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NFL playoffs: We pick, rank every divisional round game; Ohio State set to hire Bill O’Brien

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🏈 Good morning to everyone but especially …

NFL FANS AND THE DIVISIONAL ROUND TEAMS

I love the NFL at any time. Week 1? Beautiful. Week 18? Bring it on. Preseason? I’m there.

But I love the Divisional Round the most. The pretenders have been weeded out. The No. 1 seeds are back in action, and they’re getting major challenges from teams with momentum. There’s a full weekend of football, but not so much that you feel overwhelmed.

But can I tell you that I especially love this particular Divisional Round. These storylines practically write themselves.

  • In Baltimore, it’s a battle of one quarterback and team that arrived early (C.J. Stroud and the Texans) against a quarterback and team looking to erase years of playoff frustration (Lamar Jackson and the Ravens).
  • Then we get the rivalries: Former co-workers Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur meet in San Francisco; Shanahan’s 49ers own a 2-0 playoff record against LaFleur’s Packers.
  • Patrick MahomesChiefs, meanwhile, own a 2-0 playoff edge over Josh Allen‘s Bills, but the latest chapter in this terrific rivalry comes with Mahomes on the road, and this time feels different, writes Chris Trapasso.
  • Jared Goff (Lions) and Baker Mayfield (Buccaneers) meet in a battle of former No. 1 overall picks who revived their careers after changing teams.

It’s hard to top Mahomes-Allen — it’s first in Tyler Sullivan’s viewer’s guide, after all — so let’s start with our picks there. Tyler says

  • Sullivan: Andy Reid‘s team is getting great play from its defense … Offensively, Patrick Mahomes continues to be smart with the football, they are getting a stellar rushing attack from Isiah Pacheco, and the emergence of Rashee Rice could be the biggest X factor of the playoffs in the AFC. They continue to do things that are conducive to playoff success but aren’t exactly being looked at with the same terror as former Chiefs teams, which I believe is a mistake. Projected score: Chiefs 27, Bills 24 | The pick: Chiefs +2.5

I might be even more excited for Stroud vs. Jackson, though. A former (and likely this year’s) MVP against a guy who looks like a future one. Pete Prisco says

  • Prisco: “The rest could be good for the Ravens, but the starters haven’t played in three weeks. That might matter. This will be the first road playoff game for Stroud, which can be a challenge. It can be even tougher against the Ravens stout defense. They will throw a bunch of different looks at Stroud. How he handles those will be key. Jackson … has to go out and show he can do it in a playoff game. The pressure is on. But I think in this offense he will respond. Look for a lot of points as both quarterbacks play well, but the Ravens will win a close one behind Jackson. Pick: Ravens 30, Texans 29

We also have picks from John Breech and Jordan Dajani.

To round things out …

👍 Honorable mentions

👎 Not so honorable mentions

🆕 Ohio State to hire Bill O’Brien as offensive coordinator


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It’s been quite the offseason for Ohio State, and the latest addition signals big change. The Buckeyes are set to hire Bill O’Brien as offensive coordinator, meaning Ryan Day will give up play-calling duties.

O’Brien has a wealth of experience at both the NFL and college levels. He spent last year as the Patriots‘ offensive coordinator. Before that, he was Alabama‘s offensive coordinator (2021-22) after stints as a head coach with the Texans (2014-20) and Penn State (2012-13). While it wasn’t particularly pretty in New England, Day is counting on O’Brien to be the addition that puts the Buckeyes over the edge.

He’ll have plenty of talent, particularly in the rushing game.

The defense returned several draft-eligible stars as well: defensive ends JT Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer, cornerback Denzel Burke and defensive tackle Tyleik Williams.

Day is very much on the hot seat, writes Tom Fornelli, so this is another big call.

  • Fornelli: “It seems ludicrous that a coach with a 56-8 record would have something to prove, but it’s the reality of college football amid the level at which Ohio State competes. Especially so when the only three Big Ten games Day has lost among the 42 he’s coached have all come to Michigan. It should matter that Day and the Buckeyes are a missed field goal against Georgia away from a possible national title in 2022 (imagine how different things would be if that kick had gone through the uprights), but it doesn’t. … Judging by Day’s actions this offseason, he realizes what’s at stake.”

🏈 Pluses and minuses of Cowboys keeping Mike McCarthy


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Mike McCarthy is staying in Dallas, with Jerry Jones believing the team is “very close and capable” of winning a Super Bowl.

Whether you agree with Jones or not after the Cowboys’ third straight disappointing playoff finish under McCarthy is up to you. There are good reasons McCarthy’s still in Dallas and reasonable frustrations that that is the case, too. Garrett Podell took a look at both.

  • Podell: Lack of ‘toughness’ against playoff teams whether it’s regular or postseason — Against the 49ers (a 42-10 loss) and the Bills (a 31-10 loss), games the team should be hyped up to play, they were steamrolled. On the final drive against the Dolphins on Christmas with a chance to close out a critical, one-point victory against a playoff team, the Cowboys surrendered four first downs, allowing the Dolphins to kick a game-winning field goal in a 22-20 loss. Dallas beat the Lions the next week 20-19, but in a similar situation, up seven against a playoff team with the defense on the field with a chance to close the game, they surrendered a touchdown. The Cowboys were fortunate, to say the least, to survive that game with a victory.”

I think toughness and mental fortitude come from the top down, and McCarthy hasn’t instilled it enough. I also think players are responsible for those letdowns, too; it’s not McCarthy’s job to go out there and make the plays. As with most things, it’s not a black-and-white issue.

McCarthy discussed his return Thursday, and he made it clear he hopes Dan Quinn returns, too, although Quinn has been interviewing for several head coaching jobs.

📺 What we’re watching this weekend

Friday

🏀 Nuggets at Celtics, 7:30 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 Indiana at No. 11 Wisconsin (M), 8:30 p.m. on FS1
🏀 Nets at Lakers, 10:30 p.m. on ESPN

Saturday

🏀 No. 9 Baylor at Texas (M), noon on ESPN
🏀 San Diego State at Boise State (M), 1 p.m. on CBS
🏀 No. 2 Purdue at Iowa (M), 2 p.m. on FS1
🏀 No. 24 Iowa State at No. 19 TCU (M), 2 p.m. on ESPNU
USMNT vs. Slovenia, 3 p.m. on TNT
🏈 Texans at Ravens, 4:30 p.m. on ABC/ESPN
🏀 Georgia at No. 8 Kentucky, 6 p.m. on SEC Network
🏈 Packers at 49ers, 8:15 p.m. on Fox
🏀 Saint Mary’s at San Francisco, 10 p.m. on CBS Sports Network

Sunday

🏀 No. 2 Iowa at No. 18 Ohio State (W), noon on NBC
🏀 Duke at No. 4 NC State (W), noon on ACC Network
🏈 Buccaneers at Lions, 3 p.m. on NBC
🏀 No. 1 South Carolina at Texas A&M (W), 5 p.m. on SEC Network
🏀 Arkansas at No. 10 LSU (W), 5 p.m. on ESPN
🏈 Chiefs at Bills, 6:30 p.m. on CBS

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