NFL Divisional Round Preview
Bengals @ Titans
One day I am picking the Bengals, the next I am picking the Titans. I have been going back-and-forth all week long; I hate picking against Joe Burrow, but I also hate picking against Derrick Henry and the boys. It is unreal that Derrick Henry is suiting up this week, less than three months from breaking his foot. He is playing with what he describes as "a big steel plate" in his foot. I know we have joked around and called Henry "the Terminator" in the past, but he is literally a machine. As for Burrow, nothing that he does surprises me anymore. Everything he does is smooth and he plays with a certain suave. I would say that I think he got his swagger back, but in all honesty, it never left. The Bengals are fun to watch and the Titans are overcoming odds every single game. This game is going to be one where you get your popcorn, find a nice comfy seat, then don't take your eyes off the screen for three-plus hours.
The Bengals' offense is operating at a level where they force the opposing offense to keep up. For Joe Burrow, it is important that he gets the ball out fast against the Titans' defensive line. With Bud Dupree and Harold Landry coming off the edge and Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry clogging up the middle, Burrow will need to play with a sense of urgency. I'm interested to see Ja'Marr Chase matchup against his former LSU teammate, Kristian Fulton. Fulton has a sense of familiarity with Chase and is used to going against physical receivers in practice (AJ Brown and Julio Jones). While I know Chase will win his battles, I'm curious to see if Fulton can match his physicality. The Bengals' offensive line held up for the most part against Maxx Crosby and the Raiders' defensive line, but they will need to buy a little more time for Burrow given the Titans' defensive backs. The Titans' defensive backs have surprisingly been very good this year, but they have proven to be susceptible to big plays in the slot; that means that Tyler Boyd may be in for a big game. Another great matchup on this side of the ball will be Kevin Byard matched up against CJ Uzomah. Byard has been known to take tight ends out of the ball game, but I can see Bill O'Callahan using Uzomah as a decoy in this game. If the Bengals are going to win this game, Joe Burrow will have to do it with his arm. The Titans have the number two run defense in the league and are able to shut down the ground game with their defensive line alone. Chase, Boyd, and Tee Higgins will have to win their matchups and take advantage of one-on-one opportunities. The Bengals have their backs against the wall, but if there is one player that can get them out of the corner, it would be Joey Brrr.
If we take a look back in history, all of the greatest kings: Genghis Khan, King Tut, Alexander the Great, etc. have risen to glory in times of pressure and uncertainty. In the biggest stage in the world, with all eyes on him, Derrick Henry will have a chance to cement his legacy as a true King. The throne is right in front of him, the only thing standing in his way is the Bengals' defense. Led by Jessie Bates, Trey Hendrickson, and Logan Wilson, the Bengals are going to go all out in stopping the run. They are going to try and match Henry's physicality, but greatness cannot be contained. While I expect the Bengals defense to stop him on a few plays here and there, once Henry gets to the second level of the defense, the Bengals are just along for the ride. This is the healthiest the Titans have been since week one; Julio Jones is at full strength and AJ Brown is well-rested. While I do believe Henry will have a few long runs, I believe this game will come down to Ryan Tannehill's arm. The Titans have a vertical passing offense that pushes the ball downfield. One of the best matchups on this side of the ball is Trey Hendrickson, who is having the best season of his career, against Taylor Lewan, who has given up just one sack since week one. I believe the key for the Titans in this game is to win with physicality. Derrick Henry needs to be running downhill and AJ Brown needs to be fed. Nissan Stadium is going to be rocking and I'm curious to see which quarterback steps up in the biggest moment.
The Bengals' defense must rally to the ball; while Jessie Bates is phenomenal in coverage and extremely rangy when roaming the field, he isn't a good tackler. The Titans know that and are going to put him in positions where he has to make one-on-one tackles. In the playoffs, the team that brings the most heat and physicality are the ones that win the ball game. The Bengals need to find a way to match the physicality of Henry and Brown. While Bates might not be able to match Henry or Brown's physicality one-on-one, if Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton, and Vonn Bell are helping him out, the Bengals have a chance. I'm not concerned about the Bengals' offense putting up points, I'm worried that the Bengals' defense won't be able to keep the Titans from matching them. If the Bengals can match Tennessee's physicality, they will win this ball game.
The Titans' defense needs to put a roof on the Bengals' offense. They cannot allow Joe Burrow to complete long passes to his receiver trio. The Bengals have one of the most explosive passing attacks in the NFL, but the Bengals have not faced a safety like Kevin Byard yet this season. Byard is the best safety in the NFL; people try to discredit him, but there is no one better. The one player who I'm worried will give the Titans' defense problems is Tyler Boyd. Whether he is matched up against Buster Skrine or Elijah Molden, he has a favorable matchup in the middle of the field. Those two defensive backs need to step up in their first-ever playoff game. I believe the Titans will be able to prevent Ja'Marr Chase from getting behind them, but they will also need to stop Boyd from slicing them up in the middle of the field. I think this defense is up for the task and will find a way to prevent Joe Burrow from going zero dark thirty mode.
This atmosphere is going to be crazy and this game will be won at the line of scrimmage. The Titans are going to play bully ball and out-physical the Bengals. While Joe Burrow has a history of making me regret picking against him, I am once again going in the opposite direction. I believe AJ Brown and Jeffery Simmons are going to exploit their mismatches and Derrick Henry will rip a few long runs. I can see this game ending with Joe Burrow on the sideline as the Titans offense picks up one first down after the other to close out the game.
Bengals Key to Victory: Match the Titans' physicality and get the ball out fast
Titans Key to Victory: Keep a roof on Joe Burrow and force the Bengals' DBs to tackle
Matchup to Watch: Kristian Fulton vs Ja'Marr Chase, Trey Hendrickson vs Taylor Lewan
Player of the Game: AJ Brown WR Titans
Final Score: Bengals 26 Titans 27
49ers @ Packers
There is a strange, but beautiful energy to this game. The Packers are fully juiced up, the home team, and have the MVP quarterback leading the way, but the 49ers have momentum, physicality, and this special feeling with them. I think it's safe to say that the Packers are the best team in the NFL, but the 49ers are the scariest team in the NFL. The Packers' offense is led by Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams, and David Bakhtiari who are all players that will end up with gold jackets and are the best at their respective positions. The 49ers' offense is led by George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, and Trent Williams, a group of players who are revolutionizing their positions. All six of these players are once-in-a-lifetime talents and their games cannot be replicated. I have a feeling this game may be an all-time classic.
On paper, the Packers' offense should give the 49ers' defense fits. Davante Adams has a history of torching the 49ers' cornerbacks; I'm curious to see how Demeco Ryans adjusts his defense to limit Adams' production. In the freezing cold weather, you'd expect the Packers to try and run the ball on the 49ers' defense, but I don't anticipate that being Matt LaFleur's game plan. Since the winds won't be too bad, I anticipate them throwing the ball early and often. LaFleur understands where he has his biggest advantage in this game and that is with Adams. While Emmanuel Moseley nor Ambry Thomas are household names, they have stepped up in extraordinary ways since the last time these two teams faced off. With Moseley and Thomas starting at cornerback for the 49ers, I believe Adams will have a much harder time gaining separation than he had in week three. Adams is going to win his battles, it's inevitable, but I'm curious to see which playmaker on the Packers steps up outside of him. I expect Demeco Ryans to call a lot of cover four and cloud three to prevent Adams from getting over the top of the 49ers' defense. This means that Randall Cobb and Allen Lazard are going to have a lot of one-on-one opportunities. To beat the 49ers, Lazard and Cobb will need to win their matchups and make plays.
The Packers are the Super Bowl favorites... that is not a secret, but if they were to lose a game, how do you think they'd lose? It is because a team would run the ball down their throats and keep Aaron Rodgers on the sideline. If the 49ers are going to pull off this upset they will have to bring the heat to Green Bay and win the time of possession battle. Elijah Mitchell is going to have to get busy and the 49ers are going to have to bring pain to every play. They are going to have to make the Packers scared to tackle them. The YAC bro's: Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk will need to be physical after the catch. It is going to hurt to tackle those three guys and I expect they'll surprise the Packers defense with their physicality. I don't think it is fair to expect Jimmy Garoppolo to play a perfect game, he just has to play a turnover-free game. The 49ers found success with bringing in a red zone Trey Lance package in this first matchup, I could see them bringing Lance out again given Garoppolo's health and the weather conditions. When Garoppolo is throwing the ball, I anticipate the bulk of targets to go in George Kittle's direction. Whether it be option routes or seam balls, I believe Kittle is in for a big day. While the 49ers are big underdogs, they have what it takes to pull off the upset.
The Packers defense needs to force Jimmy Garoppolo to make errant throws. They know Garoppolo has a history of throwing interceptions towards the middle of the field, so I can see De'Vondre Campbell or Darnell Savage undercutting one of his passes and taking it the other way. Persistence is important for this defense; they need to be physical for all four quarters or they are going to get got. They also need to fill cutback lanes, which Kyle Shanahan tends to exploit. There is a balance of aggressiveness and patience that Joe Barry's defense needs to find when defending the run and play-action today. This Packers' defense is the best one they have had since LaFleur has been coaching; they will need to have their best performance of the season versus the 49ers today.
The 49ers' defense needs to double team Davante Adams. He is the engine that makes this offense go and has been the reason the Packers have beaten the 49ers in their past two matchups. Upfront, the 49ers need to win with four-man rushes. With Nick Bosa good to go and Arik Armstead quietly having the most disruptive season of his career, I believe the 49ers have what it takes. Bosa, Armstead, Arden Key, DJ Jones, Samson Ebukam, and Charles Omenihu will have to make Rodgers uncomfortable. They need to hit Rodgers over, and over, and over again. If Demeco Ryans can make the proper adjustments to keep Davante Adams under 100 yards, the 49ers will pull off one of the biggest playoff upsets in recent history.
As I said earlier, the 49ers have a special feeling about them this year. While all the analytics and past history may go in the Packers' favor, my gut tells me the 49ers win this ball game. This game is going to be great and I am excited to see how Demeco Ryans plans to slow down the Packers' rampant offense.
49ers Key to Victory: Win the time of possession battle and cloud Davante Adams
Packers Key to Victory: The Packers defense finding the balance between aggression and patience
Matchup to Watch: Packers' offensive line vs 49ers' defensive line
Player of the Game: George Kittle TE 49ers
Final Score: 49ers 31 Packers 29
Rams @ Buccaneers
Holy smokes, this game is what dreams are made of. It's one of the biggest stages in the world and we get to watch either Tom Brady try to continue his back-to-back tour or Matthew Stafford take the Rams to the NFC championship in his first season with the team. While the quarterbacks may be the headliners in this game, both teams are filled with superb talent. Both of these teams were built in similar ways, through trades and free agency. Both teams are also offensive powerhouses with two great offensive and defensive lines. While both teams are built similarly, their offenses are drastically different. The Buccaneers run a vertical passing scheme that features a downhill running attack. The Rams are an outside-zone team that utilizes 11 personnel and play-action passes. In this game, we will see a battle between two great offenses and two star-studded defenses. It is as good as it gets.
While Cooper Kupp is having a historic season, Odell Beckham Jr. is having a resurgence, and Matthew Stafford is having a career year, the engine that makes this offense go is the run game. When Cam Akers and Sony Michel can find holes and find running lanes, it opens up this offense. The Buccaneers are in a worrisome spot if Sean McVay's offense is open. When McVay is patient with his backs and feeds them even if they're averaging less than four yards per carry it keeps the opposing defense on their toes. It's a cliché to say that the running game sets up the play-action, but it is true. When guys like Jason Pierre-Paul and Barrett don't have a head start to the pass rush and still have to consider a run, that takes a second off of their rush. It is going to be difficult to run the ball on Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh, but that is what they must do in this atmosphere, even if it is only for minimal gains. In the passing game, the Rams will need to make Vea and Suh run side-to-side. While they are both great in the passing game and good rushers, they are huge dudes. McVay needs to get them tired by moving them laterally play after play. That means that the Rams will need to use lots of bootlegs and quarterback rollouts. The Rams need to win the time-of-possession battle to keep the GOAT on the sideline. While it is easier said than done, this is the formula to beat the Buccaneers.
When he was playing for the Patriots, Tom Brady was often criticized for dumping the ball off and throwing the ball quickly too much. That is exactly what he'll have to do to upset the Rams. With Aaron Donald and Von Miller storming at him, Brady will need to be quick and decisive with whom he throws to. The health of left tackle, Tristian Wirfs and center, Ryan Jensen, is a huge factor in this game. I'd be surprised if both players are able to go, but if they do, they still won't be at full health. That means Brady's internal clock will need to be ticking; which calls for Giovanni Bernard and Leonard Fournette having a major role as a receiver. In a similar light to the Rams, the Buccaneers will need to be patient with their run game. Donald, Miller, A'Shawn Robinson, and Leonard Floyd will all win their battles, but it's about winning the war. Bruce Arians will be able to stick with his downhill running game but should utilize more pre-snap motion to throw off the Rams' defense. Even if it doesn't entirely stop the Rams' defensive line, it messes up their timing. I believe the best way to beat Raheem Morris and the Rams' defense is by getting the ball out of Brady's hands fast and finding ways to disrupt the Rams' pass rush.
The Rams defense has arguably the toughest job in all of sports; they have to find a way to slow down Tom Brady. The good news for the Rams is that Ryan Jensen and Tristian Wirfs are banged up which means that they should be able to generate pressure with just four-man rushes. Everybody knows that hitting Tom Brady over and over and over and over again is the key to slowing him down. The Rams have the pieces to bring discomfort Brady's way, but I suspect he'll be trying to get the ball out fast all game long. I'd like to see Raheem Morris make Mike Evans miserable and have Jalen Ramsey follow him all game long. With Chris Godwin out and Antonio Brown with Kanye West, Tyler Johnson, Breshaud Perriman, or Scottie Miller will need to make a play. The Rams should use a lot of press-man coverage and make Tom Brady hold on to the ball. Morris has favorable matchups in man-coverage which is a better approach to this game than letting Brady find a way to dissect a zone. So the key for the Rams defense is to punish Brady for holding on to the ball and forcing a non-superstar to make a play.
What do the Rams want to do? Run the football and throw the ball deep off of play-action. The Buccaneers can't let that happen; Todd Bowles needs to shut down the run and make the Rams' offense one-dimensional. Vita Vea and Ndamokung Suh have arguably the greatest task in this game. They need to win in the interior to slow down the run game with just a four-man rush. If the Buccaneers can slow the Rams' running game down with just four-down linemen then they can double-team Cooper Kupp and keep a safety over Odell Beckham Jr. I believe the Buccaneers' defense will dictate the result of this game. If they are stout and getting after Stafford as they did to Mahomes in last year's Super Bowl, then the Buccaneers will win this game. If the Rams are in control and giving this defense a hard time, then Tampa Bay's aspirations for back-to-back Super Bowl wins will die.
I believe that the Buccaneers' stout run defense will force Sean McVay to get impatient and ditch the run game. That means this offense will be one-dimensional which gives the Buccaneers pass rush a head-start to the quarterback. Offensively for Tampa Bay, I believe their running backs will be their best receivers in this game. Whether it be Bernard, Fournette, or Ke'Shawn Vaughn catching the football, I believe the bulk of the Buccaneers' yards will be through the quick game. This game should be close and hard-fought, but it is really hard to beat Tom Brady twice in one season. I am rolling with the Buccaneers to keep the train rolling and face off against the 49ers in the NFC championship game.
Rams Key to Victory: Press Man Coverage and be patient with the run game
Buccaneers Key to Victory: Pre-snap motion and force the Rams to be one dimensional
Matchup to Watch: Jalen Ramsey vs Mike Evans
Player of the Game: Vita Vea DT Buccaneers
Final Score: Rams 24 Buccaneers 27
Bills @ Chiefs
I don't care what you say, all games are not created equal. This is setting up to be arguably the best game of the season. After both games ended in game-winning field goals yesterday, I could see this being another one that comes down to whoever has it last. This is the first playoff game in NFL history where both quarterbacks are coming off of five touchdown performances. This game is loaded with stars: Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, Travis Kelce, Jordan Poyer, Tyrann Mathieu, Micah Hyde, and the list goes on. Those are all pro-bowl/all-pro caliber players coming together for the right to host the AFC Championship game. Josh Allen vs Patrick Mahomes is one of the best rivalries in modern-day sports and I expect this game to be the reason why teams draft quarterbacks so high in the first round.
The offensive firepower in this game is ridiculous from head to toe. Starting with the Bills, who are coming off of the first-ever perfect offensive game. They scored seven touchdowns on seven drives against a top ten Patriots defense in the AFC Wildcard game last week. When thinking about this game, I can't stop thinking about the photo of Stefon Diggs staring at the confetti raining down on Arrowhead Stadium after the AFC Championship game last year. It's been 364 days since that happened, this is a different Bills team, this is a better Bills team. Two unsung heroes on this offense are Isaiah McKenzie and Devin Singletary who have been awesome in the past two months. Singletary has seven touchdowns in the past five games and has brought a ground game to Buffalo. While McKenzie's numbers won't make you jump out of your chair, they are meaningful. He has stepped up on third downs and has drawn attention away from Diggs. Josh Allen on the other hand has gotten to a point of superstardom; he is a special player. He's physical, fun to watch, and ballsy; he is the perfect quarterback to represent the city of Buffalo. I expect this game to be high-scoring and this offense to keep on rolling.
Don't look now, but the Chiefs finally have a running game. Jerrick McKinnon has emerged as a legitimate weapon in the Chiefs' offense and opens things up for Patrick Mahomes. While McKinnon might not be on the same level as Jonathan Taylor or Derrick Henry; he does enough. When playing against the Chiefs, defenses know what they are in for. They are going to play the pass and try to make sure Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill don't get over the top of them. With defenses playing all the way back, McKinnon is running against lightboxes and can find gashing holes. As for the passing attack, I expect Mahomes to sling it tonight. Playoff Mahomes is a different animal; his game gets better and better as the pressure gets heavier and heavier. Mahomes does have to be aware of the Bills' dynamic safety duo: Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde. The Bills are going to try and put a roof on the Chiefs' offense, so I could see Mahomes scrambling a lot and throwing shorter passes. I believe the Chiefs' bread and butter will come after the catch in this game. Travis Kelce is going to make these defensive backs tackle him and run downhill with the ball in his hands. This game will be a shoot-out.
The Bills have the number one pass defense in the NFL this year, but it is all relative when facing Patrick Mahomes. They can't let Tyreek Hill get behind them; if Hill is running free, the Bills are burnt toast. The easiest way to lose to the Chiefs is by letting number ten be a factor. While bracketing Hill, the Bills also need to wrap up and rally to Travis Kelce. Leslie Frazier's defense needs to come together and play four quarters of bully ball. The Bills need to play their game; physical and aggressive football. They are a more well-rounded team and are more physical than the Chiefs. Their mindsets shouldn't be "we have to stop the Chiefs", their mindsets should be "the Chiefs have to stop us". Whether it be Gregory Rousseau, Ed Oliver, Jerry Hughes, are whoever it is, the Bills need to inflict pain on the Chiefs' offense. Will Mahomes score a few touchdowns? Probably... but the Bills' defense can't give up. They need to be resilient and play to their strengths. The Bills are the better team and should win this football game.
Both defenses will need to find a way to win one possession at a time, but the Chiefs' defense will need to play their best game of the season. The Bills' offense will most likely be the scariest offense they play for the rest of the season. They got beat pretty badly when these two teams faced off in the regular season; I'm curious to see if Steve Spagnuolo can switch up his defense to confuse Josh Allen. Whether it be rolling coverage or sending simulated pressure, how can the Chiefs throw off Josh Allen's timing? The Chiefs will also need to capitalize on bad throws. I am not talking about pass breakups, I am talking about interceptions. Tyrann Mathieu and Juan Thornhill need to make Josh Allen regret throwing the ball on them. It is a tough task, but I have learned never to doubt the Honey Badger.
They say revenge is a dish best served cold and I believe that Stefon Diggs and Josh Allen will get their revenge in frigid temperatures in Kansas City. The Bills have a talented team and are led by a quarterback who makes the rest of his team better. I'm tired of hearing that Mahomes and Allen are the future of the NFL. They are the present of the NFL; they are two of the best quarterbacks. They are forces to be reckoned with. I anticipate this being a high-scoring shootout that comes down to whoever has the ball last.
Bills' Key to Victory: Use their physicality to their advantage and keep a ceiling on Hill
Chiefs' Key to Victory: Capitalize on Josh Allen's bad throws and gain YAC
Matchup to Watch: Patrick Mahomes vs Josh Allen (dual between two greats)
Player of the Game: Josh Allen QB Bills
Final Score: Bills 35 Chiefs 31