What a week of great-watching football! Four of the six games were decided in the final minutes, by narrow margins, with valiant efforts by traveling underdogs and some white-knuckling home teams. I was watching butts pucker all over Ralph Wilson Stadium as Buffalo barely escaped their own foibles to edge past a Miami team they should have blown out. That game was there for Miami to take but for a few small mistakes, which is usually what decides these matches. Baltimore threatened to upend mighty Burrow’s Bengals, and had they handed off to Dobbins instead of the QB sneak, the Ravens would likely be playing next week instead of watching a playoff record fumble return heading the opposite direction. The Chargers started celebrating before the first half ended, and then their suffocating defense vanished in the second half, leaving wideouts wide open several times for 4-Pick Lawrence to toss easy td’s. Some notable negatives; Joey Bosa having multiple tantrums costing his team expensive penalties and impacting the outcome of the game. Then there was Maher doinking four straight extra points for Dallas, causing apoplexy in Jerry Jones’ crowded skybox. Perhaps most glaring was the league-wide poor officiating, which the NFL is REALLY going to have to aggressively address. When a player makes a game-changing play in the post-season and gets penalized for it (Dexter Lawrence sacking Cousins) or the refs let all kinds of pass interference/illegal contact/holding go, it cheapens the product and offends the fans’ sense of fair play. Okay, soapbox is put away. I finished at 4-2 (66%), as the Jags surprised me and the Vikings didn’t. Here’s the picks.
JAGUARS AT CHIEFS – Most of us didn’t think we’d see Jacksonville in the playoffs, but the Titanic death spiral of Tennessee made Pederson’s Jags masters of their own destiny…which they tried to scuttle in the first half of last week’s Chargers matchup. I have to admit that I’m a little sick and tired of Lawrence paying more attention to his stupid hair than his fundamentals, as every sideline shot of him on the bench had him fussing with his tresses like a prom queen, instead of holding a tablet and studying the defense. What Jacksonville did show us was depth of character, and the guru-like ability of their coach to coax them back into a game they had lost by halftime, to a turnaround win. The Chargers let them back in and then vanished on pass defense, but you have to appreciate the Jags’ mettle to hang in there and chip away. That momentum (along with 6 straight wins) carries them into Kansas City, who has been sitting idle for a week. I don’t like playoff byes, because more often than not the resting team has a harder time getting their engine going again. Let’s get to the key factors.
Passing game: both QBS can sling the heck out of it, and both receiver corps are in my mind about even…except for Kelce, who has proven he cannot be defended for 60 minutes by any team. KC’s rapid-release pass game has yielded the 3rd fewest sacks in the league, and the Jags have a bottom-8 rating defending passes of 2.5 seconds. Lawrence tends to hold the ball, which will cost him against KC’s #2 sack defense. That said, he still accrued a 106 passer rating against them in their last matchup. One big plus for the Chiefs is RB Jerick McKinnon, who grabbed 500 yards worth of passes this season and 9 aerial tds. Advantage: Chiefs.
Running game: McKinnon and Pacheco had good seasons and Edwards-Helaire is back, but the wild factor here is Mahomes pistoning downfield when all his receivers are covered. The Jags have Etienne, who had an outstanding year, but JaMycal Hasty isn’t really, unless he gets great blocking. Lawrence can run, but he is more of a classic pocket passer and running isn’t a regular part of his game. Plus that hair creates so much wind resistance…Advantage: Chiefs.
Defense: The Chiefs are 2nd in sacks league-wide, and Chris has a Jones for flattened flingers and prostrate passers. This is crucial, because KC is chiefly mediocre on pass defense, so Jones has to get home often to upset Lawrence’s rhythm. The Chiefs are decent on run-stopping, so it remains to be seen if Etienne can elevate his game here. On the other side, the Jags are rated 24th on D, but that stat doesn’t describe the defense that stoned LA in the second half last week when it mattered, and smothered Ekeler. Their run D is very taut, and the ‘other’ Josh Allen & Travon Walker are adept at everything linebackers are asked to do. Jacksonville’s young Corner Corps is also coming along, and had some key stops last week to stall that Charger offense while they got back into the game. Advantage: Jaguars.
Special teams: Buttker has had an off-year for him (75%), but he is still Buttker. If long-range artillery becomes necessary in this one, he’s money. Riley Patterson is adequate, making that key winning FG last week, and I give an edge to Pederson’s return game. Advantage: even money.
Coaching: Andy Reid and Doug Pederson have the same number of Super Bowl rings: one. Steve Spagnuolo and Eric Bienemy are very seasoned hands with lots of playoff experience, and Spags has a delightfully nasty habit of cooking up surprising schemes come playoff time. They have faced the best repeatedly. Press Taylor and Mike Caldwell of Jacksonville are journeymen coordinators, who each own a Super Bowl ring as well. Advantage: Chiefs.
Kansas City has been here so many times, they are like shareholders of the playoffs. The Jags have made huge strides this season and will certainly give the Chiefs a game with their own lightning-strike capability. Even though I adhere to the dictum that defense wins championships, the youth of that Jaguar D against the #1 offense in the league tips this one to KC. Mahomes at home is a home run.
BENGALS AT BILLS – Time to finish the game that never was. Let’s get to it.
Passing game: We know what these teams can do. They have two of the top gunslingers in the league, and ridiculous receivers to throw at. Stefon Can You Diggs It needs no introduction. He’s absolutely money as a deep threat, period. Gabe Davis and Dawson Knox are also killers, and for fresh interest Buffalo has got Khalil Shakir making his presence felt. Isaiah MacKenzie is highly dangerous on mid-routes as well. Allen needs to protect the ball better. For Cincy, Burrow is an aggressive flamethrower, with the same caliber of weapons in Chase, Higgins and Tyler Boyd. Mixon grabs his share of catches as well. Two key blockers are out in Cappa and Jonah Williams, which will factor into Burrow’s read-and-release time. Advantage: Bills.
Running game: Everybody knows Joe Mixon is coming. Try and stop him. Samaje Perine spells him off, but isn’t consistent as a ground gainer. Buffalo boasts the 2-headed turf monster of Devin Singletary and James ‘Watch me’ Cook, who aren’t the flashiest pair afoot, but boy they sneak up on you in chunk yardage, and keep the LBs honest. Add to that the devastating effect of Allen hauling that big frame downfield at high velocity…yikes. Advantage: Bills.
Defense: I don’t think it’s in doubt as to who is better. Buffalo has been near the top in pass defense all season, even with Micah Hyde out (would love him back for this). Milano, Poyer, T-White, Kaiir Elam and Taron Johnson have swept the airways, while Boogie ‘Bash em’, Shaq Lawson and Ed Oliver have been run-stuffers and QB pincers extraordinaire, not to mention Rousseau and Phillips. The D is solid front to back. Cincy’s no-fly zone has been capably staffed by Bates & Bell, Jalen Davis and Cam Taylor-Britt, but Eli Apple has been less than lockdown, and my understanding is that Tre Flowers is an injury scratch. The bookends of Hendrickson & Hubbard have been like two hands clapping on opposing QBs this season, with DJ Reader & Cam Sample stuffing the run. Advantage: Bills.
Special teams: For Cincinnati, McFearless has been exactly that…and McAccurate, too. Tyler ‘Largemouth’ Bass isn’t called on a lot for field goals, as most Bills scoring drives end up beneath the goal posts, not between them. Nyheim Hynes is deadly on returns, and tips the scale in this category. Advantage: Bills.
Coaching: McDermott is making his mark as a solid strategist, maximizing the capabilities of his talented team well. They don’t try to be something they’re not. He could still improve in clock management, and he really needs to get this team to the next level. Leslie Frazier is a cagey defensive schemer with versatile tools, and Ken Dorsey is clever at making sure all Josh Allen’s many assets are well-utilized. Bengals HC Zac Taylor is proving himself to be a worthy opponent, with the right mix of gambler & plotter to match his team’s personality. Lou Anarumo & Brian Callahan provide excellent support to Taylor’s game management. That run to the Super Bowl caught many by surprise last year. Not Coach Taylor. Advantage: Bengals.
The Bengals have every right to be ticked that they (unfairly) have to play on the road, but Big-Throw Joe is 9-and-0 at 40 degrees and below, so let it snow, Orchard Park. Either team is quite capable of winning this razor-thin matchup. I’ll take Buffalo’s defense as the difference in this one. Bills advance to the Conference dance.
COWBOYS AT 49ERS – We’ve sure seen THIS movie before! Three times in a row in the 70’s, three times in a row in the 90’s, and now twice in this millennium. Once more into the breach!
Passing game: Dak led the NFC in giveaways this season. He has great targets in CeeDee ‘Leg of’ Lamb, T.Y. ‘Paris’ Hilton, Michael ‘Full’ Gallup, and Dalton ‘Sgt’ Schultz, and he will need to be judicious in his placement to this gifted crew throwing into the teeth of the #1 defense. Pollard releasing into the flat can be a deadly addition as well. Prescott’s inconsistency is his greatest flaw. Will we see it Sunday? Likewise, Brock ‘The Rock’ Purdy throws to an embarrassment of riches with the likes of Deebo, Kittle, Aiyuk, and when you least expect it in the end zone, Kyle Juszczyk, whose last name sounds like two mobsters arguing over which one has to see if the coast is clear. Purdy has been an surprise golden nugget when he was expected not to matter at all. ‘Last kid picked’ in the 2022 draft, he has exploded into the league on a powerhouse team that never expected this level of poise and play from a throwaway draft pick. He is precise, careful and yet willing to let it fly to whomever finds separation. Often that person is Christian McCaffrey. Advantage: Niners.
Running game: Speaking of McCaffiene, he is even more deadly lugging the pig than hauling it in, which is saying something. Carolina has brought on themselves the wrath of the entire league, for trading such a valuable asset to a team that was already stacked. Elijah Mitchell spells CMC off capably. Dallas has Tony Pollard, who is a terrific player and surprisingly effective against a broad variety of defenses. They also have Zeke Elliott, who in my opinion is two seasons past his value as a back. He hasn’t been dominant (or even reliable) in a couple years, and it seems to me his tank is empty. His 2.4 YPC average over the last 5 games forces serious reliance on Pollard’s shoulders. Both QBs are mobile as well, but Frisco runs a nastier jet sweep with Samuel than Dallas does with CeeDee. Advantage: Niners.
Defense: What can you say here? Shanahan’s defense is best in the league. They stun the run, they deny the sky, they’re a barrier to the ball carrier, they disrupt the hup, spike the hike and restrict the kick. Domination. Bosa is a monster and Ward is glue. Hey, Dallas can get after the passer like a pack of starving dogs, too. Diggs can make some spectacular picks, but he’s by no means an every-down smother. He gets beat a lot on his gambling. Parsons is in a class with Bosa, almost. But Dallas doesn’t contain good running backs, especially when they get into the secondary. Advantage: Niners.
Special teams: Two words – Brett Maher. It doesn’t all come down to kicking, but so many games are decided by one score or less. You HAVE to have a reliable kicker, especially for extra points. Robbie Gould’s last name isn’t pronounced ‘gold’ for nothing. Advantage: Niners.
Coaching: In 6 years, Kyle Shanahan has led San Fran to three playoff runs, two division titles, two NFC championship games, and a Super Bowl. Nice turnaround, and many coaches watch to see what Shanahan does because he is a trendsetter and innovator. He also fulfills the OC duties, while DeMeco Ryans is his sterling DC. For the Cowboys, Mike McCarthy has a Super Bowl ring from the 2011 Packers’ win over the Steelers. His DC Dan Quinn was Shanahan’s head coach at Atlanta (Kyle was OC) when the Falcons lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl 51, so they have that experience in common. Kellen Moore is a capable OC for McCarthy. Advantage: Niners.
This should be a fun game to watch, and Dallas will certainly bring their A-game. It’s hard for me to envision such a complete team as San Francisco failing to play their very best in this contest, as they are on an 11-game win streak and appear to have a nose for the championship that eluded them in 2020. They have only allowed three opponents this season to reach 24 points. Three. Cowboys get outdueled by the best in the West.
GIANTS AT EAGLES – This rivalry has gone Philly’s way this season. Here’s your wake-up call; these aren’t the same Giants. That win over Minnesota showed a team leveling up in maturity and cohesion, which is exactly what you want to see in the postseason. They know they are dangerous now. We like dangerous around here. The Eagles have been dangerous all season, so we’ll see if sitting a week while everybody else plays has put any rust into their well-oiled machine. I would say that after two drubbings and being the underdog, the Giants have a huge chip on their shoulder this week. Let’s dive in.
Passing game: Daniel Jones has blossomed in the latter half of this season, as Daboll’s mentoring gets traction and we finally see who this VERY determined young QB can really be. He has opened things up, taking more chances and hitting his targets who aren’t the best receiver corps in football. This maturity has made them all better together. There’s no question that Giants fans now realize that they have a budding star in their much-maligned QB. In this game, he will be challenged to get the ball out quick against the #1 pass rush. Getting throws out to Barkley will be essential. Across the line, Jalen Hurts has led a run-first offense, but that is no reflection on his passing ability. With targets like AJ Brown(1500 yds), Devonta Smith(1200 yds) and Dallas Goedert, this is a full-blown air show. Advantage: Eagles.
Running game: The Giants are 4th in rushing, the Eagles 5th. Both QBs are a significant part of that, at over 700 yards apiece. Hurts found the end zone 13 times this season, making him a huge part of their run game. Jones got in 7 times. Saquon had 1302 yards and 10 tds, while ‘Miles and miles’ Sanders pounded out 1269 and hit paydirt 11 times. The question here is whether Kenneth will Gainwell for Philly or the combo of Breida and Brightwell can supplement Barkley’s efforts. Philly’s rush D is only 16th, and they are not good against mobile QBs. Advantage: Giants.
Defense: Philly is second only to the Niners. Their pass rush is tsunamic, as Cox, Hargrave, Graham, Reddick and Quinn will make you Sweat. Their D-backs are 3rd ranked with Bradbury and Gardner-Johnson will Slay your receivers. Their soft underbelly is owning the lowest ranking against intermediate passes. They are not great against pass-catching backs, so Daboll can scheme accordingly. The Giants are blitz-happy, and even though they don’t have a pile of sacks like Philly, they get good sustained pressure. NY tightened up nicely in their secondary at the end, hold Justin Jefferson to 47 yards in the Wild Card game. However, TJ Hockenson owned them, and Goedert will likely do the same. Advantage: Eagles.
Special teams: Elliott is solid booting the pig for Philly, as is Gano for NY. Advantage: Even money.
Coaching: Daboll is probably Coach of the Year for his work in NY. Wink Martindale is a cagey, aggressive DC with a lot of miles and a strong resume. Mike ‘Franz’ Kafka spent years on Andy Reid’s KC staff, so he learned from one of the best. Nick Sirianni has done good things with Philly since replacing Doug Pederson, and his young DC Jonathan Gannon and OC Shane Steichen have less experience, but have proven to be innovative with this team. Advantage: Giants.
This is a rivalry that stretches back a long way between these cities, and it is refreshing to see it revitalized again this year. This was the best division in football, putting 3 (nearly 4) teams into the playoffs. NY has played better as the season progressed, culminating in a terrific road win in Minnesota. They are focused, confident and dangerous. The Eagles are a team that has arrived on schedule, very talented at every position, with a versatility rarely seen in the NFL. They can kill you with defense, they can throw it all over the yard, run down your throat or finesse it around the edges, and no broken play ever stays that way long with Jalen Hurts’ skills. NY will play GIANT in this game….but the Eagles will fly into the next round victorious.
Enjoy the games!
-Pigskin Pundit (Nate Clark)