The NFL fun continues! Four more games all featuring superior teams! One can argue that the Bills-Chiefs game could serve as the conference championship. Likewise with the Rams-Bucs game. Nothing against the Packers and Titans who both rightfully earned home field advantage or the upstart 49ers and Bengals, two teams loaded with offensive firepower. There is not one team that seems like a slam dunk to make it the Super Bowl. We truly have a wide open race for Super Bowl LVI.
Before we dive into the divisional round, it is important to reflect back on wildcard weekend. What a profitable weekend it was! 6-0 straight up! 4-2 against the spread! The Bengals score prediction was perfect. So was the Chiefs margin of victory. The Bucs-Eagles score was quite close to my prediction (actual 31-15, predicted 34-20). Of course I picked the 49ers to pull off the upset which is even sweeter when they beat an old time rival. I didn't anticipate blowouts with the Bills and Rams but at least I selected both teams to win. Last weekend lived it up to its moniker. It was wild indeed!
Now we get tighter matchups as shown by the low spreads. The model also agrees with the low spreads but not the favored teams except for Tampa Bay. Check out the table below showing my model's outputs.
Like last week, I am hesitant to play the over-unders. I would have gone 3-2-1 if I followed my model on the over-under bets but the lines were just too close to the predicted totals. Instead, we will stick with what has worked for us: betting against the spread and taking moneyline plays on dogs with good value. I must say I was pleasantly surprised to see the model favor the 49ers and Bills. Both teams had regular season games against their opponents this weekend. Buffalo dominated Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium earlier this year. Will history repeat itself? The 49ers were down 17-0 in the first half when they hosted Green Bay on Sunday Night Football back in Week 3. It came down to the wire with the 49ers taking a 28-27 lead with just 37 seconds left only to fall prey to one of Aaron Rodgers many epic comebacks. Momentum is clearly on the side of San Francisco and Buffalo. The other two games are tough to call. Tampa Bay has had to make several adjustments lately due to the recent injuries to Chris Godwin and Leonard Fournette and Antonio Brown's public meltdown. Meanwhile Tennessee will most likely get Derrick Henry back from a foot fracture.
Now that I have given you a teaser with what to expect for each game, let's dissect the matchups so that we can make informed decisions on who to select as our winners for this round of 8 this weekend. Without further ado, here are my predictions for the Divisional round.
- Tennessee 24 - Cincinnati 23
The Return of the King! King Henry that is! Will just Derrick Henry but still a big deal! Sorry to confuse any of you movie buffs with the Lord of the Rings reference or you world history buffs with the former English monarch notorious for his many wives and tyrannical rule. Whenever Henry is on the field, he typically rules the day with the way he runs the ball. It is truly downhill and punishing and he has breakaway speed. His foot fracture was probably a blessing in disguise since the Titans still managed to secure home field advantage without Henry's services during the 2nd half of the regular season. Now Tennessee gets Henry back fully rested and ready to rumble. While Cincinnati has looked sharp and could present some matchup nightmares for the Titans, I suspect Titans head coach Mike Vrabel will keep things simple. Run the ball often, surprise the defense every once in a while with a deep passing playing, and get after the opposing QB. Out of all remaining teams in the postseason, the Bengals have the worst pass pass defense. It's not awful but it's not great. I can see AJ Brown having a big game with 100 yards and a TD. Usually when Tennessee builds a sizable lead, the defense will tee off on the QB. The Titans were in the top 10 with sacks and no QB was sacked more frequently than Joe Burrow.
If you take a look at the home-away splits for Burrow and the Titans defense, you will see that Burrow's numbers drop significantly on the road while the Titans pass defense is much stronger at home. Burrow completed 73.44% of his passes for a QB rating of 111.7 and 9.32 yards per pass attempt while playing in Cincinnati. On the road those numbers dipped to 65.5% completion %, 102.7 QB rating, and 8.15 yards per pass attempt. Of course those road numbers are still very good but it's clear that Burrow does not put up the same impressive stats away from his home stadium. On the flip side, the Titans pass defense was stout at home. Visiting QBs completed 61.3% of their passes for 6.7 yards per pass attempt and a QB rating of 78.7. The TD-INT ratio of 10-10 is outstanding. However, the Titans were not as good at defending pass when playing on the road. Those numbers rose to 64.8% completion %, 7.7 yards per pass attempt, a QB rating of 95.5, and a TD-INT ratio of 14-6.
One could point to the fact that the Titans played in a weak division which is true. The Colts were incredibly inconsistent and the Jaguars and Texans are absolute shit. However, the Titans played a very tough schedule outside of their division and thrived. They went 4-1 against playoff opponents by beating San Francisco, Buffalo, Kansas City, and the LA Rams. All four of those teams are still in the playoffs. The only loss was to Arizona in Week 1 which seems like an anomaly. When you consider the home-away splits between Burrow and the Titans pass defense, the fierce competition the Tennessee stared down (and won!), the return of Henry and Brown, and an extra week of rest, there is just too much for the Bengals to overcome. The game will be close given the Bengals immense talent and beaming confidence but Burrow's magic carpet ride will come to end in Music City.
- San Francisco 27 - Green Bay 17
Some people thought I was crazy to pick the 49ers to beat the Cowboys last week. I am sure even more people will think I have gone mad to pick the 49ers again to win against a more formidable opponent in a very daunting venue. After all, this will be the 49ers third straight road game against stiff competition and the last two games were super intense and went down to the wire. Meanwhile, the Packers boast the best record in the NFL and are well rested. Green Bay had a bye last week and its Week 18 game against the cowardly Lions meant nothing with home field locked up after Week 17. However, that is where I feel the Packers' advantages come to a screeching halt.
Sure, Aaron Rodgers is having another amazing season and should win his 4th regular season MVP award. Davante Adams is arguably a top 5 WR and has been since 2018. The 49ers pass defense in man coverage is horrible. But didn't the 49ers just beat two very good passing offenses that are loaded with talent? If the 49ers can contain Cooper Kupp and all of the weapons Dak Prescott has at his disposal, something tells me that they will be fine against Adams, especially given the weather conditions at Lambeau Field. The game time temperature for tomorrow night in Green Bay will 4 degrees. Yes, 4 degrees. Of course the 49ers don't have the same experience playing in those elements but does Adams, easily the 49ers biggest worry? He went to high school in Palo Alto, right across the street from the sunny Stanford campus and played college football at Fresno State where the typical daily high temperature is over 100 degrees for at least 1/3 of the year and around 90 degrees for another 1/3.
For those who have followed football for a while, you should know quite well that it's awfully hard to move the football through the air when the temperature hits single digits. That is just physics for you science majors out there. The ball doesn't travel as far as it does in typical game time temperatures (60 - 80 degrees) and the ball will feel like a rock. Ultimately the passing game takes a back seat making the run game even more paramount (more on that later). Adams has had a great track record against the 49ers. In five games, he has amassed 48 receptions, 612 yards, and 5 TDs. That is an average of nearly 10 receptions per games, 120 yards per game, and 1 TD per game. However, one of those games was a dud: a 37-8 loss to the 49ers during the 2019 regular season. Rodgers was sacked 5 times in that game and the Packers converted just 1 out of 15 3rd down attempts. Do you want to guess how many times the 49ers sacked Matt Stafford two weeks ago and Prescott last week? Five times each! As for 3rd downs, the Cowboys had just converted 2 out of 9 attempts prior to the 4th quarter. If the 49ers can bring the pass rush (it looks like Nick Bosa will pass the concussion protocol today), then the 49ers can neutralize the Rodgers-Adams connection. Of course the cold weather helps too.
There are two more reasons why the 49ers win convincingly in the frozen tundra on Saturday night. First reason: the run game. Period. Both teams have a strong rushing attack and depth. Green Bay can rotate often between Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon and have done so with great success this year. The problem for Green Bay is that the 49ers rush defense is outstanding. Only twice have the 49ers allowed someone to gain at least 100 yards in a game: Jonathan Taylor in Week 7 and Justin Fields in Week 8. Taylor is the 2021 rushing king and that game was wet and windy. All Fields can do right now is run and most of those yards were gained in garbage time. According to Football Outsiders, the 49ers rush defense DVOA is 2nd.
When the tables are turned, the rush game heavily favors San Francisco. The 49ers rushing attack is just as strong as Green Bay's and there is depth. They can either deploy Elijah Mitchell or Deebo Samuel for large gains, the latter representing a versatile element to the 49ers offense. As for Mitchell, the 49ers perform very well when he is given the rock early and often. In the six games where Mitchell received at least 20 carries, the 49ers are 5-1. This game could be very similar to the 2019 NFC title game where Jimmy Garoppolo attempted just 8 passes but the 49ers ran it 42 times for 285 yards and 4 TDs (most of which was accumulated by Raheem Mostert). After all, Garoppolo is dealing with both thumb and shoulder injuries right now so the keys of the offense could be handed to both Mitchell and Samuel. For those who have followed Kyle Shanahan's career, he loves to run the ball and had one of the best rushing offenses in NFL history with the 2016 Atlanta Falcons. You can bet he will dial up several run plays for big gains and the cold weather works to the 49ers advantage. So how about the Packers rush defense? Terrible. Their DVOA for rush defense is 5th worst and they have allowed the 3rd most yards per carry. Two of the Packers losses were to teams who had stud RBs: New Orleans and Minnesota. That is how you beat the Rodgers-Adams connection. Keep them on the sidelines by hogging the clock.
The final reason why the 49ers will be on their way to the NFC title game once the dust settles in Wisconsin is the weak Packers schedule. In my Wildcard article last weekend, I discussed how the Cowboys benefited from an inferior divisional schedule. The same can be said for Green Bay. If we remove the Week 18 game with Detroit, the Packers went 4-1 in the NFC North for a point differential of +67. Outside of the division, the Packers had a 9-2 record but a point differential of just +19. They won several close games that easily could have gone the other way. In fact, the Packers won 5 games with a margin of victory of 3 or fewer points. The 49ers had some struggles in the NFC West but it was also the strongest division in football. The 49ers record outside of the division was just as good as the Packers and perhaps better: 8-3 with a point differential of +73.
Sum it all up and the 49ers win by at least 10 points. You can thank me after the game if you happen to take the +200 49ers moneyline bet.
- Tampa Bay 28 - LA Rams 25
Now this is a tough one to pick. The Bucs and Rams are both well coached and well rounded. Both teams also have had to make in-season adjustments due to the loss of a starting WR with the Rams losing Robert Woods earlier this year and the Bucs losing Godwin to a similar injury as well as kicking Brown to the curb. What makes both of these teams remarkable are their depth. The Rams have arguably the best WR in football in Kupp. The Bucs have the most physically imposing WR and TE in Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski. The Rams can utilize three solid RBs and the Bucs keep finding warm bodies to tote the rock. Both QBs are seasoned veterans with one being the GOAT and the other who is very hungry to win a title after so many years of futility in Detroit. As for defense, both rank high but I would have to give the nod to LA. Aaron Donald is a menace and the best way to beat Brady is knock him on his ass with an interior pass rusher. No one is better at that position than Donald.
There are some issues for the Rams though. They don't have enough depth with defensive front four and the linebackers are weak. Brady is the master at picking apart the opposing defense's weaknesses. As for the Rams pass rush, the Rams rank high with 50 sacks. The Bucs offensive line also ranks high with allowing a league low of 23 sacks. Brady has also discovered a new security blanket in Giovani Bernard. Think James White here. Last week, Bernard played just like White had during the Brady years in New England with 13 carries for 44 yards and a TD as well as 5 receptions for 39 yards. Whatever pass rush the Rams will bring will most likely be neutralized with Tampa Bay's exceptional pass blocking and Brady's weapons in the short passing game. Plus the Rams pass rush tends to perform well when they have an early lead which kind of forces the opposing offense to pass the ball more frequently than they are comfortable doing.
So, can LA build an early lead? Maybe but here is the other issue: Matt Stafford. He has had some ugly games this year where he single handedly lost the game for his team with multiple interceptions. Those turnovers either resulted in a pick six or a very short field that led to a quick TD for the opposition. As for turnover differential, the Bucs are one of the best and even better at home. Tampa ranked 6th overall with a +10 turnover differential and went +8 at home. If you throw out the first game against Dallas (Dallas had the best turnover differential this season with +14 and a +3 differential in their game against Tampa Bay) and the shutout to New Orleans, the Bucs had six homes games with a combined turnover differential of +13. Meanwhile the Rams had a pedestrian turnover differential of just +2. The Rams don't lost often but when they do, it's because of turnovers. In their five losses, the turnover differential drops to -7. Two of those games were on the road and all of them were to playoff teams.
The long travel and one less day of rest (having had to play on Monday night which has never happened in playoff history) will also impact the Rams. They just won't have enough time to prepare against the defending champions. Think about it. They win on Monday night. Rest on Tuesday. Start game planning on Wednesday. Practice on Thursday. Board the plane either Friday or Saturday for cross country travel. Adjust to a three hour time difference and also lose three hours. West coast teams struggle on the road against east coast teams for a reason. Sometimes the west coast team wins those games but typically against inferior teams. The Bucs are a superior squad and will get back to the NFC title game ending the Rams hopes of playing the Super Bowl at home.
- Buffalo 28 - Kansas City 24
Kudos to the NFL schedule makers for giving us the best matchup in the Sunday afternoon/evening slot. If there were not separate conferences, these two teams could conceivably play in the Super Bowl. They are both that good. We have arguably the best team in the NFL since 2018 against the most talented and well rounded squad this season. The Chiefs will try to become just the 4th team to earn a 3rd straight trip to the Super Bowl whereas the Bills will try to get back to the big game for the first time in 28 years. For Bills fans, the early 90s were good times with their AFC dominance but also heartbreaking with four straight Super Bowl losses. Interestingly, the last time Los Angeles hosted the Super Bowl was one of the Bills' four Super Bowl losses: an embarrassing 52-17 defeat to Dallas at the Rose Bowl. Will the Bills keep marching their way through the AFC and hopefully give the city of Buffalo its first Super Bowl championship? Perhaps but it all depends on what Bills team shows up.
The 2021 season has been a roller coaster ride for Josh Allen and Bills Mafia. They started the season 4-1 culminating with a dominant 38-20 victory in Kansas City. At first it seemed that the torch had been passed from Patrick Mahomes to Allen for AFC superiority. Then the Bills spiraled out of control going 3-5 for their next 8 games. Three of those losses were to playoff teams and there 3 wins were against teams that didn't make the postseason. The other two losses were humiliating. A 9-6 loss to the 3-14 Jaguars. Keep in mind that the Bills were a 14.5 favorite to win that games. Then a 41-15 beat down at home to Indianapolis where Taylor rumbled for 185 rushing yards on 32 carries and score FIVE touchdowns. How did the Bills respond to that adversity? By winning their last 4 regular season games to repeat as AFC East Champions. Then they handed Bill Belichick one of the worst defeats of his illustrious career wth a 47-17 ass kicking at Orchard Park.
The Chiefs have also had their share of adversity this season. For the first seven games, Kansas City was 3-4 and were outmatched by Buffalo and Tennessee, two teams hungry to win the AFC Championship. The Super Bowl hangover was real for them. Then the Chiefs went on an 8 game winning streak and it could be 11 games if they didn't let Cincinnati pull off a comeback victory.
Like the Rams and Bucs, both teams have outstanding head coaches and boast a lot of talent so I expect a close game. So why take Buffalo? The model likes Buffalo and more times than not, the model has been correct. Also, the game between Kansas City had against Denver in Week 18 (a Saturday game where home field advantage was still possible for Kansas City) revealed a glaring weakness for the Chiefs: QBs who can run. Drew Lock is by no means a threat to gain yards on the ground but he scored two rushing TDs to start the game and the Chiefs defense had a "deer in headlights" look. When Allen played the Chiefs earlier in the season, he had 11 carries for 59 yards and a TD. In Week 2, when Baltimore beat Kansas City 36-35, Lamar Jackson carried the ball 16 times for 107 yards and 2 TDs. Those two scores happened in the 4th quarter and we all know that Jackson is a serious threat to score with his feet. Even Ryan Tannehill scored a rushing TD against Kansas City and he is slow! Justin Herbert got into the mix with a rushing TD in his 2nd game against Kansas City this season which the Chiefs needing overtime to win. I am surprised that Jalen Hurts did not score a TD when the Eagles played Kansas City earlier in the season but he ran the ball 8 times for 47 yards.
Interestingly Josh Allen wasn't a prolific rusher in his last year at Wyoming but during his 4 years in the NFL, he has become one of the best QBs to move the chains and score with his feet. Check out the table below.
So will the Bills win if the Josh Allen has a great game on the ground? I say yes. Buffalo is 23-4 since 2018 when Allen scores a rushing TD. I think he scores twice with a couple of TD passes to Dawson Knox. This game will be back and forth and could have a few lead changes since the Chiefs offense is still one of the best. At the end of the day though, it will be Josh Allen who carries the Bills on his back to avenge their AFC title loss to Kansas City last year. Orchard Park will be rocking next week when the Bills host the AFC Championship for first time since 1994 (Joe Montana's 2nd to last playoff game).
Thank you for making it to the end of this article. I hope I have given you some food for thought as you prepare for another exciting weekend of playoff football!