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Keith Srakocic/Associated Press
With the Wild Card Round of the NFL playoffs completed, it’s only natural for fans and pundits to focus on the teams who moved on, whether it was one we expected like the New Orleans Saints or one we certainly didn’t such as the Cleveland Browns.
However, there’s a flip side to the teams who are celebrating and preparing for the next round of the playoffs. While six teams advanced, six others had their season come to an end.
For some, like a 7-9 Washington Football Team starting a backup quarterback, defeat wasn’t exactly a surprise. For others, like the 12-4 Seattle Seahawks and the 12-4 Pittsburgh Steelers, it was.
The eliminated teams will have some time to lick their wounds, clean out their lockers and try to figure out what went wrong. But those clubs must also quickly figure out what improvements they need to ensure that disappointment in 2020 doesn’t turn into regression in 2021.
Those teams have to ask themselves a painful question as the sting of defeat starts to fade: What’s next?
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Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press
The 2020 season didn’t end like the Indianapolis Colts had hoped when they lost 27-24 in Buffalo on Saturday. But in Philip Rivers’ first season under center, they won 11 games for the first time since 2014 and earned a playoff berth after a 7-9 backslide last season.
The Colts now need to figure out who will be under center the next time they’re in action.
For his part, the 39-year-old Rivers told reporters after the game that he hasn’t made a decision on whether to retire:
“It’s not that easy. I don’t go this route with an answer often, but I think this probably sums it up. Whatever God’s will is for me and my family, if it’s here in Indy playing another year, then we’ll be here. And if it’s not, I’ll be on the sidelines with a ball cap coaching the heck out of a high school football team down in south Alabama.”
On some level, the Colts might prefer if Rivers takes the decision out of their hands. Although he finished the regular season with 4,169 passing yards, 24 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a passer rating of 97.0, his days as an elite passer are behind him. So long as he’s “the guy” for the Colts, the season that just transpired feels much closer to their ceiling than the floor.
But if Rivers isn’t their quarterback next year, it begs the question of who would be. After all, this is a team whose Super Bowl window is ostensibly open.
Does general manager Chris Ballard go for broke and make a play for a proven veteran like Detroit’s Matthew Stafford or Atlanta’s Matt Ryan? Could he take on Carson Wentz’s contract in the hopes that Frank Reich can turn him around? Perhaps pair a veteran stopgap like Ryan Fitzpatrick with a rookie like Alabama’s Mac Jones?
The quarterback quandary is going to be the dominant storyline in Indianapolis over the next several weeks. And it could wind up defining the team for the next several years.
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Ted S. Warren/Associated Press
It feels a bit hyperbolic to call the Russell Wilson-led Seattle Seahawks a dynasty. But it’s as close to a dynasty as we’ve seen in the NFC over the past decade.
Seattle has been to the playoffs in eight of the past nine seasons and made it to two straight Super Bowls. Had Pete Carroll remembered that Marshawn Lynch was on the team in Super Bowl XLIX, the Seahawks would be the NFL’s most recent back-to-back champions.
But after the Seahawks got manhandled at home by the Los Angeles Rams in the Wild Card Round, something has become painfully clear: As presently constructed, they are not an elite team.
“It’s really frustrating to be done,” Carroll told reporters after the game. “The sudden of this, there’s nothing like it. You just have to deal with it. … Real disappointed in this outcome.”
The writing was on the wall for the 2020 Seahawks. Their offense was an absolute buzzsaw earlier in the season, but it fizzled badly down the stretch, culminating in an awful performance in which Wilson completed only 11 of 27 passes and Seattle converted only two of 14 third-down attempts. The defense isn’t as bad as the historically awful unit we saw in September and October, but the “Legion of Boom” days are long gone.
These Seahawks are 1-3 in the postseason since 2017 and haven’t made it past the divisional round since losing Super Bowl XLIX.
There’s no quick fix here, either. With almost $50 million in cap space tied up in Wilson and inside linebacker Bobby Wagner, the Seahawks don’t have the cap space to spend big in free agency. Seattle won’t have a high draft pick, and even if they did, John Schneider’s recent draft history has been less than impressive.
If the Seahawks are going to make a run at Super Bowl LVI, it’s going to be with a similar roster as the one they have now.
The odds that it will work out any differently than Saturday’s embarrassment aren’t especially good.
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Julio Cortez/Associated Press
While Seattle had Super Bowl aspirations, no one expected the 7-9 Washington Football Team to get past Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Very few expected Washington to even make a game of it.
That the WFT did so before falling 31-23 speaks well to the tenacity Ron Rivera’s team showed in his first season at the helm. But if Washington is going to build on this year’s NFC East title and win even more games next year, one priority towers over all others in the offseason.
Washington has to find some kind of answer at quarterback.
On Saturday night, it had one in surprise star Taylor Heinicke, who threw for 306 yards, ran for 46 more and accounted for two total touchdowns. Wide receiver Terry McLaurin told reporters after the game that he’d happily roll into Week 1 of the 2021 season with Heinicke as his quarterback.
“I’ll take No. 4 on my team any day of the week, twice on Sunday. I hope we’re teammates in the future. That dude plays with no fear. He’s going to give his players a chance to make plays. He extends plays, he runs, he takes hits. He does everything you ask a quarterback to do in this league. He gave us a chance.”
Still, Heinicke is a 27-year-old journeyman who was taking math classes at Old Dominion in December when Washington came calling. Saturday’s start was the second of his NFL career.
Between the teams that could be looking to make changes under center (including at least a few who made the playoffs in 2020) and the quarterbacks who may be available, this offseason has the potential to be the most dramatic in recent memory at the position.
Washington is going to be right in the thick of that drama.
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Brett Carlsen/Associated Press
The Baltimore Ravens bounced the Tennessee Titans from the playoffs in the Wild Card Round because they could neither run the ball nor stop the run.
As the Titans head into the offseason looking to shore up their weaknesses and defend their AFC South title in 2021, the ground game isn’t going to be the focus. The pass defense should be.
The Titans defense played a big part in keeping them in the game Sunday, allowing only 165 passing yards and sacking Lamar Jackson five times. But those five sacks were much more exception than rule for a Tennessee team that managed only 19 sacks all season long. Only two teams in the NFL recorded fewer, and edge-rusher Harold Landry led the team with a mere 5.5.
With the Titans unable to generate any kind of consistent pass rush, the Tennessee secondary was left out to dry. The results were predictably unfortunate.
After piling up 17 interceptions from 2017 through 2019, safety Kevin Byard had only one, and it didn’t come until Week 15. Byard’s passer rating against skyrocketed by more than 40 points in 2020, and his terrible angle in pursuit Sunday allowed Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson to peel off a long touchdown run.
Cornerback Malcolm Butler has gone from the hero of Super Bowl XLIX to a big-ticket free-agent signing in 2018 to one of the most picked-on corners in the NFL. Butler was targeted a staggering 127 times in 2020, allowing 63 percent of the passes thrown his way to be completed for 873 yards and five touchdowns.
Add it all together, and you have the league’s fourth-worst pass defense.
Heading into the final year of his rookie contract, Landry has made it clear that he’s at best a complementary pass-rusher. Byard and Butler have a combined cap hit north of $29 million next year.
The latter isn’t going to make a makeover any easier, although most of the dead cap money could be avoided by designating Butler and/or Byard as a post-June 1 cut.
But whether the Titans free up some cash ahead of free agency or make it the focus of the 2021 draft, they need to improve their pass defense to be a serious contender in the AFC next season.
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Brett Duke/Associated Press
The Chicago Bears’ postmortem wouldn’t have changed much (if at all) had they somehow stunned the New Orleans Saints in the Wild Card Round. Their 21-9 loss only cemented the fork in the proverbial road at which they stand.
Should the Bears blow things up?
A week ago, Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported the Bears were expected to retain head coach Matt Nagy after he led them to the playoffs in two of his first three seasons. He had reportedly “taken a heavier hand in play-calling, which has helped him down the stretch.”
However, the Bears offense struggled Sunday against the Saints. They finished with only 239 yards of total offense, and a big chunk of those came on the game’s final, meaningless drive.
The Bears also have to decide whether to re-sign quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, whose fifth-year option they declined back in May. Veteran wide receiver Allen Robinson II, who hauled in a career-high 102 catches for 1,250 yards and six touchdowns, will join him in free agency.
Heading into Sunday’s game, Rapoport reported “there is no certainty” the Bears bring back Trubisky, but he had a chance to “change their mind” with a win over the Saints. Instead, he failed to crack 200 passing yards and didn’t throw a touchdown pass until garbage time.
Here’s the cold reality: The Bears aren’t a bad team, but they aren’t a good one, either. They backed into the playoffs thanks to an Arizona Cardinals loss, and they have more losses than wins (including playoffs) over the past two years.
But it can be hard for NFL teams to admit that they’re in need of a rebuild, especially after making a trip to the postseason.
Instead, the Bears will likely make a few tweaks, bring back most of the 2020 roster and proceed to have another mediocre year in 2021.
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Don Wright/Associated Press
The Pittsburgh Steelers opened the season with a franchise-record 11 straight wins before faltering down the stretch. However, they got a win over the playoff-bound Colts in Week 16 and faced a Cleveland Browns team Sunday that was short a handful of key players, its head coach and hadn’t won at Heinz Field since 2003.
In 26 starts against the Browns before Sunday, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had lost twice. A third loss seemed unthinkable…until it wasn’t.
Now, there was a certain nightmarish quality to the way the Steelers lost 48-37 to the Browns, whether it was the snap that sailed over Roethlisberger’s head on the first play from scrimmage or the deluge of points from Cleveland that followed. But the warning signs had been there with these Steelers.
They haven’t been able to run the ball effectively for most of the year, and they had only 52 yards on the ground Sunday. Their vaunted pass rush has been slowed by injuries, and they didn’t sack Baker Mayfield once. Roethlisberger attempted a staggering 68 passes but averaged fewer yards per attempt than Mayfield.
To go from talk of an undefeated season to a first-round knockout is a shot to the mouth that will sting the Steelers for a while. But it won’t feel much better to look ahead to 2021, because that means facing the reality that Roethlisberger might be done as a high-end quarterback.
The 38-year-old isn’t completely to blame for Pittsburgh’s issues on offense late in the season. But the years of hits have taken a toll. His mobility is all but gone.
After the game, Roethlisberger hinted at returning in 2021—if the Steelers want him.
“I hope the Steelers want me back if that’s the way we go,” he said.
Pittsburgh has to do something about its long-time quarterback. Per Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, Roethlisberger carries a cap hit over $41 million next year and would cost $22 million and change against the cap if he retires. Those are troublesome numbers for a team that’s more than $20 million over the 2021 cap before extensions for players like edge-rusher Bud Dupree and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Add in that they have no clear succession plan in place behind Big Ben, and the Steelers head into the offseason filled with disappointment and uncertainty in equally smothering measure.