Niners outsmart Cowboys in Divisional Round duel – NBC Sports – Misc.

Niners outsmart Cowboys in Divisional Round duel – NBC Sports – Misc.

This game came down to one team that didn’t play great offensively playing smart when it counted, and the other team doing the opposite. For that reason, the right team won. Sometimes it’s not the little things—it’s the tiny things. Did you notice the Niners, trying to protect a 16-12 lead with 11 minutes to play, whittled the next eight minutes off the clock and kicked an insurance field goal, and did so in part thanks to Brock Purdy snapping the ball consistently with one or zero seconds left on the play clock? In a 13-play drive, those critical seconds add up.
Dallas next touched the ball with 2:59 left. First down: Dak Prescott threw what should have been a pick-six that Dre Greenlaw dropped. Second down: Prescott missed Michael Gallup on a deep shot down the right side. Third down: Prescott sacked. That’s 48 seconds of Jerry Jones’ life he’ll never get back.
Overall, I left unimpressed with Dallas. I loved the defense. Demarcus Lawrence had one of his best games ever, all things considered, and the Niners struggled even doing the basics on offense. Now, I realize the San Francisco defense is the game’s best, and it often looks like even good teams are running in mud against the Niners. But Prescott was not a big-time player Sunday. If Greenlaw catches the pick-six with three minutes to go, the final is 26-12 and sabers would be rattling about the turnover-prone Prescott’s future. And the little things the Cowboys just didn’t handle right like returner KaVontae Turpin making a fair catch at his own six-yard line, with space around him, down seven with 45 seconds left. What is he doing fair-catching the ball in that situation? Dude, the touchdowns aren’t going to score themselves. Then, the bizarre final play of the game, with Ezekiel Elliott playing center, snapping the ball to Prescott, and getting obliterated by Niners linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair. “What the heck was that?” Greenlaw said later. Some of what Dallas did just wasn’t football-smart.
Now to the Niners. You could say they survived, and you could say Purdy got exposed a bit. Both are true. But this sport, often, is about not playing your best and finding ways to win. Purdy found a way by not turning it over—a habit that is going to earn him a very long life in this game, if not a starring role—and by accurately hitting George Kittle and Deebo Samuel. Purdy had but seven possessions in the last 50 minutes of the game, but he moved the chains well enough to put points up on five of those seven drives.
Purdy was helped by the usual stinging Niners defense. Fitting that the game ended by Jimmie Ward knocking Turpin into next week a second after Turpin caught a desperation throw from Prescott. “Jimmie’s one of us,” Warner said. “He’s one of the best at imposing his will on the ballcarrier, and that’s what everyone on our defense is about. That’s the perfect play to show it.”
So now Purdy is 8-0 as an NFL starter—if you count the win over Miami Dec. 4 when Jimmy Garoppolo broke his foot four minutes in and Purdy got the 56-minute save. In those eight games, he has three interceptions and zero fumbles.
It doesn’t blow him away that he’s playing for a shot at the Super Bowl next Sunday in Philadelphia. It should, probably, but in any business, the only way to succeed is to keep the main thing the main thing; he wouldn’t be playing—in fact, he wouldn’t be in pro football as a smallish 6-footer with an average arm—if he got involved with the crazy stuff that surrounds the NFL. He explained after the game that it’s not hard to just play without getting into the hype.
“When I first got in against Miami,” he told me post-game, “it was like, ‘Man, I’m playing in the NFL. I’m showing the guys I can play.’ But that goes away. You have to do the job. At this point, it’s playoff football and all I can think about is what I have to do for my team. I don’t make it more than what it is. But yeah, to say that we’re going to the NFC Championship Game, obviously I’m very thankful and blessed to even be in this position.”
Playing at Iowa State, he said, “taught me how to be real about myself. I learned so much just with winning and being successful and then also losing some big games. I learned how to overcome some things, believe in myself, but also not be too high when things are great, or just because you’ve lost a couple games doesn’t mean you’re horrible. Honestly it was a blessing in disguise because when I came here for the NFL, I was already used to the sport being hard, and being coached hard, and it was always, ‘How can I get better?’ I think it’s allowed me to have some success.”
In 2018, Purdy was a lightly recruited freshman from Arizona. Injuries and ineffectiveness by upperclassmen opened a spot for him, and Purdy got his first five starts as an 18-year-old true frosh. Often outmanned, much of Iowa State’s success hinged on the quarterback—such as in 2019 at Oklahoma. Purdy was matched against Jalen Hurts at quarterback and Purdy threw five touchdown passes. But his failed two-point conversion pass let the Sooners escape, 42-41.
“Not only did Brock have to have the maturity to come here, but then he has success right away and they put him on a pedestal,” Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said last week. “They crown him king right away. You gotta deal with the pressure, no different than an NFL quarterback. They’re expecting him to play elite all the time when we don’t have elite players always around him. We had some really good players around him but not like what he’s got right now. Learning how to fail was huge. It’s something we talked about a lot, quite honestly, in our program. Between 18 and 22 years old, you learn how to handle success and [you] most importantly learn how to handle failure—especially failure when you feel like it’s all on your shoulders 24/7. There was no McCaffrey here, no Deebo, no Aiyuk, no elite defense.
“In our program, he was trusted, he was an elite competitor, and he was tough. When you have those three qualities, there’s not many in our society that have all three of them. I think you’re seeing all of them come to fruition right now at the highest level.”
Purdy will be tested, again, Sunday in Philadelphia.
“I’ve heard they got a great fan base,” Purdy said, just before leaving the stadium Sunday night. “I hear they bring it for the whole game, for four quarters.”
You heard right, kid.
Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column
Five thoughts about a bruising, injurious game at Arrowhead:
This might be insane, but I say Patrick Mahomes will play okay with a high ankle sprain. I point to the winning TD pass in the divisional round win over Jacksonville. Obviously hobbling up in the pocket with the right ankle killing him, Mahomes zipped a ball off his left foot 19 yards in the air to Marquez Valdes-Scantling. So it wasn’t an Aroldis Chapman fastball; it was plenty fast and right on target, and it won the game. As former Mahomes right tackle Mitchell Schwartz tweeted: “Can’t plant and push off for down the field throws. He’s going to change his mechanics now and start throwing with all arm.” Talk about a prescient tweet. As I see it, what changes now with Mahomes is the fact that throwing on the run mostly goes away. Maybe the gameplan will be to have a more consistent sixth blocker (extra tight end?) in on obvious pass plays. The sheer force of will of Mahomes will help carry him through, I believe. And if he’s ineffective Sunday night, Andy Reid will have the guts and common sense to play Chad Henne—which would not be a disaster.
Orlando Brown pointed out two benefits to Mahomes playing hobbled. “When something like that happens,” said Brown, KC’s left tackle, “it forces us up front to play even harder to make sure he doesn’t get hit. That’s one thing about it—you get motivated to up your game even more.” This is corny, and I’m not sure how much it actually improves the quality of play of the other 10 players. But Brown said seeing the leader of the team fight with coaches to stay in the game and insist on playing through an injury many would not play with does something in the alpha-male world of football. “We have a ton of grit instilled in us here, and we love the sport and love each other. I don’t know how to explain it, but we just want to rally behind 15. He’s the epitome of what our team is.” It’s not the same as Mahomes being completely healthy, of course, but other factors may make the other 10 play better.
Travis Kelce showed he’s the best and surest-handed of the short and intermediate receivers in football. He caught 14 balls Saturday. He might catch 44 in the championship game. Coverage patterns in this game will be interesting. If I were Cincinnati, I’d put a consistent second cover player, a physical one like a rangy linebacker, on Kelce.
Losing home field would’ve been a factor, but I doubt a big one. “We’ll play in a CVS parking lot, man,” Brown said. “We don’t care.” Even before Sunday’s game would determine their championship foe, there wasn’t much of a trend when Kansas City played the other two teams. Since 2020, in regular- and post-season games, KC is 2-1 against Buffalo at home, 1-0 at Buffalo, 0-1 against Cincinnati at home, 0-1 at Cincinnati.
The Jags should be proud. Count the accomplishments: After “winning” the first overall draft pick two straight years, Jacksonville won the AFC South, rebounded from a 27-point deficit to beat the Chargers in a Wild Card game, established a raucous, young front seven that the franchise can grow with, hired a coach who can train a franchise quarterback, got that quarterback playing 50 percent better than in his rookie year, and finished with an 8-3 post-Halloween record. On Saturday, coach Doug Pederson got the main point of it all: Trevor Lawrence is good, and he’s a leader. “The success of your football team relies on the quarterback,” Pederson said. “You have to get that piece and that player right. I feel we have that person right. Trevor is just going to get better. He is going to learn from this. He is going to grow with the receivers, tight ends, the backs because they are all young.” He could use a franchise tight end, and one more receiver—either the formerly suspended Calvin Ridley, acquired during the season, or one in the draft. Jacksonville, in the span of a half-season, showed it might be (might being the apt word) the AFC South team to beat in 2023.
Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column
PHILADELPHIA—Now that the Eagles’ world is back on its axis, and the NFC’s top seed looks as powerful as it has all season, the truth can be told: Jalen Hurts is one tough quarterback. He’s the NFC’s Mahomes.
Five weeks after spraining his shoulder and missing two games, Hurts led the Eagles to a soul-crushing rout of their I-95 NFC brethren from the Meadowlands. Hurts was his efficient self: a TD run, two TD throws, zero turnovers. The first clue he wasn’t altogether whole, still, came when he told me after the game he hadn’t attempted in practice a spiral as long as the 40-yard pass he completed to DeVonta Smith (45 yards in the air) on the second play of this game.
“I actually hadn’t done it in practice,” he said a few minutes after midnight, his voice soft, as usual. “But this was a matter of doing what I had to do. My read took me to DeVonta, so it’s the throw I had to make. Mentally, I had to put myself in the position where I was okay overcoming the challenge. It’s not easy to do that.”
I asked Hurts if he saw what happened to Patrick Mahomes earlier in the day.
“No,” he said.
He hadn’t seen Mahomes sprain his right ankle on a tackle against Jacksonville, insist he was okay to keep playing, throw a coat when he was taken out, and later come back to lead Kansas City to a win.
The hint of a smile came onto Hurts’ face when I told him. “I think when you want something, you don’t want to be denied of that,” he said. “You know? Going back to that Chicago game, when I got the shoulder [injury], I was grimacing. Tears. Tears that couldn’t come out because it was so cold.” He let out a mini laugh.
“It was very painful. It was very bad. I knew it was bad. It was bad. Being able to overcome that challenge in that game, come back to win, coming back to win the number one seed. Those are things as a competitor you just have to challenge yourself to overcome.”
All doubts about Hurts’ ability to play his game disappeared in the first quarter. Playing from the shotgun against a four-man Giants rush on the second snap, Hurts stepped back a couple of yards, had plenty of time, and rainbowed a perfect throw 45 yards into the air in tight coverage to Smith. Now I understand making that throw wasn’t a comfortable thing for Hurts, but no way you could see that at the time. Beautiful spiral, and he threw it on a dime. He said he didn’t prove anything to himself on the throw, but he certainly proved something to all of Philadelphia, which let out a collective primal scream inside and outside the Linc at that moment.
Later in the quarter, on successive plays, he kept the proving up. He threw a line drive to A.J. Brown for 12 yards and a first down. And with questions about whether the Eagles would put him in harm’s way on designed runs, Hurts ran a play-action bootleg left, got hit by three Giants and buried—after a gain of nine. Three plays later, his nine-yard TD toss to Smith made it 14-0. The rout was on.
This was not exclusively the Jalen Show. It might seem weird based on the final score, but coach Nick Sirianni and his staff have tremendous respect for the Giants, for coach Brian Daboll and defensive coordinator Wink Martindale. Privately, I got the feeling that some players and even Sirianni were blown away by the one-sidedness of the game. But this team has been set up in the old Andy Reid tradition: strengthen both lines first, second and third, then worry about every other spot on the field.
The most amazing thing, I thought, was the neutering of the Giants’ defensive line, which embarrassed the Vikings a week ago in the Wild Card game. But in Philadelphia, this great offensive line and line coach, Jeff Stoutland, paved the way for 268 rushing yards and allowed just one sack and a measly four pressures to standout rushers Dexter Lawrence, Leonard Williams and Kayvon Thibodeaux. That was the first game all season that Lawrence had been held without a QB pressure. It’s important that Hurts have room to breathe—for his health and for his explosiveness—and this line put an oxygen tent around the young QB for four quarters.
On defense, Eagles coordinator Jonathan Gannon rotated in eight defensive linemen who played between 10 and 34 snaps; rusher Haason Reddick got 1.5 sacks and two more hits of Daniel Jones on 36 snaps. Spotting an efficient rusher like Brandon Graham at age 34 for 12 snaps is smart; he had enough burst left for a fourth-quarter sack of Jones.
“My dad’s here tonight,” Sirianni said after the game, nodding in the direction of his father, “and the first thing he told me when I got into coaching was, ‘It’s always about the O-line and the D-line.’”
Just then, the architect of the two lines and the rest of the roster, GM Howie Roseman, walked by to congratulate Sirianni.
“Howie!” Sirianni yelled. “All about the O-line, D-line, baby!”
“All about the O-line, D-line!” Roseman replied.
Sirianni continued. “You get tested in this division—Washington with a great defensive line, Dallas with a great defensive line, the Giants with a great defensive line. Everybody wants to make fun of our division, but we had three teams in the divisional playoffs. That’s a really good team over there [the Giants]. We just played one of our best games tonight, though.”
Now the Eagles (15-3) play for the conference title next Sunday. They’ve seen what Jalen Hurts can do while not 100 percent, and it’s damn good. Damn good, though, with a line that’s playing better than any offensive line in football—and the second-place line might not be close.
“What’s the shoulder like right now?” I asked Hurts.
“Good enough,” he said. “It’s definitely a nagging thing. But as far as me physically, I just want to continue my recovery process and be ready for the next game.”
The mind is a powerful thing. Right now, Hurts’ mind might be the most powerful force he has.
Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column

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