ending cycle.
All of which brings us to the wild, ridiculous, fun, boring, mismanaged, silly, intense, poorly officiated and often illogical first weekend of the new 14-team NFL playoff winter blowout. It’s a 14-team playoff, but only 12 teams are actually playing this weekend — the last two, the Rams and Cardinals, are playing tonight — because two teams, the Packers and Titans, got byes.
Now you ask: Why did THOSE two teams get byes when two other teams with the exact same records did not?
Ah, welcome to the homeandautobundlextravafestasaveathon.
It’s funny because the NFL probably had the closest thing to the perfect playoff system. Football is such a violent game that the season needs to be much shorter than all other sports. So, the season was 16 games — a nice round number, divisible by two and four — and 12 teams made the playoffs. Each of those 12 playoff slots got something different from the rest.
No. 1 seed: A bye and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.
No. 2 seed: A bye and homefield advantage the first game.
No. 3 seed: Homefield advantage against the worst team to make the playoffs.
No. 4 seed: Homefield advantage against the second-worst team to make the playoffs.
No. 5 seed: At least they didn’t have to play the better team in the first round.
No. 6 seed: Come on, just lucky to even make the playoffs.
That system really worked. Sure, there are always quirks with a short 16-game season, and the NFL had to invent all sorts of progressively less cogent tiebreakers to seed the teams, but all in all the best two teams got a bye, the next two teams got a home game, the last two teams got a chance to pull off the upset, and you can’t really do much better than that.
But, yes, bracket creep — and the NFL as a multi-multi-multi-billion-dollar business run by greed is particularly susceptible to it. The owners wrecked the whole thing just to cash in a few billion more. They added a 17th game to the regular season for no reason at all except that they could. And they added a seventh playoff team in each conference and took away one of the byes.
And now the system makes very little sense, but the owners know this: Who is going to complain about more football?
You can mark it down right now: There will be 16 playoff teams in the NFL in the next five years. And there will probably be 18 NFL games in the regular season to go with it. Everything about this current system feels like nothing more than a weigh station. You can get ready now for an early-March Super Bowl. It’s coming.
And in many ways, I almost admire the NFL for the ruthless way they go about expanding the shield — they don’t hem and haw and hesitate the way baseball people do. They will throw out any and all traditions in order to draw more fans and cash larger checks. Baseball will spend years arguing about whether the pitcher should have to throw the four pitches for an intentional walk, while football will change any rule, try any new technology, cater to any audience and follow any path to make the next dollar.
I am not saying that NFL owners are greedier than baseball owners — they’re not. I’m saying they’re so much better at chasing that greed.
Anyway, all this gave us a playoff weekend that was, well, muddled. The two extra teams that made the playoffs — Philadelphia and Pittsburgh — proved decisively that they didn’t belong. The Bengals finally won a playoff game and it seemed like all anyone could talk about afterward was a blown call. The Bill Belichick era ended, maybe. And the Cowboys and 49ers played one of those rare games that both teams deserved to lose.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
Tampa Bay 31, Philadelphia 15
Kansas City 42, Pittsburgh 21
As mentioned, the Bucs and Chiefs actually had the same records as the Packers and Titans, respectively, but because of absurd tiebreakers they had to play this week while Green Bay and Tennessee players got to watch Progressive commercials.
I’m not sure that, other than the risk of injury, playing Philadelphia and Pittsburgh is much different from getting a bye. Clearly, neither of those teams is anything close to playoff worthy. The Eagles fell behind 31-0 and made the 44-year-old Tom Brady look like a 40-year-old Tom Brady. And the Chiefs, despite goofing around for a quarter, took a 35-7 lead in the third and coasted to victory.
One really good thing about this game is that maybe the over-the-top Ben Roethlisberger celebrations can finally end. Yikes. I mean, look, I’m a Browns fan so I’m well aware that Roethlisberger has been a fine quarterback, and he’s been a part of two Super Bowl championship teams, but from the parade of plaudits this guy has been getting the last few weeks you would think he also brokered peace in the Middle East and convinced Bill Watterson to bring back Calvin and Hobbes.
I mean, let’s get real here. Was he Tom Brady? No. Was he Peyton Manning? No. Was he Aaron Rodgers? No. Was he Drew Brees? No. He was like the fifth-best quarterback of his time, maybe; I’d have him above Russell Wilson, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, but your mileage may vary. I totally get wanting to give him a nice sendoff in Pittsburgh — he became a Steelers icon, no doubt. But let’s not get carried away here.
Cincinnati 26, Las Vegas 19
Sure, we’ll talk about the whistle in a minute, but first can we talk about the miracle that is Joe Burrow? Funny thing, I’ve been hearing about Joe Burrow for a very long time. He grew up in Athens, Ohio — his father, Jim, was defensive coordinator at Ohio University. And my best friend Chardon Jimmy went to Ohio University; his brother still lives in Athens and used to go to high school games and watch Joe play.
So I was hearing about this phenom going back a decade. Joe was ridiculously great at Athens High, and I would get giddy weekly reports about some impossible throw he made or some ridiculous run he made; it really is very exciting to watch a high school player you know will be an NFL star one day. I can remember some years ago watching Darren Sproles play high school football at Olathe North, and he was so ridiculously good; it felt like watching an amazing band before they hit it big.
That’s how it was with Joe Burrow. The reports I was getting were so over-the-top, I considered at one point flying to Athens and catching a game before he left. I didn’t do that. I still regret it.
Anyway, then he went to Ohio State and, as you probably know, he couldn’t get into games. He redshirted, and then he couldn’t beat out J.T. Barrett for the starting job. When the Buckeyes recruited mega-prospect Dwayne Haskins, Burrow realized he had to go somewhere else. Fortunately, he had already graduated from Ohio State — seriously, this kid is like the dream — so the transfer to LSU was pretty easy.
His first year at LSU was mixed — he had not played starting quarterback for three years and he was clearly rusty and even though there were some moments of glory against Auburn and Ole Miss, you had to wonder just how good he could be.
And then in 2019, he had maybe the greatest season a college quarterback has ever had.
And now, he’s just — well, I have this idea that there are certain athletes who just exude overpowering joy, not only with the way they play but with the way they ARE. Like Steph Curry is one of those athletes. Mookie Betts. Simone Biles. Patrick Mahomes. You don’t just want to watch them play, you want to be their friend. I’m sure you can come up with plenty of them. Anyway, Burrow has entered that rarified air, I think.
Anyway, Burrow was typically awesome in this game — going 24-34 for 244 yards and two touchdowns. His 110.4 passer rating marks the fifth straight game he’s had a plus-100 rating. Over that five-game stretch he’s completing 75% of his passes, he’s thrown 13 touchdown passes and zero interceptions. And he’s looked so calm and composed doing all of it.
We like to have fun here at Joe Blogs. Baseball. Football. Tennis. Chess. Family. Basketball. Music. Infomercials. Movies. Olympics. Hockey. Nonsense. Magic. In short, it’s an adventure. I hope you’ll come along.
Of course, one of those touchdowns he threw against the Raiders was particularly controversial. It happened late in the first half with the Bengals up 13-6. It was pure Burrow genius; he dropped back, saw nobody was open, stepped up, rolled to his right, and just before going out of bounds, off one leg, he threw a touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd in the back of the end zone. It was a marvelous play.
And you can very clearly hear the referee’s whistle while the ball was in the air.
Something interesting happened on the NBC broadcast. Mike Tirico clearly heard the whistle, because as soon as the play happened he said, “Burrow. Tries to keep it alive. Scrambles. Throws it in the back of the end zone [ball caught for touchdown] … was he out of bounds first or is it a touchdown? I think he was out of bounds. They’re discussing it …”
The reason Tirico though he was out of bounds, I feel sure, is because he heard the whistle. As an announcer (or a fan), you hear the whistle and you react. But what makes it interesting is that he did not MENTION hearing the whistle. Instead, NBC showed the replay, and Burrow was clearly in bounds, and Tirico said, “Yep, that’s fine,” and he either forgot hearing the whistle or had not yet put together that the whistle, even if inadvertent, automatically blows the play dead. People on social media went nuts, and eventually NBC came back to the play to talk about the officials blowing the call.
Anyway, I found that interesting. I found it decidedly less interesting that the officials blew the call — TWICE. First they blew the call by blowing the whistle. I don’t buy for one minute that it was an erroneous whistle; an official thought Burrow was out of bounds and rather than letting replay deal with it, he blew the play dead.
And THEN they blew the call again by letting the play stand and saying that the whistle didn’t sound until after Boyd caught the ball, which was so clearly not true. I do have some sympathy for the officials who made the mistake; I’m sure they felt terrible about blowing the whistle and interfering with Burrow’s genius, and so they willed themselves into believing the whistle came after the ball was caught. We often believe the most convenient truths, don’t we?
Anyway, it was hardly the only officiating blunder in the game — ESPN reports that referee Jerome Borger won’t be working any more postseason games after this fiasco.
Did the whistle cost the Raiders the game? Who knows, right? The Bengals should have put the game away a couple of times but they just kind of kept letting the Raiders hang around; there’s absolutely no telling how the game would have played out if the officials had taken that touchdown away because of their own incompetence. I could see a scenario where a screw-up like that would have supercharged the Bengals and they would have won by 40. There’s no way to know. I’m just excited we get another week of Joe Burrow.
Buffalo 47, New England 17
Wow, the Bills are crazy fun to watch when all things are clicking, right? Josh Allen is an absurdity. I suppose I was one of those people who wondered if he would ever really put things together. On paper, he’s like some sort of science experiment — he’s a 6-foot-5 behemoth who runs like a freight train and could, I think, throw a football a million yards in the air if he felt like it. But, you know, there were all those questions about his accuracy, about his decision-making, about his background (he literally did not get a single Division-I scholarship offer out of high school).
And, man, give it up because that guy on the field Sunday was just about as close to quarterback perfection as a player can be. That’s not a joke — his passer rating was 157.6, which was the second-highest for any playoff quarterback who threw at least 20 passes. The highest ever was Peyton Manning in 2004 against Denver, when he scored a perfect 158.3 rating by going 22 for 26 for 377 yards and five touchdowns.
But you could argue — and I would argue — that Allen’s game was much more impressive than Manning’s. OK, maybe the passing numbers (21-for-25, 308 yards, 5 touchdowns) might be a decimal point shy of Manning’s, but Manning had that game indoors in Indianapolis in ideal conditions. Allen’s game was not only outdoors, it was outdoors in Buffalo, with a sub-zero wind-chill.
PLUS Allen also ran for 66 yards on six carries.
PLUS, Allen did this against a Bill Belichick-coached defense.
Like I say, it was as close to quarterbacking perfection as anyone has ever achieved in the NFL playoffs.
It was also a moment to wonder just what the heck Bill Belichick has left. He turns 70 this April, and while he has earned the right to coach forever if he wants, I can’t help but wonder if at some point he will ask himself: “OK, what’s the point?” He did a nice enough job this year with a rookie quarterback and a limited roster, but so what? They lost four of their last five, took a “this is for all the pain you’ve caused” beating from the Bills, and from the looks of things, this team isn’t going back to the Super Bowl anytime soon.
The guy could take a cushy multi-million dollar TV analyst job and spend his time out on his boat and travel and relax and watch film for fun and watch his grandkids grow up. Doesn’t that sound like a pretty good life?
Eh, OK, being real, it probably doesn’t sound like much of a life to Bill Belichick. Coaches like Belichick are a different breed. I remember some years ago when Kansas State coach Bill Snyder decided after engineering the greatest turnaround in college football history, he would finally retire. We had a long and pleasant conversation about how he would go to his grandkids’ Little League games and maybe play some golf and really enjoy his winter years. “It’s time,” he told me.
I’d say it took him all of two days to regret his decision and he came back to coach Kansas State absolutely as soon as he could. I imagine Belichick will not walk away. I was actually talking about this with a friend of Bill’s, who said that Belichick will undoubtedly keep going.
“I’m sure you’re right,” I said. “But he looks kind of miserable.”
“Eh,” the guy said. “He always looks like that.”
San Francisco 23, Dallas 17
What a clown show. I like the way my friend Pat Forde summed things up:
There’s too much mayhem and destruction to cover here in an already too-long diary, but I want to mention three things.
(1) The monstrosity that is Dallas’ AT&T Stadium — or Jerry World as it is usually called — played a spectacular role in the game. The stupid window that they put in because, you know, they just did, created massive glare and blinded Cowboys receivers on Dallas’ drive before the end of the half. And the stupid scoreboard which is roughly the size of Bolivia is so low that Dallas’ Bryan Anger punted a ball off of it.
(2) Dallas’ Randy Gregory committed one of the funniest penalties I’ve ever seen. It was just one of 14 Cowboys penalties, but it was particularly special. This was at the end of the game, when San Francisco was trying to run out the clock — second down, and Deebo Samuel (who is a pure delight) took a handoff and was stuffed for no gain. Then came the flag — holding on Gregory.
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy rolled his eyes and had that “Oh, COME ON” look on his face, and who could blame him? A defensive holding penalty NOW? Seriously?
And then they showed the replay — and it was hilarious. Way behind the play, Gregory grabbed offensive lineman Daniel Brunskill and then wouldn’t let go. And then he just kind of pulled Brunskill to the ground, like he was the ballcarrier. That was a theory I saw on Twitter — that Gregory though he was tackling the ball carrier. Which is awesome. Hey, it’s possible. Roger Clemens once thought a bat was a baseball.
(3) Right, we have to talk about the final play. Fourteen seconds left, no timeouts, the Cowboys (somehow) still alive, ball at the San Francisco 41. There are a couple of ways to play this. You could try throwing twice to the end zone. You could try to throw a sideline pass and throw it away if nobody’s open.
OR, you could try a quarterback sneak to the middle of the field and hope you have enough time to spike it before the clock runs out.
Now look, maybe this is just me, but the last of those options sounds like the worst one. I mean, let’s do a quick pro-con list.
Pros for a quarterback sneak with 14 seconds left and no timeouts:
— You might move the ball closer to the end zone for a final play.
Cons for a quarterback sneak with 14 seconds left and no timeouts:
— You have a zero percent chance of scoring, which is the whole point of this exercise.
— You won’t move the ball THAT much closer to the end zone; you’ll still need an unlikely final play to score.
— Time will probably run out on you.
— No, seriously, even if you run it perfectly, time will probably run out on you.
— I’m not joking about this, you are basically hoping that you will be able to untangle yourself from the tackler, get set up, have the referee spot the ball fast enough — I’m telling you TIME WILL PROBABLY RUN OUT ON YOU.
“It was the right call,” Mike McCarthy said before (presumably) being fired.
It was not the right call. Time ran out on the Cowboys, and while you certainly could argue that the official took too long to spot the ball and you could argue that maybe Dak Prescott did spike the ball with one second left and you could argue that … no, I’m sorry, I’m guessing you’re not making any of these arguments because you know as well as I do that it was a blockheaded call.