NFL Wild Card lessons: 49ers the team to beat

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Trevor Lawrence bounces back, Daniel Jones puts on a show, and the San Francisco 49ers’ offence sends out a warning to the league – NFL analyst BUCKY BROOKS breaks down wild card weekend.

Super Wild Card Weekend has certainly lived up to the hype, with a series of dramatic games that have left us clinging to our seats. The ups and downs of playoff football test the theories touted by old-school coaches and “nerds” (the analytics crowd) around the game. Although it is too early to determine which group is right, there are plenty of things to discuss with one game remaining on the holiday weekend.

Here are my thoughts.

Three things I liked

1. Trevor Lawrence bounces back

The mark of a true competitor is how he responds to adversity. Based on Lawrence‘s ability to bounce back from a four-interception performance in the first half of his playoff debut, the Jaguars have a special player in their franchise quarterback.

The second-year pro overcame a woeful start (completing four of his first 16 passes with four interceptions) to finish the game with four touchdowns on the way to registering an improbable comeback win over the Chargers. Lawrence‘s confidence, composure and resilience were on display as he battled back from a series of egregious errors that helped put the Jaguars in a 27-0 hole in the second quarter.

While the performance will lead to questions about Lawrence‘s ability to read and decipher pre-snap disguise and post-snap coverage, the Jaguars’ QB1 worked through his issues without falling apart on a big stage. The confidence gained from his struggles should serve him well as he aims to join the elite group of quarterbacks in the AFC.

2. Danny “Dimes” puts on a show

It looks like the joke is on all of the draft analysts who took shots at the Giants and Daniel Jones after the former Duke standout was selected with the sixth overall pick in the 2019 draft. The fourth-year pro capped off an impressive turnaround season with a brilliant performance in his playoff debut that showcased the talent and skills that convinced former general manager Dave Gettleman that he was a worthy candidate as a franchise quarterback.

Jones accounted for nearly 400 yards of total offence while exhibiting A-plus skills as a runner-passer on the perimeter. The Giants QB1 teased and tormented the Vikings with his pinpoint passing skills and timely runs in crucial moments. Moreover, he displayed the poise and patience of a seasoned vet while managing the game to ensure a Giants victory.

Jones dazzled in every aspect, from his masterful understanding of situational football and clock management to morphing into a five-star playmaker with the game on the line. And his maturation as a franchise quarterback should serve as a teaching manual for executives and coaches hoping to identify a QB1 of the future.

If a prospect has the intangibles and tools to perform at a high level, he simply needs the right coach and system to unlock his talent. After watching Jones blossom under Brian Daboll‘s tutelage, the Giants were right about their QB1 from the start.

3. The 49ers’ offensive diversity is a problem

The impressive play of third-string QB Brock Purdy has captured the headlines, but it‘s the collection of playmakers throughout San Francisco’s offensive lineup that makes the 49ers nearly impossible to defend.

With creative schemes that routinely provide extra blockers in the hole, Kyle Shanahan has built an offence ideally suited for hard-nosed runners like Christian McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel to scoot through gaps between the tackles and on the edges on various power plays and misdirection handoffs.

Although the punishing nature of the offence is frequently overlooked due to the flashy motions and shifts, the cumulative effect of the downhill running game wears opponents down over four quarters. Defences are not designed to handle a barrage of power punches to the ribs, and the late-game TKOs result from the steady stream of body blows thrown by the 49ers‘ runners and blockers.

To make matters worse for opponents, Shanahan has crafted a passing game that mirrors the running game with an assortment of play-action fakes and bootlegs that keep opponents guessing at the snap. With the simplistic schemes creating easy throws for the rookie quarterback to a stable of racehorses on the perimeter, the 49ers have been able to put up big numbers through the air on high-percentage “catch-and-run” tosses.

After watching the 49ers roll up 500-plus yards of total offence on the Seahawks with a 300-yard passer (Purdy completed 18 of 30 passes for 332 yards and three scores), a 100-yard rusher (McCaffrey, 119 rush yards), and a 100-yard receiver (Samuel, 133 receiving yards), it will be hard for any opponent to slow down the offensive machine.

Three things I did not like

1. Josh Allen‘s carelessness could cost the Bills

The Bills QB1 is undoubtedly one of the most talented playmakers in football, but his turnover woes could keep the Super Bowl favourites from reaching their destination.

Allen leads the NFL in interceptions (16) and giveaways (22) through the wild-card round following his three-turnover performance against the Miami Dolphins. Although the haphazard throws and loose ball-handling have always been a part of Allen‘s game, the potential impact of his turnovers on playoff games should prompt Buffalo’s coaching staff to talk to Allen about his risky decisions.

Allen can single-handedly guide the Bills to a Super Bowl title, but he must take better care of the football for his squad to advance through the tournament. While the Bills have been able to win in spite of his errors, the team cannot overcome his turnovers against the league heavyweights yet to come.

2. Coaching inexperience shows up in the playoffs

With the youth movement at the head-coaching position, owners and general managers employing novice coaches should expect some growing pains in the playoffs if the wild-card round is any indication.

Looking at the failures of Brandon Staley, Kevin O‘Connell and Mike McDaniel due to game management errors and tactical gaffes, the lack of playoff experience certainly played a role. The consequences of mistakes and turnovers in playoff games have a greater impact due to the “win or go home” nature of the single-elimination tournament. The pressure of coaching in these games can force inexperienced coaches to make playcalls and decisions based on emotion instead of preparation and process.

As a result, you will see the excessive delay of game penalties (McDaniel), game and clock management miscues (Staley) and in-game adjustment failures (O‘Connell) from coaches who are unaccustomed to coaching in games with increased pressure and consequences. On the other side this weekend, we witnessed several veteran coaches (Doug Pederson, Kyle Shanahan, Zac Taylor) thrive in those moments due to their experience guiding teams on extended playoff runs.

While some will point out that rookie coach Brian Daboll won his playoff debut, he also entered the playoffs with 30 games of postseason experience — Daboll has a 23-7 postseason record as an assistant, including a 5-0 mark in Super Bowls. That is significant experience in pressure-packed games, and his expertise as a game manager is likely due to coaching through those moments as an assistant.

As the coaching carousel spins over the next few weeks, it is essential to dig deeper into a candidate‘s resumé to determine if that candidate has enough experience in big games to turn around a program and lead a team to playoff success.

3. Lamar Jackson‘s “no show” is not a good look

The former MVP was ruled out of the AFC wild-card game due to an injury, but his absence at the game suggests there is a rift between the star and the team that must be amended for his marriage to continue with the Ravens.

While it is common for injured players to stay at home, it‘s rare for a franchise quarterback to stay behind, particularly if he can assist the backup quarterback as an extra set of eyes on the sideline. With Jackson not around to assist or support his teammates, he appears selfish and uninterested in the team’s success. Although that could be a misconception, Jackson’s absence will only fuel that fodder while his contract situation remains up in the air.

Playoff Power Rankings

1. San Francisco 49ers: In extending their winning streak to 11 games, the 49ers showcased the offensive diversity and defensive dominance that makes them a tough out as a title contender.

2. Kansas City Chiefs: As the master of bye week preparation based on his 27-4 record after a bye, Andy Reid has spent extra time in the lab concocting a game plan that could put Patrick Mahomes & Co. in their fourth straight AFC Championship Game.

3. Philadelphia Eagles: The much-needed bye week enabled Jalen Hurts to rest and recover as he attempts to lead the Eagles through a challenging NFC playoff field. With a week to regain his MVP form, the third-year pro could help the Eagles reemerge as the most-feared heavyweights in the tournament.

4. New York Giants: The scrappy G-Men are more than a feel-good story under Brian Daboll. The rookie head coach has unlocked Daniel Jones‘ talents as a dual-threat playmaker with the potential to take over games. In a single-elimination tournament in which quarterback play is routinely the deciding factor, the Giants might ride the hottest quarterback in the NFC to the title round.

5. Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals have the most complete team in the playoff field but need to bring their A-game to knock off the contenders on their potential path to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances. If Joe Burrow & Co. find their groove, it could be hard to keep Who Dey?! Nation from making another run at the title.

6. Buffalo Bills: The Bills‘ explosive offence flashes the capacity to light up the scoreboard with Josh Allen at the helm, but the ultra-talented gunslinger must curb his turnovers to give his squad a chance to maximise its potential.

7. Jacksonville Jaguars: Doug Pederson has quickly whipped the Jaguars into shape as playoff contenders. Although the team is far from perfect, the Jaguars‘ resilience and emerging quarterback could make them a tough out in the divisional round.

8. Dallas Cowboys: The winner of Monday night’s wild-card matchup faces an uphill climb to reach the top of the mountain in the NFC.

MVP of Super Wild Card Weekend

At some point, we have to give Brock Purdy his flowers for his stellar play as a “super sub” playing his way into long-term QB1 consideration. Purdy continues to defy the odds by performing at a star level despite his inexperience and draft pedigree. Against the Seahawks, the former seventh-round pick shook off a slow start to become the first rookie quarterback in NFL history with four total touchdowns in a playoff game. Purdy completed 18 of 30 passes for 332 yards and three scores while adding 16 rush yards and a rush touchdown on four carries. The strong showing not only pushed the 49ers past Seattle, but it put the football world on notice that Purdy is more than a game manager babysitting a high-powered offence.

Offensive Player of Super Wild Card Weekend

Daniel Jones is beginning to look like the elite quarterback the Giants envisioned when they selected him with the sixth overall pick of the 2019 NFL draft. The fourth-year pro put on a show in his playoff debut, joining Lamar Jackson (2019) and Steve Young (1995) as the only players ever to have 300-plus pass yards and 70-plus rush yards in an NFL playoff game.

Jones connected on 24 of 35 passes for 301 yards with two scores and added 78 rushing yards on 17 rush attempts. Though he is rarely touted as one of the most dangerous dual threats in the game, Jones‘ impressive performance on the playoff stage should change that narrative.

Defensive Player of Super Wild Card Weekend

Against the Dolphins, Bills linebacker Matt Milano put on a show, finishing with 10 total stops, two sacks and three quarterback hits. Buffalo defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier deployed Milano like a heat-seeking missile from his linebacker spot, and the veteran was able to show off his spectacular talents as a “hit, run and chase” defender.

Unsung Hero of Super Wild Card Weekend

For all of the love that Sam Hubbard is getting for his 98-yard fumble return, accolades should also go to Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson for swatting the ball out of Baltimore QB Tyler Huntley‘s hands on his attempted quarterback sneak. Logan’s punch-out led to a 14-point swing that ultimately decided a nailbiter between the division rivals. With Wilson adding 10 total stops to a stat line that includes the timely forced fumble, Cincinnati’s star linebacker deserves a game ball for his efforts.

– Fox Sports US

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