Burrow-Mahomes IV, 49ers-Eagles Showdown!
NFL Divisional - The Patrick Mahomes-led Kansas City Chiefs are 0-3 against the Joe Burrow-led Cincinnati Bengals in the regular season and playoffs. And Mahomes will be playing (oh, he WILL be playing) on a sprained ankle when those teams face off in Kansas City for an AFC championship rematch.
The 2022 season turned out just as the Philadelphia Eagles planned it. The season turned out nothing like what the San Francisco 49ers planned it. The NFC's best team will face its hottest team next Sunday in Philly. But which is which?
Let's speed-run through this weekend's action and take some deep dives into the NFL's Final Four as an appetizer for a pair of very appetizing conference title games.
What We Learned from the Divisional Playoffs
Here's what we learned about the NFL's final four during the divisional round of the playoffs:
This flawed team, whose offensive line has been crippled by injuries, whose head coach gets criticized for a dozen different tactical shortcomings, and whose defense rarely gets credit as a borderline top-10 unit, just waltzed into Buffalo—in the snow—and stole the Bills' wallet and car keys in a game that wasn't as close as the 27-10 final score.
Credit Joe Burrow and/or the Ja'Marr Chase Trio. Credit leaders on the defense such as Jessie Bates, Sam Hubbard, and Trey Hendrickson. Credit Zac Taylor if you dare. But realize that the Bengals are the AFC's most resilient team. And while folks in my industry sometimes overlook them, the Chiefs won't dare look past them in the AFC Championship Game.
San Francisco 49ers
Brock Purdy has already turned into a pumpkin. The 49ers system is designed to run on pumpkins. It's like a potato battery, but for pumpkins.
Brock Purdy did not play all that well on Sunday: he threw some near-picks and forced the 49ers to settle for field goals after turnovers. But Purdy does not have to play very well, even against top competition, so long as the defense keeps making stops and providing takeaways while George Kittle juggles receptions off his own facemask.
Beating the 49ers means either forcing Purdy to play abysmally or, you know, scoring more than 12 points on offense. The Eagles appear capable of either strategy, but it won't be easy: DVOA says that the 49ers were better than the Eagles down the stretch, Purdy Pumpkinhead and all.
The Eagles didn't earn a first-round bye because they beat a soft schedule of opponents. They earned that bye because they absolutely dominated those opponents.
Jalen Hurts and company demonstrated the difference between a true contender and a bunch of spunky overachievers in their 38-7 trouncing of the New York Giants. It was a much-needed tune-up before the NFC championship matchup with the 49ers, and it silenced lots of late-season doubts.
Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City appeared to be one mistake away from disaster for much of Saturday's 27-20 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, especially after Patrick Mahomes suffered an early ankle injury. Yet the Chiefs never trailed, and the Jaguars never mounted a serious second-half threat: a testament to the brilliance of Andy Reid, Travis Kelce, Chris Jones, many oft-maligned supporting characters on defense, and yes, Chad Henne. Still, the status of Mahomes' ankle will this week's biggest talking point and the most critical unknown variable as the Chiefs prepare for the Bengals.
Ranking the Final Four Quarterbacks
What follows over the next few segments are rankings for the quarterbacks, offensive lines, coaching staffs, and so forth who made it to the conference championship round. We'll start, of course, with the five (yes, five) quarterbacks we may see next Sunday.
1. Healthy Patrick Mahomes, KC
Already a top-10 all-time quarterback? That discussion sounds like clickbait for another column at another time. Already top-20? Absolutely, without a doubt, and climbing a little every week.
2. Joe Burrow, CIN
The baby-faced, insouciant, cigar-chomping, icy-veined assassin that Justin Herbert, Tua Tagovailoa, and a dozen other young hotshot quarterbacks someday aspire to become.
3. Gimpy Patrick Mahomes, KC
The version of Mahomes who cannot plant his foot properly and can barely run due to an ankle injury—the version we will probably see next Sunday—is frustratingly scattershot and requires extra protection, but he still radiates a clutchtastic Willis Reed/Kirk Gibson vibe.
4. Jalen Hurts, PHI
The best young black quarterback to have a disproportionate amount of his success attributed to his supporting cast/scrambling/scheme/schedule/circumstances since [insert every other successful black quarterback in history here].
5. Brock Purdy, SF
The blank canvas upon which Kyle Shanahan is painting his masterpiece.
Ranking the Final Four Playmaker Corps
The 2022 season was the Year of the Supporting Cast, as teams such as the Dolphins showed what great receivers can do for a prospect at the crossroads, while the Bears showed us what happens when a gifted dual-threat is surrounded by USFL backups. All four remaining teams have quality receivers and rushers, and each playmaker corps brings a unique set of skills.
1. Cincinnati Bengals
Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd—the best wide receiver trio in the NFL two years running—but also Joe Mixon, Semaje Perine, Hayden Hurst, and Trenton Irwin, all of whom stepped up when called upon during injury crunches and in the playoffs.
2. San Francisco 49ers
Deebo Samuel. George Kittle. Christian McCaffrey. It's like an entire toolbox full of sonic screwdrivers. The 49ers finished the regular season tied with the Chiefs for second in the NFL with 6.6 yards after catch per reception (behind a Panthers team that did not throw much with 6.8) and tied with many teams for sixth with 1.8 yards after contact per rush.
Picking the Bengals over the 49ers was difficult. But which supporting cast would you prefer when trailing by two scores in the fourth quarter? Thought so.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
A.J. Brown ranked third in the NFL (behind Tyreek Hill and Davonte Adams) with 570 receiving yards on passes of 20-plus air yards, per Sports Info Solutions. DeVonta Smith ranked 18th with 290 yards on such passes. Dallas Goedert tied George Kittle for second among starting NFL tight ends with 12.8 yards per reception (Jordan Akins of the Texans led tight ends with 13.4), Miles Sanders led all running backs with 837 yards before contact on rushes this season; only Justin Fields was higher.
Is yards before contact more of an offensive line stat? For the Eagles, think of it as more of an offensive synergy stat.
4. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs playmakers ranked ... fourth? What a strange season this has been.
Travis Kelce is performing like he wants to lock down GOAT tight end status. Everyone else is essentially Santana's percussion section.
The Chiefs tied the 49ers with 6.8 yards after catch per reception, with Jerick McKinnon finishing the regular season third in YAC per reception at 9.7 (behind Travis Etienne and Derrick Henry) on a steady diet of slants and screens. Juju Smith-Schuster is a capable possession target, Kadarius Toney a troublesome gadget specialist in a gadget-happy offense. Marques Valdez-Scantling is the nominal deep threat but has been too quiet for many weeks.
Isiah Pacheco has replaced Clyde Edwards-Helaire as the Chiefs running back who is, indeed, a running back.
Ranking the Final Four Offensive Lines
One excellent offensive line, two very good ones, and one MRI waiting room.
1. Philadelphia Eagles
Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson helped the Eagles win Super Bowl LII. So did guard Isaac Seumalo, a multi-position sub at the time. Landon Dickson was drafted as Kelce's heir apparent but has found work at left guard instead. Jordan Mailata barely knew how to line up in a three-point stance (I watched coaches and Jason Peters teach him the basics in minicamp) when the Eagles plucked him off the rugby circuit in 2018. Put it all together and you have the NFL's most versatile and decorated offensive line. And they can sing, too.
2. San Francisco 49ers
Trent Williams is building a substantial Pro Football Hall of Fame portfolio, Mike McGlinchey is rock-solid, and the rotating cast between them gets the job done. The 49ers ranked fourth in adjusted line yards as run blockers; a scheme that emphasizes short passes and a defense which allows the 49ers to play with a lead makes pass protection easier.
3. Kansas City Chiefs
Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith, and Joe Thuney form one of the NFL's best interior lines. Tackles Orlando Brown and Andrew Wylie, however, are inconsistent and can often be beaten with pure speed off the edge. Look for the Bengals to blitz off the edges, perhaps with a safety or slot mighty mite Mike Hilton, to try to force a gimpy Mahomes into a dink-and-dunk game
4. Cincinnati Bengals
Last year, this unit consisted of Jonah Williams and some glued-together balsa wood. So the Bengals added La'el Collins, Ted Karras, Alex Cappa, and rookie Cordell Volson in the offseason. At first, everyone looked shaky and out-of-sync. Then they gelled for a few precious weeks (right about when Ja'Marr Chase and Joe Mixon were hurt). Then Williams, Collins, and Cappa all got hurt one by one, and the Bengals appeared doomed. But the pieced-together line of Jackson Carman, Volson, Karras, Max Scharping and Hakeem Adeniji played well on Sunday against the Bills.
Maybe the snow slowed the Bills pass rush a bit, but it's odd how the snow only impacted one team, and it was the one from the North Pole.
Ranking the Final Four Pass Defenses
The NFC Championship Game features two tough, opportunistic defenses. The AFC Championship Game may not be a 1980s NBA All-Star Game but ... oh, you know what Bengals-Chiefs games look like by now.
1. Philadelphia Eagles (first in DVOA)
The Eagles recorded 70 sacks, the highest total since the 1989 Vikings, and added five more against the Giants on Saturday. But they finished "just" second to the Cowboys in pressure rate.
The Eagles ranked second against No. 1 receivers, fourth against No. 2 receivers, and sixth against tight ends in the regular season, but just 22nd against "other" receivers and 24th against running backs. So all the 49ers must do is protect Brock Purdy (who always scrambles to his left) from Haason Reddick and the others so he can avoid throwing to the receivers Darius Slay and James Bradberry are covering and target Christian McCaffrey instead. It's possible, especially for the 49ers, but it won't be easy.
2. San Francisco 49ers (fifth in DVOA)
It's a trap, Admiral Akbar! The 49ers ranked 24th at stopping deep passes but in the top 10 in all other categories, and their deep-ball vulnerability extended into the postseason (see: Charvarius Ward getting charred variously by DK Metcalf in the wild-card round). So just throw deep on them! Ignore Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, the 44 sacks, and 69 quarterback knockdowns in the regular season! Everything's gonna be hunky-dory!
3. Cincinnati Bengals (12th in DVOA)
The Bengals rank sixth at stopping opposing tight ends and held Travis Kelce to four catches, 56 yards, and a critical fumble in Week 13. (Kelce went 10-95-1 in last year's AFC Championship Game and 5-25-1 in Week 17 of 2021.)
The Bengals also rank sixth in stopping deep passes, which is still rather Chiefs-relevant. They're somewhere between slightly below and slightly above average in most other categories, including pass-rushing metrics.
4. Kansas City Chiefs (20th in DVOA)
Chris Jones is capable of ruining an opponent's weekend. And then there's everyone else.
The Chiefs ranked 31st against opponents' No. 1 wide receivers in the regular season and have an unfortunate history against Ja'Marr Chase. Opponents like to target rookie Jaylen Watson, but Watson made the Jaguars pay with a leaping interception on Saturday, and Steve Spagnuolo has been using slot corner L'Jarius Sneed on the outside more.
Spags only blitzed on 24.2% of opponent's pass plays in the regular season, 14th in the NFL. It just feels like he blitzes on every down. Look for him to try to puzzle the makeshift Bengals line with stunts and zone blitzes next week.
Ranking the Final Four Run Defenses
Run defense is overrated until a team that rarely trailed all year finds itself two scores down in the fourth quarter and discovers that its defense cannot get off the field.
1. San Francisco 49ers (second in adjusted line yards)
Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw are the best pure linebacker duo in the NFL. The 49ers led the NFL with just 0.16 open field yards allowed per run: those who make it into their secondary do not last very long with Tashaun Gipson and Talanoa Hufanga (plus slot tough-guy Jimmy Ward) roaming about.
2. Cincinnati Bengals (10th in adjusted line yards)
The Bengals defense ranked second in stopping open-field yards and allowed just seven rushing plays of 20-plus yards in the regular season. D.J. Reader has been an enforcer in the second half of the season, while Logan Wilson and defensive tackle B.J. Hill are unheralded contributors.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (22nd in adjusted line yards)
Linebacker Nick Bolton is one of the NFL's surest tacklers. Opponents averaged 24.6 carries per game against the Chiefs, the fifth-lowest figure in the NFL: you don't beat Patrick Mahomes by running the ball, especially since you are usually playing from behind.
4. Philadelphia Eagles (23rd in adjusted line yards)
The Eagles' greatest weakness until Howie Roseman overcompensated by signing Ndamukong Suh and Linval Joseph in midseason; now more of a minor weakness. The Eagles defense ranked 32nd in power success in the regular season: if either team faces fourth-and-1 in an Eagles game, they are probably making it.
Ranking the Final Four Special Teams
There are neither any truly great nor terrible kicking or return teams among the four remaining teams. In other words, the Ravens didn't make it.
1. Cincinnati Bengals (18th in DVOA)
Punter Drue Chrisman now has three punts inside the 20 in the postseason after pinning opponents 13 times in seven regular-season games since taking over for Kevin Huber. Chrisman's arrival is the reason the Bengals rank ahead of the Eagles here, despite lower DVOA.
Evan McPherson is 14-of-16 from 50-plus yards in the regular season in his two-year career and 3-of-3 in the playoffs. Long field goals are not predictive, but proving you can drill a lot of important ones doesn't hurt.
2. Philadelphia Eagles (13th in DVOA)
Brett Kern has been spotty in relief of injured Arryn Siposs but dropped three punts inside the 20 on Saturday. Britain Covey is streaky on returns, Jake Elliott reliable on field goals. Kickoff coverage is a mess.
3. San Francisco 49ers (15th in DVOA)
Robbie Gould was 7-of-11 from 40 to 49 yards and no longer has much of a kickoff leg, but he still has never missed a postseason field goal. Mitch Wishnowsky dropped 14 regular-season punts inside the 10-yard line, the third-highest figure in the NFL; the huge field position advantage that the 49ers offense and defense provided (a league-high +6.80 net yards in starting field position per drive) helped. Ray-Ray McCloud almost cost the 49ers the game with a fumbled punt return on Sunday, but he bounced back with a long kickoff return after the Cowboys settled for a field goal.
4. Kansas City Chiefs (19th in DVOA)
Kick coverage was a mess against the Jaguars, but not quite an Eagles-level mess. Harrison Butker was just 3-of-7 on 50-plus-yard field goals in the regular season before drilling two of them against the Jaguars: long field goals are always too small a sample to be truly predictive. Butker is now 17-of-20 on postseason field goal attempts for his career.
Ranking the Final Four Coaching Staffs
Number one probably won't surprise you.
1. Kansas City Chiefs
Andy Reid. 'Nuff said.
2. San Francisco 49ers
Kyle Shanahan is the best game-planner of his generation. DeMeco Ryans gets the most from a talented defense. Shanahan tends to be hyper-conservative on fourth downs, but our probabilistic models may not fully account for variables like "seventh-round rookie quarterback starting in the playoffs."
3. Cincinnati Bengals
Zac Taylor and coordinators Brian Callahan and Lou Anarumo adjusted on the fly several times this season and have shown they can work well with whatever cards they are dealt. This is a staff that brought its team within a sack of winning last year's Super Bowl; after a while, quibbling about the design of the running game is missing the point.
4. Philadelphia Eagles
Nick Sirianni, Shane Steichen, and Jonathan Gannon had tons of toys to play with this season, but a weaker staff would have found a way to get less from more (the Chargers, for example, might only have won nine games). The Sirianni regime is upbeat, flexible, aggressive, and innovative (see: the push sneak). They lack experience and a reputation, but they are in the process of acquiring those.
Last Looks for Eliminated Teams
What's next for the Bills, Jaguars, Giants, and Cowboys? Funny you should ask.
Looking Ahead to the 2023 Dallas Cowboys
There is no escaping the Cowboys meme. Two Dak Prescott interceptions, again? Cowboys meme. Jerry Jones talking non-stop about Brett Maher's missed extra points all week, leading to a missed extra point? Cowboys meme. Mike McCarthy punting when trailing by seven late in the fourth quarter? Cowboys meme. Firing McCarthy in favor of Sean Payton would just steer the Cowboys DEEPER into the meme. In Dallas, the narrative is the point, and there is no escaping it.
The Cowboys will have enough 2023 cap space to extend key pieces such as Tony Pollard and Dalton Schultz if they choose to, but they will be forced to shed all of the useful veteran freelancers (Jason Peters, Dante Fowler, T.Y. Hilton, Anthony Barr) who got them through this season, plus Cooper Rush and, um, Maher, who may have been dumped in the gutter on Harry Hines Boulevard by the time you read this.
Dak, Micah Parsons, CeeDee Lamb and others will keep the team afloat as a wild-card contender. But again: that's just part of the Cowboys meme.
Looking Ahead to the 2023 Buffalo Bills
The Bills are a bad situational football team except for the "we're far superior than you and can swat you like a mosquito" situation they often find themselves in. Sean McDermott enters another offseason desperately seeking two more wins for a stacked powerhouse of a roster; with little cap maneuverability, he needs to look to himself and his ever-depleting staff.
Ken Dorsey's likely departure could be addition by subtraction; if nothing else, a new playcaller may force McDermott to answer tough quality-control questions like "Why did we throw a bomb on third-and-2 while trailing, then punt when it failed?" But play-calling and fourth-down decisions are only part of the story for a Buffalo team that seems to get outplayed in any inclement conditions and generally steps on too many rakes.
The leap from doormat to contender is often easier than that final step from contender to champion. The Bills had the Chiefs and the overtime rules as an excuse last year. This year they need more self-scouting and less excuse-making.
Looking Ahead to the 2023 New York Giants
Re-signing Daniel Jones and "surrounding him with weapons" is a high-risk move disguised as a low-risk move. Remember when the Giants tried this very tactic with Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney two years ago? Sure, Jones is better now than he was entering 2021, but beware the quarterback who spends four seasons developing all the way up to mobile game manager status.
Creating a team-friendly Jones contract or Jones exit strategy will be the defining act of Joe Schoen's tenure as general manager. The Giants still need to add blue-chip pieces on both sides of the ball; they can't afford to kneecap their budget to sign a Cousins Lite or trade the farm for Jones' replacement unless they are willing to take a perilous step backwards.
Looking Ahead to the 2023 Jacksonville Jaguars
Trevor Lawrence is on pace to be an MVP candidate once he fine-tunes his decision-making and ball security. The AFC South, as always, is giving off Sun Belt-Fun Belt vibes, so Lawrence should have no trouble leading the Jaguars to a divisional crown again in 2023. Trent Baalke has some restructuring to do to get the Jaguars cap-compliant, but the Jaguars should be able to keep the in-house free agents they value most.
The Jaguars should not be thinking about a shopping spree (Baalke's shoulders just drooped) but about firming up the offensive line and adding talent on the defensive back seven. Thanks to Lawrence, they won't need to be perfect to muscle their way onto the Chiefs-Bills tier, just a little bit better in a few areas.
Divisional Round Awards
Let's wrap things up with the customary awards ceremony.
Defender of the Week
49ers linebacker Fred Warner finished Sunday's victory with nine tackles-plus-assists, a tipped Dak Prescott interception, and some eye-opening reps covering CeeDee Lamb down the seam.
Offensive Line of the Week
We covered the Eagles line of Jordan Mailata, Landon Dickerson, Jason Kelce, Isaac Seumalo, and Lane Johnson in the ranking segment. They faced what was purported to be a rugged Giants defensive front on Saturday (though DVOA knew better). They carved out 268 rushing yards in a game that was over by halftime.
Special Teamer of the Week
Cowboys punt gunner Kelvin Joseph nearly earned this award by forcing a Ray-Ray McCloud fumble deep in 49ers territory. But the Cowboys could not score a touchdown because that would be off brand. So Robbie Gould earns this award instead for four field goals, including 47- and 50-yarders.
Best Supporting Actor in Someone Else's Highlight
The best (or worst) thing about the Gabriel Davis tush-push sneak is that Tony Romo said "tush push" on the telecast:
The Tush Push pic.twitter.com/rUfTVdMXTx
— Ben Brown 🌻 (@BenBrownPL) January 22, 2023
First of all, Romo dated Carrie Underwood and can therefore say "tush push" all he wants; it's a country music bylaw.
Secondly, the best way to meaningfully push a teammate on a sneak, from a leverage standpoint, is probably to grab a big meaty knot of buttcheek with each mitt and apply force to that teammate's core; pushing him on the back does little good if the ballcarrier's thighs and glutes aren't churning forward with as much power as possible.
Why, next season we might see one teammate assigned to each cheek for maximum efficacy: the mush tush push. So plow ahead, intrepid quarterback sneakers! We have nothing to lose but our juvenile discomfort with dude-on-dude hand-to-butt clutching!
Burn This Play!
In comedy writing, there's an expression called "putting a hat on a hat:" trying too hard to be witty and clever by piling up multiple gags that actually distract from one another and make the result less funny.
The Chiefs put a hat on a hat with Noah Gray's third-and-1 quarterback sneak in the third quarter on Saturday night. Both Gray and Travis Kelce went in motion before the snap. Kelce lined up about where a pistol quarterback might stand, while Gray started left to right but orbited back under center. Meanwhile, Patrick Mahomes made an ostentatious display of fiddling with his wristband, like a cop saying "nothing to see here" outside an exploding fireworks factory.
Any one of these wrinkles would have effectively added a little surprise to Gray's sneak, but all three of them combined screamed: THIS IS A SNEAK, AND MAHOMES NEVER RUNS THEM AND IS ALSO HURT, AND KELCE IS PROBABLY JUST THERE TO PUSH.
Also … Walkthrough really thought Gray picked up the first down. But the officials disagreed, and when have they ever made a questionable call in a playoff game?
Frame This Play!
Let's celebrate the creativity of Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka by enjoying their Saquon Barkley/Matt Breida Wildcat wrinkle to avoid a shutout against the Eagles.
— NFL (@NFL) January 22, 2023
Great use of Daniel Jones motion. Great use of a two-running back backfield. And a great statement of defiance trailing by 28 points in the fourth quarter. Daboll and Kafka kept finding ways to manufacture points until the end. Players will remember that when they report for OTAs.
Rando of the Week
It can only be the Backup First-Down Marker Maintenance Guy, who was called into service when the starting 10-yard chain broke early in Giants-Eagles. It turns out that Maintenance Guy keeps his equipment in the same closet where Walkthrough keeps old extension cords, power strips, HDMI cables, Atari 400 antenna converters, the Gordian knot itself…
The 1st down chains were broken, so officials brought out the backup chains, and it took just a little bit to unravel them 😅 Ready to go now! pic.twitter.com/sSES5w4hri
— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) January 22, 2023
Not to bring the room down, but followers on Twitter know this was a brutal weekend for me and my family, as we lost our beloved 12-year-old pitbull Beemo. The chain-gang tomfoolery at the start of the Eagles game brought a moment of levity, so I can write without trivializing the source material too much: like a break in the battle was that guy's part/in the wretched life of a lonely heart.
Later This Week
Walkthrough interviewed Pro Football Hall of Fame voters BEFORE last week's vote! Find out what they said about Devin Hester, Dwight Freeney, and many others!