What We Learned from the N.F.L.’s Divisional Round

Home teams won the first three games of the N.F.L.’s divisional round, but there was plenty of fretting along the way. The Buffalo Bills rode their defense to a win, the Green Bay Packers relied on their offense and the heavily favored Kansas City Chiefs, who lost quarterback Patrick Mahomes to a concussion, mostly survived.

Here’s what we learned:

The Winners Bracket

Chad Henne sealed the deal for the Chiefs to get to another AFC Championship game ? @PatrickMahomes @Chiefs pic.twitter.com/Yk3Kay5CnW

Andy Reid trusts Chad Henne. Forced into action after Mahomes’ concussion, Henne, a 35-year-old backup, showed determination, skill and a bit of recklessness in protecting Kansas City’s lead over the Cleveland Browns, helping to send the Chiefs to their third consecutive A.F.C. championship game. Henne’s performance wasn’t flawless — he threw a particularly ugly interception in the end zone — but Coach Andy Reid’s decision to have his backup attempt a pass on fourth-and-short to ice the game, rather than running or punting the ball away, was about as strong of an endorsement as a player can receive. And Henne will undoubtedly be reminding people about his wild 13-yard run on the preceding play for years to come.

There is no question that Kansas City is hoping Mahomes can be back for next week’s game against the Buffalo Bills, but his injury — and injuries sustained by Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens and Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams in their divisional round games — showed just how precarious each game can be in the N.F.L. Having a reliable backup can be the difference between winning and losing.

Lambeau Field is ready for its (frigid) close-up. Green Bay’s stadium opened in 1957, and has been the site of several classic games, but it has seen relatively little action late in the playoffs. Thanks to Green Bay’s 32-18 win over the Los Angeles Rams in Saturday’s divisional round game, the Packers will host the N.F.C. championship game next Sunday — the 10th time in franchise history that Green Bay has played a game with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake. Most of those games, though, were on the road, with this being just the fourth time Lambeau has hosted such a game. The last resulted in a loss to the Giants in 2007 in which Aaron Rodgers, still serving as Brett Favre’s understudy, watched from the sidelines.

The Packers’ raucous fans will not have much chance to affect next week’s game — Green Bay allowed only 8,456 people to attend the divisional round game — but Wisconsin’s weather could play a role. Weather.com’s 10-day forecast is calling for possible snow on Sunday, with temperatures in the 20s. That’s cold, but by Packers standards it wouldn’t qualify as particularly harsh: It was 3 degrees at kickoff in 1997 when Favre led Green Bay past Carolina; and it was a bone-chilling minus-15 — with a windchill bringing things down another 20-30 degrees — when the Packers, on their path to Super Bowl II, beat the Dallas Cowboys in the 1967 N.F.L. championship, better known as the Ice Bowl.

Buffalo’s defense was lying in wait. After a 2019 season in which the Bills’ defense ranked second in points allowed and third in yards allowed, it was expected that Buffalo would live and die on that side of the ball in 2020. Instead, the Bills’ defense was routinely overwhelmed, leaving quarterback Josh Allen and the team’s much-improved offense to bail out that unit. In Saturday’s divisional round game, those roles again reversed. Defensive stars like linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, safety Micah Hyde and cornerback Tre’Davious White were at their best and cornerback Taron Johnson delivered the key play of the game with an incredible 101-yard interception return for a touchdown.

Johnson’s pick-six should result in his never buying another drink in Buffalo, and the Bills are back in the A.F.C. championship game for the first time since the 1993 season. But Buffalo faces an even stiffer test next week in the form of Kansas City.

The Losers Bracket

Timeouts are important. The Cleveland Browns had the franchise’s best season since it was resurrected in 1999, and the team’s defense, its running game, and even quarterback Baker Mayfield, should provide fans plenty of optimism going into next season. But Cleveland’s wasting two timeouts in the second half — one on a challenge of a play that wasn’t particularly close and one when there was miscommunication at the line of scrimmage — lowered the Browns’ chances of getting the ball back one last time when trailing by 5 in the game’s closing minutes.

The Browns and their fans will likely view this as a lost opportunity to knock off the vaunted Kansas City Chiefs — the injury sustained by Mahomes had seemed to kick the door wide open — but the franchise should instead see this as the start of what could be a strong A.F.C. rivalry. The Browns are young, talented, and came close to a win on the road. Given another shot, perhaps the outcome would be different.

The Rams defense goes as far as Aaron Donald can take it. Following a disappointing 2019 season that ended without a playoff appearance, Los Angeles surged back into contention in 2020 thanks to its defense. Multiple players stepped up to look like stars and the Rams were not only the top-rated overall defense in the N.F.L. — both in total yardage and scoring — but they showed balance, finishing as a top-three unit in both run and pass yards allowed. All of that, however, was built on the dominance of Donald, an All-Pro defensive tackle, who anchors the team in all facets of the game. There was concern coming into Saturday’s game against Green Bay that Donald could be limited by a rib injury sustained in the wild-card round, but he insisted he was healthy. It was clear from the beginning that was untrue. Donald was on the field for 40 of the Rams’ 75 defensive snaps and he was limited to one tackle and one pressure. He didn’t hit Aaron Rodgers a single time, and the lack of pressure had a cascading effect for the rest of the Rams’ defenders who did not produce a sack and hit Rodgers just once all game. A devastated Donald was seen crying on the Rams’ sideline at the end of the game.

Struggling against Rodgers hardly makes the Rams unique, but the final numbers were stark: It was just the second time all season that Los Angeles allowed more than 30 points, and it was the team’s worst effort of the season against both the pass (296 yards) and the run (188 yards).

The Ravens are familiar with Murphy’s Law. The adage states anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Baltimore got an extreme lesson in that during Saturday’s 17-3 loss to the Bills.

Justin Tucker, the game’s most reliable kicker from inside 50 yards, missed 41- and 46-yard field goal attempts, with both attempts bouncing off the uprights. It was quickly reported that Tucker had not missed two such kicks in any single game over his 154 career regular season and playoff games in the N.F.L., but that was understating how unusual it was for Tucker. He also never missed two such kicks in any college game.

Lamar Jackson, a quarterback celebrated for efficient passing and thrilling runs, had the third-worst passer rating of his 41 career starts (including postseason) while gaining just 34 yards rushing. He had a mistake in the red zone turn into a 101-yard pick-six and he had a bad snap get away from him, leading to a hard hit that gave him a concussion.

Tucker and Jackson were hardly alone in their misery. Mark Andrews, one of the game’s best tight ends, caught just four of the 11 passes thrown his way, dropping at least one pass that looked like a sure touchdown. He was also Jackson’s target on the play that turned into a pick-six. Only Patrick Mekari had a worse day. A second-year player out of Cal, Mekari inherited the starting center job from an ineffective Matt Skura during the regular season. On Saturday, two of Mekari’s snaps resulted in fumbles — one of which was the play in which Jackson was concussed.

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