Though there were large margins of victory in a couple of the divisional-round games, teams still executed plenty of great plays this weekend. Here's a look at some of the best.
The New Orleans Saints were down by two touchdowns early and rallied to secure a spot in the NFC Championship Game with a 20-14 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. Quarterback Drew Brees wasn't perfect, throwing one interception, but when the Saints needed him most, the veteran seemed to be at his best, both in the second half and on a number of fourth-down opportunities.
One of those fourth downs came midway through the second quarter, with the Saints trailing by 14 and facing a fourth-and-goal inside the 5-yard line. Sean Payton elected to go for it, and he put Brees under center with three receivers to the left. Michael Thomas, the Saints' No. 1 wide receiver, aligned outside. The Saints brought Thomas in motion toward the formation, and showed a potential goal-line shield screen:
Many NFL teams are using this design on the goal line and/or in short yardage situations. But Thomas was a decoy. The Saints ran more of a Flat-7 concept to the left, with Thomas cutting back toward the flat while Keith Kirkwood releases to the corner:
Adding to the deception was Brees' pump fake after the snap. The design fooled the Eagles' defenders, who kept their eyes in the backfield for a moment, expecting the screen. That enabled Kirkwood to get separation on the quick corner route, and Brees hit him for six:
Though the Saints needed a number of additional plays to complete the comeback, this early TD provided a big boost.
If you didn't know the result of the game and someone told you that either the Dallas Cowboys or the Los Angeles Rams racked up more than 270 yards rushing on 48 carries Saturday night, you probably would have assumed Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys had pulled off an upset out West.
And, as we now know, you would have been mistaken.
C.J. Anderson and Todd Gurley each broke the century mark in the Rams' 30-22 victory; Anderson tallied 123 yards on 23 carries with a pair of touchdowns, and Gurley added 115 yards on 16 carries and a score.
Los Angeles used a variety of rushing designs to attack Dallas' front. One aspect of their ground game was the usage of the jet sweep as well as end-around designs with the wide receivers. Robert Woods, Josh Reynolds, and Brandin Cooks each had a carry, and while they gained just 23 yards combined, they made a bigger impact on the game at large. These designs kept the Cowboys' edge defenders honest, which had a trickle-down effect for the Rams' offense.
Here is one example. Late in the second quarter, the Rams face a first-and-10 on the Dallas 35-yard line. They line up with Jared Goff under center and with Gurley as the single back in the backfield:
The Rams run a split-zone rushing play, with the blockers flowing to the right while tight end Tyler Higbee executes a slice block to the backside. In addition, Reynolds will fake an end around:
Gurley gets the carry and has a huge hole thanks to the pair of blocks from left tackle Andrew Whitworth, first at the point of attack and then later on safety Jeff Heath. The potential end around to Reynolds also helps freeze defensive end Randy Gregory, making the hole even bigger:
Gurley explodes through the massive crease and is off to the races, extending the Rams' lead. The replay angle provides a perfect view of the space Gurley had and shows how the end around froze Gregory:
Before the game, we wondered if Sean McVay was going to incorporate end arounds and jet sweeps to keep the Cowboys' defense honest. By doing so, he created a chance for the Rams' ground game to thrive.
The host Kansas City Chiefs got out to an early lead against Indianapolis and looked as if they might run the Colts right out of town. A big special-teams play and an opportunistic defense helped Indianapolis keep things close for a while, but the Chiefs' much-maligned defense was ultimately too much to handle.
Kansas City's defensive unit did not allow a touchdown until late in the Chiefs' 31-13 victory on Saturday, frustrating Colts quarterback Andrew Luck all afternoon. The defense racked up three sacks, hit Luck six times, and had 11 pass breakups, three from defensive tackle Chris Jones.
But the Chiefs' defense might have made its biggest play in the third quarter. After Darius Leonard forced a fumble, gifting the Colts the football in the Kansas City red zone, the Indianapolis offense had a chance to cut the Chiefs' lead to just 10 with over a quarter remaining. Instead, Kansas City got to Luck two plays later.
Here, the Colts face a second-and-10 at the Chiefs' 20-yard line and align with Luck alone in the backfield. The Chiefs show pressure, walking a linebacker down over the center. They do bring five, with linebacker Anthony Hitchens looping around to the left side of the offense:
This creates a one-on-one situation for Dee Ford against rookie right tackle Braden Smith. In a battle of former Auburn Tigers, the defender wins, beating Smith with a combination of power and speed to the outside before getting to Luck to strip the football:
The Chiefs pounce on the loose ball, ending the scoring threat.
With their defense turning in an impressive performance and their offense continuing to shine behind Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs are in fine form as they prepare to host the AFC Championship Game for the first time in franchise history.
To hear Bill Belichick tell it, pass rush and coverage are two sides of the same coin. A defense can be effective with one or the other, but to be at its best, both elements need to work in concert.
That concept was on full display Sunday in Foxboro.
The Patriots' pass rush was relentless, pressuring Philip Rivers early and often. The Chargers quarterback was sacked twice, hit eight times, hurried more than 20, and seemed forced to attempt throws from his back foot all afternoon. Everything came together perfectly on the only interception of the game.
With the contest not really in doubt in the fourth quarter, the Chargers face a third-and-10 in their own territory. The Patriots show pressure again, putting five defenders down on the line of scrimmage. But they drop into a Cover 2 Man scheme and loop linebacker Dont'a Hightower around from one A-gap to the opposite side:
While the four-man pressure scheme doesn't get home, it moves Rivers in the pocket. He attempts this pass under pressure and can't fully step into it. As was the case with many of his attempts Sunday, it was underthrown, allowing Stephon Gilmore, who's in perfect position, a chance at the interception:
The Patriots' defense probably made Belichick happy with this execution, but the unit will need to duplicate the performance next week in order to succeed against Mahomes.
The writing was on the wall: The Chargers were going to come into New England and end the dynasty. Vegas made the Patriots the smallest favorites of divisional-round weekend, and the overwhelming public money was still on the Chargers, perhaps with good reason. They had a better record this season than the Patriots, only lost one road game (to the neighboring Rams), and their pass rush was built to attack a quarterback like Brady.
But then the game kicked off. Josh McDaniels put together a perfect offensive game plan to counter the Chargers' pass rush and heavy defensive-back packages. The Patriots ran right at the Chargers, using players like fullback James Develin and tight ends Dwayne Allen and Rob Gronkowski to pave the way for Sony Michel and James White. They involved the running back in the passing game, with White seeing a game-high 17 targets. When they threw downfield, they often did so out of play-action and called designs to attack the Chargers' zone coverage schemes. It was nearly flawless.
All season, the Chiefs' defense was the team's Achilles' heel, leaving many wondering if Kansas City's struggles on that side of the football would prevent it from advancing deep into the playoffs.
Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton silenced some of his critics with a virtuoso performance Saturday. The Chiefs quickly forced a number of three-and-outs, giving the home team a chance to build an early lead. The defensive front got pressure on Luck throughout the contest and the secondary mixed up its coverages, contributing to a very high 11 passes defended.
Mark Schofield writes NFL feature content for theScore. After nearly a decade of practicing law in the Washington, D.C., area Mark changed careers and started writing about football. Drawing upon more than a decade of playing quarterback, including at the collegiate level, Mark focuses his work on quarterback evaluation and offensive scheme analysis. He lives in Maryland with his wife and two children. Find him on Twitter @MarkSchofield.