What we learned in the divisional round of the NFL Playoffs
Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow completed 23 of 36 pass attempts for 242 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday to set up an A.F.C. championship matchup with top-seeded Kansas City.
By DERRIK KLASSEN
In the NFL’s divisional-round games, the Cincinnati Bengals got a statement win on the road against the Buffalo Bills’ fearsome defense, Patrick Mahomes added to his legend by depending on his favored target, and the Philadelphia Eagles’ rout of the New York Giants provided a measure of clarity for the losing team.
DeMeco Ryans had the perfect counter for Dallas’ offense.
Through a blend of suffocating pass-rushing, elite coverage between the numbers, and relentless energy as a tackling unit, the San Francisco 49ers’ defense stifled the Cowboys en route to a tough 19-12 win Sunday night.
All season, the 49ers’ defense has succeeded on those three tenets, established by coordinator Ryans. In the divisional round, it started with the pass rush. Though San Francisco sacked Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott only once, the 49ers’ front seven constantly had him under siege. The base four rushers did a great job condensing the pocket on Prescott, squeezing his space little by little as if he were Han Solo trapped inside the trash compactor.
The claustrophobic environment had Prescott rushing the ball out, but he found no purchase for the type of quick, over-the-middle throws that keep drives alive. The 49ers closed on the Cowboys’ throws over the middle starting with the first drive. On a third-and-7 from the Dallas 40-yard line, 49ers safety Talanoa Hufanga drove down from a deep alignment to cut off tight end Dalton Schultz’s in-breaking route and force an incompletion and a Cowboys punt.
On Dallas’ next drive, with the Cowboys facing another third down from their own territory, 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw faked a blitz then dropped back to cover receiver CeeDee Lamb running deep. Greenlaw cut off the route and Prescott rushed a throw to Michael Gallup near the sideline. Gallup had stopped running his route early, and 49ers cornerback Deommodore Lenoir swooped in for an interception.
Fred Warner, San Francisco’s All-Pro linebacker, showcased his next-level ability in the second half. With the score tied at 9 in the third quarter and Dallas facing another third down, Warner lined up on the line of scrimmage, just outside the center’s left shoulder, before dropping back into coverage.
Warner sprinted to cover Lamb, who sprinted down the right hash on a seam route. Warner took an incredible angle to reach Lamb and matched him step for step to shut Prescott’s throwing window for an incompletion.
The Bengals’ rushing attack can control a playoff game.
NFL offenses that can throw it all over the field just as well as they ground-and-pound are nightmares for defenses, especially in the playoffs as game-planning gets more specific and the edges get smaller. On Sunday, the Bengals reminded the rest of the field that they are a complete offense.
Joe Burrow threw the Bengals to an early 14-point lead over the Bills. On the game’s first drive, a six-play sequence, Burrow peppered his receivers with passes on a combination of quick throws, intermediate darts and deep balls that included a 23-yard toss to Tyler Boyd and a 28-yard touchdown throw that found Ja’Marr Chase down the middle against a busted coverage.
Bengals coach Zac Taylor let the run game take the reins on Cincinnati’s next drive, with Joe Mixon running for 5 yards and then 16 on the first two plays. The downhill runs were aimed between the tackles and tested what the Bills’ response would be. Without edge defender Von Miller and nose tackle DaQuan Jones, the Bills could not mount a reply.
Playing with a lead over the rest of the game, Burrow conducted the offense with a symphony of short and intermediate passes that were complemented by tough, downhill runs from Mixon and Samaje Perine en route to a 27-10 Cincinnati victory. Mixon finished with 20 carries for 105 yards and a touchdown, a third-quarter score that was initially ruled short but overturned upon review.
The Bengals ran for 172 yards (to the Bills’ 63) despite three of their starting offensive linemen being out with injuries. Facing the Bengals’ backups, the Bills allowed Cincinnati’s rushers to gain 85 yards before contact, a season-high, after giving up the league’s fewest yards before contact (0.8 per carry) during the regular season.
Travis Kelce was key to Patrick Mahomes winning his ‘ankle game.’
Disaster almost struck for Kansas City on Saturday night. With just over two minutes left in the first quarter, star quarterback Patrick Mahomes got his right ankle rolled up on by Jacksonville Jaguars pass-rusher Arden Key. It wasn’t an intentional move, but Key’s entire body weight fell on top of the ankle, reducing Mahomes’ mobility to a grimacing hobble for the remainder of the quarter.
Mahomes finished that drive, which ended with a 50-yard field goal from Harrison Butker that gave Kansas City a 10-7 lead, but was replaced by veteran backup Chad Henne on the next. Henne led a surprisingly calm touchdown drive, but Mahomes came back on the following possession, his right ankle wrapped heavily in tape, and didn’t quite look right physically. He hobbled to hand the ball off from under center and wasn’t moving with the same burst.
Kansas City tried to play out of the shotgun as much as possible to limit how much moving Mahomes had to do, but that wasn’t the only modification it made. Coach Andy Reid moved tight end Travis Kelce all around the formation — from an in-line position, to the slot, to out wide — all to confuse the Jaguars, who did not have a player capable of defending him.
Kelce caught two touchdowns and finished with 14 receptions, the most in a playoff game by a tight end since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. He previously shared the record with two others after he had 13 receptions in a January 2021 postseason game.
Mahomes, on one healthy leg, delivered a performance only he is capable of putting together, completing 22 of 30 passes for 195 yards and two touchdowns and finishing with a quarterback rating of 77.0. But his success was owed to more than just finding his favorite target. Mahomes proved again there isn’t a football problem he can’t solve, including how to be creative with only one healthy ankle.
With Kansas City leading 20-17 midway through the fourth quarter, Mahomes effectively iced the game with a shifty pocket movement and throw off his left, healthy foot. Kansas City started in a trips formation on second-and-goal from the 6-yard line. Mahomes initially looked to his left to the isolated receiver, tight end Noah Gray, but press coverage took the slant route away.
Without panic, Mahomes shuffled up in a closing pocket, jumped off his left foot, and flicked the ball to the back of the end zone for Marquez Valdes-Scantling, giving Kansas City a two-score cushion.
Final score: Kansas City 27, Jacksonville 20
The Giants finally know what they’ve got in Daniel Jones.
The Giants should be celebrated for defying the odds this season. Earning a playoff spot, never mind winning a postseason game, with a first-year head coach and a roster in need of a rebuild is a testament to the team’s creativity and determination.
Reality slaps all but one team in the face by the end of the season, though, and the Giants are smarting after getting thumped 38-7 by the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round. The Giants’ front office, led by Joe Schoen in his first year as general manager, faces several personnel decisions but none more important than what to do with quarterback Daniel Jones.
Coach Brian Daboll completely retooled the offense to accentuate Jones’ strengths, so the optimistic view is that the offense can only get better as it adds pass-catching talent. After the Giants shifted to a run-heavy approach that regularly called on Jones to use his legs, Jones finished fourth among passers with 120 rushes, almost double last season’s total. (Only Chicago’s Justin Fields, Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts and Buffalo’s Josh Allen had more carries.)
In the passing game, Daboll put a premium on getting the ball out quickly and limiting negative plays, an approach that sort of saved Jones, who is more prone to making mistakes the longer he holds the football, from himself. Daboll also excelled at facilitating open throws underneath and off play-action.
With the right additions at receiver, that approach could find a new level. The Giants got by this year with Richie James, Darius Slayton, and Isaiah Hodgins but none are options worthy of being a No. 1 receiver. James is undersized at 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds; Slayton is mostly a deep threat; and Hodgins, a surprisingly effective midseason addition, has yet to show he can handle a heavy load over a full season. An injection of star talent — perhaps through a trade for Arizona’s DeAndre Hopkins or a first-round selection in the draft — might open up new possibilities both for Daboll and Jones.
The more pragmatic viewpoint, however, is that Jones hasn’t shown he is the kind of quarterback who can elevate those around him enough to warrant him commanding a healthy portion of a team’s cap space. It’s true that Jones has come alive as a runner and reduced his interceptions to a career-low five in the regular season, but both of those developments were meant to limit his errors as a drop-back passer.
Dual-threat quarterbacks run the NFL, and Jones has not shown that he’s enough of a threat in the pocket. Against the Eagles, Jones was not able to scan the full field and be a dynamic passer, especially when it came to throwing in tight windows.
NFL CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS
Sunday, Jan. 29
San Francisco 49ers at Philadelphia Eagles, 3 p.m. ET (Fox)
Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs, 6:30 p.m. ET (CBS)