NFL Divisional Round: Biggest winners and losers from Saturday's games – NFL.com

NFL.com Columnist
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The first day of the NFL Divisional Round is over and the top seeds in both conferences — Kansas City and Philadelphia — are still alive. The level of joy they shared after their two wins is probably quite different. The Eagles beat their NFC East rivals, the New York Giants, on Saturday for the third time this year, with this one being a romp. The Chiefs had a much tougher outing, as they survived the Jacksonville Jaguars and watched their quarterback limp through the second half of that contest with a high ankle sprain.
The Eagles now prepare for their last home game, which will be a matchup with either San Francisco or Dallas in the NFC Championship Game. The Chiefs don’t know where they’ll be next week at the moment. If Cincinnati beats Buffalo in Sunday’s Divisional Round matchup, Kansas City will return to Arrowhead Stadium for the AFC Championship Game. A Bills win will result in Buffalo meeting the Chiefs in Atlanta next weekend — a scheduling adjustment that resulted from the cancellation of the Bills’ Monday night game with Cincinnati in Week 17.
There will be plenty of people weighing in on what it means for the NFL to potentially play its first neutral site playoff game (excluding Super Bowls and NFL Championship Games). There will be even more wondering about how Patrick Mahomes will prepare himself to play in such a huge game while nursing a compromising injury. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves at the moment. There’s more than enough to assess as we come out of Saturday’s games, so here are the winners and losers from the first half of the Divisional Round …
(EDITOR’S UPDATE: The Bengals defeated the Bills in the Divisional Round to advance to the AFC Championship Game. Cincinnati will face Kansas City at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday, Jan. 29.)
1) Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. He provided yet more evidence that there’s something superhuman about him. Most people tap out after sustaining a high ankle sprain. He somehow talked his way back into this contest after sitting for most of the second quarter. Backup Chad Henne deserves plenty of respect for leading Kansas City on a 98-yard touchdown drive while Mahomes was out, and rookie Isiah Pacheco ran for 95 critical yards (including a 39-yard run when Henne was leading the Chiefs to that score). But don’t minimize what Mahomes did in this one. There was plenty of anxiety inside Arrowhead Stadium as he tried to limp his way through a few plays immediately after getting tangled up. He somehow found a way to return for the second half and lead his team to 10 more points to close out the game. The numbers don’t matter in this one — Mahomes threw for 195 yards and two touchdowns — as much as the leadership. The Chiefs are heading to their fifth consecutive AFC Championship Game for one reason alone: Their quarterback refused to let them lose on Saturday.
2) Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. The big question coming into this season was how the Chiefs’ young defense would fare in the postseason. The first answer was something that had to make Spagnuolo beam. His defense forced two critical turnovers in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game that helped Kansas City advance. The first came when middle linebacker Nick Bolton recovered a fumble by Jaguars wide receiver Jamal Agnew at the Chiefs’ 3-yard line with 5:29 remaining in the game. The Chiefs led, 27-17, and a Jaguars score would’ve given Jacksonville ample time to complete their comeback bid. The second huge takeaway came on the next possession, when rookie cornerback Jaylen Watson made a one-handed interception off a pass quarterback Trevor Lawrence tried to complete to Zay Jones. The Jaguars never recovered after that, and they only controlled the ball for about 25 minutes of the contest. If the Chiefs are going to reach the Super Bowl, they’ll need more moments like that from this unit.
3) Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts. All the questions that lingered about the sprained shoulder that bothered Hurts at the end of the regular season ended on Saturday night. He may have been hindered enough to sit in Weeks 16 and 17 — while playing cautiously in Philadelphia’s season finale against the Giants — but Hurts looked comfortable and dangerous in this latest victory. He threw for 154 yards and two scores and added 34 yards and another rushing touchdown on nine carries. Most importantly, Hurts didn’t get hurt. The Eagles spent the last few weeks trying to make sure their star quarterback was as close to 100 percent as possible and that bye week was critical to aiding that recovery. The way Hurts played on Saturday reaffirmed why his presence is so important to this offense. The Eagles have a ton of weapons. Hurts makes them better with his ability to run, throw and lead. That’s also why this game was over so quickly, with Philadelphia storming out to a 28-0 advantage by halftime. Once it became apparent Hurts wasn’t compromised, the Giants couldn’t do anything to slow down this team.
4) Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker. The Chiefs’ sixth-year kicker eased a lot of concerns about his reliability Saturday. He had two field-goal attempts of 50 yards each and nailed both, which is important to point out because Butker had been so atypically inconsistent this season. He had converted 90 percent of his career field-goal attempts prior to this year. He wound up nailing just 75 percent in the regular season, hitting just three of seven kicks from 50 yards are more. Some of that had to do with an ankle sprain Butker sustained in the season opener, while one former Chiefs player, punter Dustin Colquitt, has openly criticized the holding technique of current punter Tommy Townsend. The Chiefs know Butker is a vital weapon, as he’s made some huge field goals for this team throughout his career. It might be too early to say he’s solved all his problems from earlier in the season. However, it also must be reassuring for the Chiefs that he’s starting the postseason off on a better note.
5) Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni. The Eagles started fast and that speaks to how prepared Sirianni had this team coming off a bye. Philadelphia didn’t exactly finish the regular season strong, as losses to Dallas and New Orleans detracted from all the good vibes that had swirled around this team all season. Yes, the Eagles beat the Giants in Week 18 to earn the top seed, but this was the first opportunity for Philadelphia to win a meaningful game in more than a month. It would’ve been easy for the NFC East champs to come out flat or rusty. Instead, the Eagles reminded us of how dominant they were when they started the season 8-0 and won 13 of their first 14 games. The Eagles have endured through injuries and that late lull, but that shouldn’t be a reason to forget how strong this team is when at full strength. Their swag was on full display Saturday night, with Sirianni literally relishing every moment of it.
1) Chiefs offense. The entire AFC postseason shifted as soon as Mahomes sprained his right ankle in the first quarter of Saturday’s Divisional Round contest. Yes, he gutted it out. He also was limping noticeably in the second half, which raised what will be the most frequently asked question of the week: Can Kansas City win the AFC Championship Game with Mahomes hobbled? That will be a major challenge. The Chiefs were good enough to hold off the Jaguars, but Mahomes and Henne only combined for 218 total passing yards. It’s hard to see those numbers holding up in a matchup against either Cincinnati or Buffalo, which possess two of the most explosive offenses in the league. Think about it: The Chiefs converted five of six third-down opportunities in the first half against Jacksonville and only one of six in the second half. The bottom line is, Mahomes proved why he is the likely winner of this year’s MVP award. He’ll need even more magic from his team’s medical staff to make sure that high ankle sprain doesn’t doom the Chiefs’ Super Bowl dreams.
2) Giants defense. The Giants were bad all year against the run and nothing changed on Saturday night. The Eagles ran for 253 yards against New York in their first meeting, 135 in their second and amassed 268 yards on 44 carries in Round 3. Kenneth Gainwell and Miles Sanders combined for 202 yards on 29 carries alone, an average of almost seven yards per carry. The Eagles also did all this while one of their best linemen, right tackle Lane Johnson, battled through a torn abductor. Now to be fair, the Giants defense was one of the major reasons behind this team’s ability to snag a wild-card spot. It also slowed down the Minnesota Vikings in last weekend’s road win. However, the Eagles were a bad matchup for this team all year and the Giants now get to spend an entire offseason trying to fix that.
3) Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson. For all the great things Pederson did in his first season as head coach in Jacksonville, he missed a prime opportunity to pull a major upset on Saturday. The Jaguars were dealing with an injured Mahomes and a Chiefs team that clearly felt the impact of its quarterback’s uncertain health midway through the game. Pederson responded by turning his offense conservative in the third quarter, with a variety of runs and short passes fueling his attack. The Jaguars trailed 17-10 at one point and never did anything to pressure the Chiefs’ defense. They also were unwilling to blitz Mahomes much after it became clear that his injury compromised his mobility. There’s no doubting the Jaguars came a long way this year. They also blew a huge opportunity by failing to show the same aggressiveness that allowed them to overcome a 27-0 deficit against the Chargers on Super Wild Card Weekend.
4) Giants quarterback Daniel Jones. This is what coming back to Earth looks like. Jones received countless praise throughout last week for the success he enjoyed in that wild-card victory over the Vikings. It was a different story when the other team understood how to play defense. Jones never really had a chance in this contest, not with the way Philadelphia jumped all over New York to start the game. The Giants were built to play from ahead, to keep games close and not beat themselves. They don’t have the firepower to overcome huge deficits, and Jones couldn’t rally this team once the Eagles went up by double digits. The Eagles sacked him five times, intercepted him once and quickly negated any potential he had as a runner (Jones had 24 yards on six carries). That isn’t to say Jones was exposed as somebody undeserving of the hype he received throughout this season. This was a breakout year for him. It just wasn’t his finest day on Saturday.
5) Chiefs fans. The thrill of knowing their team is heading to its fifth straight AFC Championship Game had to be dulled by the uncertainty of not knowing where that contest will be played. It’s well-known that Arrowhead Stadium provides one of the great home-field advantages in the NFL. It’s also quite possible that the Chiefs have played their final game in that venue this season. Unless Cincinnati beats Buffalo on Sunday, Kansas City is heading to Atlanta for the right to reach the Super Bowl. That means the biggest contingent of Bengals fans outside of Cincinnati will be residing in the middle of the country on Sunday.
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