DIVISIONAL ROUND: I say it every year: for my money, the Divisional Round is the best football weekend on the calendar. We get four games featuring eight legitimate Super Bowl contenders, and with emotions running high and players putting it all on the line, we can always expect some craziness and a few memorable outcomes.
This week’s slate has all the juicy storylines you could want: in the AFC we have King Henry’s return in Tennessee and a showdown between two of the game’s best young QBs in Kansas City. In the NFC, the red-hot 49ers will head up to the Frozen Tundra for a meeting with Aaron Rodgers and the Pack, while the high-priced, win-now Rams will attempt to knock off the defending Super Bowl champs and deliver Tom Brady his first meaningful loss in a Buccaneers uniform. So clear your calendar, find a comfortable chair or barstool, and prepare for some great football. It’s playoff time.
Here are my thoughts on this weekend’s action:
Cincinnati Bengals @ Tennessee Titans (Saturday 21:30 GMT)
Line: Tennessee -3.5 (47)
While Derrick Henry’s return from a foot injury that cost him half the season is generating all the headlines, it was really the late-season synergy between Ryan Tannehill and A.J. Brown that propelled the Titans to the 1-seed, and with Brown, Henry, and Julio Jones all healthy and ready to go this week, the Tennessee offense has a different look than it did over the season’s final few games. That said, I’m interested to see how it all comes together– will all the new parts and the desire to get certain people involved, combined with last week’s bye, throw off the rhythm of an offense that had found a formula for success by year’s end? We’ve certainly seen it before in the postseason, and Cincinnati has an underrated defense that is particularly salty up front, ranking 5th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed. But the biggest concern that Tennessee has in this game is undoubtedly Joe Burrow and the explosive Bengals offense, a unit that averaged 27.1 points per game this season as Burrow led the league in both completion percentage and yards per attempt. Cincinnati’s trio of elite wideouts will be a major matchup problem for a Titans secondary that ranked 25th against the pass, so if Tennessee is going to pull this one out, I believe the offense is going to have to do the heavy lifting. The burden will be too great, I think. Prediction: Cincinnati 31, Tennessee 23
San Francisco 49ers @ Green Bay Packers (Sunday 01:15 GMT)
Line: Green Bay -5.5 (47)
San Francisco is certainly the flavor of the month in the NFC, and over the past several weeks Deebo Samuel has staked a claim as the NFL’s best skill-position player. This is a tough one, though– a trip to Lambeau Field, where sub-freezing temps and sub-zero wind-chills are expected, to face Aaron Rodgers and the top-seeded Pack. Rodgers was asked about the weather earlier this week and said “the colder the better”, which, based on his 28-8 record when the temperature at kickoff is below freezing, seems like a reasonable position. I wonder if Jimmy Garoppolo feels the same way… somehow I doubt it. Despite Garoppolo’s tenure in New England, this will actually be his first sub-freezing game as an NFL starter, and with his finger injury and tendency to make erratic throws on occasion, Niners fans have to be a tad bit nervous about this situation. The San Francisco defense will likely be in nickel packages throughout much of the game to try and make things difficult for Rodgers, but the Packers have been able to attack soft looks all season with the power running of Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon, and if the Niners aren’t able to contain them, it’s going to be a long night. The 49ers have found a winning formula behind Deebo and the defense, but I’m having trouble envisioning Jimmy G engineering an upset of the top-seeded Pack in Lambeau. Prediction: Green Bay 27, San Francisco 17
Los Angeles Rams @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sunday 20:00 GMT)
Line: Tampa Bay -2.5 (48.5)
Everything has turned up roses for Tom Brady since he arrived in Tampa, but a whole lot of people seem to feel like his time has come and his banged-up Buccaneers team is at a disadvantage against the star-studded Rams. I’m sure Los Angeles isn’t lacking for confidence after beating this Tampa team back in Week 3 and dropping the hammer on Arizona in last week’s Wild Card round, and when the Rams acquired Matt Stafford in the offseason this is exactly the scenario they were envisioning: facing a high-powered offense led by a great QB in the playoffs and counter-punching with a great QB of their own… the last missing piece for a team that won the NFC three years ago and has spent big in the quest for a return trip to the Super Bowl. Will Stafford step up and answer the bell, though? His history in big games is not great, stretching back to his college days (he frankly didn’t have many big games in Detroit, did he?), as his tendency to force throws and occasional lack of pocket awareness have produced disastrous results at times. In this way he’s sort of like the anti-Brady: elite pedigree, tremendous talent, but when the chips are down, he’s been inconsistent and unreliable. The Rams relied on the running game last week and built a big lead, so Stafford wasn’t in any tough situations, but he’ll likely have to sling it around in this one, as running the ball against the stout Tampa front seven is no easy task. On the other side of the ball, a depleted Bucs receiving corps will be facing a depleted Rams secondary, and the battle up front should be good too, as Leonard Fournette is expected to make his return for Tampa and the always-dominant Aaron Donald will be waiting for him. This matchup has everything you want from the playoffs: two great teams, big-name stars, high stakes, legacies on the line… I’ve been back and forth on this one all week. When it comes down to it, though, who do you want with the ball in his hands and the game on the line? Prediction: Tampa Bay 34, Los Angeles 31
Buffalo Bills @ Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday 23:30 GMT)
Line: Kansas City -2 (54.5)
With all due respect to Cincinnati and Tennessee, this kind of feels like the AFC Championship game, doesn’t it? These teams met in the AFC title game last year and people have been pointing to a rematch since the beginning of the season, and though both teams had some rough patches and head-scratching losses, they’ve both fully come around and have been playing championship-level football for the last several weeks, with Buffalo riding a 5-game winning streak and the Chiefs having won 10 of their last 11. A 38-24 Chiefs victory last season propelled them to the Super Bowl but the Bills returned the favor in Week 5 of this year with a dominating 38-20 win, and in that game we find the blueprint for how Buffalo hopes to spring the upset this time around: snuff out the running game with base personnel up front and leave the safeties back to prevent the big play. Much easier said than done, of course, and nearly every team Kansas City faces attempts this strategy and fails, but Buffalo has the NFL’s top defense, a unit that led the league in both yards allowed and points allowed, and they executed the plan perfectly back in October, limiting Patrick Mahomes to 272 passing yards on 54 attempts and holding the Chiefs running backs to just 44 combined rushing yards. Andy Reid is sure to make some adjustments and Mahomes is good enough to take what the defense gives him and find different ways to produce, but he’ll have to be at the absolute top of his game, because I don’t have much faith in the ability of the Kansas City defense to slow down a Bills offense that has found a consistent rushing attack over the past few weeks to complement the dynamic playmaking of Josh Allen (of course, a big part of the rushing success is Allen himself). And that, to me, is the deciding factor here: the Bills are terrific on both sides of the ball, while the Chiefs are still a team that relies on its dominant offense to cover for a suspect defense. Should be a great game, though. Prediction: Buffalo 31, Kansas City 30