Game balls – Divisional Round

And then there were four…

This weekend, the last eight teams did battle and the victors are now just a win away from Super Bowl LVI. Unlike the Wild Card Round last week, there were no easy blowouts by the favourites. In fact, all four Divisional Round games were won with no time remaining in regulation, or in overtime. Both top seeds (Green Bay and Tennessee) fell as the Cincinnati Bengals, San Francisco 49ers and LA Rams were victorious road underdogs. Even though all three teams won with walk-off field goals, the closest (and best) was saved till last, as the Bills and Chiefs traded four scores and 25 points – three go-ahead touchdowns and a game-tying FG – in the final two minutes before Kansas City won it with the first possession in OT.

In short, the Bengals allowed nine sacks. The Niners failed to score an offensive touchdown. The Rams gave up four fumbles and let a 27-3 lead slip. The Chiefs gave up a go-ahead TD with 13 seconds of regulation time remaining. And yet, they all won!

Let’s pick through the bones and hand out some F10Y game balls while we’re at it, including an honorary one to the NFL for what was arguably the best Divisional Round weekend ever.

Offensive player of the week

Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs

Ed Zurga – AP Photo

With the return of Derrick Henry to the Titans line-up, big things were expected from running backs this week. However, Henry (62 yards from 20 carries) was largely held in check as the Titans lost 19-16 to Cincinnati. Even so, the only RB to top his yardage on the ground was teammate D’Onta Foreman, with a 66-yard tally from just four totes.

We certainly saw more success through the air. Green Bay’s Aaron Jones added 129 receiving yards – including a 75-yard catch-and-run – to his 41 on the ground in their 13-10 loss to the 49ers, while Cincinnati’s Ja’Marr Chase (109) and Tee Higgins (96) were hovering around the 100-yard mark. But while all the attention was turned towards ‘King’ Henry, the Titans’ AJ Brown was the only wideout to score a touchdown on Saturday – and a very fine TD it was. (Read on to find out more…)

On Sunday, we saw the receiving yardage totals sneak northwards, thanks to Tyreek Hill (150 yards, 1 TD), Cooper Kupp (183 yards, 1 TD) and the non-QB player of the round, Gabriel Davis. The Buffalo WR ended up with 201 receiving yards from just eight receptions; half of those went for touchdowns (a new NFL Playoff record), including a 75-yarder in the third quarter. Stefon who?

With that information, you’d be right in thinking that his quarterback, Josh Allen, must be in contention for the game ball. Despite the Bills losing 42-36 in OT, Allen had a fantastic game, throwing 27 of 37 for 329 yards and those four TD passes to Davis (that’s nine passing TDs in two playoff games). He also rushed 11 times for 68 yards, surpassing all running backs this weekend, and would’ve retained his offensive player of the week title (and been playing for the AFC Championship) if it weren’t for PATRICK MAHOMES.

Bills fans must be wondering what they need to do to beat this guy, having fallen to the Chiefs in the playoffs last year too. This time, the mercurial Mahomes was the week’s QB1 and RB1, which takes some doing. Mahomes completed 33 of his 44 attempts for 378 yards, three TDs and no INTs, and rushed seven times for a weekend-high 69 yards, diving in for another score to boot.

The game highlights included four consecutive scoring possessions in the fourth quarter, culminating in an eight-play, 75-yard TD drive that took just 13 seconds(!) to get the Chiefs into field goal range and force OT. Mahomes managed to evade pressure and dished out a variety of throws, not least to combine with Hill and Travis Kelce 19 times for 246 yards and 2 TDs. They included the 8-yard TD reception by Kelce that sees KC host the AFC Championship for the fourth straight year.

When it’s grim, be the Grim Reaper and go get it,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid apparently said to his QB before that final drive of regulation time. And Mahomes killed it.

Defensive player of the week

Jeffery Simmons, DT, Tennessee Titans

Christopher Hanewinckel – USA TODAY Sports

And the winner is… TJ Watt! Oh no, hang on, that was last week. And the week before. This time round, we got to witness some fine defensive play from players other than the Steelers’ defensive end for a change…

In the Niners’ three-point win over the Packers, the DE pairing of Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead combined to sack Aaron Rodgers four of the five times he hit the deck. Bosa also registered a forced fumble, as did teammate Fred Warner, on an uncharacteristically poor night for Rodgers (225 yards, no TDs).    

Even without the injured Larry Ogunjobi, Cincy’s run D held firm against Derrick Henry and co, most notably stuffing him on a 2-point attempt from the 1-yard line. They had three interceptions of the wayward Ryan Tannehill too, all at pivotal moments in the game. Jessie Bates snagged Tannehill’s first pass attempt of the night, Mike Hilton tipped and caught the first throw of the second half and to help set up a grandstand finish – a 52-yard walk-off FG by rookie Evan McPherson* – Eli Apple broke up a pass that landed in Logan Wilson’s grateful clutches.

But the defensive effort of the weekend definitely came from their opponents Tennessee, who somehow lost by three points despite sacking Joe Burrow a staggering nine times for a loss of 68 yards. Denico Autry (1.5), Harold Landry III (1.5), David Long Jr (1) and Bud Dupree (1) all joined in the fun but the game ball goes to defensive tackle JEFFERY SIMMONS for his three sacks and three more tackles for loss. Simmons was charging up the interior almost at will, powering through the gossamer-thin Cincy O-line to get up in Burrow’s grille time after time. It’s no ticket to the AFC Championship game but we hope a F10Y game ball is at least some consolation.

* Note to self: We must have a Special Teams game ball next season. McPherson was perfect with his four FGs, including two from over 50 yards, and became the first player in NFL history to make four-plus FGs in more than one postseason game (having also done so last week against the Raiders). 

Coach of the week

DeMeco Ryans, DC, San Francisco 49ers

Marcio Jose Sanchez – AP Photo

This one might fly under the radar a little but Andy Reid managed a great game on Sunday. As well as the offensive play-calling, Kansas City only conceded one penalty, didn’t turn the ball over and gave up just two sacks for eight yards. But arguably the key to the win was that they didn’t waste any timeouts on unnecessary errors. That meant Patrick Mahomes needed only 10 of the final 13 seconds of regulation time to drive 44 yards into field-goal range, stopping the clock with eight and then three seconds left. Without those two timeouts, the Chiefs would have run out of time.

But after a namecheck last week, we have to upgrade DEMECO RYANS to game-ball winner this time. San Francisco’s first-year Defensive Coordinator has pieced together two solid game plans in succession, shutting down the Cowboys – the league’s top offence – on Super Wild Card Weekend before holding the Packers to just 10 points (Rodgers’ fewest in 21 postseason games) and sacking him five times.

Giving up just the one TD and less than 275 yards of offence sounds like a recipe for success, and it was. The San Fran offence hardly set the world on fire but their defence meant they didn’t have to. After the opening TD drive, the Packers’ remaining nine possessions went: fumble, punt, punt, punt, blocked field goal, punt, field goal, blocked punt touchdown, punt. That’s solid D.

Rebounding from a 3-5 start that included five losses in six games, the Niners have showed they can win by any means necessary on any given Sunday. This week, it was very much a defensive effort. Who needs offensive TDs, eh?

Play of the week

Amani Hooker, S, Tennessee Titans

Getty Images

Harking back to the need for a Special Teams category next season, the 49ers had a couple of big moments. Defensive back Jimmie Ward blocked a FG attempt at the end of the first half to keep the Packers’ lead at 7-0 and later on, Jordan Willis blocked a punt straight up in the air. No one knew where the ball was for a while, until it landed inside Green Bay’s 5-yard line. From there, safety Talanoa Hufanga ran it back for a game-tying touchdown, silencing the crowd at a snowy Lambeau Field.

The Rams did everything they could to let the Buccaneers back into Sunday’s showdown and watched a 24-point lead ebb away, but in the end, they sealed a 30-27 win with the third game-winning FG of the weekend. With blitzers bearing down on him, Stafford found his No.1 target, Cooper Kupp, with a 44-yard strike over the middle and allowed just enough time for a spike and the deciding field goal from Matt Gay.

Buffalo’s Josh Allen showed patience and elusiveness in finding Stefon Diggs for a vital two-point conversion with 1:54 left to go in the fourth quarter while barely a minute later, Tyreek Hill’s scorching 64-yard catch and go-ahead TD run featured his trademark V-sign, even though he still had a good 15 yards to go and a man to beat.

AMANI HOOKER’s athletic but contested INT could also have been a game-changing moment for the Titans but a later turnover in the opposite direction sealed Tennessee’s fate. Nonetheless, it was a memorable play, as he stretched down to lift the ball off the turf after a short pass to Cincy’s Samaje Perine bounced off his hands. Hooker’s fingertip catch looked like it had hit the ground simultaneously and Bengals HC Zac Taylor did contest the on-field decision, but there wasn’t enough evidence to overrule the original call. The turnover, which earns the Titans safety our game ball, set up another stunning play immediately afterwards, with Ryan Tannehill dropping a 33-yard dime through double coverage to AJ Brown, who reversed into the end zone while somehow making a one-handed TD reception.            

Gaffe of the week

Whoever wrote the overtime rules

Getty Images

Sure, both Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers had bad days at the office, prompting immediate debate about their futures. And yes, some players, such as Cam Akers and Matt Stafford, were fumbling the ball away like it was a hand grenade with the pin out. But on a weekend of great football across four competitive games, it seems churlish to pick on such minor errors.

Rather, I’m going to give the gaffe of the week to the person (or people) responsible for devising the current rules governing overtime, which denied fans yet more of an absolutely enthralling Bills v Chiefs contest.

With 31 points scored after the two-minute warning, this was the best game of the night, the week, the season and arguably all of playoff history. Bills QB Josh Allen balled out big-time, trading blows with Patrick Mahomes to the tune of 397 total yards and four touchdowns. Then we reached OT and we greedy supporters just wanted to gorge on more! However, all Allen could do was watch from the bench because he lost the coin toss. With his team’s season on the line, not getting another possession is a travesty. Yes, Buffalo needed to make a stop, but both defences must have been gassed by that point.

In my humble opinion, the coin toss shouldn’t give one team such an advantage. That said, Buffalo’s decision to kick the ball into the end zone and give Mahomes 13 seconds to get into field-goal range at the end of regulation needs to be questioned too. A low, bouncing ‘squib kick’ might have been wiser: it would have burned up a couple more seconds, been more unpredictable to catch and might have fallen to someone other than the designated kick returner.

But that’s a moot point: I just don’t think the OT rules are fair. Perhaps both teams should have a possession each and if it’s still even after that, they go again. Interestingly, Kansas proposed such a rule change a couple of years ago but other teams (including the Bills) voted against it so I guess that’s karma at work.

Or maybe the NFL should copy the other code of football and play a set period of overtime. If the teams are even after that (for regular season games), so be it – it’s a tie (god forbid we have such an abomination!). And in the playoffs, when a winner is required, could they instigate a variation of the penalty shootout, with kickers attempting FGs from increasing distances until someone misses? At least that way, both teams get a fair crack of the whip to win (or lose) in OT. I don’t think a level playing field is that much to ask for with so much at stake.

Feature image: Getty Images

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