Throughout the six games of Super Wild Card Weekend and four Divisional Round matchups, the four best teams in the NFL – even if it wasn’t always pretty – persevered.
In the NFC, the two-seed 49ers faced their division rivals, the seven-seed Seahawks, while the one-seed Eagles enjoyed their first-round bye during Super Wild Card Weekend. Even with stellar rookies and excellent play from revitalized former backup quarterback Geno Smith, the Seahawks were largely expected to struggle.
While Seattle managed to go into halftime with a 17-16 lead, the Niners proved too much to handle. Penalties set the Seattle offense back and Smith had two costly turnovers that the hungry Niners defense was able to capitalize on. The Niners dominated the second half and won easily.
The Niners then welcomed the Dallas Cowboys to Santa Clara after quarterback Dak Prescott ripped through a weak Tampa secondary for four touchdowns and the blowout win in a previous game. The Cowboys defense made Tom Brady look mortal, pressuring him constantly and forcing him into a bad interception.
In a matchup of former Falcons coaches, Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s unit, led by hybrid edge/linebacker Micah Parsons and ballhawk cornerback Trevon Diggs, matched up well against Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan’s versatile offense. Both defenses came to play, with San Francisco holding onto a slim 9-6 lead at halftime.
However, the Niners defense forced Prescott into two big picks and dual-threat running back Tony Pollard went down, ending Dallas’s running offense for the night. Halftime made the difference — the Niners bottled up the run and forced Dak into several off throws.
What makes San Francisco so dangerous is their array of playmakers on both sides of the ball. Rookie quarterback Brock Purdy — an unheralded seventh-round pick — has effectively distributed the ball to receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk and unlocked tight end George Kittle as a red-zone threat.
On the ground, do-it-all running back Christian McCaffrey and premier left tackle Trent Williams make it difficult for defenses to control the line of scrimmage. Their defense is even better, led by the standout linebacker duo of coverage eraser Fred Warner and hard hitter Dre Greenlaw.
In the trenches, dominant sack artist Nick Bosa (18.5 sacks this year) and defensive stalwart Arik Armstead pose a matchup nightmare for any offensive line. This is a tough, physical team that even has its wide receivers blocking with an attitude. They’re going to need to bring every bit of that attitude — because the Eagles team they’re facing is no slouch either.
Unlike San Francisco, the Eagles had no problem dispatching their divisional round opponent. Coming off some much needed rest, they faced off against a six-seed upstart New York Giants team that defied expectations the whole year.
In their first season under innovative offensive head coach Brian Daboll, the Giants snapped a six-year playoff drought by using a creative rushing and play-action offense that melded the talents of their superstar running back Saquon Barkely with the elusiveness of quarterback Daniel Jones.
Those two players were instrumental in their upset Wild Card win over a three-seeded Minnesota Vikings team that found themselves on the right side of one-score games repeatedly. However, the Eagles were a different caliber of team that the Giants were not equipped to handle. Philly’s defense bottled up Jones and Barkley while the offensive line powered through the Giants’ vaunted defensive tackles, Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams, for over 200 rushing yards.
The Eagles’ strongest point is their defensive and offensive lines. Edge rusher Haason Reddick’s otherworldly speed and burst funnels quarterbacks into the arms of his powerful counterparts, Josh Sweat and Brandon Graham. Their interior defensive line runs five-deep with tackles Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave, Ndamukong Suh, Linval Joseph and Jordan Davis.
If teams manage to throw against Philadelphia, cornerbacks Darius Slay and James Bradberry, as well as safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnston, can erase receivers and grab interceptions. The offensive line, bookended by standout left and right tackles Jordan Mailata and Lane Johnson, works with ageless center Jason Kelce to keep dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts clean as he throws to talented wide receivers AJ Brown and Devonta Smith.
Expect a physical matchup between them and San Francisco to determine who can out-muscle the other for a trip to the Super Bowl.
Turning over to the AFC, it is a repeat of last year’s championship game as quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs hope to exact revenge against quarterback Joe Burrow and the Bengals.
The Chiefs rested on Wild Card Weekend while the Bengals clashed with their division rivals, the Baltimore Ravens. Minus their star quarterback Lamar Jackson, the Ravens defense needed to carry the team and they couldn’t do it all. A late-game fumble return for a touchdown gave the Bengals the narrow victory, but they needed to quickly turn their attention to the Buffalo Bills.
Carried by the rocket arm of Josh Allen and his connection with shifty route-runner Stefon Diggs, the Bills eked out a victory over a talented Miami Dolphins team that was without quarterback Tua Tagavailoa. Even considering their matchup against Dolphin’s speedy receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, the Buffalo defense was not impressive in that game and it came back to bite them when playing Cincinnati. They looked slow and sluggish against a methodical Bengals offense that defied the snowy conditions to earn a win.
Burrow’s poise and ability to extend plays is special, but he’s also throwing to maybe the most complete receiver in football in Ja’Marr Chase and the big-bodied Tee Higgins. Tyler Boyd is reliable as a slot receiver while running back Joe Mixon runs hard on the ground.
On defense, edge rusher Trey Hendrickson and defensive tackle D.J Reader get pressure on quarterbacks and shut down run schemes while the safety duo of Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell cleans up coverage on the back-end. The Bengals play great team football and can win shootouts with anybody, even if they don’t have a very talented offensive line. Under Burrow, they’ve never lost to Kansas City — could this be the year that changes?
Even though the Chiefs got a first-round bye, they still had to play the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars, who had a historic comeback against the LA Chargers in the Wild Card. Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence, a former ACC standout, showed Burrow-esque poise in the second half as he and running back Travis Etienne, along with a scrappy defense, set up the game-winning field goal. Unfortunately, the Jaguars weren’t in the same tier as the Chiefs, who looked unstoppable until Mahomes sprained his ankle while moving in the pocket. They were able to close the game out, but a hobbled Mahomes is worrying. The likely 2023 NFL MVP is the engine of the Chiefs offense, predicated on his connection with game-breaking tight end Kelce.
It could be significantly harder to do so against Cincinnati in his injured state — which means it will come down to the pass-rushing tandem of Chris Jones and Frank Clark to pressure Burrow into turnovers.
Cornerback Trent McDuffie is a young, talented player and linebacker Nick Bolton is a force in the middle, but this defense is short on shining stars outside of the pass rush. They need to hang with Burrow and his dangerous receivers to give Mahomes a chance to work all the magic he can muster – which makes for a truly unpredictable game.
A common theme in all four teams is having game-changers in the trenches, an elite quarterback or both. These are the traits of elite teams and the NFL should be happy that the four candidates for SB LVII in Arizona are equally deserving.