The NFL’s Divisional Round produced four worthy victors who will battle Sunday for their conference championships: the Chiefs, Bengals, Eagles, and 49ers.
But the games didn’t quite pack the drama. The Eagles’ win over the Giants was a blowout, and the Bengals’ win over the Bills was one-sided. The Jaguars made it a one-score loss to the Chiefs only with a late field goal. And the 49ers beat the Cowboys in a game that could be generously described as a “defensive struggle.”
Let’s take a look at all eight teams and where they go moving forward:
▪ The Bills need to have serious conversations about the coaching mix and the direction of the organization. Offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey wasn’t quite the QB whisperer for Josh Allen that Brian Daboll was. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier oversaw a unit that was shaky against the Dolphins last week and got dominated by the Bengals.
There also are questions about head coach Sean McDermott and whether he has what it takes to win a championship. McDermott is 62-35 (.639) in six seasons, with five playoff appearances and one trip to the conference championship game. The Bills haven’t experienced that level of success in 25 years, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly.
But they expected to be in the Super Bowl by now, not suffering crushing losses in the playoffs. The Bills are starting to look like the Buccaneers of the late ‘90s, who were built into a great team by Tony Dungy but needed Jon Gruden to get them over the top.
▪ Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said coach Mike McCarthy’s job is safe this offseason, but why? They just finished yet another season without reaching the NFC Championship game — their 27th in a row — and McCarthy doesn’t seem to be getting the most out of Dak Prescott and the offense. McCarthy also punted three times in Sunday’s loss to the 49ers when he probably should have gone for it.
There’s no shame in losing to the 49ers, especially on the road. They have the stingiest defense in the NFL. But you should win a playoff game if your defense holds the other team to 19 points. And it’s hard to see how McCarthy is maximizing the Cowboys’ talent. Jones can do better.
▪ The most impressive aspect of the Bengals’ win was the dominance of their offensive line with backups at left tackle, right guard, and right tackle, and center Ted Karras dealing with a knee injury.
Joe Burrow was sacked once and hit two other times in 40 drop-backs, though the snow and poor footing probably helped. It also helped that Burrow was decisive as usual, throwing the ball in an average of 2.5 seconds. Burrow was the second-quickest passer in the NFL this season (behind Tom Brady), averaging 2.55 seconds.
The Bengals’ run blocking also was dominant, as they averaged 5.03 yards per carry on their 28 handoffs. They had just one negative run all game, and they were able to run five minutes off the clock in the fourth quarter and pick up two key first downs on the ground.
▪ All eyes will be on Patrick Mahomes after he suffered a high ankle sprain in the first quarter of Saturday’s win over the Jaguars. The bad ankle could affect his mechanics and force a few of his throws to float. But Mahomes, if anyone, should still be able to thrive despite the sprain.
While it will limit his mobility and theatrics, he still is an elite pocket passer whose ability to change his arm angle can help overcome the injury. Mahomes braced for the injury to worsen overnight, but noted that he had an extra half-day of rest to get ready for next Sunday.
Mahomes was 10 of 15 for 111 yards with a touchdown and no sacks in the second half against the Jaguars. He played through a sprained ankle in 2019, and threw seven touchdowns and averaged 409 passing yards in his next two games.
“He’s had this before, and he was able to keep pushing through,” coach Andy Reid said.
▪ The Jaguars took major strides under Doug Pederson, going from 2-6 to 10-9 and a division title. Most importantly, Trevor Lawrence looked like a franchise quarterback after a terrible rookie season under Urban Meyer. Lawrence started all 17 games, threw for 4,113 yards, led his team to an all-time playoff comeback win, and hung tough with the Chiefs on the road.
Lawrence still has plenty of room to grow, though. He averaged just 5.6 yards per attempt against the Chiefs, and this season he too often settled for short, safe passes. Lawrence also led the NFL with nine lost fumbles (no one else had more than five). This was a great learning season for Lawrence, but he needs to take another big step in Year 3.
▪ The Eagles made two big statements in their 38-7 win over the Giants. One is that Jalen Hurts’s shoulder is A-OK; he threw for only 154 yards, but guided the Eagles to five touchdowns and made every throw.
The other is that their defense is a wrecking ball. Giants QB Daniel Jones took a beating with five sacks and three more hits. The Eagles had 70 sacks in the regular season, tied for third-most in NFL history (since 1982) and 15 more than any other team this season. They also led the NFL in net yards per passing attempt (4.9), which factors in negative yardage from sacks.
Sunday’s NFC Championship against the 49ers, who have the league’s No. 1 scoring and yardage defense, is going to be a slugfest.
▪ The loss was certainly a “crash landing” for the Giants, as Daboll put it. But it does nothing to diminish the terrific job he did in his first year. He took a team that went 4-13 last year and led it to 9-7-1 plus a win on the road in the playoffs, while also fixing the young quarterback. Respectability has been restored to Big Blue after a lean half-decade.
▪ Brock Purdy is now 7-0 as a starter (plus a win in relief), and once again was impressively poised in the Niners’ 19-12 win. This week against the Eagles will be by far his toughest test, though.
Six of Purdy’s eight wins have come at home, but now he’ll have to deal with a raucous Philadelphia crowd. And the injury bug may have finally gotten Christian McCaffrey (calf). He was limited to 16 touches for 57 yards against the Cowboys and said, “I was fighting, but made it through.” McCaffrey will play against the Eagles, but he may not be his best self.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.