The next wave of NFL playoff football is well underway. The divisional round kicked off Saturday with a pair of regular-season rematches, and, boy, do we have a lot of ground to cover just in the wake of that action. The Chiefs are headed back to the AFC Championship, thanks to a 27-20 victory over the upstart Jaguars. And the Eagles will host the NFC Championship for the second time in five years after routing the Giants, 38-7.
Here are some immediate and big-picture takeaways from the opening day of the divisional round:
Hurts and the Eagles are backWe say “back” because, frankly, it felt a lot like they “left” over the last month. Ever since Jalen Hurts, once a virtual lock to go head to head with Patrick Mahomes for this year’s MVP honors, went down with a shoulder injury, Philly kind of plateaued, if not regressed, on the way into the postseason. But on Saturday night against a Giants team fresh off an impressive upset of Minnesota, they looked back to peak form. Hurts, for one, had seemingly no limitations, excelling early as a passer and, perhaps more notably, on the ground. And the Haason Reddick-led defense got after Daniel Jones and Co. all night, handing New York what Brian Daboll later called a “crash landing.” It’s time to consider the Birds true title contenders once again.
The Giants need more help than we thoughtThis year was still a success for New York. The G-Men weren’t even supposed to make the playoffs, considering the torn-down roster Brian Daboll inherited. Daniel Jones certainly registers as a different prospect than he did even months ago. But unlike even Jacksonville, which took Kansas City to the wire under a first-year coach (more on that below), the Giants had hardly any fight or urgency in Philadelphia. That’s not primarily the fault of either Jones or Daboll, but rather a lineup still severely undermanned at premium spots. General manager Joe Schoen badly needs to prioritize upgrades along the offensive line, out wide and at linebacker, among other positions.
Mahomes’ ankle is a legitimate concernThe big story of the Chiefs earning a fifth straight AFC title-game appearance had nothing to do with the actual win, or the highlights that led to it — Isiah Pacheco’s open lanes, Kadarius Toney’s heavy involvement, some big D-line moments. As soon as star quarterback Patrick Mahomes briefly exited with an ankle injury in the second quarter, his health became paramount. The MVP candidate was visibly resistant to medical attention and fought through a noticeable limp to keep Kansas City in front and seal the win.
CBS Sports’ Doug Clawson also points out that Mahomes, who is used to relying on his mobility, has accounted for 41% of the league’s touchdown passes outside the pocket (15 of 36) in the last five postseasons.
He’ll surely do everything in his power to remain under center moving forward, but that doesn’t mean it won’t affect his mobility and/or Andy Reid’s play-calling, even if just to a slight degree. Thankfully, for the Chiefs …
Travis Kelce remains unstoppableIt doesn’t really matter who’s under center; few players produce so consistently when it matters most. No. 87 was all over the place, working the middle against Jacksonville to the tune of 14 catches for 98 yards and two scores. There’s really not much else to be said other than: Kelce’s presence, with or without an imposing No. 1 receiver drawing attention on the outside, is often enough to keep K.C. moving up and down the field. At 33, he’s still at the top of his game.
The Jaguars are here to stayIt’s been apparent for a while that Jacksonville made the right call by hiring ex-Eagles coach Doug Pederson, but this team’s performance in the postseason — just the second Jaguars’ playoff bid in the last 15 years — justifies the brewing optimism in Northeast Florida. Coming back from down 27 to beat the Chargers was a miraculous confirmation that Trevor Lawrence and Co. are on the rise. But keeping the Chiefs on their toes at Arrowhead was arguably just as impressive, even with Mahomes limping around for much of the day. Pederson called the game with his trademark aggressiveness. Lawrence flashed veteran-level confidence. Best of all, reinforcements should be coming as Calvin Ridley and others join play-makers like Travis Etienne Jr., Christian Kirk and Jamal Agnew; the latter two showed with untimely miscues they might shine in more secondary roles.