Advertisement

Four Verts: Let's marvel over intriguing Bucs-Lions playoff matchup, and the rise of C.J. Stroud and Jordan Love

Also: It's time for Lamar Jackson to seize the moment

The divisional round is many people’s favorite week of the NFL playoffs because the fat from the wild-card round has been trimmed, igniting the drama and rumor mills following those games. From a potentially thrilling rock fight in Detroit to two young quarterbacks exploding onto the postseason scene, there’s a whole lot to cover walking into the NFL’s annual quarterfinal weekend. Let's start with one of those games.

Lions-Buccaneers is a great 'styles make fights' game

Let’s be honest: the "Super" wild-card weekend was anything but super last weekend, with really only one game being competitive from start to finish. People are going to watch these NFL games regardless of how entertaining they actually are, but it would be nice if the divisional round actually lived up to the general hype that consistently surrounds the NFL playoffs.

On paper, the divisional round is set up to have some enthralling games to satiate the everlasting appetite for competitive professional football. Another round of Patrick Mahomes vs. Josh Allen, the battle of the Shanahan coaching tree between the Packers and 49ers, Lamar Jackson defending his throne as the No. 1 seed in the AFC — there’s a lot to be excited about here. Those games are going to grab the most attention in the lead-up to the weekend, but the bout between the Lions and Buccaneers sneakily has the framework to be the best game of the week.

If there’s one thing the Lions are going to do on offense, it’s to try to impose their will. Head coach Dan Campbell, general manager Brad Holmes and offensive coordinator Ben Johnson all seem to be in lockstep on how this Lions offense needs to operate: run the damn ball and let the passing game fall in place around that. They have arguably the best offensive line in football, a thunder-and-lightning duo in the backfield with David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs and have mastered a play-action passing game built off that foundation. According to RBSDM.com, the Lions ranked sixth in expected points added per rush this season (-0.014) and were one of seven teams to run the ball more than 500 times on the season. Bullyball has lived in Detroit this season.

TAMPA, FLORIDA - OCTOBER 15: Devin White #45 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Yaya Diaby #0 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Vita Vea #50 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers tackle David Montgomery #5 of the Detroit Lions during the second quarter at Raymond James Stadium on October 15, 2023 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Expect yards on the ground to come at a premium for Lions running back David Montgomery against a stout Bucs defensive line. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

If there’s one team left in the NFC playoff race that’s uniquely set up to counterpunch against the Lions’ run game, it might be the Buccaneers. When these teams faced off in Week 6, the Lions were held to just 1.8 yards per attempt and nose tackle Vita Vea owned the line of scrimmage throughout the afternoon. In that specific regard, the Buccaneers stood tall against the backbone of the Lions’ offense. However, Jared Goff still had a productive day through the air, throwing for 353 yards and two touchdowns in a 20-6 win. The Lions can still have success through the air without a ground game, but they’re capable of scoring far more than 20 points when the entire unit is playing well together — Tampa Bay is set up to at least slow down the running game.

On the flip side, the Buccaneers’ chances of winning this game revolve around one player: quarterback Baker Mayfield. He is about as average as they come as far as starting QBs go, but he has the ability to get hot at the right time and play efficient football — or totally melt down and give the Bucs no chance to win. That’s what happened in the first game against the Lions, but this Lions defense can certainly be had through the air. The Bucs just need Mayfield to be accurate because he’ll have opportunities to make plays.

The Lions' offense vs. the Bucs' defense is the show here, especially for throwback fans who love to watch physical football. The quarterback duel is the side story. There’s a heavyweight fight in the trenches that will go a long way toward deciding who advances to the NFC championship game.

Jordan Love and C.J. Stroud instantly claimed their first playoff moments

Playing quarterback in the NFL playoffs is very difficult, but that wouldn’t be apparent at all by watching Love and Stroud take their first crack at the postseason. In their first postseason games, they combined for six touchdowns and just 10 incompletions to drive their team forward to the divisional round. They’ll face stiffer tests in the second round of the playoffs, and they may struggle, but it’s hard not to be blown away with how dominant these guys were to start their postseason careers.

Stroud and Love both walked into the season as starters, but this level of proficiency wasn’t expected so early in their careers. Stroud was selected by the 3-13-1 Houston Texans, who were hoping to find some semblance of a long-term quarterback after a few tumultuous years at that position. Stroud hit the ground running and largely played like a top-10 quarterback throughout the whole season, even factoring into the MVP race briefly toward the middle of the season. Even with a few missed games at the end of the regular season, Stroud easily had one of the greatest rookie seasons of all time and has turned the Texans into Super Bowl contenders overnight.

Love patiently sat on the bench for three seasons, waiting for his chance once Aaron Rodgers moved on from the Packers. He was raw coming out of Utah State and was seen only sparingly prior to this season. After a shaky first half of 2023, Love has been one of, if not the, most efficient passers in the league. Since Week 11, Love has thrown 21 touchdowns to one interception and is finally blending his top-flight physical skills with accuracy and understanding of how the Packers’ offense is supposed to run. Now, he’s on track for an extremely lucrative contract extension as Green Bay appears to have found yet another franchise quarterback.

These are great outcomes to have in a season where simply being competent would have been good enough for their organizations. Instead, these QBs ascended to that next level and stole the show in the wild-card round. They weren’t playing against scrubs who just managed to squeak into the playoffs, either. Stroud torched a Browns defense that had arguably been the best defense in football all season. On the road, Love moved the ball effortlessly against the Dallas Cowboys, who have known stars on their defense.

Of course, Stroud and Love may struggle as they move onto the next round of the playoffs, but that’s a boring caveat when talking about the performances that they just put up. In their first postseason games they kicked the door down and shouted their arrival to anyone who could hear them roar, hopefully the first of many feats for two young, incredibly brilliant quarterbacks who look poised to keep their franchises relevant for the next decade.

Lamar Jackson’s second shot as the No. 1 seed starts now

The pressure is undoubtedly on for Jackson.

Just like in the 2019 season, Jackson finds himself in the familiar position of not only being the league’s likely MVP winner, but the Ravens also hold the No. 1 seed in the AFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Last time Jackson was here, the Ravens were upset at home by the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round. Since then, Jackson and the Ravens have won just one playoff game (the following 2020 season). Now they’re in a tremendous spot to live up to their billing as the best team in the NFL and make it back to the Super Bowl for the first time in over a decade.

This season's Ravens differ from the 2019 team in a myriad of ways except for the most important piece: the gravitational force they have under center. Even with the clear schematic and personnel changes that come with swapping out Greg Roman for Todd Monken at offensive coordinator, the Ravens' offense is still capable of scoring points in bunches because it has Jackson in the backfield. He’s credibly cemented himself as one of the elite quarterbacks of this era of football and his second MVP award will make him just the 11th player in league history to win multiple MVPs.

The Ravens also have an elite defense this season that has played a significant role in their success, but this rests on Jackson’s ability to be great.

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - DECEMBER 31: Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens reacts during an NFL football game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Miami Dolphins at M&T Bank Stadium on December 31, 2023 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)
Lamar Jackson will likely win his second league MVP award. But will he get closer to a Super Bowl than he did in his previous MVP campaign? (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)

He has the ability to accomplish whatever he wants on a field, but postseason success has eluded him so far. Jackson’s first playoff experience came as a rookie in the 2018 season when he started the backhalf of the season in place of an injured Joe Flacco. Jackson got his butt kicked by the Chargers, but still made plays that showed he could be a dynamic player worth building a team around. The following year, a slew of miscues from Jackson and the Ravens’ receivers got them bounced in the divisional round. The year after that, they beat the Titans on the road in a wild-card game before losing to the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round.

Four tries, one win. To be fair, that’s a small sample size and one that will grow as Jackson continues to get more years under his belt, but this postseason is the opportunity that Jackson should seize. He has been here before. This environment isn’t new to him anymore. The infrastructure is set up for him and the rest of the team to be in Las Vegas in a few weeks playing for the Lombardi Trophy. C.J. Stroud, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen are in the way of Jackson getting to that first title game, but that shouldn’t be a scary proposition for him because he is in that class of elite players.

This is the perfect time to strike while the iron is hot. Coordinator Mike Macdonald is still on the staff and leading a defense that seems built for postseason success. Superstar tight end Mark Andrews appears to be making his way back for a run. The move to a more wide receiver-centric offense undoubtedly worked. Now it’s time for Jackson to be the piece who brings it all together and drives the Ravens to three more wins before the season is over.

Everyone knows Jackson is capable of winning a Super Bowl. He wouldn’t be about to win his second MVP if he wasn’t. Now, it’s time to just do it.

Despite recent success, the Eagles making big changes is a logical next step

Three straight playoff seasons would be considered a big achievement for most head coaches, unless your name is Nick Sirianni.

Just a year after barely losing the Super Bowl to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Philadelphia Eagles may be looking for a new head coach. The team started 10-1 before going 1-5 to close the regular season and getting blown out in the wild-card round by a 9-8 Buccaneers team that squeaked into a division title. In most circumstances, Sirianni’s résumé would 100% keep him safe going into next season, but this situation is different and the way the Eagles’ season crashed and burned gives credence to the idea that a change might be necessary.

It’s never good when a team appears to lose its whole identity with coordinator losses, but that appears to partially be what happened with the Eagles this season. Offensive coordinator Shane Steichen and defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon took head coaching jobs with the Indianapolis Colts and Arizona Cardinals, respectively, and the early returns are positive on both fronts. It was up to Sirianni to replace that duo and he did so by promoting Brian Johnson to offensive coordinator and hiring Sean Desai to run the defense. Neither of those moves seemed to benefit the Eagles in any meaningful way this season.

The Eagles' offense took a step back with Johnson running the show, despite Philadelphia essentially bringing back the entire Super Bowl offense. Jalen Hurts wasn’t nearly as efficient as he was a year ago and as a whole, the Eagles weren’t able to mow through defenses in the way they did in 2022. Desai was eventually stripped of his play-calling duties on defense after a 33-13 blowout loss to the Cowboys, prompting Sirianni to move longtime defensive coach Matt Patricia into that spot. The Eagles were comfortably one of the worst defenses in the league under Patricia’s tutelage.

It’s one thing to pick coordinators and delegate responsibilities to people who aren’t up to the task, but at some point the head coach needs to show some value and turn things back in the right direction. Instead, the Eagles' season continued to crater, culminating in a loss where the offense had no answer for the Bucs’ heavy blitzing. Sirianni never seemed to give the Eagles an edge this season and it was most glaring in their biggest spot of the season.

That level of failure and ineptitude, paired with an unusually strong pool of head coaching candidates, has to at least have Eagles ownership pondering if it needs to make a change. The Eagles were never able to match their 2022 performance, which would have been a tough task regardless, but they just kept getting worse throughout the season. It’s worth examining at the very least.

Whoever is running the Eagles next season has their work cut out for them, especially as they deal with the loss of Jason Kelce and attempt to overhaul the back seven of their defense. This isn’t a flawless roster by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s certainly more juice to squeeze than what they showed. A 32-9 defeat to the Bucs? Getting danced on by the Cardinals? Quickly losing to the New York Giants with the NFC East title on the line? Come on, now. That’s not good enough.