The NFL playoffs got underway last week, and in this round, we had the last 8 battling. Our two 1-seeds finally joined the party, with Baltimore and San Francisco playing their first games of the postseason. Spoiler alert: both won, though one team had a much easier time with their opponent. Read on below to see how two 1-seeds and two 3-seeds (one whose fan base was completely overjoyed) moved on to the conference title games in my divisional round takeaways. The games are sorted based on when they occurred (earliest first), separated by conference.
(1) Baltimore Ravens 34, (4) Houston Texans 10
The Texans’ feel-good story ended in almost predictable fashion. Like most NFL games, this one was going to be decided in the trenches, and the weakness of Houston’s offense lined up perfectly with Baltimore’s defensive strength. The Texans are strongest at tackle, particularly LT Laremy Tunsil. The Ravens, however, aren’t the best edge-rushing team anyway. Their power comes from the interior, led by emergent star DT Justin Madubuike. It just so happens that Houston’s offensive line is worst right in the center. Add to that the Texans’ stubborn insistence to run the ball (14 carries for 38 yards), and you can guess how this one went.
Houston won the toss and chose to receive, which always strikes me as an odd choice. Though it worked for the Packers last week, it felt like a bold choice when facing a defense like Baltimore’s. The Texans went 3 and out, and they got none of the early momentum they desired. The Ravens’ first drive stalled, too, but even in icy winds, K Justin Tucker is just special and made his 53-yard FG with ease. We had a really sluggish first half. Baltimore executed one strong TD drive, while Houston’s offense earned nothing but a field goal. It didn’t help that the refs love Baltimore almost as much as Philly (11 penalties for HOU, 3 for BAL).
One of the really bad calls were a flag on QB CJ Stroud for grounding with TE Brevin Jordan in the area, which knocked Houston out of field goal range and forced a punt. In spite of that, Houston was down just 7 in the second quarter. PR Steven Sims broke a 67-yard TD and tied the score at 10, but that’s where the good ended for the Texans. K Ka’imi Fairbairn, who is good but not Tucker good, missed a 47-yard FG that would’ve given Houston the lead before the half. Instead the teams reached halftime tied, and Houston would never lead in this game. The second half was really all Baltimore.
The Ravens went on a scoring blitz, putting up 24 unanswered points against an overwhelmed Houston defense. QB Lamar Jackson had 4 scores, 2 throwing and 2 running. He finished 16/22 for 152 yards and 2 TDs, and he didn’t have to do much through the air. It felt as if Houston was ignorant of his running ability, as they let him scamper for 100 yards on 11 carries. I guess we really are giving the MVP to a running back this year, aren’t we? RBs Justice Hill (13/66), Gus Edwards (10/40), and even newly-signed Dalvin Cook (8/23) chipped into produce 229 rushing yards as a team.
The only notable pass catcher was TE Isaiah Likely (2/34), who Mossed CB Derek Stingley Jr on an underthrown TD. What we really need to talk about is the Baltimore defense. The unit led the NFL in points allowed, sacks, and takeaways this season, and they showed us how in this game. Stroud (19/33, 175 yards) was under siege the entire time and though he remained poised, he couldn’t do much. The running game was snuffed out, as Baltimore could keep their LBs in run support because their front four got pressure on its own. This was another masterful performance, and DC Mike Macdonald isn’t getting enough HC interviews.
Houston can hold their heads high because this really was a great season regardless of the ending. The team won 11 games; it won the same amount in the last 3 seasons combined. With Stroud and HC DeMeco Ryans, the foundation is there for lasting success. Baltimore now gets to host the AFC championship game, welcoming the Kansas City Chiefs to their stadium. I am pretty sure the Ravens wanted Buffalo to win that game. Their injured defense wouldn’t be able to stop Baltimore’s powerful ground attack, and their offense is more prone to mistakes. The battle-tested and experiences Chiefs are a dangerous foe.
(3) Kansas City Chiefs 27, (2) Buffalo Bills 24
Finally a team won the coin toss and chose to defer! The Chiefs kicked off to Buffalo, who had quite an eventful first drive. The first play from scrimmage was a short pass to WR Stefon Diggs (3/21), who fumbled. TE Dalton Kincaid (4/45), the team’s leading receiver for the game, illegally batted the ball out of bounds (it was illegal because the ball went forward). That incurred a 10-yard penalty but possibly prevented a critical turnover, so I don’t blame him for doing it. Two plays later, QB Josh Allen ran a draw for 4 yards but threw a lateral to RB Ty Johnson (7/40) for 12 more yards.
Had KC challenged the play, they would’ve seen a forward toss, and the play would not have counted. That led to 4th and 1, which Allen converted with a 6-yard QB sneak. The drive stalled, however, as Chiefs star DT Chris Jones batted an Allen pass in the red zone, forcing a field goal. When KC got the ball, it was hard to ignore the fact that this was QB Patrick Mahomes‘ first ever road playoff game (not at a neutral site). Everyone made a big deal out of this as if he’s bad on the road. Quite the contrary: he’s good everywhere! That consistent excellence is why he has faced so few road playoff games in the first place.
That said, the KC offense has dealt with red zone struggles lately, and that was even true in an easy win last week against the Dolphins (4 FGs). Their first two drives in this game also ended in Harrison Butker FGs, which were sandwiched around a Buffalo TD. The second FG came after a Mecole Hardman fumble was swiped from LB AJ Klein by WR Justin Watson. Defensively, the Chiefs have had one of the best units in the league this year. If there’s one weakness though, it’s their run prevention. Johnson, fellow RB James Cook (18/61), and Allen (17/72/2) ran with ease for the entirety of the first half.
Both of Buffalo’s first-half TDs were Allen runs. Trading FGs for TDs likely would’ve doomed the Chiefs, but KC figured things out toward the end of the half. A big busted coverage that let TE Travis Kelce (5/75/2) score a 22-yard TD certainly helped (cut to Taylor Swift). KC only trailed by 4 at the half, but they lost LB Willie Gay to a neck injury. He had been the spy on Allen, so his loss made run defense tougher. Receiving the second-half kickoff, Mahomes immediately hit WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling for a 30-yard bomb, and the drive ended in Kelce’s 2nd score.
Buffalo calmly responded to the lead change with an 8:25 drive. Allen fired a dart to WR Khalil Shakir (7/44) for a TD on 3rd and goal from the 13. Staying in rhythm, the Chiefs took the lead again with a heavy dose of RB Isiah Pacheco (15/97/1), who scored a TD from 4 yards out. A perfectly clean game to that point then went awry. Buffalo faced 3rd and 5, but a promising pass was batted away by DE George Karlaftis. On 4th down, S Damar Hamlin ran a fake punt. That call was made because the Chiefs had only 10 players on defense, but Hamlin was stuffed for a gain of just 2. That play felt game-changing.
KC quickly seized on the momentum with a 29-yard Pacheco run, setting up 1st and goal. A pop pass to Hardman gained 2 yards, but he lost the ball as he hit the ground. He was ruled down, but the Bills challenged the play. His hip seemed down to me, but the ruling was overturned, and since the ball went through the end zone, it was a touchback for Buffalo. They MUST change that rule. Anywhere else on the field, the ball returns to the spot of the fumble. To KC, the bigger issue was that Hardman lost the ball both of his touches. The maligned WR corps had played their best game of the season until that play.
Down 27-24, Buffalo actually punted following the turnover, but Sam Martin only kicked the ball 39 yards. Martin pulled his hamstring last week, so it’s not surprising that his two punts were poor. He wasn’t used much though, and KC only punted once. Maybe there was so little punting because neither QB took a single sack. The offensive lines were great. Following a KC punt, Buffalo marched on their fateful drive: a 6:40 clock churner that included a lucky fumble recovery (Chris Jones hit Allen, but RT Spencer Brown was in the perfect spot), a 4th-down conversion…and ultimately a missed 44-yard FG by Tyler Bass.
Pacheco easily ran out the rest of the clock, bulldozing his way to victory. The last meeting between these two teams ended with an infamous offensive offside penalty by WR Kadarius Toney (who was inactive with an injury in this game). When these two teams meet, we always get a classic. Mahomes (17/23, 215 yards, 2 TDs) was practically flawless, while Allen (26/39, 186 yards, TD) was a dangerous runner but missed a few throws late. As a result, Buffalo is going home, but they had a great season after a rocky start. The Chiefs head to Baltimore, where their defense might really challenge Lamar Jackson. Never bet against KC.
(1) San Francisco 49ers 24, (7) Green Bay Packers 21
After becoming the first 7-seed to win a round, Green Bay had practically no pressure in this game. They were huge underdogs and not even expected to still be in the playoffs, so they could play as loose as they wanted to. Sticking with his plan, HC Matt LeFleur again chose to receive after the opening coin toss. He seemed to be making the correct decision during the team’s 14-play drive, but the Packers settled for a field goal in the red zone. Impressively though, RB Aaron Jones was dominating San Francisco’s elite front seven. He finished with 108 yards on 18 carries, regularly gashing the SF defense for chunk gains.
The Niners didn’t have a great opening drive (it ended in a punt), but they did avert disaster. QB Brock Purdy threw a telegraphed pass over the middle; luckily for him, S Darnell Savage dropped the easy INT. WR Deebo Samuel also left twice on the drive: once because his shoe came off and then a second time with a shoulder injury. He did not return after the second departure. I don’t think he was injured due to the pouring rain, but the weather affected much of what the 49ers did. One of their CBs fell on each of the first two drives, gifting the Packers big plays. Purdy was also off, struggling to grip and fire the ball consistently.
On that second Green Bay drive, the Packers reached the red zone and faced 4th and 1. Recognizing a chance to seize control of the game, LaFleur called a QB sneak on a quick snap, but DT Arik Armstead and LB Dre Greenlaw snuffed it out. SF took full advantage, marching 86 yards in 12 plays, finishing the drive with a beautiful 32-yard TD pass to TE George Kittle (4/81). Green Bay responded with a field goal, and then the Niners outsmarted themselves. Reaching their own 40 by the 2-minute warning, HC Kyle Shanahan bizarrely let a ton of time come off the clock. Despite possessing 3 time outs, he rushed his own team.
It felt like San Francisco was never even playing for a TD and only wanted to reach FG range. Their reward was that a low 48-yard attempt by K Jake Moody was blocked, and the score remained 7-6 at the half. Coming into the game, Moody and the secondary were the Niners’ two main liabilities. Both came into play. CB Ambry Thomas was awful, giving up big plays and committing two PI penalties. Jones had just dropped a toss, losing 11 yards and setting up 3rd and 15 on GB’s first drive of the 3rd quarter. Thomas tackled WR Bo Melton, giving up 41 yards. Melton caught a 19-yard TD on the next play after yet another CB fell down.
As usual, RB Christian McCaffrey came to save the day for San Francisco. The All-Pro ran for a 39-yard FG as part of his great day (17/98/2, 7/30 receiving). On the ensuing kickoff, Keisean Nixon took the ball 73 yards but fumbled. With his great hustle, LB Eric Wilson recovered it in the air while diving. He was the only Packer in the vicinity, and the team scored a TD 4 plays later. Then, the 49ers got into an offensive funk. Purdy continued to fire off-target passes due to the rain; this was also a problem in the loss to Cleveland earlier this year. Greenlaw bailed him out with an INT on a tipped pass, which led to an FG.
A pair of traded punts later, Green Bay drove into 49er territory, with a big run from Jones, with a 21-17 lead. Jones became the first 100-yard rusher against SF in 51 games. Settling for a 41-yard FG to take a TD lead, the Packers seemingly forgot that rookie K Anders Carlson has missed more kicks than anyone else this year, and he pulled the attempt left. Purdy (23/39, 252 yards, TD) led a season-defining TD drive, which was capped off by McCaffrey of course. The Niners had been awful at comebacks under Shanahan, but they regained the lead here. All they had to do was hold off the Packers for 1:07 of game time.
They only needed 33 seconds. Greenlaw, the star of this game, caught another Jordan Love pass to seal the win. Love (21/34, 194 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs) was sharp in the first half and avoided mistakes, but his old self returned at the worst time. The second INT was a throw back across his body. You just can’t do that; it’s the cardinal sin of quarterbacking. Bitter disappointment aside, it was still an inspiring season for GB. The league’s youngest team has much to be excited about. SF is still on track, hosting the Detroit Lions next week for the NFC championship. Perhaps their only roadblock is if rain plagues Santa Clara on Sunday.
(3) Detroit Lions 31, (4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23
Another team choosing to receive the opening kickoff…and another whose decision didn’t pan out. The Lions went three and out, but they did receive a mulligan a few plays later. Buccaneers QB Baker Mayfield threw a pass over the middle to WR Mike Evans, but it glanced off his hands and into the arms of S CJ Gardner-Johnson for an INT. Detroit nearly gave the ball right back, but they scored a field goal after CB Jamel Dean dropped an INT in the end zone. Tampa responded with a field goal, and then the Lions appeared to take off. QB Jared Goff went 9/10 on a 14-play, 75-yard TD drive to give Detroit the lead.
The Bucs struggled offensively for much of the first half, but they finally got a drive going after Lions WR Amon-Ra St. Brown dropped a pass. Unfortunately, normally reliable K Chase McLaughlin missed a 50-yard FG. Tampa did produce an Evans-powered drive before the half, going 92 yards to tie the game. Neither team did too much in the first two quarters. That’s not super uncharacteristic for TB, but Detroit is different. Where did this Buccaneers defense come from? They lost 20-6 to Detroit earlier in the season, but their play the past two weeks comes from something more than just learning from that game.
The third quarter began with 3 punts, but then both offenses suddenly became red hot. Detroit’s offensive line began to impose its will, and the Lions raced down the field to take a 17-10 lead. Tampa quickly answered, but only because of an error by the Lions. On 2nd and 10 at the Detroit 12, Mayfield appeared to be down before throwing the ball away. The refs ruled it an incomplete pass, and Detroit failed to challenge it. The very next play, a blitz-beating screen to RB Rachaad White (9/55, 4/36/1 receiving) earned a 12-yard TD and tied the game again. After that, however, the Bucs couldn’t keep up with Detroit’s assault.
I call the Lions’ first 4th-quarter possession the “Gibbs drive”. RB Jahmyr Gibbs (9/74/1, 4/40 receiving) had 4 of 5 touches on the drive, including a 31-yard TD sprint that showed of his speed and evasiveness. Goff (30/43, 287 yards, 2 TDs) became surgical, and he added to the lead with a TD to St. Brown (8/77/1). TE Sam LaPorta, somehow playing with a bone bruise in his knee, caught 9 passes for 65 yards. Facing a 31-17 deficit with 6:22 remaining, the Buccaneers had to act quickly. They did just that, with Mayfield finding Evans (8/147/1) for a TD. TB then did the 2-point conversion thing I hate and naturally missed.
That didn’t end up mattering. After forcing a punt and getting the ball back with 2 minutes remaining, Mayfield threw an INT right to LB Derrick Barnes. Mayfield (26/41, 349 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs) had a pretty strong game but made a poor throw there. Detroit took 3 knees, but I didn’t like how that sequence went down. With 1:33 on the clock and the Buccaneers possessing 1 timeout, the Lions should’ve needed to run the ball 3 times to burn 13 excess seconds. Instead, they took knees with time left on the play clock, and their 3rd came with 34 seconds left. Tampa HC Todd Bowles didn’t call the timeout! That was a missed opportunity.
The Buccaneers got further than most of us (myself included) expected. They took advantage of the weakest division in the NFL, crushed a struggling Eagles team, and got a career year out of Mayfield. Both sides would like to see him back in Tampa next season. As far as Detroit, hats off to HC Dan Campbell. Things looked bleak at the start of the Lions’ rebuild, but now they’re going to San Francisco to play in their first NFC Championship game since 1991. This isn’t just a Cinderella run; Detroit can win that game. The defense has some holes, but the offense is legit. Don’t pencil the Niners into the Super Bowl just yet.