This NFL postseason feels like the most wide open of any in recent history with many paths for different teams to go to Super Bowl LVI. This coming weekend, both no. 1 seeds will be the healthiest they’ve been all year coming out of the first-round bye. Sean McVay has a new quarterback for the Super Bowl LIII rematch with Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, and Josh Allen and company are out for revenge after Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs dealt them a devastating loss in the AFC championship game last year. The stage is set for drama. Here are my NFL playoff predictions for the divisional round.
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2022 NFL Playoff Predictions – Divisional Round
Cincinnati Bengals (4) at Tennessee Titans (1)
The Bengals have at long last won a playoff game after three decades, but this weekend’s matchup at Tennessee will be far more difficult than their home win over the Raiders last Saturday. Las Vegas in large part contributed to their own demise with seven penalties, all of them on offense, and many of which cost them first downs. In fact, the Raiders were the second-most penalized team on offense this season, whereas the Titans have drawn the 10th fewest offensive penalties. Tennessee’s defense is also unheralded; despite having allowed the eighth-most passing yards this year, the Titans’ defense ranks fourth in the red zone and has allowed the sixth-fewest points to opponents. Joe Burrow has been a prolific passer in his sophomore season, ranking second-best in adjusted net yards per pass attempt (ANY/A) behind only Aaron Rodgers, but he’ll face a tough test against the Titans, who rank 11th in pass defense.
This game could come down to the battle in the trenches. Unfortunately for Cincinnati, they suffered major injuries in their win over the Raiders. Their best run defender, defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, is out with a foot injury, and defensive tackle Mike Daniels is also doubtful with a groin injury. And while it’s looking like defensive end Trey Hendrickson will play on Saturday, it’s uncertain whether he’ll be 100 percent coming back from a concussion suffered last weekend. The loss of two impact starters on the defensive line couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Bengals with Derrick Henry slated to make his return this week. While he might not be 100 percent healthy either in his first game back from the foot injury, his presence alone could force Cincinnati’s defenders closer to the line of scrimmage and open up the passing game a bit more for Tennessee. Expect Henry to find success running up the middle and to convert a few crucial fourth downs and goal-line runs en route to a close victory for the Titans.
Prediction: Titans 27, Bengals 23
San Francisco 49ers (6) at Green Bay Packers (1)
The entire football community knows that the 49ers’ key to victory will be establishing the run. San Francisco ranks fifth in rushing DVOA, and Green Bay’s defense ranks just 28th against the run. Garoppolo has also been an incredibly efficient passer this season, relying primarily upon his receivers’ ability to gain yards after the catch. Although he ranks just 22nd in intended air yards per pass attempt (IAY/PA), Garoppolo ranks sixth in ANY/A. On the other hand, the 49ers may also have difficulty stopping Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ passing offense, which ranks second in the league. While San Francisco’s defense ranks second against the run, their pass defense ranks 16th, and their cornerbacks have been extremely suspect in coverage in spite of having allowed the sixth-fewest passing yards this season. Both offenses should find success against their opponents, leading to a fairly high-scoring game even with low temperatures forecasted for Saturday night.
Health could be the biggest factor for this game. For the 49ers, Garoppolo will be playing through a shoulder sprain that could affect his accuracy, and Nick Bosa, while expected to play, may not be 100 percent in coming back from a concussion suffered last weekend. In contrast, the Packers are seemingly returning to full strength after playing through the regular season with a litany of injuries. Rodgers will likely have three starters back on the offensive line. Left tackle David Bakhtiari and center Josh Myers both returned in Week 18 and saw limited snaps against Detroit, but both should play full-time in this game after two more weeks of rest. Right tackle Billy Turner has returned to practice and is expected to be back. And on defense, Green Bay will have linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Whitney Mercilus back along with shutdown cornerback Jaire Alexander. The 49ers’ strong run game should keep them in this game, but it’s hard to fathom a road upset with Green Bay’s star-studded roster fully healthy for the first time since September.
Prediction: Packers 30, 49ers 24
Los Angeles Rams (4) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2)
After a dominating win over the Cardinals, the Rams are going on the road to face the defending Super Bowl champions. The Buccaneers’ offensive line has ranked best in the league in adjusted sack rate this season, but All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs hasn’t practiced much after suffering a high ankle sprain against Philadelphia, and his potential absence would be devastating. And while center Ryan Jensen is expected to play, he may not be 100 percent for his matchup against the best defensive tackle in the league, Aaron Donald. Pressuring opposing quarterbacks by rushing only four is a formula for success, and it’s been well-documented that Tom Brady struggles when facing interior pressure in particular. Los Angeles has an edge here, having led the league in pass rush win rate this season. Although Brady mitigated the poor pass protection last weekend by speeding up his time to throw, the Eagles still managed to sack him four times. It’ll be tough sledding for Brady even if Wirfs is active on Sunday, and it would be dire news for Tampa Bay if Wirfs were to miss this game.
On the other side, Matthew Stafford will face some difficulty as well. The Rams’ offensive line has ranked seventh in adjusted sack rate this year but will be without left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who suffered knee and ankle injuries against Arizona. Like Brady, Stafford will need to get the ball out quickly and play another clean game without turnovers as he did on Monday night for Los Angeles to advance. Ultimately, although both teams have injuries on the offensive line, the concern is greater for the Buccaneers’ offense. Brady already suffered from the fourth-most dropped passes by his receivers this season and will be without Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown. While that didn’t faze Tampa Bay’s offense against a Philadelphia secondary that ranks 25th against the pass, drops could be more ruinous against the Rams, who rank sixth in pass defense. It’s difficult to ever bet against Brady, but this game will be an uphill battle for the home team. Some Brady playoff magic and perhaps an untimely Stafford interception will be needed for the Buccaneers to pull out the win despite being favored by three points.
Prediction: Rams 30, Buccaneers 23
Buffalo Bills (3) at Kansas City Chiefs (2)
Following a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Chiefs in the AFC championship game last year, the Bills spent their offseason adding pieces for this rematch and have built their defense around being able to stop Patrick Mahomes. Even after having lost Tre’Davious White to an ACL tear on Thanksgiving, Buffalo’s defense ranks sixth in pass rush win rate and has been the best passing defense in the league this year, having allowed the fewest passing yards and fewest points to opponents. Whether that will be enough to slow down Mahomes and company remains to be seen. Even after a slow start to the season, Kansas City boasts the third-best passing offense, and their offensive line has solidified down the stretch, ranking fourth in adjusted sack rate. The Chiefs also rank fourth in both passing yards and points scored on the year, and they come into Sunday afternoon’s game having just scored 42 points against Pittsburgh last weekend.
The good news for Bills fans is that Buffalo’s offense is also red hot coming into this matchup. The Bills slaughtered the Patriots last Saturday night and set an NFL record for playing a perfect game after going a full 60 minutes without punting, kicking a field goal, or turning the ball over. And the most impressive part is that they did this to a New England defense that ranked third against the pass this season. If Buffalo’s offense can fire on all cylinders like they did last week, they have a solid chance to upset Kansas City at Arrowhead this weekend even if the defense falters a bit. Expect a shootout with the NFL having saved the best game for last in the divisional round. As with Brady, it’s tough to ever bet against Mahomes, as both quarterbacks can turn on a different gear in the playoffs. Still, though both offenses are dynamic, Buffalo’s defense in theory gives them the edge as long as they can execute consistently in this game. Never count out some Mahomes magic in the playoffs, but the Bills could get their long-awaited revenge this Sunday.
Prediction: Bills 34, Chiefs 30
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