What We Learned: Key Takeaways from NFL Divisional Round Playoffs

Following another stunning NFL Divisional Round, four teams remain with a chance to reach Super Bowl LVII and stake a claim for football immortality.

In the AFC, the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs will play host to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, Jan. 29, at 6:30 p.m. ET, and the 49ers will travel to Philadelphia for a matchup with the No. 1 seed Eagles that same day at 3 p.m. ET.

To better understand how the final four made it to Championship Sunday, here are our key takeaways from the Divisional Round over the weekend:


49ers 19, Cowboys 12

NFC Championship Game Clash of Titans

The top seeds advanced in the NFC after the No. 2 49ers got a suffocating performance from their defense to defeat the Cowboys on Sunday night. That sets up an enticing NFC Championship Game against the top-seeded Eagles at Philadelphia on Sunday, Jan. 29, at 3 p.m. ET.

The teams were two of the NFL’s most statistically dominant during the season. The 49ers finished with the top defense in both yardage and points allowed, while the Eagles were second in yardage and seventh in points allowed. Philadelphia’s offense was third in both yards and points, while San Francisco’s offense was fifth in yards and sixth in points.

Both teams had young quarterbacks emerge this season.

Jalen Hurts put himself squarely in the MVP conversation by generating 4,461 yards passing and rushing and accounting for 35 combined passing and rushing touchdowns during the regular season. He led the Eagles to a 14-1 record during his starts, and he then directed a 38-7 route of the Giants in the Divisional Round. 

Rookie Brock Purdy has won his first seven NFL starts, including two playoff games, while throwing 16 TD passes and four interceptions, none of which have come in the playoffs.  

“(The 49ers’) biggest test will be next week when they go against a team that’s build exactly like them,” said analyst Ronde Barber of The 33rd Team. “Philly’s defense is very similar, creates a lot of pressure, takes the ball away, and their offense can turn around, hand the ball off and win.

“I think this is setting up probably a different NFC Championship Game than what will be in the AFC Championship Game, but one that will be very fun to watch.”

The championship game will mark just the second postseason meeting between the franchises. The 49ers won the first one in the 1996 wild-card round, 14-0, at San Francisco. Steve Young rushed for a touchdown and threw for another to Jerry Rice.

These teams are regulars in the NFC title games, combining to appear in 10 of the first 21 in the 21st Century, with each going that far five times. The Eagles advanced after the 2017, 2008, 2004, 2002 and 2001 seasons, winning the Super Bowl in 2017 and losing in 2004. The 49ers moved on after the 2021, 2019, 2013, 2012 and 2011 seasons, advancing to the Super Bowl in 2019 and 2012.

The Fairy Tale Continues

After losing his starter for the season, an intelligent, well-respected head coach turns to a fresh-faced, cool-handed quarterback — a late-round pick — and watches him lead the team on a deep-playoff run. 

Brock Purdy is worlds away from Tom Brady in terms of success and production, but it’s becoming hard to deny the similarity in their ascensions. As Purdy barrels down on a potential Super Bowl LVII appearance, it’s becoming similarly difficult to envision the 49ers denying Purdy is their QB of the future. 

Purdy and the 49ers offense didn’t overwhelm the Cowboys, but they played well enough to secure a victory. Purdy completed 19 of 29 passes for 214 yards.

“He’s being asked to throw some really quick, sharp, short to intermediate passes, and he’s very good at it,” Barber said. “Actually, the ball comes out of his hand so quick if you’re playing man or zone he’s been able to find so many completions that converted first downs, and that was really the turning point in this game for me.”

Purdy found tight end George Kittle five times for 95 yards receiving — including one highlight-reel grab that might have been the catch of the weekend. 

“I’m literally not in the read,” Kittle said. “I saw a space, and he hadn’t throw it yet. I was just going up the field, and he gave me a catchable ball.

“Brock is a good quarterback to keep his eyes up when the play is falling apart. His No. 1 and No. 2 wasn’t open. For him to look back inside and see a white glove fly up and give me a shot at the ball, that’s really good quarterback play.”

Purdy said Kittle’s instincts are what make him such a great pass-catching threat.

“I was trying to see if there would be a window that opened up late, and there was a corner undercut it, so I got my eyes back down,” he said. “Kittle wasn’t supposed to run down field, but he felt space. That’s what I love about him. I just got to lead him and hit him.”

The performance was enough to help San Francisco win and ensure Purdy a chance to play his way into a Super Bowl appearance, and etch his name in football history. 

No rookie quarterback has ever taken his team to the Super Bowl, let alone come home with a Lombardi Trophy. 

Will the Real Dak Prescott Please Stand Up?

Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott quieted his critics with a five-touchdown performance last Monday night in a wild-card victory over the Buccaneers. On Sunday night, he came back to earth with an outing that is sure to raise (again) questions about how far he can take Dallas in the playoffs.

Prescott completed 23 of 37 passes for just 206 yards, but the real daggers were the two interceptions he threw, including one in the red zone that 49ers linebacker Fred Warner snared. 

This came on the heels of a regular season in which he threw 15 interceptions in 12 starts and finished with a 17-for-38 meltdown in a Week 18 loss at Washington that ended any chance of winning the NFC East. 

Prescott’s playoff record is 2-4, and Dallas has not advanced past the Divisional Round in any of his four postseason appearances. 

“If you’re the Cowboys, this is a problem you have to address, you’ve already paid Prescott, he’s getting his money,” said Trey Wingo of The 33rd Team. “He’s only in the second year of that massive deal. And he played worse than Brock Purdy. There’s no other way around it. He threw two interceptions, they were both terrible interceptions. Brock Purdy did not throw an interception.

“Dak Prescott made the big mistakes on Sunday that he didn’t make Monday in Tampa, and it dearly cost the Dallas Cowboys.”

This was the second season in a row the 49ers have eliminated the Cowboys. Last year, it happened one round earlier, when San Francisco built a 23-7 lead entering the fourth quarter. Prescott then led Dallas on two scoring drives, capping the second with a TD run. But he also was intercepted in that game. 

49ers Defense Dominates

The Dallas Cowboys averaged 27.7 points per game during the 2022 regular season, good for fourth in the NFL. On Sunday against the 49ers, they couldn’t muster half that. 

The NFL’s top-ranked defense in points allowed per game in the regular season (16.7), San Francisco has lived up to expectations so far in the postseason.  They’ve allowed just 35 total points in two games. 

Along with stellar personnel, a major reason for the 49ers’ success is the leadership of defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans. Ryans has been one of the most sought-after candidates during the 2023 hiring cycle. 

Ryans has received interview requests from the Colts and Cardinals and has completed interviews with the Broncos and Texans for their respective coaching vacancies. Ryans spent the first six seasons of the his NFL playing career in Houston. 

The 49ers defense forced two turnovers, interceptions from defensive back Deommodore Lenoir and 2022 First-Team All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner. Warner wasn’t the unit’s only All-Pro either. San Francisco had players named to the All-Pro team at every level of their defense. Edge Rusher Nick Bosa was a First-Teamer — and possible Defensive Player of the Year —  and second-year DB Talanoa Hufanga was named a First Team All-Pro safety.

Maher’s Strange Week Only Gets Stranger

The eyes of the football world were on Cowboys kicker Brett Maher after his meltdown Monday night, when he missed an NFL-record four extra points in one game.

The drama got started early on Sunday. Members of the 49ers stepped in the middle of Maher’s warm-ups, and words were exchanged between players and members of the teams’ staffs.

Next, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones paid Maher a visit during his preparations. No pressure there.

As for the game, well, it started much like Monday’s with Maher’s extra-point try with 9:25 to go in the second quarter getting blocked. The ball’s trajectory appeared to be heading to the left of the goal post.

Maher nailed a 25-yard field goal with 9:08 to play in the third quarter, and he hit another from 43 yards with 11:03 left in the fourth quarter.


Bengals 27, Bills 10

Burrow-Mahomes Becoming Brady-Manning 2.0  

For the second consecutive season, quarterback Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals will head to Kansas City for an AFC Championship Game rematch with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. 

Burrow, who is in just his third NFL season, finds himself one win away from his second career Super Bowl appearance as a starting QB — a feat last accomplished by Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks. Burrow and Mahomes are establishing themselves as the best of a new generation of quarterbacks — the duo perhaps destined to meet in the AFC playoffs time and again over their careers like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning before them. 

“I don’t think there’s a lot of people in Kansas City that were excited that Cincinnati won this game,” said analyst Eric Mangini of The 33rd Team. “Cincinnati has been Kansas City Chiefs killers, now 3-0 in the last three times they played. Joe Burrow has been pretty comfortable against them, and it was a shootout the last time they played.”

Burrow’s Bengals took care of business at Buffalo on Sunday, defeating the Bills in a snow-filled-stunner. Fueled by a desire to return to the Super Bowl and win it this time, Cincinnati dominated the game — controlling the ball on offense and refusing to let Josh Allen and the Bills find momentum. 

After the game, Burrow spoke with reporters about what makes this season’s Bengals team different from last year’s.

“I think we’re a more complete team,” said Burrow. “I think we’re a better team, and we just seem to make plays when it counts. … I think our O-line is better, I think our run-game is better, I think our defense is better, I think our special teams is better. We’re just, overall, a much better team than we were.” 

Last season, the Bengals went into Kansas City as major underdogs and won an overtime thriller capped off by a walk-off Evan McPherson field goal to send Cincinnati to its third Super Bowl in team history. 

The Bengals eventually lost to the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI. 

With Patrick Mahomes likely limited by a high-ankle sprain, the Bengals’ chances of beating the Chiefs appear sturdy as ever. But with five AFC Championship game appearances in a row for Chiefs coach Andy Reid with his star QB Mahomes, one never knows. 

“The difference that you’re going to get from the Chiefs is they’re going to light it up,” Mangini said. “They’re not afraid to blitz, and they’re got challenge that offensive line in ways that Buffalo didn’t.

“Kansas City is not going to be afraid to bring it a lot of different ways and test this offensive line. We’re going to see if whether or not Cincinnati will stick to this running game to take some of that pressure off, or whether or not they’ll default a little bit back to a throw-first mentality.”

Who You Calling A Weak Link?

Plenty of talk leading up the game focused on how the Bengals’ depleted offensive line would be a massive liability against the Bills’ sixth-ranked defense. Turns out, that’s all it was, talk.

Cincinnati steamrolled Buffalo’s defense with 412 yards, including 172 on the ground, imposing its will with 30 first downs and a 33:54 to 26:06 edge in time of possession. Burrow was sacked just once in 37 dropbacks and didn’t throw an interception. 

The Bengals accomplished this without injured tackles Jonah Williams and La’el Collins, and guard Alex Cappa. 

In their place, the quintet of tackles Hakeem Adeniji and Jackson Carmen, guards Max Scharping and Cordell Volson, and center Ted Karras paved the way for Cincinnati’s domination. The group has but 15 seasons of NFL experience, seven of them belonging to Karras.

“They were able to run the ball for what? 173 yards and a 5.4-yard average,” Mangini said. “This is a team that was one of the worst rushing teams throughout the course of the season, but they could come in and do this, and then (allow) one sack.

“As you watched the game, you would have thought that Buffalo’s line had the injuries with the volume of free blitzers that were coming through and the pressure that was consistently put on Josh Allen.”

And it wasn’t as if the Bengals kept tight end Hayden Hurst in as a blocker every down. Hurst was targeted six times, catching five, and hauling in one of Burrow’s two TD passes.

The Bills, meanwhile, got very little going against the Bengals’ stout defensive front of ends Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard and tackles DJ Reader and B.J. Hill. 

They pressured Josh Allen into a 68.1 passer rating and helped hold the Bills to 63 rushing yards, 26 by Allen. 

The Bills defense, which wasn’t 100 percent, couldn’t get off the field. The Bengals scored on six of their first eight possessions – a string that included one punt and the half expiring.

“The issue is they had some missing starters in the secondary and not having Von Miller really was an issue late in the season and in the postseason because he was the closer,” said analyst Rich Gannon of The 33rd Team. “He’s the player that you can bring in to get that big sack, that big strip fumble late in the game, and they didn’t have it.”

Damar Hamlin Returns to Highmark Stadium 

On the football field, the Bills faced a grueling and brutal Sunday that ended in a bitter defeat. But off the field, Buffalo — the team, the city, and its people — celebrated a far more important accomplishment: the recovery of Damar Hamlin. 

On Jan. 2, in a Monday night game against the Bengals, Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest on the field and was rushed to an area hospital in Cincinnati. Over the subsequent weeks, Hamlin has made steady and remarkable progress in his rehabilitation. The most recent milestone came Sunday when Hamlin visited his teammates in the locker room prior to Buffalo’s Divisional Round game against the Bengals. 

In an emotional moment, the Bills displayed Hamlin in the stadium eliciting enormous applause from the Buffalo faithful. Hamlin returned their adulation from his suite, sending a message of love to the city that supported him through this most trying and challenging ordeal.

At halftime, with the Bills trailing 17-7, Hamlin once again visited the locker room to encourage his teammates and be with them as they faced the most important half of their season. 

In the end, the Bills lost the game, concluding their short playoff run. Still, it was a year not without its victories. And no victory was greater than Hamlin’s continued recovery and his commitment to paying the love he’s received forward.


Chiefs 27, Jaguars 20 

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.”

Mahomes completed 22-of-30 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown, and he had some impressive jump passes both before his injury and after.

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. 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 38, Giants 7 

Eagles as Good as Advertised

The last No. 1 seed 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 eight-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 advanced to the NFC Championship Game, where they will play host to the 49ers. Philadelphia faced the 49ers in each of the past two seasons, 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.”

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.

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