By Cole Jones
Yet another year of football is upon us, and it has been one that NFL fans surely won’t be quick to forget. With the extension of the season to 17 games, as well as Covid running rampant throughout the league, the 2021-2022 season presented many challenges that NFL teams had to work around and make the best of (including Antonio Brown’s week 17 meltdown against the Jets). After an action-packed end to the regular season and entertaining wild card weekend filled with down-to-the-wire finishes and exhilarating performances, eight teams remain in the quest for Super Bowl 56. All four divisional games are balanced yet high-powered match-ups, sure to get fans jumping up into the air in excitement, biting their nails, and leaving some in tears. Usually, around this time, Cowboys fans are left in tears, however, they couldn’t even make it past wild card weekend.
All kidding aside, let’s get started with the AFC matchup previews:
AFC Divisional Game #1- #4 Cincinnati Bengals @ #1 Tennessee Titans:
Though the Bengals are considered underdogs, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them put up a valiant fight against the top-seeded Titans. The Bengals finished off the year on a tear and outmatched the Las Vegas Raiders in their historic win last Sunday, which ended a 33-year playoff winless drought- the longest in NFL history. Much of last week’s success was due to the play of Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, who have been arguably the most lethal quarterback-wide receiver duo in the league over the last few weeks. Burrow finished the game with 244 passing yards and a 110.4 QB rating, while Chase racked up 166 receiving yards. In addition to this, the duo is a big-play artist. Joe Shiesty led the league in yards per attempt (YPA) whereas Chase averaged an astounding 18 yards per catch (YPC), proving that the Bengals are always a candidate to go for the kill shot. Joe Mixon and the Bengals’ ground game has been mediocre of late, so it’s Burrow and the passing that the Titans will need to worry about, especially because of Burrow’s dangerous second options that include the likes of Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. Unfortunately for the Titans, their pass defence has been nothing short of atrocious this season, allowing the second-most receptions and pass yards, while also giving up the sixth most 20+ yard plays in the league.
However, the good news for Titans fans is that their superstar running back -Derrick Henry- is returning after missing 2.5 months with a foot injury, and will look to feast upon a Cincinnati defence that has struggled against the run this season. As if that isn’t enough, Henry’s return has increased potential of success thanks to some key injuries on the Bengals’ defensive line. Losing Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard is seemingly detrimental to Cincinnati’s defensive effectiveness, as the Titans are a team notorious for running the ball, A LOT. Tennessee can also hurt the Bengals in the passing game with their superstar receivers of AJ Brown and Julio Jones. Even though quarterback Ryan Tannehill was underwhelming for most of the year, he finished the season on a roll with a triple-digit QB rating in his last 3 games that boasted a 7:0 touchdown to interception ratio. This game will be decided by whose defence can salvage some stops; the Bengals’ run defence or the Titans’ pass defence. However, I believe that the x-factor will be the Bengals’ key injuries on the defensive front, which will allow Henry to dominate on the ground and Tannehill to have too much time in the pocket to make crucial plays.
Prediction: Titans Win 31-20
AFC Divisional Game 2- #3 Buffalo Bills @ #2 Kansas City Chiefs:
This is the game that every football fan has marked down on their calendar, and will no doubt be a thriller. Both teams are coming off dominant Wild Card round wins and repeated as champions of their respective divisions. Their play styles are mirror images of each other, as they love to throw the football, but can also run it efficiently. This is in large part due to their athletic and mobile quarterbacks, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. The Bills’ offence looked the best it’s ever been on Sunday, scoring touchdowns on their first SEVEN possessions! Yes, you heard that right. Allen threw for a near-perfect game; 21-25 with 308 passing yards, while also showcasing his athletic scrambling ability. Not only this, but Allen incorporated everyone into the passing game, but most notably, found his tight end, Dawson Knox, for two touchdowns and 89 yards. With the emergence of the young wide receivers Gabriel Davis and Isaiah McKenzie, Allen now has multiple receivers who he can lean on if the Chiefs decide to double team Stefon Diggs, making the Bills’ pass game less one-dimensional. Buffalo also is host to the best pass defence in the league, who gave up a mere 165.9 yards per game in the regular season, and picked off Mac Jones twice on wild card weekend. Safety Micah Hyde had an outstanding game, accounting for one of the interceptions where he came out of nowhere to save a touchdown. He and his safety partner Jordan Poyer have been lock-down all year in coverage and will need to be extra sharp against KC. However, another massive piece to Buffalo’s pass defence is Matt Milano, who transformed into a star linebacker, holding teams 55.2 completion percentage on plays that involve him. Milano has also been extra effective when in coverage against tight-ends, something that will help Buffalo deal with the threat of Travis Kelce.
After struggling to start the year which included leading the league in interceptions, Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs have had a complete turnaround, capped off by Mahomes throwing for an astounding 404 yards and five touchdowns in the Wild Card game against Pittsburgh. One thing that led to this increase in offensive production was Mahomes’ increased use of running backs in the passing game. Against the Steelers, Mahomes found RB Jerick McKinnon for 81 yards and a touchdown, a better offensive output than Tyreek Hill. Hill and Travis Kelce will undoubtedly be blankets for Mahomes like they’ve been the last few years, but there is more to the puzzle this time around. Kansas City has also had some breakout stars of their own at wide receiver by the likes of Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson, who have both shown some explosive skill, demonstrated by Robinson’s 76-yard performance on just four receptions on Sunday. Mahomes has shown more of a willingness to throw them the ball, and it has been a huge reason why the Chiefs find themselves in this divisional-round matchup. On the defensive side of the ball, the Chiefs will lean towards their star players: veteran defensive lineman Chris Jones who had 9 sacks and swallows up the run game, terrific rookie linebacker Nick Bolton who racked up 112 tackles, and star safety Tyrann Matthews. This powerhouse matchup features the best third-down offence (KC) versus the best third-down defence (Buffalo) and could easily go either way. However, I think that the Chiefs have the slight edge as they’ve been practically unstoppable of late (10-1 since November 1), have a 7-2 record at home, and have performed well in the playoffs under head coach Andy Reid. Nevertheless, it will be close.
Prediction: Chiefs win 42-38
NFC Divisional Game 1- #6 San Francisco 49ers @ #1 Green Bay Packers:
Coming off an upset of the Dallas Cowboys, the Niners are riding a hot wave where they’ve found their identity. They started the year 2-4 but won eight of their last eleven which included beating the Los Angeles Rams to make the playoffs, and the Dallas Cowboys to have a date with the Packers in the Divisional round. The most impressive part of the feat is that they managed to win both games on the road as well as hold on to small leads, something that is very hard to do in the NFL. Jimmy Garrapolo played well enough to get the job done on Sunday but is still an area for concern for the Niners. Against the Cowboys, his QB rating was a meagre 67.4, and over the last 3 games, he has thrown five interceptions. He also struggled to find his star tight end, George Kittle, who is one of the Niner’s biggest offensive weapons but only had one reception against the Cowboys. The good news for the Niners is that they’ve had success on the ground all season, which transferred over to their win over Dallas. Elijah Mitchell didn’t have his best performance but still ran for 100 yards, while Deebo Samuel ran for 72 yards on only 10 attempts- averaging 7.2 a carry. Running the ball will surely be the game plan for San Fran, as the Packers had one of the worst run defences in the entire NFL, giving up 4.7 yards per carry. However, beating the Cowboys did come at a hefty cost, as their best pass rusher, Nick Bosa, and top open-field tackler, Fred Warner, endured injuries that make them questionable for the Divisional matchup. On the other side of the field, the Packers are well-rested and pumped up to be playing at home at Lambeau Field, where they were a perfect 8-0 in the regular season. They were dominant all season, with Aaron Rodgers having another MVP calibre season and Devante Adams racking up 1500+ receiving yards. The craziest thing about Green Bay is that they had the best record in the NFL, while injured for the majority of the year. Thanks to the round one bye, the Packers have key contributors returning for the Divisional game which includes superstar OT David Bakhtiari, WR Randall Cobb, pro bowl LB Za’darius Smith, veteran LB Whitney Mercilus, and the packers’ best cornerback Jaire Alexander. On top of this, Green Bay had the best pass rush in the league, with 9.5 sacks from Rashan Gary and Preston Smith who got home for 9 sacks. Adding Za’Darius Smith and Mercilus to the mix would essentially eliminate Garrapolo’s passing game, who struggled with almost perfect protection against the Cowboys. At the end of the day, the 49ers will also have difficulty with disrupting the Packers’ offence with Baktiari protecting Rodgers, so this should be a relatively comfortable win for Cheeseheads.
Prediction: Packers win 35-17
NFC Divisional Game 2- #3 Los Angeles Rams @ #2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
If you enjoy watching high-powered offences, this is the game for you. The Los Angeles Rams went all-in before the trade deadline, and have started to find their groove. Matthew Stafford exercised his postseason demons and did it dominantly, completing 76.5% of his passes to go alongside a 154.5 passer rating, and didn’t throw an interception- something that was a rarity in the regular season. Though he and his MVP candidate wide receiver Cooper Kupp have had phenomenal chemistry all season, Stafford has started to incorporate his other targets on a more consistent basis. In the Wild Card matchup against the Arizona Cardinals, Stafford threw 40+ yards to Odell Beckham Jr, Van Jefferson, and Tyler Higbee, showing that the Rams are capable of utilizing a multi-dimensional pass game to exploit an already injured Buccaneers secondary. In addition to this, thanks to running back Cam Akers’ quick recovery from an ACL tear, the Rams have a 1-2 punch that can run the ball effectively. Sony Michel is more physical, and Akers is shifty and elusive. However, the scary part about Los Angeles is that their defence is arguably better than their offence! Aaron Donald has been a constant playmaker on the defensive line with 12.5 sacks, while linebacker Von Miller is looking like his Super Bowl 50 MVP self. The Rams secondary also was third in the NFL in interceptions, and the fifth-best rating against the pass, commanded by their all-pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dismantled the Eagles last week, in a game where the passing game was unstoppable. Tom Brady was 29/37 with 271 yards, 117 of them going to wide receiver Mike Evans. However, the Buccaneers’ running game was inefficient for the entire game, in large part due to not having running backs Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones. However, as I alluded to earlier, the Buccaneers are dealing with a long list of key injuries that include their receiving yards leader Chris Godwin, top pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul, and star CB Sean Murphy Bunting. Most notably, Tampa’s top two offensive linemen; Ryan Jensen and Tristan Wirfs, are listed as questionable due to injuries sustained against the Eagles. If Jensen and Wirfs are out of the lineup or not at 100% health, it would be extremely problematic because the Rams’ defence had the third-most sacks in the league and loves to bring pressure. This does not bode well with Tom Brady having to throw the ball for most of the game due to the Rams’ excellent run defence and Tampa’s lack of efficiency running the ball. Though anything can happen when TB12 plays, I think that the injuries will be too much for Tampa Bay to overcome and that the Rams are the more complete team at the moment.
Prediction: Rams win 29-21