• The Star Staff

What we learned from the NFL’s divisional round

By Benjamin Hoffman

Home teams won three of four games during the NFL’s divisional round, but there was plenty of fretting along the way. The Buffalo Bills rode their defense to a win, the Green Bay Packers relied on their offense and the heavily favored Kansas City Chiefs, who lost quarterback Patrick Mahomes to a concussion, mostly just survived. The weekend closed with a hyped battle in New Orleans between NFL legends — Tom Brady of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints — that resulted in the round’s lone upset.

Here’s what we learned:

The Winners’ Bracket

— Andy Reid trusts Chad Henne. Forced into action after Mahomes’ concussion, Henne, a 35-year-old backup, showed determination, skill and a bit of recklessness in protecting Kansas City’s lead over the Cleveland Browns, helping to give the Chiefs a 22-17 victory and sending them to their third consecutive AFC championship game. Henne’s performance wasn’t flawless — he threw a particularly ugly interception in the end zone — but coach Andy Reid’s decision to have his backup attempt a pass on fourth-and-short to ice the game, rather than running or punting the ball away, was about as strong of an endorsement as a player can receive. And Henne will undoubtedly be reminding people about his wild 13-yard run on the preceding play for years to come.

There is no question that Kansas City is hoping Mahomes can be back for next week’s game against the Buffalo Bills, but his injury — and injuries suffered by Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens and Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams in their divisional round games — showed just how precarious each game can be in the NFL. Having a reliable backup can be the difference between winning and losing.

— The Buccaneers might be in trouble. A win is a win is a win, but Tampa Bay had some red flags in its 30-20 victory over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. Tom Brady completed just one pass that traveled more than 20 yards in the air — he completed just 18 of 33 passes overall — and while the Buccaneers’ defense took advantage of Drew Brees’ mistakes to produce three interceptions, it did so with minimal pass rush, as Tampa Bay had no sacks and just three quarterback hits.

Next week’s game will come against a future Hall of Famer squarely in his prime (Aaron Rodgers), rather than one who was running on fumes (Brees). If Brady isn’t more aggressive, and Tampa Bay’s defense doesn’t develop more pressure, the Packers could have a clear path to the Super Bowl.

— Lambeau Field is ready for its (frigid) close-up. Green Bay’s stadium opened in 1957, and has been the site of several classic games, but it has seen relatively little action late in the playoffs. Thanks to Green Bay’s 32-18 win over the Los Angeles Rams in Saturday’s divisional round game, the Packers will host the NFC championship game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next Sunday — the 10th time in franchise history that Green Bay has played a game with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake. Most of those games, though, were on the road, with this being just the fourth time Lambeau has hosted such a game. The last resulted in a loss to the New York Giants in the 2007 season; Aaron Rodgers, still serving as Brett Favre’s understudy, watched from the sideline.

The Packers’ raucous fans will not have much chance to affect next week’s game — Green Bay allowed only 8,456 people to attend the divisional round game — but Wisconsin’s weather could play a role. Weather.com’s 10-day forecast is calling for possible snow Sunday, with temperatures in the 20s. That’s cold, but by Packers standards it wouldn’t qualify as particularly harsh: It was 3 degrees Fahrenheit at kickoff in 1997 when Favre led Green Bay past the Carolina Panthers; and it was a bone-chilling minus-15 — with a wind chill bringing things down another 20 to 30 degrees — when the Packers, on their path to Super Bowl, beat the Dallas Cowboys in the 1967 NFL championship, better known as the Ice Bowl.

— Buffalo’s defense was lying in wait. After a 2019 season in which the Bills’ defense ranked second in points allowed and third in yards allowed, it was expected that Buffalo would live and die on that side of the ball in 2020. Instead, the Bills’ defense was routinely overwhelmed, leaving quarterback Josh Allen and the team’s much-improved offense to bail out that unit. In Saturday’s divisional round game, those roles again reversed. Defensive stars like linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, safety Micah Hyde and cornerback Tre’Davious White were at their best, and cornerback Taron Johnson delivered the key play of the game with an incredible 101-yard interception return for a touchdown.

Johnson’s pick-6 should result in his never buying another drink in Buffalo, and the Bills are back in the AFC championship game for the first time since the 1993 season. But Buffalo faces an even stiffer test next week in the form of Kansas City.

The Losers’ Bracket

— This season will be nothing more than a footnote for Drew Brees. In what was likely the final game of his career, Brees was a bit of a mess. He completed just 19 of 34 passes for 134 yards, with one touchdown and three interceptions as the New Orleans Saints lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 30-20. Brees was limited all season — those limitations were exacerbated by a hit in Week 10 in which he broke 11 ribs — and he was a shell of his former self against Tampa Bay. He did not attempt a single pass of 20 or more yards Sunday and his passer rating of 38.1 was his worst mark in 18 career playoff games. It was the fifth-worst game of his career should you include his 286 regular-season starts.

While Brady has taken a commanding lead over Brees in career touchdown passes — and shows no signs of slowing down — Brees, a 13-time Pro Bowler and one-time Super Bowl-winner, would retire as the NFL’s career leader in passing yards.

— A few mistakes can spoil a dream season. The Cleveland Browns had the franchise’s best season since it was resurrected in 1999, and the team’s defense, its running game and even quarterback Baker Mayfield should provide fans plenty of optimism going into next season. But Cleveland had a near-touchdown turn into a turnover thanks to a confusing rule and the team‘s wasting two timeouts in the second half — one on a challenge of a play that wasn’t particularly close and one when there was miscommunication at the line of scrimmage — lowered the Browns’ chances of getting the ball back one last time when trailing by five in the game’s closing minutes.

The Browns and their fans will probably view this as a lost opportunity to knock off the vaunted Kansas City Chiefs — the injury sustained by Mahomes had seemed to kick the door wide open — but the franchise should instead see this as the start of what could be a strong AFC rivalry. The Browns are young, talented and came close to a win on the road. Given another shot, perhaps the outcome would be different.

— The Rams’ defense goes as far as Aaron Donald can take it. After a disappointing 2019 season that ended without a playoff appearance, Los Angeles surged back into contention in 2020 thanks to its defense. The Rams were not only the top-rated overall defense in the NFL — both in total yardage and scoring — but they showed balance, finishing as a top-three unit in both run and pass yards allowed. All of that, however, was built on the dominance of Donald, an All-Pro defensive tackle who anchors the team in all facets of the game. There was concern entering Saturday’s game against Green Bay that Donald could be limited by a rib injury, but he insisted he was healthy. It was clear from the beginning that was untrue. Donald was on the field for 40 of the Rams’ 75 defensive snaps and he was limited to one tackle and one pressure. His lack of pressure had a cascading effect for the rest of the Rams’ defenders, who did not produce a sack and hit Rodgers just once all game.

Struggling against Rodgers hardly makes the Rams unique, but the final numbers were stark: It was just the second time all season that Los Angeles allowed more than 30 points, and it was the team’s worst effort of the season against both the pass (296 yards) and the run (188 yards).

— The Ravens are familiar with Murphy’s Law. The adage states anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Baltimore got an extreme lesson in that during Saturday’s 17-3 loss to the Bills.

Justin Tucker, the game’s most reliable kicker from inside 50 yards, missed 41- and 46-yard field-goal attempts, with both attempts bouncing off the uprights. It was quickly reported that Tucker had not missed two such kicks in any single game over his 154 career regular-season and playoff games in the NFL, but that was understating how unusual it was for Tucker. He also never missed two such kicks in any college game.

Lamar Jackson, a quarterback celebrated for efficient passing and thrilling runs, had the third-worst passer rating of his 41 career starts (including postseason) while gaining just 34 yards rushing. He had a mistake in the red zone turn into a 101-yard pick-6 and he had a bad snap get away from him, leading to a hard hit that gave him a concussion.

Tucker and Jackson were hardly alone in their misery. Mark Andrews, one of the game’s best tight ends, caught just four of the 11 passes thrown his way, dropping at least one pass that looked like a sure touchdown. He was also Jackson’s target on the play that turned into a pick-6. Only Patrick Mekari had a worse day. A second-year player out of California, Mekari inherited the starting center job from an ineffective Matt Skura during the regular season. On Saturday, two of Mekari’s snaps resulted in fumbles — one of which was the play in which Jackson was concussed.

NEXT SUNDAY’S SCHEDULE (All times Eastern)

NFC Championship Game

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers, 3:05 p.m., Fox

Tampa Bay has been on an offensive roll since mid-November and Green Bay had the NFL’s best offense this season. How the Buccaneers deal with Wisconsin’s freezing weather could play an enormous role in how this game plays out.

(Early line: Packers -4)

AFC Championship Game

Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs, 6:40 p.m., CBS

Patrick Mahomes felt well enough to tweet after Sunday’s game, but Kansas City’s fate rests on whether the team’s starting quarterback is cleared from the NFL’s concussion protocol.

(Early line: Chiefs -3)

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