Divisional Round Recap - A weird weekend for QBs

Well, we’re down to four. SuperBowl LV is rapidly approaching and, if the drama of the first two weekends of the playoffs is anything to go by, we’re in for a treat. Let’s have a look at the four games in chronological order:

Los Angeles Rams 18 - 32 Green Bay Packers

Divisional Round Recap
Credit: Wally Skalij (Los Angeles Times)

The weekend’s opening game was really defined by those who couldn’t compete to their usual capacity. Sadly for the Rams, it was they who suffered. “The Terminator” – Aaron Donald – wasn’t his usual self, clearly still hampered by the after-effects of the injury he sustained against the Seahawks last weekend. The Jalen Ramsey vs Davante Adams matchup was electric at times, but it was the intelligence of LaFleur’s offensive structure, and Rodgers’ execution, that meant the Packers’ star receiver was still able to catch the opening Touchdown of the game.

Furthermore, Aaron Jones continues to be one of the most reliable backs in the whole league, always scoring when the Packers need a touchdown. But it was Aaron Rodgers’ ability to pull this Rams defense apart shows everybody just how fearful they should be of the Packers. The Rams’ vaunted defensive structure was stout for most of the game, but Rodgers found the play to take the top off it late on, sealing the victory with a deep pass to Allen Lazard.

“Defense wins Championships,” they say. I’ve always hated that saying. Defense alone won’t win you the SuperBowl. The modern NFL requires offensive output too. The Rams simply didn’t have enough of that to push the Packers towards their limit. The loss of Cooper Kupp pre-game obviously played a role, as did Jared Goff’s unfortunate thumb injury a few weeks ago, but this was really just a case of one team simply being outmatched. 

Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur’s partnership certainly courted controversy at the start of last season, but yet here we are two seasons later and the Packers are a combined 28-7 in their 35 games together, and now headed to their 2nd consecutive NFC Title game. I think things are working just fine. Rodgers knows he has a big test to come, in attempting to make it back to the SuperBowl for the first time in a decade, but surely he hasn’t had many better opportunities to win it since his lone previous title in 2010. This MVP season he’s having deserves to be capped off by having the chance to win the 2nd championship his career desperately deserves. The Frozen Tundra is intimidating to all… and you have to believe it will take something very special to stop the Pack from heading to Tampa on the first weekend of February. 

Baltimore Ravens 3 - 17 Buffalo Bills

Divisional Round Recap
Credit: Bryan M. Bennett (Getty Images)

Man, #BillsMafia are just electric, aren’t they? This was perhaps the most disappointing game of the weekend in that I was really hoping we’d get a back and forth QB duel shootout here, but the Bills’ defensive game plan really stifled that dream. Give them credit, as many teams have tried and tried to slow done Lamar Jackson, and had nothing like a modicum of success. For the Bills to hold the Ravens – who some experts were referring to as “the hottest team in the league” – to just 3 points is some achievement, when all the pre-match discussion revolved around the Bills’ perceived inability to stop the run.

Obviously – on a weird weekend for quarterbacks in general – Lamar’s injury and subsequent replacing by Tyler Huntley meant the Ravens’ chances of a comeback were slim to none, but the Bills did more than enough to deserve to win this game before that point too. Lamar’s extremely costly pick 6 was the real turning point, with a 14 point lead established that Buffalo would hold onto for the rest of the game. Whilst undeniably unstoppable on some days, Lamar’s unfortunate lack of consistency in the passing game is what will continue to limit the ceiling of this Ravens team. Back to the drawing board for Baltimore, but they’ll be good for a long time to come still.

How fun are Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs though?! Their post match interview was fantastic, and it’s lovely to see two stars just enjoying their friendship and winning games together, in a league where so often ego’s get questioned and player’s characters unfairly judged. There were murmurings of Diggs being a “problem guy” during his exit from Minnesota, but hopefully this season has proven him to be anything but that. Just another 100 yard and a TD receiving game for Stefon, who seems incapable of anything less than this stat line right now.

And what can I possibly say about Josh Allen that hasn’t already been said? He’s majestic, magnificent and magic. For a quarterback that young to have undergone a transformation from inaccurate and inconsistent to potential MVP candidate in just 3 years is remarkable, and a testament to the scouting department in Buffalo. GM Brandon Beane has built a roster capable of winning a SuperBowl. And now? They head to the AFC Championship game for the first time in 26 years. They head to Kansas City with every hope of reaching the SuperBowl again.

Cleveland Browns 17 - 22 Kansas City Chiefs

Credit: Reed Hoffmann (Associated Press)

I won’t lie – I’m pretty gutted about this one. I have huge respect (and admiration) for this Chiefs team, but I was really starting to enjoy the “team of destiny” vibe Cleveland was building. Kevin Stefanski’s guys had overcome his absence, along with numerous other members of their squad and coaching staff to knock off Pittsburgh last weekend, and whilst I never thought it was likely they would beat the Chiefs, I felt sure they’d give them a good game.

And so it proved. Was there an element of good fortune that this was close? Yeah, perhaps, and we’ll discuss the reason it was that way momentarily, but the Browns will surely look back at the decision to punt with about 5 minutes left and wonder what might have been… Yeah, 4th and 9 is no gimme, but it’s a lot easier to score with the ball than without it. The Browns had given very little defensive resistance to Mahomes, Hill & Kelce in the first half, with the Chiefs scoring on all their drives on their way to a 16-3 lead late in the 1st half. However, this meant the Browns knew that with a score before half time, and a score after the interval, they MIGHT be able to find themselves with a lead early in the 3rd quarter.

And then the bad luck struck. An amazing touchdown-saving tackle from Sorensen led to Rashard Higgins fumbling the ball literally inches from the goal line, with the ball going out of the side of the endzone for a touchback. It was an absolute gut punch for the Browns, especially QB Baker Mayfield who had really begun to find his rhythm. Had that play not fallen that way, I really think the Browns would have had a great chance to win this game, regardless of second half injuries.

For Cleveland fans though, this season has to be the best in recent memory, and have provided great excitement for the future. They’ve got a great Head Coach and GM combo, and exciting offense, and – I believe we can say for sure now – their franchise QB proving himself to be everything they wanted him to be when they took him #1 overall a few years ago. Baker Mayfield is that guy; He’s shown poise, humility, maturity and unquestionable ability in leading this team forward. It’s easy to forget how recently this was an 0-16 team. Lots of turnover obviously, but players like Garrett and Landry have helped transform the culture of this squad, and give the Browns an unbelievably bright future. I think they’re perhaps favourites to win the AFC North next season, and I see no way they’re not right back in the playoffs next season. Thanks for the entertainment this year Cleveland.

But, on the other side of the ball, we have the defending Champions. So, let’s talk about it: Mahomes’ concussion. Obviously it looked really bad when it happened, his legs bending with weak knees as he struggled to his feet. It really felt like in that one moment the Chiefs title defense may have gone. But if you ever wanted proof that Kansas City is no one-man-band, the remainder of the game gave you that.

Tyrann Mathieu (excellent all day) and Chris Jones came to the fore on defense, and the unlikeliest of heroes proved – as Mahomes later put it on Twitter – “Henne-thing is possible!” Chad Henne – wow. If the Chiefs DO go on to repeat as Champs, he might well have earned himself a statue somewhere in the greater Kansas City area. The interception he threw was egregious, but the mental strength he showed to overcome that and find a way to run out the clock and send the AFC Title game to Arrowhead for the 3rd straight season – coincidentally the first time in NFL history any team has hosted this game 3 years in a row.

But we’d be remiss not to mention the coaches. Andy Reid and Eric Bienemy cooked up some special plays to get the first downs they needed late in the 4th quarter. Give Henne credit – the scramble that took it from 3rd and 14 to 4th and inches was almost the play of the weekend. And then – maybe the most impressive achievement of Andy Reid’s season – faking out TONY ROMO on 4th down?! Calling a shotgun pass on 4th and inches and converting?! Ballsy. I loved it though. Also, shows a huge mark of respect to Baker Mayfield that Andy Reid didn’t want him to get the ball back; he knew Baker would have won the game had he gotten the chance. But the Chiefs roll on, and the entire city of Kansas City will be praying that Mahomes is back at practice on Wednesday.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30 - 20 New Orleans Saints

Credit: Brynn Anderson (Associated Press)

The one and only road team to win this weekend was the TBxTB train as the Buccaneers rolled through the SuperDome and onto Lambeau field. In what was supposed to be a battle of two legendary quarterbacks, it was perhaps the Tampa Bay defense that stole the show. And yet the main headline is perhaps the end of a dynasty in New Orleans. It looks like a changing of the guard is coming, and that performance isn’t the way anybody would have wanted to see him leave…

It’s a sad way for Drew Brees to go out. He’s been problematic off the field with some of his comments and beliefs, but he’s been equally problematic for defenses on the field, holding most of the NFL records as a passer. That said, is this the great achilles heel to his legacy? The difference in postseason success between the two quarterbacks on the field yesterday is remarkable. Brady’s legacy is championships, Brees’ legacy is not quite winning the big game in January. It’s sad, but Brees’ retirement looks like MAYBE it came one year too late.

The Saints will forever feel slighted that, between the Minneapolis Miracle and the awful missed pass interference call against the Rams in 2018, they haven’t had a SuperBowl appearance in recent years. With the calibre of talent they have on that roster, that has to be viewed as a disappointment. What does the future hold? Is it Taysom Time? COULD JAMEIS WINSTON BE A STARTING QB IN NEW ORLEANS? Give him some credit… that TD throw yesterday? What a play. What a brilliant play. Sean Payton stole the play that nearly worked AGAINST him for Chicago last week, and used it FOR his team this week. That’s brilliant coaching. He’s going to need to keep that energy next season with his first new permanent starting quarterback in about 20 years. 

BUT – for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers… wow. You’re one win away from being the first team ever to compete for the SuperBowl in their home stadium. Tom Brady was… just as good as he needed to be. Were there any truly incredible throws? Nah. But they did enough. Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown were ALL held in check, with Scotty Miller having to make the big play down the field in the 2nd half. “Playoff Lenny” Fournette was rolling again, and Ronald Jones had a spring in his step in his return from injury. Gronk nearly snagged a couple in the endzone. They just have so many weapons. So many weapons. And they’re going to need them all next weekend.

But can Tom Brady do it in the cold weather?! … (that’s a joke). The turnaround in Tampa has been remarkable under Bruce Arians, and even when you look at the disjointed mess of last year, the fact that this Buccaneers defense has risen from the ashes of that inconsistency is impressive. Devin White?! Unbelievable performance. He’ll need to repeat that next week for the Buccaneers to have any chance. Rodgers vs Brady for a spot in the SuperBowl?! I cannot wait.

Championship Sunday

I believe I wrote at the end of the regular season that I could see no other outcome to these playoffs besides a Chiefs vs Packers SuperBowl… and – as much as I love this Bills team – I stand by that unless Patrick Mahomes is unable to play this weekend. I’m not convinced Tom has enough to beat Aaron in the snow at Lambeau… and so I come back to my premonition of Mahomes vs Rodgers in SuperBowl LV.

But – to be honest – any combination of these final four teams in the SuperBowl would be exciting and, for me, as long as it’s not Tom Brady lifting another title at the end of the game I’ll be happy. Sorry Bucs fans. I can’t cheer for him. Anyway, thank you for continuing to spend some time each week reading my thoughts. Hope you’re all staying safe and sound, and enjoy next weekend. As ever, I’m @CallumJDSquires on Twitter and Instagram, come say hey. Have a good one.


NFL Analyst