There is nothing like playoff football. The drama, intensity and urgency of postseason games require coaches and players to be at their best in critical moments. After watching a weekend full of impressive performances from the best teams in the league, here are my thoughts and observations from the divisional round.
Three things I liked
1. Joe Burrow‘s swagger is real
The Bengals franchise quarterback was not joking when he suggested the team’s Super Bowl window would remain open as long as his career lasts. Burrow is headed to the second AFC Championship Game of his three-year career after leading his team to a 27-10 win over the Buffalo Bills on the road.
Despite dealing with a steady stream of snow flurries in frigid conditions, the third-year pro carved up the Bills defense with surgical precision to complete 23 of 36 passes for 242 yards and two scores. The efficient performance showcased Burrow’s strengths as a quick-rhythm passer with a high IQ and superb diagnostic skills. He quickly cracked the Bills’ defensive code and countered with an assortment of pinpoint throws at short and intermediate range.
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Burrow connected with eight different receivers on various “catch, rock and throw” concepts that enabled him to get rid of the ball to protect a patchwork offensive line that was breaking in three new starters. In addition, Burrow’s ability to identify and exploit the Bills’ umbrella coverage enabled Cincinnati to stay ahead of the chains while utilizing a low-risk approach.
With Burrow targeting eight different receivers in the passing game to complement a dominant rushing attack (34 rushes for 172 yards and a score) that gutted the Bills defense between the tackles, the Bengals’ balanced offense dominated the game from the opening kick to the final horn. If Cincinnati continues to operate like a well-oiled machine under Burrow’s direction, his bold proclamation will make him sound like a prophet down the road.
2. The Eagles‘ O-line flexes its muscles
If you want to know why the Eagles have emerged as one of most explosive offenses in the league, look no further than their dominant offensive line. The quintet (Jordan Mailata, Landon Dickerson, Jason Kelce, Isaac Seumalo, and Lane Johnson) dominated the Giants’ vaunted frontline from start to finish while flashing a little nastiness that suggests this unit possesses a temperament that enables them to bully the bullies.
From Kelce’s relentless whipping of New York interior defenders Dexter Lawrence and Justin Ellis, to Lane Johnson controlling the edges against defensive ends and linebackers, the Eagles’ physicality overwhelmed a Giants frontline that entered the game riding the momentum of a spectacular showing in the wild-card round.
The Eagles rushed for 268 yards on 44 carries, utilizing a variety of zone and “pin-and-pull” runs that showcased the unit’s athleticism and versatility. The movement skills and technique demonstrated by the quintet should serve as a teaching tape for offensive line coaches around the league. The unified footwork, overpowering physicality and relentless effort are precisely what coaches want to see when they review the tape as the unit’s practice habits show up on game day.
As the Eagles’ future opponents prepare to face arguably the best offensive line in football, the unit’s domination of a highly respected Giants frontline will catch their attention.
3. Andy Reid continues to prove that experience matters in the playoffs
After walking the sidelines for 24 years as a head coach, Reid has turned his experience into expertise as a team builder and leader. With 250-plus regular-season and postseason wins, the veteran coach has navigated around challenging circumstances to chalk up wins in an ultra-competitive league.
Reid leaned on those experiences to guide the Chiefs to a hard-fought win in the AFC divisional round after losing Patrick Mahomes to an ankle injury that forced him to miss significant action in the first half. Without the superstar quarterback to make his X’s and O’s come to life, Reid switched to a conservative game plan that enabled backup Chad Henne to flourish despite receiving minimal reps in games over the past two seasons. Reid utilized an assortment of quick-rhythm throws and creative runs that kept the Jaguars defense from teeing off on the backup QB.
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Moreover, Reid’s shift to a conservative, ball-control approach showcased his experience in winning playoff games. Instead of haphazardly calling the plays initially designed with Mahomes in mind, he tweaked his call sheet to ensure Henne was comfortable and confident under center.
Although the Chiefs’ playcalls looked like they were plucked from the practice script from the opening day of training camp, Reid’s decision to utilize basic concepts in a high-stakes game suggests that he valued execution over trickery in a crucial moment. As a result, Reid became just the third coach in NFL history to win 20 playoff games (Tom Landry and Bill Belichick), and his experience and expertise give him a decided edge over every coach remaining in the tournament.
Three things I did not like
1. Dak Prescott is not elite
The Cowboys quarterback came up short again in a playoff game. Although the veteran has dealt with injuries this season, the Cowboys needed him to bring his A-game, but he was unable to meet expectations.
From his first-quarter interception on an errant throw to his inaccurate throw and questionable decision in the red zone that resulted in another turnover, Prescott was outplayed by a rookie quarterback in a game that was decided by quarterback play. He connected on 23 of 37 passes for 206 yards with a score and two interceptions. Although the two turnovers only resulted in six points for the 49ers, the giveaways were part of a season-long trend that haunted Prescott throughout the 2022 campaign.
With the final four featuring three elite quarterbacks (Mahomes, Burrow and Jalen Hurts), the Cowboys are likely giving Prescott the side-eye for failing to step up his game in the divisional round. As Jerry Jones and Mike McCarthy huddle up this offseason, they must determine how to get better play from their QB1 in 2023.
2. The Bills are at a crossroads
Sean McDermott and offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey are at crossroads when determining how to proceed with Josh Allen. Despite the superstar quarterback showcasing five-star talent as a “one-man show” in the backfield, the Bills will not reach title contender status until the offense takes a more balanced approach, with the running backs taking on a more significant role carrying the ball.
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Whether it is James Cook emerging as a lead back or the team utilizing a running back-by-committee approach with the unit amassing 25-plus rush attempts, the Bills need an actual running back to emerge as the focal point of the ground attack for the team to advance beyond the AFC Championship Game. Just look at how the Bengals shifted their offensive emphasis to a ground-and-pound approach, with Joe Mixon handling the dirty work between the tackles to alleviate some of the burden on Burrow.
The Bills need to develop a Plan B to offset some of the pressure on Allen to carry the offense with his spectacular talents as a runner and passer. With the weather also playing a factor in postseason play, the Bills must consider tweaking their playing style to become a more dangerous outfit in the future.
3. Jaguars missed opportunities
The NFL playoffs are similar to the NBA Finals, with a “make or miss” feel to the games. The outcomes of these closely contested games are routinely determined by whether the star players make big plays or miss out on golden opportunities in critical moments.
The Jaguars discovered that reality when they failed to take advantage of their opportunities against a Chiefs team that was ripe for an upset. From the defense’s failure to shut down a Chiefs offense led by a backup quarterback to Foye Oluokun’s dropped interception on a deflected ball, the unit never came up with the big play that would flip the game’s momentum. In addition, the defense failed to contain Travis Kelce (14 receptions, 98 yards and two scores) despite knowing he was the No. 1 target in the passing game.
Offensively, the Jaguars will spend the offseason regretting the miscues from a wide receiver corps that had flourished with emerging QB Trevor Lawrence. Christian Kirk failed to reel in a bomb that would have set the Jaguars up in the red zone early in the game. And Jamal Agnew squandered a potential scoring opportunity in the fourth quarter with an unforced fumble.
Although those mistakes and miscues were not the primary reason for the Jaguars’ playoff loss, the opportunity to cash in on those chances could have turned the divisional round into a historic win for the franchise.
Playoff Power Rankings
1. Philadelphia Eagles: After a dominant performance against the Giants, the Eagles return to the top spot on this list based on the spectacular effort from their offensive and defensive lines. The Eagles’ ultra-physical “trench warriors” set the tone for a squad that looked Super Bowl-ready in the divisional round.
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2. Cincinnati Bengals: The defending AFC Champions are one step away from back-to-back Super Bowl appearances thanks to an explosive offense and an opportunistic defense. As Joe Burrow & Co. continue to knock off the so-called heavyweights in the league, the Bengals deserve respect as a title contender.
3. San Francisco 49ers: Kyle Shanahan and defensive coordinator Demeco Ryans deserve props for crafting complementary game plans that make the 49ers nearly impossible to defeat. With a dynamic running game complementing a creative aerial attack that mirrors San Francisco’s favorite runs, the 49ers have crafted the perfect offense to support a disruptive defense specializing in producing splash plays. Throw in a loaded roster with hybrid playmakers on each side of the ball and it’s easy to see why the 49ers have reeled off 12 straight wins.
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4. Kansas City Chiefs: The best quarterback in the NFL can single-handedly lead the Chiefs to a Super Bowl appearance, but a high ankle sprain could prevent the superstar from putting the team on his back. While Patrick Mahomes has pulled rabbits out of the hat throughout his career, he will need to wave his magic wand again to help the Chiefs climb to the top of this chart.
MVP of the Week
Joe Burrow chalks up another win on the road by delivering a virtuoso performance against the Bills. The third-year pro was unaffected by the inclement weather as he connected on 24 of 36 passes for 242 yards and a couple of touchdowns. While those numbers speak to Burrow’s efficiency as a passer, his poise, composure and unwavering confidence sparked his team to a win. With the Bengals taking on his personality as an ultra-cool competitor, the defending AFC Champions are not afraid to take on top teams anytime and anywhere.
Offensive Players of the Week
Kenneth Gainwell and Miles Sanders combined for 202 rushing yards and a touchdown on 29 carries. The duo sparked an Eagles running game that amassed 268 yards on the ground while overwhelming the Giants with a heavy dose of inside and outside runs. The tandem complemented Jalen Hurts’ dynamic skills as a dual-threat playmaker.
Defensive Performance of the Week
The Eagles defensive line deserves credit for taking over the game against the Giants with five combined sacks while pummeling Daniel Jones in the pocket. Haason Reddick, Josh Sweat, Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham handled the dirty work at the line of scrimmage with their heavy hands and relentless pursuit off the edges.
Unsung Hero of the Week
Chad Henne has rarely played throughout his tenure with the Chiefs, but the veteran was ready to go when his number was called against the Jaguars in the AFC divisional round. The Chiefs QB2 completed 5 of 7 passes for 23 yards and a score while managing the game off the bench. Most importantly, Henne guided the Chiefs on a crucial 98-yard scoring drive that he capped off with a one-yard toss to Travis Kelce. Although the numbers are not spectacular, Henne’s performance is worthy of a standing ovation based on the situation and circumstances.
Bucky Brooks is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He regularly appears on “Speak For Yourself” and also breaks down the game for NFL Network and as a cohost of the “Moving the Sticks” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.
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