Backup quarterbacks had a record-setting number of opportunities to step up this season, a year where more players started a game at QB than any season in NFL history. The trend of backups playing key roles has continued into the playoffs, the latest example being Kansas City’s Chad Henne leading his offense on a touchdown drive in the Divisional Round in a win over Jacksonville. While no backups are expected to start in either Conference Championship game (though the 49ers’ Brock Purdy began the year as a third-stringer), Marc Trestman explains why they’ll all be prepared as if they were the starter, and the importance of that prep work.
Seven takeaways from Saturday’s two Divisional Round playoff games:
Mahomes’ Legend Grows
The legend of Patrick Mahomes added another chapter Saturday. The front-runner for the 2022 league MVP award suffered a high ankle sprain late in the first quarter after edge rusher Arden Key fell on the quarterback’s lower leg. Mahomes hobbled around before getting the Chiefs into field-goal range, but then missed the rest of the first half.
Shades of Michael Jordan, Emmitt Smith, Kirk Gibson and Willis Reed before him, Mahomes dramatically emerged from the locker room after halftime and gutted out a solid second half to lead the Chiefs to victory while playing with a noticeable limp.
“It’s one of those moments where if you’re on that team, there’s no chance but to be inspired,” said analyst Eric Mangini of The 33rd Team. “You think about those moments, and you appreciate those moments.”
Patrick Mahomes jump pass? Patrick Mahomes jump pass.
— The 33rd Team (@The33rdTeamFB) January 21, 2023
MVS TOE TAPPIN 🩰
Chiefs are back up by 10 🙌
— The 33rd Team (@The33rdTeamFB) January 22, 2023
In true legend fashion, Mahomes ended his postgame press conference by guaranteeing he’d be ready to play next week in the AFC title game.
“It’s going to take a lot to keep me out of a football game,” Mahomes said via the NBC broadcast. “I’ll be good to go.”
Henne-thing Is Possible?
Chad Henne is still in the NFL? Yup. The 13-year veteran was thrust into action Saturday after Mahomes’ ankle injury, and he proved the Chiefs were lucky to have him in a backup role.
Henne, who hasn’t made a start since 2020 and attempted just two passes this season, took over at the Chiefs’ 2-yard line, with a 10-7 lead and momentum seemingly shifting to the Jaguars after Mahomes exited. He responded by driving the Chiefs 98 yards, tossing a touchdown to Travis Kelce to extend Kansas City’s lead to 17-7.
Ho-hum. Just another day in the world of a backup quarterback.
“For him to orchestrate a drive like he did, to have no penalties, no procedural errors, none of the things you would expect with a guy that has seen so little action is fantastic,” Mangini said. “You talk to your backups and your young guys about being ready for their moments. Sometimes they believe you and sometimes they don’t. It’s a great example for all the young guys on that team.”
Henne finished 5-of-7 for 23 yards and the TD pass. Mahomes is confident he’ll play next week, but if he can’t, the Chiefs know they’re in capable hands with Henne.
Jaguars Forgot About Kelce
Going into Saturday’s game, the Jaguars knew they needed to stop the All-Pro Kelce, and yet it looked like they forgot he was on the field at times. Kelce finished with 14 catches, breaking the record for the most receptions by a tight end in a single postseason game.
“[Jacksonville] struggled against tight ends all year, but you gotta try something different,” Mangini said. “You can’t go into the game saying, ‘Hey, we’re not very good at this. We’re still gonna do the same thing we did before against the best tight end in the NFL and hope for a different outcome.’ It was pretty unbelievable in terms of that approach.”
Kelce had 98 yards and two scores, including Kansas City’s first touchdown where he acted like he was blocking and then simply turned around to find himself wide open.
Most of Kelce’s catches came on short routes as the Jaguars’ defense backed off into deeper zone coverage. He caught all seven of his targets on hitch routes, tied for the most since 2018.
Lawrence’s Saturday Streak Ends
Trevor Lawrence entered the game having never lost a game on a Saturday in high school, college or in the NFL. The loss dropped the quarterback’s all-time Saturday record to a 34-1.
Lawrence still had an impressive season, leading the Jaguars to the playoffs one season after they finished with the worst record in the NFL. Suffice to say, he is living up to his billing as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
“Equal part crushed that the road ends for us this year, equal part just proud of what we did,” Lawrence said after the game. “This is more the beginning than it is the end of something. This is just getting started for us. We got a taste of it, and guys are already hungry to get this opportunity again.”
The future is bright in Jacksonville, but Lawrence threw a key interception to Chiefs’ rookie cornerback Jaylen Watson, who made an impressive one-handed catch, with 3:55 remaining in the game while the Jaguars were down by 10.
Analyst Mike Martz of The 33rd Team thought the Jaguars’ offensive game plan was good enough to beat the Chiefs, but Lawrence’s late-game interception and Jamal Agnew’s fumble was too much to overcome.
“I think they had a really good plan on offense,” Martz said. “What hurt them on offense was they had four or five unblocked players create pressures. That should never happen. They had some miscues in protections. One of the protections was going the wrong way, and they turned him loose. [Lawrence] instead of throwing hot, threw a go route and ended up getting picked.”
The interception leaves Lawrence with five touchdowns and five interceptions in his first career playoff run. If the Jaguars are going to advance past the divisional round, cutting down on those interceptions will be the next step in his progression.
Eagles as Good as Advertised
The last No. 1-seeded team to win the Super Bowl was Philadelphia in the 2017 season. It’s been tough sledding for top seeds since.
On Saturday night, the Eagles looked much like a team that could break the curse. Philadelphia started the game with a dominant 8-play, 75-yard touchdown drive and then proceeded to shut out the Giants until more than halfway through the third quarter.
“The best thing I saw from the Eagles on Saturday night was they were serious up front,” said analyst Samari Rolle of The 33rd Team. “They were able to do whatever they wanted to do. They were able to push the Giants around and kind of show them, ‘We beat you once, we beat you twice and this will be the third time, and we’re sending you home.'”
The Eagles advance to the NFC Championship Game to face the winner of Sunday night’s Divisional Round matchup between the Cowboys and 49ers. Philadelphia split the season series with the Cowboys and have faced the 49ers in each of the past two season, splitting those games as well.
No matter the opponent, Rolle believes all the pressure is on the Eagles.
“They’ve got a lot of pressure on them next weekend,” Rolle said. “With what’s at stake and the fact that they’re hosting the game and that they’ve been the No. 1 seed pretty much all season long. I think if they end up with the 49ers, they don’t win. If they get the Cowboys, I think the Eagles go to the Super Bowl.”
Time will tell if Rolle’s prediction comes true. For now, the Eagles look primed to win it all.
Hurts Looks Healthy
One of the biggest questions for the Eagles coming into the week was the health of quarterback Jalen Hurts. He missed the Eagles’ Week 16 and 17 games with a shoulder injury before returning in Week 18.
Hurts might not be 100 percent, but he looked much closer to it against the Giants. For a team with Super Bowl aspirations like the Eagles, there is no better development.
“It was great to see Jalen Hurts out there and moving around,” Rolle said. “He got in the game and got out healthy, and they get to host the NFC Championship Game next weekend. There’s nothing more they could ask for. Hurts showed you he can get you an opportunity to play for the Super Bowl.”
Hurts, who was 16-of-24 for 154 yards and two touchdowns and ran nine times for 34 more yards, didn’t seem too concerned about his shoulder after the game.
“Was never in a situation to really test it,” Hurts said. “I’m lucky to come out clean.”
Hurts is clearly a huge part of why Philadelphia was so good this season, and his improved health makes them look like a dominant team. Eagles coach Nick Sirianni took it a step further comparing Hurts to one sport’s most popular figures.
“To have him out there is like — I know this is high praise, but to have him out there is like having, I shouldn’t even go there, it’s like having Michael Jordan out there,” Sirianni said. “He’s your leader. He’s your guy. Hopefully, that’s the biggest respect I can pay to him comparing his ability to being on the field to a Michael Jordan type. This guy leads. He brings this calmness to the entire team. He plays great football. He’s as tough as they come.”
Tough Decisions Loom for Giants
Although the Giants got run out of the building and saw their playoff run come to a screeching halt, there were a lot of positives that came from a season with shallow expectations.
Brian Daboll looks like the right coach to lead the Giants into the future, Daniel Jones proved he’s worth bringing back next season, and running back Saquon Barkley looked back to his old form.
Daboll coached a talent-depleted roster to the Giants’ first playoff appearance since 2016. Jones’ 301 passing yards and two touchdowns in New York’s upset win at Minnesota in the Wild Card round was the team’s first playoff win since 2011. Barkley, who also played an integral role in the Wild Card victory, ran for a career-high 1,312 yards and had 10 touchdowns in 2022 while finally staying healthy for a complete season.
Both Jones and Barkley’s contracts have run their course. The Giants reportedly want to bring both back but likely would give one of them a long-term contract and use the franchise tag on the other.
Barkley was adamant he wants to return to New York in 2023.
“I wanted to show them the guy they drafted is still here,” Barkley said after the game. “I hope I did that. Everyone knows I would love to be a Giant for life, but I really can’t give 100 percent answers. Sometime this week, I’ll have a conversation with my agent Kim [Miale] and see what’s up. I can’t envision that being my last time in a Giants uniform.”
Daboll was asked after the game if he was ready to commit to Jones for 2023.
“All these conversations, we’re gonna have those,” Daboll told reporters. “We’ve got a long offseason, and there’s a time and a place to have those conversations. Tonight’s not it.”
Trey Wingo and Eric Mangini discuss Patrick Mahomes‘ injury during the Chiefs’ matchup against the Jaguars and how it was similar to Michael Jordan’s “flu game.” While Mahomes was out in the second quarter, Chad Henne stole the show, orchestrating a touchdown pass, and keeping the Chiefs in it to win.