The first weekend of playoff football has concluded in the 2018 postseason with 4 teams claiming victory and moving into the divisional round. The road warriors took over Saturdays games with wins coming from the 5 seed Tennessee Titans over the 4 seed Kansas City Chiefs 22-21 and 6 seed Atlanta Falcons thumping the 3 seed Los Angeles (St. Louis?) Rams 26-13. Sundays games flipped the script and saw both home teams win as the 4 seed New Orleans Saints took down the Carolina Panthers 31-26 and 3 seed Jacksonville Jaguars scratching out a win over the Buffalo Bills 10-3.

In watching these games, you might have thought to yourself there was very little overlap between them. The Chiefs saw an epic playoff collapse send them home, the Falcons started slow and finished hot, the Saints used a big play, high octane offense to fly past the Panthers and Jaguars QB Blake Bortles had more rushing yards (88) than passing (87) in one of the lowest scoring playoff games in history.

If you are active in sports Twitter or are an Indianapolis Colts fan, youve probably heard of the #ForTheBrand movement courtesy of former Colts All-Pro Punter Pat McAfee. He maintains, correctly, that punters and kickers are people, too, who are massively important in changing outcomes of games in the NFL. Heres how this weeks wild card games were a perfect platform for the importance of special teamers in football:

(5) Tennessee Titans @ (4) Kansas City Chiefs

The Titans managed to squeak out a 1-point victory (22-21) behind a stronger performance from their kicker and punter than KC had and a little good ol fashioned luck. Late in the 3rd quarter with the Titans trailing 21-10, Titans rookie CB Adoree Jackson muffed the Dustin Colquitt punt and KC recovered with a chance to widen the gap in Tennessee territory. 3 plays later KC kicker Dustin Colquitt hits the upright and misses a 48-yard field goal, and the score remained 21-10 swinging momentum back to Tennessee. The Titans promptly drove 62 yards in 6 plays, scoring on a 35-yard Derrick Henry run and trimming the score to 21-16 (TEN failed the 2PT conversion). Following a touchback on the next punt from Colquitt, the Titans drove 80 yards for the eventual game winning score (failed another 2PT conversion).

All in all, the muffed punt turned missed FG by Kansas City shifted the tide of momentum twice in 4 plays, handing the golden opportunity of the game from KC back to the Titans. TEN punter Brett Kern ended the day with 3 punts for 131 yards, landing 2 of those inside the 20-yard line while Chiefs punter Dustin Colquitt booted 5 punts for 250 yards, with 1 touchback and none landing inside the 20. Titans kicker Ryan Succop was a perfect 1 for 1 in field goals and extra points, while KC kicker Harrison Butker missed his only FG attempt and was 3 for 3 in extra points. Also worth noting is how the Titans and Kern managed to hold the leagues best return man, Tyreek Hill, to only 8 punt return yards throughout the game.

(6) Atlanta Falcons @ (3) LA Rams

The LA Rams started this game extremely slowly, as a team with minimal playoff experience was expected to. The Falcons had a tough time getting going as well, thanks in part to the play of the LA defense in the early minutes. But possibly the biggest help for the Rams was punter Johnny Hekker, who pinned the Falcons inside their own 10-yard line 3 times in the first quarter alone. Any football fan can appreciate how much more difficult a drive is when you start at the 6, 10 and 10-yard lines in your first few possessions. Hekker ended the day with 5 punts for 218 yards with all 5 landing inside the 20-yard line and a 66-yard long. Hekkers leg helped keep the Falcons offense at bay by pinning them at the 6, 10, 10, 13 and 19-yard lines on his 5 punts of the night. Also worth noting is the LA Rams losing their starting kicker prior to the postseason, Greg Zuerlein, and running with backup Sam Ficken at the helm. Ficken performed well against Atlanta, knocking in both field goal attempts and his only extra point attempt. Unfortunate special team miscues from Pharoh Cooper including 2 straight muffed/fumbled kicks gave the Falcons momentum and points, which ultimately sealed the Rams fate despite an impeccable performance from Hekker. The Falcons saw their kicker Matt Bryant go a perfect 4-4 on FG tries and 2-2 in extra points, while Matt Bosher booted 5 punts for 258 yards with a 60-yard long.

(6) Buffalo Bills @ (3) Jacksonville Jaguars

This playoff game between the Bills and Jaguars, ending in a 10-3 score, is a slightly more obvious example of the importance of punters and kickers. The teams combined to punt the ball 17 times, by far the most of the weekend (For reference, the 3 other Wild Card games combined for 25 punts). The Bills and Jags both saw their return games completely held in check, combining for only 23 yards on punt returns (21 for the Bills, 2 for the Jags) and each saw strong punting performances in a defensive struggle. Bills punter Colton Schmidt legged out 8 punts for 347 yards, netting 1 touchback and 5 landing inside the 20. The Jaguars punter Brad Nortman boomed 9 punts for 399 yards, dropping 3 inside the 20 and seeing a 62-yard long. The Bills and Jaguars combined for 493 offensive yards, while their respective punters combined for 746 punt yards.

In a game where the first TD scored won the game, the battle for field position mattered more than ever. Im sure #ForTheBrand creator Pat McAfee was smiling down at the performances from these two.

(5) Carolina Panthers @ (4) New Orleans Saints

In the most offensive game of the weekend, we saw more of the kickers than the punters from New Orleans and Carolina. And quite possibly the turning point of the entire game came from the first FG try of the day for Graham Gano, CAR kicker, as he missed a 25-yarder after a dropped TD from the Panther offense. With 20-20 hindsight, we see that those 3 points were vital for Carolina, as they wouldve been able to settle for another FG in the last-minute drive, thus changing the course of the entire 4th quarter. Gano would finish the day 4-5 on field goal tries, redeeming himself by drilling a 58-yard field goal later in the game. His counterpart Wil Lutz, NO kicker, dropped in a 57-yarder in his only FG try, and was a perfect 4-4 in extra points.

The final wild card game of the weekend delivered on offense and saw two almost-60-yard field goals get drilled by some of the games finest. It is extremely unfortunate a chip-shot miss from one of those very same kickers is quite possibly the difference between Carolina going home or going to Minnesota for the divisional round.

 

For 4 varied games, in both offensive prowess and outcomes, we saw some extraordinary special team performances and some game changing plays on both sides of the good/bad spectrum.

Heres to remembering the #ForTheBrand movement and appreciating that kickers and punters are in fact people, too.

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