Every week in “4-Down Territory,” Touchdown Wire’s Doug Farrar and Luke Easterling of Bucs Wire and Draft Wire go over the things you need to know about, and the things you need to watch, in the NFL right now. With the divisional round done, and Conference Championship Sunday just around the corner, there’s a lot to talk about!
00:00 – Are the Cowboys now stuck with an unsolvable problem at QB?
05:57 – Is it time to start wondering if the Bills’ window is starting to close?
11:09 – Which QB would you most want to tie your postseason fortunes to?
15:22 – Which two teams will make it to Super Bowl LVII?
You can watch this week’s episode of “4-Down Territory,” sponsored by KIA, right here.
(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
The Dallas Cowboys have all kinds of questions following their 19-12 divisional round loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn will probably be a head coach somewhere else sooner than later, and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore might get his own shot. Which leaves Jerry Jones with Mike McCarthy, for better or worse. The real question now is about Dak Prescott, who raised his season total of interceptions to 17 with two in the playoff loss.
Prescott’s 2023 cap hit will be $49,130,000 as a result of the four-year, $160 million contract with $126 million in guarantees he signed in 2021. Seemed like a good deal at the time, but it’s not just that Prescott has all these interceptions, it’s that he has types of interceptions – the two he threw against the 49ers closely resembled ones he threw against the Colts and Jaguars in the regular season. Are the Cowboys now stuck with an unsolvable problem at the game’s most important position, or can Dak pull his way out of this in 2023 and beyond?
Doug: I don’t want to be a prisoner of the moment here. There are times when Prescott is still a great quarterback. His performance against the Buccaneers in the wild-card round was marvelous. He saw the field well, he took advantage of defensive lapses when they were there, and he put his team on his shoulders. But when we were talking about this last week, we both wondered what it would look like when Dak had to face the 49ers’ marvelous defense. We got our answer, and it was pretty decisive. When you’re facing a team that has a linebacker in Fred Warner who can run with CeeDee Lamb, your best receiver, from the line of scrimmage up the seam, there’s not always much you can do.
But Prescott has not been great much of the season, and the problem here is that he has established serial mistakes that keep happening. The first-quarter pick to cornerback Deommodore Lenoir was the same kind of backside stop route Dak missed to Michael Gallup – same receiver – in Week 13 against the Colts. Stephon Gilmore got that one. And the second-quarter pick to Warner, which was tipped by Jimmie Ward, was very much like the worm-burner he threw to Noah Brown against the Jaguars in Week 15. That was the one safety Rayshawn Jenkins returned for a game-winning touchdown in overtime. Prescott needs more weapons. He could probably use a better head coach. But this season, Prescott has not been the kind of quarterback you win because of, and in that context, the money is problematic.
Luke: Inconsistency is a killer at quarterback, and when the only things you’re doing consistently are…throwing the same kinds of interceptions, that’s obviously a bad sign. Like you said, there have been plenty of moments where Dak looks like the elite franchise quarterback, but there have been just as many head-scratching moments where you wonder if he can ever be “the guy” on a consistent basis, especially in the big games. I’ve still got hope that he can overcome these mistakes, because I really like Dak and want him to succeed, but that cap number looks bigger and bigger the longer this goes on.
The Bills need a rebuild.
(Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)
Speaking of teams looking to answer questions following heartbreaking divisional round losses, there’s the Buffalo Bills, whose defense didn’t do much against Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals in a 27-10 loss. The real problem is on the offensive side of the ball, where the Bills couldn’t get anything going, and as usual, relied on Josh Allen far too much. There’s no doubt that this is a good overall team – they’ve made the playoffs in each of the last four seasons – but it’s time to start wondering if the Bills’ window is starting to close before it ever opened to the degree that they could actually get to and win a Super Bowl?
Doug: The Bills have made it very clear that their path to the Super Bowl in their minds was to put everything on Josh Allen offensively, rely equally on great defense, and hope the offensive issues are minimized by Allen’s freaky greatness. Any time you are that reliant on one player, you will get in trouble at some point. And the Bills, for all the great things they did in the 2022 season, have been in trouble a lot. They have been notoriously boom-or-bust. Now, you look at similar teams who suffered these kinds of losses in the playoffs. The Chiefs got RickRolled by the Buccaneers in the Super Bowl two years ago. They have redefined their entire offense over the subsequent seasons. The Bengals couldn’t quite match up with the Rams in last year’s Super Bowl, and they got three new offensive linemen in the offseason to mix with the weapons they already had..
The Bills need a similar line redesign. They need a top-tier running back on whom Allen can rely, not a group of second-tier guys who kind of disappear. They need more than Stefon Diggs at receiver. Problem is, they pushed a lot of contracts forward because they thought this was their year, they’re more than $8 million over the projected 2023 salary cap, and there aren’t a lot of cuttable contracts to free up more space. It will have to come down to the draft, and the hope that new broadcast deals widen the margin for error.
Luke: That game was painful to watch. It was clear from the start that Allen and the offense had no answers, and contrast that with Joe Burrow’s super-chill dominance on the other side. Allen is obviously a rare talent, but he’s still got flaws, and those are made more evident when he’s forced to carry the team all the time. This offseason is critical for them, not just in terms of personnel, but what scheme and philosophy tweaks are they willing and able to make to avoid wasting what’s left of this window?
Which quarterback would you want?
(Sam Greene-USA TODAY Sports)
Of the four quarterbacks left in the tournament – Jalen Hurts, Brock Purdy, Patrick Mahomes, and Joe Burrow – which one would you most want to tie your postseason fortunes to, were you fortunate enough to be able to pick any one of the four? Just to make it fair, let’s assume that we’ll have a fully healthy and mobile Patrick Mahomes for the AFC Championship game.
Doug: I’ll say two things that don’t seem to go together:
Patrick Mahomes is the 2022 NFL MVP.
And I would absolutely want Joe Burrow to be my quarterback among those choices.
We all know how Mahomes creates explosive potential that other quarterbacks just can’t, and I don’t want to minimize his mastery of the little things that make great quarterbacks great, because he’s had that for a while now. But when I was watching Burrow slice the Bills’ defense to ribbons on Sunday, everything just stood out at a Hall of Fame level. What really stood out to me in the Bills game was that Burrow knew his offensive line was down three starters due to injury, and center Ted Karras was injured in the game. His pocket movement was at another level. He’d step up perfectly if the pressure came from the edges, and he’d hang back and make the quick throw if pressure came up the middle. I was reminded of Tom Brady’s pocket movement, and I can’t think of a higher compliment in that particular category.
Luke: I’ve got to agree, and I think the debate for me would be at No. 2 between Mahomes and Jalen Hurts, to be perfectly honest. I still don’t think Hurts gets enough credit for his own mastery of Philly’s offense. That said, everything you just said about Burrow is spon-on. It’s the physical traits, the mental side, everything. Everything we heard all week about the offensive line, and it never mattered. Playoffs, on the road, in the snow…Joe Cool looked like he was tossing the ball in the backyard with some family members. That’s the guy I want with the big game on the line.
Who goes to Super Bowl LVII?
(Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)
Okay, it’s time for Championship game picks. Which two teams will make it to Super Bowl LVII?
Doug: I’m kinda going with the matchup I most want to see, which is Bengals-49ers. We already know that Cincinnati defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has Patrick Mahomes’ number, and Anarumo called a brilliant game against the Bills. And I don’t know if the Chiefs’ defense is going to have enough answers against what the Bengals are doing on offense. The Bengals have been the AFC’s best team for at least the last month.
As for the NFC Championship game, I am going to lean on San Francisco’s killer defense, and Kyle Shanahan’s offensive designs, to eke out a close win over the Eagles at the Linc. I will be fascinated to see what a fully healthy Jalen Hurts can do to any defense, and the Eagles are doing it well on both sides of the ball, but the 49ers rank second in Defensive DVOA, and first in Offensive DVOA, since Week 10. They’re the NFL’s best team in a lot of ways.
Luke: I think all the pressure is on Kansas City here, and the Bengals have already proven they can win this game. Especially with Mahomes nursing that high ankle injury, I just can’t bet against Cincy right now. In the NFC, I think we’re in for a slugfest, with great schemes and coaching and playmakers on both sides of the ball for both teams…but this will come down to the quarterback play, and I trust the guy with more experience (even going back to the big games in college). Eagles win a nail-biter.