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The Wrap - Divisional Round Weekend

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  • By Neil Reynolds NFL International
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That's another great round of games in the books and the playoff series in the NFL's 100th season is proving to be the late Christmas gift that keeps on giving.

Not every game was close on the scoreboard but all four contests in the Divisional Round of the playoffs were compelling in their own way and provided a multitude of twists, turns and talking points.

I'll get onto Tennessee's shocking but deserved dismantling of the Baltimore Ravens and wins for San Francisco and Green Bay later in this column, but I have to start with a quarterback battle in Kansas City that I hope becomes the future of the AFC playoffs.

Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes and Houston's Deshaun Watson - born three days apart in 1995 and just 24 years of age - lived up to their box office billing in a sensational game at Arrowhead that will live long in the memory.

The pair put on such a show on Sunday night that any running play felt like a waste of time and a missed opportunity to witness further Mahomes and Watson magic. This was a game that needed to be in the hands of the young quarterbacks as they took centre stage and wowed us time and again.

Watson and the Texans took advantage of Kansas City';s sloppy start and by the end of the first quarter the young passer was playing the air guitar on the sidelines and Houston led 24-0.

Texans head coach Bill O'Brien might just have put the Chiefs away early in the second quarter and I'll have more on that below. But the comeback inspired by Mahomes was nothing short of stunning as Kansas City scored touchdowns on seven straight drives to take control of a game for the ages.

Mahomes ended the night with 321 passing yards, five touchdowns and another 53 yards on the ground. There should be no shame in defeat for Watson, who threw for 388 yards and two touchdowns while also rushing for 37 yards and another score.

I hope this becomes the new Tom Brady-Peyton Manning playoff rivalry in the AFC for the next decade or more. Sign me up for some of that because these two quarterbacks not only represent the future of the position... they are 'now' of the position and they genuinely looked like kids having fun in the playground on Sunday.

Pressure? What pressure?

This was not about money or future endorsement deal riches. Mahomes and Watson were playing for the love of the game, to quench their own competitive thirsts and to one-up the other. It felt so much like two kids going head to head in the playground that they might as well have been drawing up plays in the Arrowhead dirt. Sign me up to watch more of that in the coming years.

And while Houston need to upgrade their offensive line (Watson was sacked 12 times in two playoff games) and their defense, I cannot see either of these teams disappearing into irrelevance all the while these outstanding quarterbacks are at the helm.

The mandate is clear for Bill O'Brien and Andy Reid. Surround these quarterbacks with offensive talent (that still remains a bigger priority than any defensive tinkering) and then sit back and enjoy the show along with the rest of us!

Super Bowls will be in the future of both Mahomes and Watson. The latter might just have to wait a little longer than Mahomes, who is now 60 minutes from the title game in Miami on February 2.

Who's Hot...

Derrick Henry... It's Derrick Henry's world and we're all just living in it. There can be no doubting the fact that this playoff series belongs to Tennessee's power-packed running back. One week after destroying the New England Patriots with 34 carries for 182 yards, Henry was running all over another top defense as he gained 195 yards on 30 carries in the 28-12 win in Baltimore. Those two games were no fluke - since Week 10, Henry has averaged 159.1 rushing yards per game and even though defenses are aware he is getting the ball, there is nothing they can do to stop him. Henry's dominance was summed up beautifully on one second-half run when he stiff-armed Earl Thomas - who had done plenty of pre-match talking - and then turned him around like a rag doll and used the defender as his own lead blocker. That was the great Earl Thomas, not some training camp chump! That play alone showed the cold-hearted and unstoppable violence that manifests itself in the form of Derrick Henry whenever the Titans play. It is a run for the ages from Henry and could yet end in a Super Bowl showing in Miami.

San Francisco's pass rush...It's been great having former NFL offensive lineman and current NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger in the Sky Sports studio for these playoffs and Baldy was spot on when describing San Francisco's defense as being like Shark Week on Saturday night. The 49ers recorded six sacks in their 27-10 win and each of their first-round linemen - Nick Bosa, Solomon Thomas, DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead - had a takedown of Kirk Cousins, as did free agent acquisition Dee Ford. The Niners flew to the football and after a very brief explosive play from the Vikings early on, this was never a contest. San Francisco particularly shone on the defensive side of the ball as they held Minnesota to 147 total yards. And it was not just the pass defense. The Vikings rushed for just 21 yards. San Francisco look formidable.

Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce... I've talked about Mahomes already but there is no doubt in my mind that he is the best quarterback in the NFL today. And his tight end is not too shabby, either. Travis Kelce plays like a big-bodied wide receiver once again and he was hugely effective on Sunday as he caught 10 passes for 134 yards and three touchdowns, all the while playing with a nagging hamstring injury. The way Mahomes extended plays with a roll-out and then found Kelce who was mirroring his quarterback perfectly was so impressive and proved impossible for Houston to defend. The Chiefs have plenty of offensive stars but the connection between Mahomes and Kelce is their most vital.

Who's Not...

Bill O'Brien... Leading 21-0 early in the second quarter, Houston faced a fourth and one at the Kansas City 13. Surely they had to go for it and finish the Chiefs with another touchdown? It sure looked like O'Brien was considering such a move but after a time out, he played it safe and opted to kick a field goal. With his foot on Kansas City's throat, O'Brien let Mahomes and his teammates off the mat. Moments later, Mecole Hardman sprang a 57-yard kickoff return and Kansas City's comeback was on. During that gathering of Chiefs' momentum, O'Brien called for a fake punt on his own 31-yard line. It failed thanks to a great defensive effort from Kansas City's Daniel Sorensen and from then on the Chiefs were really rolling. Why not go for it at the opponent's 13 but you roll the dice at your own 31? That seemed the wrong way around, to me. Given that the Chiefs scored 51 on the day, those two calls might not have changed anything in the grand scheme of things... but they did hand momentum to Kansas City at vital stages of a wild and wacky first half.

Baltimore Ravens... Don';t be fooled by the huge numbers posted by Lamar Jackson (he threw for 365 yards and ran for another 143) against Tennessee on Saturday night. The league's MVP elect did not show up in the biggest game of his life as he turned it over three times and the same can be said for so many of his teammates. The Ravens were out of sorts from start to finish and could never dig out of their early 14-0 hole. They certainly looked rusty after resting many starters for 20 days at the end of the 2019 season. This one really stung for the Ravens given how special their 14-2 regular season had been. They have the pieces in place to mount another challenge in 2020 but they're going to have to listen to another offseason of unsettling talk after laying a playoff egg for the second year in a row.

Seattle's offensive plan... The Seahawks seemed intent on trying to run the football in frigid conditions in the first half of their 28-23 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. The results were not pretty and Seattle trailed 21-3 at the break. In the third and fourth quarters, this game quite rightly turned into the duel between Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers that we had been hoping for all along. Wilson put his team on his back and might well have led a late comeback victory had Rodgers not produced two big third down throws to ice the contest. The Seahawks got very little from running backs Travis Homer and Marshawn Lynch during this playoff run as the pair carried 32 times for 58 yards. That made the decision to take the ball out of Wilson's hands at times a rather baffling one.

The Fast Five...

San Francisco might have got a little jittery when Jimmy Garoppolo threw an interception on Saturday. The numbers would suggest as much because after that pick, the 49ers threw the ball six times and called 28 runs. On the day, the Niners showed off their 'by committee'rushing attack, carrying 47 times for 186 yards. Coupled with the defensive performance, this was an old-school win.

Ryan Tannehill's numbers would suggest the Titans are trying to hide him or that he is not up to the playoff task... but don't be fooled by the statistics. Tannehill only threw for 72 yards in the Wild Card round in New England but connected on two massively-important throws to tight end Anthony Firkser. On Saturday, Tannehill threw for 88 yards but his two touchdown passes were things of absolute beauty. Tannehill is playing at a high level, he just doesn't need to throw all that much with Henry running riot.

Lost in the Patrick Mahomes-Deshaun Watson showdown was a very fine defensive performance from Kansas City pass rusher Frank Clark, who recorded three sacks. Now fully healthy after a season hampered with various knocks and ailments, Clark is emerging as a defensive force for the Chiefs and has recorded 10 sacks in his last nine games.

Aaron Rodgers doesn't have a wealth of receiving talent at his disposal but he has Davante Adams and that was enough on Sunday. The pair hooked up time and again to the tune of eight connections for 160 yards and two scores. The biggest connection came on Green Bay's final game-icing drive and when targeting Adams throughout the night, we saw vintage Rodgers.

We also saw vintage Russell Wilson in the second half and he simply never knows when he is beaten. The Seahawks crashed out of the playoffs on Sunday night, but there is no way they are even close to the postseason without the efforts of their star man under center.

Finish That Sentence

After a hugely entertaining Divisional Round, you have responded via Twitter and I will finish a selection of your NFL-related sentences here.

From Will Talbut (@WillTalbut)...The AFC quarterback who will dominate the 2020s will be...Patrick Mahomes... with honourable mentions for Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson. Those mobile, strong-armed and swagger-filled passers represent the future and who knows? Two more might come into the conference soon with Joe Burrow likely heading to Cincinnati and Tua being an option for Miami. I trust Mahomes more than the others on a year to year basis but all three of those I mentioned at the start of this answer - Mahomes, Watson and Jackson - can win it all with the right ingredients around them.

From Phil McNamara (@Phil_McNamara)... Ryan Tannehill failed in Miami but is playing like a Hall of Famer in Tennessee because... he is hundreds of miles away from Adam Gase! That is a joke, of course, but I do think fresh coaching and a fresh environment has helped. Plus, Tannehill is surrounded with the best talent of his career and a running game to die for led by Derrick Henry. It also helps that Tannehill is now operating behind an elite offensive line. He was running for his life in Miami behind a non-existent group of blockers.

From Chris Merchant (@merchantcp)... Aaron Rodgers deserves... to have more around him in terms of offensive talent. On Sunday, it was Davante Adams and a little bit of Jimmy Graham in the passing game and there was little else. I don't think the Packers have enough around their star passer and their run will end in San Francisco on Sunday. Rodgers deserves better because he still has elite moments in his locker but he is running out of time and chances at 36 years of age. I'd love to see the Packers invest in their offense during this offseason after years of focusing on a defense that rightly needed improving. The 2020 offseason and season has to about giving Rodgers what he wants.

From Sophie Hogan (@SophieHogan34)... The only thing Derrick Henry can't do is... sort out Brexit. Come on Derrick, get it done, son! Other than that, this kid is an absolute thoroughbred and looks unstoppable on the field during this second half of the 2019 campaign.

Fact of the Week

The Chiefs scored 41 unanswered points after trailing the Texans 24-0. That was the third-most unanswered points scored after trailing in an NFL playoff game. The Chicago Bears scored 44 in Super Bowl 20 against New England and the Washington Redskins scored 42 after falling behind 10-0 to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 22.

Final Thought...

Another action-packed playoff round was just what the doctor ordered for this sleep-deprived television presenter. For me, Saturday was one of those American football-packed days that remind you how great this game is and what this great game can do for people at various levels of the sport. I kicked off Saturday morning with a 5.20am alarm call as I was drafted in to drive my son, George, to a Great Britain Under-19s training camp in Bristol. We left home at 5.50am to pick up two of George's NFL Academy teammates in south London and then safely navigated our way around the M25 and along the M4, arriving at 9.30am. After a morning of stats and research sat in the car, I watched the Under 19s practice through gale-force winds in the afternoon and then left at 5.30pm for a two-hour drive back to the Sky Sports studios, depositing George and his teammates at a London tube station along the way. I then went on air at 9pm to present those Saturday games that saw San Francisco beat Minnesota and Tennessee upset Baltimore. We came off air at 4.45am and I headed straight to a nearby hotel, falling asleep somewhere around 5.20am. People often say you should get the most out of every day and, on this occasion, I squeezed something out of every single one of the 24 hours. I love it and will have a proper sleep after the Super Bowl in February!

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