It will be a long time before we see a more compelling week of NFL football. The divisional round gave us four wild finishes, with three road teams emerging victorious on last-second field goals, followed by a scoring flurry in Kansas City as the Chiefs improbably survived not one, but two knockout blows last in the fourth quarter.
It was a lot to take in, but here’s what we learned from the weekend and how some of that applies to the Detroit Lions.
Quarterback play still rules the day
Defense might win championships, but there’s no dismissing the entertainment value of watching a pair of heavyweight offenses going toe-to-toe. Kansas City and Buffalo saved the best for last in what was the finest week of playoff football in recent memory.
With three lead changes in the final two minutes, and the Chiefs improbably driving 44 yards in 10 seconds to set up a game-tying field goal that sent the game into overtime, we’ll likely be talking about this matchup for years. And for all the compelling action we saw in the first three games, Sunday night’s contest was a reminder that elite quarterback play is the easiest path to championship contention in the NFL.
Patrick Mahomes proved he isn’t ready to cede the crown as the league’s top young passer, but Josh Allen is certainty knocking on the door.
After another outstanding regular season, the fourth-year Bills quarterback further solidified himself as a superstar against the Chiefs, throwing for 329 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions. Allen’s feet were nearly as important as his arm, helping him avoid the rush and buy time during two touchdown drives in the closing minutes. He also led the team with 68 yards rushing on 11 carries.
With Mahomes, Allen, Lamar Jackson, Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert, the AFC is stacked with young, elite quarterbacks who figure to dominate the Super Bowl conversation for years to come.
49ers’ tougher road a secondary blueprint
Not all the elite quarterbacks from the divisional round emerged victorious. Aaron Rodgers’ quest for an elusive second Super Bowl ended at home for the second straight year as the No. 1 seed Packers were dispatched by the San Francisco 49ers.
It wasn’t a pretty victory for the 49ers, but there shouldn’t be any complaints about how it looked given they entered the weekend as the biggest underdog.
Unlike the offensive explosive slugfest between the Chiefs and Bills, the 49ers won despite netting just 12 first downs and gaining 212 yards of total offense. That’s because the 49ers are one of the league’s more balanced rosters. Using DVOA, an down-to-down efficiency metric, they were one of only two teams to finish the regular season in the top-seven as both an offense and defense. That balance has allowed them to succeed without elite quarterback play.
Jimmy Garoppolo is a high-end game manager. He doesn’t take a ton of downfield shots, instead relying on short throws and yards after the catch, where the 49ers led the NFL this year. That strategy can clearly work if you have a good defense and a solid ground game, which both showed up to varying degrees in the victory over the Packers.
It’s also not dissimilar to what the Detroit Lions are trying to build, with an emphasis on the ground game and the defense during the first year of the Brad Holmes/Dan Campbell era. Jared Goff and Garoppolo also share many traits, capable of doing enough if the pieces around them are there, but not ideal fits to carry a roster week after week.
It’s definitely the less common path to the Super Bowl, but we know it can work. Goff took the Rams to there in 2019 behind an outstanding run game and a formidable pass rush led by Aaron Donald. And now the 49ers are on the cusp of making a second trip in three years with Garoppolo under center.
But as the Lions weigh the team’s rebuild blueprint, it can’t be ignored that the Rams upgraded Goff and the 49ers aggressively moved up in the draft for Trey Lance, who will presumably replace Garoppolo in the next year or two.
Never dismiss the value of special teams
Sticking with the 49ers, when they made a Super Bowl run in 2013 they had a similarly balanced roster. Additionally, a big part of the success that season was special teams, an often overlooked aspect of building a winner.
That’s not to say the 49ers possessed a good special teams unit this year. In fact, they were closer to the bottom of the league by most measures, including DVOA and Athletic reporter Rich Gosselin’s annual rankings. That said, the Packers were worse, finishing last in both.
It proved to be the difference Saturday night.
All 13 of the 49ers’ points came via a big special teams play. They got on the scoreboard early in the third quarter after Deebo Samuel’s 45-yard kickoff return helped shorten the field. And San Francisco tied the game at 10 with under five minutes remaining on a blocked punt. Finally, despite the snowy and windy conditions, kicker Robbie Gould was able to put the finishing touches on the victory with as an impressive a 45-year field goal as you’ll see.
The three-point margin is also noteworthy since the 49ers blocked a field goal at the end of the half.
Collectively, it should serve as a reminder of how important special teams can be. And for what it’s worth, Detroit is in good shape in that department, finishing in the top-10 in both DVOA and Gosselin’s rankings.
Packers are in big trouble
The NFC North is already in the midst of significant changes this offseason with the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings overhauling the leadership of their respective franchises. But all eyes are on what’s next for the Packers following the team’s premature postseason exit.
The conversation starts with Rodgers, who toyed with retirement last season and might actually opt for that route this year. Despite still performing at a peak level, the 38-year-old, three-time MVP doesn’t have much to prove beyond adding a second ring to his collection. And with the frustrations he’s had with the Packers (and the national media), he could opt to hang them up.
Of course, it feels like an equally likely scenario is he forces his way out and finishes his career elsewhere, much like future Hall of Fame brethren Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have done in recent years. Who knows how that scenario plays out, but the Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers have been identified as two franchises who could lead the push to land Rodgers.
I’m sure the Lions will help him pack.
And regardless of the quarterback situation, the Packers are entering an offseason where they’re already in cap hell, currently projected to be more than $40 million over their 2022 allotment. That figure doesn’t include All-Pro receiver Davante Adams and All-Pro linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, who are set to be unrestricted free agents.
Things are setting up for a talent exodus in Green Bay, which would prove to be quite a test for Matt LaFleur, who has gone 39-10 in his first three seasons as the team’s coach.
Stafford is who most thought he was
Speaking strictly from a talent standpoint, Matthew Stafford always has been a really good quarterback. Because of his limited mobility, he’s never been in the stratosphere Mahomes and Allen currently reside, but Stafford’s arm always has been top tier. He’s certainty better than Goff and Garoppolo, but Stafford hasn’t previously experienced their success because he hasn’t been surrounded by the same caliber of talent.
That is no longer the case. The Rams liquidated their draft assets to acquire Stafford and surround him with an overwhelming amount of talent. Defensively, the team is led by three multi-time All-Pros in Donald, Jalen Ramsey and Von Miller. And on Stafford’s side of the ball, he has a renowned play caller for a head coach, a top-10 offensive line, a pair of stud receivers in Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. and a trio of capable running backs.
And look at that, Stafford now has won a division title and a pair of playoff games during his first season with Los Angeles. He now has more postseason victories during the Super Bowl era than the Lions franchise he led for a dozen fruitless seasons.
None of this should be surprising. He’s not a different player in Los Angeles, just better supported. Finally, after years of leading game-winning drives for Detroit, Stafford got a chance to do it in the playoffs for the first time, leading the Rams into field-goal range with that rocket arm. Taking over with 42 seconds remaining, he completed a pair of passes to Kupp for 64 yards to set up the game-winning kick.
The Lions could never build a roster the way the Rams have. Some of that was bad timing, being hamstrung by the lack of a rookie salary cap early in Stafford’s career. Other times, it was bad hires or poor personnel decisions, none bigger than passing on Donald in the draft in 2014.
Now, Stafford is one win away, a home game against a 49ers team he lost to twice in the regular season, from playing the Super Bowl.
There was plenty of handwringing about the NFL’s overtime rules after the Chiefs finished off the Bills without the opposition touching the ball. That’s a shame, but with a touchdown being the only way to end the game on the opening possession, is it too much to ask of an NFL defense to hold their opponent to a field goal?
The Chiefs were on the other end of this scenario a couple of years back, when the Patriots beat Mahomes and company by winning the coin toss and scoring a touchdown with the first possession. That led to an offseason proposal from Kansas City to change the overtime rules that fell on deaf ears. It’s inevitably going to be discussed by the competition committee again this offseason and it will be interesting to see if there’s any traction this go-round.
The alternatives are playing a full quarter, or going to something similar to college overtime, where each team gets a possession, starting at a specific yard line. Obviously, each of the choices has flaws, but most fans would probably prefer both teams have a shot with the ball.