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The NFL calls this weekend’s win-or-go-home games its Divisional Playoffs. From the looks of the teams it should be called something else.
The overcomers tournament.
Bracket of improbables.
The how-are-these-teams-here postseason.
We need a new name for the looming weekend of games because among the eight teams still alive and nurturing Super Bowl hopes are five that, well, have significant cause for not being here at all.
Those five suffered issues that typically crash seasons. All have reasons for failure they could have used as excuses.
And yet, here they are.
The five teams that deserve recognition for overcoming some really rough situations or moments or even potential tragedy are the San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants and Buffalo Bills.
All faced various problems but survived and, in some cases, got better for it.
49ers Haven’t Blinked Amid Blinding Bad Luck
The 49ers lost their starting quarterback the second game of the season. Then they lost their backup quarterback the 12th game of the season.
The first of those scenarios alone is a season-ender for most teams. The two scenarios combined are a serious temptation to start believing in curses and plagues.
But, somehow, the 49ers just shrugged shoulders when Trey Lance and then Jimmy Garoppolo went down. Coach Kyle Shanahan answered the crisis by thrusting third-string quarterback Brock Purdy into their huddle.
They didn’t try to add Baker Mayfield from the waiver wire. They didn’t seek a quarterback at the trade deadline. The 49ers actually traded for running back Christian McCaffrey instead.
The 49ers thrust Purdy, the last pick of the last round of the last draft, into the starting line up and not one person in the organization suggested the season was over.
And with Purdy starting the 49ers are 6-0, including last weekend’s playoff victory over Seattle.
“The pressure on that position in this league is, it’s immense,” Lynch said Wednesday on Audacy’s 95.7 The Fan in San Francisco. “It really is. One thing we saw from Day 1 was he wasn’t going to be phased.”
Cowboys Avoided Starting 0-7 As Some Feared
When the Dallas Cowboys similarly lost starting quarterback Dak Prescott for five weeks to a fractured right thumb the season seemed headed into a ditch.
The Cowboys were 0-1 at the time. Everyone expected Prescott to miss between 4 and 6 weeks. So everyone understood Dallas could be looking at a record of 0-5 or even 0-7 to start the season.
Pundits called for owner Jerry Jones to trade for a quarterback. Jones and coach Mike McCarthy turned to backup quarterback Cooper Rush.
The Cowboys ran the ball more and were more conservative in their passing game. They found a way to play better on defense, giving up no more than 17 points in any of the next five games.
And Rush delivered. He threw four TD passes his first four games, as the Cowboys won four of five games Prescott missed.
“He went out there and did everything I expected Cooper to do,” Prescott said of his backup. “Understand that everybody had to raise their level and everybody is going to continue to raise their level. That is what he has done and what the team has done.”
Giants History No Match For New Culture
The Giants needed to raise their level of play this year because they had suffered five consecutive seasons with double-digit losses.
So the team hired new general manager Joe Schoen from the Buffalo Bills. And Schoen hired Brian Daboll off the Bills staff to be the head coach.
The next thing that happened is the Giants got sued by Brian Flores for allegedly conducting a “sham” interview with him for the coaching job.
Flores, who is black, claimed the Giants decided to hire Daboll, who is white, before he was interviewed. That suit, which also bathes the NFL, Dolphins and Broncos in racial discrimination allegations, is ongoing.
The Giants vehemently denied the allegations against them, with co-owner John Mara telling reporters “We’re very comfortable with our hiring process.”
Eventuall, Schoen had to cut talent from a roster lacking precious little of it already because the Giants had significant salary cap problems.
And then both Schoen and Daboll, trying to instill a new culture, found the roster that remained full of flaws.
It is safe to say people from the organization expected 2022 to be a rebuilding season. And it has been that.
It’s been a rebuilding fairy tale season with players over-achieving and holes at tight end, receiver, and cornerback being minimized or hidden.
No one informed the Giants they’re supposed to be the same old hapless organization they’ve been in the recent past. Nobody told them they’re not supposed to be in the playoffs.
“No one is just invited, you’ve got to get in,” running back Saquon Barkley said Wednesday. “We got in, to make it to where you want to go – you’ve got to win, or you go home. We did that the first round, and now we’ve got another opportunity in the second round.”
Jaguars Fully Healed From Urban Meyer
The Jacksonville Jaguars similarly have been bad for some time. But last season was bad on steroids.
New coach Doug Pederson told OutKick during training camp he was watching as “the team kind of heals” from the experiences of the past. He was talking specifically about the Urban Meyer debacle of 2021.
Well, the wounds weren’t fully closed early in the season. The Jaguars had a 3-7 record on Thanksgiving Day.
Then Trevor Lawrence began playing like a No. 1 overall selection. The playmakers — for which Jacksonville paid a mint in the offseason — began to pay dividends.
The Jags won six of their final seven games. And they beat the Chargers in the wildcard round last weekend.
So now they go to Kansas City on Saturday to play the Chiefs. They’re playing with house money because no one expected them to get this far.
“Whether it’s our money or house money, we’re here,” Pederson said. “It’s a credit to those players in the locker room and the coaching staff for believing in each other and working hard. What we’ve done down the stretch regardless of mishaps, we’re here.
“I try to block it out the best I can with the team, you just block out the noise, you block out the negativity, you block out whether it’s lack of respect or whatever. We have a young quarterback, whatever it might be. We’re one of four in the AFC left and that says a lot.”
There’s much to be said about the Buffalo Bills this season.
Bills Are Undefeated In Face Of Problem
Western New York has been through a lot of heartache and tragedy. And Western New York’s team has shared the difficult ride.
The Bills were expected to be good this year. And by collecting 13 regular-season victories and their third consecutive AFC East title, they met those expectations.
But this month has had the potential to turn that entire organization into an emotional wreck.
Safety Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest and collapsed during the first quarter of the team’s Jan. 2 game at Cincinnati. And the traumatic effects of that moment still have not faded.
Cornerback Tre’Davious White called the whole episode and week that followed “a sh*tshow.”
He said watching his teammate laying on the field in Cincinnati, getting chest compressions to try to revive his breathing, is something he “cannot unsee.”
But despite all that, the Bills are 2-0 since Hamlin’s collapse. And now Hamlin is out of the hospital, recovering, and back in the club’s training facility on most days.
“That experience, we’ll carry with us, and there’s a challenge to that,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said Wednesday. “But there’s also a lot of good that came from that. And I think right now, we need to focus on the positives.”