PICK SIX – Divisional Round

With only four games over the weekend, we’ve had to dive a little deeper this time, looking at individual players and even individual plays. With Shaun Blundell in the dog house (don’t worry, he’s just settling in a new pet pooch), Sean Tyler takes the reins and selects six aspects of the NFL’s Division Round to unpick.

Another Lamar-vellous performance

If you have Lamar Jackson on your team, you always have a chance, and if you have him playing at his best, then frankly, you have an unfair advantage. And so it proved on Saturday evening, when the No.1 seed Baltimore Ravens came off a week’s rest to put the spirited Houston Texans to the sword. Defying his 1-3 playoff record, Lamar went into full action hero mode in the Ravens’ 34-10 Divisional Round victory, throwing 16 of 22 for 152 yards and rushing 11 times for 100 more in a four-touchdown, zero-turnover performance.

Baltimore walked away with the spoils quite comfortably in the end but having gone into the break tied at 10-apiece, it wasn’t obvious that the dam was about to break. In fact, Lamar was blitzed time and again in the first two quarters, took three sacks – two in back-to-back plays – and ended the half with 23 net passing yards and just one TD pass to Nelson Agholor. It was an evenly matched contest up until that point, but something must have clicked into place in the locker room.

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In the second half, Jackson led four consecutive scoring drives, which ended in rushing TDs from 15 and 8 yards out – the latter saw him keep going through the back of the end zone, over the photographers and off down the tunnel – a TD pass to tight end Isaiah Likely and a 43-yard Justin Tucker field goal. Meanwhile, his defensive colleagues kept Houston at arm’s length, holding them to 213 total yards and no offensive scores.

Jackson is the first player in NFL history with two-plus passing TDs, two-plus rushing TDs, 100+ passing yards and 100+ rushing yards in a game, and must be nailed on to be the league MVP again. And on the back of his second playoff win, Baltimore progress to the AFC Championship game for the first time since 2012, when they last lifted the Lombardi. If Jackson is truly MVP-worthy, he needed to show more than a stellar regular season. There were still lingering doubts about his playoff credentials before this weekend but not any more; four TDs have a habit of silencing your critics.

Nonetheless, despite this impressive display, no one’s counting any chickens yet, least of all the man himself. “We’ve got to finish,” Jackson said after the game. “We’re still in the playoffs, not in the dance yet. I’m not even thinking of the Super Bowl until we handle business.” [ST]

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Jordan would Love a second chance

Even in the perfect game, I suspect every player is going to want one or two plays back. And in the Packers’ 24-21 loss to San Francisco on Saturday night, there are no prizes for guessing which one Jordan Love would nominate for a do-over.

After the Packers had gone behind for the final time, Love (194 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs) had just over a minute left, and three timeouts at his disposal, to get his team into field goal range. He picked up an initial first down but on the next set of downs, starting from his own 36-yard line, he got flushed out of the pocket and had to roll to the right.

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Instead of throwing the ball away or attempting to scramble for a few yards – but importantly, living to fight another play – he had a rush of blood to the head and forced an off-balance, on-the-run, underthrown wing-and-a-prayer throw back across the field into a sea of red jerseys. His intended target, Christian Watson, was outnumbered 3:1 by Niners and the nearest one, linebacker Dre Greenlaw, dived in for his second INT of the game.

It wasn’t this one attempt, or even Love’s play in general, that lost them the game; there were ample chances for Green Bay to seal the deal, not least when Anders Carlson’s 41-yard FG attempt drifted wide left earlier in the game. But the errant throw did put the final nail in the Packers’ fifth straight postseason loss to the 49ers in the last 10 years. It was ironic that their season ended on a turnover, considering that Love had thrown for 2,422 yards, 21 touchdowns and just one interception since Week 10. It’ll feel pretty raw for a while but unlike seasons past, Matt LaFleur’s young team – including their impressive young quarterback – are on an upward trajectory and have a lot to look forward to. [ST]

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The Mac attack

Christian McCaffrey is pretty good at the worst of times but when he’s enjoyed a couple of weeks’ recuperation, he’s lethal. In the 49ers’ come-from-behind win against Green Bay on Saturday, the dual-threat running back ran the rock 17 times for 98 yards (averaging 5.7) and rushed for two touchdowns, and caught seven of 12 targets for another 30 in the passing game.

It should be no surprise, given that Run CMC has absolutely dominated the regular season, with more than 2,000 total yards to his name. Not only did he lead the league with 1,459 rushing yards – nearly 300 more than his nearest rival, Derrick Henry – and 14 rushing TDs but he also posted 564 yards and seven TDs (the same as teammates Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel) as a receiver. If you look up ‘workhorse’ in the dictionary, I’m pretty sure you’ll find a picture of McCaffrey there.

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His first score, with the Niners 13-7 behind midway through the third quarter, was a 39-yard scamper where he just barged his way up the middle, made a couple of cuts to the left and broke out into the open field. His other TD, from 6 yards out, saw his O-line open up a big channel for him to run right through, with only Jonathan Owens able to get anywhere near him. That was the fatal blow: five plays later, Jordan Love threw his second pick and the game was over. But as ever, it wasn’t just the touchdowns. McCaffrey was effective on screen passes and several times, he just barrelled into the heart of the Packers’ defensive line with the ball cradled tightly in both arms, pumping his legs and breaking tackles to secure the required yardage.  

McCaffrey’s winning score gave the Niners their first second-half comeback of the season and on a night when they weren’t at their best – with special teams blunders, their defense giving up big plays and Brock Purdy being off-target for much of the night – they needed to lean on him. But I guess it shows that the 49ers can come from behind if required, and they may well have to do the same again this week in the NFC Championship game. [ST]

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Dan’s the man as Lions tame Bucs  

Famously, the Detroit Lions are one of only four NFL franchises never to reach a Super Bowl and after a slow start against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, doubts crept in as to whether this year’s version could keep the dream alive. Luckily, a raucous home crowd finally woke the team up to secure a 31-23 victory and advance to a conference championship game for the first time since 1991. 

In front of their fervent fans, the Lions epitomised the grit, determination and honest endeavour of their (Honolulu) blue-collar town. The game was tied at 17-17 going into the final quarter but Dan Campbell’s team somehow dug a little deeper and found that extra gear. Jared Goff threw for 287 yards and two touchdown passes. Amon-Ra St Brown led the team with 77 receiving yards and scored the game-sealing TD. Sam LaPorta had nine catches for 65 yards, while running back Jahmyr Gibbs scored a touchdown and gained 114 total yards.   

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But it wasn’t plain sailing by any means. Through their first six possessions, the Lions punted four times and crossed into Bucs territory just twice as Tampa’s HC Todd Bowles shut down their ground game. But this team knows how to stay calm and make the necessary adjustments. Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, who looks set to land a head coaching gig once Detroit’s season ends, didn’t panic in the face of adversity, he just used the passing game to open things up for Gibbs. Touchdowns followed on the Lions’ next three drives.

Detroit have set themselves up nicely for the next few years with a trio of emerging stars in Gibbs, St Brown and LaPorta but for me, the ace in the pack is Coach Campbell. Exactly three years ago, the former tight end made headlines for his infamous introductory press conference, when he said his team would be biting kneecaps off and kicking teeth in. And when he started 0-10-1 and then 4-19-1, the critics piled in and the vultures started to circle. But Campbell stuck to his guns and steadily turned it around, improving from a three-win team in 2021 to one that’s about to play its first NFC title game in 32 seasons.

For all his potty-mouthed passion, Metallica quotes and meme-fodder clichés (if you watched Hard Knocks, you’ll know), the guy can coach football, build a culture and lead a team. He gives his guys the kudos when things go well and clearly believes in them. They obviously believe in him too. Everyone inside the camp seems bought in and thinks they can go all the way. And now, after three decades in the wilderness, the Ford Field faithful can finally dare to believe too. [ST]

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KC’s killer combo

There are three things in life you can be sure of: death, taxes and a Mahomes-to-Kelce touchdown pass in a big playoff game. And that lethal connection – between the best QB and the best TE in the league – proved to be the undoing of the Buffalo Bills in a 27-24 Kansas City Chiefs win on Sunday night. The pair now have the most combined TDs (16) by any QB–receiver duo in NFL postseason history, overtaking Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski.

Ironically, Travis Kelce (who posted five catches for 75 yards) was in the middle of a seven-game spell without a touchdown, his second-longest drought of a very productive career. But in the second quarter, Kelce hauled in a 22-yard TD pass and after halftime, his red-and-yellow gloves stuck to a 3-yard throw and he fought his way over the line near the pylon before directing lovehearts towards girlfriend Taylor Swift and brother Jason in celebration. The 34-year-old now has 18 TDs in the playoffs, and could edge closer to Jerry Rice’s postseason record (22) next week in the AFC Championship decider.

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Having battled back from 6-6 with six straight wins, the Bills have essentially been playing playoff football for two months and were definitely the team with momentum. In contrast, KC have been more inconsistent of late, with their offense ranked just 15th in scoring. But with Patrick Mahomes and his number one target in determined mood, you write these perennial Super Bowl contenders off at your peril – even when Mahomes is playing his first playoff game on the road.

This growing AFC rivalry produced yet another classic. The lead changed five times and neither team led by more than seven points. But the Bills found a new way to lose to the Chiefs, who have extinguished their season in three of the past four playoffs. After succumbing 38-24 in the 2020 AFC Championship game, Buffalo came up short in an epic 42-36 overtime loss in the Divisional Round a year later. This time, the result was even closer and the jeopardy came in the form of a game-tying FG attempt with 1:47 remaining. Alas for Buffalo, Tyler Bass’ 44-yard kick swerved off to the right and the Chiefs ran the clock down.

While this loss may not hit as hard as the “13 second” game from 2021, the heartache from yet another close-but-no-cigar, what-might-have-been season will linger in Buffalo. Meanwhile, the Chiefs will have to sharpen up in a few areas – Mecole Hardman not fumbling the ball through the end zone for a turnover, for example – if they’re going to give the Baltimore Ravens a run for their money at M&T Bank Stadium this weekend. It’s another road trip for Mahomes, Kelce and co but as they’ve just proved, with that dynamic duo in their ranks, you can never rule them out. [ST]

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Baker proves he’s worth the dough

Moving on to his fourth team in two years, Baker Mayfield bet on himself at the start of this season by signing a one-year ‘prove it’ deal with Tampa Bay. Having ‘proven it’ by throwing for more than 4,000 yards, 28 TDs and 10 INTs, the wager seems to have paid off.

The Bucs backed their way into the playoffs by winning the sub-par NFC South, then beat the defending NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card Round and gave the feisty Lions a scare on Sunday before bowing out 31-23. Mayfield had a lot to do with that run of success and on Sunday, he played his part too, trying to keep his team in the game as his defense struggled.

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Unfortunately, with the Buccaneers fighting back from a two-score deficit against Detroit, Baker threw a devastating interception with 1:35 remaining. He’d tried to squeeze a pass into tight end Cade Otton, but it was cut out by Derrick Barnes. The pick ended the game and the Bucs’ season, leaving the QB bent over, head in hands in horror and disbelief. Tampa’s first possession of the game had also ended in an INT, although that pass bounced right off Mike Evans’ hands. Nonetheless, despite the turnovers, and the four sacks, Mayfield rallied his troops time and again, completing 26 of 41 passes for 349 yards and three touchdown passes. 

After the game, he confirmed that he would like to return to the Gulf Coast of Florida in 2014, adding that he’d also like 30-year-old receiver Mike Evans, who had eight catches for 147 yards and a TD on Sunday, there with him. “The guy hasn’t regressed at all,” Mayfield said. “I think he had one of his best years. He makes my life easy. So yeah, if I’m back, I want Mike back. That guy’s a stud.”

HC Todd Bowles agreed that Mayfield has earned the right to return but with the franchise tag for QBs projected to be approaching $36 million in 2024, Bucs GM Jason Licht will need to do some financial jiggery-pokery. Licht also wants Evans to sign a new deal. After all, he is the franchise’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards, receiving TDs and total TDs, and has just become the only player in NFL history to surpass 1,000 receiving yards in 10 consecutive seasons. So however it shakes out, I suspect Mayfield and Evans will both be in demand… and in the money. [ST]

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