Here’s what we learned from the Divisional Round:
1. Ding, dong, the Witch is dead. OK, the Chiefs play on the Missouri side of Kansas City, not Kansas, but the Chiefs exorcised their personal demons of postseason history after entering Saturday’s game 0-4 against the Colts. The Chiefs used a dominant first half to jump out to a 24-7 halftime lead by totaling 18 first downs compared to the Colts‘ four, 42 offensive plays compared to the Colts‘ 19 and outgained the Colts by a 274-91 margin. Andy Reid’s offense went 3 of 4 on fourth-and-short opportunities, and two of the conversions eventually led to 10 first-half points. The Chiefs slowed down in the second half, but the first 30 minutes more than established the tone. And when the final second ticked off the clock, the full grasp of the Chiefs‘ victory could be found on the scoreboard and in all offensive and defensive statistical categories. The win also snapped a six-game home playoff losing streak for the Chiefs, with the last victory coming in the 1993 Wild Card Round against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Jan. 8, 1994.
2. A much-maligned Chiefs defense picked a good spot to be a reason K.C. has a shot at a trip to the Super Bowl. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s unit, which finished the regular season ranked 31st in the league, manhandled the Colts with three sacks and five quarterback hits and limited the Colts to 263 total net yards of offense. Outside linebacker Justin Houston paced the Chiefs with three sacks, two quarterback hits, two tackles for a loss and a fumble recovery. While the Colts got on the scoreboard early courtesy of a blocked punt recovered for a touchdown, the Chiefs shut down quarterback Andrew Luck and the league’s seventh-best offense until surrendering a fourth-quarter score. The Colts entered the game as the top team in the league in third-down efficiency, converting 104 of 214 attempts for a 49 percent conversion rate. On the game, the Colts converted 0 of 9 third-down attempts, and went three-and-out on their opening four possessions. The Colts‘ running game, which pounded out 200 yards and a touchdown in the opening round of the postseason, found no sledding against the Chiefs and managed 87 yards. A lot of credit must go to Sutton for devising a scheme to confuse Luck and Co. Luck finished the game completing 19 of 36 passes for 203 yards and a touchdown for a 78.8 passer rating.
3. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes showed why he is a frontrunner for the league’s MVP, as he picked apart the Colts‘ Cover 2 defensive coverage by completing 27 of 41 passes for 278 yards and rushing for a touchdown. Mahomes also put his shortstop-like sidearm throws in the face of pressure on full display, connecting numerous times from different platforms with various receivers. Mahomes got a lot of help from his All-Pro teammates. Tight end Travis Kelce caught seven passes for 108 yards, while wide receiver Tyreek Hill hauled in eight catches for 72. The league’s MVP award was voted on at the end of the regular season. But any doubt as to whether Mahomes should win it likely ended Saturday as the Chiefs simply don’t enjoy a 12-4 season, clinch the top seed in the AFC and advance to the AFC Championship Game without him.
— Herbie Teope
1. It is often said in order to deter a bully on the block, punch them in the mouth. In Saturday night’s instance, the bully entering the game was the Cowboys‘ physical run defense. Dallas finished the regular season ranked fifth in the league against the run and came off a wild-card win during which the Cowboys held the Seahawks‘ top rushing attack to just 73 yards. The Rams decided to take it right to the Cowboys early and often, and totaled 273 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 48 carries. Todd Gurley rushed for 115 yards and a touchdown, while C.J. Anderson totaled 123 yards and two scores. Gurley and Anderson became the fourth set of teammates to each rush for 100-plus yards over the last 30 postseasons. The Cowboys simply had no answer for the Rams‘ punishing ground game, which flipped the tables on Big D by becoming the new bully on the block. Before Saturday night, the previous high the Cowboys allowed came in Week 15 when the Indianapolis Colts produced 178 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 39 carries.
2. With the running game firing on all cylinders, the Rams‘ potent passing game took a back seat. Still, quarterback Jared Goff turned in an efficient outing by completing 15 of 28 passes for 186 yards, and sealed the game with an 11-yard run. Goff distributed his passes among seven receivers, with Robert Woods leading the way with six catches for 69 yards. The offensive line, which deserves all the credit for opening gaping holes in the ground attack, also performed admirably in protecting Goff, who wasn’t sacked on the night and was hit just one time. As a team, the Rams totaled an impressive 459 yards against the league’s seventh-best defense.
3. The Rams‘ defense, which had been up and down during the regular season, turned in a stout performance against the league’s 10th-best rushing offense. Running back Ezekiel Elliott, who won the 2018 rushing title with 1,434 yards, found the going very tough and finished with just 47 yards on 20 carries, averaging a paltry 2.4 yards per attempt. On the game, the Cowboys managed 50 yards on 22 carries, which placed the game squarely in quarterback Dak Prescott‘s hands. If the defense combined with a devastating rushing duo of Gurley and Anderson can repeat Saturday’s performance in the NFC Championship Game, the Rams could very well be on the way to Atlanta.
— Herbie Teope
1. In frigid Foxborough, Chargers fans felt a throbbing disturbance in the Force right away, as Tom Brady and his charges authored the longest opening postseason drive of Bill Belichick’s tenure in New England. The 14-play masterpiece chewed 7:11 off the clock and saw Brady find the versatile James White for 45 yards off five grabs. Setting the tone with a wily mix of screens, pinpoint lobs and Sony Michel runs — including the opening score — TB12 picked apart a defense that showed none of the uber-creative DNA that confounded the Ravens a week ago. In that saucy tilt, the Chargers employed a wire-to-wire mix of seven defensive backs that threw Lamar Jackson into chaos, but Brady exists in a different world. It was surprising to hear next-level color man Tony Romo call New England’s Josh McDaniels — shown on screen as much as any coordinator league-wide — an “unsung” play-caller. He’s as good as they come and showed it on an opening march that resembled so many other artistic gems from Patriots lore.
2. The question was how the Chargers would respond in freezing, hostile conditions. Philip Rivers didn’t flinch, uncorking a 43-yard scoring shot to a wide-open Keenan Allen. It was nothing more than a fleeting bright light, though, as anyone watching could feel this tilt turn ugly for Los Angeles by the end of the first frame. The Patriots controlled both lines from the start, while the swarming Chargers defense we saw against Baltimore morphed into a soft cadre of would-be tacklers who appeared mystified on how to disrupt Brady and allowed White to make an NFL postseason-record 15 grabs. The lack of a pass rush allowed the 41-year-old to pull pages from his younger days, hitting 15 of his first 19 passes and burying the Bolts in a 21-7 hole with a well-placed 15-yard rope to Phillip Dorsett in the back corner of the end zone. The Patriots punched in touchdowns on their first three drives for the first time in the franchise’s playoff history. Their fourth consecutive score made this club the first to do so in the playoffs since the Colts pulled off that feat against the Jake Plummer-led Broncos in 2003.
3. Belichick, meanwhile, dialed up a key defensive adjustment minutes into the affair, challenging Rivers with a cover-zero approach to free up rushers and force the field general into a handful of desperate deep lobs against an underrated Patriots defense. Dont’a Hightower tangled with Rivers more than once, while Trey Flowers flashed moments of dominance for a gang that piled up two sacks, seven hits and 28 hurries and coaxed the Chargers into three delay of game flags.
— Marc Sessler
1. The home crowd was silenced on the first play from scrimmage, with nickelback Cre’Von LeBlanc intercepting an underthrown Drew Brees deep ball meant for streaking speedster Ted Ginn. Clicking on all cylinders with impressive focus and precision, the undaunted Eagles jumped out to a 14-0 lead with Foles thoroughly outplaying a jittery Brees. The Saints‘ fortunes changed in the middle of the second quarter with an aggressive fourth-and-1 fake punt in which special teams dynamo/gadget player Taysom Hill powered his way to a first down. A buoyed Brees followed up with a 42-yard pass play to Michael Thomas and an end-zone floater to rookie Keith Kirkwood, halving Philadelphia’s lead.
The Superdome crowd was a factor from then on, shaking the press box and sending the decibel-level soaring. The Eagles‘ offense fell dormant in a morass of penalties, wasted timeouts and general chaos. The Saints took control of the festivities coming out of halftime, going 92 yards (or 112, counting penalties) in 18 plays while burning nearly 12 minutes of game time during an instant-classic drive that culminated in a Michael Thomas touchdown — and New Orleans’ first lead of the day.
2. As the Saints rolled toward juggernaut status prior to the Cowboys‘ upset victory in Week 13, a throw from Brees to Thomas had become the most reliable positive outcome in football. After a few hiccups in December, that connection returned with a vengeance Sunday. Thomas proved too talented and physical for Philadelphia’s cornerbacks, carrying the Saints‘ offense with 171 yards and a touchdown on 12 receptions. With swaggering assassin Foles warming up on the sidelines, ready to repeat last week’s fourth-quarter magic, a leaping Thomas boxed out Josh Hawkins to convert third-and-13. Will Lutz went on to miss a 52-yard field goal that would have extended the lead to two scores with three minutes remaining. The Rams‘ All-Pro tandem of Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters will have their hands full with Thomas in next week’s NFC Championship Game at the Superdome.
3. Brees, on the other hand, will have to play better — as he did in the Saints‘ 45-35 victory the last time these NFC powerhouses met in Week 9. Although the newest member of the age-40 QB club continues to make plays in key situations such as second-and-long or third-and-short, he missed a pair of long touchdowns due to ostensible arm-strength limitations on his deep ball — a weakness scouts have been hinting at for a few years. The best downfield throw of the day came from the arm of Taysom Hill, who hit Alvin Kamara in stride on a 46-yard touchdown that was nullified by penalty during the 18-play scoring drive. Early in the game, a mistake-prone Brees also dropped a snap, took a bad third-down sack and fumbled twice.
— Chris Wesseling