The final four is set for the 2022-23 NFL Playoffs as the Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs, and Cincinnati Bengals have all made it to the Conference Championship round of the postseason. One of those four teams will be raising the Lombardi Trophy in just a few weeks here.
But before we get too ahead of ourselves, let’s take a look back on this weekend’s action and see what lessons we can learn about successful football franchises. The Detroit Lions are working their way up to getting there, but there is still plenty of work to be done.
Here are four lessons the Lions—and any other NFL team—can learn from the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
1. Defense is important
A few teams faced some stark realities in the NFL Divisional round. Take Daniel Jones, for example. Last week, it looked like he had maybe turned a corner, but as it turns out, the Philadelphia Eagles’ sixth-ranked defense (by DVOA) is just a smidge better than the Minnesota Vikings 27th-ranked defense. As a result, the Giants went from scoring 31 points in the Wild Card round to getting held to just seven on Saturday.
Dak Prescott learned a similar lesson on Sunday night, erasing much of the goodwill he and the Cowboys offense had built up since Prescott’s return in Week 7. They were averaging 30.3 since then, but the 49ers defense made Prescott look average at best as Dallas managed just 12 points.
And even though he still won, the shine on Brock Purdy was worn off by the Cowboys defense. One has to wonder if he’ll be able to carry the 49ers against a very dangerous Eagles team that is great on both sides of the ball.
Even Josh Allen was humbled by a Bengals defense that allowed the sixth-fewest points during the regular season. The Bills scored a season-low 10 points on Sunday.
A highly-potent offense can take you a long way in the regular season, but it’s a different ballgame this deep into the NFL playoffs.
2. Get yourself a backup quarterback you can trust
John Whiticar touched on it a little in our Monday Open Thread, but this weekend’s games proved that having a backup quarterback that can run the game plan can be extremely important. They don’t have to be great players, but they need to know the system, have poise behind center, and not screw up dramatically.
Chad Henne is 37 years old and has never been considered a good enough quarterback to be a legit starter in the NFL. He has started one game since 2016, but when the Chiefs needed him for a little over a quarter after Patrick Mahomes went down, the former Wolverine drove them 98 yards for a touchdown.
Purdy has plenty of flaws to his game, but the seventh-round rookie continues to take care of the ball and execute the 49ers game plan.
You don’t need a backup quarterback who will challenge for the starting job, but if you can find one that has a deep understanding of the system and can play relatively mistake-free football, that’s more than good enough.
3. Fortune favors the bold coaches
Over the weekend, we pointed out that Lions coach Dan Campbell was one of the best coaches in the NFL at giving his team the best chance to win in 2022 with his in-game coaching decisions—mainly centered around his propensity to go for it on fourth down.
In the Divisional Round, we saw those kind of bold decisions pay off—or those who failed to make those tough decisions pay dearly for it.
Take the sad, sad New York Giants. They didn’t have much of a chance to beat the Eagles on Saturday, but their mind-blowing decision to punt down 28-7 on a fourth-and-6 from their own 42-yard line early in the fourth quarter sealed their fate. When they got the ball next, they were down 31-7 and there was only 5:11 left. Meanwhile, Nick Sirianni was on the other sideline threatening fake punts and two-point conversions, and dialing up fun third-down plays (they went 10-of-14 on third down)
Ditto for the Cowboys. While their kicking woes did force Mike McCarthy to go for it twice early in the game—and it paid off both times!—he went back into his conservative self in the second half.
—> DAL (6) @ SF (9) <—
DAL has 4th & 5 at the DAL 48
Recommendation (MEDIUM): Go for it (+2.1 WP)
Actual play: B.Anger punts 40 yards to SF 12, Center-M.Overton. R.McCloud to SF 16 for 4 yards (K.Joseph). FUMBLE pic.twitter.com/V4HGzcIbqY
— 4th down decision bot (@ben_bot_baldwin) January 23, 2023
—> DAL (12) @ SF (19) <—
DAL has 4th & 10 at the DAL 18
Recommendation (STRONG): Go for it (+2.1 WP)
Actual play: B.Anger punts 56 yards to SF 26, Center-M.Overton, fair catch by R.McCloud. pic.twitter.com/Uqytnyo9hI
— 4th down decision bot (@ben_bot_baldwin) January 23, 2023
The second of these punt decisions was the most baffling. With just over two minutes remaining and down seven, the Cowboys elected to punt on fourth-and-10, hoping that their defense could get them one more stop. They did… kind of. But Dallas would then have to drive 94 yards in 45 seconds with no timeouts—a near-impossible feat. We’re already dealing with extremely low win probabilities here, but McCarthy chose the even tougher route.
It’s likely no coincidence that of the four remaining teams in the playoffs, three finished in the top 14 of win probability added by coaching decisions.
4. Parity is not as prevalent as you’d hope
At first, it looked like this year’s set of playoff teams proved that there is significant parity in the NFL. The Giants, Jaguars, and Seahawks all made the playoffs after finishing last in their divisions in 2021. And a handful of other last-place finishers from last year (Lions, Jets, Panthers) were damn close to making the postseason.
However, when the true competitors are separated from the rest, it’s clear we’re seeing the same teams year after year. Three of the four teams in the Conference Championship games this year (49ers, Chiefs, Bengals) were in the exact same position last year. And a couple of the teams that just missed out (Cowboys, Bills) have been competitors for years.
This highlights one important thing: While it’s certainly possible to make the jump from a bad team to playoff team, the jump from playoff team to true contender is much more difficult and often takes several years. The Jaguars and Giants look set up for future success, but they were never going to make that jump in a year. It occasionally happens (see: Bengals), but it is extremely rare.
So if you look at a team like—I don’t know, let’s say the Detroit Lions—patience is key. The Lions have been taking the slow and steady path, and the progress is easy to see right now. The challenge, however, will be taking that step to be among the elite teams.