The next wave of NFL playoff football has just about washed over us. The divisional round kicked off Saturday with a pair of regular-season rematches — the Chiefs edging the Jaguars with a banged-up Patrick Mahomes, and the Eagles steamrolling the Giants for a clean sweep of their 2022 series. On Sunday, the AFC and NFC Championship matchups were decided thanks to the final games of the weekend slate, with the Bengals routing the Bills, and the 49ers edging the Cowboys.
Here are some immediate and big-picture takeaways from the second day of the divisional round:
49ers need their defense to carry them
San Francisco got the job done to secure a trip to the NFC title game, but not primarily because Kyle Shanahan’s offense was firing on all cylinders. George Kittle excelled, to be sure, just as Travis Kelce did for the Chiefs on Saturday. And Brock Purdy at least didn’t turn the ball over. But the rookie quarterback was more scattershot than usual, flushed out of the pocket in the face of a good pass rush, and arguably an even better unit awaits in Philadelphia. Shanahan’s situational decision-making also left a lot to be desired, as he played it safe on multiple occasions. All that said, DeMeco Ryans‘ stingy “D” sure looks like the catalyst going on the road for a chance at the Super Bowl. It’ll be up to his front seven to bottle up Jalen Hurts and get the “W.”
Prescott, McCarthy not built for big stage
Mike McCarthy owns a Super Bowl ring from his time in Green Bay, and that’ll never be stripped from him. But as Dallas’ head coach, he’s now overseen two straight 12-5 teams that have failed to advance past the divisional round. Not only that, but after going one-and-done against San Francisco in 2021, he leaned even more conservative at key spots Sunday, opting for a late field goal rather than a fourth-down try while trailing by seven, and punting it away with minutes left. His design for the final play was also objectively ludicrous, asking Ezekiel Elliott to serve as Dak Prescott’s sole blocker rather than dial up a traditional Hail Mary. Prescott, meanwhile, might’ve been even more egregious, throwing a pair of ugly picks, nearly taking a safety on the final drive and generally looking off the mark. After seven years, he’s now 2-4 in playoff games.
Bengals, not Bills, are Chiefs’ biggest threat
Who Dey Nation probably could have told you this before, but Sunday’s game confirmed it: Joe Burrow is the biggest thing standing in Patrick Mahomes’ way in the AFC. That’s true not only because Burrow is 3-0 with killer numbers in his career against Kansas City, but because in three seasons, he’s already far exceeded Bills star Josh Allen on the big stage, improving his playoff record to 5-1 and securing a second AFC title-game appearance in as many years. Allen is the closest thing to Mahomes in terms of off-script play-making, but Burrow’s vision, coupled with Cincy’s deep receiving corps and physical defense, reigns supreme. With , the Chiefs can’t rest easy.
Buffalo needs help in backfield, on back end
The Bills should remain in the playoff conversation for as long as Josh Allen is under center. But the MVP candidate still puts too many balls in harm’s way while relying on his natural gifts. More than that, it was apparent in Sunday’s flat loss to the Bengals that Buffalo requires renewed weaponry and/or strategy both on the ground and in the secondary. Allen had no run-game assistance against Cincy, with Devin Singletary and James Cook rendered nonfactors, and stalwarts like Tre’Davious White and Jordan Poyer were beaten deep before exiting with injuries. After a couple years of flirting with a Super Bowl bid, it’s probably time for a deeper reshuffling of talent.
Sean McDermott is still searching
There’s no doubt the coach has helped transform Buffalo into a perennial contender: he’s gone 47-18, with four straight playoff appearances, since 2019. But even with Josh Allen’s ascent and plenty of investment on defense, his Bills have now failed to advance past the divisional round of the playoffs in five of McDermott’s six seasons at the helm. It doesn’t help that Buffalo was thoroughly outcoached and outplayed on its own turf in Sunday’s loss, when the Bills were curiously conservative on several fourth-down decisions and got little creativity from coordinators Ken Dorsey and Leslie Frazier.