One round of the 2021 NFL playoffs is officially in the books. The hotshot Bengals went home winners Saturday night. The defending champion Buccaneers destroyed the Eagles. The 49ers took care of America's Team in the Cowboys' own home. And those are just a couple of the games from Super Wild Card Weekend, the first flurry of postseason action from the NFL's first 17-game season.
Before we turn completely to the Divisional Round, here are some things we learned from Wild Card action:
The Rams have the pieces to upset the Buccaneers
No, we're not predicting a Tampa Bay loss right now, but Rams fans should be mightily encouraged after Sean McVay's squad rolled over the Cardinals to start their run. Matthew Stafford was smart and comfortable in maybe the biggest start of his career, Sony Michel was busy early before giving way to a fresh Cam Akers, Odell Beckham Jr. was on fire out wide, and the defense stayed after Arizona all night. They look exactly as competitive as they long have on paper.
The Cardinals need to take a hard look at their leadership
Specifically, their coach. Technically, Kliff Kingsbury has overseen improvement from the Cards in each of his seasons atop the staff, but he's also yet to finish a season strong (and that dates back to well before he arrived in Arizona). Kyler Murray wasn't great against the Rams, either, but some sheepish second-half calls, coupled with both extracurricular scuffling and poor effort from the team, mostly reflects badly on the man running the show.
The Chiefs were OK this whole time
How else do you explain the ease with which they cruised into the playoffs and then dominated the Steelers? No, Pittsburgh was never a match for them offensively, but still, Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce were all in peak playoff form. They had some ugly moments this season, but Andy Reid's contenders are as ready as ever to challenge for a title.
The Steelers could be in for more rough times
Pittsburgh hasn't had to think too hard about its short- and long-term QB plans for the better part of two decades. Now, with Ben Roethlisberger on the way out, perhaps the Steelers offense will only get a little quicker. But moving forward, they can't necessarily lean on their defense as much as they did in 2021 and expect to be contenders. They need answers under center, and it's unclear where they'll find them, or how desperate they'll be to do so.
The Cowboys should rethink their coaching plans
Mike McCarthy has shepherded Dallas to an 18-15 record in two years in Dallas -- one of those without Dak Prescott for much of the season. But the Cowboys were 1-3 before Dak got hurt in 2020 and just saw a 12-5 NFC East title run go to waste with a sloppy one-and-done loss to San Francisco. Owner Jerry Jones was already considering a change, per CBS Sports insider Jason La Canfora, even though exec Stephen Jones reiterated confidence in McCarthy on Monday. They should keep considering one.
The 49ers still have a QB issue
No doubt Jimmy Garoppolo deserves credit for helping guide San Francisco's late-season stretch, but his late-game errors nearly cost the team a win against Dallas that should never have been as close as it was. On top of that, he's now dealing with yet another injury. Trey Lance may not be incredibly superior at the moment, but Kyle Shanahan has his work cut out for him against better teams.
The Bengals are in it to win it
Forget all those Andy Dalton years, this Bengals team is locked and loaded for the bright lights. Sneaking by the Raiders doesn't mean they're Super Bowl-bound, but Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase have such a seamless connection that it's hard not to like their chances as young, explosive underdogs. They've already exceeded expectations, so they're especially dangerous. If they can get up early on the Titans in the divisional round, look out.
The Raiders are headed for a total reset
It's not totally fair to grade interim coach Rich Bisaccia and longtime QB Derek Carr solely on their loss to the Bengals, but then again, this was a defining moment for a franchise in transition. After finding a way to edge the Chargers in a thrilling Week 18, the Raiders managed just 19 points against a Bengals defense that's proven vulnerable, throwing short of the end zone with the game on the line. If/when a new coach and general manager arrive, it's possible a big swing at QB could follow.
The Bills are definitely out of the Patriots' shadow
Buffalo won its second straight AFC East title this season, and it also bested New England in Foxborough during the rivals' second meeting of the 2021 campaign. But beating Bill Belichick in the postseason is a different story. Not content to do just that, Josh Allen and Co. rolled all over Belichick's squad, making them AFC favorites alongside the Chiefs.
Bill Belichick has a lot of work to do
Approaching 70, the longtime coach doesn't appear to be hanging it up anytime soon, but the Patriots looked at least a year away from true contention in their ugly loss to Buffalo. Rookie QB Mac Jones was overmatched against a superior defense, and New England could use upgrades at a bunch of spots held by older or expensive veterans on both sides of the ball.
The Buccaneers are still championship material
Without Leonard Fournette, Chris Godwin and other key names on Sunday, the Bucs made light work of the Eagles, with Tom Brady responding to brief injury-related exits by a pair of his Pro Bowl offensive linemen with the quickest decisions of any QB this season. Philly never stood a chance. More importantly, TB12 looks as sharp as ever, ready to make a real run at a repeat.
The Eagles should consider their QB options
Jalen Hurts is far from the only concern in Philly, and he definitely wasn't always the biggest issue in 2021. In fact, the Eagles could eventually justify building around him and hoping for better results in 2022. But only if they first explore other options. His bad playoff debut was a reminder that, poised or not, his legs are much more reliable than his arm against real competition.