Before we get into the Divisional Round INSANITY sure to ensue (you’ll know why I’m using that term shortly), I want to just go over a few of the storylines that are dominating NFL talk this week.
The 49ers’ Rest Advantage: San Fran vs. Seattle was the first game of wild card weekend, taking place at 1:30pm Pacific time. Cowboys vs. Bucs was the last game of the wild card round, taking place on Monday night. So this means the 49ers will have had about an extra two and a half days off when this game kicks off on Sunday evening. This is kind of a big deal. San Fran will have more time to rest, and more time to prepare. Given that San Fran is already favored to win, this just makes it even more of an uphill battle for the Cowboys.
Lamar’s contract situation: I went in depth on this in my last post, but basically Lamar thinks he should be paid a fully guaranteed $230 million contract like DeShaun Watson got, but the Ravens are flat out refusing to do that and won’t budge. I think Lamar will be playing elsewhere next season, honestly. And it’s mostly because he doesn’t have an agent and doesn’t understand, truly, how these contracts work.
The Bills receivers behind Stefon Diggs: they don’t scare anybody. If the Bills fail to win the Super Bowl this year, or even if they win, I think they need to bring in some reinforcements at wide receiver. Gabe Davis, Khalil Shakir, Isaiah McKenzie and Cole Beasley aren’t scaring anybody out there.
Brady’s next team: It looks like it’ll be down to the Raiders or the Dolphins. San Fran in my view isn’t a serious option, he’s definitely not going back to the Bucs, and so I think it’ll be either the Raiders or Dolphins, with the Dolphins being the more likely of the two. I know there are also people out there saying Carolina, and then there are even those who say Brady could return to the Patriots, but I get the feeling those are highly unlikely options.
Harbaugh back to Michigan: It’s becoming an annual tradition. Harbaugh signals his intention to move to the NFL, it doesn’t materialize, and then he goes back to Michigan and pretends there’s nowhere else in the world he’d rather be. In reality, from what I gather, he really wanted the Chargers job (as did Sean Payton), but it didn’t open up and he wasn’t thrilled with the other options, so he bailed on the NFL. I’m sure we’ll go through this same song and dance next year around this time.
If I’m a Michigan fan, I’d be getting a bit tired of this guy. He so clearly would rather be in the NFL than at Michigan, and what he’s doing is flat-out disrespectful to Michigan fans, players, and his coaching staff. They’re committed to him, but he’s made it crystal clear that as soon as something better comes along (meaning the NFL) he’s outta there. Obviously Michigan fans are going to have to grin and bear it because their team is as good as it has ever been outside of 1997 when they won a fake half National Championship, but deep down, they’ve got to be miffed at the way Harbaugh is treating them.
NFL looking to move to neutral-site Conference Championship games? Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk/NBC Sports reads between the lines on the NFL bragging about how many tickets it has already sold to the potential Bills vs. Chiefs AFC Championship game in Atlanta and deduces that the NFL is going to move to neutral sites for both the AFC and NFC Championship games, permanently. This is just Florio’s opinion, mind you. But he’s pretty knowledgable and tied in with great sources, so I’ll bet he’s on to something here.
So what he’s saying is that the NFL wants a playoff format in which only the wild card and divisional rounds will be played as home/away games. Once you get to the Final Four, they’ll play those games at neutral site locations. I’m assuming it will be at two different sites, like the College Football Playoff. It would be cool to have it all take place at one site, but you can’t have two games played on the same field in single day. That’s just unfair to the teams playing in the second game, the field would be ripped up. And you can’t have one game played on Saturday and one game played on Sunday, because that gives an unfair advantage to the team that plays first. They’ll get an extra day of rest.
My question is, would it be a constant site for each respective conference? Like the NFC Championship is always in, say, Atlanta, and the AFC Championship is always in, say, Los Angeles at SoFi? I doubt that. I’m sure the NFL would want to open it up to a bidding process, plus the owners wouldn’t go for it. They’d all want the chance to host that game. I’ll bet it would be handled just like the Super Bowl.
Would the NFC Championship have to be held at an NFC stadium, and likewise for the AFC? I also doubt this will be the case. If anything it will be the opposite: the NFC Championship has to be played at an AFC stadium, while the AFC Championship will have to be held at an NFC stadium. Because otherwise there would be a great chance at least one of the games is a home game for somebody. Obviously a stadium like SoFi, which is home to both an NFC and an AFC team, complicates this a bit, but I feel like this is the way to go in order to ensure the game is truly a neutral site–to ensure that it cannot be a home game for either of the teams playing.
I don’t know if I’d like this. It really diminishes the value of home field advantage. But the counterpoint could be that home field advantage is currently too valuable. Right now, if you’re the #1 seed, you have to win two home games and then you’re in the Super Bowl. Everyone else has to win three playoff games and it’s likely, even for the #2 seed, that at least one of those games is on the road.
The NFL is the one sport where there is a massive homefield advantage in the postseason. Think about it: in baseball, hockey and basketball, they play 7 game series in the postseason. Nobody gets a first round bye, and every team is going to play at least two road games per series, even if they sweep the whole playoffs. Yes, if you’re the higher seed, you get 4 home games to 3 road games, but you still have to play on the road at some point in the series, unavoidably. With the NFL, since it’s a one-and-done sport, homefield advantage is tremendously important. You might not have to play a single road game in the postseason if you earn the top seed. It’s two home games and then the Super Bowl at a neutral site.
College football plays its most important games at neutral sites. The whole college basketball tournament is at neutral sites. I kind of like the idea of neutral sites for the Conference Championship games in the NFL, the more I think about it.
Playing them at neutral sites would boost the importance of the games. They would feel bigger and more important. Right now, they just feel like another playoff game. You play them at neutral sites, and they take on the vibe of “these are big time games.” They’d have a different vibe if they were played at neutral sites. They hand out a trophy to the winners of the AFC and NFC Championship games, right? So it makes sense to play it at a neutral site.
I just like neutral site games, personally. I think the biggest, most important games should be fair fights. I actually don’t like the fact that homefield advantage plays such a massive role in the NFL playoffs. When you start factoring homefield advantage and crowd noise, you know the refs are inevitably going to be biased towards the home team. And not to mention the weather is often a factor in cold-weather cities. It’s not a fair fight. We’re supposed to be trying to find out who is the best team, and homefield advantage complicates that. I mean, they call it homefield advantage for a reason, right? The team playing at home undoubtedly has an advantage; they’ve got a thumb on the scale.
The only concern is that it might water down the regular season just a bit. Seeding becomes less important, but not by much.
Now, in fairness, we see road teams win Conference Championship games all the time. The Bengals did it last year in Kansas City. The Bucs did it the year before in Green Bay (albeit without fans in the stands). In 2018, the Patriots won a road AFC Championship game, and the Rams also won a road NFC Championship game (albeit with the help of the refs on the worst blown call maybe in NFL history).
Of course, I had to crunch the numbers and do some research on how much HFA has mattered in past Conference Championship Games, so I made a spreadsheet. I went back to 1990, as that was the year the playoffs expanded from 10 to 12 teams. We had the same playoff format from 1990-2019.
What I found was that, surprise, homefield advantage does matter. In the NFC, home teams are 20-12 in the Conference Championship game dating back to 1990. In the AFC, home teams are 21-11. Pretty remarkable consistency across both conferences; home teams almost have identical records over a 32 year span. Which suggests that homefield advantage is a real thing and that it definitely impacts who wins and loses these games.
Overall, home teams are 41-23 in Conference Championships dating back to 1990, a 64% win rate. Basically 2/3rds of the time, the home team is going to win. I don’t like that. I think homefield advantage is too big of an advantage in these games, and it shouldn’t be.
Okay, now for Divisional Round Insanity. Why insanity? Because the divisional round is traditionally where most of the craziest games take place.
I’ve compiled a list of the craziest divisional round games of the past 17 years just so you can see what I’m talking about:
In just last year’s divisional round, we had the 49ers beating the Packers in Lambeau 13-10, we had the Rams nearly blowing a 27-3 lead to Tampa, we had that unforgettable game between the Bills and Chiefs where the Chiefs were able to tie it up with just 13 seconds in regulation. We also had that Titans vs. Bengals game where Tennessee sacked Burrow 9 times but Cincy still won.
The Minnesota Miracle happened in the divisional round, the Dez Caught It game was in the divisional round, the Mile High Miracle was in the divisional round–so many memorable games.
There are some years where the divisional round games aren’t off the hook, but I have a feeling we’re in for some craziness in these games this weekend.
I am especially keyed in on the 49ers vs. Cowboys game and the Bills vs. Bengals game as the games most likely to end up as all time classics. 49ers vs. Cowboys in the wild card round last year was pretty crazy, so these teams have history.
This is a rivalry that goes back a long ways, too. This will be the 9th time the Cowboys and 49ers have squared off in the playoffs over the past 53 years:
- 2022: Divisional Round
- 2021: San Fran 23, Dallas 17 (Wild Card)
- 1994: San Fran 38, Dallas 28 (NFC Championship)
- 1993: Dallas 38, San Fran 21 (NFC Championship)
- 1992: Dallas 30, San Fran 20 (NFC Championship)
- 1981: San Fran 28, Dallas 27 (NFC Championship)
- 1972: Dallas 30, San Fran 28 (Divisional Round)
- 1971: Dallas 14, San Fran 3 (NFC Championship)
- 1970: Dallas 17, San Fran 10 (NFC Championship)
Dallas has a 5-3 record against San Fran in the playoffs, however, they haven’t beaten San Fran in the postseason since 1993, when Dallas went on to win the Super Bowl.
Four of the eight times these teams met in the playoffs, the winner went on to win the Super Bowl: 1971, 1992, 1993 and 1994. In the early 1990s, as you can see, these teams would regularly square off in the NFC Championship, and that was basically the Super Bowl as they would always demolish the AFC Champion two weeks later. In the 1992 Super Bowl, the Cowboys pounded the Bills 52-17, and then beat Buffalo 30-13 in the rematch a year later. In 1994, when San Fran won the NFC, they played the Chargers in the Super Bowl and won 49-26.
Dallas won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1992 and 1993, then were denied a chance at a three-peat by the Steve Young 49ers, who went on to win the Super Bowl in 1994. Dallas would win the 1995 Super Bowl, but the 49ers didn’t make it back to the NFC Championship that year–they lost to the Packers in the Divisional Round.
Until last year’s Wild Card game, the 1994 NFC Championship game was the last time these teams had met in the playoffs.
Cowboys vs. 49ers playoff games tend to come in bunches, too. They met three straight years from 1970-1972, just once in 1981, but then those three straight times from 1992-1994.
Now, this will be the second straight year they’ve met in the playoffs.
Richard Sherman brought up a great point on his podcast on Thursday: if Brock Purdy was a top 4-5 draft pick, people would be talking about him like’s the face of the league. If Zach Wilson was doing what Brock Purdy has done, they’d be raving about him.
Brock Purdy is now 7-0 as a starter. He’s completing 67% of his passes, he has a 13-4 TD to INT ratio, he’s averaging a stellar 8.1 yards per attempt (tied with Patrick Mahomes for second-best in the league), his QB rating is 107.3 (best in the league), and his QBR is 65.5 (5th best in the league).
Obviously it’s a small sample size, but his numbers are phenomenal. He only averages 218 passing yards a game, which would rank 18th in the league. But that’s ahead of what Aaron Rodgers averaged this year! And he just had 332 yards against Seattle in the Wild Card game.
Brock Purdy’s numbers through seven games have been phenomenal, all things considered. Yes, he plays in probably the best offensive system in the league and has the best collection of weapons around him. Yes, he’s got a coach that can turn just about any quarterback into a star.
But given that he’s not only a rookie but a rookie who was the last pick of the draft, he’s blown away all expectations.
His numbers, when compared to Jimmy Garoppolo’s, are pretty similar and probably slightly better:
And that’s regular season only, too. If I included Purdy’s playoff numbers, he would be even better.
Last weekend, I thought there was virtually no chance of the Cowboys winning this game.
Now, after thinking on it a while, I think there’s actually a pretty good chance the Cowboys go in there and win.
For one thing, Brock Purdy was shaky in the first half against Seattle. If he starts out poorly against Dallas, that’s a problem.
I think Dan Quinn is going to blitz the hell out of him to see if he can handle the pressure, and I don’t know if he can.
It’s all about quarterbacks when you get to this point in the playoffs. San Fran has shown that they have effectively systematized the QB position, and basically no matter who they put in there is going to play well. I get that.
But can Brock Purdy step up and make plays if needed? Can he put the team on his back? I have my doubts. If there’s 1:30 left in the game and San Fran is down 4, can he lead them down the field for a touchdown to win the game? That’s a tall order.
As great as Purdy has been so far, he hasn’t faced any truly scary teams. Since taking over, he’s faced the Dolphins, the Bucs, the Seahawks, the Commanders, the Raiders, the Cardinals and then the Seahawks again in the playoffs. He’s won all 7 games, don’t get me wrong. But he’s yet to play against a worthy foe.
ESPN has actually a 53% chance the Cowboys win this game, however Vegas has a line of 4 in favor of San Fran, with an implied final score of 25-21 Niners.
I could see that happening, but I could also see the Cowboys winning by a similar margin.
My gut is telling me that Dallas somehow wins this game. I know they haven’t been to an NFC Championship since 1995, I know about their playoff history. But they’re due. I think Purdy will have to lead a scoring drive late and he won’t be able to do it. The moment will be too big for him. Something crazy is probably going to happen at the end.
I know I picked the 49ers to win it all before the playoffs, but guess what? I changed my mind.
Cowboys 27, 49ers 21
And as for Bills vs. Bengals, we’ve got the obvious angle of their regular season matchup having been canceled due to the scary Damar Hamlin situation.
You would think the Bills will be fired up for this game but they played like crap last week against Miami.
I think Cincinnati actually has the mental edge here in this game, quite honestly. They probably felt like they were going to dominate Buffalo in that regular season game that got cut short. Then the NFL simply ruled it a no contest, and the Bengals were unable to get an opportunity to overtake the Bills in the AFC standings.
The Bengals probably feel like this game should be being played in their building, not Buffalo’s.
I’m worried about Cincy’s offensive line in this game. Right guard Alex Kappa is out, as is now starting left tackle Jonah Williams. That’s on top of La’el Collins being out for the season. So Cincy’s offensive line is absolutely decimated.
Having a porous line didn’t stop Burrow from leading the Bengals to the Super Bowl last year, but it might this year. It hurts for Buffalo to not have Von Miller, but they’ve got plenty of defensive linemen that they can throw at that patchwork Bengals line to make Burrow’s life miserable.
But here’s the thing: I just don’t think Josh Allen will be able to stop himself from turning the ball over. He’s becoming the new Brett Favre out there.
It used to be that Josh Allen was good for about one boneheaded turnover every game, but now, Sean McDermott would be thrilled if it was just one a game. Hell, they’d probably be Super Bowl favorites.
And another thing I don’t like about the Bills, as I went over above: they are too reliant on the deep shots to Stefon Diggs. Their other receivers are more or less JAGs behind Diggs, and I don’t think anybody else in the league is scared of them.
That’ll be an issue if they have to get into a shootout with Cincy, which I suspect might happen.
Vegas has this game handicapped interestingly. The Bills are sizable 5.5 point favorites, and the over under is just 49, implying a final score of about 27-22 Buffalo. ESPN gives Buffalo a 65% chance of winning, which seems high to me.
We know the problem with Cincy: their offensive line.
With Buffalo, it’s kind of hard to diagnose the problem, at least it is for me. I just can’t put my finger on what, exactly, is wrong with them. I guess if I had to specify, I’d say it’s partly Josh Allen’s turnovers, it’s partly Von Miller being out, it’s partly the lack of weapons behind Diggs, it’s partly the lack of a consistent run game (or really any significant emphasis on the running backs at all), it’s partly the fact that their quarterback is also their power running back.
But even those concerns don’t tell the full story about Buffalo, to me. I just feel like they have sort of lost their mojo or something. Lost their focus. Yes, they’ve won 8 straight games, but they don’t feel like a scary team, you know? It feels like they’ve regressed; like they’re not as good as they were early on in the season.
Maybe I overhyped Buffalo starting in the beginning of the year. That might be it. Maybe my expectations for them got too high after I watched them go into SoFi and just blow the doors off of the Rams on the opening night of the season. The week after that, they just pulverized the Titans 41-7.
But we know now the Rams were a bad team, and the Titans weren’t anything special, either.
And yet people–including myself–were talking about the Bills as if they were the 2007 Patriots. People were wondering aloud whether Buffalo could go undefeated.
Well, the fact is, whether Buffalo is dominant or not, they have only lost three games this season. Two of them were on the road, and one of those games (losing 21-19 to Miami early in the year) has been avenged, twice. They also lost 20-17 to the Jets, another divisional rivalry, and they blew a 14-3 second quarter lead in that game.
Their third loss was to Minnesota, the unforgettable game that Buffalo had virtually won, but a botched snap in the endzone gave the game away to the Vikings. The Bills had a 27-10 lead in the third quarter of that game.
Buffalo has a problem putting teams away.
They were up 17-0 on the Dolphins early in the second quarter, and yet went into halftime up just 20-17.
This calls for yet another spreadsheet, this one to see the Bills’ point differential by quarter. I won’t paste the image here, but Buffalo’s quarters look like this:
However, if you take out just weeks 1 and 2 for the Bills (the Rams and Titans games) the Bills were only +1 in the fourth quarter.
They also drop down to +23 in the first quarter and +18 in the second, meaning their only knockout quarter is the second.
Look, I am so close to picking the Bills to lose this game. I don’t have much faith in them. I don’t think they can really get it done at the highest level.
But I’m concerned about the Bengals’ offensive line.
You know what? I’m going to take the Bengals. I trust Joe Burrow more than Josh Allen. It might be lower-scoring, but I think Buffalo is going down. Cincy gets a late field goal by McPherson to win it. In fact, Cincy kicks a lot of field goals in this one.
The Bills will get a deep shot or two to Stefon Diggs, but how much offense will they really get outside of that?
UPDATE: You know what, it’s Saturday and I’ve been thinking about this, and heard what Warren Sharp had to say, and I’ve changed my mind. The NFL badly wants Buffalo to win so they can have their neutral site AFC championship game. They’ve got Carl Cheffers calling the game, and the Bills are 8-1 when he refs their games. Bills are winning this game.
Bills 31, Bengals 20
Next game up: Philly vs. the Giants
I’m worried about Philly, but mainly because of injuries. Healthy Philly would dogwalk this Giants team, no disrespect.
The Giants just don’t have the horses to keep up with a team like Philly, when healthy. Can you name anyone in the Giants’ back seven? Their linebackers, corners, safeties? I really can’t, other than Adoree Jackson. And I guess they have Jaylon Smith at linebacker, but he’s not the same guy anymore.
I just don’t know how the Giants are going to contain all those Eagles pass catchers: AJ Brown, Devonta Smith, Dallas Goedert; they’re going to have a field day out there. Or at least, I would say that, but…
… Jalen Hurts’ injury was to his throwing shoulder, and while he’s not on the injury report anymore (implying he’s 100%) I really don’t know. If it was to his non-throwing shoulder, I’d pick the Eagles to win by 14+.
The shoulder injury means he’s a target for every defender, and he knows it. They’ll be more apprehensive with running him because of the shoulder, and if he’s out there missing throws, the Eagles could be in trouble.
This is also a division rivalry, and you never know what can happen. There’s so much emotion involved that truly anything is possible. Throw out the records, as they say.
The Eagles may have an ace up their sleeve, however. They’re one of the best running teams in the league, while the Giants, despite their stellar defensive line, allow 5.2 yards per carry to opposing backs. That ain’t good. Philly is going to be able to run the ball in this game, which could allow them to protect Jalen Hurts by simply not asking him to do it all.
Stopping the run isn’t just about your defensive line. It’s about your linebackers primarily. Your defensive line is there to clog the line of scrimmage, but the linebackers have to be able to shoot into those gaps and prevent ball carriers from sneaking through. NYG’s linebackers just aren’t special.
The Eagles have had some injury issues for sure. Lane Johnson is also a question mark, although he’s probably going to play.
I still trust the Eagles. They’re one of the few teams out there that I haven’t looked at this year during a game and thought to myself, “WTF are y’all doing out there?”
Eagles 33, Giants 20
And now for the Chiefs-Jags game, which is actually the first game of the weekend…
My head is telling me the Chiefs win by 20, that the Jags are emotionally spent after that crazy game last year, that they’re too young and inexperienced, that they’re just happy to be there, and that they’re really a year or two away from being true contenders.
But my heart is telling me SATURDAY T-LAW NEVER LOSES! Doug Pederson is a winner! The Jags have some magic to ’em!
The Chiefs are definitely flawed. They’re not as scary as they used to be. They’ve been in 10 one-possession games this year, going 7-3 in them. They almost lost to the Chargers twice, and the Jags beat the Chargers, didn’t they?
I don’t know, man. I think the Chiefs are locked in. I don’t think the Jags are ready for this.
I think the Chiefs are quietly on a mission this year. Though they’ve been the best team in the league for most of the season, we haven’t really heard much from them. Jackson and Brittany Mahomes have stopped making TikToks, probably because Patty told them to cut the shit. That tells me Patty Mahomes is locked TF in.
It pains me to say it because it’s annoying as hell that teams somehow have not figured out a way to stop it, but I can just see slow-ass Kelce and slow-ass Mahomes running wild in this game. Seriously, I don’t know how teams haven’t figured out how to stop those guys. Mahomes is the slowest player that regularly gets 25-30 yard runs every week. Travis Kelce is the slowest player that consistently gets insane amounts of YAC in every game.
It’s like opposing teams just stand there and watch or something. I don’t understand it. Just bracket Kelce, damnit! Their other receivers aren’t that good. Juju Smith-Schuster, Mecole Hardman, Kadarius Toney? You can’t cover those guys in man?
And their running backs: rookie 7th rounder Isaiah Pacheco? Jerick McKinnon on his third team? You can’t stop these guys?
Everything about Kansas City’s offense this year baffles me. I know Mahomes is amazing. I know Kelce is really good.
But most of the time it feels like defenses going against the Chiefs are the Washington Generals going against the Harlem Globetrotters. Like Wile E. Coyote trying to catch the Roadrunner or something. It’s like, how does everybody get embarrassed and owned by this Chiefs offense whose two best players run like 4.9 40s? The Chiefs just make other teams look foolish and I don’t understand it. They even put up 44 on the Niners defense! It’s like any team that plays Kansas City is subject to repeated pratfalls, stepping on rakes, slipping on banana peels, etc. Travis Kelce catches the ball 15 yards down field and the defenders looks like they’ve never even seen a forward pass before; they just freeze up while he slowly weaves his way between them for 25 extra yards.
Andy Reid, man. He’s an offensive genius. Whatever he and Eric Bienemy are cooking up over there to continually get Travis Kelce open even without Tyreek Hill taking the top off the defense, it’s working. They’re the most innovative offensive team in the league. They are just always ahead of the curve. It’s like every week they get out there and the opposing defenses are completely overwhelmed; just have no idea what’s going on at all.
I don’t think the Jags are ready for this. I would be thrilled if they were and somehow won this game, but I just can’t see it.
Vegas is implying a 31-22 Chiefs win with a -9.5 point spread. I think KC covers that.
T-Law is going to have a rough game, only this time, he won’t be able to overcome it all in the second half.
Chiefs 31, Jags 19