After a tense Wild Card Weekend, the Kansas City Chiefs proved to be the only one of last season's quarterfinalists to return to the Divisional Round. The 24-year-old reigning MVP will be joined in the AFC by the genre-defying MVP-to-be who's turning 23 this week. Also in the mix: The 24-year-old Texans quarterback who pulled another rabbit out of his hat Saturday for his first playoff win and a Titans team that found its identity when Ryan Tannehill transformed it into the season's most surprising offensive juggernaut. It all feels strange and refreshing in a conference that has been defined by a small rotation of challengers to Brady's throne for so, so long.
The NFC field is more familiar, yet it still features a Packers team with a first-year head coach, a 49ers team that transformed into a superpower overnight and Kirk Cousins trying to build off his first playoff triumph for one of the league's most star-crossed and loyal fan bases. I can't come up with an unsatisfying Super Bowl matchup.
It's too easy -- and too writerly -- to say that Brady and Brees are done forever more because of this weekend. Brees may have been the third-best quarterback on the field in New Orleans, but he also piloted a team that averaged more than 36 points per game in the seven weeks leading into the playoffs. These latter-day Brees era Saints are a prime example of how brutal the sport can be. Nothing is more difficult than backing up a 13-3 season with another one, except for making it count in the playoffs. New Orleans has outscored its opponents by at least 117 points in each of the past three seasons and has two playoff wins and three excruciating final-play losses to show for it. The margins for great NFL teams remain perilously thin, which virtually every Patriots championship run has proven. Brady is a handful of plays away from 11 titles or 1. Landing on 6 feels about right.
Brees and Brady both enter the offseason in remarkably similar situations, with voidable contracts that could cause their respective teams pain whether they stay or go. (More on that below.) Brees is the far safer bet to stay put, but don't be surprised if the route to securing his future gets complicated. There's no easy way out, even for all-time legends.
"It will end badly," Tom Brady's father said of his son's time in New England five years, four Super Bowl appearances and three titles ago, back when Brady was the spry age of 37. "It does end badly. And I know that because I know what Tommy wants to do. He wants to play till he's 70. ... It's a cold business. And for as much as you want it to be familial, it isn't."
One big first thought for each Divisional Round game
Not only do the Texans get to avoid a trip to Baltimore, but they get an extra day to rest before Sunday's Divisional Round game against the Chiefs. It will be a tall order for either AFC road team to win this coming weekend, but at least Kansas City should bring back fond memories for Bill O'Brien and friends. Houston's 31-24 win at Arrowhead Stadium in Week 6 was the high-water mark of the Texans' season. They held the ball on offense for nearly 40 minutes and held the Chiefs to seven points over the last three quarters.
Houston has been chasing that performance since, with consistently erratic play since losing 41-7 in Baltimore in Week 11, typified by Saturday's no-no-no-no-YES effort against the Bills. Deshaun Watson and the Texans offense are capable of playing better than they have the last few months. All they have to do is watch that Week 6 film.
The Titans are a more dangerous opponent in the Divisional Round than the Texans would have been. Consider it a good sign that Tennessee found a way to win in Foxborough during an off night for their offense. With Derrick Henry running as well as any player alive and a normally explosive play-action passing game in support, the Titans are the rare team that could match the Baltimore offense punch-for-punch. Henry, A.J. Brown and even tight end Jonnu Smith are capable of beating the perfect play call.
It should go without saying that any trip to Baltimore is going to be a tall order. The Ravens are perhaps the best regular-season team since the 2007 Patriots, and Tennessee's defense is still full of question marks. But the Titans at least have the personnel and the coaching staff to make Baltimore nervous if a few bounces go their way. Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees was last in Baltimore, so there will be familiarity between the staffs, like there was for Titans-Patriots. While the Titans are a big underdog, the Texans would have presented a lesser challenge.
The Vikings' overtime win in New Orleans was another reminder of how overrated momentum is heading into the playoffs. Plenty of Super Bowl winners and runners-up limped into the tournament, including last season's Patriots. Minnesota's Week 16 no-show against the Packers and many of the team's so-so results down the stretch feel particularly pointless to analyze now. This is a different team when Dalvin Cook and Adam Thielen are on the field at full strength together. Sunday's game against the Saints was the first time that happened since Week 6 and the two stars combined for 262 of the Vikings' 362 yards. It shouldn't be that big a surprise that a top-heavy offense looks a lot different when two of its best players are healthy again.
Thielen's performance -- which included the two biggest grabs of Minnesota's season -- was especially encouraging. Even in a game when New Orleans cornerback Janoris Jenkins largely took Stefon Diggs out of the mix, the Vikings were able to hit enough big plays. The Saints being removed from the playoffs could eventually help the 49ers, but Minnesota sure looks like a tougher matchup than the Seahawks. As Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen showed Sunday, the best day from Minnesota's front can make any offensive line look bad. The 49ers get my vote as the most talented roster left in the NFC, but the Vikings are right behind them.
There's no predicting how a playoff weekend will unfold, but it's ideal to end with a bang. The wild-card finale of Seahawks-Eagles, for instance, felt anticlimactic after the earlier insanity in the Superdome.
That's why I like 'Hawks-Pack being played in the icy cold of prime time this coming Sunday. It's hard to imagine these two teams and these two quarterbacks won't create something strange, if not magical, at Lambeau Field. Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers are the only two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks left in the field, and only one will represent the old guard on Championship Sunday. (When Russell Wilson has a chance to represent "the old guard," you know the league is changing.)
What's next for the vanquished wild-card teams?
Any prediction about Brady's future is guesswork, but this much we know: Brady has a ton of leverage in contract talks. Because of the terms of his last contract with its voidable years, the Patriots will eat $13.5 million in dead cap money if Brady is unsigned when free agency starts. Over The Cap did a great job explaining how Brady is not a typical unrestricted free agent. His contract makes him even trickier to sign.
Bill Belichick may not be afraid to draw a hard line in contract negotiations with declining players -- even Brady -- but using a huge portion of the cap for Brady to play on another team would be a tough pill to swallow. It feels like this negotiation, more than any before, is up to Brady. He made it clear after the loss that he's unlikely to retire, setting up what could be a protracted game of chicken with Patriots management. If he wants to max out his money, now is the time to leave.
Whether Brady stays or not, Belichick could use this offseason to turn over much of the organization. Core players Devin McCourty, Joe Thuney, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Matthew Slater are free agents. Patrick Chung, Stephen Gostkowski and even Dont'a Hightower could be cap cuts. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and front office head honcho Nick Caserio might be headed out of town. Belichick has reloaded on the fly more than once during the last two decades, and I suspect he will relish the opportunity to do so again.
General manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott did a mostly terrific job adding talent in free agency last year with center Mitch Morse and receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley. The team has more salary cap space than it can use once again and should have a healthy fear of getting stuck in the upper middle class of the NFL.
Saturday's loss to the Texans showed the limitations of Buffalo's sound, conservative approach. After a brilliant opening-drive script, the Bills' offense didn't score a touchdown in their ensuing 10 possession against the worst defense to qualify for the postseason. It's hard to win in January without a consistent passing game, and Josh Allen's performance against Houston was typical of his 2019 season: There was a lot more to like than before, but there was still a whole lot of ugly. The rest of Buffalo's roster on both sides of the ball needs more game-changing players to make up for a quarterback who may never be a consistent top-10 guy.
BillsMafia should take comfort that the foundation is strong, with a back seven on defense that has great youth, talent and continuity. The roster won't have many key players to replace. That should give Buffalo flexibility to take some calculated risks, whether it's in free agency, the draft or the trade market.
Only five teams have less cap space entering 2020 than the Saints, per Over The Cap. Drew Brees has the highest cap figure on the team by far, despite the fact he doesn't have a contract -- a confusing fact that is explained above in the Tom Brady section. The Saints have kicked the can of Brees' deal down the road repeatedly, and now is not the time to change course. If Brees is going to cost over $20 million on the cap if he's not on the team, he had better be on the team.
The Saints' offense was too effective for too much of the 2019 season to flip the script now, even if that means making adjustments on the roster elsewhere. While there are a few solid free agents who could leave (Vonn Bell and David Onyemata), there are also a few contracts that are relatively easy to cut, like Janoris Jenkins, Kiko Alonso and Patrick Robinson. Brees' last two negotiations with the Saints have not been that straightforward, however, and it wouldn't be a surprise if this one includes some agent-created drama in the media, too.
No team has had worse injury luck over the last three seasons than Philadelphia, and that includes their Super Bowl campaign. Carson Wentz's concussion on Sunday against the Seahawks was the latest proof that it wasn't meant to be for this Eagles squad, and there was no shame in bowing out of the playoffs quickly. Philly has a raft of talent returning next season and more cap flexibility than last year. Jason Peters and Ronald Darby are among the team's key free agents, but GM Howie Roseman has fewer problems to solve and more resources to spend than he has in the last few offseasons. That should result in an aggressive free agency and trade period for a team that isn't afraid to think and act differently. The Eagles are well-positioned to remain on top of the NFC East.
UNSTOPPABLE PERFORMANCE: Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans
The Titans threw for 71 yards and ran the ball 40 times in a game that was 14-13 until the final seconds. They still managed to win, because even the best game plan cannot account for the sheer force and athleticism of Derrick Henry. The crazy part is that the Patriots mostly did a great job of tackling him, yet still couldn't prevent the big plays that led to Henry's 182 yards on 34 attempts. He has 66 carries over the last two weeks in an Earl Campbell-like takeover.
Unstoppable Performance is presented by Courtyard by Marriott, the Official Hotel of the NFL.
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