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The First Read, NFL Divisional Round: Biggest immediate question for advancing and eliminated playoff teams

Super Wild Card Weekend is in the books, and the major takeaway is familiarity didn't breed much change. The San Francisco 49ers got their third win of the season over the Seattle Seahawks. Buffalo secured its second straight win over Miami (in a much more suspenseful game than most imagined) while Cincinnati did the same thing against its division rivals, the Baltimore Ravens. The Cowboys reversed the outcome of their Week 1 loss to the Bucs, but Dallas' dominant win was roughly in line with where those teams stood at the end of the regular season. There was plenty of drama to be had as well, with Jacksonville overcoming a 27-0 deficit versus the Chargers and the Giants finding their own measure of revenge in a rematch with the Vikings.

Now we're looking ahead to the best part of the playoffs, in my opinion -- the Divisional Round. The top four seeds in the AFC and the top two seeds in the NFC are still playing. That means the games will be as good as they usually are at this time of year. As you might recall, last season's Divisional Round provided four one-score games, including one of the greatest playoff contests we've seen, Kansas City's 42-36 overtime win over Buffalo.

The exciting aspect of this upcoming weekend is the parity. There isn't a dominant team this year, but there are plenty of good ones vying for the Lombardi Trophy. This edition of The First Read will ponder the most significant questions facing those remaining contenders. While we're in such an inquisitive mood, we'll think about the issues that those recently eliminated teams must address, as well.

Let's do this.


Have the Chiefs fixed their special teams units?

No playoff team came into the postseason with more questions about the kicking game than Kansas City. Harrison Butker made 90.1 percent of his career field goal attempts prior to this season. He’s only connected on 75 percent this season (18 of 24), with three missed extra points part of the problem, too. The issue has become so controversial in Kansas City that former punter/holder Dustin Colquitt, who spent 15 seasons with the Chiefs (2005-2019), took to social media and local radio to criticize current punter/holder Tommy Townsend for his holding technique. The return game also has been sketchy at times, as rookie Skyy Moore lost the punt return job after muffing three punts, and Kadarius Toney has fumbled on a punt return as well. The Chiefs have long had one of the best special teams coaches in the league in Dave Toub. If he hasn’t resolved these issues yet, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a kicking game gaffe ruin Kansas City’s Super Bowl dreams.

Buffalo Bills

Will the Bills take better care of the football?

The Bills finished the regular season with 27 giveaways. Only the Colts and Texans gave the ball away more, and quarterback Josh Allen had five red zone interceptions. So how did Buffalo start the postseason? With Allen throwing two first-half interceptions and then giving up a strip-sack scoop-and-score to start the third quarter of the win over Miami. The Bills are good enough to beat decent teams with that level of carelessness (they also forced 27 turnovers with their defense). Great opponents won’t give them so many breaks. Allen needs to be as efficient as he’s been in previous postseason appearances -- he came into this year with 14 touchdown passes and one interception in his playoff career -- or his team could end up wasting another shot at a championship.

Can the Bengals keep winning with so many offensive line injuries?

It’s ironic that Cincinnati invested so much in rebuilding its offensive line and now 60 percent of that unit might not be playing against the Bills in the Divisional Round. Left tackle Jonah Williams sustained a left knee injury in the second quarter of Sunday’s win over Baltimore and didn’t return. Right tackle La’el Collins is already out for the season with a knee injury while right guard Alex Cappa didn’t play against the Ravens because of an injury to his left ankle. That’s a scary place to be for a team that desperately wants to repeat as AFC champions. The Bengals only managed 234 total yards against Baltimore while allowing four sacks of quarterback Joe Burrow. Some of those offensive struggles are directly related to facing a division rival for the third time this season, but you can bet the Bills will be eager to exploit those losses up front. The Bengals want to find ways to capitalize on the dynamic talents of receivers like Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins and running back Joe Mixon. If the big fellas up front can’t get it done, it’s hard to see them keeping pace with a Bills offense that scored 34 points and gave the football away three times against the Dolphins.

Will the Jaguars start fast?

It would be nice to see Jacksonville make life a little easier on itself against the Chiefs in the Divisional Round. The Jaguars beat Tennessee to clinch the AFC South in Week 18 despite trailing at halftime to a team starting a quarterback who’d only been on the roster for a couple weeks. Jacksonville was even more vulnerable on Saturday night, when five first-half turnovers landed them in a 27-0 hole against the Chargers. On one hand, you could say the Jaguars are fearless. Let’s use the word “lucky” instead. The Chargers had to melt down completely for Jacksonville to fight its way back into that game and win. There will be no such favors granted in Kansas City when the Chiefs are on the other sideline. It’s already hard enough to beat Andy Reid when he’s coming off a bye. It’s damn near impossible if you’re giving away possessions to Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who’s likely to win his second MVP award.


How healthy will Jalen Hurts be?

Hurts missed two of the last three games of the regular season with a right shoulder injury. He played in the finale -- when the Eagles were trying to lock up a first-round bye -- but head coach Nick Sirianni was clearly cautious about running plays that put his quarterback in too much potential duress. The Eagles did what they had to do in beating the Giants in Week 18, when New York was resting starters. Philadelphia will need a lot more to find its way into the NFC Championship Game by beating the Giants in the Divisional Round. Hurts was special all season because he made the offense unpredictable. The Eagles can gash opponents one week with a dominant run game or they can carve up defenses with a multitude of weapons in the pass game. The key to making all that work is Hurts and his ability to run and throw effectively. The Eagles have handled the Giants twice this season -- by a score of 48-22 in the first meeting and 22-16 in the second -- but they need Hurts to be close to 100 percent this time around. The stakes are way too high.

Will Brock Purdy ever play like a rookie?

This story gets better with each week. It wasn’t that long ago that it was fair to wonder how the 49ers would manage with Purdy, their third-string quarterback when the season began, playing after the injuries to Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance. Now it’s time to think about how much more can do while leading the offense. The 49ers won all five of his regular season starts. His postseason debut was even more impressive: 332 passing yards, four touchdowns (three passing; one rushing) and no interceptions in a win over Seattle. Purdy became the first rookie quarterback to win a playoff game since 2012 and he’s the only rookie QB in NFL history with four total TDs in a playoff game, per NFL Research. There’s been a lot of talk about how great the supporting cast is around Purdy. They’re winning because of him, as well.

Dallas Cowboys

Will we see this Cowboys team on Sunday?

No team left in the postseason has been more erratic over the last two months than Dallas. The Cowboys have had games when they look like the best team in the NFL and others when they look like bottom-feeders. Their wild-card win over Tampa Bay was proof of what they can be when clicking. Quarterback Dak Prescott, the same player who threw a league-high 15 interceptions in just 12 regular-season games, was brilliant in producing five touchdowns (four on passes). The defense shut down the Buccaneers' offense. The kicking game was disastrous, with Brett Maher missing four extra-point attempts, but the Cowboys needed this type of confidence boost. They will need everything they can muster to handle the 49ers in the Divisional Round. If they revert to being the team that limped into the postseason with a lackluster performance in a season-ending loss to Washington, they'll get obliterated.

Can Daniel Jones stay hot?

Jones enjoyed a breakout season and now he has a playoff debut that will go down in history. He’s the only quarterback to post 300-plus passing yards, two or more passing TDs and 70-plus rushing yards in a postseason game. He also didn’t turn the ball over once in a 31-24 win over the Vikings, when the Giants needed everything he could muster. It’s well documented that New York is limited offensively. It's also not surprising that Jones had a huge day against Minnesota (he threw for 334 yards in a 27-24 loss to Minnesota on Christmas Eve, marking only the second of his two games with at least 300 yards passing in the regular season). The key point to be made here is that Jones is playing better than ever and he’s about to face another familiar opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, this coming weekend. The Eagles have the league’s best pass defense and they’re coming off a bye. The Giants need Jones -- and running back Saquon Barkley -- to keep carrying this offense.

Eliminated teams

What happens with Lamar Jackson?

This will be the hottest story in the league this offseason. Jackson couldn’t agree on a contract extension with the Ravens last summer and his rookie contract is due to expire in March. That means we’re about to spend a lot more time speculating on how this entire story is going to end. The most likely immediate outcome could be that Jackson ends up with a franchise tag while the two parties continue to negotiate. However, this is more complicated when considering how Baltimore’s season just ended. Jackson’s PCL sprain sidelined him for the last six games, including Sunday’s loss to the Bengals, and it would have been intriguing to see how the Ravens fared with him available against Cincinnati. Baltimore has to be factoring his late-season injuries over the last two years into how it feels about giving him a massive contract that could rival the $230 million Cleveland guaranteed Deshaun Watson last offseason. The one thing we do know for certain is that the Ravens’ offense is feeble without Jackson under center. That’s the biggest chip he holds when trying to leverage a new deal.

Are the Chargers going to waste the most affordable years of Justin Herbert?


The clock is ticking when it comes to the Chargers’ star quarterback, who has two years remaining on his rookie deal. The season did not end on an encouraging note for Los Angeles’ offense. It failed to score a touchdown on four second half possessions in the loss to Jacksonville. Some critics will blame Herbert for that drought, but the play-calling was suspect at best. Running back Austin Ekeler basically vanished from the offense in the final two quarters and the absence of injured receiver Mike Williams hurt the Chargers once again. This is a big deal because the AFC is loaded with young quarterbacks, including Mahomes, Allen, Joe Burrow, Trevor Lawrence and Deshaun Watson. The Chargers have done a lot to build a team around Herbert, but the offensive issues still create fair questions. Is offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi maximizing the obvious potential in Herbert? Is there enough quality depth at receiver? Other top teams in the AFC have done plenty to help the growth of their own young signal-callers. The Chargers should be wondering if they’re doing the same thing for theirs.

UPDATE: The Chargers fired offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and passing game coordinator/QB coach Shane Day, NFL Network Insiders Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero reported Tuesday.

Can Tua Tagovailoa stay healthy for an entire season?

The Dolphins might be facing this question every year. Tagovailoa came into the NFL facing concerns about his sturdiness and this season only has reinforced those worries. It’s not his fault that he twice went into the concussion protocol this season and wasn’t able to play in any of Miami’s final three games, including the playoff loss to Buffalo. It is something the Dolphins will need to consider as they think about whether to hand him a long-term extension as their franchise quarterback. Tagovailoa is eligible for that type of investment now that he’s finished his third season. Head coach Mike McDaniel said on Sunday that he feels good about him as the team’s quarterback for 2023. However, Tagovailoa hasn’t played a full season since entering the league and it’s impossible to predict if that will ever happen. The Dolphins have done a lot to make him the quarterback they hope he can become. As the playoffs revealed, all those personnel moves don’t mean much if he can’t be there to lead the team at critical junctures.

How do the Vikings fix their defense?

The challenge the Vikings faced heading into the playoffs was clear. They ranked 28th in scoring defense this season and that unit tended to be most vulnerable against the best teams on Minnesota’s schedule. Staying on brand, the Vikings allowed 31 points and 431 yards to a Giants team that is far from explosive. There was a lot to work through for Minnesota -- including a shift to a 3-4 scheme after years in a 4-3 -- but nobody could have predicted defensive coordinator Ed Donatell fielding such a disappointing unit. The Vikings will be hoping to see more from a couple rookie defensive backs that landed on injured reserve (safety Lewis Cine and cornerback Andrew Booth Jr.) but there should be more moves coming to help an underwhelming secondary. The Vikings did a lot of good things this season, including winning an NFC North title. The next step is to find a way to field a defense that can be a better complement to the firepower on the other side of the ball.

How do the Seahawks fix their defense?

This should be the chief mission of head coach Pete Carroll. He had a lot of fun reminding people that the game hasn’t passed him by -- and that he could win without quarterback Russell Wilson -- but his defense was a problem for most of the season. The Seahawks couldn’t stop the run (they ranked 30th in the league this regular season) and they gave up 23.6 points per game (25th). It will help to have safety Jamal Adams back after he missed all but one game this season with a torn quad tendon. There is other talent in the secondary as well, with safety Quandre Diggs and rookie cornerback Tariq Woolen, who tied for the league lead with six interceptions. The defensive front is another issue. Carroll needs more playmakers in that part of his roster for Seattle to become a stronger contender. As nice as the Geno Smith story has been, this is a coach who still wants a team known for dominating in the trenches.

What is Tom Brady's next move?

This feels like the end of Brady's time with the Buccaneers. He's about to become a free agent, and this is far from the same team that won a Super Bowl two years ago. Tampa Bay is currently projected to have the second-worst salary-cap situation in the league, per Over The Cap, and that's with only 33 players under contract to play next season. The supporting cast around Brady also looked too old and slow, as Tampa Bay's loss to Dallas on Monday night proved once again. It's hard to see him signing back up for another year with a roster like that. It's even more difficult to see him retiring after suffering through the first losing season of his career and with potential suitors still existing for his services. His former offensive coordinator in New England, Josh McDaniels, is coaching a Las Vegas Raiders team that is set to have a vacancy at quarterback. The Colts and Jets are talented teams that need stability under center, as well. It would be one thing if Brady was showing obvious signs of decline. Even though he'll be 46 years old next August, he still has the look of a player who can help a team if he so chooses.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.

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