The divisional round of the 2022 NFL playoffs was dramatic, but maybe not in the ways we expected. The Chiefs had to overcome an injury to the best player in football, while the Bills were the team left exposed in the elements of Western New York. The Giants turned back into pumpkins during a blowout loss in Philadelphia. The Cowboys finished their season with a loss in a defensive battle to the 49ers and an inexplicable play on the final snap, and I don't think anyone figured it would happen with longtime Dallas back Ezekiel Elliott taking the snap at center.
Let's run through a key question for each of the winners from this weekend's games to try to figure out where they each stand with two rounds of postseason football to go. We'll go in chronological order and start in Kansas City, where the Chiefs might have won the battle while losing the war:
Are the Chiefs still the AFC favorites with an injured Patrick Mahomes?
Divisional round result: 27-20 win over the Jaguars
Anyone but Mahomes. Chiefs fans are known for producing statistically notable levels of sound, but when Mahomes got up limping after a short completion in the first quarter Saturday, I'm not sure anybody made a sound. He left the game shortly thereafter before returning after halftime, but the likely regular-season MVP was limited for the remainder of the Chiefs' victory.
Mahomes was diagnosed with a high ankle sprain, an injury that has caused problems for skill position players such as Odell Beckham Jr. and Michael Thomas in recent seasons. The ankle injury isn't quite as damaging for quarterbacks since they don't need to be quite as explosive, but it can still be a hindrance.
We've seen star quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning play through high ankle sprains in years past. Others, including Mac Jones and Jimmy Garoppolo, were forced to miss time. Ben Roethlisberger tried to play through one, struggled to plant his foot and sailed multiple throws, and then took time off to heal. Mahomes was able to return to the game, which does seem to suggest that he'll be able to play next weekend, but the injury is likely to dampen Kansas City's chances of advancing to its third Super Bowl in five seasons.
He was not his normal self after the injury, even with a heavy tape job and whatever else the Chiefs did to address the issue at halftime. The same Mahomes who had been extending plays and scrambling in his inimitable way early in the game was static and mostly stayed in the pocket, moving only when absolutely necessary. He limped, sometimes badly, to hand the ball to his backs on stretch plays.
The offense also shifted. Mahomes, one of the league's most efficient scramblers, ran the ball just once over the remainder of the game, when he picked up 4 painful yards on third-and-1. The Chiefs abandoned play-action, running it on just 5.9% of their dropbacks after the first quarter with him in the lineup, the lowest rate for any Mahomes performance over the final three quarters of a game.
The seemingly infinite amount of space opposing defenders expect to cover against Mahomes as he extends plays also shrunk. He didn't attempt a single deep pass after the first quarter, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, just the eighth time that has happened since he took over as the full-time starter in 2018. His average pass over the final three quarters traveled just 6.4 yards in the air, which was a yard below his season average.
Thankfully for the Chiefs, the Jaguars were the ideal matchup for backup Chad Henne and a compromised Mahomes. Jacksonville ranked last in QBR allowed to tight ends during the season, and Kansas City's tight ends feasted throughout the game. Travis Kelce caught 14 passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns, while Noah Gray had the team's longest reception of the game (27 yards). The only player targeted more than two times besides Kelce was gadget wideout Kadarius Toney, who turned his seven targets into just 36 yards.
The same thing will not be true against the Bengals, who suffocated the Chiefs' stars during Cincinnati's second-half comeback a year ago. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo sprung the comeback with an unlikely trap by resorting to a three-man rush and dropping eight into coverage. Getting extra men into the second and third levels allowed the Bengals to spy Mahomes as a scrambler and double both Tyreek Hill and Kelce at times. Kelce had four catches for 40 yards after halftime.