Divisonal round of NFL playoffs exceeds the hype

Lions quarterback Jared Goff throws a pass downfield with Buccaneers defensive lineman Vita Vea in hot pursuit. // Photo courtesy of Carlos Osorio AP Photo

Anticipation swirled around all four games of the NFL Divisional Round as each game came with its own exciting headlines. How will the Houston Texans’ rookie duo of head coach DeMeco Ryans and quarterback C.J. Stroud fare against a Super Bowl frontrunner in the  Baltimore Ravens? Could Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur and quarterback Jordan Love shock the dominant San Francisco 49ers? After years of underwhelming teams, can the Detroit Lions make a historic run to the NFC Championship game? Last but certainly not least, will the AFC’s marquee quarterback rivalry between Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs and Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills end in another Mahomes victory?

In the first game of the weekend between Houston and Baltimore, the Ravens capped their opening drive off with a field goal to take a 3-0 lead. A couple drives later, Stroud led a Texans scoring drive to tie the game, 3-3. The Ravens opened the second quarter with a long, balanced drive ending with a touchdown before the Texans responded with a punt return touchdown to tie the game at 10-all before the half.  

The Ravens came out of halftime dominantly. Baltimore’s defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald — who led the top-ranked defense in football — used a variety of coverages to stymie the Texans offense. Ravens quarterback and MVP favorite  Lamar Jackson shined throughout the second half, leading to 24 unanswered points. The Ravens went on to win 34-10 by way of a crushing second half, making the AFC Championship Game for the first time since their
2013 Super Bowl run. 

The second game of the weekend brought the seventh-seeded Packers to Santa Clara, Calif. to take on the 49ers. Although Green Bay got on the board with a field goal, San Francisco woke up the home crowd with a long, 12-play touchdown drive in the second quarter to put them ahead, 7-3. Green Bay cut into San Francisco’s lead with another field goal to make it a 7-6 game heading into halftime. 

After his defense forced a three-and-out on the opening drive of the second half, Love confidently led a  Packers touchdown drive to take back the lead and make it a 13-7 game. San Francisco running back Christian McCaffrey, an MVP contender, immediately responded with a 39-yard rushing touchdown to put the Niners up 14-13. Love did not panic — the first-year starter looked like a veteran as he marched the team down the field and scored another touchdown. Green Bay also added  a two-point conversion, giving them a 21-14 lead. 

However, San Francisco received a momentum boost after a wayward pass from Love was picked off. The Packers’ defense mitigated some of Love’s errors by forcing the 49ers to settle for the field goal attempt, which rookie kicker Jake Moody converted to make it a 21-17 game. Green Bay was not as fortunate. 

With just over six minutes to go, the Packers missed a 41-yard field goal, leaving it a four -point game. San Francisco’s quarterback and MVP contender Brock Purdy led a methodical drive that McCaffrey finished with a game-sealing touchdown run through a Packers defender, putting San Francisco up 24-21  to make it a 24-21 game with just over one minute left. 

The Niners later clinched the game on Love’s second interception of the night, a dangerous cross-body throw straight to linebacker Dre Greenlaw that sealed the Packers’ fate. Still, the performance of Green Bay’s extremely young roster gave their fans optimism despite the 49ers advancing to their third consecutive NFC Championship game. 

The third game of the season between the Lions and the Buccaneers started in another 3-3 struggle, but Detroit gained some momentum on a touchdown throw from Lions quarterback Jared Goff to receiver Josh Reynolds. Detroit held a 10-3 advantage before Tampa fought back and tied the game at 10 apiece on a dart from Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield to tight end Cade Otton. Both teams stayed neck and neck, trading touchdowns to enter the fourth quarter at 17-17. 

In the fourth quarter, former Tech running back Jahmyr Gibbs broke the game open when he took a 31-yard run into the end zone to make it a 24-17 game with 13:13 left. After the Lions defense forced a three-and-out, their offense went on an 89-yard drive spanning just under six minutes and capped it off with a touchdown to make it a 31-17 game with under six minutes left. 

Tampa Bay’s offense mounted a quick drive as receiver Mike Evans hauled in the touchdown but failed to convert on the subsequent two-point conversion. Still, the game was within one possession with under five minutes remaining. Tampa’s defense forced a punt from Detroit, but  Mayfield threw a crushing interception to end the game. With the win, the Lions clinched a trip to meet San Francisco in the NFC Championship while a surprisingly fun Buccaneers team headed home. 

The matchup between the Chiefs and the Bills was a thrilling conclusion to the weekend. There was concern about Mahomes playing his first playoff game away from Kansas City in a raucous Buffalo stadium, but both teams looked evenly matched in the first half. 

Neither team recorded any turnovers, and there was only one punt. Mahomes and Allen both surpassed 100 passing yards on impressive completion percentages. Allen gave the Bills life with his two rushing touchdowns while Mahomes found tight end Travis Kelce in the end zone. The Bills headed into halftime with a 17-13 lead and momentum. 

Both offenses came out hot in the second half and scored touchdowns on the first three drives. With the Bills trailing 27-24, they opted for a fake punt and fell short. The Chiefs brought the ball inside the five-yard line but fumbled the ball into the endzone, leading to a touchback. 

In the game’s final minutes, Allen led the offense deep into Chiefs territory but missed his receivers on the last drive. Bills kicker Tyler Bass attempted a field goal to tie the game, but the wind pushed his kick wide right to leave Buffalo short and send Mahomes and the Chiefs to their sixth consecutive AFC
Championship game.  

The conference championships are set. Super Bowl berths are on the line in what promises to be an exciting weekend.