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Patrick Mahomes’ ankle shows Chiefs’ heart, NFC title game and more

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On a night where Patrick Mahomes was hobbled and the Kansas City Chiefs were without their normal Superman, they showcased championship heart.

What is a team without its leading man? What does it have within when the moment is met with terrific adversity?

On Saturday afternoon, the Kansas City Chiefs showed us who they are.

With 2:29 remaining in the first quarter, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was hit and landed on by Jacksonville Jaguars edge rusher Arden Key. Mahomes’ right ankle was torqued under the weight, his knee bending awkwardly with it.

For the entire second quarter, the Chiefs were without their superhero as he was taped up and underwent an x-ray.

It was the most revealing moment on a day when they had many.

Pinned at their own 2-yard line and holding a slim 10-7 lead, backup quarterback Chad Henne emerged from the sideline. He was about to take his first meaningful snap since two years ago in, ironically enough, a Divisional round matchup when Mahomes was injured against the Cleveland Browns. The Chiefs won that day, with Henne helping protect a two-score lead.

On this day, no such margin existed upon his entrance.

Looking at 98 yards of turf, a realistic hope for Kansas City was gaining a few first downs before letting All-Pro punter Tommy Townsend flip the field.

Instead, the 37-year-old Henne led the best drive of his life.

The Chiefs marched 98 yards on 12 plays on a jaunt including two third-down conversions, a 39-yard run by Isiah Pacheco, and a 1-yard touchdown toss to tight end Travis Kelce.

Once Mahomes returned in the second half, Kansas City’s resiliency was once again on full display.

On the opening drive of the third quarter, Mahomes hobbled his way to a first down on 3rd-and-1, gaining four yards. Two possessions later, the Chiefs notched a field goal to take a 20-10 advantage before the defense allowed its only touchdown on a drive starting in Jacksonville territory.

Leading 20-17 with 11:49 remaining Mahomes resurfaced. After only gaining 51 yards on 14 second-half plays to that juncture, the Chiefs traversed 75 yards on 10 plays, culminating on a painful jump pass for a 6-yard Marquez Valdes-Scantling touchdown.

From there, the defense had its moment. Kansas City forced two turnovers in its own territory, with one coming when receiver Jamal Agnew fumbled at the Chiefs’ 6-yard line. On Jacksonville’s next possession, seventh-round rookie Jaylen Watson picked off Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who was limited to 217 yards on 39 attempts (5.6 YPA).

Minutes later, Mahomes knelt down. Chiefs 27, Jaguars 20.

But the score is almost beyond the point. The story is about Mahomes’ health moving forward, of course, but also of his team, the other 52 men in red.

Kansas City watched the league MVP go down, and with little time to react, was facing a full-length field with a backup who hadn’t factored into a meaningful second in two years.

It was a defining time for the Chiefs, who so often are seen as a finesse powerhouse with Mahomes as the almighty. And while they can be, and he certainly is, Kansas City showed a toughness few believed it possessed.

What lies ahead is unknown. How will Mahomes’ ankle be, come the AFC Championship Game? We’ve seen some similar before when he sustained a foot injury and a concussion against Cleveland in the 2020 Divisional.

That year, Mahomes destroyed the Buffalo Bills in the conference championship, going 29-of-38 for 325 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-24 win. Right after losing Super Bowl LV, Mahomes had surgery to repair a torn plantar plate.

Again, nobody can say what to expect. The variables are endless.

But what you will see is the Chiefs on Sunday evening, fighting for their third Super Bowl appearance in four years.

They’ve arrived with Mahomes as the main reason. But as Saturday showed, he’s one of many, playing on a team that displayed championship heart when the moment demanded such.

Power rankings

Worst 10 starting QBs in Championship Sunday history (SB era)

1. Dieter Brock, Los Angeles Rams (1985)
2. Mark Malone, Pittsburgh Steelers (1984)
3. Shaun King, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1999)
4. Rex Grossman, Chicago Bears (2006)
5. Steve Fuller, Chicago Bears (1984)
6. Mark Sanchez, New York Jets (2010, ’11)
7. Pat Haden, Los Angeles Rams (1976, ’78)
8. Case Keenum, Minnesota Vikings (2017)
9. Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars (2017)
10. David Woodley, Miami Dolphins (1982)

Quotable

“I know this is high praise, but to have him out there is like having — I shouldn’t even go there — it’s like having Michael Jordan out there. He’s your leader. He’s your guy. Hopefully, that’s the biggest respect I can pay to him, comparing his ability to being on the field to a Michael Jordan type. This guy leads. He brings this calmness to the entire team. He plays great football. He’s as tough as they come. To me, nobody has played any better football than him this year.”

– Philadelphia Eagles coach Nick Sirianni on quarterback Jalen Hurts’ impact

Sirianni is being hyperbolic, but Hurts has earned everyone’s respect this year. In July, I wrote an insider piece on the Eagles and their offseason. It was evident talking to people around the organization how committed they were to building around Hurts. They did exactly that.

Podcast

Random stat

Perhaps my favorite factoid of all time… In 1981, the San Diego Chargers beat the Miami Dolphins in their classic Divisional round matchup in the Orange Bowl, with a game-time temperature of 76 degrees.

The following week, San Diego took on Cincinnati in the Freezer Bowl, with the thermometer reading -59 degrees with the wind chill.

The difference between one week to the next? An ungodly 135 degrees.

Info learned this week

1. AFC and NFC Championship Games should be brilliant

One, a rematch. The other, is a matchup we’ve all been waiting for.

In the AFC, it’s the Cincinnati Bengals visiting the Chiefs after dispatching the Buffalo Bills in easy fashion. Cincinnati was at Arrowhead Stadium in this spot one year ago, with nobody giving it a chance. The Bengals fell behind 21-3 but won anyway, giving Mahomes the worst half of his life.

This time around, it’s unclear how healthy Mahomes will be. The Chiefs remain a force with an improved defense and a diverse set of weapons, but the Bengals won’t have any fear. They’ve played Mahomes three times with Joe Burrow at the controls. They’re 3-0.

GOING DEEP: Bengals, Chiefs is more than a QB battle

Meanwhile, the NFC gives us the top two seeds with the San Francisco 49ers traveling to Philadelphia. Both teams have absurd defenses, perhaps the league’s top two units. Both can rush the passer — the Eagles led the league with 68 sacks, and the Niners counter with 44.

Offensively, Philadelphia has the advantage at quarterback with All-Pro Jalen Hurts and the superior offensive line. However, the 49ers are loaded with skill-position players, somehow more stacked than an Eagles team that has A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith on the perimeter, along with Miles Sanders in the backfield.

This likely comes down to whether Philadelphia can pressure Purdy, and who does a better job in situational areas such as third down and the red zone. To that notion, here are the rankings during the regular season for both teams:

PHI red zone offense: 3rd
PHI red zone defense: 12th
PHI third down offense: 4th
PHI third down defense: 14th

SF red zone offense: 17th
SF red zone defense: 20th
SF third down offense: 6th
SF third down defense: 16th

Advantage, Eagles.

2. Bills have to find tough answers to tougher questions this offseason

On Sunday night, the only thing falling harder than the snow in Buffalo were the dreams.

The Bills were handled easily by Cincinnati, losing 27-10. It never felt that close. The Bengals led 14-0 after two drives and were never seriously threatened. In fact, Buffalo never again had possession with a chance to tie or lead.

For Bills general manager Brandon Beane, it’s time to be honest. His roster is loaded with talent, but even if edge rusher Von Miller had been healthy for last weekend’s tilt, he’s not worth 17 points. For three straight years, the Bills have been a trendy pick to win it all. In two of those seasons, they were blown out twice. The other was 13 Seconds.

This winter, Buffalo sees running back Devin Singletary, linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, safety Jordan Poyer and guard Rodger Saffold hitting free agency. Saffold and Singletary are likely gone. Poyer, turning 32 years old this offseason, is probably gone as well. With quarterback Josh Allen’s cap hit rising to $40 million next year, the cap crunch has arrived.

Beane must find a way to add another weapon and improve in the trenches without oodles of free-agency capital. The best path is the draft, but finding rookie contributors is always difficult.

For Buffalo, this is a tough loss. Tougher than all the others of this era.

This was supposed to be the Bills’ time. Instead, they went home with a whimper.

3. Cowboys must add weapons for Dak Prescott to succeed

Dak Prescott missed five regular-season games with a hand injury. He still led the NFL with 15 interceptions. On Sunday, he tacked on two more and could have had others.

Outside of receiver CeeDee Lamb, the Dallas Cowboys don’t have enough juice on the perimeter. The backfield combination of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard is fine, but there’s nothing else aside from No. 88. And with tight end Dalton Schultz hitting free agency, owner Jerry Jones will be pressed into an aggressive mindset.

Realistically, Dallas isn’t going to advance any further than this in future years without giving Prescott help. He’s a good quarterback, but he’s not elite. He’s not carrying a team to the Super Bowl. If defensive coordinator Dan Quinn sticks around, that side of the football will always be good. But Prescott losing Amari Cooper to a trade with the Cleveland Browns last offseason was crippling for his production.

Looking at Dallas’ cap sheet, the Cowboys are at the projected cap threshold despite having a bevy of quality players hitting free agency including Schultz, Pollard, corner Anthony Brown, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, and others.

Expect the Cowboys to swing big for a receiver in the draft, hoping to find another Lamb.

4. Jaguars prove they belong, now what’s next?

The Jacksonville Jaguars held the previous pair of No. 1 overall pick. On Saturday, they were a few plays away from beating the Chiefs in the AFC Divisional round at Arrowhead Stadium.

Not a bad first step under head coach Doug Pederson.

Jacksonville will look at its loss to Kansas City and bemoan a few critical moments; an unforced fumble by Jamal Agnew, a shoe-string tackle on Agnew’s second big kick return by Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker, a dropped deep ball by Christian Kirk, and a dropped interception by Foyesade Oluokun to name a few.

The Jaguars weren’t blown out by the Chiefs. They weren’t a fraud. They acquitted themselves well. Now, the next phase of their development: going from good to contenders.

Jacksonville has a few key free agents to re-sign in receiver Zay Jones and tight end Evan Engram, but now it must do what it has for the past two years. Draft well.

The Jaguars spent more than any other team in free agency last year, but with expensive deals on the books and next year’s likely extension for quarterback Trevor Lawrence, general manager Trent Baalke needs to find value signings and quality rookies. It was easy to find talent with extra first-round picks and selecting at the top of every round. It won’t be so easy this time around.

If Baalke can continue building — specifically in the secondary and offensive line — by stocking the roster with capable youngsters, the Jaguars will be the clear favorites in the AFC South and a threat to join Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Buffalo in the conference’s elite category soon.

5. Giants have the coach … now must come the players

It’s a rare thing to be beaten by 31 points in a playoff game, and feel great about the season.

Yet that’s where the New York Giants are.

Last season, the Giants were defined by a cowardly decision to run a quarterback sneak on 3rd and 9 in Week 18, trying to get room to punt. That group went 4-13. This team went 9-7-1 under first-year head coach Brian Daboll, who proved he’s finally going to stop the New York carousel sent spinning when Tom Coughlin retired in 2015.

However, general manager Joe Schoen has tough decisions ahead.

The first is quarterback Daniel Jones. There are two smart choices here. Considering their ample cap space, the Giants could be using the non-exclusive franchise tag, which will cost approximately $32.4 million. If a team signs Jones to an offer sheet, New York can match or let him walk, getting two first-round picks in the process. Or, the Giants can let Jones walk and try to draft a replacement, likely needing to move up for a quality prospect.

Then there’s Saquon Barkley. The Giants watched Barkley 21 games in the three seasons preceding 2022 before churning out 1,650 total yards and 10 touchdowns in this campaign. If Barkley gets a long-term deal in New York, expect it to be top-of-market.

Both Jones and Barkley were the chief reasons the offense did anything, with no receivers approaching 1,000 yards.

With the free-agent class very weak and the Giants having tons of cap space, they could opt to use both the transition and franchise tags or decide to continue building through the draft while hoarding the unallocated money, rolling it into future years.

But if the Giants want to keep improving in 2023, it starts with either keeping Jones and Barkley or significantly upgrading the marquee spots on the offense.

Two cents

We’re more than three months from the 2023 NFL Draft in Kansas City. But I have a prediction:

Nobody’s draft stock is more intriguing to watch than Florida’s Anthony Richardson.

In league circles, it’s a given we’ll see Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud and Kentucky’s Will Levis go early in the first round. As an aside, Stroud foregoing his senior season with the Buckeyes is great for quarterback-needy teams but potentially bad for the Chicago Bears, as now there are more options and fewer reasons to trade a bushel in an effort to move up to No. 1 overall.

However, there’s a fourth quarterback to watch in Florida’s Anthony Richardson.

Richardson, while raw, might be the most talented of the group. He’s the kind of prospect most NFL evaluators believe could use a year of coaching and polish, but his arm combined with his athletic ability is tantalizing.

Speaking with one high-ranking personnel evaluator who has done significant film work on Richardson, his comparison was Kordell Stewart. The source felt Richardson compared to Stewart “mentally and athletically” at this juncture, stating he’s both a project and an excellent athlete. All told, the exec has a late second-round grade on the Miami native.

In the SEC this season as a redshirt sophomore, Richardson only completed 53.8 percent of his attempts with 2,549 yards, 17 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. However, he amassed 654 rushing yards and nine scores as well, and all this at 6-foot-4 and 236 pounds.

While the stats are underwhelming, the film, size and potential are dazzling.

And this time of year, those traits can elevate a prospect as much as anything.

Inside the league

Last week was a tough time to be an assistant coach on a playoff team in the NFL.

After seeing their squad lose in the Wild Card round, five of the 12 coordinators were either fired or mutually moved on from including offensive coordinators Greg Roman (Baltimore Ravens), Joe Lombardi (Los Angeles Chargers), and Byron Leftwich (Tampa Bay Buccaneers). The same fate found defensive gurus Josh Boyer (Miami Dolphins) and Joe Donatell (Minnesota Vikings).

While none of those moves are shocking in nature, they’re all different and worth examining on a case-by-case basis.

Roman: He was promoted by Ravens head coach John Harbaugh in 2019 to the coordinator and oversaw the first four years of Lamar Jackson as a full-time starter. His scheme is unique, allowing for a litany of RPOs and eschewing the traditional pass game.

Some feel this will help Jackson, should he stay in Baltimore. This space wonders if its a precursor to a full-scale offensive shift, including the trading of Jackson. The Ravens don’t have the receivers to be successful playing like Buffalo or Kansas City. And in Jackson, he’s a good passer but not a great one. Losing the advantage of his legs on 8-10 plays that turn into passes aimed at a middling receiver? Big gamble.

Leftwich: The former NFL quarterback should have taken the Jaguars’ job when he could have last year. Instead, he’s now coming off a hideous campaign. When Bruce Arians was the head coach in Tampa, Leftwich had additional ideas coming in on the offensive side. With Todd Bowles in that chair, Leftwich was left as the sole game-planner while playing an awful hand with the offensive line being a mess all year. The Bucs’ offense had no chance, and Leftwich was left as the only one to blame.

Leftwich, 43, will get more opportunities, and rightfully so, but he had a fall from grace in 2022.

Lombardi: Everybody saw this coming. The Chargers constantly had Justin Herbert checking down, ranking 31st overall in air yards per completion this year. However, Lombardi only deserves some of the blame. Head coach Brandon Staley hired him, and now he’s gone after two seasons. It’s not a great look for Staley, who is squarely on the hot seat next season.

As for Lombardi, expect him to look for lower-level assistant roles elsewhere. Tough to see him getting another shot at coordinator after tough stops with the Detroit Lions and Chargers.

Donatell: Much like Lombardi, this was expected. Also like the situation in Los Angeles, not a great look for the head coach, this time Kevin O’Connell, who fired his personal choice after one season. Minnesota was a mess all year defensively, ranking 31st overall.

At 65 years old, Donatell has been the coordinator for five teams, dating back to 2000 when he helmed the Green Bay Packers defense. It’s likely time to head for retirement.

Boyer: After three seasons, the defensive coordinator inherited by head coach Mike McDaniel is out. It’s understandable given how poorly Miami’s defense played this year — being 27th against the pass didn’t help. Yet it was also a group ravaged by injuries. Apparently, without the defensive chops of former head coach Brian Flores on the sideline, McDaniel felt Boyer wasn’t capable to do the job.

Before joining the Dolphins with Flores, he worked for a dozen years with the New England Patriots. As usually happens for ex-Patriots coaches, it’s a good bet he winds up back in Foxboro soon enough.

BetSided’s best bet

Eagles ML (-140) vs. 49ers

I don’t mind laying the 2.5 points with the Eagles, but I’m much more confident they’ll simply win this game.

Yes, Philadelphia had a cupcake matchup with the New York Giants this past weekend, but the 49ers didn’t look nearly as dominant against Dallas, even though Dak Prescott was picked twice.

The Brock Purdy story has been fun, but the Eagles have a massive advantage at quarterback, especially with Jalen Hurts looking healthy this past week.

Philadelphia has been dominant at home this season, going 8-2 straight up and 7-3 against the spread. I’m concerned with San Francisco’s offense being able to keep pace with the Eagles, especially after Philly stonewalled the Giants’ running game in the divisional round.

It may not be a fun bet, but the Eagles are advancing to the Super Bowl.

– Peter Dewey

History lesson

The Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers not being in the playoffs is always weird. Them not being in the AFC title game? Also a bit different.

Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, there have now been 53 AFC Championship tilts. Incredibly, the Patriots or Steelers have combined to play in 28 of them, including squaring off twice.

Parting shot

John Madden always talked about finality at the end of playoff games. Truer words, never spoken.

This weekend, four teams were sent home, but how each felt leaving was certainly different.

For the Jaguars and Giants, a sense of accomplishment. Much done, much to do. For the Cowboys, an opportunity was wasted. For the Bills, a disaster after being the Super Bowl favorites for much of the year.

For each of the quartet, the questions — as addressed above — are significant. They’re also going to be answered with varying degrees of cap space, quarterback certainty and draft picks.

But for all four, one common thread is there. They all have good head coaches. Outside of finding the right quarterback, nothing in the NFL is more important.

The season is over. The games are finished for eight months.

Now, the hard, arduous work begins anew.



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