If you had told me back in November that the final four teams still playing in the Conference Championships would be the Chiefs, Bengals, Eagles, and 49ers, well, I wouldn't have had much trouble believing you. I probably would've given the Bills the edge on the Bengals, but otherwise … yep, that seemed like the best four teams in the NFL, more or less.
Of course, the path those teams took to next week's showdowns was hardly straight forward. The Eagles had to scrape and claw for the No. 1 seed after Jalen Hurts missed a few games, while the 49ers are riding seventh-round rookie Brock Purdy to their conference championship appearance, which I definitely wouldn't have bet on before actually seeing him out there. And, let's not forget, the Bengals looked like there was a bit of a Super Bowl hangover when they entered November at 4-4 following an embarrassing loss to the Browns in Week 8, too.
And the Chiefs, well … it's easy to have metronomic consistency when you've got Patrick Mahomes at QB, though with Mahomes suffering a high-ankle sprain in Saturday's win, the Chiefs suddenly have some questions of their own heading into the biggest game of the season. Mahomes is expected to play through the injury, but it's an added complication, in a season that has had plenty of them.
And yet, here we are, more or less where we expected to be. It's funny how that works out.
So, we've got the Chiefs hosting the Bengals and the 49ers traveling to face the Eagles on Sunday, with the Bills, Cowboys, Jaguars, and Giants heading him after their losses. And those four teams have plenty of questions heading into the offseason. We'll get answers to a lot of them when free agency and the NFL Draft come through, and we'll surely get more questions about where they came from.
In today's newsletter, we'll take a look at the biggest question for each of the four teams eliminated from the playoffs this weekend, just like we did with the teams who lost last week. But first, here's a quick look at who Jamey Eisenberg thinks helped and hurt their 2023 stock the most this weekend:
- Brock Purdy -- He's "the guy" in San Francisco
- Travis Etienne -- "He's worth a second-round pick"
- CeeDee Lamb -- Finished off his breakout campaign
- DeVonta Smith -- Is he surpassing A.J. Brown?
- Kadarius Toney -- "Has a chance to be a star"
Dak Prescott -- Ends on a disappointing note again
Daniel Jones -- Heads to free agency after a bad loss
Devin Singletary -- Is he done in Buffalo?
Gabe Davis -- Another "dud" to end a disappointing season
JuJu Smith-Schuster -- "Disappears again"
You should check out Jamey's full Divisional Round recap here, which also includes his updated rankings for the remaining players left in the playoffs. And now, here are the biggest questions facing each of the four eliminated teams, starting with the disappointing Bills offense:
Biggest questions for eliminated teams
Bills: What can they add to the offense?
The Bills were second in the league in scoring, with Josh Allen throwing for 4,283 yards and 35 touchdowns in 16 games, so you can't exactly argue this offense is broken, or anything. But there were certainly times this season when they weren't as effective as expected, especially if opposing teams were able to take away Stefon Diggs, something the Bengals were able to do Sunday. Nobody else really stepped up, which has been a recurring issue for them – aside from the occasional big play from Gabe Davis, this offense has grown incredibly reliant on Diggs and Allen's individual brilliance. But there's room for another playmaker to play a big role here, and I wouldn't be surprised if they tried to add another one this offseason, especially with Diggs entering his age-30 season. The window is open now, and the Bills need to make sure they keep it open as long as they can. A more consistent secondary wide receiver would go a long way.
Cowboys: What happens with Tony Pollard?
With two seasons in a row ending with pretty major clock management issues, there are a ton of questions facing the Cowboys. They also definitely need more playmaking help in the passing game, with players not named CeeDee Lamb combining for 89 yards in a one-score loss. But the biggest question right now is what happens with Pollard, who enters unrestricted free agency after suffering what looks to be a significant ankle injury Sunday. According to ESPN's Todd Archer, Pollard suffered a fractured left fibula, an injury that will require surgery and, likely, a three-month recovery process. NFL free agency opens up in mind-March, so Pollard will likely be a long way from being fully recovered by the time he's trying to find a new home. Pollard proved he can be a star with a larger workload, rushing for 1,007 yards on 193 carries (5.2 YPC) while adding 371 yards on 39 catches, and I initially ranked him as a top-12 RB for 2023 under the assumption he'd end up somewhere he can at least replicate those numbers. Now? That's definitely not a sure thing. It's a disappointing outcome for a talented player right
Jaguars: Does Trevor Lawrence take another step forward?
We got the good and the bad from Trevor Lawrence in the Wild Card round in rather stark fashion, but Saturday's loss to the Chiefs wasn't nearly as dramatic. He had a more run-of-the-mill, ho-hum game, throwing for 217 yards and one touchdown, giving him 11 games out of 19 with one or fewer passing touchdowns. Lawrence was much better in 2022 than he was as a rookie, but outside of one 13-touchdowns-in-five-games stretch from Weeks 10 through 15, he was still more good than great. And that's reflected in his QB11 finish in points per game. How far the Jaguars can go in the coming seasons will be directly tied to how much Lawrence can continue to grow, and he'll need to take another step forward to justify what will almost certainly be an increase in his Fantasy cost in drafts – he went off the board at QB8 in our most recent mock draft. Calvin Ridley should help, but it's still an open question as to whether Lawrence can justify that cost.
Giants: What's the next step for Daniel Jones?
The Giants enter 2023 with the third-most cap space, per OverTheCap.com, but that's before accounting for Jones and Saquon Barkley, among others, heading into free agency. They made a shocking run to the playoffs that seems to have cemented Brian Daboll's place among the best new coaches in the league, and they especially deserve credit for their work with Jones – Jones finished as QB13 in points per game on the strength of a career-low 1.1% interception rate and 708 rushing yards, the fifth-most by any QB in the league this season. Now the question is, do the Giants roll it back and re-sign Jones? And, if they do, can they find him enough weapons to take another step forward? I think extending him for more than a year or two would be a mistake, but the Giants might decide it's better to run things back with Jones and see if they can wring more out of him with better weapons around him. If he does return to the Giants, I'd probably view Jones as a borderline top-12 QB for 2023, especially if they add multiple high-level playmakers in the passing game.