The opening weekend of the NFL playoffs has come and gone. In the NFC, the Falcons upset the Rams and the Saints held off the Panthers. In the AFC, Tennessee upset Kansas City and the Jaguars edged out the Bills. All the games were hard fought and full of some crazy moments. That's the way playoff football should be. Let's take a look at some of the lessons that could help the Eagles moving forward.
1. Experience Matters
The Rams had six players with playoff experience. The Falcons were in the Super Bowl last year. The Rams looked nervous on Saturday. I actually thought they showed some of those jitters back in the fourth quarter of the Eagles game. The Rams hadn't been in a lot of pressure situations and they struggled late in that contest. The Eagles made key plays and came away with the win. Saturday was more of the same.
Jared Goff had a great season. He threw 28 touchdown passes and led the Rams to 11 wins. He was only 24-of-45 against Atlanta. In a setting where every play mattered, Goff couldn't relax and get into a good rhythm. The Rams had one of the most explosive offenses in the league, but only put 13 points on the board.
The Falcons didn't play all that well in the first half, but got some help from Rams turnovers and led 13-10. Atlanta didn't panic. They came out after halftime and took control of the game. They didn't pull away from the Rams until late. A less-experienced team might have panicked, but the Falcons just kept grinding away.
Carolina had a ton of playoff experience, with appearances in four out of the last five seasons. The Panthers didn't play their best football on Sunday but still had a chance to win at the end. Veteran teams understand that getting up or down by a couple of scores doesn't mean the game is over. The playoffs are final. When you lose, you're done. You can't stop competing, no matter what happens. You must play with a sense of urgency and desperation.
2. Defense Wins
The Saints piled up 410 yards and 31 points, but it was their defense that sealed the game. Carolina had a chance to win late, driving down to the New Orleans 21-yard line. The Saints' defense stepped up and made big plays.
The Saints got into the backfield and forced an intentional grounding penalty that completely changed the drive. On fourth down, they blitzed and sacked Cam Newton to finally secure the win.
Kansas City got out to a 21-3 lead on the Titans and seemed to have control of the game. Apparently, the Chiefs' defense thought the game was over because it disappeared. Tennessee scored touchdowns on its first three possessions in the second half and took the lead.
The Titans' defense played really well in the second half. The Chiefs got the ball after a muffed punt and were inside the Titans' 30-yard line. Tennessee forced a three-and-out, even causing the Chiefs to lose 2 yards before missing a field goal. That's clutch defense.
Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles struggled mightily on Sunday, only throwing for 87 yards. You don't have to be a football guru to know that's not good. The Jaguars' defense was outstanding. It came up with a pair of takeaways and kept the Bills from scoring a touchdown.
There was a lot of offensive firepower on the field in Los Angeles, but the stars of the game weren't Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Goff or Todd Gurley. The stars were Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald and Falcons linebacker Deion Jones. Those guys played championship football. Donald was particularly dominant and gave Atlanta fits all game long.
3. Mistakes Are Magnified
Carolina marched right down the field on its opening possession. Newton made a beautiful throw that should have been caught for a touchdown. The ball went right through the receiver's hands. Carolina then missed the chip-shot field goal on fourth down.
Getting any points on that drive would have changed the game in a big way. They lost by five. If you just give them the field goal, they only need a field goal to win at the end of the game. The Panthers weren't alone in making costly mistakes.
Buffalo drove down to the 1-yard line. They had first-and-goal. Instead of doing the obvious and running two or three times, they made the strange decision to throw a pass to a wide receiver. The strength of the Jaguars' defense is the cornerback position. You don't attack them unless you have to.
Receiver Kelvin Benjamin was called for offensive pass interference and that pushed the Bills back to the 11-yard line. They could not score a touchdown. They absolutely had to take advantage of that opportunity. The Bills didn't get close to the end zone again.
The Rams have been great on special teams all year long. That wasn't the case against Atlanta. A muffed punt and a fumbled kickoff return led to 10 points for the Falcons. Take those turnovers away and you have a very different game.
The Eagles got to sit back and watch these games. I hope they took all of this in. Little things can mean a lot at this time of the year. With Carson Wentz sidelined, the Eagles will need every advantage they can get.
I came away from the weekend feeling pretty good. The Eagles have an outstanding defense and we saw just how crucial that is. If you can keep the other team from scoring points, you'll always have a chance to win.
The teams that won had tough, physical run games. That's the Eagles. You don't have to pile up a ton of yards, but you need to stick with the run and punish defenses. You can wear them down. We really saw that in the Titans-Chiefs game.
The Eagles had a great regular season. In less than a week, we'll get to see how this team does in the biggest game of the year.