The NFL playoffs divisional round is my favorite football weekend of the year. With eight teams playing four games in two days, it’s the best mix of football in terms of both quantity (games all afternoon and into the evening on Saturday and Sunday) and quality—only excellent teams remain. It’s hard to fake your way to this point in the postseason.
The games start with the Cincinnati Bengals at the Tennessee Titans at 4:30 p.m. (EST) on Saturday, followed by the San Francisco 49ers visiting the Green Bay Packers at 8:15 p.m. (EST). Sunday’s slate has the Los Angeles Rams visiting the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 3 p.m. (EST), then the Buffalo Bills playing at the Kansas City Chiefs at 6:30 p.m. (EST).
Below are five big questions that’ll define the action this weekend.
NFL Playoffs Preview: Top Storylines to Watch
JA'MARR CHASE 72-YARD TD! #RuleTheJungle
— NFL (@NFL) January 2, 2022
1. The Bengals and the Titans have different identities. Who will dictate the style in Tennessee?
The Bengals have a pretty lousy offensive line and not much of a running game despite a talented tailback in Joe Mixon. Their offense hums because second-year QB Joe Burrow has morphed into one of the best passers in the NFL and developed excellent chemistry with a trio of star receivers: rookie Ja’Marr Chase (who’s the best of the bunch) second-year man Tee Higgins, and sixth-year slot receiver Tyler Boyd.
The Titans score their points differently. They call runs on almost half their plays (about 46 percent, to be exact), and at 32 carries per game, they’re the most solidly run-heavy team in the NFL. They have a dominant run-blocking offensive line that loves to bulldoze, and they’ve done that enough to claim the No. 1 seed in the AFC despite a midseason injury to elite running back Derrick Henry. They signed D’Onta Foreman after Henry’s injury, and the offense has barely missed a beat.
The teams’ defenses could do different things to take the opposing offenses out of their comfort zones. The Bengals could load the box to stop the run or the Titans could scheme up a way to limit Chase’s targets. But if either offense is fully operational, that team will probably win.
Nick Bosa coming through with his 12th sack #FTTB
— NFL (@NFL) December 5, 2021
2. Can a battered 49ers defense hold up against Aaron Rodgers?
Short answer: Probably not.
Longer answer: The 49ers really need defensive end Nick Bosa, who suffered a concussion in the wild card round against the Dallas Cowboys, to be at full strength. That’s a lot to ask.
The Packers have Aaron Rodgers, one of the sport’s great quarterbacks, and he’s accustomed to playing in the frigid conditions of Lambeau Field in January. They have a strong offensive line to protect him, especially now that cornerstone tackle David Bakhtiari is back from a long-term injury.
The 49ers have a pretty good pass defense, but that’s more due to Bosa and company generating consistent pressure than the secondary keeping opposing receivers on lockdown. Bosa’s absence—or even limited effectiveness—would be a big problem, especially since the 49ers’s star linebacker Fred Warner is also hurt.
— NFL (@NFL) December 14, 2021
3. Do the Bucs have enough juice left on offense to beat the Rams?
Tom Brady’s defending champs have dealt with more attrition than any team left in the NFL playoffs. Wideout Chris Godwin was already out for the season when Antonio Brown quit the team and/or was cut right before the postseason began. Running back Leonard Fournette is on injured reserve, and backfield mate Ronald Jones II has also shown up on the injury report this week. The biggest worry for Tampa Bay: All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs hurt his ankle in the wild card round and may or may not play on Sunday.
For their part, the Rams have maybe the best cornerback in the NFL in Jalen Ramsey, and they could use him to neutralize just about any Bucs receiver (Mike Evans seems a likely target). The Rams also have some good coverage linebackers who could deal effectively with Rob Gronkowski. And the front still includes the best player in football, tackle Aaron Donald, plus good edge players like Von Miller and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. Taken together, that’s a hell of a lot for the injury-plagued Buccaneers to manage.
Five touchdowns against the No. 2 scoring defense.
— NFL (@NFL) January 17, 2022
4. Can Josh Allen repeat his performance from the wild card round?
The Bills quarterback is coming off quite possibly the best NFL playoffs performance a QB has ever posted. In a game against the New England Patriots last week, Allen completed 21 of 25 passes for 308 yards and five touchdowns, and the Bills scored a TD on every single drive except those that killed the clock at the end of the first and second halves—something no team had ever done. His 98.5 QBR (on a 100-point scale) means he played an almost perfect game.
But the Chiefs defense he’ll face at Arrowhead Stadium has been one of the best in the NFL over the back half of the season. Since Week 11, they’ve held some of the league’s better QBs (Dak Prescott, Derek Carr, and Justin Herbert) to some of the worst games of their careers while twice destroying Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger.
They did give up a bunch of yards and touchdowns to Burrow in Week 17, however, so maybe Allen can find some operating space. He’s likely to be important on the ground, as the Chiefs have had issues stopping quarterbacks as ball-carriers. (Just a few weeks ago, the Broncos QB Drew Lock, who’s not nearly the runner Allen is, had 23- and five-yard scoring runs against them.)
Mahomes finds Pringle on the double move to take the lead
— ESPN (@espn) January 17, 2022
5. Can the Bills repeat their previous win against Patrick Mahomes?
Excellent as he is, Allen is not the best quarterback in the game. That title belongs to Kansas City’s Mahomes, who shook off some early-season problems and has been dominant since Week 14. He’s thrown for at least 8.6 yards per pass in all but one game since then (a mostly meaningless Week 17 win over the Broncos) and should be in a much better place than he was in Week 5, when the Bills beat him 38–20, held him to 5 yards per throw, and intercepted him twice.
Mahomes is a magician, and he has one of the league’s best offensive brain trusts in coordinator Eric Bieniemy and head coach Andy Reid. The Chiefs will have a sound plan for this NFL playoffs rematch, and it’ll be difficult for Buffalo to produce a repeat performance.