Then there were four…
The conference championship matchups are now set following the Divisional Round, which saw the Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Rams, New England Patriots and New Orleans win their respective games to advance.
Andrew Luck was stunningly shut down by the KC defense (or was it the weather?), C.J. Anderson proved the Rams can run over pretty much anyone, the Pats showed they’re not quite dead yet, and the Saints overcame a brutal start to dominate the defending champs.
We also learned that Andy Reid has a red-hot temper when it comes to fans misbehaving.
These were the biggest winners and losers from the Divisional Round.
Winner: C.J. Anderson and Todd Gurley crushed the Cowboys
It’s funny. The past week or so the NFL community has been up to its eyeballs in jokes about Sean McVay due to the way the coaching hires have gone — every team is looking for the next quarterback whisperer. Then on Saturday night, the youngest head coach in the league turned that narrative on its head by running the ball down Dallas’ throat with Anderson and Gurley.
Anderson was the workhorse on a night in which it was clear early on that Gurley still isn’t quite 100-percent healthy. He toted the rock 23 times for 123 yards and two touchdowns. Gurley was no slouch, either, tallying 115 yards on 16 carries and a dynamic 35-yard touchdown scamper.
Jared Goff wasn’t exactly sharp, but it didn’t matter much. The ‘Boys couldn’t stop the Rams on the ground, and the outcome was never really in doubt from the second quarter on.
Loser: Colts’ offensive line crumbled
During the regular season, Andrew Luck endured only 18 sacks as he played behind the best offensive line the Colts have provided for him in his career. On Saturday at Arrowhead, the Chiefs had their way with this line.
Andrew Luck was sacked three times — including the game-sealing sack-strip by Dee Ford — and hit six times. He was under pressure throughout the game, and Kansas City’s defensive linemen also batted down a ton of passes.
The run game was also less than stellar. If we take away the two long runs by Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines 20 and 14 yards, the two backs managed just 36 yards on their 10 other carries. It was a complete 180-degree turn to the south for a unit that had previously dominated — especially in the past month or so.
Winner: Mahomes passes his first huge test
It’s pretty crazy that Patrick Mahomes didn’t throw a single touchdown pass against the Colts and still engineered a blowout win. The second-year signal caller played a beautiful game, taking what the defense gave him, shrugging off an early knee injury and rushing in a score with a Superman leap to the pylon that had everyone on their feet.
All told, Mahomes tallied 284 yards, vastly outplaying his counterpart. He continued to make the same type of jaw-dropping throws that have wowed us all year long, heavily utilizing his two stars — Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce — en route to an easy victory to advance into the AFC Championship Game.
Loser: Chargers’ defense forgot to show up
It was pretty stunning to see a defense that was so on-the-money a week ago get so brutally owned Sunday against the Patriots. Gus Bradley was rightfully praised for the gameplan he drew up against Baltimore. He deserves plenty of scorn for his stinker against New England, too, as Josh McDaniels thoroughly outcoached him all game long.
The Patriots scored touchdowns on their first four drives to open the game. Bradley’s defense only had 10 men on the field for the first of those.
By halftime, the Pats had 199 more yards, 18 more first downs and 28 more points than their opponent. They finished with 498 total yards, 30 first downs and 41 points. This game was over before it ever started, in large part because Bradley’s defense was a no-show.
Winner: The Brees/Thomas connection is pure joy
The way Drew Brees and Michael Thomas are playing these days, one cannot help but dread the day when the future Hall of Fame quarterback calls it quits. They are darn-near unstoppable.
On Sunday, after a horrid start that saw Brees throw an interception on the first play of the game, the two of them took the game over in the final three quarters. Brees targeted Thomas 16 times, connecting with the dynamic receiver 12 times for 171 yards and a touchdown.
Brees is certainly one of the best quarterbacks today. Thomas is arguably the game’s most reliable receiver. Together, they bring a huge smile to the face of anyone who’s not rooting against them and loves this game.
Loser: Old man Rivers falls by the wayside
Philip Rivers isn’t fully to blame for the Chargers’ struggles on offense Sunday against New England. His offensive line was bad, he had no running game, Keenan Allen was pretty much invisible aside from his busted-coverage touchdown in the first half — it was bad.
But Rivers did himself no favors, either. He was way off target on way too many throws (25-of-51 passing) and let a bad call by the refs really get to him, seemingly knocking him off his game. Sure, he deserves credit for fighting until the end, but it was way too little, way too late.
Rivers’ window to win a championship before he retires is slowly closing. This was a year that many thought could be his chance to finally put a ring on his finger. To go out the way he did on Sunday was…well, it wasn’t ideal.
Winner: Wade Phillips dials up a gem
Just hours before the opening kickoff Saturday night in Los Angeles, some disparaging comments made by Troy Aikman about Phillips and his “embarrassing” run defense circulated. To be fair, the Rams really haven’t been great about stopping the run most of the year, finishing 23rd in run defense.
With two weeks to prepare for the game against Dallas, Phillips drew up a masterful game plan that absolutely shut down Ezekiel Elliott. The Cowboys managed a grand total of 50 yards on the ground and Dak Prescott didn’t do nearly enough through the air to compensate for the lack of production.
If the Rams can play this caliber of defense throughout the remainder of the postseason, they have a legitimate shot at winning it all.
Loser: Eagles couldn’t run the ball
Losing left tackle Jason Peters early in the game hurt the Eagles, to be sure. But even when he was playing Philly never could establish anything on the ground. Wendall Smallwood managed just 33 yards on 10 carries, and the Eagles as a team rushed for just 49 yards on 16 carries.
In a game that saw Nick Foles struggle in the final three quarters, having nothing else to fall back on really hurt the defending champs.
One wonders if the decision to abstain from playing rookie Josh Adams was a big mistake. He fell out of favor once Foles took over and the Eagles started running more of an RPO-centric offense. But on Sunday, they needed a sledgehammer and all they could find was a toothpick.
Winner: Sony Michel proves his value
Sunday’s game clearly illustrated why Bill Belichick broke out of character and drafted a running back — Sony Michel — in the first round last spring. This rookie was outstanding Sunday as the Pats took the Chargers behind the woodshed.
Michel provided the balance New England needed to keep the Chargers’ pass rushers from attacking Tom Brady. He consistently gained huge chunks of yardage, finishing with 129 yards on the ground. Of course, he also put a bunch of points on the scoreboard with three touchdowns.
Everyone’s been wanting to write of the Patriots because Rob Gronkowski isn’t as explosive as he used to be and Tom Brady is old. Michel gives them a burst of life, and his performance Sunday was a huge key to why they won big.
Loser: Andrew Luck was awful
Even before the game started, reporters on the field watching Luck warm up noted he seemed to struggle with the elements. On a wet, miserable day at Arrowhead Stadium, Luck was really just plain bad.
We’ve already discussed how the Chiefs were able to generate pressure. And that clearly had a big impact on Luck’s comfort level. But even when he had time to throw he missed his receivers — often bouncing passes short.
The end result was a 203-yard showing in which Luck completed just 19-of-36 passes. It was one of his worst games all year, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time for his team.
Winner: Marshon Lattimore had a monster game and sparked the win
Just when it looked like the Eagles were going to go up by three scores and absolutely take the game over, Lattimore stepped up and made a remarkable interception that changed the outcome of the game.
Leaping up in front of his man, he picked off Nick Foles (watch here). Not long after that, Sean Payton got gutsy with a fake field goal, which sparked the first touchdown of the game for the Saints. From there, New Orleans had all the momentum and went on to win the game.
Lattimore also came down with the second interception of the game when Alshon Jeffery dropped a pass with under two minutes remaining. So, the cornerback was responsible for the play that turned the tide, and for the one that iced the game.
Loser: Dak came up short
The NFL’s great quarterbacks earn that label because they have what it takes to put the offense on their backs and make game-winning plays when nothing else is working. So far in his career, Dak Prescott has not been able to do that. In games that Elliott has rushed for fewer than 75 yards, Dallas is 0-7, including Saturday night’s loss in Los Angeles.
Now, looking at the stats it doesn’t seem like Prescott really had a “bad” game. He completed 20-of-32 passes for 266 yards and threw a touchdown. But honestly Amari Cooper did most of the work on that score (watch here). And while Prescott’s 44-yard completion to Michael Gallup was a thing of beauty he was unable to do much else downfield.
I’m not here to hate on Dak. What I am saying is that he didn’t do enough as the leader of the offense when his team needed him to step up and take the reins.
Winner: KC’s defense came to play
A defense that has been widely pegged as the reason Kansas City won’t win a championship this year showed up with a massive chip on its shoulder against the Colts.
The Chiefs were outstanding at all three levels. They held Andrew Luck and Co. to just 263 total yards and 15 first downs. They didn’t allow Indy to convert a single third down. They didn’t allow a single red-zone score.
Justin Houston, Dee Ford and Chris Jones dominated up front. The secondary pulled its weight. It really was an eye-opening showing from a defense that got picked apart for much of the year.
Loser: Nick Foles finally lost his mojo
Early on, it looked like Nick Foles still had the magic and that the Eagles were going to somehow take down the mighty Saints. The backup quarterback started 9-of-10 for 127 yards and a touchdown, and the Eagles went up 14-0 in the first quarter.
Well, the magic wore off. For the first time since in what seems like forever, Foles played poorly in a playoff game. He threw a bad interception to Lattimore in the second quarter and struggled to find a rhythm in the final three quarters.
All told, Foles completed just 18-of-30 passes for 201 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.
Winner: The Julian-James duo was unstoppable
Whenever Brady needed a big play through the air, he looked for Julian Edelman or James White. The two diminutive pass catchers absolutely roasted the Chargers, time and time again, extending drives and converting short passes into long gains.
Of the 343 total yards Brady accumulated through the air, these two combined for a large chunk of that, catching a combined total of 24 passes for 248 yards.
Their ability to quickly navigate into open spaces was another huge reason the Chargers barely touched Brady in the pocket. Death by a million paper cuts — a strategy the Pats have employed for years and one that keeps working.
Loser: Dallas’ defense got trucked
Coming into Saturday’s game in Los Angeles, the Cowboys were seen as one of the few teams that could actually slow down the Rams’ rushing attack. They featured the fifth-ranked run defense in 2018 and did an amazing job the week before against Seattle.
Granted, the Dallas defense had been burned pretty bad a few times on the road during the 2018 campaign, but this was a defense that looked to be peaking.
Obviously, the trend went down the toilet against Los Angeles. The Rams ran roughshod over the ‘Boys, racking up 273 yards on the ground while piling up 30 first downs and dominating the time-of-possession battle.