Bengals QB Joe Burrow ran his postseason record to 5-1 and has a chance to return to the Super Bowl with one more win over KC's Patrick Mahomes. (TheSportingNews)
Joe Burrow seeks fourth straight win against Patrick Mahomes, second with Super Bowl on the line
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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland. He has covered the Browns since 1984.
Takeaways from NFL divisional round playoff weekend …
1. So it’s Cincinnati at Kansas City in the AFC Championship Game for the second year in a row. Las Vegas is having difficulty handicapping this one. Arrowhead Stadium is one of the toughest venues in the NFL for visiting teams, yet the Bengals stormed back from a 21-3 deficit last year and won in overtime, 27-24. Laughably under-rated Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo put on a defensive clinic against Andy Reid in the second half, limiting media darling Patrick Mahomes to 8 of 18 passing for 55 yards and two interceptions. One pick came on Mahomes’ first possession in overtime after the Chiefs won the OT coin toss and had the ball first. That was Joe Burrow’s second straight triumph over Mahomes; he added a third with another 27-24 win in Cincinnati on Dec. 4. Mahomes suffered a high ankle sprain in the Chiefs’ win over Jacksonville. That’s usually 4-to-6 week injury, but he insists he’ll play. The sports books have seen amazing volatility in their lines on this game immediately after Cincinnati’s rout of Buffalo in the AFC divisional playoff game on Sunday.
2. Bills GM Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott are more examples of the national media canonizing someone prematurely. Yes, they’ve had a fine run of four straight 10+ win seasons and three straight AFC East titles. But they keep coming up short in the post-season, more times than not because they can’t run the ball consistently and, as a result, can’t stop the run. All the analytics Websites love the Bills for their pass, pass, pass mentality. That plays well in September, October and November regular-season games. But in the postseason, the fundamentals of football – running the ball and stopping the run – weigh much more heavily than in the regular season. Beane repeatedly has failed to address these two weaknesses on his team. He has constructed a team more suitable for a dome. Ironically, the Bills projected $1.4 billion stadium project does not call for a closed roof. The Jim Kelly Buffalo teams of the 1990s threw the ball a lot, but also could run the ball when they had to. This one can’t and that’s on the GM and head coach.
3. The NFC Championship Game pitting San Francisco at Philadelphia is also a toss-up. San Francisco’s ability to run the ball in the fourth quarter and possess the ball and take the pressure off rattled quarterback Brock Purdy was the key to the 49ers’ tight win over Dallas. Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott failed to rise to the occasion and outplay Purdy. Prescott’s salary balloons to $31 million in 2023 with a cap hit of $49.1 million, making him one of the league’s most over-paid quarterbacks. The Cowboys did just as well with middling backup Cooper Rush, who’s now a free agent. On the other hand, Eagles QB Jalen Hurts had a magnificent game in destroying the division-rival Giants. I have overlooked Hurts all year as an MVP candidate. We’ll see how he does against the 49ers’ defense.
4. With the NFL down to its final four Super Bowl contenders, 10 teams that reached the postseason have been eliminated. This is how I rank their chances of advancing farther next season:
A. Buffalo: Either the Bills will knock that door down or Josh Allen will throw a ball through it. He should appear in more than one Super Bowl before his career is over – if the Bills get him a bona-fide lead running back.
B. Jacksonville: The Doug Pederson-Trevor Lawrence partnership figures to produce bigger things ahead for the Jaguars.
C. Los Angeles Chargers: This hinges on coach Brandon Staley making the right choice in pairing quarterback Justin Herbert with an accomplished offensive coordinator.
D. Seattle: If you believe Geno Smith’s turnaround was not a fluke – as I do -- the Seahawks could get a lot better by bulls-eyeing the fifth and 20th overall picks in the draft.
E. Dallas: With Micah Parsons and a few others, the Cowboys should be expected to compete for a few more years. Prescott’s big contract, however, will weaken the overall roster going forward.
F. Baltimore: I see 2023 as Lamar Jackson’s last season in Baltimore. If so, it could spur a run to the Super Bowl. But only if he’s healthy and playing in December and January.
G. New York Giants: I’m not sure how far Daniel Jones can take them, but I think competent receivers would get them to the next round.
H. Miami: The Dolphins need a consistent presence at quarterback, and Tua Tagovailoa might never be that. This ranking would be much higher if Tom Brady finds his way to South Florida.
I. Minnesota: My hunch is the bump provided by first-year coach Kevin O’Connell may subside. And I’m just not a believer in Kirk Cousins going any farther.
J. Tampa Bay: The cannons are empty. Lean years ahead.
5. You might think the NFL is running out of ways to manufacture new events to produce even more league revenue, but no, the gravy train is long and there are still untapped sources of new money. The league obviously is trending toward taking conference championship games away from the competing home teams – and their fans – and staging them at neutral sites. The idea is to create two mini-Super Bowls, which can then be leveraged into millions more revenue from corporate sponsorships, advertising, stadium concessions, and on-site fan events preceding the games. This is not a new concept. For a whole decade, Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt presented this exact idea to league owners. It always got shot down. Why? Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney always argued it was unfair to fans to deny them the opportunity to support their home team in the biggest game prior to the Super Bowl. Rooney liked money as much as Hunt, but he was one of the few owners with a conscience to put fans ahead of revenue, and his clout inside league conference rooms was great. Alas, Rooney died in 2017, and with him passed the last voice of reason in thinking fans first. The only AFC championship game hosted by the Browns in the Super Bowl era came in the 1986 season title game against Denver. John Elway ultimately spoiled it, but the whole week leading up to that game was filled with anticipation and the buzz was wonderful every day. Alas, it is a unique feeling that Browns fans may never experience again – unless the team surprises everybody by making it to the AFC title game in 2023. I would expect neutral sites to be approved by owners as soon as 2024.