The NFL’s divisional round of the playoffs brought us some interesting football, no doubt about it. The four games over the weekend all featured divergent storylines and memorable action.
Yet as I sat down to break it out into a typical $.05, as is the normal postseason custom, I found myself struggling to make the reach. All four games produced one unifying theme:
The team with the better quarterback play won.
Sure, defenses played a part. A very large part indeed in Philadelphia’s too-easy win over the Giants and the Bengals' romp over the Bills. So did special teams, notably in San Francisco (for better and for worse) and their hard-fought victory over Dallas.
But I kept circling back to the quarterback play. The winners all outplayed their conquered counterparts. Even a hobbled Patrick Mahomes, with a worthy assist from backup Chad Henne, did more to help the Chiefs win than exciting young Trevor Lawrence could manage with the Jaguars in their first postseason road challenge. Brock Purdy, Mr. Irrelevant and San Francisco’s fourth-string QB to open the preseason, was better under the bright lights than Dak Prescott, to Jerry Jones’ disgusted bemusement.
Jalen Hurts didn’t have to do much in the Eagles' 38-7 shellacking of the Giants other than keep the trains running on time. Mission accomplished, while Daniel Jones--fresh off perhaps the best game of his career one week earlier--derailed all over Lincoln Financial Field. Sometimes being the better quarterback is simply not being the worse quarterback. That’s how Purdy and the 49ers prevailed over a shaky Prescott, who like Jones, was absolutely brilliant one week earlier.
The most celebrated quarterback matchup of the weekend was in Buffalo between Joe Burrow and Josh Allen. Burrow proved to be Joe Cool once again, deftly handling pressure and relying on his talented teammates to make plays with him. Allen was in “hero ball” mode almost from the get-go, in part because Cincinnati’s defense completely smothered any semblance of a Buffalo ground game but also because that is typically where Allen thrives. Unfortunately for the Bills, Allen had an off day. Top wideout Stefon Diggs animatedly let him know it on the sidelines, too.
Three of the final four teams are the same as last year. The lone interloper is the Eagles, who (smartly) doubled down on Hurts after he struggled in his postseason debut a year ago. Now he’s one of the leading MVP candidates, along with Burrow and Mahomes. Purdy fits the San Francisco system quite well and is having a magical run for a seventh-round rookie on a team that will never ask him to be the reason it wins. Just don’t be the reason why it loses, and Purdy has done that very well--better than Jimmy Garoppolo ever did in the postseason.
There’s a lesson here for all the other teams trying to get to the conference championship weekend. If you don’t have the right quarterback, you’re going to need a crazy amount of good fortune to best the teams that do. That’s the story of the divisional weekend.