The Chiefs and Bills advance to championship weekend in the AFC, as the Packers and Buccaneers face-off in the NFC. Looking beyond the scoreboard at what brought us here, these are the NFL Divisional Round Winners and Losers.
Winner: Kansas City Bettors
If you listened closely enough Sunday afternoon, you could hear tens of thousands of bettors gasping in unison. Up 21-9 in the 3rd quarter, fans everywhere but Cleveland looked on with concern as Patrick Mahomes struggled to stand on his own after a hit to the head on a designed quarterback run.
(Side note: Hey Andy Reid, Jordan here. Just wanted to remind you that perhaps sending your $500,000,000 quarterback on designed runs in the playoffs, with a comfortable lead, against frustrated and potentially dirty players is actually not in you or your team’s best interest. Merely a thought.)
There was a Chad moon a-rising.
Henne time, Henne where.
It was Chad news for Cleveland.
Henne given Sunday, if you will.
Henne was actually pretty bad. Outside of an impressive 3rd down run and a 4th down pass to seal the game, he was not good. Having Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce can compensate for even the worst quarterback, though, so it didn’t end up costing Kansas City their season. Bettors everywhere rejoice; if your money still relies on the Chiefs completing the championship back-to-back, you’re now only two games away from your payout.
Oh, and for anyone concerned with Mahomes’ availability this coming weekend, just remember that when you blend Dramamine and Tylenol, you can develop a paste that when mixed with a nausea-suppressant infused tonic, creates a concussion antidote that makes you just healthy enough for league medics to say you’re game ready.
Winner: Aaron Rodgers Avoiding a Cyborg
Playing quarterback seems to be easier when you’re not being chased by one of the best defenders in league history.
Crazy, I know.
It might not have made a huge difference in the game’s outcome, but the Rams being without defensive tackle Aaron Donald for most of Saturday was an inarguable win for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense. Los Angeles’ star sustained a rib injury during the Rams’ wild card matchup with Seattle, and despite suiting up for their divisional game with Green Bay, it was clear he was nowhere near fully healthy. Donald, who typically plays north of 80% of defensive snaps, was only on the field 53% of the time in Saturday’s matchup with the Packers. Top-five in the league in both sacks and tackles for loss entering the game, Donald failed to generate a single solo-tackle in the Rams divisional matchup.
Aaron Donald is emotional on the sidelines. pic.twitter.com/lgrMRLtQZ9— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) January 17, 2021
Rodgers wasn’t sacked on the day. He was hit just once. Green Bay’s offense generated nearly 500 total yards in a 32-18 win that wasn’t as close as the score would indicate. While Jared Goff and the Rams’ offense played a mostly mistake-free game, this matchup was always going to come down to whether the Rams defense could slow the Packers’ offense. Without a healthy Aaron Donald, this formula to success for Los Angeles was missing its most critical component.
Winner: Hall of Fame Quarterback Matchups
The matchup of Tom Brady and Drew Brees wasn’t a clash of the titans. In fact, it was an ugly passing day for both signal-callers. Neither player reached even 200 yards through the air, and both frequently looked bothered by the opposing defense. Sunday will see another duel between future Hall of Famers, though, this time with Brady taking on Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
This game should live up to its billing.
When these two teams met in Week 6, the Buccaneers dominated the Packers 38-10. The biggest difference for the Packers since that point? Rodgers is now on fire. The likely MVP has led Green Bay to seven straight wins, throwing 21 touchdowns and only 1 interception during that span. Tampa Bay’s defense has been solid all season, but the split between their pass and rush defense has been striking. First overall in yards and touchdowns allowed on the ground, they drop to 21st and 20th in yards and touchdowns allowed through the air, respectively. This is a unit Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense should be able to exploit with ease.
On the other sideline, this is a matchup where Brady should have success. The Packers rank top-10 on the season versus the pass, but their numbers have been aided significantly over the last half of the season with matchups against only two passing offenses in the top half of the league. Brady has led the Tampa Bay passing attack to second overall in both yards and touchdowns through the air, and the emergence of Antonio Brown has added a dimension to this passing attack that makes it even more dangerous.
This will be the first playoff matchup between Brady and Rodgers in their entire 32 combined seasons as starters. Enjoy it: while it may be the first time we see these quarterbacks face-off, their combined age of 80 could mean it will also be the last.
Loser: The Broken Replay Review System
Again, of course.
Late in the first half of the Browns versus Chiefs matchup on Sunday, Rashard Higgins fumbled the ball out of the Kansas City end zone for a touchback. What stung even worse than the turnover? Upon watching the replay, it was obvious the hit that knocked the ball loose was blatantly illegal.
Unlike touchdowns, not all turnovers automatically get reviewed. Additionally, the only reviewable aspect of this play would have been whether the ball carrier lost control and fumbled through the end zone; the hit that caused the fumble irrelevant in the league’s review criteria. Shouldn’t reviews be able to address the totality of a play? If a team throws a challenge flag because they believe the referee’s original spot was incorrect, that’s fine. If upon review, though, it turns out the challenging team’s left tackle held a defender? That penalty should be called.
When the Saints lost to the Rams in the 2018 playoffs, it was in large part because of a blatant missed pass interference call against Los Angeles. Following the season, the league vowed to address replay rules. Future game-changing calls will be rectified via the booth if first missed in regular play, they said. Now two postseasons later, and still facing questions of what should and should not be reviewable, it’s clear that promise has been left unfulfilled.
For one of the most profitable institutions in the country, it shouldn’t be so difficult to walk and chew gum at the same time.
Fix the broken replay system and fix it this offseason.
Loser: Mobile Quarterbacks
First it was Lamar Jackson.
Two plays after the reigning MVP threw a pick-six in the Buffalo end zone, a bad snap sent him racing towards his own goal line for the loose ball before taking a big hit. With how poorly Jackson had been playing (under 200 total yards, no touchdowns, and an interception), it might have been merciful if it wasn’t so brutal; the start quarterback was forced from the game with a concussion.
Here’s a look at the injury to Lamar Jackson. pic.twitter.com/5LQhIufSQj— Bradley Gelber (@BradleyGelber) January 17, 2021
The next day it was Patrick Mahomes.
With a reasonably comfortable lead and an already aggravated foot, Mahomes rolled out on a designed run before taking a tough hit, which left him concussed and sidelined from the game.
The question now is how long these and other franchise quarterbacks can be rushing, play extending weapons before jeopardizing their professional longevity. Maybe you remove the running dimension of Mahomes’ game, and he’s still a perennial All-Pro. With his arm and pocket presence, that wouldn’t be a surprise. Ditto for the likes of Josh Allen and even Russell Wilson. Lamar Jackson, however, doesn’t have that luxury. If through injury or fear of injury, Jackson was forced to remain a pocket passer, what would his ceiling be? Same question for Kyler Murray and perhaps even Baker Mayfield.
Kyler Murray injury hampers Cardinals attempt to reach playoffs https://t.co/XXMiObi50G— azcentral (@azcentral) January 4, 2021
It may seem crazy considering all the protections in today’s NFL, but the speed and physicality of the league today makes mobile quarterbacks particularly vulnerable. The quarterback and the system who figures out how to use their legs without relying on them will likely be the most successful in the current crop of run-capable signal-callers.
Loser: Future Broadcaster Drew Brees
When I think of future Hall of Famers going out on top, I think of Elway and Manning winning Super Bowls before retirement. I think of Jordan (pre-Washington), winning the NBA Finals before calling it quits. Even non-championship moments like Kobe’s 60-point finale feel like fitting endings to illustrious careers.
Drew Brees, unfortunately, won’t make this list.
Sunday’s loss to Tampa Bay was likely Brees’ last game in the NFL. Even if he wanted to return for one last season, it’s unlikely New Orleans would feel the same way. The franchise is now looking to turn the page to a new chapter. Unfortunately for Brees and his many fans across the league, his 19-34, 134-yard, 2 interception day was a disappointing final chapter to an otherwise phenomenal NFL career.
• 20 seasons— SB Nation (@SBNation) January 18, 2021
• 13x Pro Bowl
• 2x offensive player of the year
• Super Bowl Champ
• Super Bowl MVP
• 2nd all-time in pass TDs
• 1st all-time in completions
If this is it for Drew Brees, it’s been an amazing career pic.twitter.com/34oPYHc4WQ
For the time being, the narrative surrounding Brees will likely continue to focus on his last few seasons. The 2017 last-second ‘Minneapolis Miracle.’ The missed pass interference against Los Angeles in 2018. Even the surprise early departure versus the Vikings last season.
As time goes on, though, I believe Brees will be remembered appropriately as one of the best to ever play the position. A hero across New Orleans and a face of the NFL for nearly two decades, the little man in the big easy will now likely be in the enviable position of deciding which broadcast network he wishes to call home.
Watch out, Romo. You’ve got some competition on the way.