OK, so the much ballyhooed Super Wild Card Weekend slate ended up being something of a bust. Of the six games, four ended up being blowouts, with only the Cincinnati Bengals’ win over the Las Vegas Raiders and the Dallas Cowboys’ epic choke-job against the San Francisco 49ers providing much drama. However, with the NFL playoff field culled down to eight, the divisional round traditionally ends up providing fans with the most exciting four games of the year. Here are our predictions for which teams will be advancing to the conference finals.
Cincinnati Bengals at Tennessee Titans (Saturday, 4.30pm EST/9.30pm GMT)
What the Bengals need to do to win: At the risk of repeating ourselves, the Bengals’ success lies in Joe Burrow keeping it up. If Burrow can have another performance like the one had against the Raiders last week, where he threw for two touchdowns (albeit one with an assist from an erroneous whistle) and amassed 244 yards, the Bengals could pull off something nearly unthinkable: a playoff winning streak.
What the Titans need to do to win: Rely heavily on their running game. Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill has had a fine year, but the passing game is not their true strength. Plus, the Bengals’ defense has allowed a not-ideal 4.4 yards per rush this season, making it a crucial weakness for the Titans’ running back corps to exploit.
Key player: Derrick Henry, running back, Titans. While Henry has been out with a fractured foot since Week 8, the unstoppable running back is one of the best players in the league when healthy. The question is how good he will be. Tennessee has proven they can with without him, going 6-3 in his absence, but the playoffs are a different beast and the Titans are at their most dangerous when Henry is barreling through hapless defenses.
Prediction: Bengals over Titans
San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers (Saturday, 8.15pm EST/Sunday 1.15am GMT)
What the 49ers need to do to win: Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who is dealing with a strained shoulder, simply cannot afford to make the mistakes that nearly doomed his team against the Cowboys. During the win, he threw one potentially game-changing pick in the fourth quarter and was inches away from throwing a second. The 49ers got away with their blunders last week because the Cowboys were even sloppier, but the Green Bay Packers won’t be as forgiving.
What the Packers need to do to win: With Aaron Rodgers as their quarterback, the trick will be for the Green Bay defense to force the ailing Garoppolo into a throwing contest. The Packers should be able to score with ease – that’s not going to be the issue – but the 49ers are a great team, well-rounded team that could very well keep pace. That is unless, as noted above, they expose San Francisco’s weakness at the most important position in the entire sport. If fans are starting to call for 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan to insert rookie Trey Lance by halftime, this one will essentially be a wrap.
Key player: Davante Adams, wide receiver, Green Bay Packers. Aaron Rodgers is going to be the league MVP for the second straight season, but let’s give some credit to his top receiver. Adams is a huge reason for Rodgers’ success, having put up 2,927 yards and scored 29 touchdowns combined over the past two seasons. If this weekend’s heavyweight matchup is Josh Allen v Patrick Mahomes, then Adams v Deebo Samuel will make one hell of an undercard.
Prediction: Packers over 49ers
Los Angeles Rams at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sunday, 3.00pm EST/8.00pm GMT)
What the Rams need to do to win: Get a big game from quarterback Matthew Stafford. The Buccaneers have a great scoring defense but not the best luck in limiting the pass. Opposing quarterbacks averaged a 65% completion rate against the Bucs. If Stafford can do his best to throw it to the players wearing Rams uniforms, not exactly his greatest attribute as a QB, he could put his team in line for a road victory.
What the Buccaneers need to do to win: Keep Tom Brady upright. If the offensive line doesn’t do its job, the Rams could stifle the mighty Tampa Bay offense. As great as Brady is, he’s still 44 years old and was never the most mobile quarterback in the league. He’s also missing most of his reliable targets, not counting Rob Gronkowski, so he might need an extra second or two to get the ball out of his hands.
Key player: Aaron Donald, defensive tackle, Rams. What Rodgers is to defense, Aaron Donald is to defense. The preseason favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year every year, he’s exactly the guy to disrupt Brady’s flow and stop Tampa Bay’s attempt at winning back-to-back Super Bowls before it barely began.
Predictions: Buccaneers over Rams
Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday 6.00pm EST/11.00pm GMT)
What the Bills need to do to win: Score a touchdown on every drive again? In last week’s thorough humiliation of the New England Patriots, the Bills did just that if you don’t count the game-ending kneel down. They clearly don’t need any notes from a gameplay perspective but maybe the best advice they should heed is not to get too cocky after pitching a perfect game. The Patriots essentially folded against them last week and the Chiefs will do no such thing.
What the Chiefs need to do to win: The Chiefs defense must put together a clinic. Despite being much-improved from previous incarnations, Kansas City’s defense is still not entirely a known entity. It’s going to be a team effort on Sunday, because even if they stop the pass, Allen can just take the ball himself. He’s rushed for 60 yards in five of his last six games.
Key player: Josh Allen, quarterback, Bills. Josh Allen’s not entirely expected development from a promising but highly erratic younger passer to one of the most dangerous offensive threats in the game has been one of the league’s best storylines. Now comes the biggest challenge of his young career: winning a shoot-out against Patrick Mahomes during a road playoff game.
Can he pull it off? Well, that’s why they play the games … and it’s going to be glorious watching him try. This is the game of the weekend and possibly the entire NFL season.
Prediction: Chiefs over Bills