You Better Bring The Cool Shit In A Playoff Blowout
11:51 AM EST on January 18, 2022
Two-thirds of the games across this past jumbo-sized NFL playoff weekend were certifiable blowouts. That's bad! When the football season dwindles down to the final baker's dozen matchups you're going to get for months, and all of these games get their own exclusive time window, it would be helpful to both the average fan's enjoyment and the legitimacy of the first round if they featured some semblance of competitiveness. Instead, most of them were simply squash matches building their winners up for more highly anticipated clashes down the road, and after the clock ran out on the Cowboys in Sunday's late afternoon window, the final two games of the wild card followed this blueprint to a T.
On Sunday night, the Kansas City Chiefs exploded in the second and third quarters to take a 35-14 lead on the Steelers and pretty much wrap things up early. And on Monday, the L.A. Rams scored the first 28 points against the Cardinals in a game they ended up winning 34-11. Neither of the so-called contests provided much incentive for a viewer to stick around after the superior squad's lead topped 20, but nicely enough, those who failed to change the channel were at the very least rewarded with some memorable plays by two of the NFL's most exciting offenses.
In Kansas City, as the Chiefs held the ball on a first-and-goal comfortably in the driver's seat, they set up in a truly bizarre formation: tight end Travis Kelce in the traditional quarterback shotgun spot, flanked by Jerick McKinnon and Tyreek Hill, with Patrick Mahomes behind him. Mahomes motioned out to the left, Kelce took the snap, faked a handoff, and then tossed a little pass to Byron Pringle on a slant in the end zone. That's a lot of moving pieces just to get a 28-point lead, but they were much appreciated.
Likewise, the smart fan didn't tune back in for the second half of Cardinals-Rams—not after L.A. built up a 21-point lead while keeping Arizona from ever crossing midfield. But on the opening drive of the third, the winners still showed up to make some magic. With the ball on the logo, Matthew Stafford threw a quick screen out left to Odell Beckham Jr, who caught it in stride while doing his own QB dropback. From there, he loaded up and lofted a ball all the way to the other side of the field, where Cam Akers hauled it in for a 40-yard gain. It was another very creative piece of work with the win probability already in the high 90s.
It's worth asking what use it is to pull out these special instances of trickery for a game that's already in the bag, and it's true that, when they do unfold, it can feel like a coach is grabbing a rifle to shoot a deer that's already been taxidermied. But when you think of the playoffs not as a series of individual games, and instead as a month-long strategic crucible, their place becomes a little more clear.
Kansas City, while on the goal line against Pittsburgh, not only ran that Kelce play but also completed a one-yard touchdown pass to Nick Allegretti, a backup lineman, and a four-yard underhand flip to McKinnon. Yes, that helped them run up the score against the Steelers, but it's also a mindfuck for their next opponent, the Buffalo Bills, who will now have to put in the extra work this week to account for all these variations in the Chiefs' goal-line offense. (Buffalo, too, gave rookie lineman Tommy Doyle their final touchdown in the fourth against the Patriots.)
In that same vein, Beckham's pass was the first he's thrown all season, and though he established himself as a bit of a threat in that area all the way back when he was a Giant, his execution on Monday will force the Buccaneers defense to respect his arm, potentially giving him fewer defenders to face down at the line of scrimmage if the Rams run a simpler screen pass.
Aside from muddying the waters for the upcoming bad guys, it's also fun! And not just for the folks in the stands or on the other side of the TV screen. Beckham started this year unsatisfied and nearing the end of a failed marriage with the Browns, but now that's he's playing to his full potential on a contender, his morale has to be through the roof. And Kelce, a former high-school QB who's had just three throwing attempts (with one four-yard completion and one interception) in his NFL passing career, seemed delighted by the chance he received when the game was mostly wrapped up.
“I thought I exhausted my opportunities when I threw a pick in New York a few years ago and last year in Tampa when I threw an incompletion, so I didn’t think I was going to get another opportunity,” Kelce said after Sunday's win. “But shoutout to Coach Reid for still having some faith in me.”
Good football teams have fun. Who knew?