NFL Divisional Round Preview: More Interesting
Super Wild Card Weekend showed its true colors this season. Adding in a seventh seed for both conferences led to uninteresting blowouts in addition to a few games that happened to turn into routs as well.
After a first round that featured just two close games, it’s time for a better, more interesting weekend of football.
Last weekend, I went 5–1 in my picks, only being wrong on, yes, my team, the Dallas Cowboys. Here is a recap of what happened along with a preview of each upcoming matchup.
AFC: (4th) Cincinnati Bengals (10–7) at (1st) Tennessee Titans (12–5); 3:30 CT on NBC
Last Saturday, Cincinnati got in a seesaw match with Las Vegas that kept going back-and-forth from two scores to one. Fast forwarding to late in the game, the Raiders got a field goal and the stop they needed. Quarterback Derek Carr, who’s had many game-winning drives and close wins, especially this season, got the ball back with 1:51 at the 35-yard-line down 26–19. Vegas got down to the 9-yard-line with 17 seconds left, facing 4th-and-9. Unlike other occasions, the Raiders ran out of luck this time when Carr threw an interception to Germaine Pratt in double coverage, and the Bengals finally caught their breath, winning their first playoff game in 31 years.
In his first playoff start, Burrow threw for 244 yards and two touchdowns, including this controversial one before halftime. His favorite target, Ja’Marr Chase, had nine receptions and 116 yards. Carr finally played his first postseasons start but was only 29-of-54 passing for 310 yards, a touchdown, an interception and a fumble.
The Titans are a confusing bunch. If it wasn’t for a comeback in Week 2, they would have started 0–2 with two blowouts. A few weeks later, they lost to the lowly-New York Jets before winning six straight until they dropped another egg to Houston. But they’ve also beaten Buffalo, Kansas City, the L.A. Rams, and San Francisco. They’re the №1 seed at just 12–5 despite having been without star running back Derrick Henry since Halloween and having their top two star receivers, AJ Brown and Julio Jones, miss four and seven games, respectively.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill doesn’t have a great TD-INT ratio at 21–14, but he’s still winning games. Despite the absence of the back-to-back rushing yardage champ, they’re fifth in the league in rushing and second against it with a sixth-ranked scoring defense.
Burrow is going to try take advantage of a passing defense ranked 25th but will have to overcome an even better pass rush than Vegas with his not-so-great offensive line. With Tennessee having more experience and a team built for the playoffs, I’m taking the favorite even if Henry doesn’t return. Titans 33, Bengals 20.
NFC: (6th) San Francisco 49ers (10–7) at (1st) Green Bay Packers (13–4); 7:15 CT on FOX
The 49ers are facing another playoff rival this postseason against the Packers for the ninth time in the past 28 years. The series is tied at four.
Last Sunday, San Francisco held off Dallas, 23–17. (This link goes into depth of the game and the Cowboys’ outlook after the tough loss.) They were good at their strengths: running the football and playing defense. The Niners got out to a 23–7 lead at the end of the third quarter with the only bad thing being losing their best defensive player, Joey Bosa, to a concussion.
In the fourth quarter, however, Dallas started a run, getting a field goal before picking off Jimmy Garoppolo, setting up a TD run by quarterback Dak Prescott. After a punt, the Niners forced the Cowboys turn it over on downs near midfield with 1:51 left. After Dallas used all three timeouts, a Deebo Samuel run on 3rd-and-10 gave them the first down and game, but after further review, it was ruled just inches short, making it fourth down before a false start forced them to punt.
With Dallas getting new life at their own 14 with 32 seconds left, Prescott led an efficient drive, getting to the 49ers’ 41 with 14 seconds. But for some reason, he ran a QB draw to the 24. As they hurried to get the snap off, he handed the ball to his center instead of the official to set it and time ran out before Prescott could spike it. (They made it controversial, but the offense really didn’t have time to get a snap off after a silly play in-bounds.)
The 49ers had 169 yards rushing with Mitchell gaining 96 and Samuel getting 72, both adding a score. Jimmy G completed 16-of-25 passes for 192 yards and an interception. Prescott was just 23-of-43 for 254 yards with a touchdown in the air and on the ground along with an interception. Dallas was held to 77 yards rushing with Ezekiel Elliott getting just 31 yards on 12 rushes.
San Francisco survived what would have been a worse choke than the Super Bowl two years ago, but they now face a more stout opponent in Green Bay. The Packers are rolling again as Matt LaFluer has the winningest record at 39–9 for a head coach in his first three seasons. This time, they’re doing it after star quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ drama-filled offseason in which he asked for a trade….until he finally relented and showed up to training camp.
Despite a Week 1 dud against New Orleans, it’s just another great season for the three-time and defending regular season MVP. Rodgers has thrown for 4,115 yards, 37 touchdowns and just four interceptions. The passing game is balanced with the running game behind Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon. The defense is near the top ten in most categories.
These two teams faced off in Week 3 with Rodgers making two long passes to his favorite target, Davante Adams, to set up the game-winning field goal after San Fran had just come back to take the lead with 37 seconds. This 49ers team is different though as they’re running and throwing the ball better with a defense more similar to the one that made it to the big game.
Green Bay is trying to avenge that NFC Championship Game where they were absolutely dominated, 37–20, in Santa Clara. That day, the Niners ran for 285 yards, forced three turnovers, only had Garoppolo throw eight passes and were up 27–0 at halftime. This time it’s going to be freezing at Lambeau Field where the Packers are 8–0 this season. San Francisco could be without Bosa and/or their best linebacker, Fred Warner. Rodgers is 0–3 against the Niners in the postseason, but that changes in this one because the Packers are just a better team. Packers 30, 49ers 21.
(4th) Los Angeles Rams (12–5) at (2nd) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13–4); 2:00 CT on NBC
It’s a rematch of Week 3 between two teams with Super Bowl aspirations all year long. Both teams handled their business with ease during the wild card weekend. The Bucs obliterated the Philadelphia Eagles, 31–15, being up 31–0 at one point. Despite being without two of his top three receivers, Tom Brady was 29-for-37 passing for 271 yards and two touchdowns. The defense picked off Jalen Hurts twice and didn’t let them score until the fourth quarter.
In what was supposed to be a heavily-anticipated divisional showdown on Monday night, it was the opposite. The Rams dominated the Arizona Cardinals, 34–11, as quarterback Matthew Stafford finally got his first playoff win at 33. In a game where it was once 28–0 five minutes into the third quarter, Stafford only had to throw 17 passes, completing 13 for 202 yards and two touchdowns with the support of a running game gaining 140 yards. Kyler Murray, on the other hand, was terrible in his first playoff start. He was 19-of-34 for 137 yards and two interceptions, one of them being just an inexcusable score for the other team. L.A. also limited them to just 61 rushing yards.
When these two teams played in Inglewood earlier this season, it was the Rams having the better day, winning 34–24, behind Stafford’s four touchdown passes. This time, they’re in Tampa where the home team is 7–1. Brady is the one with the experience as we all know, but this Rams team had all their stars looking really good after that performance Monday night. There’s times where Brady and his receivers outside of Mike Evans aren’t on the same page. I think L.A. stops them from a repeat. Rams 27, Buccaneers 22.
AFC: (3rd) Buffalo Bills (11–6) at (2nd) Kansas City Chiefs (12–5); 5:30 CT on CBS
The two heavyweight quarterbacks in the AFC of the past two years are meeting once again in the postseason, this time being the divisional round.
In a game with people going back-and-forth on who to pick during the week, it was clear from the get-go who was the right choice. The Bills plummeted the New England Patriots, 47–17, on a freezing Saturday night in Buffalo of just 7 degrees at kickoff. Star quarterback Josh Allen, apparently, was bothered at all by the cold, leading his team to seven straight scoring drives, all being touchdowns, the former of which set a league record in the playoffs, before his backup, Mitchell Trubisky, took a few kneel downs. Allen was an efficient 21-of-25 passing for 308 yards and a career-high five touchdowns behind a running game that had 174 total yards.
Rookie quarterback Mac Jones had a rough first career playoff start, throwing two interceptions even though he was a modest 24-for-38 passing for 238 yards with two touchdowns. Unlike last time in Buffalo, the Patriots didn’t run at will with just 89 yards on the ground.
On Sunday night, the Chiefs rolled over the Pittsburgh Steelers despite a slow start, 42–21. Kansas City didn’t score on their first five possessions until a defensive fumble recovery for a touchdown by Steelers All-Pro linebacker T.J. Watt ignited them. After that, it was all Chiefs, reaching the end zone on their next six possessions. Star quarterback Patrick Mahomes threw for 404 yards and five TDs. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, punted on their first seven drives with little movement in what was probably Ben Roethlisberger’s last game as he was bad with just 4.9 passing yards-per-attempt, but he salvaged himself with two touchdown passes and 215 yards.
These two teams met in last year’s AFC Championship Game with the Chiefs routing the Bills, 38–24. This time it’s coming in a season where Buffalo took it to them, 38–20, in Week 5 after Mahomes got the best of Allen the previous two times. I expect the Chiefs offense to be less turnover-prone than last time where they committed four turnovers as they’ve come a long way since then, but the Bills are just on more of a roll as they’ve got their running game balancing the offense. I don’t usually do this, but I’m picking them against my Super Bowl pick. Bills 34, Chiefs 26.
If the divisional round is as bad as the wild card round, then I don’t know what to say. These have to be better matchups with the Sunday ones hosting Super Bowl favorites from the offseason.