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Previously, we took a deep-dive on the Saturday slate for the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs. Now, we take a look at the Sunday games.
AFC Divisional Round Matchup 2: #3 Cincinnati Bengals (13-4) at #2 Buffalo Bills (14-3), Sunday 3:00 ET (CBS)
Previous Meeting: Game Cancelled, Week 17 in Cincinnati
Main Storyline (Bengals): Can Bengals overcome offensive line woes for the second playoffs in a row?
The Cincinnati Bengals’ season has hinged on the play of their offensive line. Last season, they reached the Super Bowl despite horrendous offensive line play, which is quite an accomplishment. The Tennessee Titans sacked Joe Burrow nine times in last year’s Divisional Round and the Bengals still won. They nearly won the Super Bowl despite Burrow being dropped seven times by the Rams.
In the offseason, they set out to fix this massive issue. They added free agent tackle La’el Collins, free agent guard Alex Cappa and free agent center Ted Karras. Completely revamping their offensive line meant it would take time for them to gel. And they did.
Cincinnati started the season 4-4 and Burrow was sacked 29 times in the first eight games. Five times he was dropped at least three times. In the final eight regular season games, Cincinnati did not lose and defenses sacked Burrow just 12 times. Burrow was sacked two times or fewer in all eight games.
But in Week 16, Collins suffered a torn ACL that ended his season. In Week 18, Cappa hurt his ankle and missed the Wild Card win over the Ravens, and will miss the Divsional Round as well. In that Wild Card game, starting left tackle Jonah Williams dislocated his kneecap and is will not play in the Divisional Round. The Ravens sacked Burrow four times, the most times he had been dumped since late October.
So here we are again. The Bengals are one of the most talented teams in the NFL, feaurting a Top 3 wide receiver in Ja’Marr Chase, one of the most feared WR2 in the league in Tee Higgins and an All-World quarterback. No opponent has scored more than 24 points on their defense in the past seven games. They’ve forced 11 turnovers in the last four games.
But the offensive line is a huge question mark. Joe Burrow overcame their struggles a season ago, but they came up just short. Can he do it again, but this time push the team over the hump?
Main Storyline (Bills): Can Buffalo use their emotions in a positive way to overcome adversity?
The terrifying Damar Hamlin situation was difficult for both teams on that field in Cincinnati. But, there’s no question that Buffalo was more affected. Now they face that team again. Hamlin will be in attendance, his first game in the stadium since the incident. That could be a massive emotional boost. But it could also push the team into costly mistakes.
Buffalo struggled against Miami last week, something no one saw coming. They won by three despite entering the game as two-touchdown favorites. The problem? Turnovers. And that’s been an issue for Buffalo, especially recently. They given the ball away nine times in the past three games. Josh Allen has suddenly become a turnover machine. He was responsible for all three turnovers last week (two interceptions and a lost fumble).
That can’t happen against Cincinnati in the Divisional Round. Especially not early. It’s a cliche in sports that you have to start fast, but I think it applies in this game particularly. The Buffalo crowd is going to be RAUCOUS. With Damar Hamlin in attendance, the fans are going to lose their minds. The Bills need to ride that momentum out to a quick start.
Cincinnati is going to do whatever they can to get the crowd out of it early. Nothing sucks the life out of a stadium like a big turnover. And the Bengals laid the blueprint for for a fast start when these two teams met just a couple weeks ago. Yes, the game was ultimately cancelled, but Cincinnati led 7-3 and were driving again before Hamlin’s on-field collapse.
Buffalo needs to figure out what went wrong in that start and fix it. It won’t be easy to watch the tape from those first few minutes, but the Bills wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t study what exactly happened.
It’s going to be emotional, but controlling and channeling emotions for the positive is what playoff football is all about.
NFC Divisional Round Matchup 2: #5 Dallas Cowboys (13-5) at #2 San Francisco 49ers (14-4), Sunday 6:30 ET (FOX)
Previous Meeting: San Francisco 23, Dallas 17 (Last Season’s Wild Card Round in Dallas)
Main Storyline (Cowboys): Can Dak Prescott prove he’s the guy for Dallas?
In the Wild Card round, Dak Prescott was one-half of the largest age gap between starting quarterbacks out of all six matchups. He was 16 years younger than his opponent, 45-year-old Tom Brady. This week, Prescott again is one-half of the largest age gap between starting quarterbacks. But this time, he’s on the other end. Prescott (29) is six years older than his counterpart Brock Purdy (23). And his legacy is on the line.
There’s a theme in the NFC East. I discussed it in Saturday’s preview with regards to Daniel Jones and Jalen Hurts. But Dak Prescott faces the same scrutiny. There are a lot of people who question whether he’s good enough to lead this team to a Super Bowl. Prescott has been the Cowboys starting quarterback for seven seasons.
He’s compiled a very impressive 61-36 (63% winning pct.) record in the regular season. But last week’s victory over Tampa Bay was just his second postseason win. And he’s never led the team past the Divisional Round. So despite the fact he’s completed nearly 67% of his career regular season passes and is just 17 yards shy of 25,000 for his regular season career, there are questions about his future.
Yes, the team signed him to a lucrative contract extension. But they can get out of it after next season. Prescott tied for the NFL lead with 15 interceptions this season (Davis Mills). And he did it despite missing five games. He became the first quarterback to lead or co-lead the league while missing at least five contests. That’s … less than ideal.
But the good news is that it doesn’t really matter. I’ve said it in these columns before and I’m going to say it many more times: quarterbacks are judged by postseason performance. Prescott was very good against Tampa last week. It was easily his best career postseason performance.
But Jerry Jones and Dallas Cowboys fans aren’t happy winning Wild Card games. They want Super Bowls. At the very least, they want to compete for Super Bowls. You don’t compete for Super Bowls without winning multiple playoff games in a season, something Prescott has yet to do.
And beating an 8-9 Tampa Bay team is nice, but it’s nothing like going into San Francisco to face the 49ers, who have won 11 straight games. It’s been nearly three full calendar months since this team lost. This is the kind of game that Dak Prescott needs to win to show he deserves to be the Cowboys future.
He at least needs to show up. And that’s not going to be easy against the NFL’s best defense. San Francisco allows two fewer points per game than the next closest team.
I understand that the quarterbacks don’t directly face one another. And the 49ers are certainly much more than Brock Purdy. But it will absolutely hurt Dak more if he loses this game to a seventh-round rookie QB. Though that would likely be more on his coach, Mike McCarthy, getting out-coached by Kyle Shanahan.
That’s a near-certainty, but a conversation for another column.
Main Storyline (49ers): Are the 49ers so good that their QB almost doesn’t matter?
I spend a lot of time writing about quarterbacks. Nearly every storyline in every game centers around the guy calling the signals at the line. He has the ball in his hands on every play. But somehow the San Francisco 49ers plopped a seventh-round rookie into the starting lineup and haven’t missed a beat.
Thus the question: does the quarterback even matter? The short answer is yes, he does. And, Purdy played incredibly well in his first postseason start. In fact, by some metrics, he was the best quarterback in the entire Wild Card round.
It’s wild that on a weekend that featured Justin Herbert, Josh Allen, Trevor Lawrence and Joe Burrow, Brock Purdy and Daniel Jones played the best football.
But the question remains: is it because of Brock Purdy or because of the team? What quarterback wouldn’t be successful surrounded by matchup nightmares Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel and George Kittle? What about a backup running back, Elijah Mitchell, who would start for most teams? Or Having Brandon Aiyuk as arguably the fifth option when he could realistically be a top 2-3 option for most squads?
How about having Kyle Shanahan as his head coach? A head coach that went to a Super Bowl with Jimmy Garoppolo. Shanahan has five playoff wins in the past four seasons despite blowing a Top 3 pick in the NFL Draft on a quarterback who might never play for the team again. Side note, here are the next three players taken after Trey Lance: Kyle Pitts, Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle. Imagine this offense with one of THOSE guys added to it??
We’ve still yet to see what happens when Brock Purdy faces adversity. The 49ers coasted to a victory last weekend against Seattle. Here’s what I wrote in the lead up to that game: “The 49ers have won all five of his starts. They didn’t trail at all in the first three.
“San Francisco did trail in the second half and come back to beat the Raiders — but everyone comes back to beat the Raiders in the second half (not exaggerating, they blew an NFL record FIVE double-digit second half leads — no other team ever had more than three in a season).
“The 49ers trailed briefly in Week 18 against the Cardinals, but the game was never in doubt. So what happens when the game is in doubt? Not only a game, but a playoff game? We just don’t know. And we won’t know until it happens.”
And we still don’t know. But I hope we find out this week.
Follow Dan Zaksheske on Twitter: @OutkickDanZ