NFL postseason yields many upsets for favored teams

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Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins throws game-winning touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph.

Aria Khalique, Staff Writer

NFL wildcard weekend kicked off the 2020 postseason with lower-performing teams outscoring and winning over high profile teams that were favored to win. The poor performances of these elite teams coupled with the continued excellence of emerging teams have yielded many upsets as NFL postseason gets underway.

Many teams that were performing well this season were knocked out early or even in wildcard rounds. The Baltimore Ravens were seeded number one in the AFC conference and projected by The Huddle to advance all the way to the Super Bowl. CBS Sports projected the New Orleans Saints to dominate the Vikings and the 2018 Super Bowl champions the New England Patriots were thought to have an easy win against the Tennessee Titans. All these teams experienced shocking losses early in the postseason leaving fans and experts alike wondering what went wrong.

These upsetting losses can be attributed to a consistent decline in performance by these stellar teams but more importantly, impressive qualities of new teams that the former was not prepared for.

The power of emerging teams was clearly displayed in the Saints matchup against the Vikings on January 5. The so-called easy win for the Saints was neck and neck the entire game with the regular time ending in a 20-20 tie. It was in overtime that the Vikings drove the ball quickly downfield to raise the score 26-20 clinching a spot in the divisional rounds.

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Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph catches the game-winning touchdown in an overtime win over the Saints.

Many sports fans chalked this loss up to a “bad game” or quarterback Drew Brees’s torn thumb ligament, but the Vikings defense was the true winner of the wild card game.

Defensive ends Everson Griffin and Danielle Hunter continuously worked to tear apart the Saints offensive line throughout the game. The pair, along with the rest of the defense, forced a critical fumble at the end of the fourth quarter and tallied three sacks in total. 

In contrast, the Saints defense were not forceful at all as quarterback Kirk Cousins had ample time in the pocket to find receivers far downfield.

Similar to the Saints, the New England Patriots did not live up to their name in a 20-13 loss against the Tennessee Titans.

Though the 2018 Super Bowl champions are always thought of in high regard, this loss was a long time coming. The team has been doing significantly worse this season than the last. 

According to Mike Dussault, a writer for patriots.com, “[the team’s] red zone touchdown rate fell from 62.9 percent in 2018 to 49.2 percent in 2019, 27th in the NFL.”

This sharp decrease demonstrates how the once-unstoppable team, is beginning to face challenges and decline in strength. The team’s abrupt decrease in power and statistics can be attributed to their loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski as the 30-year-old retired last year. 

Gronkowski, responsible for 682 rushing yards in the 2018 season, was essential to the Patriots offense. The 6 feet 6 inches tight end and quarterback Tom Brady made numerous connections in the 2018-2019 season to advance New England all the way to the Super Bowl. His retirement left the team short of even reaching the divisional rounds.

The Baltimore Ravens did not miss retired players, but injuries, failure to protect passes and multiple sacks were the reason for their 12-28 loss against the Tennessee Titans.

According to Pro-Football-Reference, only three percent of the Ravens passes ended in drops during the regular season. Their game against the Titans, however, resulted in an average drop rate of about 8.5%.

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Titans cornerback Logan Ryan intercepts Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s pass for a touchdown.

A reason for this stark increase in drops could be due to injuries limiting key players during the game. 

Running back Mark Ingram, Jr. was limited due to a calf injury and totaled a season-low of only 6 carries. Tight end Mark Andrews suffered an ankle injury that held him to only four catches against Tennessee. 

Though New England and Baltimore had separate reasons for their poor performances, an unmistakable factor in their losses is the strong performances displayed by their opponent: the Tennessee Titans. 

The Titans thought of as the “underdogs”, started off the season with a 3-4 record. Their luck shifted when quarterback Ryan Tannehil replaced Marcus Mariota in Week 7. After Tannehill took over, the Titans went 6-1 for the weeks following. 

Neil Greenberg of the Washington Post accounts that “from Weeks 1 to 6, with Mariota as the starter, the Titans scored 1.3 points per drive and converted 53 percent of their red-zone opportunities.”

These statistics soared upward when Tannehill, former Miami Dolphins quarterback, subbed in for Mariota.

“During Weeks 7 to 14, with Tannehill under center, [these numbers have] improved to 2.5 points per drive and 86 percent in the red zone,” Greenberg continued.

Tannehil’s elevated offense along with consistent strong defense has made the Titans a formidable opponent.

Ryan Gaydos of FOX Sports explained that “the Titans defense has also played very well over the last three weeks. The team had not allowed more than 14 points over that span”.

Though statistics illustrate the Titans as an unstoppable team, they are easily overlooked by their opponents due to poor past performance. 

The Tennessee team finished the 2019 regular season with a record of 9-7. This was identical to their record at the end of the 2018 season. 

This lack of growth and the extremely average record does not paint the team as a threat especially to Super Bowl defending champs like the Patriots and first seeded teams like the Ravens. 

Though these favored teams had their own issues when it came to playoff time, the fact that they didn’t view the Titans as a threat could have contributed to their devastating losses. 

Given that the Titans have plowed through some of the best teams this season, their next opponents might learn to take this team seriously not just for playoff season but for seasons to come.