Sports

What We Learned in the Divisional Round of the N.F.L. Playoffs

In the N.F.L.’s divisional-round games, the Bengals got a statement win on the road against the Bills’ fearsome defense, Patrick Mahomes added to his legend by depending on his favored target, and the Eagles’ rout of the Giants provided a measure of clarity for the losing team.

The Bengals’ rushing attack can control a playoff game.

N.F.L. offenses that can throw it all over the field just as well as they ground-and-pound are nightmares for defenses, especially in the playoffs as game-planning gets more specific and the edges get smaller. On Sunday, the Bengals reminded the rest of the field that they are a complete offense.

Joe Burrow threw the Bengals to an early 14-point lead over the Bills. On the game’s first drive, a six-play sequence, Burrow peppered his receivers with passes on a combination of quick throws, intermediate darts and deep balls that included a 23-yard toss to Tyler Boyd and a 28-yard touchdown throw that found Ja’Marr Chase down the middle against a busted coverage.

Cincinnati fans made their way to the stadium’s lower bowl to cheer their team once the outcome became clear.Credit…Ariana Shchuka for The New York Times

Bengals Coach Zac Taylor let the run game take the reins on Cincinnati’s next drive, with Joe Mixon running for 5 yards and then 16 on the first two plays. The downhill runs were aimed between the tackles and tested what the Bills’ response would be. Without the edge defender Von Miller and nose tackle DaQuan Jones, the Bills could not mount a reply.

Playing with a lead over the rest of the game, Burrow conducted the offense with a symphony of short and intermediate passes that were complemented by tough, downhill runs from Mixon and Samaje Perine. Mixon finished with 20 carries for 105 yards and a touchdown, a third-quarter score that was initially ruled short but overturned upon review.

The Bengals ran for 172 yards (to the Bills’ 63) despite three of their starting offensive linemen being out with injuries. Facing the Bengals’ backups, the Bills allowed Cincinnati’s rushers to gain 85 yards before contact, a season-high, after giving up the league’s the fewest yards before contact (0.8 per carry) during the regular season.

In a snowy matchup on the road, the Bengals’ success on the ground helped them control the game. They did not have a single three-and-out, five of their eight drives, excluding their final kneel down, took at least eight plays, and five of their eight drives ended with them scoring. Most important, the Bengals did not have a single turnover in a game that could have turned messy, given the volume of the home crowd, the icy weather, and the inexperience of the center snapping the ball.

It wasn’t the most explosive performance, but hanging 27 points against a defense that ranked in the top six in yards and points allowed per game makes a statement.

Travis Kelce was key to Patrick Mahomes winning his ‘ankle game.’

Disaster almost struck for Kansas City on Saturday night. With just over two minutes left in the first quarter, the star quarterback Patrick Mahomes got his right ankle rolled up on by the Jaguars pass-rusher Arden Key. It wasn’t an intentional move, but Key’s entire body weight fell on top of the ankle, reducing Mahomes’s mobility to a grimacing hobble for the remainder of the quarter.

Mahomes finished that drive, which ended with a 50-yard field goal from Harrison Butker that gave Kansas City a 10-7 lead, but was replaced by the veteran backup Chad Henne on the next. Henne led a surprisingly calm touchdown drive, but Mahomes came back on the following possession, his right ankle wrapped heavily in tape, and didn’t quite look right physically. He hobbled to hand the ball off from under center and wasn’t moving with the same burst.

Kansas City tried to play out of the shotgun as much as possible to limit how much moving Mahomes had to do, but that wasn’t the only modification it made. Coach Andy Reid moved tight end Travis Kelce all around the formation — from an in-line position, to the slot, to out wide — all to confuse the Jaguars, who did not have a player capable of defending him.

Kansas City used Travis Kelce in several positions, including his traditional tight end spot and in the slot, in its win over the Jaguars on Saturday. Credit…Jay Biggerstaff/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Kelce caught two touchdowns and finished with 14 receptions, the most in a playoff game by a tight end since the 1970 A.F.L.-N.F.L. merger. He previously shared the record with two others after he had 13 receptions in a January 2021 postseason game.

Mahomes, on one healthy leg, delivered a performance only he is capable of putting together, completing 22 of 30 passes for 195 yards and two touchdowns and finishing with a quarterback rating of 77.0. But his success was owed to more than just finding his favorite target. Mahomes proved again there isn’t a football problem he can’t solve, including how to be creative with only one healthy ankle.

With Kansas City leading by 20-17 midway through the fourth quarter, Mahomes effectively iced the game with a shifty pocket movement and throw off his left, healthy foot. Kansas City started in a trips formation on second-and-goal from the 6-yard line. Mahomes initially looked to his left to the isolated receiver, tight end Noah Gray, but press coverage took the slant route away.

Without panic, Mahomes shuffled up in a closing pocket, jumped off his left foot, and flicked the ball to the back of the end zone for Marquez Valdes-Scantling, giving Kansas City a two-score cushion.

Mahomes’s performance would have been impressive if he’d been in good health. Delivering it on a busted ankle — after having to plead with Reid and the training staff to stay in the game — was something else entirely. His gift for constantly finding new ways to dazzle added to his legacy on Saturday night.

The Giants finally know what they’ve got in Daniel Jones.

The Giants should be celebrated for defying the odds this season. Earning a playoff spot, nevermind winning a postseason game, with a first-year head coach and a roster in need of a rebuild is a testament to the team’s creativity and determination.

Reality slaps all but one team in the face by the end of the season, though, and the Giants are smarting after getting thumped, 38-7, by the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round. The Giants’ front office, led by Joe Schoen in his first year as general manager, faces several personnel decisions but none more important than what to do with quarterback Daniel Jones.

Coach Brian Daboll completely retooled the offense to accentuate Jones’s strengths, so the optimistic view is that the offense can only get better as it adds pass-catching talent. After the Giants shifted to a run-heavy approach that regularly called on Jones to use his legs, Jones finished fourth among passers with 120 rushes, almost double last season’s total. (Only Chicago’s Justin Fields, Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts and Buffalo’s Josh Allen had more carries.)

Daniel Jones found success in Coach Brian Daboll’s offense throughout the season, but he struggled to be a dynamic passer on Saturday against Philadelphia.Credit…Desiree Rios/The New York Times

In the passing game, Daboll put a premium on getting the ball out quickly and limiting negative plays, an approach that sort of saved Jones, who is more prone to making mistakes the longer he holds the football, from himself. Daboll also excelled at facilitating open throws underneath and off play-action.

With the right additions at receiver, that approach could find a new level. The Giants got by this year with Richie James, Darius Slayton, and Isaiah Hodgins but none are options worthy of being a No. 1 receiver. James is undersized at 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds; Slayton is mostly a deep threat; and Hodgins, a surprisingly effective midseason addition, has yet to show he can handle a heavy load over a full season. An injection of star talent — perhaps through a trade for Arizona’s DeAndre Hopkins or a first-round selection in the draft — might open up new possibilities both for Daboll and Jones.

The more pragmatic viewpoint, however, is that Jones hasn’t shown he is the kind of quarterback who can elevate those around him enough to warrant him commanding a healthy portion of a team’s cap space. It’s true that Jones has come alive as a runner and reduced his interceptions to a career-low five in the regular season, but both of those developments were meant to limit his errors as a drop-back passer.

Dual-threat quarterbacks run the N.F.L., and Jones has not shown that he’s enough of a threat in the pocket. Against the Eagles, Jones was not able to scan the full field and be a dynamic passer, especially when it came to throwing in tight windows.

The Giants are now caught in a spot where they have a formula with Jones that works, but only in specific, low-ceiling ways. Jones is making only about $8.4 million against the salary cap, according to overthecap.com. A new Jones contract would likely either be a franchise tag (roughly $45 million) or a mid-tier deal similar to what Ryan Tannehill got with the Titans at around $30 million per year guaranteed. There may still be more to unlock with Jones, but the Giants would have a hefty price to pay in order to find out and an even steeper cost if they find out they’ve already hit their ceiling with him.

Around the N.F.L.

Bengals 27, Bills 10: The Bengals won this physical matchup amid the snowy conditions in Western New York. After Joe Burrow and the Bengals’ passing game provided them a comfy 14-0 lead through the first quarter, the team’s run game and defense took over. Despite rushing behind a backup-filled offensive line, Joe Mixon had zero issues repeatedly plunging through the heart of the Bills’ defense to the tune of 105 yards and a touchdown. On the other end, the Bills couldn’t run the ball whatsoever, nor could their receivers win their battles on the sideline. Josh Allen was left frantically throwing to covered receivers and carrying what little run game the team had, but it wasn’t enough for the Bills to prevail.

Eagles 38, Giants 7: It’s hardly surprising that the Eagles crushed the division-rival Giants after sweeping them in the regular season, which included a 48-22 beatdown in Week 14 in New Jersey. Like that first matchup, the Eagles’ endless skill-position talent won out. On the first drive of the game, Philadelphia quarterback Jalen Hurts delivered a wonderful 40-yard deep ball to DeVonta Smith, immediately setting the tone for the rest of the night. When it became clear the game would have to be a shootout for the Giants to keep up, they had nothing in the tank. Their offense is built for a slow-building, death-by-a-thousand-papercuts attack. Credit the Giants for unexpectedly making it this far, but this game ended exactly how it should have.

Kansas City 27, Jaguars 20: Gimpy ankle, no problem. After busting up his right ankle in the first quarter, Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes battled back to lead his team to yet another playoff win. Mahomes nickel-and-dimed the Jaguars’ defense, almost exclusively using tight end Travis Kelce to do so. The fourth-seeded Jaguars put up a decent fight given the talent disparity, but ultimately they did not have the wide receiver talent to keep pace on the scoreboard.

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