Maximum Pain has been avoided. That’s your takeaway from wild-card weekend. The nightmare in its most debased form is dead.
You see, once Carson Wentz went down, there was only one worst-case scenario, and it had nothing to do with the composition of the playoff field, or the identity of the opponents they would ultimately face. Once the Falcons beat the Rams to earn their co-starring role in Saturday evening’s Wait, There’s Football On? Bowl, the sports books immediately made them an unprecedented road favorite, the same way they would have the Panthers, or the Saints, or 25 percent of the teams that did not even qualify for the playoffs, had they been coming to Lincoln Financial Field.
But you knew that. The Philadelphia area has done an admirable job of embracing its nihilism over the last few weeks, with all but the most deluded of us seeming to have made peace with the understanding that none of the particulars really matters. The Eagles will take the field on Saturday as the first No. 1 seed in NFL history to be a home underdog in their playoff opener, with the only other kinda-sorta-comparable coming in the form of a 1997 Chiefs team that entered the postseason in a bizarro version of the Eagles’ current predicament. In a quarterback controversy that featured Elvis Grbac and Rich Gannon, the Chiefs went with the King and then went off as a pick-em in their playoff opener against the Broncos, who ended that postseason as Super Bowl champs.
Which brings us to Maximum Pain.
The worst-case scenario for this Eagles season wasn’t Wentz getting hurt, or the Eagles losing in the playoffs, or both. It was those things happening in a year that ended with a long, dramatic close-up shot of Andy Reid hoisting the Lombardi Trophy high above his head, the confetti swirling around his red Chiefs windbreaker as if in orbit. I used to think that Maximum Pain was the Eagles themselves losing to Reid in the Super Bowl, but that was with a healthy Wentz. Once he went down, a Chiefs victory over anybody would have saddled this town with its heaviest ever case of the what-mighta-beens.
Just picture it for a moment, the camera panning across the postgame pandemonium, zooming in on a big mustached man wiping tears from his eyes in the center of it all, Al Michaels’ voice launching into a dramatic retelling of all the postseason misery that has preceded this bright shining moment, NBC’s producers cueing up the b-roll of the Super Bowl loss to the Patriots, of all of those conference championship games.
What’s the opposite of schadenfreude? It might not be an admirable way to feel, but it would have been an understandable one given the way Reid’s 13 seasons here ended. We ran him out of town because he couldn’t win the big one, and now, there he is, big one in hand, the Eagles still looking for their first playoff win without him.
So, at the very least, you can breathe a little easier heading into next weekend. And not just because the worst-case scenario is no longer in play. See, it ended in a way that offered further validation to the course the Eagles began to chart for themselves with Reid’s departure in 2012. Not so much with regard to the coach himself, but to the quarterback position.
Maybe you watched the Chiefs’ 22-21 loss to the Titans and saw more evidence that Reid simply is a coach who can get a team to a certain point but no further. You saw the way the offense stalled after busting out of the gates to build a 21-3 lead. You saw the disappearance of the running game in the second half. You saw a more-talented team get beat by a less-talented team. If so, you weren’t alone.
But look beyond the coaching, and the fact that the Chiefs under Reid now account for half of the four teams in NFL history to lose a playoff game after leading by 18 or more points at halftime. The most glaring thing about that loss to the Titans was how hopeless things seemed once a play began to break down.
By most conventional measures of the position, Alex Smith played a perfectly fine game of quarterback, completing 24 of 33 passes for 264 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Better, at least, than his counterpart, who went 19-for-31 for 205 yards with two touchdowns and a bad interception. But Smith is the kind of quarterback who excels at taking what the defense gives him, and the NFL increasingly seems to be a league where you need a guy has the ability to take more than that. Third and fourth down is where it matters most, and the Chiefs were just 4-for-12 in that department, including 0-for-5 with 7 or more yards to go for a first down.
The Titans, by contrast, were 8-of-13 on third down, where Marcus Mariota had a 17-yard run on third-and-8, a 14-yard pass on third-and-10, and an 11-yard run on third-and-9, not to mention a 6-yard touchdown pass to himself on third-and-6.
Mariota left a lot to be desired in a lot of other aspects of the game. But he made plays when the Titans needed them most. You have to think Reid understood this back in April when he traded up to draft Pat Mahomes. In Wentz, the Eagles and Doug Pederson have the thing that any coach needs the most.
If this postseason ends as the oddsmakers suspect, perhaps there will at least be some solace in that.