There are a lot of words you can use to describe the Divisional Round of this year’s NFL playoffs. Most of them are only four letters long. That includes a wide range, from the G-rated (wild!), to the PG-rated (butt!), to NC-17 territory (hint: it rhymes with click).
We’re also going to assume there were a lot of cuss words used from the teams that lost, and especially from their fans. There’s nothing quite like sports to provide us with one four-letter word (hope) one minute and another (pain) the next.
But perhaps no four letters best sum up this football weekend than these: P-U-N-T. For three of this round’s losers, a bad decision on a punt ended up being the turning point of the game.
On that note, let’s get to the D-U-M-B moments of the Divisional Round with the six biggest mistakes from Saturday and Sunday:
The Chiefs weren’t expecting a deep ball when Deshaun Watson took a third-and-1 snap out of the shotgun formation early in their playoff matchup. Kansas City, playing without any deep safety help, were betting on a short gain. That’s why when Will Fuller split toward the sideline, KC’s defensive backs went with him, ready to pounce on the screen pass and stop the Texans for a loss.
In the process, they completely ignored Kenny Stills. Watson, on the other hand, did not.
The Houston quarterback delivered a perfectly in-stride strike to Stills, who scored the easiest touchdown of his career to get the Texans out to a 7-0 start. No defender was within 10 yards of him as he coasted into the end zone, as you can see here:
That touchdown on the first possession made the statement that Houston didn’t come to Missouri just to be sacrificed in service of the Chiefs’ Super Bowl hopes.
That, of course, happened later after the Texans blew a 24-0 lead.
5. No one could catch the ball for the Ravens
Very little of what the Ravens did against the Titans worked, but what hurt them the most — especially early on — were drops. Reliable receivers somehow forgot how to catch the ball after resting for two-plus weeks. In all, the Ravens had six drops in the game, most of them coming in the first half.
Halfway through the first quarter, one of those drops turned into an interception off the usually sure-handed Mark Andrews:
Kevin Byard picks off the tipped ball and returns it 31 yards! @KB31_Era #Titans #NFLPlayoffs— NFL (@NFL) January 12, 2020
: #TENvsBAL on CBS
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That led to the Titans’ first touchdown of the game.
Pretty much everybody struggled for the Ravens, but it’s drive-killing drops like the ones above that really hurt a team’s chances of staying in a game.
4. The Seahawks stuck with single coverage on Davante Adams
Despite Aaron Rodgers throwing far more passes to Davante Adams than anybody else on his team, the Seahawks continued to leave the man in single coverage. Adams caught every pass thrown his way throughout the first three quarters, save for one that came on a reverse in the backfield.
So ... surely Seattle made some adjustments? Not exactly. Instead, they put one corner on him and left a safety too far back to help with sideline-to-sideline action, which the Packers quickly exploited.
.@Tae15Adams just gets open.— NFL (@NFL) January 13, 2020
40-yard TD on the throw from @AaronRodgers12! #GoPackGo #NFLPlayoffs
: #SEAvsGB on FOX
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This was an incredible route by Adams, then a very smart decision to cut back a second time all the way across the field for the touchdown. The safety couldn’t make up the speed difference and the corner was badly beaten twice on the play.
The play went for a 40-yard touchdown, giving the Packers a 28-10 lead in the third quarter. It wouldn’t be the last time Adams roasted the Seattle secondary in man-to-man coverage in a vital moment either.
The Seahawks needed a third-and-8 stop to put the ball back in Russell Wilson’s hands with just over two minutes to play. Unfortunately, their defensive alignment also meant rookie safety Ugo Amadi, a rotational player with zero starts to his name, drew the short straw of covering a red-hot Adams.
Here’s that entirely predictable result.
Aaron Rodgers, bad man. Seattle Seahawks, bad coverage.
3. Marcus Sherels couldn’t handle the one job he was hired to do
Sherels has been a reliable punt and kick returner over the course of a decade-long NFL career. That’s what made his rookie-esque mistake in Santa Clara so surprising.
Sherels, who was re-signed by the Vikings just over a week earlier, fielded two punts at Levi’s Stadium — the only two returnable 49ers punts of the day. He muffed them both. The first, in the middle of a swirling wind and with the sun behind the ball, was easy for the Vikings to recover. The second was much, much worse for Minnesota.
The Vikings’ defense had just forced its first three-and-out of the game. If they had any chance at getting back in the game, now was the time.
Instead, Sherels’ bobble hit the turf and bounced right into the lap of Raheem Mostert, who made sure his team maintained possession. The 49ers took that field position and turned it into three easy points, making a 24-10 lead into a three-possession lead.
2. Pete Carroll punted the ball back to Aaron Rodgers (and punted away his season)
In a vacuum, Pete Carroll’s decision to punt the ball back to Green Bay trailing 28-23 and facing fourth-and-11 with just under three minutes to play made some sense. NFL teams had only converted fourth down from that distance 12 times in 54 chances (22.2 percent) in 2019. His defense was riding high, as well. Seattle had forced back-to-back Packers punts to open the game’s final frame.
So Carroll punted the ball back — which fell in the end zone for a touchback — to Aaron Rodgers. That would be the Seahawks’ last possession of the 2019 season.
Rather than trust Russell Wilson and an offense that had scored a touchdown on each of its second-half drives to that point, Carroll deferred to a defense that struggled to contain Rodgers all evening. Even worse, his Seahawks had gained 11 or more yards on nine different plays in the third and fourth quarters Sunday.
Seattle’s explosive offense somehow wasn’t enough for one last ride with the game on the line — and that was all the Packers needed to salt the game away with two big completions (and one, uh, debatable spot).
1. Bill O’Brien’s fake punt fueled the Chiefs’ epic comeback
There were a number of Bill O’Brien decisions that could make this list, like settling for a field goal up 21-0 rather than go for the kill shot. But the Texans’ possession after that cowardly kick was the one that stood out most.
With his team leading 24-7 early in the second quarter, O’Brien called a direct snap fake to safety Justin Reid from their own 31-yard line on fourth-and-4.
It went poorly.
The Texans go for the fake punt and the @Chiefs defense makes a huge play! #ChiefsKingdom #NFLPlayoffs— NFL (@NFL) January 12, 2020
: #HOUvsKC on CBS
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It was the worst time for O’Brien to be aggressive, and not just because safety Daniel Sorensen easily sniffed the fake out. O’Brien thought he was trying to grab momentum back from the Chiefs when the only thing he did was help give them the spark they needed to take control of the game.
Three plays later, the Chiefs cut the deficit to 24-14. Less than eight minutes, they were leading — and they never looked back.