NFL Divisional Round Preview

2021 NFL playoffs: What we learned from Rams' win over Cardinals on Super  Wild Card Weekend
The NFL Divisional Round is just around the corner with some very interesting matchups. (Photo Courtesy: NFL.com).

This reporter managed to correctly pick the winner of all the games on Super Wild Card Weekend in last week’s preview, so now it is time to look ahead to the Divisional Round. Let’s break down each matchup and decide what to keep an eye on.

Bengals-Titans: The games start in Nashville, Tennessee when the Titans host the Cincinnati Bengals at 4:30pm on Saturday. The big story in this game is that Tennessee is scheduled to get running back Derrick Henry back after being out since he broke his right foot back in Week 8. While the Titans were inconsistent, they did start out 6-2 and then still managed to go 6-3 the rest of the season. The Titans mostly played well without Henry, it does not hurt to get one of the best running backs in the league back for the playoffs. It will be interesting to see how much of a factor Henry is considering that he has not suited up in a while. While the Bengals run defense gave up the fifth- fewest total rushing yards this season, they also had the fifth fewest attempts by opponents as their 4.3 yards allowed per rush ranks 13th in the NFL. On the offensive side of the ball though, the Bengals still have the combination of Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase. Burrow has completed 79% of his passes to Chase in their past three games together. These throws by Burrow have led to averages of 14.9 yards per attempt as well as 169 yards per game with three touchdowns and no interceptions during that time. However, the Titans can match their receiver core with AJ Brown, who had big performances against the 49ers, Chiefs and Colts when he caught a combined 26 passes for 433 yards and three touchdowns. Cincinnati’s passing defense ranks 20th in the league with a 49.6 opponent quarterback rating and has given up 1,572 yards to wide receivers on passes of at least 10 yards through the air, which ranks 21st in the NFL. Similarly, the Titans rank 25th this season against the pass, although they also were seventh in sacks with 47. While I really enjoy watching Burrow and Chase play, I believe that the Titans will win since they are the more experienced team, they have home field advantage, and the Bengals will be without one of their best defensive tackles in Larry Ogunjobi who was injured in last week’s game. Oh, by the way, this will be Joe Burrow’s first career road playoff game and he has been sacked 51 times, which is the most of any QB this season.

49ers-Packers: Saturday night’s slate will finish up in Green Bay, Wisconsin when the Packers host the San Francisco 49ers at 8:15pm. Recent history will tell you that the Niners have had Green Bay’s number in the playoffs when they beat them in 2012 and January 2020. On the flip side, Green Bay beat San Francisco back in Week 3this season. I believe that the Packers will win this game considering that Aaron Rodgers has played maybe the best season of his career and very well may repeat as the MVP. In addition, the Packers are expected to get back left tackle David Bakhtari, and possibly cornerback Jaire Alexander and pass -rusher ZaDarius Smith. On the other side, the 49ers have multiple key injuries from last week including Nick Bosa (concussion) and linebacker Fred Warner (ankle injury). It will also be worth keeping an eye on Packer’s linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, who was one of the best linebackers in the NFL this season and was on last week’s All-Pro list. While the 49ers ranked ninth in the NFL this season with 1,224 passing yards on throws 10 or fewer yards from the line of scrimmage, that is Cambell’s specialty, and the Packers will need him to show up to contain the San Francisco offense. I ultimately believe that Rodgers will be the main factor in the Packers sending the 49ers home on Saturday.

Rams-Buccaneers: The Sunday slate of games will start in Tampa, Florida when the Buccaneers host the Los Angeles Rams at 3pm. This will certainly be a big test for the Rams since they are coming off playing on a short week and flying across the country. For Tampa Bay, it has three of its offensive linemen, including center Ryan Jensen and right tackle Tristian Wirfs, that could miss this game and will not practice until Friday at the earliest. What I find interesting from the Los Angeles perspective is that they are not as much of a down the field passing team that they were earlier in the season when they had Desean Jackson, even after signing Odell Beckham, Jr. For instance, in their win last week versus the Arizona Cardinals, they called design runs on 65% of their plays in the first quarter. However, the Rams will need to have some big plays from quarterback Matthew Stafford because they will not be able to beat Tom Brady by just running the ball. For the Buccaneers, a key factor will be tight end Rob Gronkowski. The Rams’ defense gave up 90 receptions to opposing tight ends this season, which ranks 22nd in the NFL. Although, it is worth mentioning that of those receptions, only four of them resulted in a touchdown which is tied for the sixth fewest in the NFL. While Tampa Bay is without wide receiver Chris Godwin, who is out for the season, and saw Antonio Brown being released, I still believe that the Buccaneers will win because of the greatness of Tom Brady. Brady has won nine consecutive divisional round games, which is the longest streak by a QB in a single playoff round in NFL history. Oh by the way, Brady is 5-0 in the playoffs as the Tampa Bay QB. While I am picking the Buccaneers to win, I would not be surprised if the Rams win because of their weapons at wide receiver and because they have Aaron Donald, who can get to the quarterback on defense. As we know, the only chance you have at beating Brady is by sacking or getting pressure on him.

Bills-Chiefs: The Divisional Round of the playoffs conclude in Kansas City, Missouri when the Chiefs host the Buffalo Bills at 6:30pm on Sunday. These two teams played each other earlier in the season in Kansas City when the Bills dominated the game winning 38-20 back in Week 5. However, the Chiefs are a completely different team now as they finished the season 9-1 after starting out 3-4, when they lost to Buffalo. Kansas City also ranked seventh this season in QBR against at 39.5. On top of that, the Chiefs’ opponents threw more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (12). While Buffalo has the number one ranked defense in the NFL, since Week 14 Patrick Mahomes has the best QB QBR (76.2) having thrown 17 touchdowns and only two interceptions in six games (including their win on Sunday versus the Pittsburgh Steelers). Over that stretch, the Chiefs have averaged 36.5 points per game and committed only four turnovers. While Josh Allen will be an issue for the Chiefs defense since they like to blitz and he is mobile and can throw on the run, I believe that Kansas City’s pass rushers including Frank Clark, Chris Jones and Melvin Ingram III will play a big role in slowing Allen down. Even if the Chiefs have trouble containing Allen, I still think that Kansas City will win because of its home field advantage and the greatness of Patrick Mahomes.

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