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The NFL Divisional-Round Entrance Survey

Ringer staffers pick the best matchups, the most exciting individual battles, and what will tip the balance in this weekend’s games

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The Ringer’s NFL writers answer the pressing questions ahead of this weekend’s divisional round.

What’s your biggest takeaway from wild-card weekend?

Nora Princiotti: Josh Allen needs to settle down. He can be every bit as exciting and dynamic as Patrick Mahomes when he’s on, but he’s been playing a reckless brand of hero ball lately and has the turnovers to show for it. If that’s a response to his elbow injury, there’s probably not much the Bills can do about it. But if it’s because he thinks everything is on his shoulders, then Buffalo’s coaching challenge will be to convince him to dial back that intensity.

Danny Heifetz: When a team falls behind by two touchdowns, bet on it to win the game.

Danny Kelly: My biggest takeaway was probably that, good God, the 49ers are really good when they’re firing on all cylinders. The Niners let the Seahawks hang around for two quarters before they eventually ground Seattle to dust, leaning on a combination of an elite defense and what might be the greatest collection of offensive skill-position players ever assembled. The fact that Brock Purdy is playing like a savvy vet makes this San Francisco team look pretty unstoppable.

Steven Ruiz: Just how good the 49ers are. I mean, I knew they were the best team in the NFC, and their beating up on the Seahawks was hardly a surprise. But the way it happened? That was impressive. Purdy put up a historic stat line, and he didn’t even play all that well! There is just too much firepower at Kyle Shanahan’s disposal. If San Francisco wasn’t already considered the consensus favorite to win the NFC, it should be after that showing.

Lindsay Jones: Sure, the 49ers let the Seahawks hang around a bit longer than we expected, but San Francisco looked like the most complete team that played on wild-card weekend. I’ve been waiting for the bad Purdy game to come, but it’s probably time to just enjoy this ride.

Sheil Kapadia: This Cowboys team still has a high ceiling. Dak Prescott was in full control during their win over the Bucs. After starting the game with two punts, the Cowboys scored touchdowns on five of their next six possessions. I don’t know whether I trust the Cowboys to win three in a row to get to the Super Bowl, but their A game is right there with any remaining team’s.

Ben Solak: The AFC well and truly belongs to the Chiefs. The Bills had a few panic moments against the Skylar Thompson–led Dolphins, while the Bengals really should have been down seven in the fourth quarter against the Tyler Huntley–led Ravens. I think whoever catches the Chiefs in the AFC championship game will give them a good fight, just as the Jaguars will in the divisional round—but Kansas City should be a considerable favorite to come out of this conference. They don’t make the mistakes on offense that these other teams do.

Austin Gayle: Coaching matters. First-year head coach Brian Daboll, along with coordinators Mike Kafka and Wink Martindale, has completely turned the Giants around. Daniel Jones is thriving under the Daboll-Kafka umbrella, and Martindale’s defense is maximizing its talents with an uber-aggressive strategy. Kyle Shanahan has a seventh-round rookie quarterback shattering records and potentially on his way to a Super Bowl appearance. And Doug Pederson has completely rerouted the Jaguars’ trajectory. It can’t be overstated that a top-of-the-line head coach is a cheat code.

Which divisional-round game are you most excited to watch?

Jones: Bills-Bengals. This will have an emotional scene before kickoff and hopefully a competitive game after. I want to see whether Allen is sharper and less reckless than he was in Buffalo’s wild-card game, whether the Bills can take advantage of a banged-up Bengals offensive line, and whether the Bengals can exploit Buffalo’s thin cornerback group.

Kapadia: Bills-Bengals. That Bills performance last week was concerning. Then again, maybe it was just a weird game against a divisional opponent that was facing them for the third time. The Bengals, meanwhile, have been crushed by injuries over the last month. They could go into this game missing three starting offensive linemen. Joe Burrow and Josh Allen have both proved to be elevators. They can put their respective teams on their backs even when circumstances are less than ideal. Hopefully, we get this matchup often in the next decade or so.

Solak: Bills-Bengals. I think this will be the most evenly matched game of the week. We’ve also never seen these two teams—the Bills with good Josh Allen, the Bengals with good Joe Burrow—play a complete game against each other, so there’s a lot to discover in this matchup.

Gayle: Bills-Bengals. Allen, as wacky as his recent turnovers have been, is still one of the league’s premier quarterback talents. And Burrow is a top-five quarterback himself with deep playoff experience and plenty of confidence. Those two will face formidable defensive coaches in Buffalo’s Sean McDermott and Cincinnati’s Lou Anarumo. It doesn’t get better than this.

Heifetz: If anybody says anything other than Bills-Bengals, I’ll assume they are being held hostage and we need to rescue them.

Ruiz: Bills-Bengals is the easy pick, but since everyone else will be choosing that one, let me go with Jaguars-Chiefs. I know what the odds say, but I don’t think we should discount this Jags team. They might have the best in-game coach left in the bracket, and Trevor Lawrence is playing as well as any quarterback—his four-interception first half last weekend notwithstanding. But really, the reason this is my pick is that it’s been two long weeks since we last got to see Mahomes play football, and we’re a few weeks away from the end of the season. We have to cherish these opportunities.

Princiotti: After how Dallas looked in the wild-card round (against a bad Bucs team, to be sure), it’s Cowboys-49ers.

Kelly: Cowboys-Niners. It’s a fun old-school rivalry and a rematch of their wild-card round tilt from last year. I’m sure Dallas will be looking for revenge (the 6-seed 49ers knocked off the 3-seed Cowboys in that game), and I can’t wait to see how they match up. Dak Prescott will have to play some perfect football if he hopes to win this game.

What specific matchup are you most interested in?

Ruiz: I think Bills-Bengals will come down to how effectively Cincinnati can attack Buffalo’s sketchy group of corners with Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. Tre’Davious White is looking better lately as he continues to work his way back from a knee injury, and first-round pick Kaiir Elam came up big with an interception in last week’s win. If they can somewhat limit Chase and Higgins, the Bills should advance.

Solak: The Bills defensive line vs. the Bengals offensive line. The Bills signed Von Miller this offseason specifically to have him in this stretch of games, but he’s out. The Bengals shored up their offensive line this offseason for this stretch of games, too—but now they’ve got backups in three of five spots. Something’s gotta give. If the Bengals can’t run the football against the Bills front, they’ll need a truly heroic Burrow game to beat the Bills. Funnily enough, that’s what they usually get from Burrow in these moments.

Princiotti: The Giants defense vs. the Eagles offense. Will the Giants revert back to their aggressive, blitz-happy ways from earlier in the year against the Eagles offense, which has struggled against the blitz?

Gayle: Kyle Shanahan vs. Dan Quinn. Shanahan was the offensive coordinator for Quinn’s Falcons in their Super Bowl appearance in 2017. They know each other inside and out. Shanahan has called a master class ever since Purdy replaced Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 13, and Quinn’s defense has been extremely impressive over the back half of the season. Shanahan will have the edge, but don’t count out Quinn to shock the world.

Jones: Can the Cowboys defense handle the 49ers skill-position players in space? Shanahan vs. Quinn is a great coaching matchup, and while the Cowboys defense is quite top-heavy with stars, I’m curious to see how Shanahan gets his elite skill-position players into space and exploits the areas on the field where Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs are not.

Kelly: Nick Bosa vs. whatever iteration we get of the Cowboys offensive line this week. Bosa—who led the NFL in sacks (18.5) and tied for the league lead in pressures (90) this season, per Pro Football Focus—has a unique ability to affect the game. He’s a force multiplier on the defensive line, and if Kellen Moore and Co. can’t come up with a way to slow Bosa down, it could be a long day for the Cowboys.

Heifetz: The kaiju battle of Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams vs. the Eagles. New York’s two massive defensive tackles make up maybe the best defensive interior duo in football, and they’re going up against a league-best offensive line in Philly.

Kapadia: Let’s go full football nerd for this one: Lawrence vs. Jason Kelce. Lawrence was an absolute game-wrecker last week against the Vikings. It’s rare to watch a game live and notice that the nose tackle is just destroying play after play. But that was the case in Minnesota. Kelce, meanwhile, is the best center in the NFL. These two will have some battles on Saturday night.

If you had your pick of any quarterback still in the playoffs to win you one game, who would it be?

Ruiz: This is like one of those “Are you a robot?” tests, right? If I don’t answer Patrick Mahomes, I can’t proceed with this survey? Well, I was going to take him anyway.

Kapadia: Mahomes. He was the best quarterback in the NFL during the regular season. Others can match his ceiling, but Mahomes is the most consistent and trustworthy.

Solak: Mahomes. The conversation “any one quarterback to do X” always begins and ends with Mahomes. The interesting question is who I would pick after Mahomes. (Probably Allen.)

Jones: I’m not overthinking this: It’s Mahomes. (If he were playing the Bengals this week, I’d probably overthink this.)

Kelly: Gotta go with Mahomes. He’s a human cheat code.

Gayle: Mahomes. Come on. Don’t be cute.

Princiotti: Mahomes.

Heifetz: I keep trying to say Mahomes, but every time I open my mouth, it comes out as “Daniel Jones.”

Which non-QB will make the biggest impact?

Jones: At the risk of this turning into a Chiefs fan blog from me, I’m watching Chris Jones here. He had 1.5 sacks against the Jaguars the first time these teams played this season, along with four pressures. But more than just creating a consistent interior rush, Jones is a gamer. He always seems to come up big in important moments, and I see him embracing this playoff stage.

Kelly: Bosa. He’s the straw that stirs the drink on the 49ers defense.

Gayle: Gabe Davis, Dawson Knox, John Brown, Cole Beasley, etc. are all fine options in the Buffalo offense, but Stefon Diggs has to take over if the Bills are to advance. He’s a big-time player, and this is a big-time game. It’s time to show up.

Heifetz: Diggs vs. Eli Apple could easily decide Bills-Bengals.

Ruiz: CeeDee Lamb is a star receiver, but he has to be even more than that if the Cowboys are going to knock off the 49ers. If you can’t punish the San Francisco corners in one-on-one situations, that defense just suffocates you. The 49ers pretty much just line up and play, so the Cowboys will be able to move Lamb around and find advantageous matchups for him. If he starts making plays and forces DeMeco Ryans to adjust, that will be a major win for Dallas.

Kapadia: How about Micah Parsons? I don’t think the Cowboys will consistently shut down the 49ers offense, but Parsons is capable of creating havoc and providing game-swinging plays.

Solak: Parsons. When the Cowboys lost to the 49ers in the wild-card round last year, it was not because of Parsons, who played the majority of the game at off-ball linebacker and produced some of the best film I’ve ever seen at the position. This year, Parsons has been almost a permanent edge rusher. I’m fascinated to see (1) where Dan Quinn will line him up, (2) how Kyle Shanahan will deal with Parsons (wherever he’s lined up), and (3) whether the Cowboys will change how they use Parsons throughout the game. If Dallas is going to slow down this 49ers offense, Parsons has to have the game of his life.

Princiotti: Is it cheating to pick the Eagles secondary? Going from Minnesota’s defensive backs to Darius Slay and James Bradberry will be a big change for the Giants receivers.

Are you sticking with your Super Bowl pick?

Kelly: My preseason pick, the [redacted], will not be winning the Super Bowl. I remain confident that my midseason pick, the Chiefs, will.

Kapadia: Yes! I picked the Bills before the season and at the halfway point and before the playoffs. Last week they struggled against the Dolphins, but they can still win in different ways, and Allen can make up for the occasional mistake by making plays no other quarterback is capable of. If we zoom out, Buffalo has an impressive body of work, and I still think this is their year.

Heifetz: Yes, I am sticking with Buffalo. If they beat the Dolphins with a juggernaut like Skylar Thompson at quarterback, why would I pick Joe Burrow and the Bengals over them?

Jones: I picked the Bills in the preseason and midseason. I’m very tempted to switch to the Chiefs here, but I’ll stick with Buffalo—I’m not a flip-flopper.

Solak: Yes. Chiefs over Niners.

Ruiz: Yes. Without a doubt. If anything, this past weekend showed that the gap between the 49ers (my NFC pick) and Chiefs (my Super Bowl pick) is even wider than I thought.

Gayle: My preseason pick was the Bills, and I see no reason to pivot. Bills Mafia, baby.

Princiotti: My preseason pick was Bucs-Bills, so no. My midseason pick was Eagles-Chiefs, and I’ll stick with that.