Peter King analyzes dramatic NFL Super Wild Card Weekend as 49ers survive, Cowboys crumble, Bills dominate

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Saturday will be the 50th start of Jimmy Garoppolo’s San Francisco career. He will be at Lambeau Field, trying to beat the once and probably future MVP in the second weekend of the NFL playoffs.

Whatever happens, it’ll be hard to beat this 49er’s 49th start for drama, for lows, for highs, for triumph, for agonizing first-down measurements, for 80 seconds that took 16 minutes to play, for a feeling unlike many he’s had in football when ref Alex Kemp got on his stadium mic with SF 23 DAL 17 on the scoreboard but chaos reigning on the field and saying, “That’s the end of the game.”

“Just really cool, the whole game,” Garoppolo said from the bowels of Jerryworld 50 minutes after the game. “That was one of the better atmospheres I’ve played in in my life, and it lasted the whole game. We had some cool moments in the huddle, moments with the kind of drama you live for. It’s why you play football.”

And boy, was it loud when Garoppolo made a throw that got Dallas back into it. You saw it if you watched the game of the weekend. Up 23-10 with 9:48 left, Garoppolo had a classic Bad Jimmy moment, overthrowing wideout Trent Sherfield to open the door for a quick Dallas score. Deafening, with eight minutes left.

“I didn’t grip it the right way,” said Garoppolo, playing with a torn tendon in his throwing thumb. “Not trying to make excuses, but things happen like that. Really not too much more to it than that.”

Eight minutes to euphoric survival and another underdog game in the Lambeau freezer, or to simple despair. Eight minutes that felt like eight hours.


Wild-Card Weekend, in one-sentence bullet points:

• The Bengals won their first playoff game since Mastodons roamed the Earth, and you simply do not want to mess with Joe Burrow.

• The Bills handed Bill Belichick a royal pantsing, routing the Patriots by 30 (could have been 50), and Josh Allen, by acclamation of every man, woman and child in western New York, has been declared mayor of Buffalo this morning.

• Bucs in a rout of Philadelphia, and not much to say there.

• Lots to say in Dallas’ loss to San Francisco, including wondering about the future of Mike McCarthy after a Joe Judge-like play call to end the season.

• The end of the Big Ben Era in Pittsburgh, and it came with a thud. Kansas City will be a tough out in these playoffs.

• The first Monday night playoff game ever awaits, as America wonders: Will the game be better than the ManningCast?

Divisional weekend, in similar brevity:

SATURDAY

Cincinnati at top-seeded Tennessee. Interesting to see if the rehabbed Derrick Henry will be able to play keepaway from Joe Burrow.

San Francisco at Green Bay. Best chance for the Niners will be to play Deebo Samuel at RB, WR, and CB, because is there anything this man cannot do?

SUNDAY

Arizona/Rams winner at Tampa Bay. No Godwin, no Brown, no Fournette, no problem for Tom Brady.

Buffalo at Kansas City. This Week’s Sign That We Are Allowed To Have Nice Things: Sunday night at Arrowhead will be the fourth meeting in 15 months between Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes.


I went to Orchard Park for what I thought would be the game of the weekend, Pats-Bills. More shortly about that incredible exhibition of football from the Buffalo Bills, their best since the K-gun days. But it was not the best game of the five Saturday and Sunday. That happened in Texas, with a play call that will reverberate as far into the offseason as any in years, and that made Tony Romo darn near lose his mind on CBS.

Fourteen seconds to play. Niners 23, Cowboys 17, in the revival of the best playoff rivalry of the last 30 years. Dallas ball at the San Francisco 41-yard line, second down, no timeouts left. Remember: 14 seconds left. “Dak has to get this ball out of bounds, or take a shot at the end zone,” Romo said on CBS.

Dak did not hear this. In time lapse:

:14 Shotgun snap to Dak Prescott.

:13 Prescott, executing a quarterback draw out of the shotgun, starts running.

:11 Prescott passes the line. It’s clear now he’s going to run to the point where he feels he can slide down and still have enough time to spike it and get off one last pass play.

:09 Prescott begins slide at the Niners’ 25.

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott. (Getty Images)

:07 Prescott begins to rise.

:05 Chaos. Prescott hands the ball to center Tyler Biadasz. But that’s a mistake. Prescott’s immediate reaction should have been to look for nearest official, because an official must touch the football before every snap.

:04 Umpire Ramon George, running in from behind the play to spot the ball, careens into the back of Prescott, trying to reach for the ball.

:03/:02 George finally gets his hands on the ball, moving it back from the Cowboys spot about a yard back to the San Francisco 24.

:01 The ball spotted, George moves away into the defense.

:00 Prescott has the ball in his hands, a millisecond before spiking it down.

No argument. It was close, but there was no replay that showed the ball out of Prescott’s hands with time left on the clock.

More chaos. No one can figure it out on the field.

“It’s gonna be over!” Romo yelled upstairs. “The ump has to touch the ball! … You can’t set your own ball! Dak Prescott should have looked and found the ref! You can’t give it to your center!”

“That’s the end of the game,” Kemp announced.

McCarthy said the Cowboys practiced this very play, down to the timing, in end-of-game or end-of-half practice situations. He blamed the collision of the ump and Prescott for the loss of enough time to prevent Dallas from having another play. Maybe, but you can’t leave the end of the game, and your season, down to one or two seconds.

Prescott said he should have gone down sooner. He’s absolutely right there.

McCarthy’s aim was to have a better shot than a Hail Mary on the last play of the game. Running five go routes from sideline to sideline would have given Dallas a better chance for Prescott to pick a receiver with some air around him near the goal line.

But with no timeouts left, a coach cannot count on the clock stopping with one second to go. There should be a clear line of communication with the quarterback when to get down. Prescott got a little greedy, and McCarthy and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore should have told him it was paramount to be down with 10 seconds left and then to hand the ball to an official, to be sure they’d have time for another play.

Or, failing that, Dallas had time for two throws deep downfield or into the end zone. No option was great here, but running so the quarterback is still getting off the ground with seven seconds left is not smart. Dallas fans were anguished, and owner Jerry Jones looked post-game like his dog just died.

For Garoppolo, it looked like the game was over with 40 seconds left when he executed his 26th straight successful sneak for a first down on fourth-and-one from the Dallas 38. But no—Garoppolo snapped it while tackle Trent Williams was getting set in his stance, and the Niners were called for a false start. “That’s on me,” said Garoppolo. “I was over-zealous there.”

The Niners are trying to ride Garoppolo to a strong finish, obviously, but it’s hard. First, they drafted his replacement, Trey Lance, last April, and Lance is waiting in the wings until—next spring, presumably—Garoppolo is traded to smooth the way for the kid. Second: Garoppolo has a torn ligament in his thumb, and he’s trying to play through it.

“It is what it is,” Garoppolo told me from Texas. “I mean, you can imagine. It hurts. It ain’t changing any time soon. But we’re all dealing with stuff now, so no different than anyone else.”

Well, there is a difference. When a quarterback’s grip is affected, the ball’s not going where he wants and the way he wants all the time. He said his mechanics and grip “are definitely different.”

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys
49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. (Getty Images)

I wondered if he knew about the social-media storm about him, about his future, about his ups and downs (especially the downs), and how he handled it. If what he said is totally on the level, it’s a smart way to handle it. Ignore it—but if you hear it, use it.

“I think a big part of it is just knowing who you are—as a player and a person, really,” Garoppolo said. “That will take you a long way. It’s kind of a big part of just my mental game. I know what type of quarterback I am. I know what type of player I am in this league and where I stand. All the noise out there and everything, keep it coming. It fuels me and it keeps me going. It’s a good thing when people are talking about you.”

What a road for the Niners. In the span of 14 days, this will be the path: Win-and-in comeback from 17-0 deficit at the Rams to win on Jan 9 … Survive the weirdness at the Cowboys to win on Jan. 16 … Travel to the tundra on Jan. 22 to face the rested reigning MVP and his mates in Green Bay.

“Going from the Rams game to the Dallas game, now to Lambeau, this is the reason you play football,” Garoppolo said. “I can’t wait for it.”

Bills 47, Patriots 17

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Not long before one of the great playoff games an NFL quarterback has ever played, a text message pinged into Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen’s phone.

So proud to know that you’ve risen to the level of being a Pro Bowl alternate!

The sarcastic barb came from Allen’s trusted offseason workout coach, Jordan Palmer. Allen, of course, was somewhat famously omitted from the AFC Pro Bowl roster this year when Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert and Lamar Jackson were chosen ahead of him.

Maybe Allen used a few drops of motivational fuel from the Palmer text. Maybe he just chuckled at it. My bet is the former. Whatever, this was the quarterback who had drilled into him by Palmer all offseason, “Finish, finish,” to the point of not taking gimmes on the short putts on the golf course. This was the quarterback who wanted to be sure in August that his days of playing “Heroball,” as Allen called it, trying to win games by himself, were over. This was the quarterback so comfortable with the schemes and play-calls and progression reads from offensive coordinator Brian Daboll that he calmly took 9.18 seconds from snap to throw, meandering and thinking and looking, before throwing his first touchdown in a 47-17 rout of the rival Patriots on Wild-Card Weekend.

The two big things Allen concentrated on in the preseason look positively fixed now. Too often in his first three years, Allen told me in camp, “I tried to play pissed off on the field and I found myself not playing very well.” And, he said, he was “trying not to be a hero.”

On Saturday, the Pro Bowl alternate played with the zen of Rodgers, with the precision of Brady, with the open-field moves of Jackson. Allen played seven series in his 52 minutes of play. He was peerless. His team was peerless. This was the best game of Allen’s four NFL seasons, and nothing comes close for second place. For the first time in NFL history, a team never had a fourth down, never punted, never kicked a field goal, was perfect on third downs. Allen drove for a touchdown in every possession using perfect touch when he had to, lasered throws when he had to, throwing to spot, deking back-seven defenders, and once running out of (what should have been) a tackle-for-loss in the grasp of 310-pound tackle Christian Barmore. Allen did all of this against the NFL’s second-ranked defense in the 2021 season.

This was a crazy night in Buffalo—the biggest, locals said, this century. “We knew the history,” said safety Micah Hyde, also a hero in 47-17, a score that will be on Bills Mafia shirts soon, I’m sure. “We know what it’s been like the last 20 years.”

Non-competitive. That’s what it’s been like since Bill Belichick took over as Patriots coach in 2000. In games in Buffalo between New Year’s Day 2000 and ’22, New England had 19 wins, Buffalo three. Three wins in 22 years! In Buffalo!

Non-competitive. That’s what it was like Saturday night, in minus-five wind chill. This time, it was the Patriots who couldn’t compete. “Embarrassing,” was the last word New England team leader Devin McCourty said to the press this season before walking off the podium for the last time, in the worst Belichick playoff loss ever.

I have never seen a Belichick team so outclassed. Allen was the reason. This game completed his progression as a big-time NFL quarterback. No jittery movements, no rushing anything. Craziest play: On his first touchdown, the 9.18-second rollout right, I swore he was throwing the ball out of the end zone to avoid taking the sack. That’s exactly what happened. “I thought I threw the ball away,” Allen said later. “I got hit and was going back to the huddle for what I think was third down, and everybody was celebrating. I had no idea what was going on.”

Simple: Tight end Dawson Knox leaped at the end line, stayed inbounds, and somehow caught the high ball from Allen. Watching on the scoreboard for the replay, seeing the eight-yard TD, Allen said he thought: “Holy crap. I did not mean for that to happen.”

Then there were the jock-dropping two runs (Allen ran for 66 yards), leaving a Pats linebacker and safety grasping at air. And there was the gorgeous last TD throw, when Allen threw it low and outside to wideout Gabriel Davis because there was a Patriot beginning to dive in front of him; Allen saw the danger and threw where only Davis could catch it. Allen did it all on the coldest night he ever played the sport—looking like it was a wind-less 76-degree day in mid-September.

Watching from across the country in California, tutor Palmer saw a student who’s come a long way since completing 53 percent of his throws in a jittery rookie season, just three years ago.

“I saw control,” Palmer said. “I saw him play free and easy, in total control. You can see this moment is not too big for him. It’s like he feels, I better be able to handle this if I’m gonna beat Aaron Rodgers.

That’d be in the Super Bowl, of course. After the first weekend of the AFC playoffs, the Bills look like they have the best chance of anyone in the AFC to get there.

Cincinnati 26, Las Vegas 19

Young quarterbacks are maturing much faster than they did in the Elway days. Imagine any quarterback lifting a bad team the way Joe Burrow has in his first full season as an NFL starter. Dating back to Week 13 against San Francisco, Burrow’s last four games of the regular season were all played with the AFC North title on the line. He lost in overtime to the Niners after bringing Cincinnati back from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to force OT. Then the Burrow-led Bengals beat Denver, Baltimore and Kansas City to win the division for the first time in six years. And Saturday, in his first NFL playoff game, Burrow out-ratinged vet Derek Carr 110-69 and the Bengals won.

Burrow’s line in those five games is astounding for a player of his experience:

74.9% completion rate
342 yards per game
13 touchdowns
0 interceptions
129.94 rating

That’s Montana at his best right there.

The touchdown against Vegas that was the crazy-best was one that shouldn’t have counted. That doesn’t make it any less impressive. Late in the first half, at the Vegas 10-yard line, Burrow faded right, rolled right and was a millisecond from his right foot stepping on the white boundary when he lasered a throw about 20 yards in the air to Tyler Boyd deep in the end zone. A whistle blew when the ball was in mid-flight, meaning the ball should have been ruled dead and the play repeated, but the officials didn’t call it. So it counts.

“Plays like that, you can’t explain,” said coach Zac Taylor. “It’s making a play when there’s no play to be made.” Burrow’s good at those. Now, top-seeded Tennessee awaits.

Chiefs 42, Steelers 21

What’s interesting to me about Andy Reid’s team of 2021, as opposed to the previous three editions, is that this year he really needs his depth. In the past, depth has sometimes been a luxury item in his toolbox. It’s easy to give chances to lesser players when you’ve got such a John Stockton-type of assist man as Patrick Mahomes. With defections and injuries, Reid has expanded roles for roster marginalia, and that was on display Sunday night in the three-TD rout of the Steelers:

• Jerick McKinnonat running back, continued to show what the Niners saw when making him a big free-agent signing in 2018. Injuries kept him from being a Kyle Shanahan mainstay, but now we see. Sunday night, he had 18 touches, 142 yards and a touchdown catch. It’s amazing that McKinnon opened the playoffs as KC’s most valuable back.

• Byron Pringleat wideout. Undrafted from nearby Kansas State in 2019, Pringle’s a classic next-man-up story for Reid. His 12-yard TD from Mahomes in the second quarter gave KC the lead for good Sunday night, and he had a bonus one in the fourth quarter. Interesting that Pringle and McKinnon had more scrimmage yards, TDs and touches than Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill on Sunday night.

And, of course, there were the typical weird TDs for Kansas City—the first TD pass ever for Kelce, and the big-man TD by offensive lineman Nick Allegretti. That was interesting for two reasons: Allegretti tossed T.J. Watt aside, then turned to get free at the goal line, in catching his one-yard TD. Not a lot of receivers discard the (presumed] Defensive Player of the Year to the side like a bag of three-day-old doughnuts.

Sunday night showed KC’s a threat to play into February every year, as long as they have Reid calling the plays and Mahomes executing them.

Bucs 31, Eagles 15

I wonder if sometimes you’re Shaq Barrett or Lavonte David and you think, Uh, other guys are on this team other than Brady. I mean, all indications are there’s zero Brady-envy in the Tampa Bay locker room. But when that D comes to play, the Bucs could win with the ghosts of Bucs quarterback past.

Through 44 minutes Sunday in Tampa, the Bucs had a 31-0 lead and the Eagles had just 172 yards. Philadelphia changed its offensive style to a run-based attack in midseason, and the Bucs snuffed that out on the first two series. They stopped Jalen Hurts for a five-yard loss on the first series of the game, and stopped Miles Sanders for another five-yard loss on the second series. The Bucs are getting healthier on defense at the right time, welcoming back Barrett and David on Sunday. Now if they can only accelerate that bad hamstring of mainstay running back Leonard Fournette. He was held out Sunday. The sooner he plays, the less pressure there will be on Brady.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column