NFL divisional round winners and losers: Behind fierce defense, Tom Brady has greater margin of error

Lorenzo Reyes
USA TODAY

The final four are set. After the weekend of divisional round NFL playoff games, the four squads that will battle for trips to the Super Bowl in their respective conference championship games can now start to prepare for next week.

The Buffalo Bills will travel to Kansas City to face the Chiefs, while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will head to icy Green Bay to face the Packers. Both home teams are the No. 1 seeds in their conferences and, no matter which matchup is set for Super Bowl LV in Tampa, the quarterback play should be superb, with Buffalo's Josh Allen, Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes, Tampa's Tom Brady and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers all in the running.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady tries to get a high five from an official after scoring a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints.

But before we get to the Super Bowl showdown, here are the winners and losers for Sunday's action from the divisional round of the playoffs.

WINNERS

Andy Reid

This is why the Chiefs' coach is one of the best the sport has seen over the last few decades. In Kansas City's 22-17 victory against the Browns that sent the Chiefs to an AFC title game trip against the Bills, Reid did exactly what he needed to do, even in the face of adversity. Now, to be fair, there were some questionable decisions late in this game as Kansas City looked to run the clock: namely, opting for so many passes late in the game when the Chiefs only needed to burn time and retain possession. But Reid's aggressive call on a 4th-and-1 with 1:14 left in the game, when so many (including CBS analyst Tony Romo) were expecting Kansas City to try to catch the Browns offsides, was brilliant. 

But to have star quarterback Patrick Mahomes, arguably the best playmaker in the entire NFL, leave the game in the middle of the third quarter with a concussion, and to clinch a game with a backup shows just how much Reid can adjust to in-game situations. The Chiefs are now just the second team in NFL history to host three consecutive conference championship games in their home stadium. The other team to do so was the Philadelphia Eagles from 2002-04. The coach of those teams? Andy Reid.

Devin White, Todd Bowles and the Buc defense

The Saints tied for third in the regular season in turnover margin with a plus-9 mark. It was one of the calling cards for this team: an aggressive defense on one side and an offense that protected the ball. In their 30-20 eliminating loss against the Buccaneers, though, the team lost the turnover battle minus-4. After the first three of New Orleans' giveaways, the Bucs made quick work with three touchdowns, as Tampa capitalized on great field position with aggressive play calling and sound execution. Those 21 points completely changed the course of this game. The last turnover, by the way, led to a Tampa Bay drive that essentially ended the game as it ran the clock out.

Credit defensive coordinator Todd Bowles for coming up with an aggressive game plan that dared quarterback Drew Brees to throw the ball down the field and frustrated him all game long. The Buccaneers completely shut out Michael Thomas, keeping him from catching a single pass on four targets. And Devin White, a Pro Bowl snub, might be the game's next bright, young inside linebacker. He was all over the field, collecting 11 tackles, an interception, a fumble recovery and a pass defended. He's the heart and soul of the unit. Though he somehow flew under the radar this season, this is the type of game that should give him much-deserved national recognition.

Tom Brady

For the 14th time in his career, Tom Brady will play in a conference championship game, with Tampa Bay's 30-20 victory over the Saints. What might be unique about this time around for Brady, is that he may very well be the third- or fourth-best player on his team. 

Thanks to a stout defense that had some inconsistent letdowns this season but has been peaking at the right time and thanks to a resurgent rushing attack, Brady hasn't had to put the offense on his shoulders. With running backs Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette getting steady and consistent work, Tampa has rushed for an average of 106.6 yards a game over its last nine, including the playoffs. The Bucs went 7-2 in that span. Don't get it wrong, Brady is still accurate and more than capable of making the throws needed to win games when he needs to. He just has the luxury now of having a greater margin of error, where other players can take some of the pressure off of him.

LOSERS

Cleveland's conservative approach in the clutch

Things, believe it or not, were actually set up for the Browns to pull off a wild upset. Mahomes was out for the game with a concussion. Backup Chad Henne was struggling. Cleveland was within striking distance and holding the ball, down only five points late in the fourth quarter. Instead, the Browns mounted a conservative drive that took way too long and didn't gain enough yards, sending them home.

Cleveland got the ball with eight minutes to play in the quarter. It ran seven plays that took off 3:51 of game clock and gained just 12 yards. There was a lack of urgency and questionable play calls that just didn't capture the significance of the moment. Making matters worse, coach Kevin Stefanski opted to punt the ball on a 4th-and-9 with just 4:19 left to play. Even though Henne was in the game, Chiefs coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy are crafty tacticians and Stefanski's conservative approach, even if it would've worked, likely would've given the Browns the ball back with very little time left. Instead, it would be the last time the team possessed the ball at all.

Drew Brees

If this is indeed his career, it's certainly not the way Drew Brees wanted to go out. FOX Sports reported before the Saints loss to the Buccaneers that the last game of New Orleans' season would be the last of Brees' career. Against Tampa, Brees completed 19 of 34 passes for one touchdown and three interceptions. He averaged an abysmal 3.94 yards per attempt. It said everything about Brees' inability to throw the ball down the field that the lone big play the Saints had in the passing game was one in which coach Sean Payton subbed in backup Jameis Winston to toss it, a 56-yard score on a trick play.

But if Brees does indeed retire after this, his 20th season, at the age of 42, he will go down as one of the best to have ever done it and a sure-fire, first-ballot Hall of Famer. A sense of loss, however, or at least of a promise unfulfilled is inescapable for Brees in New Orleans. This was a stacked team that won at least 11 games in each of the last four regular seasons. Yet, the furthest New Orleans reached was the 2018 NFC Championship Game, though you can argue New Orleans was robbed with a clear missed call on a pass interference. A team that once looked poised to add another Lombardi Trophy to Brees' career ends with a whimper, a disappointing end to a promising window to win in the NFL.

Browns pass rush

To start their divisional round loss against the Chiefs, the Browns counted on their four-man front to generate enough pressure to disrupt the timing of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. It didn't work. In the first half, Cleveland had just three pressures on Mahomes, the second of which came on their first blitz of the game, a 3rd-and-10 with 3:58 to play in the half. After that zone blitz, Mahomes rushed a pass to running back Darrel Williams, who was stuffed. Kansas City punted on the following play. 

The problem for teams that don't pressure Mahomes is that he becomes surgical. Through Kansas City's first 22 offensive snaps, 12 went for first downs. The offense averaged nine yards per play in that span. Coupled with a key Cleveland turnover late in the first half, the Chiefs entered intermission with a 16-point lead. So even with Mahomes being forced out in the third quarter with a concussion, the Chiefs improved to 34-1 (including the playoffs), and posted 24 consecutive victories when the team held a lead at the half in the games since Mahomes has became the starter.

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