With the conclusion of Wild Card Weekend, we're down to just eight teams remaining in the NFL playoffs. During the two games on Sunday, numerous rookies got their first taste of playoff football.
Playing on a stage that was new to them, it was a chance for each rookie to show how much they've progressed in their initial seasons.
Chargers at Ravens
Among those rookies was Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, the former Heisman winner who was the youngest quarterback to ever start a playoff game. The best part about watching Jackson was seeing fellow rookie standout, Chargers safety Derwin James, on the field simultaneously. James was named 1st team All-Pro at safety and 2nd team All-Pro at defensive back.
Jackson started off the game slowly, to say the least. With the Ravens rushing offense unable to set the tone, the Chargers' defensive line was able to pin their ears back and disrupt Jackson. Specifically Melvin Ingram, who was dominating from various alignments along the defensive line.
Not even Jackson could escape the pressures of the Chargers' defensive line. When he was given time, he was a bit erratic. His first half interception sailed high on its target, was tipped and corralled by Adrian Phillips.
Even in the second half, with the Ravens trailing by multiple touchdowns, the play calling continued to fail Jackson. Running the ball three straight times and not gaining a first down, showing a play-action pass on second-and-17, having the pocket immediately collapsed for sacks on consecutive drop-back passes, the Ravens couldn't get it going. Some analysts, including color commentator Tony Romo, were calling for Joe Flacco to be inserted into the game.
Entering the game, Jackson was the league leader in fourth quarter passer rating, and that trend continued on Sunday. Jackson turned it on when the Ravens got into desperation mode, hitting timing routes, crossing patterns, and taking deep shots.
When Jackson was able to get to the height of his drop and step into his throw, he delivered a ball on target and on time. Jackson's hot hand would continue on the ensuing drive, as he converted multiple fourth down throws, including another touchdown to Michael Crabtree.
Jackson's fourth quarter spurt gave Baltimore a chance to win the game in the final minute, before Chargers rookie Uchenna Nwosu forced a fumble out of Jackson's hand.
Jackson finished with more passing yards in the fourth quarter (164) than counterpart Phillip Rivers had the entire game, as well as two touchdowns passes. While Jackson takes a portion of the blame for his performance during the first three quarters, his resolve was evident.
On the other side of the field, Derwin James continued to show why he's the future of the league among defensive backs. Los Angeles relied on James to play out of position on Sunday, playing seven defensive backs on nearly every snap.
This was their answer to Jackson's speed, as well as a way to force the Ravens into being one-dimensional as an offense. The key to this was stopping the run and containing Jackson's quarterback runs, which meant a reliance on the defensive backs they chose to play at linebacker -- enter James.
For the majority of snaps, that's where James aligned. Despite being undersized for that position, James is athletic enough to offer rare versatility. James responded by showing sideline to sideline speed, quick run fills, and ability as a pass rusher and in coverage.
Eagles at Bears
The nightcap on Sunday was an instant classic game between the Bears and visiting Eagles. While the Cody Parkey field goal banging off the uprights and crossbar will forever be etched in our brains, the play of some rookies also stuck out.
When the Eagles were on offense, rookie tight end Dallas Goedert made his presence known. To take the lead in the third quarter, Goedert beat Adrian Amos Jr. at the top of his route for the touchdown shown below.
On the eventual game-winning touchdown drive, the Eagles schemed up a play for Goedert and his ability after the catch. Nick Foles pumped a wide receiver screen to the left, then a running back screen to the right before finding Goedert in the middle of the field. He responded with a strong run after the catch.
This was a key play in the Eagles' comeback, as it set them up in field goal range in case the drive stalled out. Eventually, they would bleed most of the clock out and score a touchdown.
On the Bears' side, rookie first-round pick Roquan Smith was one of the best players on their vaunted defense. Smith led them in tackles for the game with seven, added half a tackle for loss and a pass defended.
Smith's most impressive play of the night was an interception in the first half. With the Eagles leading 3-0 and driving into Bears territory, the defense needed a response to keep the game within one score.
As Foles targeted Wendell Smallwood on a short throw over the middle, Smith broke on the ball and ripped it away. Not only did he showed other-wordly closing speed for a linebacker, but the strength and ball skills in order to finish the play.
While the rookie seasons of Derwin James and Dallas Goedert will continue, all four of these performances should be commended.
For such young players on a stage that none of them had been in before, their responses to clutch moments were impressive. It was a treat to watch Jackson's fourth quarter and Goedert's big plays when Philadelphia needed it most.
I, for one, cannot wait for the Divisional Round.