The divisional round is here! This is a busy, busy time of the NFL calendar where the playoffs are heating up at the same time as the offseason for non-playoff teams. The Philadelphia Eagles are about to make their entrance into the fray, there are a handful of rookies already contributing and one playoff team has a fascinating decision to make at quarterback this offseason.
Eagles are super duper good
The Eagles are entering the ring, kicking off their potential Super Bowl run against the New York Giants. The Eagles own the NFC’s top seed with a 14-3 record, and they earned that record by being the top all-around team in the NFL. Led by Jalen Hurts, a great offensive line and a host of talented skill players, the Eagles have firmly cemented their claim to be the team to beat in the NFC — and perhaps the entire playoffs. If the Eagles are on their “A” game, they should run the Giants off of the field.
At just about every position group, the Eagles have a leg up, particularly this week. An offensive line featuring Jordan Mailata, Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson is a better trio than what the vast majority of teams have. DeVonta Smith and A.J. Brown are capable of taking over games. Miles Sanders is a top-tier running back. The entire offense is tied together by Hurts, an MVP candidate who has developed to the point where the Eagles can attach a legitimate passing game to a punishing and diverse rushing game. There haven’t been many defenses able to get a handle on this offense and it should lead to this team hosting the NFC championship game against the Dallas Cowboys-San Francisco 49ers winner.
On defense, the only spot that can be considered a weakness is their linebacker situation, which cost them a game against the Commanders earlier this season. The Eagles can be run on, but they have enough defensive line talent to generate explosive, negative plays and keep teams in long down-and-distances. That’s where the Eagles’ defense can really shine. They have a deep, talented line and Darius Slay and James Bradberry have been lockdown at cornerback this season. As long as the Eagles can force their opposition to throw, they’ll be able to unleash the dogs on them. That might be a bit difficult going against Saquon Barkley, but the Eagles didn’t have any problems stomping the Giants when Hurts was healthy for the first game.
Hurts’ health matters a lot for the Eagles, but if he’s ready to go for this game, they have a great chance not only to win, but to also run the table. The 49ers and Cowboys would be quality opponents in the next round, but the Eagles are on a different plane of existence than the Giants. That’s no slight to New York, the Eagles are just a juggernaut ready to add a second Super Bowl title to their collection.
And if the Eagles lose, just forget any of this column existed at all. Its existence will not be acknowledged.
Rookies still playing a huge role in the playoff race
The NFL playoffs are usually decided by veterans, but there are a handful of rookies that are going to be key in their teams’ chances. Here are a few young guns that are going to matter for their team as they try to advance to the Super Bowl:
Kayvon Thibodeaux, EDGE, Giants
Thibodeaux has immediately become one of the better all-around defensive ends in the NFL. Thibodeaux finished his season with four sacks, but that doesn’t capture his impact on the Giants’ defense. He makes every aspect of New York's defense a little better with this ability to disrupt offensive lines and get into the backfield. Thibodeaux projects to be a big-time player for a long time, and the Giants are going to need him to show off that talent to get past the Eagles and potentially make it to the Super Bowl.
George Karlaftis, EDGE, Chiefs
Karlaftis has been a key part of the Chiefs’ defensive line rotation this season, finishing second on the team in sacks with six. Karlaftis has been as impactful as any rookie edge rusher this season, and like Thibodeaux projects to be a long-term starter.
Brock Purdy, QB, 49ers
Purdy has done what has been asked of him and he has been able to steer the 49ers’ offense into some explosive outings, including a 41-point outburst against the Seahawks in the wild-card round. Playing with head coach Kyle Shanahan and a host of Pro Bowl-caliber offensive weapons has definitely made his job easier, but Mr. Irrelevant has been anything but since taking over the starting quarterback spot on this team.
Luke Fortner, C, Jaguars
Fortner is going to be crucial for the Jaguars in the divisional round if they want to get past Kansas City. The 65th pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, Fortner has played every single offensive snap this season, the only Jaguars player to do so. Jacksonville will live and die by the arm of Trevor Lawrence, so he’s going to need some time to get those throws off. Fortner has the tall task of keeping Chiefs star Chris Jones at bay this weekend, and his performance very well may decide this game.
What’s next for the 49ers at quarterback?
The biggest wild card for the upcoming offseason might be what the 49ers do with quarterback Trey Lance. They suddenly have a quarterback controversy with three signal-callers who appear to be capable of running the offense. Lance, Jimmy Garoppolo and Purdy all have viable arguments toward being the starter next season. It really depends on what roster-building avenue the 49ers take.
Purdy is the cheapest option that the 49ers can roll with. He signed a four-year, $3.7 million contract with the 49ers after being the last pick in the draft. He has run this offense to a degree that has the 49ers scoring 40+ points in the playoffs, but it’s fair to wonder what his ceiling is in the NFL and if he can continue being this guy in the future. Garoppolo is the steady hand and the quarterback they’ve had the most success with during Shanahan’s run as the head coach. Lance has the highest physical upside of the three, but he hasn’t played significant snaps since he was a sophomore at North Dakota State — in 2019. The 49ers traded three first-round draft picks for the right to select Lance, but he’s still a complete unknown.
The 49ers have an interesting problem. They don’t need the most talented quarterback on their roster to suit up for them. Shanahan has essentially made the 49ers' offense QB-proof and they’re loaded with playmakers at every position. If the 49ers want to try and recoup some of their draft picks from the Lance trade, he could still have enough intrigue around the league that they could get a first-round pick in exchange for him.
However, if Lance can be the guy who lets the 49ers truly raze defenses for the decade, maybe they should give him another chance to see if he can be a franchise quarterback for them. Everyone knows what this offense looks like with Garoppolo and Purdy running it — good enough to be a Super Bowl contender. However, Lance at his best might give the 49ers an even larger margin for error on offense due to his physical abilities. It’s a good problem to have, due to the presence of Shanahan, but a problem nonetheless.
At the very, very least, they have one of the best backup quarterbacks in the league with Purdy. The expectations for the 49ers no matter who is under center are always going to be sky high, but the possibility of them actualizing those expectations might be easier if Lance is the starter.
Lance, Garoppolo, Purdy. That’s the question for the 49ers. It doesn’t feel like there’s a completely wrong answer here, it just depends on how risky the 49ers are willing to be with the most important position on the team. They’re in a rare position of being able to take a big swing at quarterback (Lance), stay with what they know (Garoppolo) or ride the hot hand (Purdy). This is a quarterback decision that can change the NFL landscape.
Mike Tomlin loves playing on All-Madden
Pittsburgh has decided to retain the services of Matt Canada, which drew the ire of Steelers fans across the country this week. Canada hasn’t had much success in the NFL, but Pittsburgh isn’t really a team that makes huge shakeups, so he’s going to get another chance to imprint his philosophy on the Steelers and Kenny Pickett, their potential franchise quarterback.
Head coach Mike Tomlin is addicted to the grind, apparently. You don’t have to live like this, Mike! You can find an offensive coordinator who is going to make life easier for you! There’s really only one way to interpret this decision: Mike Tomlin loves playing games with the difficulty cranked up to see what he can accomplish along the way. Tomlin has yet to endure a losing season in the NFL and now appears to be seeing if he can keep that streak alive amid impossible odds.
Is it possible? Of course, this is a Tomlin team. The Steelers can finish 10-7 with a -1000 point differential, but it doesn’t have to be this hard. Canada is a serviceable college offensive coordinator, but his success with the Steelers has been borderline nonexistent. Tomlin just needs to play this game on All-Madden.
Having Pickett with another year in the offense might help matters, but there really is more to bite off than the Steelers are getting under Canada. Turn the difficulty down, Mike. That’s all.