This is the Hot Read. In this column, you’ll find everything and anything I found interesting from the NFL’s divisional round. There’s the stuff that everyone’s talking about, and the stuff that nobody’s talking about; the stuff that makes football incredible, and the stuff that makes football fun. I hope you enjoy it and learn something cool—and if you do, I hope you’re back next week, when we do it all again.
The Big Thing: Emptiness
A lot happened this weekend. If there’s one thing you need to know, it’s this.
The Chiefs beat the Bills on Sunday night, 27-24. This is the third time that Patrick Mahomes has knocked the Bills out of the playoffs in his six seasons as a starter. This is the sixth time that Sean McDermott has made the playoffs in his seven seasons as the head coach, and he has made the conference championship game once.
What can I write for Bills fans? Should they hear about the futility of the second fiddle, the unique emptiness of a season that ends close, but not quite? There is nothing more to be said that they don’t already know—from the oldest Bills fan, who has seen four straight Super Bowls lost and not a single appearance before or since, to the youngest, who has inherited the scars. The Bills have climbed the mountain of the regular season religiously, tirelessly, winning their last five games this season to finally earn the home-field advantage against the Chiefs. And still, inevitably, they stumbled at the summit and came careening back down.
Buffalo has Josh Allen, who is one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever grace the earth, and it just doesn’t matter at all because the greatest quarterback is his contemporary. Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes are not equals. Mahomes is better—just by a little bit, but that little bit is more than enough. So history will remember the six straight AFC championship games that Mahomes has attended and forget the few plays that kept a few of those games from Allen’s grasp.
Should I write about Allen’s heroics? About a 60-plus-yard detonation that hit Stefon Diggs in both hands; a third-and-goal cross-body dot to Khalil Shakir on the front pylon; a rushing touchdown, and then another? Allen, careless with the football all season, had no turnovers in his two postseason games. He had four touchdowns against the Steelers and three more against the Chiefs. He didn’t even take a sack against Kansas City. The Bills punted twice.
But what is there to say about Allen’s heroics that hasn’t already been said in seasons past? I remember the will of Allen in the 42-36 loss to Kansas City: the 75-yard touchdown to Gabriel Davis to end the third quarter; the fourth-and-13 touchdown to pull ahead with two minutes remaining. I remember 47 points against New England in the 2021 wild-card round; a 52-yard touchdown run against the Steelers last week.
I can’t forget the great Allen plays; nobody can. But Mahomes’s highlights serve as bookmarks in the story of his career—they’re tethered not just to a place and a time, but to a moment, an event, a victory. Allen’s highlights are ghosts, ephemera. They are lost to the gales of a bombarded franchise, swallowed up by the shadow of an unforgiving scoreboard. They matter so much—they’re the only things that hope clings to in Buffalo—but they don’t matter at all.
So I’ll write about the injuries, I suppose. The players who should have been on the field, who certainly would have made a difference this time: Gabe Davis, Jordan Phillips, Matt Milano, Tre’Davious White, Terrel Bernard, Taylor Rapp, Christian Benford. If only the Bills had been healthy, they would have won. But even if you believe that—and I’m not sure I do—it just washes right over you. It’s another thing that could have happened for Buffalo, but it didn’t. Throw it on the pile.
Sisyphus looks upon Buffalo football and wonders what it’s like to suffer like that. To be so good at football—well-coached, studded with stars, aggressive, impassioned, ripe with belief—and to be totally empty-handed. Nothing to show for it but a taunting refrain: We’ll be back.
Yeah, you’ll be back. Heck, you might even be better. But will I believe in you? Will the fan base believe in you still? Will you believe in yourselves?
There’s always next year, Buffalo. Not that you don’t already know that.
The Little Things
It’s the little things in football that matter the most—zany plays, small victories, and some laughs. Here’s where you can find them.
1. BLITZING THE NICKEL
Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn sent a blitz Baker Mayfield’s way on 31 percent of his dropbacks, to great effect: Nine pressures on 14 dropbacks is a good day at the office.
It’s one thing to blitz a guy—it’s another thing to regularly get a free nickel off the edge, as the Lions did constantly. That’s because the Lions were keyed in on something when the Bucs motioned into a two-receiver set. Watch the motion to the wide side of the field, which triggers safety Ifeatu Melifonwu to come screaming off the edge for the sack.
Now watch the motion into the Brian Branch sack.
And again on this easy pressure that forced Mayfield into a hot throw in the second half.
Kudos to the Lions defensive coaching staff. It’s little stuff like this that ends up creating the plays a generally shaky defense needs to survive a playoff outing.
2. A GOOD RULE
On first-and-goal from the 1, up by three, in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs called a jet pass to wide receiver Mecole Hardman.
This is a ludicrous thing to do. Hardman is not a trustworthy player or a key cog in the offense; I know this because the Chiefs let him walk in free agency this offseason. The Chiefs also don’t need constraint plays to pick up a yard; I know this because their running back, Isiah Pacheco, runs like Mario with a Super Star.
Yet they did it, because Andy Reid is the definition of “too cute” in the low red zone. And Hardman immediately repaid him with a fumble out of the end zone for a touchback.
I don’t know how the rule book landed on “A fumble out of the end zone is a change of possession and a touchback for the other team,” and I understand that it’s a bit arbitrary. But you know what? I really don’t mind it. The idea that the offense is heavily penalized for fumbling the ball inches from pay dirt is fine with me—it should be! Protect the football at all costs!
Apparently, the league has an interest in changing the rule because of how arbitrary it feels. I think this blows, but I get it—you want rules to make sense. If this was our last fumble/touchback/end zone silliness, I will always remember it fondly.
3. GOTTA HAVE IT
I love a designer fourth-down play. The top-of-the-play-sheet play. The play that you know might be the one that decides the game for you.
On a play that coulda and shoulda decided things for the Bills, Joe Brady dropped a doozy. Watch how the motion of Khalil Shakir spins the head of the defender chasing him, creating the freest fourth-and-3 conversion you’ve ever seen.
Of course, the Bills would go on to miss a game-tying kick and lose the game. So ends the era of Brady, interim offensive coordinator. I’m not blown away by Brady’s work as the coordinator—Josh Allen had two completions more than 8 yards down the field on Sunday—but he’s been more than adequate. And stuff like this play is really nifty. It makes plenty of sense for Buffalo to make him the permanent coordinator.
4. ONE C.J. STROUD THROW
Not a lot to love for the Texans, who got wholly outclassed by the Ravens on Saturday. DeMeco Ryans, who can coach up a defense with the best of them, didn’t have an answer to Lamar Jackson; Bobby Slowik, a hot name on the head-coaching circuit, couldn’t find any room against Baltimore’s defense. The Texans are a good, young team that ran into a great, experienced one. It happens sometimes.
The good news? This guy’s still playing ball in Houston.
STROUD TO NICO COLLINS IS HEATING UP pic.twitter.com/gDlI3J0dK9— JPAFootball (@jasrifootball) January 20, 2024
Scenes From Detroit
It was another party—the final party—at Ford Field on Sunday.
Linebacker Alex Anzalone has control of the aux in the Lions’ victory locker room. As game-winning interceptor Derrick Barnes is surrounded by reporters asking him about the emotions of securing the Lions’ first conference championship game bid since 1992, “Wonderful World” by Sam Cooke plays. “Don’t know much about history,” the song starts—these Lions sure do. They’re making it.
As Jared Goff and Josh Reynolds rehash their touchdown connection in a corner, more than a little amused by how open Reynolds was, there’s “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac. As offensive tackle Taylor Decker gets emotional talking about center Frank Ragnow, the veteran with whom he suffered the dark years of Detroit football, “Red Red Wine” by UB40 plays. (The pairing of tones there was a little weird, if we’re being honest.)
I find it appropriate and pleasing that these Lions—who are one of the last four teams standing; who have gone 22-7 since the middle of last season—enter San Francisco as a familiar character: the underdog. The 49ers are favored by a touchdown in an NFC championship game that they have long felt they would win, no matter the opponent—but the Lions have put together two better performances this postseason than the one the 49ers staged on Saturday against the Packers.
While the Lions have long been a David in the face of Goliaths, they haven’t enjoyed a marquee, statement win against a truly elite opponent. After their Week 1 win over the Chiefs, they lost to the Ravens (in embarrassing fashion) and the Cowboys (in unjust fashion). They didn’t play such teams as the Bills or the Eagles or the 49ers; they split with the Packers. The two biggest wins on the Lions’ season are that one-point win over the Chiefs over five months ago, and a one-point win over the Rams in the wild-card game: one of the most emotional games the franchise has ever played.
Are they ready for this 49ers game? From the outside looking in, I have my doubts. But from the inside of the locker room, it’s hard not to believe. The Lions are an imperfect team, but they’re going into San Francisco the same way they’ve gone into much of this season: doubted. This is the win that would cement their ascension as real.
My thoughts on a few key coaching candidates and where they might land.
I am apprehensive about Antonio Pierce with the Raiders, almost exclusively because of his inexperience. Pierce has coached in the NFL for two seasons; before that, he coached in college for four seasons. Pierce retired from playing after 2009 and certainly still has plenty of friends in the league, but you can’t help but wonder what the scope of his network really is and just how prepared he is for the ups and downs of NFL coaching. He earned the job with his performance as the interim coach, but promoting the interim has a very shaky success rate (the best success story is probably the Cowboys and Jason Garrett).
I’m rooting for Pierce! But I’m worried about this long term.
I am curious to see how the Lions’ playoff run affects the coaching market, as both Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson (who has been requested for six interviews) and Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn (four interview requests) are unhirable for another week. This feels like last year’s Eagles team: Both Shane Steichen and Jonathan Gannon were taking interviews during their long playoff run—and all their suitors were forced to play a game of chicken.
Will a team that has Johnson atop its coaching list, as I imagine the Panthers and Commanders do, be willing to wait another week and miss out on its second-favorite option, should he get scooped up by another team? I think it will—but what if the Lions beat the 49ers? What if it’s a three-week wait? Remember, the Cardinals got hit with tampering charges on the Gannon hire, and the Colts got Steichen in large part because of how long it took them to move off of Jeff Saturday as their primary target—their coaching search was incredibly long. Hires are coming down the mountain, and it’s hard to stay unmoving in that avalanche.
I am happy to see interest in Ejiro Evero, the Panthers DC who has taken head-coaching interviews with the Panthers, Seahawks, and Falcons and is scheduled to take his second interviews with all three of those teams sometime next week. Evero has impressed me in back-to-back seasons. The Panthers defense endured injuries and overperformed under Evero’s direction last season, and with the Broncos in 2022, Evero’s defense kept Russell Wilson’s offense in plenty of games they deserved to lose.
Consider the head coaches Evero has worked under: Nathaniel Hackett in 2022 and Frank Reich in 2023. He hasn’t been the DC for a healthy organization yet, but the quality of his work is impossible to ignore on the film. I’m not sure this is the cycle for him, but I’d bet a lot of money that he’ll be a head coach within the next few seasons.
I am not fooled by the second interview between the Falcons and Jim Harbaugh. I don’t think Harbaugh is the Falcons’ first choice (see: Belichick, Bill). Nor do I think the Falcons are Harbaugh’s first choice (see: Chargers, Los Angeles). This feels like it’s negotiating leverage for both parties as they pursue their actual targets.
I am interested to see where Ryan Nielsen lands, as I thought he was one of the nice surprises of the 2023 NFL season. The Falcons defense, which is hardly a star-studded unit, was fifth in defensive success rate—top 10 against both the run and the pass. Nielsen comes from Dennis Allen’s tree (along with Lions DC Aaron Glenn), which has gotten tons of head-coaching interest over the past couple of weeks. Nielsen is expected to interview with the Jaguars and Eagles; if I had an open DC position, he’d be my first call.
(Mostly Real) Awards
I’ll hand out some awards. Most of them will be real. Some of them won’t be.
Executive of the Year (of the Week): Detroit Lions GM Brad Holmes
Rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs: 13 touches, 114 yards, and a score. Rookie tight end Sam LaPorta: nine catches for 65 yards. Rookie safety Brian Branch: nine tackles (eight solo!), a sack, and another TFL. The Lions’ draft class was taken to the woodshed in April, as the team used picks no. 12 and no. 18 on a running back and an off-ball linebacker—positions of lower value. But positional value doesn’t win you football games in January. Good football players do, and the Lions got those. (Though, the success of the three rookies does provide cover for the lack of Jack Campbell snaps.)
That rookie class is an enormous feather in Holmes’s cap, but let’s not reduce his wonderful work to one class. Save for the 34 snaps taken by Romeo Okwara, every single defensive player that took a snap for the Lions against the Bucs was a Holmes acquisition. So too were the tentpoles of the Lions’ offensive performance: Jared Goff, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Josh Reynolds, David Montgomery, and Penei Sewell. This is the team that Brad built, and it’s one game away from the big one.
Most Valuable Player of the Year (of the Week): Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson
I would encourage you to cast out from your life those who still doubt Jackson. They are not servants of justice, seekers of truth, champions of the righteous. They are men and women who refuse to see that which is plainly before them, and they are unworthy of the breath you spend trying to convince them of reality. (Unless they’re your dad, who’s just super old. He gets a pass.)
Assistant Coach of the Year (of the Week): Baltimore Ravens DC Mike Macdonald
Here’s a graph of all the offensive touchdowns the Texans scored this season, by week. See if you can find the two Ravens games. They are labeled to help you out.
If you’re hiring Texans OC Bobby Slowik to coach your team—which I wouldn’t even mind that much!—you better hope a division rival isn’t hiring Macdonald.
Overambitious Defensive Player Carrying the Football of the Week: San Francisco 49ers LB Dre Greenlaw
GET DOWN! GO DOWN! GO DOWWWWNNNN!!
Next Ben Stats
What it sounds like: Next Gen Stats, but I get to make them up.
0: That’s the number of productive Brock Purdy conversations that are possible
We’ve officially reached the point of no return on Purdy. Anyone who still thinks his statistically productive season was the product of legitimate MVP-caliber play has decided that is their reality and are accordingly entrenched. They will not be updating their opinion for years on end.
Similarly, Purdy’s late-game recovery against the Packers—he was objectively good on the final drive—will not move Purdy doubters off of their spot. I know this because I’m one such doubter and I’m going through that exact experience. One clutch drive doesn’t erase the poor play that put his team in a position to need a clutch drive. The Packers’ inexperience and mistakes let the 49ers back into the game just as much as Purdy led them back into it.
But who cares? He played well enough to win, and that’s all he needs to do on this super team. We won’t get anyone’s opinion moved on him anytime soon. Might as well just enjoy George Kittle while we’re here.
0: That’s also how many 20-plus-yard plays Josh Allen had on Sunday
His longest run? Eighteen yards. His longest completion? Fifteen yards. Allen has played 104 games in the NFL, and he has been held without a 20-plus-yard gain in only four of them. In those first three games, he had five, 19, and 26 dropbacks.
On Sunday? Forty-five.
That’s an all-time performance from Steve Spagnuolo.
+145: That’s Lamar Jackson’s point differential against playoff teams this year. He’s 7-2.
His two losses? Divisional games. A seven-point loss to the Steelers early in the season (remember when the Ravens dropped like six passes?) and a two-point loss to the Deshaun Watson–led Browns (yes, for real).
The Ravens did play a 10th game against an opponent that made the playoffs: the Steelers in Week 18, with Baltimore’s starters resting. When Lamar plays, they’re not just 7-2—they’ve won six of those games by double digits. Baltimore hasn’t been slowed, let alone truly stopped, in a while.
14th: That’s where Sunday’s game ranks by yards per play out of Patrick Mahomes’s 112 career starts
The Chiefs averaged 7.7 yards per play. That’s not methodical. It’s maniacal. Just unrelenting destruction.
What does 7.7 yards per play do for a team? The Chiefs faced five third downs the entire night. They had 24 first downs and five third downs. Think about that. The Chiefs’ series conversion rate—the amount of first downs that eventually became a new first down or a touchdown—was 84 percent. The league average this year? Seventy percent.
Early Predictions That I Am 100 Percent Allowed to Change
Ravens 30, Chiefs 21
49ers 34, Lions 31
An earlier version of this piece misstated who led the Browns in their November 12 win over the Ravens. It was Deshaun Watson, not P.J. Walker.