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We’re down to four. Of the eight teams that played in the NFL Divisional Round this past weekend, half of them are happily moving on the AFC and NFC Championships while the other half are left looking down at their hands in disbelief, wondering where it all went wrong.
All eight of these teams now face questions heading into either the next round of the playoffs or the long offseason, and the nature of said questions are hinged on their prior result. I’m sorry for the fans of the teams that couldn’t get it done in the Divisional Round, but these questions have to be asked. And no, none of these questions have anything to do with anyone’s golf game.
NFL Divisional Round Losers: One Question
Buffalo Bills: Can Josh Allen lead this team to the Super Bowl?
The Bills drafted Josh Allen with the No. 7 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, and he has been a massive piece of the franchise’s turnaround into a perennial playoff team. The Bills have achieved three-straight AFC East titles, made four playoff appearances in a row, and won four playoff games since 2020. But so far, Allen and his team have not been able to take the next step.
This weekend, the Bills lost decisively to the Bengals, 27-10. Even with home-field advantage, snow, and Damar Hamlin’s story to fight for, Buffalo was never in the game.
The narrative for a couple of years now has been that the AFC belongs to Allen and Patrick Mahomes, but can that be true when Allen and the Bills have not reached the Super Bowl and the Bengals and Joe Burrow have fully arrived? Perhaps 2023 will be the season it finally happens, but the clock is ticking.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Can this momentum be continued?
The Jaguars won five-straight games to close the regular season, just enough to clinch the AFC South crown and get into the playoffs after a 3-7 start to the campaign. Then, Jacksonville completed one of the greatest comebacks in NFL Playoff history in the Wild Card Round and gave Kansas City, one of the favorites for the Super Bowl, a serious run for its money on the road. You can’t be upset with how this season ended if you’re a Jacksonville fan. But now what?
The last time the Jags made the playoffs, they narrowly missed out on the Super Bowl. They proceeded to win 15 games over the next four seasons. They must figure out a way to avoid this from happening again and use what they accomplished this season to build for the next.
Trevor Lawrence is receiving snaps, Super Bowl champion Doug Pederson is calling the shots, and Jacksonville’s division isn’t exactly filled with the toughest competition. The future appears bright, but we’ll have to see if the Jaguars can put together something similar again, or if this run was a flash in the pan.
New York Giants: What’s the next step in the rebuild?
Before the first snap of this season, nobody expected the Giants to be here. They were supposed to go something like 6-11, lick their wounds, and maybe improve for 2023. Instead, they made the playoffs for the first time in six years and won a road playoff game. Of course, New York would prefer not to lose to a division rival by 31 points in the playoffs, but given the context, there’s only so much negativity the defeat in the Divisional Round can garner. You really can’t feel bad about this season if you’re a Giants fan.
So, what’s next? Daniel Jones, Saquon Barkley, and a host of other impact players have expiring contracts that will have to be dealt with. Barkley in particular is a big decision – do the Giants shell out the money he will rightly demand, or is it time to move on and save that money for elsewhere in the team?
This season was a great foundation for the Giants’ rebuild, but the 38-7 scoreline from this past weekend is a firm indicator that there is still a long way this team has to go before it’s a serious contender.
Dallas Cowboys: Is it ever going to happen?
It’s now 27 years since the Cowboys made it out of the Divisional Round, let alone appeared in or won the Super Bowl. This is currently the fifth-longest AFC/NFC Championship Game drought in the NFL. Ouch.
Another year, another failure for a franchise that doesn’t care much for moral victories. It feels like it really is never going to happen again for the Cowboys. Obviously, this is not true – if the Bengals, I repeat, the Bengals, can end their drought and become a force within the NFL, then surely Dallas will do it again someday.
But what has to change? Since 1995, Dallas has gone through seven head coaches and a handful of different quarterback eras, and while some of those times produced better results than others, none of them brought the team close to the heights previously reached.
Perhaps moving on from Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and this current core is the right decision. Maybe this organization needs a rebuild. Or maybe, five one-possession playoff losses in a row is a sign of poor luck, and going again without many changes could yield results.
This still brings us back to the original question: is it ever going to happen?
NFL Divisional Round Winners: One Question
Cincinnati Bengals: Are the Bengals a regular AFC contender now?
This is now two AFC Championship Games in a row for the Bengals, and they look as good as ever right now after totally controlling the Bills in Buffalo. The Chiefs are far from pushovers, but Cincinnati has a positive track record against them recently, too.
Regardless of what happens this weekend, the big question surrounding the Bengals is if they’re now in the conference’s upper echelon. Joe Burrow has, as quietly as possible, forced himself into the conversation for the best quarterback in the NFL. Their defense is an absolute force. There are so many weapons around Burrow for him to utilize, from Joe Mixon to Ja’Marr Chase and more. And to top it off, some of Cincinnati’s best, most important players are early in their NFL careers.
This looks like a team that can contend for the next half-decade. Of course, a lot has to go right for that to happen. But you can’t consider the Bengals to be a fluke any longer. The question now is about whether or not this success can become reliable and if it can be harnessed into the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl victory.
Kansas City Chiefs: Are the Bengals KC’s Boogieman Team?
One of the big storylines of this weekend’s game against Cincinnati will be Kansas City’s unflattering record against the Bengals in recent history.
The Chiefs and Bengals played three times in the 2022 calendar year, including in last season’s AFC Championship Game, and Cincinnati left the field smiling all three times. Now, each game was also decided by three points, so it’s not as though the Bengals have been steamrolling the Chiefs, but you know this narrative will not go unsaid in the moments before Sunday’s kickoff.
So, does Cincinnati have Kansas City’s number? Patrick Mahomes might be hobbled for this one after suffering a knock against the Jaguars in the Divisional Round, which could play a role in the outcome of the contest. He is one of the premier performers in the entire league, but the Chiefs wouldn’t be in this position if they didn’t have a very strong team otherwise. Even if he can’t play or isn’t his usual self, there will still be plenty of pressure on the AFC’s No. 1 seed to make its third Super Bowl appearance in four years.
If the Chiefs extend their losing streak against the Bengals to four, the narrative that Cincinnati is KC’s kryptonite will become deafening. Or, that could be put to bed this weekend.
Philadelphia Eagles: Can the Eagles stop Christian McCaffrey?
In the time since the Eagles won the Super Bowl in 2018, they’ve successfully torn it all down, rebuilt, and returned back to prominence. The question now remains, can they fully complete the rebuild and get it done?
Brock Purdy is the one getting most of the attention out of San Francisco, and for a good reason. But the introduction of Christian McCaffrey via trade in the middle of the season marked the beginning of the 49ers’ rise to the forefront of the NFC. He gives San Francisco another dimension, and what he can do on the ground can seriously drain valuable clock Philadelphia needs for its offense.
The Eagles have one of the strongest defensive units in the NFL. Philadelphia held teams to the second-fewest yards per game (coincidentally, behind only San Francisco) and the least passing yards per contest during the regular season. But if there is a weakness on that side of the ball, it’s against the run. The Eagles usually allow more than 120 rushing yards, and it’s been almost two months since they held an opponent to below 100 yards on the ground. Now, they have to face one of the best and hottest running backs in the league to get to the Super Bowl.
If the Eagles are unable to slow down McCaffrey and cede San Francisco the time-of-possession battle, that could spell some serious trouble. You have to assume the secondary will do its thing as it has all year, but will the front seven be up for the task?
San Francisco 49ers: Is Brock Purdy the guy in San Francisco?
Brock Purdy started the season as San Francisco’s third-string quarterback. Now, he’s undefeated since having to fill in for the injured duo of Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo, and he is one of four rookie quarterbacks to ever take their team to a conference championship game.
If he can lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl, and maybe even a victory in the biggest game, it will only add to this already-incredible story. But regardless, a huge question has now presented itself to San Francisco: who starts in Week 1 in September?
I know, I know – the Niners are in the midst of a playoff run, and looking forward beyond that right now doesn’t make a lot of sense. Let’s let them get through this and potentially even win a Super Bowl before we start worrying about next season. But it’s impossible not to wonder what the 49ers will do with such a crowded QB room. More than $34 million and four years are already committed to Lance while Garoppolo is set to become a free agent this summer. Meanwhile, Purdy is doing what he’s doing.
Live in the moment and enjoy this run while it’s happening, San Francisco, but know that you have a serious quarterback conundrum to solve this offseason.