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When I previewed Wild Card weekend, I focused on the ages of the quarterbacks. The AFC featured all young guns, but the NFC was a battle between the old heads and the youngins. And it was the kids bouncing the veterans to advance to the NFL Divisional Round.
Brock Purdy (23) ousted Geno Smith (31). Daniel Jones (25) defeated Kirk Cousins (34). And Dak Prescott (29) sent Tom Brady (45) packing. Now, Prescott takes over as the elder statesman — he’s the only playoff quarterback left who has celebrated his 28th birthday, let alone his 29th.
Patrick Mahomes is suddenly one of the veterans of the group at the ripe old age of 27. After that, you’ve got Josh Allen and Joe Burrow (both 26) followed by Daniel Jones (25), Jalen Hurts (24) and Trevor Lawrence and Brock Purdy (each 23). Average age: 25-and-a-half.
With that, let’s get to Saturday’s NFL Divisional Round matchups…
AFC Divisional Round Matchup 1: #4 Jacksonville Jaguars (10-8) at #1 Kansas City Chiefs (14-3), Saturday 4:30 ET (NBC)
Previous Meeting: Kansas City 27, Jacksonville 17 (Week 10 in Kansas City)
Main Storyline (Jaguars): Are the Jaguars ready to tangle with the big boys?
No matter what happens on Saturday, the Jacksonville Jaguars 2022-23 season should be considered a success. They went from a 3-14 disaster that fired their coach in the middle of his first season to a playoff team. That was already a success. Then they came back from down 27 points to win a playoff game. Bonus.
So, they’re playing with house money. And in a way … it kind of makes them more dangerous, doesn’t it? All of the pressure is on the Chiefs. Kansas City is the #1 seed in the AFC. They’re at home. They’ve been to four consecutive AFC Championship games and are heavy favorites to reach #5.
But Jacksonville has literally nothing to lose. Their starting quarterback is 23 years old and recovered from a terrible first season under a terrible head coach. He has a lot of incredible football ahead of him. If he can go into this game with that mindset, then I think Jacksonville has more of a chance than people are expecting.
As I’ve written in the past, for a 23-year-old quarterback who played his first NFL playoff game just one week ago, Lawrence has a lot of big game experience. I wrote this last week: “Lawrence played in four College Football Playoff games in three seasons and won a National Championship. Plus, Lawrence and the Jags played a de facto playoff game last week against Tennessee. Experience matters and I think his experience in those games especially helps against Herbert who really hasn’t played in anything like this, at all.”
Not to toot my own horn — who am I kidding, that’s exactly what I’m doing — but this analysis turned out to be spot-on. Despite throwing four interceptions in the first half, Lawrence steadied himself and systematically led his team back. Don’t tell me that his experience didn’t help him to vastly outplay Herbert in the second half.
The problem is that he’s now facing Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes has won a Super Bowl and is making his 12th NFL playoff start. So, there’s that. But for the sake of at least seeing a competitive game, I hope Lawrence draws on past experience and we get more of his second half from last week, rather than the first.
I’m going to deliver a hugely bold prediction: if Lawrence throws four interceptions again, the Jaguars aren’t winning this game. Brave, I know.
Main Storyline (Chiefs): Can the Chiefs avoid the letdown?
As 8.5-point favorites at home, Kansas City is expected to advance past the Divisional Round and into their fifth consecutive AFC Championship Game. And, as I just wrote, the Jags are playing with house money.
Two things can beat the Chiefs in the playoffs: unreal opposing quarterback play and poor decision making from their own signal-caller. Here are the quarterbacks who have knocked Kansas City out of the playoffs in their past three losses: Tom Brady, Tom Brady and Joe Burrow.
In the Chiefs three playoff losses in the past four seasons, Mahomes has four interceptions. In their eight victories, he has three and two came in the same game (the Super Bowl win over San Francisco).
Since the 2021 playoffs, when Mahomes completes 70% of his passes or better, the Chiefs are 4-0. When he doesn’t, they’re 0-2. As mentioned, the Jaguars defended Justin Herbert pretty well. He completed less than 60% of his passes against them and took three sacks. His struggles in the second half cost them the game. Herbert is not Patrick Mahomes. As if that needs to be said.
Point is that the blueprint is there for Jacksonville. But really the only team that can beat Kansas City in this game is Kansas City. Will they do it? Probably not, but let’s hope for a good game nonetheless.
NFC Divisional Round Matchup 1: #6 New York Giants (10-7-1) at #1 Philadelphia Eagles (14-3), Saturday 8:15 ET (FOX)
Previous Meetings: Philadelphia 48, New York 22 (Week 14 in New York), Philadelphia 22, New York 16 (Week 18 in Philadelphia)
Main Storyline (Giants): Is Daniel Jones for real?
Similar to Jacksonville, the Giants don’t have much to lose. No one thought they’d make the playoffs, let alone advance to the Divisional Round. The one thing that this game has that the previous one doesn’t, however, is a rivalry. This is a good, old-fashioned NFC East battle between two teams less than 100 miles apart. New York vs. Philadelphia.
But that’s not the focus of this game. The focus of this game is on the young quarterbacks on either side. Neither was considered the answer to his franchise’s positional woes prior to the season. Both men are constantly questioned on whether or not they belong.
For Jones, head coach Brian Daboll’s leadership has unquestionably helped him ascend to a level that he wasn’t going to reach under Joe Judge. Jones improved in absolutely every category this season and the Giants dismantled the Vikings defense in the Wild Card round. It was both a masterclass in coaching and a quarterback executing a gameplan. In fact, Kirk Cousins actually played really well for the Vikings. Just not quite as well as Danny Dimes.
No one played as well as Brock Purdy, but we’ll get to him in a minute. The Eagles defense is a whole different beast, however. They set a franchise record with 70 sacks this season. Philadelphia is the first team in NFL history to have four different players record at least 10 sacks. The Vikings defense is … bad. The Eagles defense is … not bad.
Pressure either crushes you or it creates diamonds. The pressure is coming for Daniel Jones. Is he going to be crushed or become a diamond?
Main Storyline (Eagles): Is Jalen Hurts for real?
It seems like a cop out to use the same storyline, but I just take what the game gives me. Jalen Hurts had a hell of a season and quelled a lot of doubters. But quarterbacks are judged on their postseason performances. Fair or not, that’s how it goes.
Hurts started against the Buccaneers in last year’s Wild Card round and he was not very good. He completed under 55% of his passes and threw two picks. That performance is a big reason why many thought they needed a new quarterback for this season.
But Philadelphia stuck with Hurts and essentially gave him this season to prove himself. They added an elite wide receiver, AJ Brown, who delivered exactly what he was supposed to deliver. This offense was a machine for most of the season and catapulted out to a 13-1 record.
They stumbled a bit down the stretch, but managed to beat these Giants in Week 18 to secure the #1 seed. The Giants sat practically their entire team, which worked out a lot better than whatever the hell the Chargers did in Week 18.
But this isn’t about the Giants or the Chargers. It’s about the Eagles and it’s about Jalen Hurts. Don’t forget: Jalen Hurts has struggled in big games throughout his entire career. If we’re going to give Trevor Lawrence credit for winning a National Championship, we must remember what Hurts did in the College Football Playoff.
Across two CFP games in his first appearance (a win over Washington and a loss to Clemson), Hurts completed less than 50% of his passes for under 200 yards. They lost in the Championship to Lawrence and the Tigers.
The following season, Hurts was benched at halftime in favor of Tua Tagovailoa, who led Alabama back to beat Georgia for the National Championship. Hurts completed 3-8 passes for 27 yards in that first half. After transferring to Oklahoma, he led the Sooners to the Playoff. But they got trounced by Joe Burrow and the LSU Tigers. Hurts again completed less than 50% of his passes in the game.
Hurts started five College Football Playoff games in his career. He completed 54-108 (50%) of his passes for 546 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
Then, there was last year’s aforementioned Wild Card game against the Bucs. Hurts is quickly putting together a resume that screams “regular season QB” and he needs this win badly to start shedding that label. It’s not a label that goes away quickly and another postseason failure would be a disaster, especially as the top seed in the conference.
Follow Dan Zaksheske on Twitter: @OutkickDanZ