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Four Things to Watch for in the Divisional Round

The Bills have spent an entire year crafting a plan to beat the Chiefs. Will they? And will we see Trey Lance in Green Bay?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The wild-card round of the NFL playoffs may have been sleepy, but never fear! The divisional round will surely be better.

Three of the upcoming four matchups are rematches of excellent regular-season games. Bengals-Titans is the only new matchup, which is fitting for two teams that rather surprisingly made it this far into the playoffs. As it is, the story lines building into each game are many and exciting. I’ve picked out my four favorite narratives for the divisional round, which will define what I watch for this weekend.

One last gasp for Trey Lance Time

In the 2012 NFC divisional round, the San Francisco 49ers played the Green Bay Packers. It was a 2-seed vs. 3-seed matchup at Candlestick Park—the final postseason game the storied stadium would see before the 49ers’ planned move to Levi’s Stadium the next year. There, second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards—a single-game record for a quarterback—and accounted for four total touchdowns in a 45-31 win over Aaron Rodgers’s Packers. That game was Kaepernick’s eighth career start, but it served as a true national debut for Kaepernick as a playoff-caliber quarterback.

That’s not going to happen again. But nearly 10 years later, the Niners’ new big, loping, strong-armed, dual-threat quarterback may once again matter in a playoff game against the Green Bay Packers.

Waiting for Trey Lance to take over the 49ers’ starting job has been quite the “will they, won’t they” this season. Oft-injured starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has been banged up twice, leading to two Lance starts, in which he’s looked like a talented, but still growing, rookie passer. When Garoppolo has been healthy, the Niners offense has been better with him at the helm—but Garoppolo isn’t exactly healthy. He has played with a bone chip in his throwing thumb since Week 18, and played the second half of last week’s Cowboys game with a sprained shoulder. In that second half, Garoppolo completed five of 11 passes for 39 yards and an interception that nearly brought the Cowboys back into the game.

While Garoppolo is expected to play, he’ll be at less than 100 percent. Unlike the comfortable dome setting he enjoyed on Sunday, however, Garoppolo will be tasked with gripping the ball and taking hits to his shoulder in single-degree temperatures, which creates a big unknown for prognosticating his quality of play—Garoppolo has never played in below-freezing temperatures in the NFL.

Garoppolo doesn’t necessarily have to play well for the 49ers to win games. From Week 10 (when the Niners started heavily including Deebo Samuel in the running game) through the end of the regular season, San Francisco’s rushing offense ranked fifth in the league in EPA per rush; they also ran on 57 percent of their early downs, which is the second-highest number in the league. Over that same stretch of time, the Packers allowed .016 EPA per rush—that’s the sixth-worst mark in the league.

The way the 49ers like to play is the way the Packers can be beaten. As a statuesque pocket passer, Garoppolo doesn’t help the running game at all, and benefits from it greatly in the play-action passing game—but if Garoppolo’s injuries render him inaccurate and ineffective, then the 49ers have an option to buttress their running game: Lance. The rookie allows Kyle Shanahan to add extra wrinkles to his offense in the form of read-option fakes, designed quarterback runs, and scrambles, all of which helps an offense play “11 on 11” football and further stress opposing rushing defenses. And Green Bay doesn’t have a good answer there: Only the Washington Football Team has given up more rushing yards to opposing quarterbacks this year than the Packers.

Even if Garoppolo is healthy and effective, the Niners would be wise to use Lance in key short yardage situations. Shanahan certainly thinks so: He used Lance on a third-and-goal with two seconds left in the first half against the Packers in Week 3 on a designed quarterback run that was easy pickings against the unprepared Packers defense.

Lance won’t have a Kaepernick-like playoff debut on Saturday, but don’t be surprised if the confluence of factors in this Packers-49ers game prompts San Francisco to give him at least a few snaps as the team empties the tank of tricks, gadgets, and last resorts to beat this stellar Packers team. And if San Francisco wins, don’t be surprised if those Lance plays spelled the difference.

The lesson learned from a magical Bengals season: spend

The Cincinnati Bengals have been owned and run by Mike Brown since 1991. That year should sound familiar—it was all over the broadcast of the Bengals-Raiders wild-card game, as the last year the Bengals won a playoff game. The 31-year drought was the longest active streak in the league, and that drought was a key factor to some negative press for Brown. In 2015, a Rolling Stone writer ranked Brown as the ninth-worst owner in all of sports.

Then Joe Burrow happened. The no. 1 pick, a lightning rod of a personality and a savant of a player. Gone are the days of Andy Dalton, who was good enough to get the team to the playoffs but no further—Burrow won his first career playoff start, working in concert with other key Cincinnati draft hits over the last few seasons: left tackle Jonah Williams protecting his blindside, rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase catching his downfield bombs.

The young drafted players have become the stars in Cincinnati, which is a testament to quasi-GM Duke Tobin and the work of Cincinnati’s largely understaffed personnel department. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. After years of passive approaches to NFL free agency, the Bengals spent significant money in each of the last two offseasons. In 2020, they shelled out $39 million in guaranteed money to sign cornerback Trae Waynes, defensive tackle D.J. Reader, safety Vonn Bell, and guard Xavier Su’a-Filo. In 2021, they went right back to the well, signing edge rusher Trey Hendrickson, defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, offensive tackle Riley Reiff, and three more cornerbacks: Mike Hilton, Chidobe Awuzie, and Eli Apple. When everyone’s healthy, seven of the starting 11 positions on the Bengals defense are filled by a free-agent acquisition of the last two years.

Not everyone will be healthy this week, however. Ogunjobi was placed on injured reserve with a foot injury earlier this week; Mike Daniels, another rotational defensive tackle who was signed in the 2020 offseason, left the Raiders game with a groin injury. Reiff has started at right tackle for the Bengals all season, but was placed on injured reserve after Week 14—since that time, Burrow’s pressure rate has jumped from 32.3 percent to 36.9 percent.

The Bengals face a tough team in the Titans, and are likely out of their depth from a personnel perspective—but that’s been true frequently this season. When they played the 49ers in Week 14 (an overtime loss), or the Chiefs in Week 17 (a fourth-quarter comeback win), or even the Raiders last week, they didn’t have the offensive line talent or defensive stars we typically associate with a playoff-caliber team. And yet they’re still winning.

Maybe the Bengals are a year ahead of schedule. They seemed like a plucky wild-card team, until they suddenly won their division and are now positioned to fight for a conference championship berth. That’s great news! It’s key playoff experience for a young roster, and securing that first playoff win got a huge monkey off the back of the city of Cincinnati.

But even more importantly, the Bengals’ postseason success may reinforce to Brown a key idea: You have to spend to win in the NFL. Fresh off of their most aggressive free agency spending sprees in recent memory (and they weren’t even really all that aggressive), the Bengals have won a playoff game and cemented themselves in the top tier of AFC contenders. Win or lose this Saturday, it’s been a successful season for Cincinnati—one that, hopefully, will teach Brown the lesson he never seemed to figure out during the Dalton–Marvin Lewis era of Bengals football. The Bengals have plenty of cap space left as they finish out Burrow’s rookie deal: 2022 could lead to even further spending, to add offensive line reinforcements or another star defensive player.

I’m excited to watch the Bengals play on Sunday—but regardless of the outcome, I’m even more excited to see what the next five months of Bengals football holds for the future they’re building around Joe Burrow.

It’s a long season. Just not for everyone.

I couldn’t believe my eyes while watching Rams running back Cam Akers take the field against the Arizona Cardinals. In a magical league that produces weekly miracles, it was perhaps the greatest feat we’ve seen all year: a player making explosive cuts and delivering physical runs, six months removed from a torn Achilles. I’ll be.

Akers might be superhuman. We should never expect players to return from such major injuries and look as pleasantly unaffected. But the freshness of Akers, who hadn’t taken on any contact all season, was difficult to ignore—especially when looking forward to a divisional round that promises the return of several star players.

The Titans offense since the loss of star running back Derrick Henry has been downright ugly, but they’ve found ways to get the job done late and eke out enough points to reward a tough defense for keeping them in close games. Henry is expected back for this week’s game against the Bengals, and like Akers, he’s coming off an injury that’s usually debilitating for running backs: Henry suffered a Jones fracture in his fifth metatarsal and has a “big steel plate” in his right foot.

Henry has historically been dominant later in the season, as the physical nature of the game accumulates on defenders’ bodies and cold weather makes punishing blows hit all the harder. The idea of a fresher Henry than usual is terrifying for opposing defenses—but that applies only if Henry is actually fully healed and his explosiveness and speed aren’t lacking. If Henry has to take plays off for pain management, then those punishing hits of his physical running style will fail to accrue, and we won’t see the late-season, late-game dominance we’re accustomed to seeing from him.

On the other side of the ball and in the other conference, the first-seed Packers haven’t had the same arc as the Titans at all. In the face of injury, they’ve been shockingly effective despite major absences. Most notably, the Week 4 injury of star cornerback Jaire Alexander felt like a death knell for the Packers pass defense—but journeyman cornerback Rasul Douglas and first-round pick Eric Stokes both stepped into big roles and delivered in the interim. Now, with Alexander slated to play against the 49ers, the Packers’ secondary depth looks better than any remaining team’s.

Alexander is coming back from an AC joint injury sustained in Week 4; star left tackle David Bakhtiari is trying to come back from an ACL tear sustained in practice in December 2020. That road back from injury has been fraught with setbacks—he was close to returning in late November, but then his knee required a second surgery that set him back. Bakhtiari has practiced this week and, like Alexander, is listed as questionable for the upcoming game against the 49ers.

A fresh Bakhtiari would be interesting for Green Bay. The Packers have been strong along the offensive line despite multiple injuries, and have played multiple iterations of their line with success this year. If Bakhtiari is unable to immediately settle back into elite play against premier edge rusher Nick Bosa (expected to clear the concussion protocol and play), the Packers may need to sit Bakhtiari for Yosh Nijman, who already has his sea legs under him.

Returns from long injury absences are tough to predict, but we are seeing several in this upcoming weekend—and the balance of a couple of games hangs in the performance of those returning star players. If Akers is any model, the fresh legs could be to teams’ benefit down the stretch.

A year’s effort culminates in one game for the Buffalo Bills

The Kansas City Chiefs ended the Bills’ season last year. It was far from a drubbing—38-24 was the final score—but that outcome seemed inevitable. The Chiefs outscored Buffalo 24-3 from the top of the second quarter to the opening drive of the third. The Bills had 15 points on a touchdown and three field goals—two of which came from inside the Chiefs’ 10—with four minutes left in the third quarter. Buffalo came for the king and decisively missed.

Since then, the message in Buffalo’s team building has been very clear: We’re here to beat the Chiefs. Head coach Sean McDermott has become more aggressive on fourth downs as a direct result of those short field goal attempts he took against Kansas City. The Bills added consecutive pass rushers at the top of the draft in Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham, and now have the deepest defensive line in the league with which to chase Patrick Mahomes around the field: Per Next Gen Stats, nine Bills defensive linemen have played at least 20 percent of the snaps this season, which is the highest number in the league. Two-high coverages with four pass rushers were difficult for the Chiefs to handle this year—no team played more two-high against Mahomes than the Bills did in Week 5.

And in that Week 5 game, the Bills beat the Chiefs soundly: 38-20. In that game, the Bills surprisingly folded full back/tight end Reggie Gilliam into the game plan, playing him a season-high 39 percent of the snaps to add power to their running game against a light Kansas City defensive front. Across the remainder of the season, Gilliam’s snaps dropped back down—but suddenly, he’s back in the rotation, with at least 20 percent of the snaps in the Bills’ last three games. Josh Allen has also become a part of the running game recently, with more than 10 carries in three of the Bills’ last six games. The only other game in which Allen had more than 10 carries? Week 5 against the Chiefs.

And then there’s the passing game. Tight end Dawson Knox, often covered by one of the Chiefs’ shaky linebackers, dominated in their regular-season game for three catches, 117 yards, and a touchdown. Last week against the Patriots, Knox was a featured player, with five catches on five targets for 89 yards and two scores. That Chiefs game was the only game in which Knox played more than 90 percent of the snaps during the first half of the Bills’ season—now, he’s played at least 90 percent of the snaps in seven of the last nine games.

The Bills have a clear formula, on both sides of the ball, for beating the Chiefs. On offense, they want to add heavier personnel on the field to keep the Chiefs’ linebackers out, and then exploit them in the passing game and running game alike. They also want to activate Allen as a runner, especially in the red zone. On defense, they want to play with two deep safeties, rush with four down linemen, and rotate those linemen to keep legs fresh for key fourth-quarter plays.

This plan has been built since last year’s AFC championship game loss. Sure, that win against the Chiefs in the regular season was nice—and yeah, embarrassing the Patriots in the wild-card round was cool. But don’t get it twisted: This is the game for which the Bills have been preparing all year. They have a second swing at the king, and if Buffalo can’t beat them now, I’m not sure it will ever have a better opportunity to dethrone Kansas City.