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The Five Biggest Takeaways From NFL Wild-Card Weekend

What seemed like it could be a dud of a first round going in ended up featuring close games, a massive comeback, and surprising performances. Here’s what those games showed about the winning teams and what that could mean for their upcoming games.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

The football this weekend was … good? Heading into the wild-card round, it seemed as if quarterback injuries would spoil some intra-divisional matchups, but even the biggest mismatches on paper ended up being competitive affairs. Without Lamar Jackson, the Baltimore Ravens nearly knocked off the defending AFC champs on the road, and the Buffalo Bills needed to stave off a Dolphins comeback to avoid the embarrassment of becoming a Skylar Thompson trivia question.

But it wasn’t just a good slate of games: It was an informative one, too. We learned a lot about the five teams that advanced to the next round. Some of those lessons point to more success in the next few weeks. Others were a bit more ominous. So as we look ahead to the second round, here are the five biggest takeaways from what we saw from the winning teams this weekend.

Josh Allen needs to be the elite QB we know he can be.

The Bills offense scored 34 points on Sunday, and it didn’t even play particularly well. Buffalo averaged minus-0.13 expected points added per play on that side of the ball, and Allen’s 50 dropbacks lost 10.5 expected points, according to RBSDM.com. At one point, the offense went eight drives without scoring a touchdown. It was the kind of performance you can survive when Skylar Thompson is playing quarterback for the other team. But there are no Skylar Thompsons left on the AFC side of the bracket—only Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, and Trevor Lawrence.

If Buffalo is going to advance beyond next weekend’s game against Cincinnati, it will need its franchise quarterback to rise to the occasion. Allen wasn’t the only Bills player who was sloppy on Sunday, but he is the only guy on the team with a $258 million contract, so we have to hold him to a different standard. He was straight-up bad against the Dolphins. He made a handful of “wow” plays outside structure, including his touchdown pass to Dawson Knox, but the rest of his performance was pretty brutal. Allen was off target on 15.4 percent of his throws, according to TruMedia. He turned the ball over three times and had two Bills-recovered fumbles. He routinely ignored open options underneath to launch risky go balls. He bailed from multiple clean pockets and ran himself into sacks. In terms of accuracy, decision-making, and pocket presence, it was one of the worst quarterback performances I’ve watched this season. That is not an exaggeration.

This is a far cry from the Allen we saw early in the season, when he was playing as well as any quarterback. The past month or so has been an adventure, and if Allen doesn’t rein it in a bit over the next seven days, Buffalo will be going home.

The Bills defense isn’t what it was before Von Miller’s injury, and it just gave up 31 points to a seventh-rounder at home. The running game is fine but not something offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey can lean on too much with a bad offensive line doing the blocking. Buffalo’s Super Bowl hopes rest entirely on Allen’s shoulders. This team can’t afford for him to be anything less than elite—or anything close to the quarterback we saw against Miami.

The 49ers are too good for Brock Purdy to fail.

At times on Saturday, Purdy looked exactly like a rookie making his first playoff start. The seventh-rounder missed open receivers, ran into pressure, and nearly threw multiple picks. It didn’t matter. He led all passers this weekend in EPA, success rate, and yards per attempt. Of the 18 passes Purdy completed against Seattle’s overmatched defense, only one failed to produce positive EPA, giving the rookie a failed completion rate of 5.6 percent. If you don’t know what a “failed completion” looks like, Kirk Cousins gave us the perfect example on Sunday:

Those plays happen a lot more than you probably realize. During the 2022 season, just over 28.3 percent of completed passes failed to produce positive EPA. In one game, Zach Wilson had a failed completion rate of 67 percent. So 5.6 percent is pretty damn impressive, right? Well, Purdy didn’t have a single failed completion in Week 18 against the Cardinals. Not a single one! And most of his plays are picking up chunk yardage. 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan is drawing up plays to push the ball downfield while also picking up yards after the catch. Typically, those stats have an inverse relationship—shorter routes tend to create more YAC, and vice versa—but Purdy’s receivers were making catches downfield and doing further damage once they got their hands on the ball. Look at Purdy all by himself in the top right corner of this YAC vs. average depth of target chart:

It’s not a coincidence that the only other quarterback in that quadrant, Skylar Thompson, is coached by Shanahan’s former offensive coordinator, Mike McDaniel. This Shanahan system has dominated the league for a few years, and now the San Francisco coach has assembled the perfect group of skill players for it. Christian McCaffrey is a running back and slot receiver. Kyle Juszczyk can play as a tight end or fullback. Deebo Samuel is a 1,000-yard receiver who could be a 1,000-yard running back if given a full season of carries. Brandon Aiyuk has emerged as a true WR1 who can line up—and win—anywhere across the formation. And George Kittle is a skilled tight end who doubles as an extra offensive tackle in the run game. Getting Deebo back from injury late in the season was like Thanos getting the fifth Infinity Stone, but instead of wiping out half the population, Shanahan snapped his fingers and turned Mr. Irrelevant into a top-10 quarterback. Purdy was doing this two years ago:

Now, I don’t actually believe Purdy is a top-10 quarterback. He looked more like a bottom-10 quarterback for much of the game Saturday. But if that’s anywhere close to his floor and San Francisco still put 41 points on the scoreboard, I can’t imagine this offense being held under 30 now that it’s fully healthy and humming like this.


Doug Pederson is the best in-game coach left in the playoffs.

It’s easy to point and laugh at the Chargers for blowing a 27-point lead in a playoff game, but it shouldn’t overshadow the role Doug Pederson played in the Jaguars’ 31-30 win on Saturday night. As great as Trevor Lawrence was in leading Jacksonville’s rally, Los Angeles probably would have fended it off if Pederson hadn’t nailed every strategic move down the stretch. Pederson’s fourth-down decisions, in conjunction with Chargers coach Brandon Staley picking a horrible time to become conservative, may have been the difference.

And Pederson brought much more to the table than just keeping his offense out on the field. As the team’s chief play-caller, it was his idea to attack the perimeter on the fourth-and-1 play that set up the game-winning score, which The Ringer’s Ben Solak broke down expertly here:

There were other brilliant designs, too. Take the long Zay Jones touchdown reception that sparked the comeback. The route combination is designed to attack a very specific coverage that the Chargers like to run—one aimed at taking away deep crossing routes.

It may look like a busted coverage, but I view it more as a broken coverage. Pederson knew L.A.’s coverage rules and bent them to his will. That play was made before the Jaguars even broke the huddle—likely when Pederson was putting together his game plan midweek.

Of all the teams left standing, the Jaguars have the longest odds of winning the Super Bowl. But don’t discount the advantage they own with Pederson on their sideline. Andy Reid is the only other Super Bowl–winning head coach left in the field, and there isn’t any coach remaining who has a better track record of managing games and making tricky decisions in crunch time. What Shanahan is doing with Purdy is some otherworldly, dark magic shit, but outside of the 49ers coach, the argument could be made that Pederson gives the Jaguars the coaching advantage over any team they’ll face over the next few weeks. Unfortunately, their next opponent has Patrick Mahomes, so it may not matter much.

The Bengals offense has already cleared its biggest hurdle in the AFC.

If I were trying to design the perfect defense to slow down this Bengals offense, I would simply point at the Ravens’ unit and say “do what they do.” Of course, doing that is a lot easier said than done. First-year coordinator Mike Macdonald already has one of the deepest playbooks in the league. The Ravens run a little bit of everything, and since their midseason trade for linebacker Roquan Smith, they’ve been running it all at a high level.

That makes them a particularly difficult matchup for Cincinnati, which has become a little too reliant on Joe Burrow’s ability to diagnose defenses before the snap. As Cris Collinsworth noted multiple times during Sunday Night Football, Burrow was essentially calling the whole offense at the line of scrimmage. The Bengals are in good hands with no. 9 pulling the strings against most defensive coordinators, but he needs help from Zac Taylor (and his rapidly deteriorating offensive line) against a coach like Macdonald.

The pre-snap chess match below, on a key third down in the fourth quarter, is a good example of how Macdonald gave the Bengals’ passing game issues. On the play just before this one, Marlon Humphrey got hurt and had to leave the game. His replacement was Daryl Worley, whom the Bengals targeted repeatedly in the Week 18 prequel. Baltimore initially shows press man coverage across the board with no safety help. Burrow wants Chase on the slant, but the Ravens rotate into a zone defense to take it away.

Macdonald views the game through the same lens Burrow does, and that’s what makes him such a formidable adversary. He knows that Burrow knows that he knows. It’s Gen Z Manning vs. Belichick, and every football fan should be happy that we’ll get to see these two match wits twice a year until some team hires Macdonald to be its head coach. I’m sure Burrow is happy he won’t have to face Macdonald again this postseason, because there isn’t another defense that plays this particular brand of football—and there certainly isn’t one that does it as well as the Ravens.

The Bills, for instance, don’t disguise themselves. They line up and try to beat opponents with perfect execution. But here’s some advice that Sean McDermott didn’t ask for: Watch the Ravens tape and “do what they do.”

The Giants aren’t just some plucky underdog.

There was a time not too long ago when the plucky underdog narrative fit this Giants team well. It had been decimated by injuries on both sides of the ball, and first-year head coach Brian Daboll and his staff were barely holding things together. But over the past few weeks, New York has gotten fully healthy and this coaching staff has continued to work its magic. Now, the Giants, who beat the Vikings 31-24 to win their first playoff game in 11 years on Sunday, may not be Super Bowl contenders, but they can give anyone left in the bracket a competitive game—including the Eagles, who they’ll face next week.

It starts with Daniel Jones, who has evolved from the turnover-prone quarterback who was oblivious to pressure into a trustworthy signal-caller who’s … well, actually still kind of oblivious to pressure. But he does enough other things to make up for it! I don’t know whether Jones is a good quarterback, but he is certainly a good football player, especially when he’s playing as aggressively and confidently as he did in Minnesota. He was decisive when deciding whether to throw or scramble. And the difference in his approach between Sunday’s game and these teams’ Week 16 matchup was massive. It’s as if the Vikings were playing against a different quarterback.

If the Giants manage to continue this Cinderella run, though, it’ll probably be because of the defense. There are still some exploitable weak spots in this unit—I’m looking at you, Jaylon Smith—but the secondary is loaded with good players capable of playing a variety of coverages, and the defensive line is probably the best left in the playoffs outside of San Francisco. Dexter Lawrence is doing things we’ve never seen a pure nose tackle do.

First-round pick Kayvon Thibodeaux already looks (and dresses) like a superstar, and Leonard Williams remains a very disruptive player on the interior. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale doesn’t even have to call those aggressive blitzes he’s known for: He’s got a line that can pressure the quarterback on its own, and he called the Vikings game accordingly, blitzing Cousins only six times on 39 dropbacks.

The gimmicks New York needed to stay afloat during its midseason bout with the injury bug are no longer necessary. Well, they weren’t against the Vikings, at least. The 14-3 Eagles might be a different story, but the Giants have the talent to hang with the NFC’s top seed.