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4 Downs: NFL Divisional Round Recap, Reactions, and Awards

Then there were four.

After a thrilling NFL Divisional Playoff weekend that saw home teams go 3-1, with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs as the lone road team to advance, it will be the Chiefs and Ravens and 49ers and Lions (oh my) on Championship Sunday with two spots in Super Bowl LVIII at stake.

Here's a look at the biggest takeaways and awards from the NFL's Divisional playoffs, and initial thoughts on the NFC and AFC Championship Games.

First Down: Wide Right 2.0 Powers Chiefs Past Bills

The two most dreaded words in Buffalo lexicon strike again.

Wide. Right.

Tyler Bass had the opportunity to kick the Bills into the AFC Championship Game, instead, the Bills' kicker missed wide right from 44 yards with 1:47 remaining against the Kansas City Chiefs one week shy of 33 years since Scott Norwood missed wide right from 47 yards to lose the Bills a Super Bowl.

Heartbreak in Buffalo, jubilation in Kansas City.

Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs survived one of the most thrilling games of the season to advance to a sixth consecutive AFC Championship Game, this time, for the first time in the Mahomes era, away from Arrowhead Stadium.

In a game that saw six lead changes, Mahomes and Allen combine for 401 passing yards and five total touchdowns, it was the red and yellow fireworks that followed the pyrotechnics provided by the quarterbacks.

This has been a woefully forgettable season for the Chiefs' receivers, including Mecole Hardman's fumble out of the end zone Sunday in Buffalo, yet, Mahomes survived once again. The reigning MVP passed for 215 yards with two touchdown passes to All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce, who finished with 75 yards in one of his most consistently dominant performances of the season.

For Josh Allen, Sunday is a heartbreaking missed opportunity.

Despite finishing his postseason without a turnover, and accounting for seven total touchdowns, for Allen and the Bills another season comes to a jarring halt as the Chiefs move on.

However, Allen owns a significant piece of this particular Bills loss that was marred by missed opportunities for Buffalo's offense.

As NextGenStats points out, Allen completed all 16 of his passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage, but was just 10-of-21 on throws beyond the line of scrimmage for 95 yards and a touchdown. Buffalo's inability to stretch the field, Allen's lack of consistency late proved too costly to overcome.

For the third time in five seasons, it's Kansas City that ends Buffalo's season; be it with an epic 13-second scoring drive in Arrowhead or a missed field goal to tie the game in Orchard Park, the outcomes are as disappointing as ever.

Meanwhile, Mahomes adds another chapter to his legacy, ticking off another career-first; a road playoff victory. One more, in Baltimore against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, and Mahomes will have the chance to play for his third Super Bowl ring at the age of 28.

Second Down: Lamar Jackson Shakes Monkey Off His Back

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - JANUARY 20: Quarterback Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens passes the ball against the Houston Texans during the second quarter in the AFC Divisional Playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium on January 20, 2024 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The refrain was a familiar one; "Yeah, but can Lamar Jackson win in the playoffs?"

Jackson silenced his critics in impressive fashion, leading the Ravens to the AFC Championship Game and doorstep of the Super Bowl with one of his finest and most balanced performances of his career.

Texans head coach DeMeco Ryans was a made scientist on Saturday afternoon, sending pressure from every angle on virtually every snap — NextGenStats says Jackson faced extra blitzers on 75 percent of his dropbacks in the divisional round. It didn't matter.

As if there were any lingering doubt that Jackson has made significant strides from the pocket during a gangbusters 2023 campaign, both of his touchdown passes came against the blitz against the Texans.

Saturday afternoon, Jackson issued a strong reminder why he is the runaway MVP favorite, putting the Ravens on his back and shrugging a monkey off his by passing for 152 yards with two touchdowns, rushing for 100 yards and two more scores, as the driving force of a 34-10 victory.

At halftime, this was a game that was tied at 10 apiece, until Jackson took over the game.

The exclamation point came when Jackson darted, zigged, and zagged through the heat of the Texans' defense for an eight-yard touchdown run that put the game out of reach.

Jackson's strong performance is a ringing endorsement that he is worth every penny of the massive $260 million contract the Ravens signed him to this summer.

Against a swarming defense, Jackson logged a 121.8 passer rating, earning his second postseason victory, leading arguably the most complete and dominant roster that's been around him at any stage of his career.

Now, following his finest performance, Jackson is just two victories shy of hoisting his first Lombardi Trophy, less than a calendar year since teams lined up to distance themselves from the 27-year-old when the Ravens used the non-exclusive franchise tag on him last spring.

Baltimore is sure fortunate that they did.

Third Down: Six Quick Thoughts on Championship Sunday

The Championship round is set.

Here's a look at three thoughts on each championship game, and the star power in each contest:

Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens - AFC Championship Game

  • Andy Reid aims to beat former Eagles special teams coordinator John Harbaugh in the AFC Championship Game, after beating former defensive coordinator Sean McDermott in the 2020 AFC Championship Game and twice in the divisional round.
  • Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson have never met in the postseason, but Mahomes holds a 3-1 edge in the four meetings between the two MVP quarterbacks.
  • This game features two of the top-six passing defenses in the NFL. The Chiefs enter having allowed an average of 289.8 passing yards per game, second only to the Browns, while the Ravens kept opponents to 301.4 yards per game.

Detroit Lions at San Francisco 49ers - NFC Championship Game

  • 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has seemed to have Lions quarterback Jared Goff's number. Goff is just 3-5 all-time against Shanahan coached teams, including losing five consecutive against the Niners. Goff has thrown 16 touchdowns and five interceptions in those eight contests.
  • The Lions might not want to blitz 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy. Only five teams who qualified for the playoffs blitz opposing QBs more than the Lions did, bringing extra pressure on 28.7 percent of snaps. However, Purdy owns a 113 passer rating against the blitz, according to Pro Football Focus.
  • Wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown might hold the key to the Lions' success. Detroit is 9-1 in games that St. Brown caught a touchdown pass in 2023 and just 3-4 in games that he does not.

Fourth Down: Texans and Packers' Bright Futures Assured

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 20: Brock Purdy #13 of the San Francisco 49ers greets Jordan Love #10 of the Green Bay Packers after the 49ers defeated the Packers 24-21 in the NFC Divisional Playoffs at Levi's Stadium on January 20, 2024 in Santa Clara, California.

Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The Texans' and Packers' seasons came to an end on Saturday, but each team's Super Bowl window is wide open.

Regardless of this weekend's outcomes, C.J. Stroud and Jordan Love are among the most gifted young quarterbacks in the league, each with ridiculously high ceilings.

While Stroud played his way into the fringes of the NFL MVP conversation by passing for 4,108 yards with 23 touchdowns to five interceptions, after being chosen No. 1 overall last April, Love's torrid second half inspires legitimate optimism in Titletown.

Love took the No. 7 seed Packers into San Francisco and took the 49ers to the brink, only to fall 24-21, after throwing a back-breaking interception on his final pass attempt of the season. Trying to get it all with :52, Love was picked off by Dre Greenlaw, sending the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game and ending the Packers' Cinderella run.

It was the kind of pass Love will need to learn and grow from, after going five consecutive games without throwing an interception.

For Love, a major contract extension could be in the offing in coming months, after the three-year veteran proved he belongs among the top quarterbacks in the league in 2023.

Meanwhile, Stroud played the Texans into heights unseen in franchise history and because of his brilliance paired with the culture being crafted by head coach DeMeco Ryans, Houston's future might never have been brighter than it is at this moment.

Two young quarterbacks went through learning experiences in the divisional round. But, both have the talent and organizational infrastructure around them to look back on this weekend as the beginning of new chapters in their team's histories, stepping stones, rather than any sort of ending.

NFL Divisional Round MVP: Christian McCaffrey, RB, San Francisco 49ers

In what was far from the 49ers' finest performance of the season, it was San Francisco's brightest star that was the difference-maker against the Packers.

After earlier breaking off for a 39-yard touchdown run, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan called Christian McCaffrey's number with 1:11 remaining and San Francisco trailing by four and McCaffrey barreled up the middle for a six-yard touchdown run. 24-21, 49ers, and all the pressure on the Packers with 1:11 remaining.

McCaffrey finished the contest with 128 yards from scrimmage, including 98 rushing yards and two scores on the ground.

The 49ers were forced to survive, with Deebo Samuel sidelined for much of Saturday night's contest, but it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that McCaffrey became the focal point late.

Despite dealing with the lingering effects of a calf injury, McCaffrey's became the 49ers' closer.

McCaffrey's touchdowns against the Packers were his 35th and 26th total touchdowns, combined regular season and playoffs, in 31 total games since being acquired by the 49ers from the Carolina Panthers in a blockbuster deal ahead of the 2022 NFL trade deadline.

A touchdown machine, there might not be a player more fit to play for his head coach than McCaffrey is in Kyle Shanahan's scheme, or a non-quarterback more vital to his team's success.

NFL Divisional Round Breakout Star: Jahmyr Gibbs, RB, Detroit Lions

DETROIT, MI - JANUARY 21: Jahmyr Gibbs #26 of the Detroit Lions carries the ball for a touchdown during the fourth quarter of an NFL divisional round playoff football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Ford Field on January 21, 2024 in Detroit, Michigan.

Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

Conventional wisdom suggests it is fool-hearted to draft a running back in the first-round, but credit to Lions general manager Brad Holmes for realizing how close his roster was to complete and sticking to his instincts sticking explosive running back Jahmyr Gibbs into the backfield with the No. 12 overall pick in last spring's draft.

Gibbs makes explosive runs look effortless, seems to have sixth gear, and that was evident Sunday afternoon in Detroit's 31-23 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to advance to the NFC Championship Game.

With 13:13 remaining, Gibbs slashed through the Buccaneers' front-seven before turning on the afterburners and sprinting into the end zone for a 31-yard touchdown to lift the Lions to a 24-17 lead.

Gibbs, who rushed for 945 yards with 10 rushing touchdowns in 15 games as a rookie, finished Sunday's game with 74 yards and a touchdown, while averaging 8.5 yards per carry, and adding four catches for 40 yards.

The Lions' future is as bright as its present, in large part because of the young talent Holmes has added in recent years. Gibbs is perhaps the most explosive of that exciting young core.

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