Wild Card Weekend was, well, wild.
Upsets. Statements. Classics. Calamities. Allow me to sort it all out, Schein Nine style ...
Here are my biggest winners and losers from the opening weekend of the 2018 NFL playoffs:
1) Dak Prescott, quarterback, Dallas Cowboys
With all that said, though, you just knew Prescott would be put in a position where he needed to make some plays in the playoffs -- and he passed that test with flying colors Saturday night.
Dak was dynamite when it mattered the most. Dallas has the requisite ground game and defense to win in the postseason; if Prescott plays like he did against the Seahawks (22-of-33 for 226 yards with one touchdown and one pick; six rushes for 29 yards and a score), Dallas is a bona fide Super Bowl threat. He delivered big-time money throws and key fourth-quarter runs. That's how you win. And no play was more emblematic of Dak's inspired showing than the one that ultimately decided the game.
Holding a three-point lead with 2:33 left in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys faced a third-and-14 on Seattle's 17-yard line. In that moment, it appeared Dallas would likely end up with a field goal, giving Russell Wilson the ball back with plenty of time to erase a six-point deficit. Scary hypothetical. But alas, Prescott dropped back a couple steps before planting and taking off up the middle, blowing through would-be tacklers and then diving/somersaulting to the 1-yard line. First down, 'Boys. And then Prescott rumbled into the end zone on the very next play, effectively ending the game.
Dak is so easy to root for. He's a fantastic leader and teammate -- so smart, great off the field. Prescott still needs to even out his play, but he's been much better in the second half of the season. As long as the offense goes through Elliott, Dallas is in business, with Dak stepping up as the ultimate wingman. That happened on Saturday, and it was a huge deal.
2) Dallas Cowboys defense
Dallas' 23-0 debacle in Indy last month unfortunately shifted the narrative, but the 2018 Cowboys' defense is elite. Forget the stats. Entering the postseason tourney, I had this unit as the second-best defense in the game behind Chicago's group. So, with the Bears out, this is the best defense remaining in the playoffs -- and the D looked the part for much of Saturday evening.
The Seahawks' offense struggled to get going, particularly on the ground. Having fielded the NFL's top-ranked rushing attack during the regular season (160.0 yards per game), Seattle could only manage 73 yards on 24 carries. Should 'Hawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer have abandoned the run earlier and allowed Wilson to do his thing? Sure. (More on that below.) But it's not as if this Dallas D is one-dimensional in its effectiveness.
Rod Marinelli boasts difference-makers at every level. DeMarcus Lawrence is headed to his second straight Pro Bowl, having established himself as one of the NFL's best edge rushers. Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith are emerging stars at linebacker. And I voted cornerback Byron Jones first-team All-Pro.
Yes, the NFL in 2018 is all about offense, but you need to respect this Cowboys D. Somehow, even though this is America's Team we're talking about, the special unit flies under the radar.
3) Chris Ballard, general manager, Indianapolis Colts
If I had a vote for Executive of the Year, Ballard would be my guy. You can easily make the case that the Colts have been the single best team in the NFL since mid-October, having won 10 of their last 11 games, including Saturday's 21-7 victory at Houston. They are stout in every phase. Andrew Luck is healthy and better than ever. It's flat-out amazing watching him work like a confident surgeon in the playoffs despite having missed the entire 2017 campaign (and despite the fact that he couldn't even throw a regulation-sized football eight months ago). It's my favorite story in the NFL right now. And Ballard deserves major credit for creating an environment where Luck could thrive.
When Ballard took over as Colts GM in January of 2017, he identified his most crucial duty: protecting Luck. After the savvy pickup of guard Mark Glowinski off waivers in 2017, Ballard spent two high-value picks on O-linemen in the 2018 NFL Draft, taking guard Quenton Nelson sixth overall and tackle Braden Smith 37th overall. Both started in Year 1, with Nelson earning first-team All-Pro honors. Consequently, Luck took just 18 sacks during the regular season and zero against the Texans' ferocious front. Ballard also upgraded Luck's weaponry by selecting RB Marlon Mack in the fourth round of the 2017 draft (Mack piled up 148 yards rushing on 24 carries against Houston) and signing Eric Ebron in this past offseason's free agency (Ebron logged his 14th touchdown catch of the season Saturday).
Ballard's fingerprints are all over Indy's surprisingly stout defense, as well. In addition to signing a bunch of overlooked guys during the past two years who have provided spectacular ROI (see: Margus Hunt, Denico Autry and Jabaal Sheard, among others), Ballard hit a home run with the second-round selection of Darius Leonard out of tiny South Carolina State. Like Nelson, Leonard was voted first-team All-Pro in Year 1. The only other rookie teammates to achieve such a feat in league history? Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus. Pretty good company. Leonard, who easily led the NFL in tackles during the regular season, added 13 more stops against Houston.
And last, but certainly not least, how about the early returns on Ballard's most important hire thus far? Remember when Josh McDaniels left the Colts at the altar in February, leaving Ballard to scramble for a new head man? Welp, hopping on Frank Reich has turned out pretty well. After starting the season at 1-5, the Colts are heading into the Divisional Round as the hottest team in football.
4) Anthony Lynn, head coach, Los Angeles Chargers
I don't need to explain to Chargers fans that Sunday's 23-17 win over Baltimore is the type of game that typically ends in nightmare fashion for this franchise. A turnover or special teams gaffe would've doomed the Marty- or Norv- or Mike McCoy-led Chargers. A furious late rally by the opposition would've resulted in a gut-wrenching loss. But these Bolts are a different breed. This coach is different -- and his charges handle adversity by punching it in the face.
Part of Lynn's genius, as a first-time head man with the Chargers, was his appointment of two former head coaches as his coordinators: Ken Whisenhunt on offense and Gus Bradley on defense. Both moves have paid off, with Bradley's scheming savvy on full display Sunday. Two weeks after Lamar Jackson and Co. gave L.A. fits, Bradley concocted a "top secret" plan to stifle Baltimore: deploying seven defensive backs for almost the entire game. The smaller, faster unit completely shut down Jackson until it was too late for Baltimore.
Lynn is a gem. He instills toughness and maximizes talent. And these Chargers aren't close to being done yet.
5) Nick Foles, quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles
I've picked against Nick Foles in nearly every single game he's started for the Eagles over the past two seasons, with last month's game against the Redskins being the only exception. Is he real? Is he Santa Claus? It's not that I'm surprised -- it's that I don't believe it. I don't believe what I'm seeing. And I assume I'm not alone. I mean, Foles to Golden Tate for the game-winning touchdown? Imagine an Eagles fan saying that a month ago.
The Nick Foles story is among the greatest Horatio Alger tales of all time. It makes absolutely no sense. And I'm obsessed. Nicky Foles defies logic. He's incredible -- and, in Philly sports lore, indelible.
6) Cody Parkey, kicker, Chicago Bears
Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.
Of course we all knew this could happen. Parkey's struggles this season -- and uncanny knack for hitting the uprights -- are well-documented. But TWO doinks, on the upright and the crossbar? A partially blocked kick after a timeout negated the one that sailed true? You can't make this up.
I watched Parkey talk to the press at his locker in the postgame, and the 26-year-old handled the gut-wrenching misery with uncanny aplomb. Despite what angry Bears fans might tell you, it wasn't all the kicker's fault. Where was Tarik Cohen in the offensive game plan? One carry?! Where was the defense when Chicago needed it most? What was that clock management down the stretch? But still, this hurts. A lot.
These Bears had visions of big things this postseason. And Mitch Trubisky made the necessary fourth-quarter throws. And Cohen had the huge return. And then ...
7) Deshaun Watson, quarterback, Houston Texans
I love Watson. I think he's special. Which is why Saturday's performance was so perplexing and disappointing.
It's easy (and fair) to bang on Bill O'Brien if you want, but Watson was a dud in his first playoff game -- in front of the home fans, to boot. The Texans were shut out in the first half for the first time in a game with Watson as the starter. By day's end, Watson and Co. had managed just seven points -- Houston's lowest total of the season by 10 points.
Watson was woefully erratic throwing the football. And while he did have a few productive scampers, there was no real threat of the Watson magic we've come to expect. In fact, Watson largely pulled off a disappearing act.
8) Brian Schottenheimer, offensive coordinator, Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks were hell-bent on establishing the run in Dallas despite results to the contrary -- and this bullheadedness cost them the game. 3.0 yards per carry just doesn't cut it, especially when you're voluntarily taking the ball away from one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the game today. And to be that predictable against Dallas' incredible defense -- and specifically, those gifted linebackers? Yikes.
9) John Harbaugh, head coach, Baltimore Ravens
I love Harbaugh as a coach, and I love what Lamar Jackson did to get the Ravens into the playoffs. The future for Jackson shines bright. But Harbaugh needed to make a call to the bullpen for Joe Flacco. And while Flacco has won a Super Bowl and delivered the goods in the past for Baltimore, that's not what this is about. It's about Jackson and the passing attack being totally inept. At one point in the fourth quarter, the Chargers were up 20-3 -- and the Ravens had the same number of net passing yards as points.
Don't let the final, sugar-coated stats fool you. It was a terrible day at the office for the promising rookie. In the first half, Jackson completed two of his eight passes for 17 yards and an interception, giving him a 0.0 QB rating. And it didn't get better in the third quarter, either. You can love him and still go to the bullpen. Baltimore's offense was absolutely horrible for three quarters. It was a waste. Giving Flacco a whirl was the logical move. Desperate times in an elimination game called for it.