Biggest Question Mark for Every Remaining NFL Playoff Team Entering Divisional Round

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 17, 2023

Biggest Question Mark for Every Remaining NFL Playoff Team Entering Divisional Round

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    Brock Purdy
    Brock PurdyEzra Shaw/Getty Images

    And then there were eight.

    After Super Wild Card Weekend—don't look at me; it's what it's called now—only eight teams are left standing in the NFL. Now comes the divisional round and the entrance of the No. 1 seeds into the fray.

    In the AFC, the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs will host the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars after the latter's epic comeback, while the Buffalo Bills will host the defending AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals. Over on the NFC side, the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants will square off for a third time, while the San Francisco 49ers will host the Dallas Cowboys for the right to the other spot in the NFC Championship Game.

    Teams don't get this far by being riddled with weaknesses. But every squad has at least one. For some, it's the offensive front. For others, it's a potential defensive deficiency. And for one team, it's the most important position on the field.

    Every remaining playoff team has a question mark. And the answer will determine whether it moves on to the conference championship game or calls it a season.

Buffalo Bills: Offensive Line

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    Mitch Morse
    Mitch MorseBryan Bennett/Getty Images

    It was tempting to put quarterback Josh Allen here. As great as Allen has been for the Buffalo Bills, his turnovers were nearly their undoing against the Miami Dolphins. But many of his struggles can be laid at the feet of an offensive line that allowed seven sacks Sunday.

    While speaking to reporters after the game, center Mitch Morse applauded his teammates for not laying blame on one another while acknowledging the unit needs to play better in the divisional round.

    "I think we shot ourselves in the foot a few times, put our defense in less than advantageous positions. Put their offense on our side of the ball," Morse said. "I think there was moments where we were really able to matriculate down the field, move the ball, and there was moments where we really shot ourselves in the foot.

    "I think the biggest thing ... is this next week, yes, we did end up with the win, and in this league, that's hard, especially in the playoffs. But we know we need to mitigate those mistakes as much as possible. I thought this team did a very good job not pointing fingers."

    Sunday's performance marked just the second time since 1970 that a quarterback has had 10 combined sacks and turnovers and won a playoff game. That's not the kind of history the Bills want to be making.

    Cincinnati's pass rush has struggled this season. The Bengals amassed the fourth-fewest sacks (30) in the regular season. But that's all the more reason for Morse, tackle Dion Dawkins and the rest of the Buffalo line to raise their game.

    If they don't, this team won't make it to the Super Bowl.

Cincinnati Bengals: Offensive Line

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    Jonah Williams
    Jonah WilliamsNick Grace/Getty Images

    "Offensive line" isn't just going to be listed eight times. Promise.

    Issues with the line aren't new in Cincinnati. In last year's march to the Super Bowl, Joe Burrow was sacked a whopping 70 times. It marked the third-most times a quarterback was dropped in NFL history.

    The Bengals were aggressive in attempting to improve that line in the offseason, adding three veteran starters in tackle La'el Collins, center Ted Karras and guard Alex Cappa. But as the season progressed and injuries mounted, that line backslid. By season's end, the Bengals had allowed 44 sacks, and the line was once again a major problem.

    Now things have gotten that much worse. In the Wild Card Round win over the Baltimore Ravens, the Bengals lost tackle Jonah Williams to a knee injury—which forced Jackson Carman to play tackle for the first time since college.

    With Collins and Cappa also nursing injuries, that's three starters missing. But while talking with reporters, Burrow said he's confident in the team's reserves.

    "We have a lot of faith in those guys," Burrow said. "Max [Scharping] stepped up today, Hakeem [Adeniji] stepped up and then Jackson stepped up when he got in there after Jonah got hurt. So, we've got a lot of faith in those guys. They're gonna get their job done."

    Head coach Zac Taylor also talked up the Bengals' patchwork line.

    "Fighting. I'd assess them as they're fighting, giving us a chance," Taylor said.

    Next week, the Bengals face a Bills team that piled up 40 sacks in 16 games this season. If Cincinnati gets past Buffalo, a Chiefs team that led the AFC with 55 sacks could be next.

    Winning three straight postseason games, with an offensive front held together with hope and fight, against some of the NFL's best pass rushes isn't going to be easy.

Dallas Cowboys: Quarterback

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    Dak Prescott
    Dak PrescottKevin Sabitus/Getty Images

    The Dallas Cowboys are a hard to team to get a bead on. There are weeks when they look like the best team in the NFL. And there are weeks when they look like pretenders waiting to be exposed.

    On Monday night in Tampa, it was much more the former than the latter. Dallas dominated from start to finish in a 31-14 win. It answered one question while raising another. After a shaky final month of the regular season in which Dallas allowed at least 26 points in three of four contests, the Cowboys played their best defensive game since they blew out the Vikings in Week 11. But kicking is suddenly a looming issue after Brett Maher shanked three extra points—before halftime.

    He missed a fourth in the third quarter—because of course he did. If you know any kickers, tell them to give Jerry Jones a call.

    However, the biggest question facing the Cowboys is the same as it was before the Wild Card Round: Which Dak Prescott will show up against San Francisco?

    After throttling Tampa Bay, Prescott is 2-3 in the playoffs. Per Layten Praytor of the team's website, Prescott said he's well aware of what the expectations are for the Cowboys—and how he will be judged.

    "We're all judged off wins and wins in the playoffs," he said. "These matter and I know that. "So, it's not necessarily that it's pressure, but you've got to love playing in these moments. You've got to love being in games like this. And if you don't, this league, this sport, this isn't the place for you. And so, for me it's about embracing the moment."

    It's simple, really. If the Prescott who torched the Buccaneers with pinpoint passes to the tune of 305 yards and four touchdowns shows up against the 49ers, then Dallas has an excellent chance of moving on to the NFC Championship Game. If the Prescott who led the NFL with 15 interceptions (in just 12 games) shows up against a pass defense that tied for the league lead with 20 interceptions, then Dallas will be headed home disappointed—again.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Pass Defense

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    Tyson Campbell
    Tyson CampbellCourtney Culbreath/Getty Images

    The Jacksonville Jaguars are still basking in the glow of the third-biggest postseason comeback in NFL history. After the Jags stunned the Los Angeles Chargers with a 27-point comeback, quarterback Trevor Lawrence told reporters that his team believes it can make a deep playoff run.

    "You couldn't write a crazier script," Lawrence said. "We said in the locker room that's kind of how our season's going. We're never out of the fight. ... I'm kind of speechless, honestly, just to see what belief can do and to see when a team believes in each other what you can accomplish."

    That belief is about to be put to the test against the Kansas City Chiefs.

    And if these Cinderella Jaguars are to have any chance of escaping Arrowhead Stadium with a win, they are going to have to do something they struggled with this season: play well defensively, especially against the pass.

    Despite allowing 30 points against the Chargers, Jacksonville actually had one of its better games of the season defensively. It allowed just 320 yards of offense and sacked Justin Herbert three times.

    But the Jaguars ranked 24th in total defense during the regular season, allowing 353.3 yards per game. They surrendered the fifth-most passing yards per game at 238.5. And their defense managed just 35 sacks for the season, seventh-fewest in the NFL.

    We've seen this movie before, and the Jaguars had better hope the sequel has a far different result. Back in Week 10, the Jaguars allowed 331 passing yards and 486 total yards in a 10-point loss at Arrowhead. They were able to stay close thanks to three Chiefs turnovers, but they didn't sack Patrick Mahomes once.

    It will require a far better defensive effort to avoid a similar result.

Kansas City Chiefs: Turnovers

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    Patrick Mahomes
    Patrick MahomesJeff Bottari/Getty Images

    By just about every objective measure, the Chiefs are a decisive favorite over the Jaguars in the divisional round. They lead the league in both yards per game and points per game. Their young defense isn't great, but the unit has allowed fewer yards per game than Jacksonville's and paced the AFC in sacks.

    With that said, though, there's one issue that could keep the Jaguars in the game. It's what kept them in it when these teams met in Week 10.

    Turnovers.

    The turnover bug has been biting K.C. all season long. After needing overtime to get past a woeful Houston Texans team earlier this season (a contest in which the Chiefs committed a turnover for the ninth straight game), quarterback Patrick Mahomes told reporters he was aware that the team needed to clean up its mistakes ahead of the playoffs.

    "We know we have a lot to work on, to clean up at least with the turnovers and the penalties," Mahomes said. "We have to continue to get better as a team so when we get to the playoffs, we're ready to go to try to make a run."

    There was at least some improvement in that regard, including a turnover-free performance against the Las Vegas Raiders in the regular-season finale. But Kansas City is still 19th in the league in giveaways and has a turnover differential of minus-three (the worst among the teams still alive in the playoffs).

    If the Chiefs fall short of the Super Bowl, it is just as likely because they beat themselves rather than being beaten.

    And there's no surer way to do so than turning the ball over.

New York Giants: Wide Receiver

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    Isaiah Hodgins
    Isaiah HodginsStephen Maturen/Getty Images

    The New York Giants are coming off one of their best offensive showings of the season after Sunday's road win over the third-seeded Minnesota Vikings.

    Quarterback Daniel Jones was fantastic, passing for 301 yards and two scores while adding a team-high 78 rushing yards. It was the first time in NFL history that a quarterback topped 300 passing yards, threw two touchdowns and rushed for 70 yards in a playoff game.

    Jones told reporters after the victory that he believes the Giants have found something of a groove.

    "I think we've had some of our better games recently and found some stuff that works for us," he said. "So, we'll keep doing it. I thought the coaching staff did a great job having us prepared."

    However, Sunday's success came against a leaky Minnesota defense that ranked second-to-last against the pass. Now comes a trip to Philadelphia to face the league's best pass defense. This matchup could give the Giants trouble.

    To be fair, the G-Men appear to have found something in youngster Isaiah Hodgins, who caught eight passes for 101 yards and a touchdown against the Vikings. But the Giants fielded the league's seventh-worst passing attack in 2022, averaging just 185.7 yards per game. Per Glenn Erby of Eagles Wire, the team ranked last in the NFL with only 16 passes of over 25 yards.

    Philly's NFC-best scoring offense will put up points. The Eagles averaged 28.1 points per game and blasted the Giants for 48 the first time these teams met in the regular season.

    That's going to force New York to the air, and it's not likely that Hodgins, Darius Slayton and Richie James will be able to get open consistently against James Bradberry, Avonte Maddox and Darius Slay.

Philadelphia Eagles: Run Defense

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    Javon Hargrave
    Javon HargraveMichael Reaves/Getty Images

    The New York Giants got their first postseason win in over a decade Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. But afterward, head coach Brian Daboll told reporters his team has its work cut out for it against the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round.

    "We have a lot of work to do," Daboll said. "Go back, look at the tape, correct what we need to correct. We've got a lot of work to do."

    Daboll may have said that twice because the Giants and Eagles have already faced off twice this season. The Eagles were victorious both times, including a 48-22 shellacking of the Giants in Week 14.

    On paper, the Eagles may be the best team in the league. The offense is explosive, pacing the NFC in both yards per game and points per game. The defense is ferocious, especially against the pass. No team allowed fewer passing yards per game, and the Eagles piled up a league-high 70 sacks in 2022.

    The Eagles are short on question marks. But the Giants might be able to exploit one area.

    While the Eagles finished the regular season ranked eighth in points allowed and were tied for fourth in the league in takeaways, their run defense was nothing special. They surrendered 121.6 yards per game on the ground, which ranked 17th in the league.

    Try to get into a track meet with the Eagles, and you're going to get smoked. Drop back to throw the ball 40-plus times, and your quarterback will be looking out his earhole by the third quarter.

    But Washington's win over the Eagles in Week 10 showed the blueprint for beating them. Run the ball. Run it some more. And then run it again. Control tempo. Shorten the game. And keep Jalen Hurts on the sideline.

    If the Eagles get upset in the playoffs, their inability to stop the run will be the most likely culprit.

San Francisco 49ers: Quarterback

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    Brock Purdy
    Brock PurdyThearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Before a horde of Brock Purdy proponents gather up the pitchforks and torches and head off to Twitter to say unflattering things about my mother, let's make one thing clear: This is not an indictment of everyone's favorite "Mr. Irrelevant."

    Purdy has been outstanding since being thrust into action in Week 13. Last week against the Seahawks, he threw for 332 yards and three scores. He completed over 67 percent of his passes in the regular season, threw 13 touchdown passes against only four interceptions and posted a passer rating of 107.3. His QBR of 65.3 would rank fifth in the league if he had enough attempts to qualify.

    Oh, and he still hasn't lost a start.

    "I love the fact that Brock is getting the attention he deserves," veteran tackle Trent Williams said, per Tim Kawakami of The Athletic. "He is a good player, man. And I think anybody who watches football can see that. I'm not saying that he's the next Aaron Rodgers or Pat Mahomes, but he does everything that we need him to do and more. I think we can continue to win with him, obviously."

    Purdy is a great story. And if he can lead the 49ers to a few more wins, the team will face a franchise-defining decision this offseason. But we're still talking about a seventh-round rookie who's about to make only the seventh start of his NFL career. He has attempted only 200 passes as a pro and has yet to face a 10-win team.

    That bump in competition is coming. And while Purdy has an excellent supporting cast around him and arguably the league's best defense to lean on, it's fair to question how he will respond if he makes an early mistake or faces a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter.

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