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The Divisional Round Was a Master Class in What Sets the NFL’s Four Best Teams Apart

This weekend, the Chiefs, Saints, Rams, and Patriots proved why the lower seeds in the playoffs never stood a chance. In the process, they set the slate for a thrilling conference championship Sunday.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

In the immortal words of Dennis Green: They are who we thought they were. The then-Cardinals head coach famously shouted those words in reference to the 2006 Bears, who had just come back to beat his squad 24-23 on Monday Night Football. More than a decade later, that phrase applies to divisional weekend. The four best teams in the NFL just confirmed what we’ve known all season: They’re a cut above the rest of the league.

That realization began on Saturday afternoon, when the top-seeded Chiefs took on a Colts team that had converted plenty of believers over the past month. Indy’s incredible run over the second half of the season—during which Andrew Luck and Co. won nine of their final 10 regular-season games—and impressive showing in a 21-7 win over the Texans in the wild-card round made the upstart Colts seem like they stood a chance of going into Arrowhead Stadium and knocking off a 12-win team led by the presumptive MVP. Then Patrick Mahomes II walked onto the field.

Mahomes finished the game with 278 passing yards and no touchdowns—a modest showing by his standards—but the Chiefs offense looked like a finely tuned instrument of destruction nonetheless. Kansas City steamrolled the Colts defense on each of its first two possessions, capping a 90-yard opening march with a 10-yard Damien Williams touchdown run and then putting the exclamation point on a 70-yard drive with a 36-yard Tyreek Hill scamper. A week after stifling Deshaun Watson and the Texans, the Colts defense looked slow, outmanned, and out of place. The Chiefs cruised 31-13.

Kansas City’s dominance shouldn’t have come as a surprise. It played like the best team in the AFC for all of 2018. The Chiefs scored a league-high 35.3 points per game and finished no. 1 in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA. Mahomes threw 50 touchdown passes—joining Peyton Manning and Tom Brady as the only players in NFL history to ever hit that mark. This weekend’s performance served as a not-so-subtle reminder: Head coach Andy Reid’s offense is breathtaking at its best. Reid was masterful from the opening drive, calling plays that resulted in Mahomes completions of 11, 16, and 34 yards on that sequence, with the third going to Sammy Watkins on a quick in-breaking route that Reid paired with a route to the flat by tight end Travis Kelce. Every team in the NFL has a slant-flat combination in its playbook; to dress the Chiefs’ version up, Reid motioned Williams out wide to the right and helped Mahomes discern that the Colts were in zone coverage. This season has become Reid’s Man on Fire moment: A man can be an artist at anything. His art is calling plays that crush defenses. And he’s painting his masterpiece.

It certainly helps that he’s calling those plays for arguably the most mind-bending quarterback on the planet. While Mahomes didn’t put up ridiculous numbers in Saturday’s win, the elements of what makes him special were still on full display. He’s creating highlights that are reminiscent of apex John Elway, Brett Favre, and Aaron Rodgers, but some of the plays Mahomes pulls off are unlike anything we’ve ever seen. On a second-and-17 in the third quarter, Mahomes stepped up in the pocket and delivered a perfectly placed sidearm throw to Kelce over the middle for a 15-yard gain. That play just doesn’t make sense, given all we understand about football and how the human arm works. The angles that Mahomes can throw at are just different, and it makes the Chiefs offense borderline unstoppable.

On the other side of the bracket, the Saints put on a similarly jaw-dropping performance for stretches of their 20-14 win over the Eagles. The scoreboard may not have indicated how thoroughly the Saints handled Philadelphia on Sunday night, but even when New Orleans trailed 14-7 late in the second quarter, the energy in the Superdome made a comeback seem inevitable.

Drew Brees was characteristically excellent in the game’s second half (15-of-19 passing for 130 yards and a touchdown), especially on the Saints’ opening drive of the third quarter. After Brees and Co. picked up four first downs and marched into Eagles territory, Taysom Hill found Alvin Kamara on a gorgeously designed vertical route up the seam for a 46-yard score. The revelry was short-lived: Guard Andrus Peat was dinged for holding—his third penalty and second holding flag on the day—and the score was nullified. For many offenses, this would have sabotaged the drive. For Brees and the Saints, it was a mild inconvenience. On the following play, the quarterback found Michael Thomas for a 20-yard gain to keep the possession rolling.

Four plays later, after backup quarterback Hill kept the ball for a modest 3-yard carry, more laundry followed. Center Max Unger was the culprit this time, and another holding penalty saddled the Saints with first-and-20 at the Eagles’ 36-yard line. It didn’t matter. On third-and-16, Brees manipulated cornerback Avonte Maddox by looking toward the right sideline, which created a void for Thomas in the middle of the field. Brees completed the throw for 20 yards, and two plays later—on the heels of another Peat penalty—Thomas outmuscled cornerback Cre’von LeBlanc in the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown. Including the penalty yardage, the Saints gained 112 yards of offense on that drive, and they made it look easy. Every aspect of what makes the Saints dangerous was on display: Brees expertly toying with opposing defensive backs, Kamara creating mismatches in the passing game, and Thomas being too big, too savvy, and too physical for cornerbacks to handle.

The Saints and Chiefs showed what made them so relentless all season, and reinforced why the road to the Super Bowl will go through New Orleans and Kansas City. But their conference championship game opponents present their own kinds of challenges. Sean McVay’s Rams knocked off the Cowboys 30-22 on Saturday behind a dominant performance in the running game. Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson rushed for 238 yards on 39 carries, and L.A.’s defense held Ezekiel Elliott to just 47 yards on 20 rushes. McVay has created the perfect environment for an NFL running back. Two months ago, the Panthers showed Anderson the door. On Sunday, he averaged 5.3 yards per carry and found the end zone twice. The Rams used a steady dose of orb motion—which involves a player circling behind the running back—with their receivers to create conflict for the Cowboys’ speedy linebackers. That hesitation left Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, and Sean Lee helpless when the Rams ran downhill. It’s a slightly different wrinkle than what McVay normally uses in the run game, and small, crucial tweaks are what set the best coaches apart in the playoffs. Just ask the Patriots.

New England’s 41-28 drubbing of the Chargers on Sunday was a reminder of why the Patriots have ruled the NFL for the past two decades. Tom Brady relied heavily on running back James White, who attacked the underneath areas of the Chargers defense for 15 receptions and 97 yards. The most impressive play of the afternoon, though, came on a third-and-6 early in the second quarter. Wide receiver Phillip Dorsett lined up with Julian Edelman on the left side of the formation. Just before the snap, Edelman motioned from out wide into a makeshift stack with Dorsett in the slot. That quick movement manipulated slot corner Desmond King just enough to get Dorsett open on a corner route in the back of the end zone for an easy 15-yard touchdown. No team forms better game plans week to week than Bill Belichick and his staff, and Sunday’s flawless performance was just their latest display of brilliance.

After fans and media members spent the past few weeks hemming and hawing over which lower seeds could make a run in the playoffs, the top four seeds—and the four clear-cut best teams—are the ones alive heading into championship weekend. They are who we thought they were, and that’s the best that the NFL has to offer.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly attributed a Taysom Hill throw to Drew Brees.