Welcome to the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, the best football weekend of the year. Ahead of the four games, The Ringer’s NFL writers answer the most important questions—and make quick predictions about the 2024 head coach hiring cycle:
Which divisional-round game are you most excited to watch this weekend?
Sheil Kapadia: As much as I’d love to be a football hipster here, c’mon. It has to be Chiefs-Bills. Any time we can see Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen square off in their primes with “win or go home” stakes, I’m all in. I especially love that neither team is a juggernaut this year. If the Bills win, they’ll have to overcome a banged-up defense, and Allen will have to put the team on his back. If the Chiefs win, Mahomes will have to overcome a lackluster supporting cast. I’m probably setting my hopes too high, but I don’t think either team is good enough to win in a blowout. I think we get an instant classic.
Ben Solak: I can’t wait for Texans-Ravens. These two teams played in Week 1 in what was my favorite game of that week—the Ravens won the game and controlled it most of the way, but I remember feeling like the Texans would be a plucky team given their pass rush and their quarterback. It’s almost 20 weeks later, and the Texans have matured a ton—but is it enough against a well-rested Ravens team with almost unprecedented depth? Another star performance from C.J. Stroud would be needed.
Nora Princiotti: Chiefs-Bills. Mahomes and Allen in their third playoff matchup? Hard to beat that.
Steven Ruiz: The one with Allen and Mahomes starting at quarterback. The last time we saw a Chiefs-Bills playoff game, those two lit up the scoreboard and changed how I look at quarterbacks. While I don’t think we’ll get a game nearly as suspenseful as the last one, Allen and Mahomes are playing well enough to give us a decent sequel.
Danny Heifetz: Bucs-Lions. LOL JK it’s Chiefs-Bills.
Danny Kelly: I think I’m most excited to watch the Packers-49ers tilt. We’ve got two historic franchises facing off, which is fun. But more importantly, each team features extremely cool, high-scoring offenses. The Niners are more proven, led by veteran playmakers in Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk (and Brock Purdy does a masterful job of feeding all of them the football). But the Packers offense is firing on all cylinders, too. I’ll be excited to see whether a young group led by Jordan Love and featuring a bunch of first- and second-year pass catchers in Jayden Reed, Christian Watson, Dontayvion Wicks, Romeo Doubs, Luke Musgrave, and Tucker Kraft can hang with San Francisco’s elite defense.
Austin Gayle: If anyone doesn’t say Chiefs-Bills, they’re lying! Stroud and Love are two of the league’s budding superstars, but both quarterbacks are 9.5-point road underdogs. The other game is a duel of two fun underdog stories in Baker Mayfield and Jared Goff, but I’m not interested in firing up Rudy this weekend. Give me the heavyweight fight. Give me Mahomes vs. Allen.
Which quarterback playing this weekend has the most at stake?
Kapadia: Lamar Jackson. The man is about to pocket his second MVP, and he’s only 27 years old. We’re talking about the start of an all-time great career here. Jackson was terrific in the regular season, but we all know that quarterback legacies are defined by the playoffs, and Jackson has failed to get past the divisional round in his first five seasons. Everything is set up for the Ravens this year. They’re healthy (enough) and can win in a variety of ways. The most likely scenario is that Jackson plays well and the Ravens advance to the AFC championship game. But if that doesn’t happen? Duck! The takes are going to fly!
Solak: Love. I want you to think about how big of a contract you’d be willing to give Love right now. Then I want you to think about how big of a contract you’d be willing to give Love if he knocks off the no. 1 seed 49ers, on the road, a week after doing the same to the no. 2 seed Cowboys.
Princiotti: Both quarterbacks in the Bucs-Lions game could probably earn (or lose) themselves some money this weekend. Mayfield will be a free agent this offseason, and an improbable playoff run would go a long way in stirring up more interest than he got last year, when the Bucs signed him to a modest deal to compete with Kyle Trask for the starting role. Goff isn’t a free agent until after the 2024 season, but given that he’s an entrenched starter, this is the offseason when Detroit would look to extend him or make some clear decision about his future.
Ruiz: It’s probably Allen. Another divisional-round exit—which would be his third straight—would get the narrative police on his case, especially if he throws a couple of picks. He’ll get the Dak Prescott treatment. If you’re looking at it from a financial angle, it’s a tie for first with all the quarterbacks in the NFC. All of them are playing for some more bargaining power. Love, Goff, and Mayfield can cash in this offseason, while Purdy has another year before he can negotiate a new deal.
Heifetz: Jackson. If the Ravens lose this week, Stroud will have more playoff wins than Jackson and his quarter-billion-dollar contract.
Kelly: Jackson. Jackson’s proved to be a truly elite regular-season quarterback, but when it comes to the playoffs, not so much (he’s 1-3 as a starter in the postseason, with three touchdown passes to five picks and a passer rating of 68 in those games). If he can’t lead the heavily favored Ravens to a win over the Texans this weekend, it sure won’t help with the narrative that he chokes in the playoffs.
Gayle: Allen. By quite a lot. Allen hasn’t ever won MVP. He’s 5-4 in the playoffs over the past five seasons. He’s played in only one AFC championship game and lost to the same team he’s playing this weekend. He’s entering “always a bridesmaid” territory, and things don’t get easier after this year. His cap hit jumps up from $18.6 million to $47 million, and the Bills have the third-lowest projected cap space of any team in the NFL in 2024. The window is now. Right now.
Which head coach has the most at stake in this weekend’s games?
Kapadia: Sean McDermott. Think about everything that’s happened since the Bills were eliminated from the playoffs last season. McDermott wrestled control of the defense away from Leslie Frazier. He fired offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey in the middle of the season. And he had to answer questions about a 9/11 controversy stemming from a speech he made years ago. I don’t think McDermott’s going anywhere. I think he’s a good coach, and the Bills have been a good team for a while now. But at some point, you have to get over the hump. If they lose as home favorites to a beatable Chiefs team, the criticism of McDermott will only get louder.
Solak: Kyle Shanahan. This is the year for the 49ers, right? Light NFC competition. First-round bye. Quarterback who isn’t as big of a liability in the postseason as Jimmy Garoppolo used to be. Healthy McCaffrey, Deebo, Trent. Defense still with a ton of juice, even after DeMeco Ryans’s departure. Shanahan’s been known as the best offensive coach of the past five or six years, but he doesn’t have the hardware to match—and anyone who suffers the type of Super Bowl heartbreak Shanahan has will have a bad reputation as a postseason finisher. Shanahan’s 49ers can’t stumble against the 7-seed Packers.
Princiotti: McDermott’s job security is the most volatile, but I get the sense that if the 49ers somehow lose this weekend, Shanahan might spontaneously combust. So I think it’s him.
Ruiz: It’s McDermott, but I considered picking Shanahan. Both are in similar spots, having never won Super Bowls despite fielding contending teams for a few years now, but Shanahan can easily pin a loss on his seventh-round quarterback. Not that he would, but people like me will on his behalf. Coaching Allen has its many perks, but getting a pass for underwhelming quarterback play is not one of them.
Heifetz: In the past seven seasons, Shanahan’s teams have blown a double-digit fourth-quarter lead in two different Super Bowls (when he was head coach of the 49ers and OC in Atlanta) and one NFC championship game (with San Francisco). That doesn’t even include when the 49ers lost last season’s NFC championship game against Philly when San Francisco literally ran out of healthy quarterbacks. If San Francisco fails to win a playoff game this year, I genuinely fear for Shanahan’s mental and physical health.
Kelly: McDermott. There were times this season when it looked like Buffalo was sinking, but McDermott has righted the ship, for the most part, leading Buffalo to six straight wins and a divisional-round berth. But if he fails to get past Kansas City, again—the Bills have lost their last two playoff matchups with the Chiefs, with losses coming in the divisional round in 2022 and the AFC championship in 2021—it could put him right back into the hot seat heading into next season.
Gayle: Shanahan. Again, by quite a lot. Andy Reid and John Harbaugh have both won Super Bowls. Dan Campbell, DeMeco Ryans, and Todd Bowles have already exceeded expectations with their respective teams. Shanahan, like Allen, is going to be second best until he’s not. If he can’t win it all with the most efficient quarterback in the NFL on the cheapest starting quarterback contract in the NFL, will he ever win it all?
Which non-QB will have the biggest impact?
Kapadia: McCaffrey. Sorry. I have to go chalk here. I don’t trust that Packers defense. I think you can run on them. I think you can throw on them in the middle of the field. I think you can gash them for explosive plays. Notice that I just named a bunch of things that McCaffrey is excellent at? I think that if the Packers win, they’ll have to shrink the number of possessions in the game, and Love is going to have to be near perfect (possible!). But I just don’t see a scenario in which the Packers keep McCaffrey in check.
Solak: Aidan Hutchinson. The Lions’ problems at CB1 (and CB2 and CB3) are well documented at this point. Those players are going to lose their matchups against Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and if Detroit’s pass rush can’t account for that, Lions-Bucs is going to be a lot closer than people think. The Buccaneers’ offensive tackles (Tristan Wirfs and Luke Goedeke) are solid, but Hutchinson has really started to turn pressures into sacks over the last month of the season—and Mayfield is always liable for taking a bad sack or, even worse, throwing a bad pick off of pressure. Another big game is needed from the Lions’ star rusher.
Princiotti: Pit hungry. Pit must feed.
Ruiz: The answer has been the same all season: McCaffrey. He’s at the heart of everything the 49ers do, and the efficacy of Joe Barry’s plan for stopping him—assuming he’ll have one—will dictate how competitive the young Packers will be on Saturday night.
Heifetz: Bucs head coach Todd Bowles. Goff does at least one moronic thing per game. If Bowles’s aggressive Tampa Bay defense can make Goff do three moronic things instead of one, the Bucs can win.
Kelly: McCaffrey. McCaffrey’s been the straw that stirs the drink for the 49ers offense all season, and if he does his normal thing against Green Bay—namely, gaining over 100 scrimmage yards and/or scoring a touchdown, which he does almost always—that will take the pressure off Purdy, help the team control the football, and crucially, take the ball out of Love’s hands. If McCaffrey balls out, it’s hard to see San Francisco losing.
Gayle: Steve Spagnuolo! The Chiefs have the best defense of the Mahomes era by quite a lot, and Spags is the orchestrator of it all. Kadarius Toney and Marquez Valdes-Scantling are going to drop passes. The offense isn’t what it has been in previous years. It’ll have to be a Spags master class if the Chiefs beat the Bills in Orchard Park on Sunday night.
Pick your ideal head coach for the following openings:
- Heifetz: Bill Belichick (just to see if David Tepper would yell at him)
- Kapadia: Ben Johnson
- Ruiz: Belichick
- Kelly: Dave Canales
- Solak: Mike Macdonald
- Princiotti: Bobby Slowik
- Gayle: Johnson
- Heifetz: Johnson
- Kapadia: Belichick
- Ruiz: Johnson
- Kelly: Belichick
- Solak: Brian Flores
- Princiotti: Raheem Morris
- Gayle: Belichick
Los Angeles Chargers
- Heifetz: Jim Harbaugh
- Kapadia: Macdonald
- Ruiz: Harbaugh
- Kelly: Harbaugh
- Solak: Harbaugh
- Princiotti: Belichick
- Gayle: Harbaugh
- Heifetz: Mike Vrabel
- Kapadia: Morris
- Ruiz: Macdonald
- Kelly: Johnson
- Solak: Johnson
- Princiotti: Harbaugh
- Gayle: Vrabel
- Heifetz: Pete Carroll (can rip off his shirt with Will Levis)
- Kapadia: Antonio Pierce
- Ruiz: Slowik
- Kelly: Morris
- Solak: Slowik
- Princiotti: Vrabel (sorry!)
- Gayle: Vrabel (lol)
- Heifetz: Macdonald
- Kapadia: Morris
- Ruiz: Flores
- Kelly: Slowik
- Solak: Belichick
- Princiotti: Johnson
- Gayle: Vrabel (for real)
Las Vegas Raiders
- Heifetz: Pierce
- Kapadia: Harbaugh
- Ruiz: Vrabel
- Kelly: Pierce
- Solak: Steven Ruiz (knows ball)
- Princiotti: Pierce
- Gayle: Harbaugh (I’m repeating here, but you said ideal!)
Bonus question: You’re an NFL owner with a head-coaching vacancy—what is the first question you’d ask Bill Belichick in an interview?
Kapadia: “What’s the real reason why Malcolm Butler didn’t play in Super Bowl LII?”
Heifetz: “Why did you bring Matt Patricia and Joe Judge with you to this interview?”
Ruiz: “Mac Jones in the first?!?!”
Princiotti: “There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You have a lever you can pull to save them. However, you notice one person tied to the tracks is a young quarterback who has moderately disrespected your authority. What do you do?”
Solak: “Did Brady have those footballs deflated?”
Kelly: “You want a check, or should we do direct deposit?”
Gayle: There’s a lot of opportunity for jokes here, but I’ll go a different route: How much money do I have to give to Belichick to ensure he’d interview and hire new candidates for the offensive, defensive, and special teams coordinator positions?
“Your sons, Steve Belichick and Brian Belichick, would still be able to come with you as positional coaches or, honestly, any fairy-tale title you want for them. We’ll even put Matt Patricia, Josh McDaniels, Joe Judge, and Bill O’Brien on the payroll. But you’re one of the best coaches the game has ever seen. Coaches at every level would jump at the opportunity to work for you. If I can guarantee all your children, friends, etc., will get paid positions on the staff and I write you a blank check, can you hire anyone that hasn’t already worked for you at key staff positions?”