What To Watch For In The NFL’s Divisional Round

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The NFL’s elite eight will convene this weekend with the divisional playoffs, and after a relatively upset-free wild-card round (sorry, Cowboys — I said relatively), we have some titanic matchups to look forward to here. Both conferences’ No. 1 seeds will be in action Saturday; the defending champions will look to keep rolling Sunday afternoon; and finally, the weekend will culminate later that evening in one of the best divisional-round matchups ever.

For each of those games, in chronological order, let’s dive into what our Elo forecast model sees ahead, as well as the numbers behind why either team could engineer the victory.

AFC No. 1 Tennessee vs. No. 4 Cincinnati

4:30 p.m. ET Saturday, CBS

Elo favorite: Tennessee -4½ (66 percent)

Consensus Vegas line: Tennessee -3½

Why the Titans are favorites: After a first-round bye, Tennessee’s ball-control offense will rumble back into action against Cincinnati — and it will do it with running back Derrick Henry expected to return from the injury he suffered in late October. While we are usually skeptical about the value of marquee ball carriers, the Titans’ offense averaged 28.4 points per game in the eight contests Henry played but only 21.3 over the rest of the regular season. Cincinnati’s middle-of-the-road run defense, which ranks 14th in schedule-adjusted expected points added (EPA) per game, will probably be put to the test by Henry, D’Onta Foreman and the rest of Tennessee’s rushing attack. Likewise, the Bengals’ secondary could struggle against the Titans’ bread-and-butter play-action game after allowing the eighth-highest Total Quarterback Rating against play-action during the regular season. And although the Titans are only slightly better than the Bengals in most overall power ratings (if they rank ahead at all), Tennessee’s biggest defensive strength — it ranks sixth in EPA against the pass — could be a tough puzzle for Cincinnati’s high-efficiency passing offense to solve.

Why the Bengals can pull the upset: Even after requiring a late-game, goal-line interception to finish off the statistically overmatched Las Vegas Raiders, Cincinnati still sits only one ranking slot behind Tennessee in both Elo and EPA. That may say as much about the Titans as the Bengals; on paper, Tennessee is one of the weakest No. 1 seeds in modern playoff history, with the second-lowest point differential of any top seed since 1990. Either way, it means a Cincinnati win would be far from shocking. The Bengals have the superior passing offense, with Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase both coming off a strong playoff debut together, and an earlier version of the Burrow-era Bengals even beat Tennessee 31-20 in 2020 (their last meeting). Unlike then, the Titans have home field on their side — they were one of only four teams who went 7-2 or better at home during the 2021 regular season — but the rest of the numbers in this duel are pretty evenly matched.

NFC No. 1 Green Bay vs. No. 6 San Francisco

8:15 p.m. ET Saturday, Fox

Elo favorite: Green Bay -7½ (75 percent)

Consensus Vegas line: Green Bay -6

Why the Packers are favorites: Green Bay has a comfortable 73-point Elo advantage on San Francisco, and that’s at full strength (i.e., if 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t hampered by the shoulder and thumb injuries he’s been battling). It will be tough for the Niners to narrow that gap if they can’t find a way to slow down Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers — who over the final seven weeks of the regular season had 20 touchdowns, zero interceptions, 275.6 yards per game, a passer rating of 124.4 and a league-high 77.3 Total QBR. Even after short-circuiting the Cowboys’ passing attack last week, the Niners rank just 20th in EPA pass defense, so they’ll need to play above their heads again (and replicate their season-high 20 QB pressures with or without Pro Bowl defensive end Nick Bosa, who left Sunday’s game with a concussion) to keep Rodgers in check. And on the opposite side of the ball, Green Bay’s defense did a good job of limiting the 49ers’ powerful running game during the Packers’ 30-28 win in late September. Speaking of which: right down to the miraculous game-winning drive Rodgers led at the end, that game was a reminder to San Francisco of just how tough these Packers are to put away. That might be even more true now than earlier in the season, given how much talent Green Bay is getting back from the injury list.

Why the 49ers can pull the upset: Just like their AFC counterparts, the Packers are a No. 1 seed with less impressive underlying stats than we might think. They won three more games than expected from their point differential, giving Green Bay the largest gap between actual and expected record of any team in the league this season. (Based on scoring margin, Green Bay should probably have gone 10-7 like San Francisco.) And as much as Elo likes them for piling up an NFL-best 39 regular-season wins over the past three years, the Packers rank very near or even behind San Francisco in other predictive power ratings. So this is no huge mismatch, particularly when we consider that the 49ers’ offensive strength (the league’s fifth-best rushing attack by EPA) corresponds with Green Bay’s worst defensive weakness (the fourth-worst run D) in a way that evokes how San Fran has beaten the Packers in each of their past three playoff meetings. (Rodgers is 0-3 in his playoff career versus the Niners, including a home loss in 2014.) All of these factors point to a closer matchup than we would expect from the two teams’ records.

NFC No. 2 Tampa Bay vs. No. 4 L.A. Rams

3 p.m. ET Sunday, NBC

Elo favorite: Tampa Bay -5½ (68 percent)

Consensus Vegas line: Tampa Bay -3

Why the Buccaneers are favorites: After crushing Philadelphia, the defending Super Bowl champs have now won eight of their past nine contests, with an average margin of +11.9 points per game. (It would have been more if not for Philly’s two irrelevant garbage-time TDs in the fourth quarter Sunday.) Looking ahead to their matchup with the Rams, the Bucs have a small but meaningful edge over L.A. in most power-rating systems, as well as the superior starting quarterback with Tom Brady holding a 70-point edge over Matthew Stafford in our rolling QB Elo metric. Brady hasn’t lost a divisional-round game in more than a decade, and he is coming off a sharp tune-up (115.2 passer rating) against the Eagles to round out a nice run of four straight good performances since Tampa was shut out by the Saints on Dec. 19. Just like last year’s team, these Bucs are all-around solid. Within the two clubs’ respective EPA profiles, there isn’t an obvious phase of the game for Los Angeles to engineer an upset by seizing upon one of Tampa Bay’s weaknesses — those are simply hard to come by.

Why the Rams can pull the upset: There are a few factors to watch, however, that could tilt things in the Rams’ direction. One of the key elements in Los Angeles’s 34-24 win over the Bucs in Week 3 was the sheer amount of separation the Rams receivers got — perhaps most glaringly on the 75-yard bomb Stafford lobbed to DeSean Jackson right after halftime to give L.A. a two-touchdown lead. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, 55.3 percent of Stafford’s attempts in that game were thrown to receivers classified as “open” or “wide-open” by tracking data, well above the league average (42.6 percent), L.A.’s usual rate (45.6 percent) and the average rate for Buccaneers opponents (45.8 percent). If Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham Jr. and company can consistently get free again, Stafford could have another field day. On the other side of things, the Rams defense was able to pressure Brady on 26.7 percent of his dropbacks — the highest rate of pressure Brady faced in a game all season (and well above his usual rate of 16.6 percent this year). Combine that with the tough defensive attention WR Mike Evans may draw with the rest of Tampa Bay’s receiving corps diminished — Evans accounted for nine of Brady’s 29 completions and 117 of his 271 yards on Sunday — and L.A. might have a chance to slow down the league’s No. 1 EPA offense enough to survive and advance.

AFC No. 2 Kansas City vs. No. 3 Buffalo

6:30 p.m. ET Sunday, CBS

Elo favorite: Kansas City -4½ (65 percent)

Consensus Vegas line: Kansas City -2

Why the Chiefs are favorites: Similar to the Packers’ standing in Elo, Kansas City has an edge over Buffalo in the ratings in part because it has been on top longer. In each season of Patrick Mahomes’s career as a starter (so, going back to 2018), Kansas City has either won the AFC title — doing it at Buffalo’s expense last year — or come within an overtime heartbreaker of doing so. By comparison, Josh Allen and the Bills have a shorter track record of greatness. And as the Chiefs reminded us from the second quarter onward Sunday night, they are the rare team with the offensive firepower to actually run pace-for-pace with Buffalo in a scoring track-meet. The parallels to last season’s playoff matchup are clear: Then, as now, the Bills believed themselves to be on the same level as K.C., but they were humbled by the Chiefs as the game developed. Kansas City will be hosting once again this year, and once again it will be the measuring stick against which Buffalo must compare itself before officially declaring itself a championship front-runner.

Why the Bills can pull the upset: Statistically, the Bills have ascended to become the clear-cut top remaining team in the playoffs, at least according to just about any rating you can find that focuses solely on the 2021 season. While Buffalo’s offense may rank slightly behind K.C.’s — EPA, for instance, has the Chiefs at No. 2 (behind the Bucs) and the Bills at No. 4 (behind the Packers) — the Bills’ defense has been vastly superior to Kansas City’s, even after the Chiefs’ midseason defensive transformation. Buffalo’s pass D is particularly well-suited to match up with the high-powered K.C. aerial attack, as evidenced by the ugly 70.9 passer rating the Bills forced out of Mahomes in the teams’ previous matchup this season (a convincing 38-20 Buffalo victory at Arrowhead Stadium). But the Chiefs haven’t shown the defensive chops to make us think they will shut down Allen — who, it should be noted, posted a stellar 139.1 passer rating in the first matchup. Ultimately, how you view this showdown depends greatly on how much weight you give to the Bills’ clear superiority by the numbers this season, versus other factors such as simple win-loss record comparisons, home-field advantage and previous track records. Whatever happens, this looks like one of the best divisional matchups ever; since 1969, only 12 games in the divisional round have featured a higher harmonic mean between the two teams’ pregame Elo ratings.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.



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