Eager's Football Friday - Divisional Round

by Eric Eager|January 19, 2024


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Super Wild Card Weekend was less than super, with only one one-score game to show for it, and that game, Rams/Lions, having only nine second-half points. The Cowboys and Eagles exited the playoffs, leaving the NFC East without a representative, while either Baker Mayfield or Jared Goff will play in the NFC Championship Game next weekend. 

Using the data from the new and improved SumerSports.com, we will go over some of the thoughts and predictions I made a week ago and provide some for this coming week.  

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The Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs is generally the best round, with some of the pretenders culled, and the two best teams getting to play after resting. The Chiefs are playing their first true road playoff game helmed by Patrick Mahomes, while the Packers look to break their 49ers playoff curse; they haven’t won against the 49ers in the postseason since the 2001 Wild Card Game.  

Let’s dig in. 

One Thing I’m Monitoring 

I’m very intrigued by what the Miami Dolphins are going to do at the quarterback position.

The Dolphins, up three games in the AFC East, a division they haven’t won since 2008, with five game to play, melted down down the stretch, before bowing out to the Chiefs in the Wild Card round of the playoffs at fridged Arrowhead Stadium. Tua Tagovailoa was not efficient in the slightest, turning 39 pass attempts into just 199 yards, throwing an interception, and taking two sacks. Tua feasted off deep passing in 2023, with a 17.7 yards per pass attempt mark, 11 touchdown passes, and a 94.6 passer rating, throwing to Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle in an offense most attributed to the brilliance of Mike McDaniel. The Chiefs, and other great defenses, have largely been able to take the scheme away, reducing the Dolphins’ success under Tua against good teams, leaving many wanting more. 

The only thing we’ve heard in the media this week is that they want to go forward with the fifth-year player from Alabama, who is destined to earn $23.171 million in 2024, which is more than double the $9.633 million he made in 2023.  

The difficulties of winning anything meaningful with a mid-tier quarterback on a veteran contract have been documented time and time again. Since 2012 every Super Bowl but one has included a team built around a quarterback on a rookie deal, and the canonical example of a team playing a very good but not elite quarterback earning top-end money, the Vikings with Kirk Cousins, has resulted in two playoff appearances and one playoff win in six seasons.  

The Chiefs in 2022 were the first team in the history of the league to win a Super Bowl with a quarterback making over 14% of the salary cap and needed a historically good 2022 draft class and the best player in the league at the quarterback position, paired with a Hall of Fame head coach, to do it. So, even with an elite quarterback, it’s hard to win with the quarterback making top-end money. 

From Elite to Poor and Back: A Lesson in Stability and Transiency in the NFL | SumerSports 

The Dolphins very much feel like they are in the same spot the Chiefs were in with Alex Smith when they drafted Patrick Mahomes in 2017: good enough to win and make the playoffs, but never going to threaten the top teams in the conference. Andy Reid and company were bold, moving up from 27 to 10 to get their quarterback back then. Will the Dolphins do a similar thing this offseason? With a quarterback class that includes a few high-end guys, along with a number of players who will also garner first-round consideration, the time is likely now for the fish. 

Is Alex Smith still Kansas City’s long-term answer at QB? | NFL News, Rankings and Statistics | PFF 

One Thing I’m Buying 

I’m certainly not the first person to say this, and I’m partially flip flopping, as I thought they’d be picking first in the draft, but I’m buying the Arizona Cardinals long term. One of my friends, who goes by @Clevta on Twitter, has been on this train for a while, centering the positivity on the +EV decision making of Jonathan Gannon: 

Indeed, Gannon has done a good job of being aggressive when the math warrants, which has given the Cardinals a better chance to win than the roster’s ability would suggest. For example, they had to start journeyman Josh Dobbs for eight games and late-round draft pick Clayton Tune for one. James Conner and Hollywood Brown combined to miss seven games, while their defense had only one player that started over 16 games (linebacker Zaven Collins).  

The club picked up a bunch of assets last spring and are now in control of two first rounders, a second rounder, and three third rounders this April. They have the 10th-most cap space in football, which can be made higher with a simple restructure of Kyler Murray’s deal.  

Speaking of Murray, he returned halfway through the season and flashed a lot of the potential that turned around a Cardinals franchise that was in the dumps when they drafted him first overall in 2018. He threw all 10 of his touchdown passes without play action. He struggled some in the intermediate and deep parts of the field but was uber efficient within the offense, especially during the last two games of the season, where he averaged 7.5 and 8.7 yards per pass attempt on under 3.00 time to throw. With better receiving depth in 2024 he should be back to his 2021 form, where he was a Pro Bowl-level quarterback.  

I’m not quite ready to give the Cardinals the Lions #restoreit treatment, since they have longer to go than the Lions did, but they have a lot of similar characteristics. A head coach who is aggressive and has a clue, a former number one overall pick quarterback who many (including me) has written off, a young first-round tackle, a bunch of resources from which to work, and a division that is more ripe for the picking in the future than it appears.  

One Thing I’m Selling 

It makes me sad to say, but I have to sell the Packers this week against the 49ers.  


I’ve been bullish on the Packers the entire season, and much like my bullishness on the Lions last season, it was tested early, with the green and gold struggling to a 2-5 start, with Jordan Love looking lost at times behind a makeshift offensive line throwing to young receivers.  

Why bettors should feel comfortable backing the Detroit Lions in 2022 | NFL and NCAA Betting Picks | PFF 

All that has changed, and Love has looked like a bona fide star quarterback worthy of a legitimate starting quarterback contract. Jayden Reed, Romeo Doubs, Dontayvion Wicks, and Bo Melton have been a formidable wide receiving corps, while Tucker Kraft and Luke Musgrave have given them legitimate options at tight end. Matt LaFleur has cemented himself as one in a line of great Green Bay head coaches, while the defense has largely held it together in recent weeks, despite many people calling for the head of play caller Joe Barry.  

What Would a Jordan Love Contract Extension Look Like? | SumerSports 

They pummeled their former head coach Sunday, sending Mike McCarthy to the offseason before the Conference Championship Round following a 12-win season for the third-straight year, leaving many to wonder whether he’d keep his job in 2024 (he will). Love was brilliant, completing all five of his 10+ depth-of-target passes over the middle field for 129 yards and a touchdown.  

Things will be harder this week, though, with Fred Warner patrolling the middle of the field for the 49ers defense, and all pro cornerback Charvarius Ward on the outside against their young receivers. While the Packers offensive line did a masterful job against Micah Parsons a week ago, the 49ers have a rested Arik Armstead, Javon Hargrave, Chase Young, and Nick Bosa with whom to attack.  

On the other side of the ball, the 49ers have more answers than the Cowboys do against Barry’s defense. Christian McCaffrey, after resting for the better part of two weeks, should be able to run all over their front, while Brock Purdy should be able to feature a rejuvenated George Kittle, who is quietly having a great year with 1020 yards and six touchdowns, along with one of the best route runners in the game, Brandon Aiyuk, and one of the best all-around skill position players, Deebo Samuel.  

There are obvious leaks to this; the 49ers have a porous offensive line outside of Trent Williams, and Brock Purdy may be prone to turning the ball over. Love’s ability alone adds variance to both sides of this game, which given the point spread (Niners -9.5), favors the Packers. But after a week where we have (deservedly) given the Packers organization their flowers, I’m afraid I’m going to throw a little cold water and prepare for a Lions-49ers NFC Championship Game in the Bay.  


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