Six pressing questions heading into the NFL playoffs

(David D. Robbins Jr./The Washington Post/istock)

Aaron Rodgers’s torn Achilles’ tendon and toxic mouth? Josh Dobbs’s turn from Passtronaut to afterthought? Bill Belichick’s fall in New England? That was all so regular season.

As the playoffs begin, here are some of the biggest questions to be answered between now and Super Bowl LVIII on Feb. 11 in Las Vegas.

Is this some sort of sadistic ritual for Lions fans? The Lions have been one of the most downtrodden franchises in professional sports for a generation. They will host a playoff game for the time since 1994, reshaped in the muscle-bound image of Coach Dan Campbell. Now into the Ford Field party saunters Matthew Stafford, the former franchise icon whose trade request three years ago marked Detroit’s nadir and sparked its revival.

Detroit Lions fans: The truest in America, long unnoticed by … America

In 2021, the Lions dealt Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams for Jared Goff and a fleet of draft picks they have used to build an electrifying young roster. Stafford vs. Goff, both No. 1 picks, will receive the headlines. The real drama is Goff facing down Sean McVay — the coach who benched him, decided he needed something better at quarterback and traded him. McVay proved himself right when he won a Super Bowl with Stafford three years after losing one with Goff. If the Lions want their own Lombardi Trophy, they’ll have to go through Stafford and McVay.

Where’s Taylor Swift? The world’s most famous Kansas City Chiefs fan has been treated to some very un-Chiefs-like football. An offense that had never been worse than sixth in points scored with Patrick Mahomes at the controls finished 15th. In five years with their star quarterback, the Chiefs have advanced to at least the AFC championship game every year and have never played a road playoff game. After a 5-5 stretch to finish the season, they will probably travel for the second round — if they can beat highflying Miami and Tyreek Hill, formerly Mahomes’s best wide receiver, on Saturday night.

Jenkins: You thought you knew the NFL. Now meet Taylor’s Version.

The Chiefs’ postseason success could hinge on Swift’s beau. Tight end Travis Kelce seemed to lose a step at 34 after he suffered a bone bruise days before the season opener. He failed to reach 1,000 receiving yards for the first time in seven years, and the relative lack of attention defenses paid him made finding open space even tougher for Kansas City’s unheralded receivers. Kelce rested in Week 18. If he can rediscover what made him the league’s most lethal pass catcher just last season, Mahomes will be hard to beat.

Will Lamar Jackson break through? No individual this postseason faces more pressure than Jackson, whose incandescent career includes two MVP awards — one of them presumptive — and one playoff victory. Injuries have prevented him from even playing in the postseason since the 2020 season. The Ravens’ blowout loss to the Titans as the top seed after the 2019 season, Jackson’s first MVP year, looms as Baltimore enters the playoffs as the AFC favorite.

In his first season playing under a massive contract extension he negotiated himself, Jackson has evolved as a passer under new offensive coordinator Todd Monken and quarterbacks coach Tee Martin while maintaining his singular elusiveness as a runner. Baltimore’s defense yielded a league-best 16.5 points per game. Since the Ravens drafted him, Jackson has insisted his lone mission is winning a Super Bowl for Baltimore. He may never have a better chance than right now.

Are the Eagles toast? Burnt to a crisp. On Dec. 1, they were 10-1, Jalen Hurts was the MVP front-runner, and Matt Patricia was the defensive coordinator Nick Foles had shredded in the Super Bowl. In the six weeks since, the Eagles are 1-5, Hurts is a husk of himself, and Patricia is an emblem of Coach Nick Sirianni’s inability to reverse a sudden and inexplicable tailspin.

The Eagles are limping into the playoffs

The reigning NFC champions have not only played like the worst team in the playoff field. They have been one of the worst teams in the NFL. Their defense, now under Patricia’s coordination, yielded an average of 30.3 points in the last six weeks. Hurts has thrown as many touchdowns as interceptions over that span. Wide receiver A.J. Brown, their best offensive skill player, was last seen hobbling off the field with a right knee injury, and Hurts added a jammed middle finger to his list of physical ailments. Their Monday night date in Tampa could be a reset, or it could be a crossroads for a suddenly reeling organization.

Will Joe Flacco turn into a pumpkin? On one hand, since the quarterback came off his couch in late November and turned in the most improbable story of the season, his bazooka arm has fit perfectly into Cleveland Browns Coach Kevin Stefanski’s play-action, deep-passing system. Flacco has transformed tight end David Njoku from a maddening player of unfulfilled potential into a Marvel character and surpassed 300 passing yards in four straight games, all victories. The Browns went 9-2 when Flacco or Deshaun Watson started, a testament to their elite defense and the depth of a roster rocked by injuries.

Joe Flacco is everything the Browns were looking for in Deshaun Watson

On the other hand, the five games Flacco put on film are enough for a good defensive coordinator to pick out vulnerabilities — especially if one of those games came against his team. Texans Coach DeMeco Ryans is one of the top defensive minds in the league, and he faced Flacco just three weeks ago. The Browns led 36-7 in the fourth quarter in that game before two cosmetic touchdowns against Browns backups made the final score 36-22. But the Texans couldn’t punish Flacco for his two interceptions because Case Keenum and Davis Mills split snaps at quarterback as C.J. Stroud healed from a concussion, and Houston played without rookie Will Anderson Jr., its best pass rusher. It could be closer to midnight than it seems.

Can Kyle Shanahan reach the mountaintop? Shanahan has wrested the unofficial title of best game planner/play caller in the NFL from Andy Reid. His San Francisco 49ers roster is studded with players at the top tier of their positions. Toss out last week’s loss to the Rams, in which both teams sat most key starters, and his top-seeded 49ers went 4-0 against the NFC playoff field with an average margin of victory of 18.8 points. The 49ers advanced to the NFC championship game in three of the past four years, winning once, and this is Shanahan’s best team yet.

From last year’s playoffs: For Kyle Shanahan, the right intentions mean no regrets

There shouldn’t be anything in Shanahan’s way, yet it has never been that easy. He was the Falcons’ offensive coordinator when they blew a 28-3 halftime lead in the Super Bowl. He held a 10-point lead on the Chiefs in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl before Mahomes’s epic comeback. A dropped game-sealing interception prevented a return trip to one Super Bowl, and Brock Purdy’s midgame elbow injury eliminated any chance at another last year. This should be the season Shanahan marks himself as the best coach in the NFL.

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