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Recap of the NFL Divisional Round: Reality Strikes as Hopes Shatter

Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow sets to throw in a 27-10 AFC divisional round victory over the Buffalo Bills. Photo by AP.

All expected winners won. Consequently, four organizations and their fan bases suffered the brutal realization that the top teams are the top teams for a reason.

There were virtually no upsets in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. A blowout win for the Eagles, a battled-out win for the San Francisco 49ers, a clutch win for the Chiefs, and a solid victory for the Bengals set up a top-seeded juggernaut of a conference championship round. 

Bengals 27 @ Bills 10: Not So Quick NFL 

In light of the tragedy occurring with Damar Hamlin in the Bills’ week 17 matchup against the Bengals, the NFL decided to host the AFC Championship game in Atlanta as a neutral site if the Bills were to play the Chiefs in the battle for the AFC throne.

To the disrespect of the Bengals, the NFL, in preparation for a potential Bills victory, began selling tickets for a Bills-Chief battle before the divisional round contest between Joe Burrow and Josh Allen. 

Fifty-thousand tickets were sold in the first 24 hours to attend the neutral site AFC Championship game. 

The text “NFL Refund” will read across thousands of accounts, thanks to two people named Joe. 

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Burrow, Bengals quarterback, threw for 242 yards and two touchdowns while running back Joe Mixon had a dominant 105-yard night that included a touchdown. 

Burrow had control of the wheel, starting 9-for-9 in his first two possessions of the game. His only touchdown of the game came in the first quarter when he found electrifying wideout Ja’Marr Chase open in the middle of a field for a 28-yard touchdown just 3:20 into the game. 

Less than eight minutes later, Burrow threw a 15-yard touchdown pass on third down to tight end Hayden Hurst, forcing Buffalo further down with a 14-point deficit. 

The Bengals forced two punts in the opening quarter but relinquished the Bills’ sole touchdown of the game when Allen rushed for a yard into the end zone, cutting the Bengals’ lead to a touchdown. Allen had three games all season in which he failed to secure a passing touchdown. Two of them were against the Bengals, including in the divisional round. 

The Bengals’ defense grabbed the Bills’ offense and geared them apart. Garnering eight quarterback hits, eight pass deflections, and an interception, the Bills offense consisting of Allen and star wide receiver Stefon Diggs was prey for a hungry Bengals defense. Diggs, who had amassed 1,429 yards in the regular season, was held to 35 yards on four receptions. 

Meanwhile, the Bills’ defense surrendered 30 first downs, a figure which is the franchise record for most first downs in a game for the Bengals.  

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As snow persistently came forth from the sky and rested on the turf at Highmark Stadium, the Bills losing a second straight divisional round playoff game became more realistic as they simply had no answer for Zac Taylor’s Bengals. Taylor is now 5-1 in the playoffs as Bengals coach. 

With a 10-game winning streak on their resume heading into the AFC championship game, the number 12 will be their target number. However, between twelve and ten is eleven. In the way of their eleventh straight win and a trip to Arizona on Feb. 12 lays Batman, Patrick Mahomes.

Chiefs 27 v. Jaguars 20: Every Batman Needs A Robin 

Chiefs starting quarterback Patrick Mahomes congratulates backup quarterback Chad Henne after scoring a touchdown on Oct. 25, 2020 against the Denver Broncos. 

The Jaguars and Chiefs traded touchdowns in the first quarter with Mahomes finding tight end Travis Kelce for an 8-yard touchdown pass and Jacksonville quarterback Trevor Lawrence lobbing a 10-yard touchdown pass to wideout Christian Kirk. 

The second quarter began with a Harrison Butker field goal. But what transpired during the drive that resulted in a 10-7 Chiefs lead would strike fear throughout all of Missouri. 

The atmosphere at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City was pierced with consternation and panic as Chiefs’ generational quarterback Patrick Mahomes went down with an ankle injury late in the first quarter that would sideline him after the drive.

Batman was knocked down.

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Robin stepped up…again. 

Up five against the Browns with two minutes remaining in the 2021 AFC divisional, Chiefs backup quarterback Chad Henne rushed for 13 yards on a crucial third-and-long play. The ensuing fourth-down completion to former Chiefs wideout, Tyreek Hill, would secure the Chiefs a trip to the AFC Championship.

Henne keeps adding to his legacy in the divisional round. 

With Mahomes hobbled, the 37-year-old spearheaded a twelve-play, 98-yard touchdown drive in which he completed five passes on seven attempts.

Kelce’s 1-yard touchdown catch from Henne was his second of the game. The four-time first-team All-Pro had a historic night. Kelce’s 14 catches penned his name in the history books as the tight end with the most catches in a playoff game. 

The Chiefs went to the locker room with a 17-10 lead. 

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Despite the lead, the Chiefs would have to go a whole second half without arguably the best quarterback in the National Football League. 

However, despite the pain, Mahomes knew he still had a purpose and endured for the joy set before him: reconciliation with the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

The second half was en route to begin, and it was as if the WWE’s Undertaker made one of his ominous entrances that unleashed fear into his opponent. 

This opponent was different. Fear was not an option for Doug Pederson’s Jags. With the scoreboard reading 20-17, advantage Chiefs, at the 11:49 mark of the fourth, the Jaguars still had a chance to knock off the AFC number one seed and snap Mahomes’ 4-0 divisional round record. 

The Jaguars had eight wins as underdogs entering this game, tied for most wins by an underdog team in the Super Bowl era. 

A Chiefs touchdown on the ensuing drive via a six-yard reception by Marquez Valdes-Scantling with little over seven minutes remaining would prohibit the Jags from breaking the tie and capturing nine wins as an underdog. 

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Mahomes finished the game with 195 yards and two touchdowns.

The Chiefs defense forcing a turnover on the Jaguars’ next two offensive possessions curated a nearly impossible comeback for Lawrence’s team. A field goal with 25 seconds remaining proved vain as the Jags failed to recover the onside kick that would have granted them any hope of advancing.

The Chiefs will go against their kryptonite in the AFC Championship game. With Joe Burrow at the helm, the Bengals have a 3-0 record against the Kansas City Chiefs. 

Eagles 38 v. Giants 7: 

Members of the Philadelphia Eagles celebrate a touchdown in a 38-7 victory over the Giants in the NFL divisional round. 

The multitude expected an Eagles victory. The multitude did not expect an Eagles incineration. 

Despite many injuries, the NFCs number one seed did not succumb to their wounds. Instead, the Eagles manufactured a scene of carnage.

Within the game’s first five minutes, Jalen Hurts found tight end Dallas Goedert for a 16-yard touchdown. 

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An overzealous Brian Daboll authorized his Giants team to go for it on fourth-and-eight at Philadelphia’s 40. Hassan Reddick, who finished with two sacks in this game, tackled the Giants quarterback for a loss of eight with 5:46 left in the first. The decision left many bewildered, but the Eagles took advantage, soared high, ran, and did not grow weary. 

The defense continually feasted on Daniel Jones and the Giants’ offense. An Eagles defense tied third all-time with the 1987 Chicago Bears for the most sacks in a season sacked Jones four times and allowed the Giants to accumulate only 64 yards in the first half, Big Blues’ lowest output since week eight. 

During last week’s wild-card victory over the Vikings, Jones was only the third player all-time with 300 plus passing yards and 75 plus rushing yards in a postseason game. Against the Eagles, however, Jones threw for 135 yards and rushed for 24. Star running back Saquon Barkley had a resurgent year but was restricted to 61 yards on nine carries. Wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins produced a breakout season, however, the Eagles’ defense ensured he was not a factor as Hodgins finished with one reception for three yards.

Jones only threw a career-low five picks all season before his divisional matchup against the Eagles. His sixth occurred in the first quarter, landing in the hands of former Giants Pro Bowl cornerback James Bradberry. 

By the end of the first quarter, with two touchdowns to his name, any speculation regarding the status of Jalen Hurts’ recovering throwing shoulder was out of the window. Hurts finished the game 16-of-24 with 154 yards and two touchdowns.

The Eagles would tack on another 14 points in the second quarter, extending their lead to 28-0 going into halftime. In their three matchups with the Eagles this season, the team allowed 68 unanswered points.

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Giants running back Matt Breida prevented further wounds when rushing in an 8-yard touchdown with 6:15 left in the third. Nevertheless, a giant comeback by the Giants was credulous thinking.

A Jake Elliot field goal and Kenneth Gainwell’s 35-yard touchdown run in the fourth added insult to injury. Gainwell finished with 112 yards on 12 carries. 

The Eagles rested in their nest at the game’s end with a 38-7 victory. The birds don’t have to fly anywhere, as the NFC Championship will be hosted in their backyard. 

Niners 19 v. Cowboys 12: Twenty-seven Years And Counting 

San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle makes a juggling catch in a 19-12 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL divisional round. 

The Cowboys’ 27-year drought without a Super Bowl will continue into the 2023-2024 NFL season. They lost for a seventh straight time in the divisional round. 

Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott displayed another cloudy performance in the divisional round, throwing two interceptions against the number one defense in the NFL. 

San Francisco cornerback Deommodore Lenoir intercepted Prescott’s pass short left intended for wide receiver Michael Gallup with 5:55 left in the first. 

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The Niners capitalized off the turnover, with kicker Robbie Gould knocking in a chip shot 26-yard field goal. 

America’s favorite team responded with a 14-play 74-yard touchdown drive, the only one in the first half, at 9:25 in the second quarter. Prescott rolled right a few yards and tossed the pigskin 4-yards to Dalton Shultz, who avoided a tackle and strutted into the endzone. 

Brett Maher exacerbated his kicking woes when a blocked extra point already trending left of the goal cost the Cowboys a 7-6 lead. 

The Cowboys’ following offensive drive contributed to another Robbie Gould field goal, his third in the first half, giving Kyle Shannahan’s Niners a slim 9-6 lead heading into the locker room. 

A lack of trust in Maher forced the Cowboys to go for it on 4th & 4 instead of settling for a game-tying field goal. The effort was successful, with Prescott scrambling for nine yards to keep the drive alive. In hindsight, the effort was dismal. Nickel zone covers two coverage delegated slot corner Jimmie Ward the disconcerting task of covering Ceedee Lamb. Lamb ran an outbreak cut, and Ward deflected a Prescott pass that landed in the hands of linebacker Fred Warner, who finished the game with nine total tackles. 

Both defenses were robust throughout most of the game, where the two teams combined for two touchdowns. The Cowboys finished the game with 43 solo tackles and held Brock Purdy, now 7-0 as a starter in the league, to only nineteen completions and no touchdowns. 

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Dallas received the ball to begin the third and didn’t progress far, punting from their own 48. Explosive Dallas running back Tony Pollard suffered a fractured left fibula with 1:24 left in the first half. Any progress by the Cowboys was contingent on outstanding play from Dak Prescott and veteran running back Ezekiel Elliot. 

Return specialist Ray-Ray McCloud III muffed the punt, and Cowboys linebacker Damone Clark recovered it, giving the Cowboys life. 

Life indeed rushed through the Cowboys’ lungs when the drive resulted in Maher cashing in a 25-yard field goal. Maher only missed three field goals on the season; therefore, citing no injury, his four missed points after a touchdown in the postseason remain an enigma. 

A 9-9 game heading into the fourth was surprising yet set up an enthralling battle.

A Niners 10-play, 91-yard drive that began late in the third quarter rekindled a sense of excitement. Less than five minutes in the third, on 1st & 10 at their own 21, Purdy scrambled left, surveying the field for an option. With the Cowboys draping all of his potential targets, Purdy threw a deep ball back across the middle of the field that bounced off tight end George Kittle’s hand and face before he secured the ball for a 30-yard gain.

The same drive tilted the battle the 49ers’ way. Two seconds into the fourth, running back Christian McCaffery’s 2-yard touchdown run instilled somewhat of a calm within SoFi stadium.

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Maher and Gould each secured three points on their teams’ following offensive drives. 

The Cowboys’ defense gave Prescott a chance with 45 seconds remaining in the game. Though implausible, Jerry Jones’ team still had a chance. An unorthodox formation raised eyebrows; a barren play was no surprise. Jimmie Ward smoked wideout KaVonate Turpin before his two feet could skim the turf’s blades, preventing any hopes of a Cowboys lateral.

For the third time in four years, the San Francisco 49ers are going to the conference championship game. Brock Purdy got away with the victory without recording a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys; however, if he wishes to make his traditional post-game walk to his family in tears of joy and not sorrow, he must thread the needle and find the endzone against the number one seeded Eagles.

Joshua Herron is a sports reporter with The Hilltop covering professional sports. 

Copy edited by Alana Matthew

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