NFL Wild-Card Sunday 2023 Takeaways: What's Next for Playoff Winners and Losers?
On Sunday, NFL postseason action picked up with a classic David vs. Goliath matchup between the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills. The Dolphins went into this game as the biggest underdogs via point spread in Wild Card Weekend history.
Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel didn't reduce the playbook with third-string quarterback Skylar Thompson under center in place of Tua Tagovailoa (concussion protocol) and Teddy Bridgewater (available with a dislocated pinky finger and knee injury).
The Dolphins had some drop issues and costly miscues, but they kept the score close with takeaways, big special teams plays and timely touchdown drives to prevent the Bills from blowing them out.
Still, Buffalo led Miami for most of the contest and held on to it for a 34-31 victory.
What's next for the Bills in the AFC Divisional Round? They now face the Cincinnati Bengals.
How can the Dolphins rebound after losing six of their last seven outings in the 2022 campaign?
Meanwhile, the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings contest went down to the wire, but Big Blue pulled off the upset as the first road team to win this weekend. The Giants will see a familiar opponent in the NFC divisional round, and the Vikings have a clear primary objective in the offseason.
And after the Bengals' 24-17 victory over the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati isn't better off now than it was when the team entered Sunday's action. Something similar can be said about the Ravens because they have a significant Lamar Jackson problem on their hands as the franchise heads into the offseason.
Bengals' Super Bowl Hopes Hinge on Shoddy Offensive Line
Hopefully, Sam Hubbard will have caught finally caught his breath for next weekend's much-anticipated meeting with Buffalo Bills after his game-defining 98-yard fumble return for a touchdown Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens.
Why? Because the Cincinnati Bengals will need their defense to show up to offset the losses endured by the team's offensive front.
The Bengals already entered Sunday's contest down two starting offensive linemen, with Max Scharping and Hakeem Adeniji filling in for starting right guard Alex Cappa and right tackle La'el Collins, respectively.
Cappa continues to nurse an ankle injury, while Collins is out for the season after suffering a torn ACL and MCL in Cincinnati's Week 16 contest against the New England Patriots.
To make matters worse, left tackle Jonah Williams seemed to suffer a knee injury during the Bengals' 24-17 victory over their division rival. Cincinnati officials ruled their blindside protector out for the game coming out of halftime. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer's Kelsey Conway, reporters saw Williams walking around the locker room with "one crutch and a soft knee brace."
Jackson Carman stepped into the vacated spot and provided varying results.
Carman held up for the most part, but he did surrender and sack, and officials nailed him for a holding penalty as well. The Bengals originally drafted the Clemson product in the 2021 second round with the intention of playing guard, where he was given an opportunity to start but couldn't hold onto the spot.
Carman is now back to his collegiate position, though the continued ripple effects will be felt throughout the entire offense. With possibly three new starters against the Bills' aggressive defense, not including rookie left guard Cordell Volson, the Bengals' scheme will be limited.
Cincinnati relied heavily on a quick passing attack against Baltimore.
During two consecutive games against the Ravens, quarterback Joe Burrow averaged only 5.7 yards per attempt. He didn't complete a single pass over 19 yards throughout Sunday's meeting.
The Bengals are good enough to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl for a second-straight season. However, the inability to properly protect Burrow will condense the offense's capabilities, thus limiting the overall effectiveness of the team's standout wide receiver.
The path will only become more difficult if they have to face Chris Jones or the duo of Josh Allen and Travon Walker in a possible conference championship matchup.
Daniel Jones Raises Market Value in Dazzling Playoff Debut
Daniel Jones left a strong first playoff impression in the New York Giants' 31-24 win over the Minnesota Vikings. He became the first player to throw for 300-plus yards, two or more touchdowns and rush for 70-plus yards in an NFL postseason game.
In Week 16, Jones had a solid showing against the Vikings, but he did throw an interception. The coaching staff showcased more of his rushing ability this time around.
A couple of weeks ago, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported that the Giants wanted to keep running back Saquon Barkley and Jones "in 2023 and beyond."
Jones' agent can up the price at the negotiating table following the quarterback's standout playoff performance that propelled Big Blue to a victory. Set to become a free agent in March, the fourth-year signal-caller looks more like a cornerstone player.
Though Jones has generated buzz with his dynamic playmaking ability as a ball-carrier, he's performed well from the pocket in recent weeks, completing at least 68.5 percent of his passes in three consecutive outings with two touchdown passes in back-to-back games. Jones has also built a strong rapport with wideouts Isaiah Hodgins and Darius Slayton, who caught 12 passes for 193 yards and a touchdown combined in the wild-card win.
Jones may be able to command about $30 million per year on an extension. In the meantime, the Giants will move on to face the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC divisional round in hopes of avoiding a 3-0 season series sweep.
Vikings Defense Needs an Offseason Reboot
The Minnesota Vikings kept pace with the New York Giants in a tight battle thanks to quarterback Kirk Cousins' connection with tight end T.J. Hockenson, whom the team acquired before the 2022 trade deadline.
The Giants made a concerted effort to limit wideout Justin Jefferson with double-teams and solid tackling to prevent him from racking up yards after the catch. Hockenson took on a big role in the aerial attack, hauling in 10 passes for 129 yards.
However, the Vikings defense once again became their Achilles' heel. Since Week 10, Minnesota has allowed 30-plus points in six games, including Sunday's 31-24 loss to Big Blue.
Keep in mind that Giants quarterback Daniel Jones has thrown for 301-plus yards in three games this season—two of those outings against the Vikings. On Sunday, Minnesota's defense also allowed 142 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
While the offense failed to keep the Vikings' postseason hopes alive down seven points with two minutes remaining, Minnesota's eighth-ranked scoring offense isn't the problem. The front office must focus on improving a defensive unit that tied for 28th in scoring while allowing the second-most yards in the 2022 season.
Defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson and cornerback Patrick Peterson have contracts that will void before the new league year. Cornerback Chandon Sullivan will become a free agent in March as well. Safety Harrison Smith will head into his age-34 campaign. The Vikings don't know what they have in cornerback Andrew Booth Jr. or safety Lewis Cine, two rookies who played limited snaps because of season-ending injuries.
The Vikings should invest in a quality run-stopper and add a couple of defensive backs to patch up their 31st-ranked pass defense that struggled to contain an offense that finished 26th in passing.
Bills Survive Upset Alert, Must Clean Up Imbalanced Offense
The Buffalo Bills narrowly avoided a massive upset in a 34-31 win over the Miami Dolphins, but they didn't perform at the level of a Super Bowl contender. After going up 17-0 by the beginning of the second quarter, the Bills made critical errors that may have cost them the game against a stronger opponent.
Buffalo turned the ball over three times, and Miami scored 18 points off those takeaways. In their previous three games, the Bills have eight giveaways, and Josh Allen has thrown five interceptions, which should raise concerns as they face stiffer competition going forward.
The Bills rely heavily on Allen, and they don't force teams to respect their ground attack. On Sunday, running backs James Cook and Devin Singletary ran the ball 22 times for 87 yards and a touchdown. Meanwhile, Allen threw for three touchdowns, two interceptions and fumbled three times, losing one.
When Allen handed off to his ball-carriers, Buffalo picked up chunk yardage. Play-caller Ken Dorsey must do a better job of balancing the offensive workload to limit turnovers and prevent defenders from teeing off on his quarterback.
As the No. 2 seed, the Bills will host the No. 3-seeded Cincinnati Bengals if they beat the No. 6-seeded Baltimore Ravens Sunday night or the No. 4-seeded Jacksonville Jaguars in the event that the Ravens pull off the upset. Either way, Buffalo has a lot to clean up this week.
Dolphins Need a Reliable Backup Quarterback with Tua Tagovailoa in Their Future Plans
Early Sunday, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that Tua Tagovailoa "is expected to return as the Miami Dolphins' starting quarterback for the 2023 season."
Tagovailoa hasn't played or practiced since he suffered a concussion in Week 16, and Teddy Bridgewater went into Wild Card Weekend with finger and knee injuries, which is why rookie seventh-rounder Skylar Thompson made his third career start Sunday.
Though Miami had some frustrating drops early in the contest, Thompson only completed 18 out of 45 passes for 220 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in a 34-31 loss to the Buffalo Bills. The Dolphins may have pulled an incredible upset if they had a more experienced quality backup signal-caller.
Regardless, the Dolphins must upgrade their quarterback room if Tagovailoa remains the starter for the 2023 term.
Even though Tagovailoa made strides in his first year under head coach Mike McDaniel, throwing for 3,548 yards, 25 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 13 outings, he's not reliable in terms of availability. Tagovailoa has missed 14 games in three seasons with a litany of injuries, which include multiple concussions.
Because Tagovailoa has yet to play more than 13 games in a single season, the Dolphins should find a high-end backup for him while he's still on a rookie deal.
Per Schefter, medical professionals believe Tagovailoa will be able to continue his playing career after missing multiple outings with head trauma this season, but he still comes with great risk because of his lengthy and concerning injury history.
In March, Miami can target quarterbacks Taylor Heinicke, Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold on the free-agent market. Heinicke (5-3-1) and Darnold (4-2) finished with winning records as starters in 2022. Mayfield played well in five outings (four starts) with the Los Angeles Rams, throwing for 850 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions with a 63.6 percent completion rate.
Ravens Enter Franchise-Defining Offseason After Injured Lamar Jackson Missed Playoffs
In previous years, the conversation around the Baltimore Ravens and franchise quarterback Lamar Jackson centered on how the talented squad couldn't seem to defeat the AFC's best in the postseason.
The script reads a little differently after Sunday's 24-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs because Lamar Jackson didn't even attend the game since he's been dealing with a lingering knee injury.
Earlier in the week, Jackson tried to clarify his status and why he wasn't able to take the field during the crucial contest.
The 26-year-old signal-caller is clearly hurt. He hasn't played since the Ravens' Dec. 4 meeting with the Denver Broncos. Yet his commitment was brought into question, as were his motives.
Obviously, the Ravens and Jackson endured a contract standoff prior to the start of the 2022 campaign. Neither side budged, and a contract extension never materialized. Jackson is now on the precipice of free agency, though the Ravens can use the franchise tag to prevent him from reaching the open market.
Could another avenue be taken?
According to the Washington Post's Jason La Canfora, Jackson's relationship with the organization is "in tatters," and "execs around NFL I spoke to strongly expect a tag and trade."
Frankly, it's unfair and disingenuous to define Jackson's inability to play because of a knee injury as some sort of business decision when his game is predicated on contributing with his legs as much as it is orchestrating the passing attack. Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey even estimated that his quarterback is only 50 to 60 percent healthy at the moment, per ESPN's Jamison Hensley.
Jackson has proved every detractor wrong every step of the way. He's a former league MVP, a two-time Pro Bowl selection and the most productive dual-threat quarterback in NFL history. He's due a monster contract, which should be fully guaranteed or somewhere close to it based on the current market.
The Ravens have two options from this point forward: Either the organization repairs any potential issues between the two parties and pays the man, or it decides to go in a completely different direction that will change the entire franchise and how it plays football.
As of now, the decision could go either way.