It's a little bit of a different format for this week's The Wrap column as we put Super Wild Card Weekend to bed in the knowledge that just eight teams now remain on the road to Super Bowl 56 in Los Angeles.
Not every game was a classic. But the weekend delivered something for everybody. There was a down-to-the-wire affair in Cincinnati with a tad of controversy thrown in, historic and impressive performances in Buffalo and Kansas City, late drama in Dallas and a star-studded victory in Los Angeles.
Here is my take on every game played over the weekend and on Monday Night Football.
Las Vegas Raiders 19-26 Cincinnati Bengals
The Joe Burrow to Tyler Boyd "erroneous whistle" touchdown pass has been getting plenty of play in the last few days and I can see why, for sure. It resulted in seven points for the Bengals in a game the Bengals won by seven points. But it should not detract from the main takeaway… Joe Burrow was excellent once again and Cincinnati were clearly the better team. Burrow to Ja'Marr Chase is as enjoyable a connection as there is in the NFL today. Burrow's numbers may not wow you, but he was in command and looked ready for the big stage. Defensive injuries to Trey Hendrickson and Larry Ogunjobi are a worry but these Bengals deserved to end a 31-year wait for playoff success.
Who's Hot… Joe Burrow threw for 244 yards and two scores, taking his totals for the past three games north of 1,215 yards, 10 touchdowns and no interceptions. No other player in history has been so prolific in a three-contest span. Ja'Marr Chase is not to shabby, either! He set a new Bengals rookie playoff record with nine catches for 116 yards.
Who's Not… After playing in the postseason for the first time in his career, there could still be some job pressure on Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. He threw short of the sticks on that crucial final drive and got picked off to end the game. Turnovers were a part of the Derek Carr experience in the second half of 2021 and reports out of Vegas suggest his future – for good or for bad – will be tied to the new head coach.
New England Patriots 17-47 Buffalo Bills
It took all 60 minutes for us to discover who was winning that game between the Raiders and the Bengals. By the end of the first quarter in a freezing Western New York, we all knew that the Bills were going to handle the Patriots. Buffalo were quite literally unstoppable, racing out to a 14-0 lead at the end of the first period and extending that advantage to 27-0 in the second. The Patriots were blown away, particularly on defense. Buffalo knelt to end the first half and the game. Apart from that, the Bills had seven drives and scored a touchdown every time. There were no punts, no turnovers and no fourth-down decisions to be made. This was total domination and a reminder that, on their day, the Bills are easily good enough to win the Super Bowl this year.
Who's Hot… Josh Allen put forth a masterpiece that was not only good for the moment, it was one of the very best playoff performances for an NFL quarterback in football history. It was the stuff of legends on a fridge-freezer-like night in Buffalo. Allen set the tone with some early trademark runs and then proceeded to deliver strike after downfield strike against what was supposed to be one of the best defenses in the league. He had more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions (four) and threw for 308 yards. The Patriots were 19-3 in Buffalo under Bill Belichick but he and his team were sent packing in ruthless fashion. They'll talk about this victory for years to come in Buffalo.
Who's Not… The Patriots defense had no answer. They looked slow, old and out of sorts. Belichick focused on an offensive overhaul during the last NFL offseason, spending big money on that side of the ball. It is likely going to be the turn of the defense in 2022.
Philadelphia Eagles 15-31 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It's entirely justified and normal to talk about how amazing Tom Brady is, especially when you consider that he has more Super Bowl wins (7) than 27 teams around the league have appearances in the big game. And he continues to play at an elite level at the age of 44. But Sunday, for me, was about Tampa's defense. Sure, Brady was efficient on a windy day in Florida; but the guys on the other side of the ball proved too talented and too savvy for Eagles rookie quarterback Jalen Hurts, who must now learn from this and come back stronger in 2022. As has been the norm this season, the Bucs suffered some injuries but kept on trucking. They are going to be a tough out.
Who's Hot… The Buccaneers defense flew to the ball all day long, taking away the perimeter runs that were supposed to offer a glimmer of hope to the underdog Eagles. Philadelphia averaged an NFL-high 160 rushing yards per game coming into this showdown but were held to 95 on the ground. Jalen Hurts gained just 39 yards after going for more than 750 and 10 touchdowns during the regular season. It was no easier through the air. Todd Bowles brought pressure on multiple safety blitzes and it was all too much for Philadelphia's young signal-caller. Two sacks and two interceptions don't even begin to tell the tale of how well the Bucs played on that side of the ball.
San Francisco 49ers 23-17 Dallas Cowboys
This was my favourite game of the weekend and I don't think I was alone. The intensity was off the charts and you could really feel the do-or-die nature of this contest. I loved the physicality of the 49ers and their clever use of Deebo Samuel, which continues to be a weekly thing. He rushed for 72 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries and occasionally reverted back to his old job to catch three balls for 38 yards. Talk about a weapon! San Francisco controlled both lines and deserved to hold off a furious Dallas comeback attempt. More on that in a moment.
Who's Hot… San Francisco's pass rush. They came after Dak Prescott in waves and for the entire 60 minutes, even when Nick Bosa was knocked from the game with a concussion. San Francisco sacked Prescott five times and pressured him into an interception. This made me think about depth being the most important thing on a defensive line.
Who's Not… How can this be anyone else other than Mike McCarthy and Dak Prescott? Every quarterback, coach or former player who talked about the quarterback draw to end the game said you need at least 16, and more likely, 17 or 18 seconds to execute the play and stop the clock. Dallas had 14 seconds to work with and Prescott ran too far, using up too much time and it was game over. It was a poorly-executed play by Prescott and another example of very bad game management from McCarthy. While both men would love for you to hear different, the end of this contest was most definitely not the fault of the officials.
Pittsburgh Steelers 21-42 Kansas City Chiefs
Given that Ben Roethlisberger was coming to the end of a glittering 18-year career during which time he never suffered a losing season, there was always going to be much talk about Pittsburgh's quarterback. Big Ben slid badly at the end of his career, but he is undoubtedly a Hall of Famer and his place in NFL history is secure. But he simply couldn't live with the prolific scoring prowess of Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes. Pittsburgh played some stout defense and kept this close for a quarter and a half and then the Chiefs simply blew them out of the water!
Who's Hot… Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid were in total lockstep on Sunday night and the quarterback threw five touchdown passes in the span of 11 ½ minutes either side of halftime. And Reid showed time and again that his play-calling can be masterful and pretty impossible to defend. They've changed their style this season and been forced to be more patient, but the Chiefs are still one step ahead of the defenses trying to stop them.
Who's Not… No one's going to want to bad-mouth Big Ben into retirement and I was rooting for him to throw a touchdown pass on his final NFL drive. But he ran out of time on that march and was playing way over time in terms of his career. He hasn't had much gas left in the tank for a couple of years now and it was clear on Sunday night that his play is actually holding this team back. There is now a major hole to be filled but if it can be done, there is talent in Pittsburgh.
Arizona Cardinals 11-34 Los Angeles Rams
With Michael Buffer firing up the crowd with his pre-game "Let's get ready to rumble" there was an air of Hollywood glitz meets a big-time boxing fight on Monday night. With A-listers such as Will Ferrell and Jay Z looking on, this was never a contest and the Cardinals must have considered throwing in the towel by halftime. The Rams played like superstars but the reality is that they could have stayed in second gear and simply handled the disappointing Cardinals, who need to take a long, hard look at where a season that had promised so much went wrong.
Who's Hot… Odell Beckham Jr. now has six touchdown catches in nine games with the Rams and he is becoming a weekly problem for opposing defenses. OBJ had only played one postseason game in his life before Monday night, a 2016 season loss to Green Bay at Lambeau Field in which he racked up just 28 receiving yards. That resulted in OBJ punching a hole in the locker room wall. He enjoyed himself much more against the Cards, catching four passes for 54 yards and a score, while also completing a 40-yard pass to Cam Akers.
Who's Not… Kliff Kingsbury has seen whatever team he coaches – whether it be college or the pros – collapse down the stretch. He is going to have some serious questions to answer this offseason and certainly enters 2022 on a warmer seat. Next season will not be about how the Cardinals start, it will be about how they finish. That applies to Kingsbury but also to his quarterback, Kyler Murray, who was out of sorts and scrambled from start to finish.