On Saturday and Sunday night, Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes amassed points at obscene rates. The Buffalo Bills scored 47 points against the New England Patriots. As if in response, the Kansas City Chiefs hung 42 on the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bills and Chiefs met in the AFC championship game last season. They will play one round earlier this year, but make no mistake: The marquee game of the AFC playoffs will happen next weekend.
Only eight teams remain, and this is what to know.
Matthew Stafford has won a playoff game. And now it’s time to see whether he can win a capital-P Playoff game. The Los Angeles Rams destroyed the Arizona Cardinals, 34-11, as the quarterback they acquired for a haul of draft capital captured the first postseason win of his 13-year career.
The Rams looked dangerous Monday night, with Odell Beckham showing more explosion than at any point since his early Giants seasons, running back Cam Akers making a staggering return from a training camp Achilles’ tear and a fast defense not hampered by injuries in the secondary. The Rams’ many stars, from Cooper Kupp to Von Miller, played like stars.
That said, their opponent did not ask much from them. The Cardinals closed the season 4-7 after a 7-0 start. Coach Kliff Kingsbury, developing an earned reputation for late-season fades, had little offensive plan and fewer adjustments. Quarterback Kyler Murray panicked often, refused to take easy yards on scrambles and flopped in his playoff debut, including an atrocious pick-six underhand fling from his own end zone.
Stafford played efficiently, completing 13 of 17 passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns, never once putting the ball in danger after a spate of turnovers late in the regular season. His challenge will change next week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Their defense will provide more resistance against the run. Tom Brady will put up points rather than melting. For the Rams to advance, Stafford will have to make big throws and avoid big mistakes. This is the game he wanted — and the game the Rams altered their franchise to acquire him for.
Bill Belichick probably has been to his last Super Bowl. Belichick has defined modern football and been to more Super Bowls than any other coach. This weekend, with the Patriots’ blowout loss at Buffalo and the quarterback performances elsewhere, brought the realization he may never go again.
Belichick will turn 70 in April. For the remainder of his career, he will have to go through Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Joe Burrow to win the AFC. Justin Herbert could join that elite group. Lamar Jackson, despite an injury-plagued down year, could be considered part of it, too.
Belichick is facing what other AFC franchises did for years when they looked at Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. It will require an elite quarterback to contend in the AFC. Do the Patriots have one in Mac Jones? The possibility shouldn’t be dismissed. Jones has had a trajectory similar to Burrow going back to college, only with more victories and no major injury as a rookie. Still, he must make a leap that cannot be presumed.
It is easy to overreact in the moment. Maybe Allen regresses in the event offensive coordinator Brian Daboll becomes a head coach elsewhere, Belichick fixes his defense on the fly and the Patriots close the gap in the AFC East. But the distance between Buffalo and the Patriots appeared vast Saturday night. The Patriots have no clear path to addressing their issues, which start with a defense that looked old and slow vs. Buffalo. The one immutable law of the recent NFL is not to bet against Belichick. Now, though, the odds are not in his favor.
Mike McCarthy is in trouble. Despite the Super Bowl title on his résumé, McCarthy arrived in Dallas after a year off with a reputation for shaky game management. The Dallas Cowboys’ 23-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers only reaffirmed it while placing his future employment in question. The Cowboys’ season hinged on a desperate final drive, and owing to McCarthy’s odd decision they never threw a pass into the end zone.
After an unruly fourth quarter in which they trailed 23-7, the Cowboys somehow had life with 14 seconds left at the San Francisco 41-yard line with no timeouts. McCarthy and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore called a quarterback draw, designed to pick up easy, quick yards. McCarthy said he wanted a chance to run four vertical routes rather than heave a Hail Mary.
It was far too risky for too little gain. The Cowboys were already in range to throw the ball into the end zone. While possible to execute the play and a spike in 14 seconds, it was far from a given.
After Dak Prescott slid down and handed the ball to his center rather than the official, the clock ran out as Prescott was spiking it. Afterward, McCarthy remained defiant. “It’s the right decision,” he said. He vaguely faulted a combination of the officials and Prescott’s execution. “We shouldn’t have had any problem getting the ball spotted,” McCarthy said. When you take that big of a risk, you can’t complain when it doesn’t work out.
Owner Jerry Jones told reporters that the Cowboys’ personnel is too good for such an early playoff exit. He’s right. Jones has been patient with coaches in recent years, but he now has a decision to make with McCarthy.
The Green Bay Packers have their hands full. The Packers have won 41 games the past three years and advanced to the NFC championship game the past two seasons. They have Aaron Rodgers, a quarterback on the cusp of winning his second consecutive MVP award. They are getting back Jaire Alexander, one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. And it could all implode at the hands of perhaps the hottest team in the NFL.
The 49ers will head to Green Bay after surviving a slew of self-inflicted mistakes in the fourth quarter against Dallas, including the kind of interception every 49ers fan fears from Jimmy Garoppolo. But they dominated the Cowboys for three quarters with the high-end talent that makes them a stealth Super Bowl contender.
Deebo Samuel made one crucial play after the next, whether deployed as a wide receiver or running back. Tight end George Kittle was barely a factor aside from being a decoy, but he can dominate any game. The 49ers’ defensive line decimated the Cowboys, and if he recovers from the concussion that sidelined him for the second half, Nick Bosa is essentially unblockable. Despite flirting with another devastating blown lead, Kyle Shanahan remains a symphonic play-caller.
Green Bay Coach Matt LaFleur once worked for Shanahan when Shanahan was Washington’s offensive coordinator. LaFleur has won their past two meetings, but those were a 34-17 victory in 2020 when the 49ers had to play backup quarterback Nick Mullens and a 30-28 win this season that required a 37-second field goal drive with no timeouts. In 2019, the 49ers thumped the Packers, 37-8, in the regular season and then 37-20 in the NFC championship game. Lambeau Field and Rodgers carry a certain mystique. But the 49ers can win.
Josh Allen is a bad man. In their 47-17 demolition of the Patriots, the Bills stretched the limits of how dominant an NFL offense can be. They scored a touchdown on all of their possessions before the final kneeldowns. The Patriots’ defense served as a literal speed bump — the Bills would have scored faster against air but gained the same number of yards. The Bills faced six third downs (converting them all) and scored seven touchdowns.
The reason is Allen. He plays like the football version of James Harden: He has every move, is too strong to defend and can distribute the ball or keep it himself. Add it up, and he is an offense unto himself. He makes the Bills a threat to beat anybody.
The Bills constructed their offseason with the singular aim of overcoming the Chiefs. They smoked them, 38-20, in early October. The real test will come next week at Kansas City.
The Cincinnati Bengals should petrify the top-seeded Tennessee Titans. The Titans earned the AFC’s top seed and the bye that comes with it, but to earn the respect they believe they are due, they will have to win a game. At the moment, beating Joe Burrow is a tall order.
Burrow did not produce overwhelming numbers in the Bengals’ 26-19 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders, Cincinnati’s first postseason victory since the 1990 season. He passed for 244 yards and two touchdowns. But he is playing with supreme confidence and capability. He made passes only a handful of quarterbacks can make. His connection with rookie Ja’Marr Chase, a college teammate who caught nine passes for 116 yards, is uncommon.
The expected loss of defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, a key run stuffer who arrived last offseason in free agency, will hurt the Bengals especially if Tennessee running back Derrick Henry returns as expected. But with Burrow behind center, anything seems possible.
The Philadelphia Eagles have a decision to make with Jalen Hurts. Even as Hurts guided the Eagles to a surprise playoff spot and a 7-2 mark in their final nine games, questions persisted. The Eagles thrived mostly against a collection of motley opponents and subpar quarterbacks. Coach Nick Sirianni built an offense around Hurts that relied on power running, leading to worries about what the Eagles would look like against an opponent they need to pass against to beat.
A partial answer arrived Sunday, and it wasn’t pretty. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers shut down the Eagles in a 31-15 stomping, holding them to 12 yards on their first three possessions and without a point until the fourth quarter. Hurts threw two interceptions and early on missed wide receiver Quez Watkins running wide open down the middle for what could have been a touchdown.
“We’re all going to say for today's game he didn't play his best game,” Sirianni said. “But you don't take the body of work that he had for 15 weeks and say you put everything on this game. I feel really good with what we have in place at the QB position.”
The Eagles did not beat a playoff team all season. General Manager Howie Roseman is willing to explore any potential upgrade and is especially restless at quarterback. Hurts proved his leadership, flashed potential and is known to have a capacity for improvement. But his performance Sunday showed the Eagles have a decision to make.
The Kansas City Chiefs found a new weapon. With Clyde Edwards-Helaire nursing an injury, the Chiefs turned to Jerick McKinnon, an oft-injured free agent signing who had missed two seasons with major injuries and muddled through this year with small ailments. He appeared in 13 games and received only 25 touches. He now looks like a secret weapon.
An explosive runner and capable pass catcher, McKinnon added yet another dimension to the Chiefs’ attack in their 42-21 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. McKinnon rushed 12 times for 61 yards and caught six passes for 81 yards and a touchdown, making him Kansas City’s team leader in total yards.
The last thing Mahomes needed was another jet-fueled teammate to throw to. After the Chiefs fell behind, 7-0, in the second quarter after T.J. Watt’s scoop-and-score, Mahomes led five touchdown drives in less than 12 minutes. For the game, Mahomes passed for 404 yards and five touchdowns, giving him two five-touchdown performances in nine career playoff games.
The Chiefs are trying to advance to their fourth consecutive conference title game and third straight Super Bowl. The Bills are trying to avenge last year’s season-ending loss and assert their conference superiority. When Mahomes meets Allen next week, it could be the very best game of the entire postseason.