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NFL Playoffs Divisional Round Preview: The Best is Yet to Come

Updated: Jun 16

By: David Hartman

The NFL’s second “Super Wild Card Weekend” has come and gone, like the winter storm that blasted up the eastern seaboard this past weekend. Despite all the hype, and the debut of the first-ever Monday night playoff game, this wasn’t a particularly good or compelling slate of games. 4 of the 6 games were blowouts, and the 2 games that were close were unfortunately marred by some questionable officiating. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll glue myself to the TV for any weekend that’s got 6 NFL playoff games. But next time, don’t give me these 6. Consider: The average margin of victory on this Super Wild Card Weekend was 17 points. Go back one year, and the largest margin of victory on the first Super Wild Card Weekend was 12 points. But don’t fret, football fans, because I’ve got some really good news: The Divisional Round figures to give us what this past weekend didn’t - compelling matchups and great games. Why? Because the pretenders have been eliminated, and the NFL’s 8 best teams will be in action. Here are some fun facts that speak to the quality of the teams that are still alive: (1) 7 of the 8 teams that remain have played in at least one conference championship game in the last 3 years, (2) 4 of the 8 have been to the Super Bowl in the last 3 years, and (3) All 4 conference championship contestants from last year are still in the tournament. Yup, these are the teams we want to watch in January and February, and what’s even better is that there’s no clear favorite. Not only that, but we’ll have the NFL’s 4 best QBs in action, and a host of some of the game’s other biggest stars - veterans and rookies alike - will also be suiting up. So, make sure the fridge is loaded, buckle up, and enjoy. Hopefully you ran errands and got things done around the house last weekend, while the Bucs were throttling the Eagles. This is the weekend to stay on the couch. Let’s take a closer look at the Divisional Round matchups.

Bengals @ Titans (Saturday, 4:30 p.m., CBS, Titans -3.5, O/U - 47.5)

Biggest Story Lines: The Bengals are coming off their first playoff win in 30 years and will try to make it 2 in a row on the road in Tennessee. Second year QB Joe Burrow is turning into one of the game’s marquee players right before our eyes - he’s on a major roll over the last month and is staking his claim as the best of the young QBs who’ve come into the league in the last 3 drafts. Rookie sensation Ja’Marr Chase is also emerging as one of the game’s biggest young stars and has looked completely unstoppable at times. On the other side, the Titans lost Derrick Henry (who was on pace for a second consecutive 2,000-yard season) halfway through the year and still managed to get the AFC’s 1 seed. They’re a resilient, well-coached team that’s been winning with hard-nosed defense and a strong running game. Almost nobody is picking the Titans to go all the way, and that’s fine with them. Henry should be back for this one, and big offseason addition Julio Jones finally appears to be healthy and ready to contribute to a Super Bowl push. What to Watch For: These teams didn’t face each other this year. The Titans have been a very stingy run defense, but they’ve been vulnerable through the air. If the Bengals are going to win this one, they’ll need to keep the Titans honest with a steady dose of Joe Mixon and give Burrow time to throw to his dangerous weapons in the face of a very good Tennessee pass rush. When the Titans have the ball, all eyes will be on Derrick Henry (assuming he plays), but the Titans are going to need the highly efficient 2019-2020 Ryan Tannehill to show up, and not the QB who was very up and down this season. The Cincinnati defense has some talent, and DE Trey Hendrickson (who needs to clear the concussion protocol in order to play this week) has been a game wrecker all year, but they’ll have their hands full with the Titans’ relentless running game, A.J. Brown, and yes, Julio Jones.

The Pick: The ascendant Bengals have been a great story this year, and they’ll be a trendy dark horse pick to be the AFC Super Bowl entrant next season. However, I don’t think they’re quite ready to take the next step - yet. Burrow and his trio of talented receivers will give Tennessee some problems, but the Titans are an experienced group that’s rested and ready, plus they’re playing at home. I think the X factor in this one is going to be a resurgent Ryan Tannehill, who’ll use a steady dose of play action and his legs to make enough plays to keep the Titans rolling. Titans 24, Bengals 20.

49ers @ Packers (Saturday, 8:15 p.m., FOX, Packers -6, 47.5 O/U)

Biggest Storylines: It seems so long ago (thanks, COVID), but in reality, it was just 2 years ago that the 49ers demolished the Packers in the NFC Championship game, with Raheem Mostert rushing for 220 yards and 4 TDs and Jimmy Garoppolo only attempting 8 passes as the 49ers rolled up almost 300 yards on the ground and effectively kept the ball away from Aaron Rodgers for 60 minutes. But that game was in San Francisco, and this one is at Lambeau Field, and these aren’t the same teams. Matt Lafleur has been the Green Bay coach for 3 seasons and the Packers have been remarkably consistent under him, winning 13 games in each one. The first two of those campaigns ended with losses in the NFC championship game. The Packers were the NFL’s steadiest team this year, and Rodgers likely won a second straight league MVP award - Is this the year they finally break through? To do so, they’ll have to start by beating the NFC team nobody wants to play in Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers, who are looking to make it 3 straight upset wins on the road against a playoff team. As a final plot twist, every Green Bay playoff game this post-season could be the last time we see Aaron Rodgers in a Packers uniform.

What to Watch For: 2 years ago, the 49ers ran the ball down Green Bay’s throat relentlessly for 4 quarters. The teams met again during the 2020 season, and Rodgers had his way, throwing 4 TDs in an easy win against a depleted 49ers’ squad. The teams met again in Week 3 this season and it was a thriller, with Rodgers driving his team down the field in the final minute for a game-winning FG (final score, 30-28). The Packers are still susceptible to the run, and Deebo Samuel’s usage as a dual-threat weapon alongside workhorse rookie RB Elijah Mitchell has to have Green Bay’s coaches a little worried. But it’s the 49ers who have the bigger concerns on defense, where they’ll need to try to stop a QB who’s basically been unstoppable since week 2, and they might have to do it without their top edge rusher (Nick Bosa) and the leader of their defense (LB Fred Warner), who both got hurt last week. And there’s always the unknown of how well Jimmy G will play - he was fantastic in the comeback win against the Rams that got the 49ers into the playoffs, but he’s susceptible to the terrible throw and the 49ers can’t afford the kind of huge mistake that he made last week against Dallas, which opened the door to a comeback bid that fell just short.

The Pick: This should be a great game, between 2 very good, well-coached teams. It’s going to be cold, but not Ice Bowl cold, and I don’t think weather will be a big factor. What could be a big factor is that the Packers are likely getting some key defenders back from injury (Za'Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander), while the 49ers got pretty banged up in their win last week and could be missing some important pieces on defense. The 49ers should have some success running the ball, but in the end, it’s going to be too much Rodgers, Adams, and the rest of the Green Bay assault and I don’t think Jimmy G can keep pace. Packers 31, 49ers 23.

Rams @ Buccaneers (Sunday, 3:00 p.m., NBC, Bucs -2.5, 48.5 O/U)

Biggest Storylines: 3 years ago, Sean McVay’s Rams got to the Super Bowl, where they fell to Tom Brady and the Patriots, 13-3. If they want to get back to the big game, they’ll need to beat Brady this week, in Tampa. 33-year-old Matthew Stafford finally won his first playoff game on Monday, while 44-year-old Tom Brady has the most postseason wins of any QB in history. The Bucs were remarkably healthy during their Super Bowl winning season a year ago, but they’ve been losing players left and right over the past month or so. One Bucs player who is healthy now is Rob Gronkowski, but he came out of the Week 3 game with these same Rams with broken ribs that sidelined him for almost 2 months. The Rams won that home game fairly comfortably. Tom Brady is signed through next season but there is speculation that he could decide to retire after this postseason - so every Tampa Bay playoff game could be the last time we see the GOAT on the football field. Fun fact - Brady is older than every opposing NFC Head Coach still in the playoff field.

What to Watch For: These teams are pretty even on paper, and both coasted to easy wins in Round 1. This should be an excellent game between 2 very good football teams that have a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. The Rams won the Week 3 contest easily and convincingly, with Matt Stafford throwing for 343 yards and 4 TDs. Tom Brady threw for more than 400 yards in a losing effort, but a lot of that came when the outcome was no longer in doubt. Stafford played a clean game on Monday night, but in the 3 games prior to that he threw 7 interceptions, bringing his total for the season to 17 (tied with Trevor Lawrence for most in the NFL). He’ll need to take care of the ball a lot better than that on Sunday, and if the Bucs’ defense can force a couple of Stafford turnovers, it will probably be too much for the Rams to overcome. Speaking of things to overcome, the Bucs are banged up and Brady doesn’t have anything close to his full complement of weapons. Of particular concern are 2 injuries to the offensive line that occurred in their Wild Card game - a high ankle sprain that forced All-Pro tackle Tristan Wirfs out, and a lower leg injury to center Ryan Jensen, which Jensen played through. If either or both of these players can’t go on Sunday, that will make it even harder for Brady and the Bucs’ offense to deal with Aaron Donald, Von Miller and the rest of the Rams’ pass rushers. Moreover, with the Bucs down to just one of their original starting 3 WRs, look for Jalen Ramsey to be all over Mike Evans. Brady will need to get the ball out fast (which he already does better than any other QB) and rely on Gronk and a number of secondary targets to make the right coverage reads and be in the right spots. Watch out for Odell Beckham, Jr. to be a factor in this one - he’s really been coming on of late (6 TDs in his last 8 games) and the Rams have been taking advantage of coverages rolling over to Cooper Kupp.

The Pick: Taking the Rams in this one goes against a lot of what I believe in, in terms of how important QB play and experience can be in playoff games. Do I really trust Matt Stafford to take care of the football and avoid mistakes? No, not especially. But right now, with the Bucs as banged up as they are, the Rams are the better team, and I just don’t like the matchup for Tampa. Rams 26, Bucs 21.

Bills @ Chiefs (Sunday, 6:30 p.m., CBS, Chiefs -2, 54.5 O/U)

Biggest Storylines: Where to begin? The weekend ends with a clash of two powerhouses. This is a rematch of the 2020 AFC Championship Game (KC 38, Buffalo 20), and it’s the 4th meeting between the AFC’s top 2 teams in the past 2 seasons. Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs are trying to get to a third straight Super Bowl, while Sean McDermott, Josh Allen and the Bills are trying to get to their first since they went to 4 in a row in the early 90s. And #BillsMafia is still waiting for that elusive first Super Bowl title. This could be the year. The Buffalo offense, led by Allen, is coming off the football equivalent of a perfect game against the Patriots, and Allen (25) is challenging Mahomes (26) for the “best quarterback under 30” belt. It’s a shame that this clash of AFC powers is a Divisional Round game, but the Titans beat both of these teams and fully deserve to be the top seed, while #2 and #3 duke it out on the other side of the AFC bracket.

What to Watch For: Both of these teams can score points in bunches, but both struggled on offense at times this season. Both are coming off of blowout wins in the Wild Card round. You’ve seen the ludicrous stats from the Bills-Patriots game but the one that jumps out at me the most is that the Bills never faced a fourth down the entire game. They were that outstanding, against a very good defense. The Chiefs took a minute to get going last weekend but once they got rolling, the Steelers were helpless to stop them. The Bills’ offense has become more balanced and has found a consistent running game in recent weeks with Devin Singletary. The Chiefs’ offense seems to have gotten past whatever it is that ailed it early in the season and the Bills will have their hands full with Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. Both QBs, and both offenses, are capable of playing on a level where they can seemingly do whatever they want. So, this feels like it could become a major shootout, with the last score deciding it. However, Buffalo’s defense is the best in the NFL and can’t be taken lightly. It allowed the fewest points in the league this season and ended the year ranked first in defensive DVOA, among other things. The Chiefs’ defense isn’t as formidable, but after a rough start it really came together midway through the season and was the catalyst for the team’s resurgence after a shaky 4-4 start. The Chiefs beat the Bills twice in 2020 (including the AFC title game), but the Bills handled the Chiefs pretty easily (38-20) back in Week 5 of this season. This is a pretty even matchup and will likely come down to which defense can get the most stops, plus the usual suspects that decide close games: turnovers, costly penalties and other mistakes, and maybe a special teams play.

The Pick: This is a tough one. It’s easy to overreact to what the Bills did to New England last weekend. That was a “prove it" game against a hated division rival, played on a very cold night at home in Buffalo. This game is at Arrowhead which boasts one of the loudest (and best) crowds in the league. It’s very hard to pick against the Chiefs at home in the playoffs, but that’s what I’m going to do - I don’t think the Chiefs will get enough stops on defense, and I think Josh Allen will avoid the kinds of mistakes that played a factor in the 2020 title game. The Bills have the better defense, and that decides it for me. Bills 31, Chiefs 27.

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