The divisional round of the playoffs certainly debunked some narratives that have persisted in the NFL throughout the year. Maybe the Dallas Cowboys weren’t the Super Bowl contender they were originally thought to be in recent months, or the Cincinnati Bengals really are the best team in the AFC (despite their 2-3 start to the season).
Where are the Buffalo Bills going after a tough loss to the Bengals? What about the cowboys in the future? These two teams can’t view their seasons like the New York Giants and Jacksonville Jaguars, two teams that surprisingly made the divisional round after being two of the worst teams in football for several seasons. There’s reason to be optimistic about Jacksonville and New York.
As for the teams that made it to the conference championship weekend? Can Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs finally take down their kryptonite from Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals? Can the San Francisco 49ers and No. 1 defense continue the “defense wins championships” mantra and beat the NFC’s No. 1 offense at the Philadelphia Eagles?
Division weekend certainly provided a lot of answers, especially in next week’s conference championship games. Here’s what we learned from each team in the divisional round of the playoffs.
The defense was well prepared with Patrick Mahomes injured: The Chiefs are 54-3 when holding their opponents to less than 27 points, including postseason games. The defense took that stat right and did a very good job limiting Jacksonville to 20 points in the 27-20 win.
Was it a perfect performance? No, but it was good enough. The Jaguars had 144 rushing yards and averaged 7.6 yards per carry while going 7 of 13 in third place, but the Chiefs forced a 27-20 interception from Trevor Lawrence late in the fourth quarter and hit him seven times.
The defense strengthened in the second quarter when Mahomes was in the dressing room, holding Jacksonville to three points in the second quarter and maintaining the lead at the break before Mahomes returned.
Is the Chiefs defense great? No, but this is Steve Spagnuolo’s best unit since arriving in Kansas City. Less than 27 points seems like the magic number for a win, whether Mahomes is healthy or not.
Drops Cost Team Chance on Surprise: The Jaguars could hang out with the Chiefs throughout the game, but Jacksonville might have gone to the AFC Championship Game if it weren’t for a few key drops. Trevor Lawrence found Christian Kirk with a deep pass that would have gone 55 yards in the second quarter, but Kirk dropped the pass and the Jaguars rallied for a field goal.
In a 17-7 game, Kirk needed that reception to put Jacksonville in the red zone and put pressure on Kansas City. The Jaguars had another drop in the second quarter when JaMycal Hasty had a drop in 3rd and 19th places that forced the Jaguars to tie.
The drops affected Lawrence in the third quarter as he was 5-of-8 for 10 yards on two possessions as Jacksonville couldn’t make up ground. The Jaguars’ offense just seemed out of sync after Kirk fell — and never recovered.
Jacksonville will be back next year with a franchise quarterback in Lawrence and a roster that should improve. The Jaguars will learn from these mistakes as the young team develops.
Lane Johnson returned in a big way: Johnson has spent the last three weeks rehab and preparing for the opportunity to play in the postseason after delaying surgery for an adductor tear in his groin. How effective the best right tackle would be was unclear.
Turns out, Johnson was his typical dominant self. He allowed no sacks, presses, quarterback hits, and had a 0.0% pressure rate in 26 pass-blocking snaps. His influence was felt against Giants pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, who had no pressure on Johnson in the divisional round. The Eagles also rushed for 268 yards, the second most in a postseason game in franchise history.
The Eagles’ offensive line is the best in football. With Johnson on the field, they are dominant.
The offensive line needs improvement this offseason: In each of the Giants’ three encounters with the Eagles, the offensive line was no match for a front that had 70 sacks this season. The Giants conceded 60 pressings and 14 sacks in three games against the Eagles, 16 pressing and five sacks in Saturday’s loss.
New York allowed 49 sacks that year, which ranked fifth in the NFL. The allowable 272 pressures were the second most common and the pressure rate of 43.4% was the highest. That’s just not good enough.
New York needs to develop Evan Neal to give Andrew Thomas a battery mate in the tackle. The inside of the line needs an overhaul as Jon Feliciano, Mark Glowinski and Nick Gates struggled against the elite pass rushing teams. Ben Bredeson wasn’t much better either.
The Giants have cap space to improve the offensive line. If New York keeps Daniel Jones, the Giants need to protect him and give him a chance to throw the ball down.
So much for using three offensive linemen: The Bengals didn’t have left tackle Jonah Williams, right tackle La’El Collins and right guard Alex Cappa against the Bills. Three-fifths of the offensive line out? Didn’t matter.
Jackson Carman started with the left tackle for the first time, Hakeem Adeniji started with the right tackle for the third time and Max Scharping started with the right defense for the second time. The inexperience didn’t matter, as the three were part of a dismantling of Buffalo’s defensive line, giving Cincinnati 172 rushing yards and 5.1 yards per carry. This is the same Cincinnati Run offensive that ranked 29th in rushing yards and 29th in yards per carry during the regular season.
The trio of Carman, Adeniji and Scharping didn’t allow a sack in the game. They only allowed two quarterback hits but allowed 11 prints. The high pressure rate notwithstanding, they protected Joe Burrow and set the running game for arguably the best performance of the year.
The Bengals offensive line answered all the questions it needed.
The running game was a farce: No team has had more deceptive rushing numbers this season than the Bills, but rushing yards per game and yards per carry only reared their ugly heads on Sunday. Buffalo had just 63 rush yards and averaged 3.3 yards per carry against Cincinnati, the lowest single-game yards-per-carry average all season.
Devin Singletary was a non-factor with six carries for 24 yards. The Bills also didn’t trust rookie James Cook enough to give him the ball late in the year (he finished with five carries for 13 yards). Josh Allen was their leading rusher with 26 yards, and he had just 3.3 yards per carry (6.1 on the season).
Neither Singletary nor Cook appeared to be late in stabbing as the Bills averaged just 3.8 yards per carry in the fourth quarter of the year. Singletary was averaging just 4.0 yards per carry when the defense came down on Allen (3.2 yards per carry).
Buffalo needs a home base in 2023 if the Bills want to go to the Super Bowl. Of course, a better offensive line doesn’t hurt either. You just can’t count on Allen that much to carry the running game.
Brock Purdy fought the pressure from the Cowboys: Purdy has done his job for the seventh straight year leading the 49ers to a win. In a game where defense played a huge role, he didn’t turn the football over or move it off its spot, which was critical to the 49ers’ progression.
There is cause for concern, particularly who the 49ers will face next week. Purdy was just 3-of-11 for 24 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions while being sacked twice (39.6 rating). The Cowboys couldn’t make life easy for Purdy, which other defenses couldn’t in his six previous starts.
Purdy completed 51.1% of his passes for 264 yards with three touchdowns to a pressurized interception in the regular season (82.1 rating). In the playoffs, he completed 36.8% of his passes (7 of 19) for 157 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions (102.3 rating).
Are the numbers better? The Seattle game inflated Purdy’s performance when a defense comes close to him, but the Dallas game could be a clue as to how things might go next week. Of course, the Eagles and their 75 sacks (regular season and playoffs) actually need to get to Purdy.
Dak Prescott had to be good – and wasn’t: The Dak Prescott, who surfaced for most of the season, resurfaced in Sunday’s loss to the 49ers. Prescott was 23 of 37 for 206 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, his sixth multi-interception game of the year.
Prescott missed several open receivers and made questionable decisions, making him a liability for the offense rather than a strength. When pressured, Prescott was a lazy 4 of 11 for 14 yards and an interception for a 7.0 rating. In the second half (the half without Tony Pollard), Prescott was 11 of 21 for 125 yards without touchdowns and a 70.5 rating.
Those numbers just aren’t good enough for a $40 million quarterback who had to carry offense to scoring drives. Prescott looked like the player who’d led the NFL in interceptions since he returned with his questionable decision-making in Week 7 — replacing the quarterback who had big games against Philadelphia and Tampa Bay last month.
Prescott is just too contradictory to help the Cowboys make a Super Bowl run. He is what he is at this point – and it’s up to Dallas to try to rectify his problems as he nears 30.