NFL Wild-Card Winners and Losers: C.J. Stroud Enters Elite Conversation

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C.J. Stroud and Jordan Love made history during their playoff debuts over the weekend and announced themselves as the next crop of star quarterbacks.

At age 22, Stroud became the youngest quarterback in NFL history to win a playoff game after his Houston Texans defeated the Cleveland Browns to open wild-card weekend.

Love delivered a sensational performance to help the Green Bay Packers defeat the Dallas Cowboys, becoming the first No. 7 seed to defeat a No. 2 seed since the league expanded to a seven-team postseason format in 2020.

But the divisional round of the postseason will have many familiar star quarterbacks, including Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs facing Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills.

Many might not view Jared Goff as a star quarterback, but the Detroit Lions do and it paid off during their memorable playoff victory against the Los Angeles Rams.

Here are our winners and losers from an eventful wild-card weekend.



The Packers really did it again. They’ve seemingly turned Love into the latest star quarterback in Green Bay.

Love recorded a nearly perfect 99.3 QBR against the Cowboys, completing 16 of 21 passes for 272 yards and three touchdowns.

Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports

And this is not to say the Packers deserve all the credit. Love has the physical traits only the elite quarterbacks possess and truly put in the work to learn the mental aspects of the game. It certainly helped that Love spent three years learning behind Aaron Rodgers, possibly the most cerebral quarterback of this century, though Peyton Manning and Tom Brady would disagree.

But the Packers deserve credit for betting on Love’s skill set in the midst of Rodgers’s prime years, and didn’t mind dealing with the consequences that came from spending a first-round pick on a quarterback in 2020. The headaches and awkwardness paid off in a big way when Love torched the Cowboys in Sunday’s 48–32 blowout victory to send the Packers to the divisional round.

Rodgers also deserves credit for helping Love behind the scenes. Many veteran quarterbacks wouldn’t take the time to help the incoming quarterback who might take their job. But Rodgers, coach Matt LaFleur and GM Brian Gutekunst weren’t on the field frustrating the Cowboys’ defense.

Love made a statement with his flawless postseason debut and should soon be in the MVP conversation for years to come.


The Texans have as good of a chance as any of the four remaining teams in the AFC to advance to the Super Bowl because they have Stroud on their side.

All four remaining teams have star quarterbacks with Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, Mahomes and Allen. And I’m not sure if Stroud is the fourth-best quarterback among the group, which says plenty about the rookie sensation. Stroud lit up the Browns with 274 yards, three touchdowns and no turnovers during the wild-card victory.

Houston also has a superstar in the making with first-year coach DeMeco Ryans, who has helped many of the Texans’ young defenders succeed in 2023, even the ones drafted before Ryans was hired. Cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., linebacker Christian Harris and edge rushers Will Anderson Jr. and Jonathan Greenard all made impact plays and forced Joe Flacco into a dreadful outing to end his perfect wild-card record, which now stands at 5–1.

The future is bright for the Texans, but they also have an opportunity to advance to their first ever Super Bowl in the present because of Stroud, No. 1 wideout Nico Collins, Ryans and a surging defense.


Watching GM Brad Holmes celebrate on the elevator and coach Dan Campbell staying committed to the team’s aggressive identity truly exemplified how far the Lions have come since those two took over as the decision makers.

Campbell put the ball in Goff’s hands and told him to go win the franchise’s first playoff game in 32 years and do it against his former team. Goff sealed the Lions’ wild-card victory against the Rams by completing an 11-yard pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown on second-and-9 to kill the final minutes in regulation.

It was only one postseason victory, but this team is primed for yearly playoff appearances because Holmes and Campbell continue to make the right decisions in the offseason and on the field.


The Buccaneers had a mini slump at the end of the regular season, but they regained their stride to open the postseason, as they cruised against the Philadelphia Eagles to knock off the reigning NFC champions.

Offensive coordinator Dave Canales, a rising candidate for head coaching jobs, put together the perfect game plan for Baker Mayfield to expose the Eagles’ defensive weaknesses. Wide receivers David Moore and rookie Trey Palmer had lengthy touchdowns Monday night.

Todd Bowles’s defense also had a sensational performance, putting pressure early and often against Jalen Hurts and his offense.


The Chiefs demonstrated in their dominant 26–7 victory against the Miami Dolphins that their yearlong offensive struggles shouldn’t be an issue this postseason.

Suddenly, the Chiefs are well positioned to return to the Super Bowl, and it’s not solely because of Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Andy Reid. They now have a true No. 1 wideout after Rashee Rice’s breakout performance vs. the Dolphins. Also, the defense returned to its dominant ways after a sluggish ending to the regular season.

The Chiefs will have a tough divisional round matchup in Buffalo for Mahomes’s first road playoff game. But they have the defensive backs, including Trent McDuffie and L’Jarius Sneed, to contain Allen and his many weapons.



The Cowboys aren’t necessarily stuck in the middle, which is the worst place you can be in the NFL. But they’re definitely stuck with one of the best rosters in the NFL, evident by their embarrassing loss to the Packers for another early playoff exit.

And this isn’t similar to the San Francisco 49ers, who haven’t won a Super Bowl since 1994. The 49ers have done a lot more than the Cowboys, because they played in one Super Bowl and advanced to the NFC title game three times during a four-year span, and they’re the No. 1 seed this postseason. The Cowboys, who haven’t advanced past the divisional round in nearly 30 years, would be thrilled for those results, even though they operate with a Super-Bowl-or-bust mindset.

But it’s O.K. to have high standards with a team that features Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb, Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs, Daron Bland and many other Pro Bowl-caliber players.

McCarthy now carries an 11–11 playoff record, including a 1–3 mark with Dallas.

William Glasheen/USA TODAY Network

For the Cowboys to finally get unstuck, they will probably need to make upgrades at quarterback or head coach, and there won’t be many options better than Prescott this offseason. Coach Mike McCarthy is on the hot seat because Bill Belichick, Mike Vrabel and Jim Harbaugh are available, and perhaps Mike Tomlin could be an option via trade.

Changes need to be made or NFL fans will continue yawning whenever the Cowboys win 10-plus games in the regular season.


The Dolphins don’t have as much pressure as the Cowboys because they finally turned the organization into a perennial playoff contender after several dark seasons in the post-Dan Marino era.

But the Dolphins don’t have much to show for their aggressive trades the past few seasons, not even an AFC East title, which they let slip away to the Bills in Week 18. And not many were surprised that they lost 26–7 to the Chiefs in the wild-card round, and it’s not just because of the injury-riddled defense.

The Dolphins haven’t shown they can hang with winning teams and tend to struggle on the road and vs. physical teams. So if Miami wants to maximize this window with Tyreek Hill, Jalen Ramsey and Bradley Chubb—all players the Dolphins acquired in trades—they, too, need drastic changes.

Many are pointing the blame at quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who is due for a contract extension. But coach Mike McDaniel also deserves blame for sticking with his philosophy for speed and downfield plays, and for failing to make in-game adjustments.

If the Dolphins have an opportunity to land a better quarterback, they should do it. But they should also tweak their scheme, add a tight end who can contribute in the passing game and more muscle at the line of scrimmage.


Philadelphia completed its late-season collapse with an embarrassing playoff loss in Tampa Bay, one that made ESPN TV analyst Troy Aikman question the Eagles’ effort.

If effort is an issue, perhaps Eagles GM Howie Roseman and team ownership could decide to make a change with coach Nick Sirianni. But the problem might be fatigue from a Super Bowl run and a poorly constructed defense after several offseason departures. Also, the Eagles can point the fingers at the coordinators and play callers, such as Brian Johnson, Matt Patricia and Sean Desai. We’ll soon find out how much job security Sirianni has for winning the NFC in 2022.


Coach Sean McVay had the perfect game plan for how to attack the Lions’ defense with the passing game and found creative ways for rookie wide receiver Puka Nacua to get open.

But McVay struggled in many other areas and made questionable decisions in the fourth quarter, which ultimately cost them in the one-point loss against the Lions to end their surprising 2023 season.

McVay decided to punt on fourth-and-14 with one timeout left and 4:15 left in regulation. The Rams never got the ball back. He also struggled with play calls in the red zone, as the Rams failed to score touchdowns during their three visits inside the Lions’ 20-yard line. And McVay often went away from Kyren Williams and the rushing attack, making life harder for Matthew Stafford, who took several hits.

It was a tough day for McVay, but a memorable season for the Rams’ seventh-year coach. If Los Angeles makes improvements on special teams and adds more depth defensively, they should have another special season in 2024.


The Pittsburgh Steelers were no match for the Bills because they were without T.J. Watt and quarterback Mason Rudolph came back to earth.

Without a franchise quarterback and an aging defense, perhaps that’s enough for coach Mike Tomlin to consider leaving Pittsburgh after 17 seasons—all with winning records and one Super Bowl title. If Tomlin ends up being traded—he wasn’t in the mood to discuss that topic after Pittsburgh fell in Buffalo—the Steelers might decide to hit the reset button or the quick rebuild route, similar to what the Packers and Rams did this season. But those two teams had a franchise quarterback in place with Love and Stafford, respectively.

Kenny Pickett, the 2022 first-round pick, hasn’t been the answer and has failed to utilize the Steelers’ talented skill players. Changes loom in Pittsburgh and all eyes are on Tomlin. 


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