For the second straight year, the Dallas Cowboys’ season ended at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers after a botched final play. In 2022, Dak Prescott futilely ran out the clock rather than try a Hail Mary. This time around, their attempt to reach their first NFC Championship Game since 1995 ended in a blown trick play during which they couldn’t even get a lateral off. The 49ers beat the Cowboys 19-12 and there are already calls for Dallas head coach Mike McCarthy’s job.
Would firing McCarthy be an overreaction? Possibly. However, this was Dallas’s seventh straight loss in the divisional round (and that’s before we get to the defeats in the wildcard round) and Cowboys fans have legitimate reasons to believe that the most valuable franchise in sports has established itself as a perennial underachiever. While McCarthy isn’t responsible for the vast majority of those playoff losses, he hasn’t exactly turned the ship around either.
It’s not just that the last-gasp play didn’t work, or even have time to develop, it’s that Kyle Shanahan outmatched McCarthy during Sunday’s game. Now, the 49ers’ head coach did not pitch a perfect game: the only reason the Cowboys had the chance to win late was that the Niners left too much time on the clock after their final possession. Yet, they only had that possession thanks to McCarthy’s inexplicable decision to punt on 4th and 10 with two minutes left, something which felt dangerously close to giving up.
A crisp, well-played game this wasn’t. For most of the contest, it felt like the result would hinge on Cowboys kicker Brett Maher’s struggles after his first PAT of the day was blocked by the San Francisco defense. Not only had Maher missed four such tries during their last playoff game, but he was also apparently struggling with kicking accuracy during Sunday’s warmups. That McCarthy seemingly forgot that the two-point conversion is an option in the NFL did not really speak well of his game-managing skills either.
The main difference between head coaches in football isn’t in these details, it’s in overall results. Shanahan now takes the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game for the third time in the last four years, and he’s been doing this without the benefit of a star quarterback (apologies to Jimmy Garoppolo). This year may be his most impressive season as he’s done it all with third-string QB Bryce Purdy, who was so overlooked that he was the final player picked in the 2022 draft.
Be prepared to hear that fact often next Sunday when the 49ers face off against the Philadelphia Eagles for the right to play in the Super Bowl. The Cowboys, as has been the tradition since the Clinton Administration, will be watching at home. That detail alone should tell you that this organizational dysfunction predated their head coach. McCarthy isn’t the main problem here. But there’s growing evidence that he won’t be the solution either.
MVP(s) of the week
The Cincinnati Bengals offensive line. Heading into Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills, the Cincinnati Bengals’ offensive line was meant to be their achilles heel. Thanks to injuries, they were without starting right guard Alex Cappa (who was replaced by Max Scharping) and starting left tackle Jonah Williams (who was replaced by Jackson Carman), all this while right tackle La’el Collins was already on injured reserve (he was replaced by Hakeem Adeniji). The only remaining regulars were rookie left guard Cordell Volson and center Ted Karras.
The Bengals, who have historically had difficulties keeping quarterback Joe Burrow on his feet, had acquired those now-unavailable players just for high-pressure playoff games like this one. Now they had to rely on backups against the preseason Super Bowl favorites on the road in snowy conditions.
It turns out the Bengals’ makeshift O-line was able to neutralize the Bills’ on-paper advantage at defense. Burrow was sacked just once, threw for two touchdowns and crucially didn’t commit a single turnover. Burrow deserves praise for the 27-10 Bengals victory – and for releasing the ball much quicker than Josh Allen – but he would be the first to give credit to the linemen who protected him all game.
It also helped that the Bengals adjusted their gameplan for the weather conditions better than the home team did. Despite normally being a pass-first, pass-often offense, they lent on running back Joe Mixon, who rushed for 105 yards and a key second-half touchdown. As much as we love handing out individual awards, the Bengals’ road win on Sunday was the ultimate proof that this is a team sport. Now this team will head to Arrowhead Stadium to face the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. If Patrick Mahomes’s ankle holds up, the Bengals will be underdogs, but it’s clear they’re perfectly happy being underestimated.
Video of the week
It probably sums up the New York Giants game against the Philadelphia Eagles that the most memorable moment for the visitors came when New York QB Daniel Jones lost a contact lens and the team had to burn a timeout. Things would not improve for the Giants.
Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference if he had just left the contacts out for the rest of the game. The Eagles took a 28-0 half-time lead and didn’t look back, eventually winning 38-7. The Giants’ offense did itself no favors by not playing to its strength and emphasizing the run game, but that may well not have been enough anyway. After all, New York’s defense couldn’t stop the Eagles from scoring. No 1 seed Philadelphia will host the NFC Championship Game on Sunday.
Quote of the week
“I’m not coming out of a playoff game unless they take me out. I love this game … pain is pain, and you’re going to have to deal with it either way” – Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, explaining why he returned to play in the second half of their 27-20 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Jaguars had a solid opportunity to win on Saturday afternoon, particularly when Mahomes left with an ankle injury in the first quarter. Backup Chad Henne came into the game to complete the first half, depriving Kansas City of their most important player, and giving the Jaguars a clear shot at an upset.
However, the Jaguars’ defense couldn’t stop the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce, who had 14 catches – the most by any tight end in playoff history – for 98 yards and two touchdowns. They also couldn’t pressure a limping Mahomes when he returned, and the Chiefs advanced to the AFC Championship Game for the fifth straight year.
Now the question is whether Mahomes’ injury – ESPN reports that he has a high ankle sprain – will allow him to play next Sunday and, if so, at what level. Tony Romo, who had a similar injury during his playing career, said on CBS that he thinks it will be a “huge challenge” for Mahomes to return at 100% against the Bengals. Mahomes has an extra day’s rest as the Jaguars game was on Saturday rather than Sunday. But NFL players rely on adrenaline (and often an ample amount of painkillers) to push through injuries in the immediate aftermath of suffering them, only for the true extent of the pain to become apparent in subsequent days. If Mahomes can’t play, the Chiefs will have to rely on Henne. And if they were fully comfortable doing that, we wouldn’t have seen Mahomes return to the field against Jacksonville.
The Jaguars’ season is over, but let us praise rather than bury them. This is a team that had the league’s worst record last season. It turns out that all it took was a desperately needed change at head coach and a drastic improvement from quarterback Trevor Lawrence for the Jaguars to become a playoff team. They outperformed expectations and could be an even bigger threat now that they have some postseason experience under their belts.
Stat of the week
11. That’s how many touchdowns Philadelphia Eagles running back Boston Scott has scored in nine games against the New York Giants in his career, after his latest in Saturday night’s divisional battle. Meanwhile, the “Giant Killer” has played 52 games against other teams, scoring just seven TDs total against non-Giants opposition. So, a player named Boston enjoys sticking it to a New York sports team above all others. Go figure.
Elsewhere around the league
-- The NFL offseason hasn’t officially begun but – make no mistakes – it has very much begun. On Sunday morning came reports that Lamar Jackson rejected a $133m fully guaranteed deal from the Baltimore Ravens. While the Ravens could still apply the franchise tag on the 2019 NFL MVP now that his rookie contract has expired, there’s a growing sense that Jackson could be on another team soon enough. In other words, expect chaos this upcoming offseason, maybe even more than usual (which is saying something).
-- Was there some off-the-field tomfoolery before the Giants-Eagles game? The Giants were treated to a rude surprise when their hotel in Philadelphia left them without water for “an unspecified period of time,” apparently the result of a broken pipe. Merely an unfortunate coincidence? Some Giants players were unconvinced.
-- Some good news: former NFL running back Peyton Hills was discharged from hospital this weekend. According to reports Hillis, who rushed for 1,177 yards with the Cleveland Browns in 2010, was injured while rescuing family members from drowning. There were a lot of winners in football this weekend, but it’s difficult to think of a bigger victory than this.