The eliminations of Super Wild Card Weekend have begun as we’ve narrowed down the possible Super Bowl Champions to eight: the Niners, Ravens, Bills, Chiefs, Texans, Lions, Bucs, and Packers. We have a whole new crop of teams that had just enough hope in this parody-driven league to talk themselves into competing for a banner only to lose on the opening weekend. It’s full of irony and revelations for us in the sports fandom world where we love to overreact.
There’s a place where we can healthily vent those let-down expectations in a popularized early 2000’s movie that has recently come back to relevance with the emergence of the new musical: Mean Girls’ Burn Book.
Today, we’ll be burning the eliminated teams from this past weekend.
Cleveland Browns: Your magic ran out
The Cleveland Browns had an unprecedented amount of adversity this year, and for them to make the postseason at all was impressive. Using 5 different quarterbacks, third-string offensive linemen, to losing All-Pro running back Nick Chubb for the season in week 2, it never felt like the team had any sort of continuity go their way.
Yet we saw that Flacco magic when the 38 year-old was brought off the couch. The one calling-card the Browns had all season was an elite defense at home that could carry them to the mountaintop no matter who was under center, yet Flacco was somehow slinging the ball down the field and finally giving them prolific offensive numbers, giving them a 4-1 record to end the year with 4 games scoring over 30 points. The Browns finally had offense! If Flacco could keep this up, the defense will take care of itself, right?
Wrong. The Browns magic ran out in their 45-14 loss as a road favorite in Houston. It was foolish of us to talk ourselves into a 38 year-old coming in as a fourth-string where he had already thrown 8 picks in 5 games. Flacco threw two pick-sixes, and the “rock” of the Browns, the defense, allowed CJ Stroud to throw for 280 yards and three first half touchdowns while not being sacked once.
This postseason, the color brown was a synonym for fool’s gold.
Miami Dolphins: You couldn’t outswim the narrative
The critique of the Miami Dolphins was that the “soft” finesse team that could light up the scoreboard in their bright South Beach color scheme couldn’t handle playing against Super Bowl contending opponents in a grind-it-out fashion- they’re a machine that relies upon a system of speed with Devon Achane, Raheem Mostert, and Tyreek Hill creating chaotic motion to rack up an unfathomable amount of points, and a grimy game in the cold weather with warm-natured Tua Tagovailoa was unwinnable with their style of play.
There are parts both true and false about that narrative- down the stretch, the Dolphins did prove that they could win in more ways than just lighting up the Broncos for 70 points, such as limiting the Cowboys to 20 points or pitching a shutout against the Jets carried by a great secondary and pass rush. The part that WAS true was that the Dolphins went 11-6 on the year, but 1-6 against teams with actual winning records.
Playing the struggling Chiefs in Arrowhead would have allowed them to escape the narrative: that Tua could perform in cold weather games (this one being a -27 degree wind chill), that they could remove the stench of running up the score on incompetent teams, and that they could play with their left hand rather than their machine-like scheme Mike McDaniel created if necessary.
All it did was make it worse. The Chiefs won in a game where the Dolphins looked miserable to be out there, the system was shut down aside from Tyreek getting open for a long touchdown on one busted coverage, and Tua’s contract situation of “if he’s the guy” will provide content for the next several months in his struggles in this cold weather game.
The absurd weather circumstances makes the game unfair to judge the actual outcome on a level playing field, but the Dolphins are going to face the same questions as always for another year until they win a gritty game in the cold weather. Time is a flat circle in South Beach.
Dallas Cowboys: Play the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme!
The Packers had won 5 of 5 times at AT&T Stadium and even won their 2011 Super Bowl there with Aaron Rodgers. They’ve also eliminated them with heartbreaks including “Dez caught it” gate and the infamous Rodgers miracle drive to take them down the field with a miraculous throw to Jared Cook on a 75-yard drive to set up the winning field goal in 2017. They had a lot of history going into this game, to say the least, despite it being against a 7-seed Packers no longer with Aaron and in the first full-season of Jordan Love.
The Cowboys had a similar reputation to the Dolphins in that they could run up the score on poor teams, particularly when they’re at home, averaging 37.4 points. This game would be on their own terrain that the Packers had owned in the past, but now, as the 2-seed with Dak looking like an MVP candidate in those games, the baggage just came down to Mike McCarthy and Dak proving that they’re not regular-season front-runners that can get past the divisional round rather than look like a deer in the headlights. Jerry Jones himself wouldn’t even comment on whether or not McCarthy would certainly be back if he flamed out early and said he was week-to-week.
We got classic Mike and Dak postseason performances just by the second quarter.
Dak threw back-to-back picks (one being a pick-six that was called back, the other being an actual 67-yard pick-six) as they faced a 27-0 deficit before half and almost failed to put up points against a Joe Berry defense that even casual Packer fans were asking for him to be put on the lam.
A common Cowboys meltdown is comfort content for the over-reactionary sports media that will provide them with seething criticism for the next year, but with this kind of performance again as “America’s Team,” you’ve got it coming.
Los Angeles Rams: Your soul was still sold
In the Jared Goff revenge bowl, Matthew Stafford, the man they loved and supported during their losing years, was the only thing standing in between the Lions and their first playoff win since the text message was invented.
Years back, Goff was given to the Rams as merely a contract to get rid of for that position because Sean McVay believed that Matthew Stafford was the only thing in their way of winning a Super Bowl. A plethora of high-value veterans and Stafford at the helm later at the cost of essentially all of their draft capital, they won the Super Bowl in 2021. Every Rams fan and owner will tell you that missing the postseason and getting Stafford in his twilight years in an oft-injured body was worth it, but suddenly Sean McVay was contemplating retirement coming down from the high and the Lions were now trending upward with a younger Goff and Manalytics-driven Dan Campbell.
McVay DID come back with Stafford for the year with the most amount of rookies on a roster, receivers that Stafford didn’t know the names of at the breakfast table, and rumors of tearing it down in a rebuild.
To their credit, the Rams overperformed and have now given some life back to McVay in one of the most stunning team-building performances from McVay in a while- Puka Nacua tied the receiving yards record for a rookie, Kyren Williams now looks like one of the best young running backs in the league (and likely won you your fantasy league), and Stafford remained relatively healthy this season as they went 10-7. There was a lot to be proud of there.
However, selling your soul for the Super Bowl, from throwing away Goff to the Lions, from giving up
all of your assets for the “win now” immediacy, ultimately proved that they still sold their sould and are recovering from it. That immediate satisfaction was proven when Goff led the Lions to three consecutive 75-yard touchdown drives in the first half, and the Lions are now trajecting upward as opposed to the Rams having to rely on their youth and development with Stafford winding down. It’s also a bit ironic that McVay dumped Goff from his system only to have clock management and coaching decisions in the second half be the reason why the Rams blew a tight 24-23 loss on Sunday.
What goes around comes around!
Pittsburgh Steelers: Mike Tomlin, you’ve done it again
Mike Tomlin, the legendary Steelers coach that has the NFL record for the most-consecutive seasons without a losing record at 17 now, did it again! Every year, it’s that he finds a way to win with a roster that either has some sort of diabolical and unmanageable personalities or a lack of firepower and gets them to at least 9 wins and a playoff berth. The “classy, well-run” organization of the Steelers and Kenny Pickett was our preseason darling with the throws that he made and Mike Tomlin is “a leader of men” to be able to make them able to compete at all times. Pickett ended up being a pipe dream without a single game over 300 yards passing, continuing the tradition of inept NFC North style of defense-based approach to winning ugly games, and now “Kenny Pickett stats” are a meme online (he had less touchdowns than Tommy DeVito and Joe Flacco in 12 games), yet with the poo poo platter of Pickett, Mitch Trubisky, and a revived and hot Mason Rudolph at the end of the season for one month, the Steelers defense led by DPOY candidate TJ Watt managed to get them into the postseason again at the last minute as the 7-seed.
Mike Tomlin was on the hot seat earlier on the year when the Steelers were 7-7 with a bad loss to the Colts, reportedly needing a change, but he turned it around and did it again.
What was it all for? Just to be the team that we wrote off as the Bills controlled their 31-17 victory? Even years back with Big Ben in 2020 they were perceived as the “worst 10-0 team in NFL history” because they could find ways to gut out ugly regular season games before they inevitably were exposed as fraudulent in the postseason.
While it’s undeniably impressive for Mike Tomlin, what is it all for? We’re impressed, but what is there to show for winning unattractive regular season games before being led to the slaughterhouse come playoff time? The Steelers’ last playoff win was in 2017, and the “model of consistency” is only fun if there are the occasional views from the mountaintop, and Mike Tomlin may have a better chance of getting that view somewhere else if he wants to.
Philadelphia Eagles: The bad vibes proved us right
For eleven weeks when the reigning NFC champion Eagles started off the year 10-1 with the best record in the NFL, the remainder of the league was waiting for them to be outed as fraudulent. The offensive production with Jalen Hurts throwing more picks than last season was an issue (he may have also been banged up), the secondary refused to tackle, and they squeaked by winning games close and ugly. They narrowly defeated the Patriots by just 5, the
Commanders by 3 and 7, and even took a loss to the Jets on the chin. Suddenly the organization that had built a roster of former Georgia Bulldogs and created a foundation of developing depth and talent was looking incredibly vulnerable. Philly fans continued to take pride in their luck, praising the “brotherly shove” move amidst the murmurs of getting it banned from the league entirely, and told us that winning was a skill.
Then the bad vibes entered the picture.
Suddenly Philly underwent a loss of mojo comparable to a superhero suddenly losing his or her powers and went 1-5 to end the year. “Big Dom” was prohibited from coming to the games. The defensive front of Jalen Carter and Jordan Davis looked gassed and they somehow thought Matt Patricia getting a promotion to running the defense was going to turn things around. Darius Slay and his history with him in Detroit will tell you that it was not!
Losing the division entirely to Dallas was capped off by injuries to Jalen Hurts’s hand and AJ Brown out for the wild card (and removing all of the Philly information from his bio, as is tradition from a disgruntled star). The question for us was whether or not the bad vibes heading into the postseason was enough to take down this NFC goliath from last year taking on a Bucs team that won a moribund NFC South narrowly.
And we were proven right. The defense looked like a YMCA team exhausted that just wanted to go home in the air conditioning as Baker Mayfield lit up the secondary for 337 yard and 3 touchdowns in their 32-9 win, and Nick Sirianni is suddenly looking like a hot seat candidate one year after a Super Bowl appearance.
Sometimes, the vibes of a team are all we need to judge the play come Super Wild Card Weekend.