The final four teams in the NFL playoffs are set, and the Buffalo Bills are not among them — another “wide right” inflicting heartache upon a franchise that has gotten so much right but keeps adding emotional scar tissue in the biggest moments.
No one outside Bills Mafia should complain about the Kansas City Chiefs facing the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship. It’s a great matchup with career-altering legacies at stake. The Detroit Lions advancing to face the San Francisco 49ers on the NFC side delivers the feel-good story Buffalo hoped to become after battling back from a 6-6 start to the season.
The Pick Six column explores what separates Kansas City from Buffalo (it’s not just Patrick Mahomes) and explains how the Bills must evolve to avoid falling further behind. We’ll put the Ravens’ historic dominance in perspective and reveal what other playoff coaches, notably the Lions’ Dan Campbell, can learn from Baltimore’s John Harbaugh. We’ll consider whether Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur (and Joe Barry by extension) experienced a leadership breakthrough with implications for the future, and much more. The full menu:
• What Bills must learn from Chiefs
• Harbaugh’s dominant Ravens show the way
• Packers perspective, turning point
• Lions arrive, but are they Super?
• No, your team couldn’t have had Lamar
• Two-minute drill: Stroud’s S2 test
WIDE RIGHT FOR THE BILLS pic.twitter.com/8NBLeGrFGJ
— NFL on CBS 🏈 (@NFLonCBS) January 22, 2024
1. The Chiefs beat the Bills in the playoffs for the third time in the past four seasons. Two quick takeaways, one for each team.
• What the Bills must do: Defensive injuries give Buffalo a potential out for its inability to stop the Chiefs when it mattered, but it’s an out the organization cannot afford to take. The issues on that side of the ball run deeper and will require some form of roster overhaul for the future.
Thirty-five defensive players logged at least 10 snaps for the Bills and Chiefs on Sunday. Seven of the eight oldest played for Buffalo: Linval Joseph (35), Von Miller (34), Micah Hyde (33), Jordan Poyer (32), A.J. Klein (32), DaQuan Jones (32) and Leonard Floyd (31).
The Bills keep getting older on defense while the Chiefs have gotten much younger.
The chart below shows the average ages on defense for the Chiefs and Bills since 2019, using data from TruMedia. The averages are weighted for playing time to provide higher resolution.
The Chiefs ranked fifth in defensive EPA per play during the regular season with eight defensive starters drafted since 2020. The Bills ranked seventh but are older, smaller and more injured, giving them less staying power, which showed up Sunday. (Kansas City has consistently averaged about five pounds heavier per defender on a snap-weighted basis, using unofficial player weights.)
“Buffalo is an effort-pursue defense that is going to take speed over size every time,” an opposing coach said of the Bills, “so their best player is (linebacker) Matt Milano, and he’s small (221 pounds) and he got hurt. At the end of this game, when everybody wants them to get a stop and get the ball back for Josh Allen, Kansas City gets the first down easily.”
Buffalo and Kansas City, unlike their counterparts in the NFC bracket, are paying top dollar for their quarterbacks. That forces them to budget accordingly for the long range. But with age comes higher salaries. Buffalo has 10 defensive players earning at least $3.5 million per year this season. Kansas City has three.
The Chiefs made a calculated bet in the 2022 offseason, trading Tyreek Hill for picks and investing heavily in defense in the draft, and they made those investments count. They leapfrogged the Bills in the first round for cornerback Trent McDuffie, who was a first-team All-Pro this season. George Karlaftis, taken nine picks later, has added to an impressive homegrown pass rush.
The Bills have taken some swings on defense in the draft, but without the same results. After Kansas City took McDuffie, Buffalo made a small trade-up for cornerback Kaiir Elam, who has just eight starts through two seasons. The Bills spent a first and two second-round picks on pass rushers (A.J. Epenesa, Gregory Rousseau and Boogie Basham) from 2020 to 2021, but none has been as productive as Karlaftis, leading them to splurge on a 33-year-old Miller in 2022.
The Bills have many things to figure out this offseason, including what direction the offense is headed following an in-season coordinator change on that side of the ball. Defensively, they need to follow the Chiefs’ lead in reversing the aging process.
Bills fans are heartbroken pic.twitter.com/ZCOSAnbXLN
— NFL on CBS 🏈 (@NFLonCBS) January 22, 2024
• Mahomes with defense and run game: The great championship quarterbacks of decades past usually had strong defenses on their side. Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach in the 1970s. Joe Montana in the 1980s. Troy Aikman and Brett Favre in the 1990s. Tom Brady over the past two decades.
Mahomes has been the exception, which separated him from those other greats, but now he has a top-five defense and the potential for a physical ground game with Isiah Pacheco. It’s a great combination as long as Travis Kelce is healthy (he is), Rashee Rice is developing (check) and Marquez Valdes-Scantling makes the occasional explosive reception (a work in progress, but he did catch passes for gains of 30 and 32 yards against the Bills).
Will it be enough against Baltimore? Think Mahomes knows his Chiefs are underdogs for the second consecutive week? Think he knows Lamar Jackson is the presumptive MVP? His legacy needs no enhancing at this point, but just think what’s at stake for his Ravens counterpart: Jackson is two victories away from being a two-time MVP (presumptively) and a Super Bowl champ.
2. The Ravens’ historic dominance invites a closer look. Here’s where they stand, and what some of the other playoff coaches, notably Campbell, can learn from John Harbaugh.
• Historic point margin: ESPN’s Adam Schefter noted that the Ravens are 6-0 against opponents who were at least three games above .500 at kickoff, including playoffs. The Ravens did not merely win these games. They dominated them.
Ravens vs Opponents 3+ Games Above .500
Per TruMedia, this Ravens team owns three of the 17 most lopsided victories in these games since 2000.
Baltimore’s plus-157 point margin in these six games equates to 26.2 per game, by far the largest since 2000 for teams facing at least two such opponents in a season.
2000-23 Teams vs Opp 3+ Games Above .500
The table above shows the largest average point differentials since 2000 against opponents who entered the game at least three-plus games above .500 (minimum five such games, including playoffs). The Harbaugh-era Ravens own two of the top four spots.
Lamar Jackson challenges teammates at halftime, then carries Ravens to AFC Championship
• Harbaugh’s edge: Seven of the 14 playoff head coaches this season called offensive plays. Three called defensive plays. The remaining four coaches — Baltimore’s Harbaugh, Detroit’s Campbell, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin and Philadelphia’s Nick Sirianni — fit into the CEO coach category. Freed from play-calling duties, these “walk-around” coaches roam the sideline, affecting the team how they see fit.
Hiring strong coordinators is even more important for coaches who do not call plays. This is where Harbaugh stands out, and where Campbell in particular should be watching closely.
Baltimore’s current coordinators, Todd Monken on offense and Mike Macdonald on defense, have both fielded top-10 units by EPA per play this season (No. 9 for Monken, No. 3 for Macdonald). Previous coordinators Greg Roman and Wink Martindale coordinated top-five units.
Before that, Harbaugh hired Marty Mornhinweg, Marc Trestman, Gary Kubiak, Jim Caldwell and Cam Cameron on the offensive side. On defense, Harbaugh’s pre-Martindale hires included Dean Pees and Chuck Pagano.
Could any coach hope to hire better coordinators over a 15-year period?
This is where the other playoff CEO coaches must close ground.
The Eagles’ Sirianni — who did call plays initially before handing duties to Shane Steichen halfway through his first season — had to replace both coordinators after reaching the Super Bowl last season. It’s looking like he’ll be doing the same this offseason, with intense pressure to get those hires right.
The Steelers’ Tomlin has struggled to find the right offensive coordinator. It’s a leading reason Pittsburgh hasn’t won a playoff game in the past seven seasons (2,563 days and counting for frustrated Steelers fans). Tomlin has pledged to look outside the building after promoting from within previously.
Steelers taking a new approach at offensive coordinator? If so, whom might they target?
The Lions’ Campbell hit a home run replacing his first offensive coordinator, Anthony Lynn, with Ben Johnson. With Johnson likely to land a head-coaching job, the pressure will be on Campbell to find a suitable replacement. Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn also could be leaving, as he’s considered a leading candidate in Tennessee.
Campbell has raised the bar in Detroit, but he hasn’t done it alone. Future coordinator hires will be especially critical for him as a coach who hasn’t called plays since 2021 and seems unlikely to make that his focus in the future.
• Mike Macdonald’s edge: Teams searching for the next differentiating head coach have noticed Macdonald’s scheme, which has produced elite results without elite personnel. His Ravens led the NFL in sacks this season while ranking third in EPA per play.
The table below suggests offensive coordinators who have greater familiarity with Macdonald’s ways have an edge.
2023 Offensive Play Callers vs Ravens D
The six best offensive EPA per play games against Macdonald’s defense featured offensive callers who might possess inside knowledge. Within the AFC North, Cincinnati’s Zac Taylor and Cleveland’s Kevin Stefanski appear high on the list. Taylor’s mentor, Rams coach Sean McVay, tops the list. Even Matt Canada, fired by the Steelers, ranks fifth, while Arizona’s Drew Petzing, who faced Macdonald as a member of Stefanski’s Cleveland staff in 2022, is next.
3. Here’s what I think about the Packers after they blew a late lead against the 49ers. Perhaps a dose of accountability could help the defense (and beyond).
• QB entering fifth year: Teams reaching the playoffs with inexperienced quarterbacks and young rosters typically feel as though their futures will be filled with championship opportunities. That could be the case for Green Bay, but there is one big difference.
Since the rookie wage scale took effect in 2011, rules have prevented teams from re-signing players with fewer than three seasons of experience. This created advantages for teams able to get upper-tier quarterback production from quarterbacks with scale-controlled salaries.
Seven of 24 Super Bowl teams in the rookie wage scale era got there with quarterbacks on rookie contracts. Two others reached conference championship games with high-performing quarterbacks on rookie deals.
The Packers’ Jordan Love will be entering his second season as the team’s starter, but 2024 will be his fifth season in the league. The Packers, who fielded the NFL’s youngest team this season, will be signing their quarterback to an expensive extension soon, skipping the phase that helped other teams maximize resources on their way to Super Bowls.
The Jordan Love-Aaron Rodgers parallels are striking. One difference begs a $160M question
A young team with a good quarterback on a rookie contract enjoys greater flexibility than a young team with a good quarterback on an expensive second contract. Green Bay is a little farther down the road than it seems.
• Finite chances: The Packers led San Francisco 21-17 entering the fourth quarter, then lost 24-21. It was the fourth time in five seasons under Matt LaFleur that Green Bay led through three quarters of the divisional round, putting LaFleur in elite company. But with two defeats in those four games, there will be major regrets if these opportunities fail to materialize as much in the future.
Bill Belichick and Andy Reid have led through three quarters of the divisional round a combined 17 times since realignment in 2002, per TruMedia. They are 17-0 in those games. LaFleur and his Green Bay predecessor, Mike McCarthy, rank tied for third with four apiece. Many other coaches have coached hundreds of regular-season games without reaching that point more than once, if at all.
Leading Divisional Rd Thru 3Q Since 2002
The table above shows coaches with at least two divisional-round leads entering the fourth quarter since realignment. Logos show the coaches’ teams for their most recent qualifying games.
The Packers’ 5-4 record in these games — 3-1 with McCarthy and 2-2 with LaFleur — falls far short of the 62-7 (.899) mark for the rest of the league. It gives the Packers 7.5 percent of the victories and 36.4 percent of the defeats.
• Potential turning point for LaFleur, Barry: LaFleur hinted after the game that the Packers likely would retain Joe Barry, their defensive coordinator.
The team has played better defense statistically since LaFleur suspended No. 1 cornerback Jaire Alexander for joining the pregame coin toss at Carolina without being authorized to do so. The infraction seemed minor, but the consequences were significant. Could they help usher in a new era of accountability?
The Packers were Aaron Rodgers’ team when LaFleur replaced McCarthy in 2019. There was zero chance LaFleur, with one season of coordinating experience on his resume, was going to take full control of that team.
“McCarthy would call some play, and then Rodgers would change it to whatever he wanted,” a veteran coach watching the Packers from afar said. “Aaron did what he wanted, and then all the other guys who saw him as a leader felt like, ‘OK, I’m going to do my own thing as well.’ When they suspended the corner, they were saying, ‘Listen, guys, you don’t just do what you want.’ It’s clear that LaFleur has taken control of that team.”
Whether that makes Barry a better coordinator for the long term cannot be known, but if the move to bench Alexander signaled a shift toward greater team-wide accountability, that’s good for the Packers.
4. The Lions are headed to the NFC Championship Game. What say you, Cowboys and Commanders?
It’s time to update the NFC Championship Game appearances scorecard after the Lions beat Tampa Bay to reach the conference title game for the first time since the 1991 season.
Lions are winning playoff games and changing perceptions of what they can accomplish
This development led immediately to long-suffering Lions fans pointing out that their team has now reached the NFC title game more recently than America’s self-appointed team, the Cowboys. It’s true. Dallas last advanced that far following the 1995 season, winning the Super Bowl.
With Detroit advancing, the Cowboys and Washington Commanders are the only NFC teams without an appearance in a conference championship since 1996, a span of 27 seasons.
NFC Title Game Appearances Since 1996
The Lions stand one victory away from reaching the Super Bowl for the first time. The Cowboys, for all their recent playoff futility, still own eight Super Bowl appearances, most among NFC teams. (Note: The NFC did not exist until the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. However, the numbers here have been updated to include the Packers’ appearances after the 1966 and ‘67 seasons and the Vikings’ appearance after the 1969 season.)
All-Time NFC Super Bowl Appearances
If the Lions reach the Super Bowl this season, they’ll do so with the NFL’s lowest-ranked defense by EPA per play (24th) among Super Bowl teams over the past five seasons.
The chart below compares the final four teams this season — Kansas City, Baltimore, Detroit and San Francisco — to the past 10 Super Bowl teams in terms of EPA per play rankings on offense and defense.
Final Four vs. Recent Super Bowl Teams
Super Bowl winners appear at the top. The final four teams this season appear at the bottom.
5. Can we please kill one of the more disingenuous narratives out there? Your team was not going to get Lamar Jackson, OK?
One year ago, the Ravens were in a rough spot with their quarterback. Jackson was injured and seemed emotionally estranged from the team as a contract stalemate drew on.
Now that the relationship is whole and Baltimore is making a playoff push, a common refrain holds that teams with lesser quarterbacks committed malpractice by failing to pursue Jackson during the months last offseason when the franchise tag provided a window.
The idea that teams preferred Desmond Ridder or Sam Howell to Jackson is laughable. The question is whether teams with those types of quarterbacks should have tried to negotiate with Jackson.
Hey, why not, right? Well …
Landing a franchise-tagged quarterback from another team would require entering into a really, really bad deal that no smart team would ever enter into, and then surrendering two first-round picks on top of the really, really bad contract. Nobody in the league thought that would have been a good idea at the time. To turn around now and suggest Jackson was there for the taking feels disingenuous.
“People constantly saying these other teams had no interest in Lamar Jackson is not true,” a longtime NFL exec said. “Jackson made it clear he wanted the Deshaun Watson contract. Teams don’t just get to say, ‘We want the player.’ He comes with a package.”
In this case, the package would have included signing Jackson to a deal so over the top that Baltimore would not have matched, and then sending two first-round picks to the Ravens as compensation. Jackson’s production had been in decline, he had struggled to finish seasons healthy and he didn’t even have an agent for teams to contact. Even if those complicating factors had not existed, there was no smart deal to get done.
“Everybody was interested in the player,” the exec said. “They were not interested in the package. Because he was so vociferous about getting that guaranteed deal, those franchises made it clear, there is nothing to talk about. It wasn’t until Baltimore convinced him to take the non-guaranteed contract that the Ravens got a deal done.”
6. Two-minute drill: Revisionist history of C.J. Stroud and the S2 Cognition test?
Stroud passed just about every test during a brilliant rookie season with the Texans. He bombed the S2 Cognition test before the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine, calling into question whether the test, which seeks to measure how well players process what is happening around them, should carry credibility in the future.
More recently, S2 test administrators told the Wall Street Journal that the results for Stroud were not valid. Based on what I know, I believe the test can be a helpful tool for teams, and that there is reason to believe the results for Stroud were not valid.
Hang on, am I getting this right?
CJ Stroud “performs poorly” on S2 Test before the draft and creators of the test say “we’ve never had someone grade low and play well.”
Now, CJ dominates and all of a sudden the same people say his results might have been wrong?
— JJ Watt (@JJWatt) January 20, 2024
I’m not a draft analyst. I don’t press sources around the league for predraft information on prospects. But I did hear from a high-ranking NFL team executive at the 2023 combine that one of the quarterbacks had bombed this particular test. The executive said at the time he felt “it was an invalid test” because the quarterback seemed “disinterested” when taking it, for whatever reason.
At the time, I wrote in my notes that the results in question did not pertain to several quarterbacks, including Stroud. But when I circled back with the executive during the 2023 season, he said the test results in question had indeed belonged to Stroud.
How the S2 Cognition staff administered the test, handled its results or handled the ensuing fallout is a separate issue. The fact that an NFL team exec used the word “invalid” to describe the test results for a top quarterback, later revealed to be Stroud, nearly one year ago suggests something wasn’t right about the results.
Stroud later said he wasn’t much of a test taker.
Smart teams should know how to synthesize such information. They should never rely disproportionately on S2 Cognition results any more than they should rely disproportionately on any other measure.
It’s unfortunate when leaked results create false impressions about players. In this case, teams should have known the test results for Stroud did not match what they saw from him on the field. That could be why Stroud did not last beyond the second pick.
• One-game legacies: My colleague, Ted Nguyen, caught my attention Sunday night when he dismissed former player Emmanuel Acho’s take regarding Josh Allen more closely resembling Philip Rivers than Peyton Manning (remember when Manning struggled to win playoff games and people questioned whether he had what it took?).
We don’t need to change the narrative on QBs with every win and loss. Allen played great.
— Ted Nguyen (@FB_FilmAnalysis) January 22, 2024
Playoff results do carry outsized value and are part of the evaluation, but these divisional-round games also lend themselves to cherry-picking.
The 49ers’ Brock Purdy struggled in the rain without injured receiver Deebo Samuel and looked like a backup for stretches against Green Bay. He then connected on a couple of outstanding throws during the game-winning drive. Is he terrible? Is he Joe Montana? How about neither?
The Ravens’ Jackson has long faced criticism about his consistency as a pure passer. If we wanted to amplify those questions, we could dwell on moments late in the first half against Houston when Jackson missed a third-down throw to kill one drive and took a sack on first down in a two-minute situation. But Jackson also rushed for 100 yards, adding 7.8 EPA on the ground, which was the third-highest single-game total for his career. He carried Baltimore’s offense when his team needed him the most.
Yes, Allen fumbled late in the Bills’ defeat (Buffalo recovered) and threw incomplete deep when his receiver was flashing open for a gain that would have moved the team into better position for the tying field goal try. That goes on his playoff ledger. But he also bailed out Buffalo with a laser beam of a touchdown pass on third-and-goal from the 13 just when it appeared the Bills were melting down.
In five playoff starts over the past four seasons, Allen has 21 touchdown passes with four interceptions and a 104.2 rating (0.13 EPA per pass play).
Allen is probably more like an early career Manning than people without long memories realize, as both carried their teams but also suffered too many turnovers. Manning didn’t even win a playoff game until his sixth season (Allen is in his sixth season now and owns five postseason wins).
Manning’s Indianapolis Colts lost twice in the playoffs to Tom Brady’s Patriots before finally beating them in the 2006 postseason on their way to the Super Bowl. Mahomes is playing the role of Brady in these playoff games against Allen.
• Picks update: I went 2-2 in picks made on the Football GM podcast this week, taking the underdog and the points in every game. I lean toward taking the Chiefs and the three points at Baltimore, simply because Mahomes and points seem like a great combination (it worked for me Sunday). I also lean towards San Francisco covering the seven-point spread against Detroit, but we won’t make picks until recording our next show Friday.
NFL playoffs: Final 4 teams’ odds to win Super Bowl, with conference title game analysis
(Photo of Josh Allen: Al Bello / Getty Images)