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NFL Notes: Patriots reportedly get their man

Bill O’Brien is reportedly set to return to Foxborough to take over as offensive coordinator.

012423 NFL Notes

The Patriots promised some action regarding hiring a new offensive coordinator and that's what we got last week. Multiple reports indicated the team spoke with Bill O'Brien, Keenan McCardell, Shawn Jefferson, Adrian Klemm and Nick Caley. O'Brien was the obvious choice going in and ultimately that's where the team reportedly landed.

Only O'Brien has experience as a play caller, so it will be interesting if some/any of the other candidates were interviewed with the thought of filling another role on the offensive staff. Klemm, for example, was the Steelers offensive line coach in 2021 before leaving for Oregon. The former Patriot could be in line to assume those duties if Matt Patricia is moved to another role.

However, it will be interesting to see if O'Brien receives any latitude in terms of filling his staff. A coordinator of his considerable experience likely would expect to have some say in his quarterbacks, receivers and offensive line coaches, but in New England Bill Belichick has enjoyed almost complete autonomy when it comes to his coaching staff.

Divisional round roundup

After a livelier than expected wild card weekend the NFL took a step back for the divisional round, which is often the best the league has to offer come postseason time. With the playoff pretenders gone, the final four in each conference usually represents the most competitive weekend of games with both Saturday and Sunday matchups representing must-see TV.

It wasn't that the teams were undeserving of their spots – to the contrary both conferences fielded strong teams with only the Giants crashing the party by ousting the favored Vikings. But in reality all four games failed to live up to the dramatic hype that was promised heading in, with only one of the four games truly in doubt headed to the final five minutes – and that Cowboys-Niners tilt was far from compelling.

In the AFC the only drama came in the form of Patrick Mahomes' high ankle sprain, which will dominate the news this week leading up to the conference championship rematch with Cincinnati. Otherwise the Chiefs held a two-score lead in the final seconds, and the Bengals completely dominated the Bills with ease.

The Eagles did the same to the Giants in the NFC, and while San Francisco's 19-12 win was close on the scoreboard it wasn't the most aesthetically pleasing game to watch as neither side managed to sustain much offense. The Niners eventually made enough plays to win – largely thanks to George Kittle – and leaned on their defense to close it out.

Here's a look at what stood out over the weekend.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Chad Henne (4) looks to throw against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Chad Henne (4) looks to throw against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Chiefs 27, Jaguars 20 – Kansas City looked poised to enjoy another strong day offensively with Mahomes doing his thing throughout the first quarter. Then he got rolled up on as he was completing a pass and was forced out of the game for the rest of the first half. Backup Chad Henne engineered a tremendous 98-yard drive that allowed the Chiefs to take a 17-10 lead at the break, and Mahomes hobbled his way through the second half and Kansas City held on.

My lasting thought watching this game is whether or not to consider Jacksonville among the AFC contenders heading into 2023. Trevor Lawrence looks like an entirely different person, let alone quarterback, showing poise and leadership throughout the afternoon. The clips of him waiting in the tunnel for all of his teammates after the game resonated. Lawrence looked like a guy teammates want to play and compete with, and with some young pieces on defense and a Super Bowl-winning coach in Doug Pederson it's not hard to envision the Jags moving toward the upper echelon in the conference.

Now the test will be for the young Jags to prove they can handle a little success. The 2017 Jaguars were as talented as any team in the conference and fell inches short of the Super Bowl after succumbing to Tom Brady and the Patriots in the conference title game, and then fell flat the following four seasons. They had the look of a team on the rise in Kansas City, never appeared to be overwhelmed by the environment, and while they never really had a chance to win the game they remained competitive throughout.

For the Chiefs it now will come down to Mahomes' ankle, and based on what we saw on Saturday, it doesn't look good.

Philadelphia Eagles running back Miles Sanders (26) runs with the ball against the New York Giants.
Philadelphia Eagles running back Miles Sanders (26) runs with the ball against the New York Giants.

Eagles 38, Giants 7 – In reality the Giants were the one team of the eight left standing heading into the weekend that didn't belong. They play hard and are well-coached but lack the talent that the other seven teams brought to the table.

That said they were steamrolled by the Eagles in a game that really wasn't even as competitive as the lopsided score indicates. New York was dominated at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, and even with Jalen Hurts still working his way back into midseason form the Eagles were in control for 60 minutes.

The Giants had no answers for Philly's running game with Kenneth Gainwell (112 yards) and Miles Sanders (90) dominating throughout. Hurts threw for a modest 154 yards but had a pair of TDs and the Eagles raced to a 28-0 halftime lead. It was very business-like for the No. 1 seed coming off the bye, sort of a methodical beatdown we used to watch the Patriots administer against overmatched divisional round foes during the glory days of the old "double bye" New England used to enjoy over the likes of the Tim Tebow Broncos or Marcus Mariota Titans.

Now Hurts gets another week to recover from the shoulder injury that knocked him out for two weeks, and the Eagles will prepare for what figures to be one of the most physical games of the season against the Niners.

Cincinnati Bengals tight end Hayden Hurst (88) leaps over Buffalo Bills safety Jaquan Johnson (4).
Cincinnati Bengals tight end Hayden Hurst (88) leaps over Buffalo Bills safety Jaquan Johnson (4).

Bengals 27, Bills 10 – Teams can find extra motivation in the strangest of places. Cincy did so by watching the NFL's handling of postseason scenarios regarding the Bills and Chiefs while largely ignoring the Bengals. This despite the fact that Cincy was the Bills opponent on that January 2 night when Damar Hamlin's injury caused their Monday night game to be declared a no-contest.

The league's decision to offer olive branches to the Bills, allowing for the possibility of a neutral site conference championship game if they were to advance to play the Chiefs, while giving no such acknowledgements to the Bengals did not sit well. In fact, the Bengals were subjected to the possibility of a ridiculous coin flip had they lost the season-finale to the Ravens, even though that still would have left Cincy with a better record than Baltimore.

Add in the NFL's strange boasting of having sold 50,000-plus tickets for a potential Bills-Chiefs matchup in Atlanta and the Bengals were loaded for bear. It showed throughout their thoroughly dominant performance in Orchard Park over a Bills team that had no answers on either side of the ball.

Joe Burrow riddled the Bills secondary early and often, and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo dialed up the perfect game plan to stymie Josh Allen and the Bills offense like no one else has done in years.

After the game, Burrow and coach Zac Taylor made plenty of references to coin flips and neutral sites, explaining how they just keep interrupting the league's plans. Based on how they played Sunday, a return trip to the Super Bowl is very much a possibility.

In reality, I think the Bengals have a solid beef about the coin flip. If Cincy had lost to the Ravens in the finale, it still would have held an edge based on record at 11-5 vs. Baltimore's 11-6 mark. That same half-game edge allowed the league to grant the Chiefs (14-3) the top seed over Buffalo (13-3), so it doesn't make sense that the seed wasn't determined by record in that case.

However, I'm not as sympathetic when it comes to the Bengals squawks about having to play in Buffalo on Sunday. The Bills finished 13-3 and the Bengals were 12-4. Same number of games and the Bills had the better record. It wasn't the same as the half-game difference between the Chiefs and Bills, so it's understandable the league didn't view these scenarios the same.

But none of that matters because the Bengals felt they were disrespected by the league, and it's irrelevant if that was true or not. It provided an extra lift, one that a deep and talented team didn't need, and they turned in the most impressive performance of the weekend.

San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle (85) celebrates after catching a pass against the Dallas Cowboys.
San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle (85) celebrates after catching a pass against the Dallas Cowboys.

49ers 19, Cowboys 12 – Both defenses came to play, and both performed at a very high level, but there was more than a little poor offensive execution in this one as well. Neither quarterback played all that well, especially Dallas' Dak Prescott, who continues to throw picks at an alarming rate. The second of his two errant throws took points off the board late in the first half with the game tied at 6. Prescott forced one to CeeDee Lamb in the red zone, so instead of taking a 9-6 lead (at minimum) into the break, the Cowboys trailed by that score when the Niners turned the pick into points.

The second half was more of the same with both defenses dictating the tempo and keeping the offenses on their heels. That's when Kittle turned into Superman, making an incredible catch for 30 yards to jumpstart the Niners only touchdown drive of the game. Kittle reached out with one hand and deflected the pass back into his facemask before eventually corralling it down the seam with a couple of Cowboys nearby. Without that play it's hard to imagine the Niners orchestrating the lengthy touchdown drive that ultimately allowed them to win.

One final key play in the game came on the ensuing kickoff following the Niners touchdown. KaVontae Turpin found a seam on his return and burst into the clear with only two Niners in position to prevent a touchdown. As one defender was being blocked toward the inside, Turpin mistakenly cut back that way and kicker Robbie Gould was able to get in the way just enough to limit it to a 44-yard return. Had Turpin opted to cut to the right toward the sideline it didn't appear as if anyone would have prevented the tying touchdown. Instead, the Cowboys settled for a Brett Maher field goal and still trailed 16-12.

Other observations

The Bills appear to be headed toward a crossroads. There's no question they have the talent to win a Super Bowl, but Sunday's beatdown was eye-opening. The previous week's closer-than-anticipated win over the banged-up Dolphins was the result of sloppy play leading to turnovers. That wasn't the case on Sunday. It wasn't about turnovers changing the game. Cincinnati was the vastly superior team from the start, both in terms of personnel and game plans on both sides of the ball. The Bills never looked right following the events involving Hamlin, and it's fair to wonder if the team simply wasn't prepared – mentally and emotionally – to play at the level needed in the postseason. Regardless, Sean McDermott needs to figure out how to get his team over the hump because on Sunday they didn't look close. … Both conferences will feature title games involving the best two teams. The Bengals were right there with Kansas City and Buffalo all season, and over the last half of the year the Eagles and Niners separated themselves from the NFC pack. The only question is Mahomes' health and how that will impact the game. Otherwise, should be two terrific matchups. … Count me among those who absolutely hate the idea of neutral site conference title games. The league's chest-thumping about ticket sales in Atlanta over the weekend should throw some fear into the minds of anyone who agrees. Clearly the NFL has at least thought about making it a permanent fixture, preventing fans from having the opportunity to watch the biggest games in their home venues. Venturing to a Super Bowl is no small feat, requiring fans to invest lots of time and many to travel to the game. Now, these same fans would be asked to do that twice a year, finding their way to a conference championship before potentially doing so again two weeks later? Of course the league could make an extra buck or two by pimping out these neutral-site venues so the almighty dollar may speak loudest, but you'd be hard-pressed to find many fans who think it's a good idea. Ask any passionate college football fan if they'd rather have the playoffs held on campus sites than in some antiseptic bowl game environment.

Power 4

1.      Cincinnati (12-4) – The Bengals have that old-school Patriots "no one believes in us" mentality going.

2.      San Francisco (13-4) – The Niners defense has dominated for months, and even a subpar day from the offense didn't change that.

3.      Philadelphia (14-3) – The Eagles defense can dominate as well, especially up front where they terrorize quarterbacks.

4.      Kansas City (14-3) – The Chiefs haven't appeared to be as dominant as usual all season long and now Mahomes will be forced to play at well below 100 percent.

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