The Divisional Round of the NFL this weekend may have been the most exciting postseason football slate from top to bottom in the history of the sport. It wasn’t just that we had one game go into overtime and the other three matchups were decided by last minute field goals- it felt as if there was a pivotal narrative driving each game that will impact the state of the league for the long, foreseeable future. 

While two doors felt opened, two more felt as if they were shut in a graceless manner.

The First Opened Door: Welcome, Joe Burrow

It’s truly incredible what kind of impact having a franchise quarterback and leader of men on your team can do for a team. The Bengals had been seen as an incompetent, mediocre franchise that hadn’t won a playoff game in 31 years, then they drafted Joe Burrow first overall in 2020 after having the worst overall record that year. Within 26 total games played, they’re now one win away from the Super Bowl.

Going into this week’s game against the #1 overall seed Titans in Nashville, the Bengals were coming off of a playoff victory that on that alone could have been seen as a successful season for them. They massively exceeded their expectations during the regular season, only having an over/under win total of 6.5 games going into the year, and they broke their postseason curse. It was an unexpected pleasant surprise story that we didn’t necessarily put on the level of the other prestigious, legitimate contenders around the league.

However, after going in and knocking off the Titans on the road, after that emotional high all week, Joe Burrow proved that he is an elite Super Bowl contender that deserves the same amount of respect as anyone else. It wasn’t his best game by any means- he gritted out a 19-16 victory on 28-37 for 348 yards, no touchdowns and a pick, but his fortitude to be able to take 9 SACKS and still manage to find a way to win shows his mental toughness and leadership is enough to cover up the flaws that make up the construction of the team. No one appears to be as mentally confident and cool-natured as Burrow so early into his career, and it’s absolutely electric to see his personality unfold through his success.

The Bengals now have their man. It’s what they’ve always needed, and we found out they’re going to be a threat earlier than we thought on Burrow alone. Sure, they’re a touchdown underdog against the Chiefs on the road, but they already beat them once several weeks ago in the regular season to end the year. Burrow is here, and he’s playing with house money.

The First Closed Door: Deja Vu All Over Again in Green Bay

While the Burrow took the Queen City to the AFC Championship that Saturday afternoon, the drama queen of the NFL, yes, the reigning MVP and probable repeat-winner that had won 39 regular season games the last three years, put up 10 total points in a loss at home. 

Aaron Rodgers, the most-outspoken man in the NFL over the past year, was silenced by the 49ers for the fourth time in his postseason career, and it’s just another year without a Super Bowl ring. However, this time genuinely felt different. In the previous years, it had been external factors that limited his capabilities of winning, be it a weak defense, a lack of offensive weapons, or poor coaching/gameplanning. In this spot, he had a defense that performed and only gave up 6 points, he had all of his players back from injury, he had a strong offensive line, he had top-10 running backs and maybe the best receiver in football, and he still put up the biggest choke job of his career, only 225 yards and no touchdowns. While the special teams unit was one of the worst in the NFL, that wasn’t a big enough of an excuse for his performance.

This repeated blunder in the postseason isn’t even the beginning of the Rodgers

Photo: Doug Farrar / touchdownwire.usatoday.com

story over the last 12 months, though. He’s been at war with the front office over their decision-making, pretty much demanding to be let go to a winning team with (I don’t even know what to call it at this point) a similar philosophy(?), he’s threatened to retire and host Jeopardy! Full-time, he’s become a complete heel across the world by antagonizing “trolls” of the media who criticize him for lying about his vaccination status and being vociferous regarding the vaccination requirements of the league, and he’s treated this entire season as some cryptic form of farewell without being forthright about his feelings.

The Packers are going into next year with over $38 million over the salary cap. They won’t be able to improve the roster without significant changes. At this point, Rodgers feels like the crazy girlfriend/boyfriend whose red flags may have become too emotionally-draining and taxing that a fresh start might be beneficial on both sides even if he is in fact going to be the back-to-back MVP. Rodgers wants to be in a “winning situation,” but none are more optimal than this current iteration of Green Bay, where he’s a small market hero, and he still couldn’t get it done. The team and the MVP are perfectly made for one another, but it feels like a new chapter, be it a trade or retirement, would be beneficial to both sides.

The Second Closed Door: Not This Time, Tom

In Super Bowl LI in 2017, Tom Brady led the Patriots to a comeback down 28-3. On Sunday, the Tom Brady-led Bucs were down 27-3 to the Rams in the third quarter. 

They tied the game at 27 in the fourth valiantly, but it wasn’t enough this time.

There are multiple ways we can observe this Buccaneers loss: the first is that Tom Brady showed that he could still fight back despite being down that much, having a completely depleted and injury-plagued offense, and they will hopefully be healthier next season in a wide-open NFC. The second is that Tom Brady is 44, has nothing left to prove, has a wife that has been begging him to retire for years, and Jeff Darlington, the man who broke the news that Tom Brady was likely to leave New England, put out a report claiming Tom is noncommittal about a 2022 return. Tom is addicted to winning and competition, but what’s his endgame to cap off his career? Does he continue to try to ride off into the sunset with another ring? He’s shown that physically, he can do it- he could come back even in a lesser version of himself and take the Tampa team to another season of being competitive. But he just underwent a mental warfare with the Antonio Brown saga, and in the past where he was able to elevate the Patriots teams to Super Bowls with compromised offensive weapons in the past, it wasn’t enough this time with Chris Godwin out and a banged up offensive line. Tom may see the field again next year if he decides, but with his content demeanor following the lionhearted comeback that fell just short to cap off an emotionally-draining year, he could walk away satisfied and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see that door close.

The Second Door Opened: The Wide Open AFC in the Long-Term

In the final seasons of the Patriots dynasty with Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs were seen as the only hope to take over the AFC from the villainous empire. They were the darling Luke Skywalker franchise that could do what the Steelers and Peyton Manning Colts teams often couldn’t do. 

How quickly the league changes.

Since Brady has left the conference and the Chiefs won their first title, we’ve seen the ascension of other teams with young, hungry quarterbacks that are going to be gunning to dominate the conference and go blow-for-blow with Mahomes for the next decade. Lamar Jackson won an MVP. Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow look as promising as ever. However, the back-and-forth shootout that Josh Allen and the Bills put up in their 42-36 overtime loss was the statement that while the Chiefs are currently wearing the crown as they’ve reached the AFC Championship for the past four years, we’re set for so many high-flying postseason matchups headlined by dominant quarterbacks.

This was a rematch of the AFC Championship from last year, and the Bills stood taller. They performed on a level even better than the previous season. It was a performance that could have beaten any other team in football, yet giving the ball to the Chiefs with 13 seconds left was somehow too much time. They went back and forth throughout the entirety of the final two minutes, each team putting up a combined total of 25 points, and each score felt as if they left the other team too much time, as if whoever got the ball last was going to win the game.

And that’s exactly what happened because of the overtime rules off of that coin toss. Heartbreak in Buffalo, who didn’t even get a chance to throw that final knockout punch to the Chiefs.

It was the same old dominant Chiefs, but it feels different now. What was once a conference with a Goliath, a Patriots dynasty, and a David, the plucky Chiefs, is now a power struggle of hungry lions chasing the only beefy gazelle in the animal kingdom.

The AFC is going to be a jungle. Bills Mafia should know that while the Chiefs slammed the door in their face last night, the door is wide-open now.

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