Who said home field advantage guaranteed you a victory? Who said higher seeds would glide to easy victories?
With the start of the 2018 Wild Card Playoffs, it was the road warriors — and the lower seeds with something to prove — that showed that finishing the game is what ultimately defines advantage.
The Tennessee Titans went into Arrowhead and sneaked out a second-half victory over the now one-and-done Kansas City Chiefs. The Titans’ 22-21 victory marked the final time, presumably, that quarterback Alex Smith will wear a Chiefs uniform, as the Chiefs are looking to trade one of the best passers this season.
The Atlanta Falcons, who have found their momentum at just the right time, delivered an early playoff exit to the high-flying Los Angeles Rams with a 26-13 victory. The Falcons held the league’s best offense to 13 points and one touchdown as ultimately experience — and momentum — proved to be the clincher.
Let’s recap Saturday’s Wild Card match-ups:
Titans Second-Half Surge Powers Them Past Chiefs
Nobody gave the Tennessee Titans a chance. Nobody thought they’d even put up a fight against a Kansas City Chiefs team that had found its rhythm again. And for one half, they were right. The Titans didn’t seem to be putting up much a fight headed for an early playoff exit.
But you know that cliche a tale of two halves? Well, the Titans signed their names next to it.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota led the Titans to three second-half touchdowns and delivered the knockout blow in a 22-21 victory over the Chiefs. It was the Titans’ first playoff win in 14 years. And yes, Mariota even threw one of his touchdowns to himself. See, improbable. See, impressive. See, meant to be.
“Special, special,” Mariota told reporters after the game. “I’m part of a great team. I’m part of a group of guys that really just believe in each other. And, it’s something special nad I’m looking forward to playing next week.”
As for next week? The Titans will end up facing either the New England Patriots (if the Bills win Sunday) or the Pittsburgh Steelers (if the Jaguars win Sunday). Either way, the Titans will face their toughest challenge yet.
The Titans were riding without one of their power running backs DeMarco Murray and, shocking, no one gave them a chance without him. But Derrick Henry rose to the challenge putting up career rushing yards with 156 yards and a score.
Tennessee’s defense also bounced back in the second half holding the Chiefs to zero second-half points after allowing Alex Smith and co. to throw all over them for 21 points. Smith passed for 264 yards and two touchdowns, but he failed to really get anything going in the second half.
A tale of two halves.
While the Titans delivered an improbable defeat to Kansas City, the Chiefs had a couple moments at the end of the game that could’ve just as easily resulted in Kansas City moving on to face the Patriots or Steelers. The Chiefs had a chance at the end with just over two minutes remaining, but Smith couldn’t connect on a fourth-and-9 at the Titans 44. They also appeared to have recovered a Henry fumble with just under two minutes to go. Derrick Johnson picked up the ball and ran it in for a touchdown. But video replay showed that, yes, Henry was down before the ball popped out.
It was another playoff letdown for a Chiefs squad that hasn’t won a home playoff game since 1994.
For the Titans, on the other hand, it was a surprising victory that might’ve saved coach Mike Mularkey’s job.
Rams Offense Falls Flat, Falcons Soar to Victory
The Atlanta Falcons have something to prove. In fact, they have everything to prove following last year’s gut wrenching Super Bowl 51 loss to the New England Patriots. The only thing that can quiet the chants of “28 to 3” would be not only a Super Bowl berth but a Super Bowl victory.
The Falcons, with everything to prove, marched into the LA Coliseum — for the first Rams playoff game there since the 1970s — and took advantage of a struggling offense. And, unlike last year’s Super Bowl against the Patriots, they took care of business with their early lead in the 26-13 victory.
The Rams went from worst-to-first this year as the NFL’s most surprising story. But the Falcons, who’ve been in the playoffs before and know what it’s all about, spoiled the Rams’ first playoff game in 13 years.
While the game was close for much of the first half, the Falcons never trailed in the game. It was as if they set the tone for the game and maintained their hold throughout — never allowing for a “28 to 3” situation to threaten their comeback run in the playoffs.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan went 21-for-30 for 218 yards and 1 touchdown, hooking up with star receiver Julio Jones nine times for 94 yards as Atlanta set the tone and maintained it throughout.
“I think being able to keep yourself in a mental space where you’re not worried about the finality of the game, whether you’re going home or you keep playing,” Ryan said of playoff football. “I think the challenge is to stay locked in.”
The high-powered Rams offense — one of the best in the league this year — stalled in their first playoff game in 13 years. Quarterback Jared Goff completed 24 of 45 passes (a measly completion percentage) for 259 yards in his playoff debut. While star running back Todd Gurley posted 101 rushing yards on the night, he failed to deliver one of those game-changing plays that has made him a threat this season.
Los Angeles just came out flat. Plain and simply. And the Falcons, who know what it’s like to be flying high and then come crashing back to Earth, were able to wrap it up with a bow.
But the future is bright for a young Rams team that went one-and-done in an impressive season. Sure, a first round playoff exit isn’t exactly the tone they want to set. But having that experience will certainly help them moving forward.
The Falcons, on the other hand, will prepare for the divisional round in which they’ll face the Carson Wentz-less Philadelphia Eagles. Might we see the 6-seed is favored over the 1-seed?
The Wild Card playoffs continue on Sunday with the Buffalo Bills taking on the Jacksonville Jaguars at 1:05pm and the Carolina Panthers facing the New Orleans Saints for the third time this season at 4:40pm.