Skip to main content

The First Read, Championship Sunday: One question for each advancing/eliminated NFL playoff team

The doubters and haters had a rough weekend went it came to the NFL playoffs. This year's Divisional Round was all about slaying demons, knocking monkeys off backs and letting the naysayers know that recent history isn't always the best predictor of future results. There was a long list of players and coaches who had to prove a few things about themselves over the past 48 hours. A good amount of them answered those questions in emphatic fashion.

Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson stood atop that list, especially since he had one playoff win in four attempts before the Ravens beat up on the Houston Texans. Detroit's Jared Goff was right behind him, as he's led the Lions to their first NFC Championship Game in 32 years just three years after the Los Angeles Rams decided he wasn't good enough to be their quarterback anymore. San Francisco signal-caller Brock Purdy and head coach Kyle Shanahan -- the duo Detroit will face in that NFC title bout -- finally can say they know what a fourth-quarter comeback win feels like. The Kansas City Chiefs, on the other hand, reminded us that going on the road and winning isn't as tough a task in the playoffs as some might think.

So now the final four of the NFL postseason is set. We've got two teams that have been chasing a Super Bowl win for the past few years, another that has claimed two of the last four Lombardi Trophies and a franchise that has never even appeared in the league's signature event. It's going to be a fun Championship Sunday, but this edition of The First Read will examine some major questions that came out of Divisional Round weekend, both for the winners and the losers.


Baltimore Ravens

Can the Ravens' defense be solved?

Lamar Jackson was the headliner in Baltimore’s 34-10 Divisional Round win over Houston because he entered the weekend with a history of playing poorly in the postseason. However, the story of that game was the Ravens' defense. Anybody who watched that beatdown had to come away wondering if any opposing offense has the juice to conquer that bunch right now. The Texans were humming behind rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud coming into that contest. They wound up doing nothing substantial. Houston couldn’t run (38 rushing yards) or throw (175 passing yards), and Stroud was under pressure for most of the game. The only touchdown the Texans did manage came on a 67-yard punt return by Steven Sims in the second quarter that briefly gave Houston hope. The Texans wound up not even reaching the red zone after that point, which speaks volumes to how stingy the Ravens have become on defense. They can rush the passer (SEE: NFL-high 60 sacks in the regular season), take the ball away (Baltimore tied for the league lead with 31 turnovers) and keep opponents out of the end zone (a league-best 16.5 points per game allowed). Mike Macdonald's D also takes a ton of pressure off Jackson, who is playing some of the best football of his life at the best possible time. Saturday was critical because the Ravens had to show people that three weeks without a meaningful football game wouldn’t be a curse. What they also proved was their defense is long past the frustrating moments it endured earlier this year, when it fell apart in the fourth quarter of some losses. This bunch is living up to the legacy of past Ravens defenses. The only question now is whether they can slay a Chiefs offense that is clicking (finally) at just the right time.

Kansas City Chiefs

Have the Chiefs finally resolved their offensive problems? 

Kansas City’s 27-24 Divisional Round win at Buffalo was exactly the game the Chiefs have waited two months to produce. They didn’t kill themselves with penalties. They had one turnover -- albeit a huge one, when Mecole Hardman lost a fumble in the fourth quarter while reaching for the end zone, resulting in a touchback -- and there were no frustrating drops by the receivers. The Chiefs also received major contributions from the players they need the most in their hopes of reaching their fourth Super Bowl in five years. We all knew quarterback Patrick Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce would continue to prove why they’ve been one of the best duos in NFL history. What was even more impressive was how effectively the Chiefs ran the football with Isiah Pacheco (15 carries, 97 yards, one touchdown). The Chiefs possessed the ball for just under 23 minutes and produced 27 points on 47 total plays. It didn’t matter how banged up the Bills' defense was. Kansas City’s offense was humming in a way we hadn’t seen for most of this season. Now comes the major challenge. The Ravens excel at stopping everything the Chiefs did well against Buffalo. Baltimore also has Lamar Jackson eager to show why he’s going to win his second Most Valuable Player award. The Chiefs showed that going on the road isn’t something that will keep this team from winning in the postseason. Their next challenge is proving they can do it again in another notoriously hostile environment.


San Francisco 49ers

How much did Brock Purdy prove with that game-winning drive?

Plenty. Purdy attracts haters about as easily as Taylor Swift draws Instagram followers, which is why San Francisco’s 24-21 Divisional Round win over Green Bay was so critical to his development. For all the great numbers Purdy has generated this season, the one thing he hadn’t provided was a fourth-quarter comeback victory. He can check that box today, as can head coach Kyle Shanahan, whose teams had been 0-30 when trailing by at least seven points in the fourth quarter. Purdy completed six of seven passes on that final touchdown drive, but the most important thing he did was play with composure. He pressed earlier in the year when San Francisco fell behind in games and mistakes followed. This time around, he shook off an underwhelming effort on the night and drove his team into position for Christian McCaffrey’s game-winning touchdown run. It was even more impressive that Purdy made that happen with his best wide receiver, Deebo Samuel, sidelined by a shoulder injury. The status of Samuel will be major question for this week’s NFC Championship Game against Detroit. The Niners went on a three-game losing streak when he was banged up earlier this season (McCaffrey and left tackle Trent Williams were plagued by injuries during that stretch, as well), and Purdy faced a lot of questions about how he performed without the entirety of his supporting cast. Saturday’s effort against Green Bay helped silence some of those critics. The system quarterback won when not everything worked in his favor. That should give him added confidence now that he’s back in the NFC Championship Game, where his fairy tale rookie campaign came to an abrupt close, thanks to an elbow injury.

Detroit Lions

Can Detroit pull the upset?

The Lions have delivered their most magical season in over three decades. Now it’s time to learn whether they can take this franchise to the one place it’s never been: the Super Bowl. There would’ve been a lot of doubts about whether Detroit could accomplish that a week ago. That’s all changed after the way the Green Bay Packers attacked the 49ers in San Francisco and nearly pulled a huge upset of their own. The Lions were a safe bet to do what they did on Sunday, which was earn a 31-23 win over Tampa Bay in the Divisional Round. Detroit also has the wherewithal to deal with an NFC Championship Game against the 49ers on the road. The Lions have a dominant offensive line, a strong running game, versatile weapons on offense and a quarterback with Super Bowl experience (Jared Goff). As much as the defense has struggled against the pass, it has been stout in the red zone and heavily dependent on the disruptiveness of Pro Bowl defensive end Aidan Hutchinson. This is a team that basically has built its entire identity on toughness. It won’t be an easy task going into San Francisco to play for the Super Bowl. However, the Lions have proven they can overcome just about anything at this point.


Buffalo Bills

How do the Bills reach the Super Bowl?

That is the question they’ve been asking in Buffalo for the past four seasons and there are still no viable answers to be found. The Bills had the defending Super Bowl champs right where they wanted them -- at home and coming off a regular season where the Chiefs faced uncharacteristic offensive struggles -- and still the end result was devastation. This 27-24 playoff loss might be the most painful of all with this current regime if you polled the Bills Mafia. When Tyler Bass missed a 44-yard field goal that would’ve tied the game in the final two minutes, it reinforced everything that has gone wrong for this franchise in the postseason. The Bills simply can’t make the critical plays when their opportunities arise. They create plenty of highlights and speculation about what they could become if everything fell into place. But they just don’t deliver when it matters. As much as injuries have played a role in that frustration, it’s worth noting that their opportunities to cash in on that potential aren’t going to get easier. The Chiefs have dominated the AFC since Patrick Mahomes hit the starting lineup. The Bengals have become a legitimate threat when Joe Burrow is healthy. The Ravens currently have the best team in football and a shot at their first Super Bowl in the Lamar Jackson era. And there are more young teams finding their confidence with each passing season. So, where does that leave the Bills? Praying that they don’t spend the next decade dealing with more heartache like what they experienced on Sunday night.

Houston Texans

Can Houston duplicate its success next season?

Houston’s rise to contender was even more impressive than Green Bay’s because nobody saw this coming. The Texans won as many games this season as they did in the previous three combined. They wound up landing the best quarterback in the 2023 NFL Draft, even though C.J. Stroud was selected second overall behind Bryce Young. They also displayed a knack for acquiring undervalued, unheralded players who could play big for this franchise. The question now is obvious: What do the Texans do when nobody is underestimating them? Unlike the Packers, the road back to the playoffs in the AFC is far more daunting than the one that exists in the NFC. The other three quarterbacks who reached the Divisional Round were named Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson, the man who beat the Texans on Saturday. Aaron Rodgers and Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow went down with season-ending injuries, and the same thing happened to Anthony Richardson in Indianapolis, the team Houston had to beat in the season finale to win the AFC South. Even the Chargers could be dangerous if they find the right coach to unlock all the potential in quarterback Justin Herbert. There’s a lot to like about Houston, of that there is no doubt. But going from doormat to playoff participant is one thing. Taking the next step after that -- such as reaching an AFC title game or repeating as division champs -- is much harder. Just ask the Jacksonville Jaguars. They sat at home during this year’s postseason after winning the AFC South last year. The Texans will have to work hard to avoid landing in the same spot.


Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Did Tampa Bay find its franchise quarterback in Baker Mayfield?

The Buccaneers didn’t know what they were getting when they signed Mayfield to a one-year, prove-it deal last March. He was joining his fourth team in under a calendar year after he couldn’t even hold a job in Carolina. It’s apparent today that he was worth the investment. Mayfield didn’t just enjoy the best year of his career with the Bucs after winning the job in training camp; he helped give this team a feisty identity, one that was critical to it winning the NFC South for a third consecutive season and reaching the Divisional Round of this postseason. There were some big shoes to fill when Tom Brady retired after last season. Mayfield -- who’s always been at his best when facing doubts and relying heavily on a chip on his shoulder -- proved that he was up to that task and that he’s matured quite a bit through his setbacks. He’s now set to become an unrestricted free agent, with NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reporting that there’s mutual interest in him staying put. That would be the best thing for a franchise that didn’t know what it was going to do at quarterback not too long ago.

Green Bay Packers

Does Green Bay become an NFC power?

The Packers should be giddy about where this franchise currently sits, even with that heartbreaking playoff loss to San Francisco. Quarterback Jordan Love matured into a star in the second half of this season. His supporting cast is young and talented at wide receiver (Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs, Jayden Reed, Dontayvion Wicks, Bo Melton) and tight end (Luke Musgrave, Tucker Kraft), while running back Aaron Jones finished this season with five consecutive 100-yard rushing games. The same defense that was a liability in December became downright ornery in the postseason. You also have to be impressed with how the Packers beat up on Dallas in the wild-card game before giving the 49ers all they could handle on Saturday. This is a team that needed a Week 18 win over Chicago to merely make the playoffs. Green Bay now looks like it could take down any team in the NFC regardless of the circumstances. That speaks to how general manager Brian Gutekunst put this group together and the manner in which Matt LaFleur coached it. Gutekunst deserves special credit because he bet big on Love being able to grow into a franchise quarterback after trading Aaron Rodgers to the New York Jets. It shouldn’t be lost on anybody that Love won his first playoff game in the same week that Rodgers was feuding with Jimmy Kimmel and revisiting COVID-19 conspiracy theories. The Packers went through a lot to reach this point. They’re definitely going to be a problem for plenty of opponents in the coming years.

Related Content