The NFL Wild Card weekend that changed everything

It took just one weird and wildly entertaining Wild Card weekend for the National Football League’s playoff field to look a whole lot different than most of us expected.

If that’s a lot of “Ws” to cram into a Monday sentence, apologies, but there were a lot of big “Ws” (wins) to get our heads around. On the flip side, two significant best-laid plans were left in ruins.

The New Orleans Saints looked like a Super Bowl contender because they had played, acted and felt every bit like one all season. The New England Patriots were a Super Bowl contender because, well, how can any team that has won three of the last five not be?

No matter; both went tumbling down to 6th seeds: the game, spirited, and defensively exceptional Tennessee Titans and Minnesota Vikings, respectively.

And so the postseason was shorn of two of its highest-profile quarterbacks, leaving in their place a fascinating collective of men under center to battle it out over the next few weeks. Of course, quarterback play is not the only thing that matters between now and the biggest game of all in Miami on Feb. 2.

But even if you’re not fond of reality television, sticking these particular eight QBs in a house and watching them interact would make for some pretty intriguing viewing. As it is, we’ll have to settle for them duking it out on the gridiron, as the opportunity of a lifetime beckons for each.

You can separate the guys upon whose arms and minds the fate of their teams rest during this postseason gauntlet into three distinct groups. Starting off, there are the proven men, the huge earners, both past Super Bowl champions: Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers.

They rake in a collective $68.5 million per season, but they both feel the weight of history on their shoulders. If you’d told Rodgers on Feb. 6, 2011 that, having just clinched his first Super Bowl ring, he and the Green Bay Packers would not get back to the marquee game at any point over the succeeding nine years, he may have struggled to believe you.

Wilson may have had the same response after the Seattle Seahawks’ attempt to go back-to-back was thwarted at the goal line at Super Bowl XLIX, and a potential dynasty evaporated steadily thereafter.

“(The Seahawks) just love ineffective runs and forcing Russell Wilson to be brilliant, instead of just allowing Russell Wilson to be brilliant (on his own),” FS1’s Nick Wright said on First Things First, lamenting the Seahawks playcalling that inexplicably focused on Seattle’s lackluster run game. “Russell Wilson was brilliant every time he touched the ball. So how dangerous are they? I think they could go to Green Bay and upset the Packers … if they make it a Russell Wilson game.”

The Packers and Seahawks go head-to-head on Sunday (FOX, 6:40 p.m. ET), and each team has somewhat of a gauntlet of fire to run through, with the victor due to face the winner of the San Francisco 49ers-Minnesota Vikings matchup.

FOX Bet places the Seahawks as +170 underdogs in the divisional round, with the Packers at -200 to win and favored by four points, as of Monday morning. The 49ers are -275 favorites against Minnesota, favored to win by six and a half points and currently at +333 to win the Super Bowl.

Which brings us neatly to the next mini-clique in the playoff quarterback field. Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo and Ryan Tannehill formulate a group that has been maligned, derided, doubted and occasionally laughed at.

Garoppolo has marshaled the best team in the NFC this season, those 49ers, taking them to a 13-3 record and a top seed in his first healthy campaign in the Bay Area. Yet despite his efforts, there have been plenty of dissenting voices, questioning whether he was serving as a mere game manager to the 49ers’ multitude of talents elsewhere.

Garoppolo’s stats have not been eye-popping, with 3,978 passing yards and 27 touchdowns, but his completion rate of 69.1 percent is top drawer, and he held his nerve in countless clutch situations towards the end of the regular season. He deserves better than the game-manager tag, but he’ll have to earn it this postseason.

Indeed, there is no better place to unseat unfair preconceptions than during this month when the entire NFL world is watching. That’s what Cousins found on Sunday, making the biggest play of his career at the precise moment when he had to.

It is easy for many to mock Cousins. He leaves it all out there, wears his heart on his sleeve, and was the recipient of one of the most famous high-risk, high-reward contracts in NFL history when Minnesota fully guaranteed his three-year, $84 million deal.

It is hard to say one throw could ever be worth $84 million, but Cousins’ beautifully-dropped overtime strike into the arms of a diving Adam Thielen surely felt sprinkled with gold dust for the Vikings organization.

As for Tannehill, his special moment over the weekend wasn’t quite as spectacular, but was just as critical. He didn’t have a great game by any stretch against the Patriots, but with Tennessee needing to run out the clock late, he made a third down conversion that CBS’ Tony Romo described as the “throw of his life.”

Tannehill was cut loose from the Miami Dolphins after last season and looked destined for a future as a backup. Instead, he led the league in passer rating — and now both he and the Titans go marching on.

No one gets to this stage of the campaign without dreaming of winning it all, and each of the teams still alive will find reasons to convince themselves that this is the year. However, the biggest combined stumbling block of all comes in the standard bearers for the NFL’s quarterbacking youth movement.

According to FiveThirtyEight, there is a 66 percent chance that either Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson gets to hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy on the first weekend of February. Jackson, due to the dominance of himself and the Baltimore Ravens, figures to have the best shot at it. The only team that remains a betting favorite over those dominant 49ers are the Ravens, at +200 to win it all.

The Ravens are a strong favorite for a reason, embarking upon a 12-game winning streak and with Jackson showing a level of skill, speed and composure for which no team was able to find a suitable answer.

Colin Cowherd explained how Jackson is changing how we look at football on The Herd in December. “The game doesn’t overwhelm Lamar,” Cowherd said. “In fact, he’s overwhelming the game. Lamar plays at a speed at which he’s comfortable and at which nobody else is comfortable. His decision-making is remarkable, considering the speed at which he plays.”

The kind of glowing tributes afforded to Jackson are similar to those dropped in the lap of Mahomes a year ago, when the Kansas City Chiefs youngster exploded onto the scene and came within a whisker of getting to the Super Bowl.

Mahomes has quickly become part of the NFL furniture, but he is still only 24, and is looking to capitalize on what is a serious window of opportunity for the Chiefs.

Watson’s Houston Texans didn’t come into the playoffs fancied by many, having emerged from the lightly regarded AFC South. Yet the young QB has established himself as one of the best in the league in short order, then showed exactly why in Houston’s thrilling overtime triumph over the Buffalo Bills.

If big plays when your team desperately needs one floats your boat, then Watson’s feat of escapology against the Bills was a thing of beauty and solidified his growing reputation. He will take his team to Arrowhead Stadium as a giant underdog, but with nothing to lose.

“Nothing to lose” … who are we kidding? Having gotten this close, everyone feels like they have something to lose.

The postseason lost arguably its two biggest name quarterbacks in the space of 24 hours, but if anything, that makes the remaining battle that much more intriguing. Eight teams led by eight quarterbacks remain, all with a different journey and a different point to prove, yet with the same ultimate goal.