The Cleveland Browns knocked off the Pittsburgh Steelers in a stunning AFC Wild Card matchup, and the franchises are headed for new territory.
Two rivals, two directions.
One is trending towards a rebuild. It’s coming, even if the franchise can avoid it for one more season. The other is trending towards perennial contention, even if more pieces are needed.
For once, the former isn’t the Cleveland Browns. No, that’s the Pittsburgh Steelers. Incredibly, the Browns are the latter.
On Sunday night, Cleveland turned five Pittsburgh turnovers into an absurd 48-37 victory. It was the first win for the Browns at Heinz Field in 18 tries. It was also the organization’s first postseason win since 1994, when Bill Belichick roamed the sideline of old Cleveland Municipal Stadium.
Moving forward, the Browns have a date with the Kansas City Chiefs, but let’s worry about that over the next few days.
In the meantime, Cleveland gets to rejoice for both the present and future. The Browns beat their biggest rivals on the biggest stage they’ve enjoyed in decades. They seem to have found the right coach in Kevin Stefanski, who took a floundering Baker Mayfield and raised his game by marrying his strengths of throwing on the run to a run-first scheme.
Looking forward, Cleveland has a smart general manager in Andrew Berry to utilize a full arsenal of draft capital and cap space. The Browns need work defensively and the offense could use a retooling at receiver, especially with the uncertain days ahead for Odell Beckham Jr. The AFC North is a proverbial meat grinder, and if the Browns want to remain an annual force in it, improvements are needed.
Still, Cleveland has the pillars of a team ready to become a problem in the conference. Its offensive line and running game is spectacular. The quarterback is understood and helped along by his coach, and the defense has a premier player on the edge in Myles Garrett.
In short, the foundation — and then some — is in place.
Conversely, Pittsburgh has looming issues.
According to OverTheCap, the Steelers project to be $22 million over the estimated threshold. Ben Roethlisberger, who threw four interceptions in Sunday night’s debacle, has a cap hit of $41 million.
Additionally, edge rusher Bud Dupree, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, corner Mike Hilton, defensive tackle Tyson Alualu, running back James Conner and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster are all unrestricted free agents. Barring wizardry from general manager Kevin Colbert, most of those players will be elsewhere in 2021.
If Roethlisberger decides to walk away, the Steelers could retain more of the aforementioned names but that leaves additional questions. Pittsburgh has a bevy of issues ahead, and none of the possible plans are without loss, pain and sacrifice.
Now, not all is lost for the Steelers. Mike Tomlin, despite a poor showing on Sunday night (more on that below) is a top-notch head coach. He’s 48 years old with decades ahead. The organizational structure and culture is phenomenal. Pittsburgh will build back quickly, but it’s ignorant to not realize the reality. The Steelers are old in spots, lacking in others, and out of money.
The Browns have been a joke for 20 years. The Steelers have been the kingpin.
The roles switched suddenly on Sunday, and they might stay that way for awhile.
Top 10 moments in the NFL Divisional round
1. Birth of the Tuck Rule (2001 – Oakland Raiders at New England Patriots)2. Hail Mary gets its name (1975 – Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings)3. Kellen Winslow wills Bolts to win (1981 – San Diego Chargers at Miami Dolphins)4. Davis, Stabler connect for Sea of Hands (1974 – Miami Dolphins at Oakland Raiders)5. Red Right 88 (1980 – Oakland Raiders at Cleveland Browns)6. The fog rolls in over Soldier Field (1988 – Philadelphia Eagles at Chicago Bears)7. Jacoby Jones gets behind Rahim Moore (2012 – Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos)8. Chiefs erase 24-0 deficit in 10 minutes (2019 – Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs)9. Ghost to the Post (1977 – Oakland Raiders at Baltimore Colts)10. 4th and 26 (2003 – Green Bay Packers at Philadelphia Eagles)
“I don’t go this route with an answer often, but I think this probably sums it up. Whatever God’s will is for me and my family, if it’s here in Indy playing another year then we’ll be here. And if it’s not, I’ll be on the sidelines with a ball cap coaching the heck out of a high school football team down in south Alabama.”
– Indianapolis Colts quarterback Philip Rivers on what 2021 may hold for him
Even at 39 years old, Rivers was still effective this season. He threw for 4,169 yards and 24 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. It would make ample sense for general manager Chris Ballard to sign Rivers for another year while drafting his replacement, although keeping the veteran is no sure thing. The Colts have both options and the NFL’s fourth-most cap space.
If Rivers is done, he has a fascinating Hall of Fame case. He’s thrown for 63,440 yards, 421 touchdowns and 209 interceptions. Those figures rank fifth, fifth and 23rd respectively. He’s also made eight Pro Bowls, but never been named an All-Pro in any capacity. Additionally, what is Rivers’ signature moment? When was he a top-three player at his position?
Personally, I believe Rivers makes it eventually. He was a terrific player and his durability is almost unparalleled. The stats are also tremendous in totality, even in today’s pass-happy game. He’ll have to wait awhile, but eventually, the guess here is he gets into Canton.
Miami is the only city to host the Super Bowl in consecutive years, doing so with Super Bowls II and III at the Orange Bowl.
Info learned this week1. Russell Wilson couldn’t cook, and got burned against Rams
The Seattle Seahawks have a long offseason ahead.
While the defense did its job against John Wolford, Jared Goff and the Rams’ attack in the NFC Wild Card Game, it was Russell Wilson and Co. turning the ball over and consistently bogging down. Seattle accounted for 11 first downs with No. 3 being harassed all night, being sacked five times and hit on 10 occasions. In total, Wilson went 11-of-27 for 174 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, for a QBR of 17.7.
This offseason, Seattle doesn’t have a first-round pick as a result of its deal for safety Jamal Adams. However, general manager John Schneider does have a bit of cap space, and it should be invested in the offensive line and secondary.
Still, the biggest concern must be the coaching staff. The Seahawks have Pete Carroll running things, but is offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer the right man to continue with? He’s been in his role for three years, and the unit has a consistent feel of being disjointed and overly-reliant on off-script magic from Wilson.
On Saturday, the Seahawks looked utterly baffled by a team they see twice every season. Los Angeles has a terrific defense, but Seattle is loaded with weaponry. To do nothing all game, without any apparent adjustments, is coaching malpractice.
Perhaps it’s time for Carroll to make a tough call and get a fresh set of eyes on his offense, which regressed horribly over the final two months. Maybe it’s time to invest heavily in the line and take one more run with this staff.
Regardless, tough decisions are ahead for Seattle.
2. Taylor Heinicke makes name for himself in gutsy loss
Who had Taylor Heinicke outplaying Russell Wilson this weekend? Anybody?
Heinicke, the 27-year-old undrafted free agent from Old Dominion and former XFL backup, started under the lights against Tom Brady and went 26-of-44 for 306 yards with a touchdown and interception in a 31-23 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Yet it wasn’t the numbers, it was the throws. Nice touch between the linebacker and safety. Perfect corner routes in the end zone. Deep outs along the sidelines.
These were big throws from a diminutive quarterback (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) who is slated for unrestricted free agency after spending time on five NFL rosters.
So what now?
Ultimately, Heinicke has started one NFL game. He’s small, he got injured in the affair (sprained AC joint) and he’s 27 with no major-program pedigree. And yet, we saw Matt Flynn get a nice deal based on one game. We saw Brock Osweiler parlay a middling half-season into $72 million. Once upon a time, Mike Glennon signed for $48 million.
Does Heinicke sign for big money? No, not unless a general manager loses his mind. But the veteran could have an intriguing market among teams looking for a low-risk, high-reward option to compete such as the Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers and Washington, among others.
3. Texans rankle Deshaun Watson with coach-GM search
The Houston Texans aren’t doing themselves, or their star quarterback, any favors.
Houston hired general manager Nick Caserio, former Director of Player Personnel New England Patriots, on a six-year, $30 million deal. Perhaps Caserio turns into a great hire, but considering Jack Easterby, a former Patriots Chaplin who has suddenly taken full control of football operations in Houston, hired Caserio out of Foxborough, there are obvious concerns of hiring a friend over the best choice.
On Tuesday, in the immediate aftermath of the hire, Watson tweeted out (now deleted) “some things never change.” On Thursday, Watson’s agent, David Mulugheta, tweeted out a comment on nepotism running at “an all-time high” before also deleting it. He claims it was about politics.
As for coach, the Texans are still combing through options, but they are the only team with a vacancy not to have requested an interview with Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. This comes after reports had Watson directly telling ownership Bieniemy would be his top choice.
Additionally, FanSided’s Matt Lombardo and myself have reported per source that Bieniemy previously had interest in coming to Houston (along with Atlanta), potentially in tandem with former NFL general manager John Dorsey. With Caserio in place, it’s unclear if Bieniemy retains such interest.
Ultimately, it’s one thing to take Watson’s input, do due diligence and go another direction. It’s quite another to listen and then roundly dismiss his thoughts, nary considering the input of the franchise’s most important member.
Does this end in a trade? Probably not. Houston signed Watson to a four-year, $156 million extension in 2020 which runs through 2025. Moving him is not impossible from a financial standpoint, but trading a 25-year-old superstar quarterback? It’s literally with precedent.
Still, making Watson feel helpless and hopeless? Not an ideal way to get the offseason rolling.
4. Ravens-Bills sets up as clash of first down success
Baltimore Ravens and Buffalo Bills under the Saturday night lights? Hell yes.
The two teams come into the affair with a combined 13-game winning streak, and now meet for the first time this season with an AFC Championship Game appearance on the line. For Buffalo and Baltimore, there are litanies of keys to watch. The biggest for both, though, is first down.
The Ravens are the best rushing team in football for a second straight year, rushing for more than 3,000 yards as a team. Buffalo ranked T-22nd in yards per carry against (4.6), while Baltimore is tops at 5.5 YPC.
If the Ravens can get into second-and-medium or less, they’ll almost certainly pound it again, shortening the game and playing to their strength. If the Bills can win the initial down — think three yards and less on first — Lamar Jackson is forced to throw. Not his strongest suit.
For this reporter’s money, Buffalo and Baltimore is the best game of the weekend, and it’ll be largely decided by what second down looks like.
5. Rams provide unique challenge for Packers … if healthy
The NFL playoffs are akin to boxing. Styles make fights.
Green Bay’s offensive line, even without All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari, is elite. Los Angeles’ defensive front led by Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers and Leonard Floyd, is also elite. Whoever wins that battle wins the game.
Few teams can challenge the Packers in this regard, but the Rams are one. Additionally, All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey will shadow superstar receiver Davante Adams throughout the evening. If MVP-favorite Aaron Rodgers is under pressure and without an open Adams, can he still thrive? Smart money says bet on Rodgers, but we’ve seen him struggle in such situations.
Against the Buccaneers this year, Rodgers was hit 13 times, sacked on four occasions and threw a pair of interceptions in a 38-10 loss. Outlier or blueprint for the few teams with such defensive talent?
Donald would need to be healthy and great. Floyd would need to provide ample issues off the edge. Ramsey would need to be a warm blanket in chilly Lambeau for Adams. And, most critically, the Rams would need something from Jared Goff. Not easy, but not impossible for the visitors.
Gambler’s game (UPDATE ODDS)
Bet the Chiefs. With due respect to the Browns, Andy Reid’s club is the play at KC -10.
Kansas City haven’t covered (or lost with their starters) in two months, but it has heard the doubts for three weeks. Patrick Mahomes, who is petty enough to have counted to 10 on his hands when playing the Chicago Bears (his draft number) and four against the Ravens (his NFL Top 100 ranking; Lamar Jackson was No. 1), was tied with Josh Allen for Second-Team All-Pro on Thursday.
Fresh off three weeks of rest and potentially getting running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire back, the Chiefs are going to come out blazing after waiting for months to play this game, while Cleveland just played its emotional Super Bowl.
The San Francisco 49ers should seriously consider moving on from Jimmy Garoppolo.
Garoppolo, 29, has two years left on his deal. If the 49ers moved on, they’d save $53.2 million against the cap with a dead money charge of $4.2 million. Financially, it’s a no-brainer. Furthermore, Garoppolo has been injury prone. In his last three years, he’s played 25 of a possible 48 regular-season games, dealing with knee and ankle injuries.
San Francisco’s roster is a win-now group. The front seven is loaded, the skill positions are stacked and head coach Kyle Shanahan is one of the most creative minds in the league. The 49ers, with an above-average quarterback who can stay healthy, are once again Super Bowl contenders.
If the 49ers can land Matthew Stafford in a trade with the Detroit Lions, they should do it. Stafford has missed eight games since the start of the 2011 season, and provides more arm talent that Garoppolo could dream of.
Should general manager John Lynch not want to trade draft capital, use it to take a quarterback. San Francisco is slated to pick 12th in the first round. Trade up, stand pat, whatever works, but consider all options.
Garoppolo isn’t a bad player, but he’s unreliable and not a game-changer. The 49ers can’t wait forever to make their move.
Inside the league
Washington gave up on former first-round quarterback Dwayne Haskins. The Carolina Panthers are willing to give him a look.
On Saturday, reports came down of Haskins getting a visit with the NFC South squad, hoping to get signed and start fresh. The 23-year-old was released in December after masklessly visiting a strip club, subsequently having his captaincy stripped and then throwing two interceptions against … the Panthers.
Afterwards, a source gave FanSided’s Matt Lombardo the following quote about Haskins from an NFL personnel evaluator:
“He may even get two or three more opportunities. He’s so damn young. It’s not that he’s hurting other people, he’s just hurting himself. There’s no one in Washington to be a mentor for him. The new coach didn’t want him, especially the way he was talking about Tua at the Combine, Jay wanted Daniel Jones, and the kid’s been a hard-luck case. But, he’s not a drug user, he’s not out there beating women, hurting people or anything like that, he’s just an idiot. He’s a young, immature idiot, but he has a lot of arm-talent.”
Anyone who understands the NFL understands Haskins will get another shot. He’s 23, plays the league’s most-important position and is coming in cheap. The maturity concerns are clearly real, but so is his arm talent. Perhaps being released is the humbling experience he needs.
However, it’s also true Washington’s release of a first-round signal-caller it took less than two years ago speaks volumes of how disastrous he was. Teams don’t do what Washington did when it comes to such significant investments. It’s a bright red flag to the other 31 teams.
Maybe Haskins has found the team willing to give him a chance. If so, we’ll find out if the young man can bounce back and grow up, or if Washington was right to move on quickly.
In 1979, the Houston Oilers visited the San Diego Chargers without much hope.
Houston, which beat the Denver Broncos the weekend prior, entered the AFC Divisionals without quarterback Dan Pastorini and future Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell. To make matters worse, the Chargers had the league’s best record, a 4,000-yard passer in Dan Fouts and two 1,000-yard receivers in John Jefferson and Charlie Joiner.
Enter Vernon Perry.
Perry, a rookie safety who went on to play five forgettable NFL seasons, intercepted Fouts a playoff-record four times while blocking a field goal in a stunning 17-14 win. It’s arguably the greatest playoff performance in league history, and came from the most unlikely of heroes.
Stop punting the ball in situations calling for an aggressive mindset.
The three losing AFC teams this weekend can all trace their defeats to cowardly calls in huge moments.
For the Tennessee Titans, it was Mike Vrabel punting on 4th and 2 from Baltimore’s 40-yard line with 10:06 remaining, trailing 17-13. In Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin’s club trailed 35-23 but had major momentum with 16 unanswered points. To start the fourth quarter, the Steelers had 4th and 1 at their own 46-yard line with an opportunity to send Cleveland reeling. They took a delay of game and punted.
On Saturday, the Indianapolis Colts twice punted for the Buffalo side of the field. Head coach Frank Reich also oversaw a disastrous 3rd and GOAL from the 1-yard line when he called toss crack behind a pulling Jared Veldheer, but that’s its own column entirely.
Some analytics gurus are rarely happy to punt. The criticism above isn’t that. This is about absorbing the information and understanding a little urgency is needed. The trio above decided to play it conservatively, and now all are sitting home.