Marquee matchups on tap of NFL divisional round

After correctly predicting all six Wild Card games last week, staff writer sees 49ers beating Green Bay to advance to NFC Championship Game


Courtesy of SportsLogos.Net

It’s NFL Championship Weekend with the 49ers, Rams, Chiefs and Bengals vying for a spot in the Super Bowl.

Michael Zarich, Staff Writer

Welcome to the divisional round! In the NFC, the San Francisco 49ers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Los Angeles Rams all took care of business to advance to the second round to join the top-seeded Green Bay Packers, which had a first round bye. 

In the AFC, the Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills, and Kansas City Chiefs all won and now join the No. 1 seed Tennessee Titans in the divisional round. 

So with eight teams left to play in the four games this weekend, who will advance to the AFC and NFC championship games?

Here is a complete preview and prediction for the four divisional round games.

No. 4 Cincinnati Bengals at No. 1 Tennessee Titans (-3.5)

Saturday at 1:30 p.m. on  CBS

The First out of the four divisional round games is the only matchup that is not a rematch from the regular season. The AFC North Champion Bengals head to face the well rested Titans. Tennessee finished 12-5, atop the AFC South, and secured the bye as the top seed.  

The Titans could be getting back the best power running back Saturday if all in practice goes smoothly. Derrick Henry’s status is still unknown as well as his role if he plays on Saturday. The Titans are a tough, physical team that is coached extremely well in all phases of the game. Head coach Mike Vrabel is a coach of the year candidate and always seems to get his guys ready for big games as they are 7-3 against teams with winning records. 

The Bengals are coming off of a home 26-19 Wild Card win against the Raiders which marked their first playoff win in 31 years. Quarterback Joe Burrow and the boys are red hot and look to continue their surge into the divisional round. Can the Titans slow them down? Or will the Bengals keep their dream season alive?

Titans keys to the game:

  • Tennessee’s bread and butter on offense is the power rushing attack complemented with the play action. With Cincy missing defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi,  look for the Titans to dominate the rushing game with both D’onta Foreman and Henry. 
  • Quarterback Ryan Tannehil cannot turn the ball over and needs to be efficient when drawing back to pass.
  • Tennessee has both receivers Julio Jones and AJ Brown healthy, so Tannehill needs to get them the ball and look for them to be explosive in the passing attack down the middle of the field.
  • Vrabel’s recipe for success is to dominate the trenches on both offense and defense. On defense he’s got tough big guys upfront in d-ends Denico Autry and second team All Pro Jeffrey Simmons. Those two combined for 17.5 sacks are also big in stopping the run. Tennessee is 2nd in their run defense, so Joe Mixon will have a tough time. The Titans don’t blitz as much but instead generate pressure through stout 3-4 man rushes. Everybody is very disciplined which makes it tougher for opposing offenses. 
  • If the Titans can stop the run and bring pressure on Burrow, they’ll have a lot of success in the overall outcome of the game
  • In the secondary,1st team All Pro safety Kevin Byard is going to need to make plays against Burrow.

Bengals keys to the game:

  • The Bengals already have a disadvantage in the trenches with their offensive line against the Titans defensive line. Running the ball should be a lot tougher which will force Burrow to pass the ball a lot more than they did against the Raiders. Good thing for them, They have the advantage at quarterback with Burrow and they’ll look to get the ball out quick and early. 
  • Cincy needs to be able to spread the ball around to other receivers in CJ Uzomah, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. While Jamar Chase is a stud, they can’t get too one dimensional with him. Cincy’s passing attack is at its best when the defense has to defend the whole field against all of their playmakers. 
  • On defense, Trey Hendrickson should be a full go, which is huge for the Bengals, especially so they can bring pressure to Ryan Tannehill. 
  • The perfect game plan for Cincy is to get into a shootout or get a lead early and force the Titans and Ryan Tannehill to have to throw the ball. Tannehill has 14 interceptions and can make mistakes, especially in the red zone. 

Prediction: While I’m a huge Burrow fan and have all the faith in him, the Titans are well rested and healthy, which gives them a big advantage. The Titans will dominate the trenches and will have an easier time controlling the clock with the running game and moving down the field. Too much of the game will be on Burrow, and with that bad offensive line, Tennessee will do just enough to secure the win. 

Tennessee 33-26

No. 6 San Francisco 49ers @ No. 1 Green Bay Packers (-5.5)

Saturday at 5:15 p.m. on FOX

The Saturday night game is a rematch from Week 3 when the Packers won 30-28 on a game winning field goal. Green Bay is the top  seed once again after going 13-4. Aaron Rodgers is the favorite to win back to back  MVPs in what seems to be his likely last year in Green Bay. Rodgers is playing at his peak level throwing for 37 TDs and only four interceptions. 

The Packers also might be getting back elite players in offensive tackle David Bakhtairi and cornerback Jaire Alexander. While the Packers are well rested, have the MVP and are heavy favorites at home in the frozen tundra, the 49ers style of play gives them a very solid shot at winning.

The 49ers are coming off of a road win against the Dallas Cowboys in a Wild Card game thriller and look to keep rolling. They’re style of play and potential of getting Nick Bosa and Fred Warner back healthy could set them up for a huge upset and a trip to the NFC championship game. Here’s how each team looks:

49ers keys to the game:

  • On offense, it’s all about the running game. The 49ers game plan, especially in the cold and with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo partially injured, needs to be to run the ball down the Packers’ throats and use up all the clock. They have to try to keep Rodgers and the offense on the sideline. The Packers’ weakness on the defense is their ability to stop the run, so that could work in coach Kyle Shanahan’s favor.
  • Deebo Samuel. Get the ball out of Jimmy G’s hands and to their best player. Samuel should get plenty of looks in the slot, in motion, and as a receiver to do damage. 
  • The 49ers creativity in the running game, especially in blocking with left tackleTrent Williams, fullback Kyle  Juszczyk and tight end George Kittle, should be a lot to handle for Green Bay. 
  • Eventually Jimmy G is going to need to attack outside one on one with his playmaking receivers in Deebo and Brandon Aiyuk. The whole Packer defense will be focusing on stopping the run and inside slants/crosses/option routes, o maybe Jimmy G can take some shots and force Green Bay to break out of the box.
  • Whether or not the 49ers defense has a chance, it’s simple. They need to have both Bosa and Warner healthy. If one of the two can’t play, it doesn’t  matter who replaces them, they’ll be in for a tough time. 
  • To beat Rodgers, it starts with wide receiver Davante Adams. You can’t stop both of them, but you can limit them. The 49ers need to find a way to not let Adams dominate the game. The Niners like to rush four and sit back in cover two zone, but they’ll need to figure out a way to not let Adams roam around in zone or be covered by one player. 
  • Try to frustrate Rodgers early on by winning matchups up front and pressuring him. Arik Armstead, DJ Jones and Bosa need to win their matchups on the line and make life difficult for Rodgers.

Packers keys to the game:

  • On offense, it’s the Rodgers show. He loves playing in the cold and can terrify a defense with all of his little tweaks at the line of scrimmage. He’s great at changing the play, attacking weak spots, using snap counts to confuse the defense, and of course threading the needle.
  • Establish a running game with Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon to make the 49ers defense stack the box and change into man.
  • Look for Green Bay to try to get the 49er defense man to man attacking the corners outside the numbers and inside with deep ins and slants.
  • On defense, the weakness has been stopping the run, so most of the focus should be on stopping the 49ers rushing attack of Elijah Mithell and Deebo Samuel. They have to be physical enough up front especially.
  • Both team’s game plans should be to control the clock. For the Packers, playing with a lead will force Garoppolo, who has a torn ligament on his thumb and a sprained shoulder, to throw the ball. That could be a huge advantage for the Packers.

Prediction: While the spread may be -5.5 in favor for the top-seed Packers, the 49ers are the perfect matchup to beat the Packers. The 49ers will be more physical than the Packers on both sides of the ball giving them the edge once again in the playoffs. The quarterback matchup is the one making this pick a tough one because at one point Jimmy G is going to have to make throws to win this game. But there’s something about this 49ers team since that Rams game in Week 18 that makes me think they can beat Green Bay.

San Francisco 26-23

No. 4 Los Angeles Rams at No. 2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers  (-3.0)

Sunday at Noon on NBC

In another highly anticipated rematch, the Los Angeles Rams take on the Buccaneers Sunday afternoon. The two teams faced each other Week 3 in Los Angeles and the Rams won 34-24. The Rams have had Tom Brady’s number as a Buc as they also beat him last year in the regular season. 

The Defending champs have yet to be knocked, so can Matt Stafford and Rams defeat the Buccaneers, but this time in Tampa?

Rams keys to the game:

  • On offense, Sean McVay and the Rams will look to provide a balanced attack of mixing the running game and the passing game. When the Rams are at their best, they’ve been able to run the ball early with success and use the play action and shotgun off of that. The key for Matthew Stafford is for the Rams to run the ball  to keep the Bucs’ defense guessing a little bit.
  • The Rams don’t need to run the ball for more than 100 yards, but they have to run the ball at least 15 times.
  • Running back Cam Akers returning was an amazing story after he tore his Achilles tendon six months ago before the season began. He looked better than ever against Arizona in the opening round and really showed his explosiveness and thump. Look for another big role for Akers.
  • One of the reasons why McVay loves his inside/outside zone runs is because his playaction and bootleg plays look almost identical to the run. With bunched sets, it becomes difficult for the defense to guess if the run or pass is coming.
  • Attack the corners. Tampa Bay isn’t as good in their secondary then with their linebackers and front, so Stafford is going to need to make a lot of big time throws to his weapons in Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham Jr, and Tyler Higbee. 
  • Finally, Stafford has to play another high level game and can’t turn the ball over. He needs to be sharp and has to be able to execute because this game is another animal compared to last week’s walk over the Cardinals.
  • On the defensive side of the ball, it’s simple. The Rams have to get pressure and rattle Brady. The Rams are one of the worst matchups for Brady, and a reason why the Rams have had some recent success against Tampa is that they are extremely quick up front. Los Angeles can rush the passer with their front four in Aaron Donald, Greg Gaines, A’shawn Robinson and either Von Miller or Leonard Floyd. 
  • The Rams have to keep the same blueprint of rushing the passer with four, confusing the coverages, being quick to the ball, and making Brady throw the ball away. All of that can be done.

Buccaneers keys to the game:

  • The Bucs offense should be getting back Pro Bowl running back Leonard Fournette, who provides a part of the offense which is extremely valuable in the running game, blocking for Brady, and receiving out of the backfield. The bad news is that offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs missed practice on Thursday and is trending toward not playing. He’s their best lineman and one of the best in the game, so that’s a massive blow for the Bucs.
  • Tampa will try to do something similar to what they did last week against the Eagles, which is get the ball out of Brady’s hands quickly.
  • Look for wide receiver Mike Evans to be used all across the field and for other receivers like Tyler Johnson and Scotty Miller to help out the passing game.
  • They need to use their size up front and really protect Brady.
  • This is another game of who wins the battles up front. The big boys in Vita Vea, Ndamukoung Suh, Jason Pierre Paul and Shaq Barrett are going to need to pressure Stafford and force mistakes.
  • Key players need to make plays, especially the guys like Barrett, Devin White, Lavonte David, and Jameal Dean. The defense is near healthy and ready to go like last year
  • Force Stafford and the Rams into shotgun and bring pressure in creative ways. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles becomes tough to stop when he can dial up the blitzes in different ways.

Prediction: It’s very difficult to bet against Brady, but the Rams have the pieces to beat the reigning champs. The defense has the speed and playmaking abilities to frustrate Brady. I think the offense will do just enough and Stafford will one up his game from last week.

Rams 31-28

No.3 Buffalo Bills at No. 2 Kansas City Chiefs (-2.5)

Sunday 3:30 p.m. on CBS

The biggest game of the week is the finale of the divisional round. Some are calling this the AFC Championship Game, while others are labeling the Mahomes/Allen rivalry to be the next “Manning/Brady.” In a rematch of last year’s AFC championship game, the Chiefs look to continue on in hopes of a third straight Super Bowl appearance.

Buffalo is coming off of one of the best performances in playoff history. The Bills played a “perfect” game and scored a touchdown on every possession. Allen is one of the only other quarterbacks that can match Patrick Mahomes’ play. The Bills won the matchup much earlier in the year, 37-20, but this is a different Chiefs team from then. This is Buffalo’s real revenge game, so can Allen prove that he’s on Mahome’s level yet, or do the Chiefs advance to their fourth straight AFC Championship Game?

Chiefs keys to the game: 

  • Both teams know that it’s all about the offense. Which Quarterback can outduel each other and which offense can score more points is the big question? Ever since Week 8, the Chiefs offense hasn’t changed but it started to adapt to defenses. Mahomes has stopped turning the ball over and has been taking what the defense has been giving him. 
  • While the Chiefs are playing the No. 1 overall defense, Mahomes, tight end Travis Kelce, and wide receiver Tyreek Hill should all still be able to make impact plays. Look for receivers Byron Pringle, Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson to play themselves open as the Bills will overload on stopping Kelce and Hill.
  • If the Chiefs offense plays to their abilities they should be able to move up and down the field.
  • On defense, Kansas City loves to run man to man. They got speed guys out in the secondary but Buffalo is one of the only offenses that can match that. 
  • Stopping Buffalo is going to be a problem all night, so Kansas City is going to need to rely on confusing looks for Allen. The only way to stop him is by creating turnovers and confusing him pre snap and post snap. Once he knows what the defense is doing, good luck.

Bills keys to the game:

  • The offense lives and dies through Allen. Not only does he have elite arm strength, but he’s their main rusher. Allen will look to beat the Chiefs in all phases of his game, the run, run-pass option, deep pass, and throws outside the pocket.
  • Since the Chiefs like to run man to man, Allen will be taking lots of shots down the field and look for his speedsters in Isaiah Mckenzie and Gabriel Davis to make plays.
  • There’s no stopping Mahomes. All Buffalo’s defense can do is limit him. They’re going to need to be able to tackle in space and create turnovers. Mahomes is a gunslinger, so Buffalo will have plenty of opportunities to create havoc and look for turnovers on all levels of the defense.
  • The secondary is in for a challenge, but it’s still one of the best in the league. Safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde have game changing abilities and are going to need to match up well.
  • Linebackers Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds are both elite in their position, but they’re going to need to tackle those speedsters and limit the yards after the catch.
  • While Buffalo does have the No. 1 defense, everyone knows this is a game between the two offenses. But the defense that can put their offense in the best position to score will win the game

Prediction: The Chiefs are the kings of the AFC. They have been for the last two years. But what Allen did last week makes me believe in him. I think he does just enough to out play Mahomes, while Buffalos D makes the plays to win the game.

Buffalo 37-34