While the NFL’s divisional round did feature some blowouts, it also showcased a couple of classic and contemporary rivalries.
In the AFC, fans will be treated to a rematch of last season’s conference championship game when the Cincinnati Bengals travel to Kansas City to face the Chiefs. That may be good news for the Bengals and quarterback Joe Burrow, who is a perfect 3-0 in his young career against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.
In the NFC, familiar clock and game management issues plagued Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy against the second-seeded San Francisco 49ers, who will travel to Philadelphia to face the Eagles.
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Here are the winners and losers from the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.
The case for Brock Purdy the rest of the way
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said Friday there was an “outside chance” that injured quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (broken foot) could be ready for the NFC championship game if the team got there. He added that “there would be a better chance” for Garoppolo to potentially make a return for the Super Bowl, should San Francisco get that far.
It shouldn’t matter. Rookie Brock Purdy showed he can withstand a relentless pass rush, an offensive line that at times struggled and a slow-developing rushing game. Purdy (19-of-29 for 214 yards) protected the ball, delivered accurate throws (within the timing and rhythm of the offense), didn’t dwell on mistakes and found the team’s top target in George Kittle. San Francisco’s defense is the strength of the team. The Niners also have a dynamic rushing attack. They don’t need Purdy to be outstanding. They just need him to do exactly what he has done in his seven starts, each of which have been victories.
Not only did his plan against the Bills prove to be a masterclass in disguising pressures and containing Josh Allen in the pocket, Anarumo — the defensive coordinator of the Bengals — now faces the prospect of a Patrick Mahomes potentially limited with his mobility.
Mahomes suffered a high ankle sprain in the second quarter Saturday. He returned to the game and played well, though he may need to manage pain, swelling and stiffness in the AFC championship game, if he is healthy enough to play. Though Mahomes doesn’t typically post massive rushing totals — he averaged 20.3 rushing yards per game, including the playoffs — his ability to extend plays, shift the pocket and escape pressure is what makes him the most dangerous player in the NFL. Having that part of his game limited only plays into the hands of a creative coordinator like Anarumo, who, suddenly, may vault atop the wish lists of teams in need of a head coach.
Quick passes for Patrick Mahomes
This shouldn’t have come as a surprise, that an Andy Reid-Eric Bieniemy coached offense adjusted and adapted to the hand they were dealt. Nonetheless, the move to turn to a quick passing offense after quarterback Patrick Mahomes suffered a sprained ankle in the second quarter was a stroke of brilliance and may hint at the team’s plan against the Bengals in the conference title game.
Quicker throws after the injury neutralized the Jaguars’ pass rush and eased the pressure off of Kansas City’s offensive line; Mahomes was hit only once in the second half. It also put tight end Travis Kelce in positions to compromise the linebackers and safeties tasked with covering him in the middle of the field. With the victory, Reid became the third coach in NFL history to win 20 or more postseason games, tying Cowboys great Tom Landry for second all-time, behind Bill Belichick (31).
If this was a legacy game for Dak Prescott …
Then he better hope he gets another chance. Prescott (23-of-37 for 206 yards with one touchdown versus two interceptions) underwhelmed. He forced passes into tight coverages, misfired some throws, telegraphed others and nearly took a safety on the first play of the final drive of the game.
Realistically, however, this will go down as just another playoff loss that could be absolved if he attains future postseason success. Still, Dallas’ defense played an excellent game, more than enough for them to win. And while the San Francisco defense has been the most consistent and best overall unit in the NFL, Prescott’s decision making at times — most notably on both interceptions — let the Cowboys down. Turnovers have been an issue for Prescott all season long and if he and coach Mike McCarthy don’t solve his issues with efficiency and ball protection, he may never overcome the early exits.
The (flawed) Bills rely way too much on Josh Allen
He’s one of the top five most dangerous players in the NFL, but Buffalo will struggle to clinch conference titles if it does not give Josh Allen help in the form of a running game. Playing in the snow with a slippery ball that makes passing a little more precarious, Buffalo, inexplicably, called 19 rushing plays. Contrast that with Cincinnati, which leaned on running back Joe Mixon (20 carries for 105 yards with one touchdown) to attain balance.
This is nothing new. Going back to the start of last season, the Bills have lost 11 games, including two defeats in the divisional round. In those 11 losses, Bills players not named Josh Allen have gained only 633 yards, or 57.5 per game. In eight of those 11 losses — including all four this year and the last seven, overall — Allen has been Buffalo’s leading rusher.
Daniel Jones’ market value
First, a pair of caveats: Jones, the fourth-year quarterback, was crucial for New York’s overperformance this season and that was with the Giants lacking star talent at receiver. But games like Saturday’s loss, in which he was ineffective and unsettled (159 total yards, one interception) only deepen questions about his value and standing as a viable franchise quarterback.
In what was an indication of ambivalence in his skill set at the time, the Giants in April declined to exercise Jones’ fifth-year option for 2023. To be clear, he has played well enough this season to earn more time under center in New York and the front office needs to provide him with more weapons. But even though Jones faced an aggressive Eagles defense that led the league in sacks per pass attempt (12.59%) and passing yards per game allowed (179.8), poor performances in big games are used against players when negotiating contracts, as unfair as that may be.