KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It turns out that Super Wild Card Weekend wasn't so super or wild after all. The Pittsburgh Steelers proved to be as feeble as expected. The Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots weren't much of a match, either. Thank God for the Dallas Cowboys and all of their head-scratching decisions and last-minute drama. Without their chaotic loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, we wouldn't have a whole lot to talk about today.
You know why the Divisional Round is the best part of the playoffs? Because that's when the poop gets real. There's no longer a need to wonder if a team that barely qualified for the postseason actually can turn into a plucky underdog story. Everybody who's playing in this round right now has a legitimate shot at a championship. This is when the big boys literally come out to play, while the eliminated go home to ponder what it takes to get this far.
So here's how we're going to handle The First Read today. We have 14 questions to ask and 14 answers to give. The first eight will revolve around the eight teams still left in the postseason. The other six will address those franchises that saw their seasons end over the weekend. Here we go ...
What kind of impact will Derrick Henry have if he makes his anticipated return from injury?
It wasn't that long ago that people wondered what kind of offense Tennessee would have without Henry. The Titans answered that question by involving an assortment of unheralded runners, grinding their way through a variety of other injuries and staying the course until they secured the top seed in the AFC playoffs. Now Henry is on schedule to return to the field after foot surgery sidelined him for nine games. (UPDATE: The Titans officially activated Henry on Friday, putting the running back in line to return to action against the Bengals in Saturday's Divisional Round bout.) He was a monster before going down -- the reigning rushing champ was putting himself in position for a second consecutive 2,000-yard rushing season -- but the Titans are likely to be more diversified with him returning to the field. Tennessee discovered solid production from the combination of D'Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard in Henry's absence. The offense also benefitted from the return of wide receivers A.J. Brown and Julio Jones from injury, as quarterback Ryan Tannehill got back to his efficient play instead of turning the ball over continually. It's not hard to envision the Titans easing Henry back into the mix instead of heaping a significant workload on him. He actually remains on injured reserve for the moment, but with a designation to return ahead of Saturday's game vs. the Bengals. Head coach Mike Vrabel told reporters this week of practice would show plenty in terms of what the Titans can expect from their star runner. The reality is they have the luxury of being a bit more patient with him at this stage. He'll surely be a big part of whatever they do moving forward, but weaving him back in also has become one of those good problems to have.
Is the Chiefs' defense back?
Kansas City found the perfect solution for a defense that had been underwhelming in its previous two outings: The Pittsburgh Steelers. Nobody expected the Steelers to come into Arrowhead and produce anything resembling offensive fireworks in their Sunday night wild-card matchup with the Chiefs. Kansas City found a team that was even more disappointing than initially anticipated. The Chiefs didn't allow an offensive touchdown until four minutes were left in the third quarter, and they surrendered only 257 total yards in a 42-21 win. Those numbers are more in line with the way Kansas City was dominating opponents during an eight-game winning streak, when the defense allowed 12.9 points per game. There had been serious questions about the staunchness of that unit after it struggled against Cincinnati and Denver to close the season. To be honest, there might still be some lingering doubts after the victory over Pittsburgh, largely because the Chiefs' defense obliterated an opponent that lacked any real explosiveness at the skill positions or playmaking from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Chiefs will face a much tougher test in the Divisional Round when they meet the Buffalo Bills. The Bills enjoyed a 38-20 win at Kansas City earlier this season and just put up 47 points on the Patriots in a wild-card win. The Chiefs' defense looked much better on Sunday. It will need to be at the top of its game against Buffalo.
Can the Bills stay this hot?
The Bills were undoubtedly the most impressive team of the weekend. They pounced on the Patriots from the opening drive and never stopped scoring until time ran out. Say what you will about New England's conservative offense and struggling defense, but head coach Bill Belichick is a hard man to embarrass. The Bills did exactly that to him and his team, as the Patriots had no answers for anything Buffalo attempted. The Bills finished the game with 482 yards, leaving the impression that they're locked in for a playoff run that will take them to the Super Bowl. We all know they have struggled with consistency, as losses to Jacksonville and Pittsburgh have proven. However, Buffalo also has shown that it can rise to the occasion for big games. This team has waited a full season to return to a point where it can face the Chiefs in the postseason (after losing to Kansas City in last year's AFC title game). The Bills will have to sustain that same level of execution if they want to beat the Chiefs and return to the conference championship for a second straight year.
Can the Bengals' offense carry the team to an upset?
The emergence of the Bengals' offense has been one of the more exciting stories of this season. Few teams can boast the level of firepower this team possesses -- with quarterback Joe Burrow, running back Joe Mixon and a trio of wide receivers led by rookie sensation Ja'Marr Chase -- and that bunch will have to be on point this weekend. Cincinnati lost defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi to a season-ending foot injury in Saturday's wild-card win over the Raiders. Pro Bowl defensive end Trey Hendrickson is in concussion protocol while a couple other reserve defensive linemen are battling injuries. In short, the Bengals better score a lot of points to have a chance against the Titans. They've already shown they have the capacity to rise to the occasion, as Burrow and Chase overwhelmed the Kansas City Chiefs in a 34-31 win in Week 17. The Bengals also know that Houston Texans rookie quarterback Davis Mills gave the Titans problems in the season finale, as he threw for 301 yards and three touchdowns before Tennessee secured a 28-25 win. There are big plays to be had against the Titans' secondary. Burrow has to find a way to make them.
Is this the year when Aaron Rodgers finally beats the 49ers in the postseason?
Rodgers has seen San Francisco three times in the playoffs and never won. The last meeting came during the 2019 season when the 49ers walked away with a 37-20 victory in the NFC Championship Game. This Niners team has plenty of similar attributes to that one, including a physical run game and a fierce pass rush that leads a stifling defense (although two stars -- defensive end Nick Bosa and linebacker Fred Warner -- both sustained injuries in Sunday’s win over Dallas). (UPDATE: The 49ers announced Friday that Bosa cleared concussion protocol and has no injury designation for Saturday night's game in Green Bay.) The Packers are a little different. This Green Bay team is far better than the one from 2019. Rodgers has a chance to win his second consecutive league MVP, but he’s now equipped with an improved run game and a more talented defense. It also helps that the game will be played at Lambeau Field this time around and that Rodgers used the bye week to rest a lingering toe injury. It all adds up to the ideal set of circumstances for a California native who was passed over by the 49ers when they had the first pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. The Niners have been coming on strong over the last few weeks. Rodgers should be more than ready for the challenge.
Will the Buccaneers' injuries on offense catch up to them?
There isn't a team left in the postseason fighting more health issues on this side of the football. There's already been enough written about the loss of wide receiver Chris Godwin to a season-ending knee injury (and the eventual release of wide receiver Antonio Brown). But then running backs Leonard Fournette (hamstring) and Ronald Jones II (ankle) weren't health enough to play in Sunday's wild-card win over Philadelphia. And then two offensive linemen -- center Ryan Jensen and All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs -- went down with injuries in that contest. These aren't the kinds of problems any team wants to be taking on as it moves deeper into the postseason. The offensive line troubles are especially concerning because Wirfs likely will be a game-day decision, and Tampa is facing a Rams team with a relentless pass rush. It's clear the Bucs had enough talent to beat the Eagles, especially with wide receiver Mike Evans receiving more targets and the tandem of Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Giovanni Bernard producing in the run game. The Rams will be a different story. They beat up on the Bucs in Week 3, and the last thing quarterback Tom Brady wants is diminished pass protection against the likes of Aaron Donald, Von Miller and Leonard Floyd.
Is this finally the Rams team we've been waiting to see?
The Rams finished the regular season with a whimper, as they backed into the NFC West crown after blowing a 17-point lead in a loss to San Francisco. The team that returned to SoFi Stadium for a 34-11 wild-card win over Arizona clearly learned some important lessons from that disappointment. Los Angeles started fast (jumping out to a 28-0 lead), closed strong and left the impression that all the talent added to this roster is coming together at the right time. Quarterback Matthew Stafford played efficiently. Sony Michel and Cam Akers proved to be a dynamic duo in the backfield. The defense flew around the field and suffocated Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray all night, even with a secondary so banged up that the Rams signed veteran safety Eric Weddle off the street for depth. This is what the Rams had been hoping to see when they made blockbuster move after blockbuster move over the past year. This team has had its share of ups and downs. On Monday night, the Rams played with an undeniable sense of urgency and the belief that everything they covet is still well within their reach. That's a critical place to be when your next opponent is Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champions.
Can the 49ers trust Jimmy G in the clutch?
This question is being asked for one obvious reason: The interception Garoppolo threw late in the win over the Cowboys, a turnover that gave life to Dallas when the 49ers were in position to squelch all hope. It's the kind of mistake that has given fuel to Garoppolo's critics throughout his career, that he tends to wilt when the best quarterbacks rise up. Aside from a strong half in a season-ending comeback win over the Rams -- which secured a wild-card spot for San Francisco -- Jimmy G hasn't played particularly well over the last three games, throwing only two touchdown passes and five interceptions during that stretch. The 49ers won two of those three games, but that’s also largely because of what’s happening around the quarterback. Deebo Samuel is playing out of his mind. The pass rush has been hounding opposing quarterbacks. Those advantages can get a team past a wild-card opponent, especially when a team like Dallas commits 14 penalties and implodes during a potential game-winning drive. Better opponents, like Green Bay, will force Garoppolo to beat them. Even though he’s battling shoulder and thumb injuries, he’s going to have to deliver.
Can the Cardinals develop a killer instinct?
This is officially a problem in Arizona. The Cardinals lost five of their last seven games in 2020 and missed the postseason. They qualified for the playoffs this year but the ending has been just as deflating -- five defeats in their last six games, including Monday night's loss to the Rams. Some of the struggles this season can be traced back to the knee injury that sidelined wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins after Week 14. This offense never found a way to recover from that. There were other injuries along the way -- and COVID-related losses -- but this is about more than that. This team learned how to compete last year. It learned how to win this year. The next step in the process is learning how to close. The Cardinals have enough talent to hang with any team in the NFC. The problem is the NFC -- in particular, the NFC West -- won't be theirs until they can finish what they start.
What will the Dallas coaching staff look like next season?
Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones answered the hottest question in Dallas on Monday morning when he told 105.3 The Fan that he is "very confident" Mike McCarthy will remain the team's head coach. That prospect was debatable after the Cowboys' 23-17 wild-card loss to San Francisco. There were too many penalties, too many dumb mistakes and, ultimately, the play that will haunt this franchise throughout the offseason. It was a painful ending, one that might be compounded by other teams raiding the Dallas staff for head-coaching candidates. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is a hot name. He led the Atlanta Falcons to a Super Bowl appearance during his six seasons as head coach and he turned around the Cowboys' formerly abysmal defense this season. He's already planning on interviewing with at least five teams. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore is another popular candidate. He was the architect of an offense that led the NFL in scoring and total yards, and he's also been credited with aiding Prescott's development. Those two men played huge roles in the success Dallas enjoyed this season. It's hard to imagine the team performing at the same level if both walk out the door.
Who's coaching the Raiders next season?
The good news for Las Vegas interim coach Rich Bisaccia is that he led the Raiders to the playoffs despite constant controversy surrounding this team throughout the season. The bad news is owner Mark Davis gave a bunch of money and power to former head coach Jon Gruden, and Davis likely will be attracted to the idea of landing another big name to coach his franchise. This is in no way a knock on Bisaccia. He did a hell of a job. It's just that he probably needed to take this team to a Super Bowl to have a great shot at keeping this gig. For one thing, the league is littered with successful interim coaches who couldn't cut it once they were given a permanent position. (Bruce Arians is one of the few who blossomed in such a role, as he thrived in Indianapolis before leading the Cardinals and Buccaneers later in his career.) The other issue facing Bisaccia is the talent pool. There are a slew of appealing candidates on the market, including those with prior head-coaching experience (Quinn, Brian Flores, Todd Bowles, Doug Pederson) and those with strong credentials as assistants (Kellen Moore, Eric Bieniemy, Byron Leftwich, Matt Eberflus). One name that continues to be brought up around the Raiders is Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh. A source within that program said Harbaugh truly is considering NFL jobs, largely because he's still miffed about taking a pay cut after a subpar season in 2020. Now that he's fresh off a Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff appearance, he could be looking to cash in on his leverage.
How do the Patriots fix their defense?
The D was a strength for New England for most of the regular season, right up until the point that it fell apart down the stretch. The Patriots were gashed on the ground (by the Indianapolis Colts' Jonathan Taylor) and through the air (by Buffalo's Josh Allen), but the ultimate humiliation came in Saturday's 47-17 wild-card loss to the Bills. Buffalo became the first team in the Super Bowl era to score a touchdown on each of its first seven drives in a playoff game. No punts. No field goals. No turnovers. It was mind-boggling to watch, especially since that success came at the expense of one of the greatest defensive minds in league history. It was even more befuddling because Bill Belichick spent a lot of money in the offseason to enhance his defense. To be fair, the overall numbers looked great, as New England finished second in the league in points allowed. However, nice stats don't mean much if your defense can't deliver when it matters most. There is plenty of talent on that side of the ball, even though standout cornerback J.C. Jackson is a pending free agent. Given Belichick's track record, he'll find a way to make this unit better.
Has Jalen Hurts done enough to be considered a franchise quarterback in Philadelphia?
Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni gave Hurts a nice stamp of approval after his team's 31-15 wild-card loss to Tampa Bay. Even though Hurts struggled in that game -- completing 23 of 43 passes for 258 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions -- his coach saw the bigger picture. Sirianni talked about how Hurts grew as a passer, a decision-maker and an overall student of the game. What Siranni didn't say is what remains clear about the Eagles: They're still feeling this thing out. Hurts produced solid numbers in 2021 (a 61.3 completion percentage, 16 touchdown passes and nine interceptions), but his limitations in arm strength and anticipation were obvious in Sunday's loss to the Bucs. His more significant contribution this season came as a runner. Philadelphia became heavily reliant on its ground game, and Hurts ran for 784 yards and 10 touchdowns while helping the Eagles rebound from a 2-5 start. The real question here is how long the Eagles want to play offensive football that way. They have some talented weapons in wide receiver DeVonta Smith and tight end Dallas Goedert, and they're sitting on three of the top 19 picks in this upcoming draft. This is a team primed to infuse its roster with more difference-makers. Hurts has done enough to keep his employers intrigued. He'll have to do even more to get them to buy in fully, especially if this team is positioning itself to be a player in the NFC for the long-term.
Who's playing quarterback for the Steelers next season?
There isn't another issue that has been more relevant to this franchise over the last six months. Pittsburgh gave Ben Roethlisberger one final chance to prove he could take this franchise deep into the playoffs. He responded by leading them into a wild-card spot, where the Chiefs predictably crushed them. The problem here isn't that the Steelers hoped Big Ben could create one last bit of magic in his 18th season; it's that there's no clear succession plan in place. Mason Rudolph has been Roethlisberger's backup for four years, and he's probably most remembered for the night he and Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett got into a heated scuffle. Dwayne Haskins is a reclamation project who lost his job in Washington because he didn't have the maturity or talent to back up his status as a first-round pick. Given these two options, it's likely the Steelers select a quarterback early in this year's draft. This isn't a class loaded at the position but there is a local product -- University of Pittsburgh standout Kenny Pickett -- who could be available. The Steelers also know they need to get this right in a hurry. The AFC North is filling up with talented young quarterbacks, and they aren't competing without one.