NFL PLAYOFFS: The Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs is simply the best football weekend of the year. The top teams are all in action– no more byes, and no more pretenders after they were all weeded out on Wild Card Weekend. The winners this week will be just one step away from a shot at the sport’s ultimate prize, while the losers will have to accept that, despite the positivity and optimism that accompanies a playoff run, there are no awards or accolades for losing in the conference semis. Everything is on the line.

We’ve got some intriguing matchups on tap, with upstarts Houston and Green Bay trying to stay hot against the league’s top two regular season teams, the Cinderella Bucs taking on a Lions team that’s attempting to turn 65 years of history on its head, and a five-star marquee showdown in frigid Buffalo between two of the game’s top quarterbacks.

The is generally a weekend to expect the unexpected, which is why I’m a bit concerned that — gulp — I’m picking all four home teams to get the job done. Covering the number is a different matter, however, and I do think a couple of the ‘dogs are poised to make it interesting. Here are a few thoughts on all four games:

Houston Texans @ Baltimore Ravens (BAL -9.5, 44) *SATURDAY 16:30 EST*

Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud continues to impress and looks to be a future star, and first-year coach DeMeco Ryans has done a remarkable job turning around a Houston defense that was among the NFL’s worst last season. That said, I think the fun ends here for the Texans, as a trip to Baltimore to take on the mighty Ravens is an awfully steep hill to climb. Not counting a Week 17 loss to Pittsburgh in which they sat several starters, the Ravens head into this game having won 10 of 11, with an offense led by an MVP-caliber quarterback at the peak of his powers and a defense that surrendered the fewest points in the league this season. Houston is vulnerable in the secondary, so Lamar Jackson will have a chance to air it out in this one and put to rest some of the playoff demons of years past. This is a great setup for Jackson, while Stroud will be facing a defense that excels at disguising blitzes and making life miserable for young quarterbacks. Prediction: Baltimore 31, Houston 14

Green Bay Packers @ San Francisco 49ers (SF -9.5, 50) *SATURDAY 20:15 EST*

Midway through the season the Packers were 3-6 and the playoffs looked like a longshot. Then, magic happened: the defense improved, the offense got healthier, and, most importantly, young QB Jordan Love put his early season struggles behind him and began to play like a legit star. Since Week 10 Love leads the NFL in QBR, the advanced QB rating system that has overtaken some of the more traditional stats in importance, and in his playoff debut last week he torched a good Cowboys defense to the tune of 272 yards and 3 TDs. Can he cement himself in Packers lore by pulling off a monumental upset against the NFC’s top seed? Eh… I doubt it. The Niners have all the pieces in place for a Super Bowl run, including a dominant defense, which Green Bay lacks. San Francisco also has a significant edge in skill position talent here with the likes of Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and George Kittle. All that being said, Love and the Pack are playing with tremendous confidence and have a certain magical vibe at the moment, which makes me think they’re going to make this one competitive. Prediction: San Francisco 27, Green Bay 20

Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Detroit Lions (DET -6, 49.5) *SUNDAY 15:00 EST*

The Lions broke the curse last week, winning a playoff game for the first time in 32 years. It wasn’t easy– they edged the Rams 24-23 in Wild Card Weekend’s most exciting game– but that probably made it all the sweeter, and now all that stands between them and the NFC Championship game is the weakest team remaining in the playoff field, the Tampa Bay Bucs. Of course, this is THE LIONS we’re talking about, and longtime fans will surely tell you that the next chapter in this story is going to feature a devastating loss. After all, this is a franchise that’s never won a Super Bowl and, until this week, had never been favored by as many as 6 points in a playoff game (unbelievable, but true). But the Lions are the better team in this matchup– Jared Goff should have a big day against a Tampa defense that surrendered more passing yards this season than all but 3 teams leaguewide, and the Lions are elite in the defensive front seven, limiting the opposition to just 88.8 rush yards per game and 3.7 yards per attempt, so the pressure to keep pace will fall on Bucs QB Baker Mayfield. I think Mayfield will be outgunned in this one, but not before making the 65,000 fans at Ford Field awfully nervous. Prediction: Detroit 33, Tampa Bay 30

Kansas City Chiefs @ Buffalo Bills (BUF -2.5, 45) *SUNDAY 18:30 EST*

The cherry on top of a terrific Divisional Round weekend, this game has all the hallmarks of a potential classic. Patrick Mahomes vs. Josh Allen has arguably become the sport’s most compelling rivalry, as the two star QBs have now met 6 times, splitting the games 3-3. However, Mahomes has taken both postseason matchups, including a 42-36 thriller in the 2022 Divisional Round. Those games were both in Arrowhead Stadium, though, and now the Bills finally have the Chiefs where they want them: on the frigid turf of Orchid Park, with 71,000 crazed Bills Mafia members in the stands. It’s a chance for Buffalo to overcome its biggest nemesis and end Kansas City’s run as the AFC’s top dog, and there’s no denying that this Chiefs team is not quite as explosive on offense as they have been throughout most of the Mahomes era. The Chiefs do have an excellent defense, however, and Josh Allen will have to limit the mistakes that have plagued him at times this season if the Bills are to get the job done here. But Allen looked great last week, and we know he’s a gamer who isn’t scared to get the job done with his legs and lower a shoulder if necessary. This could be a career-defining moment for him. Betting against Mahomes in the playoffs is always scary, but it feels like the stars have aligned for Buffalo here. Can’t wait for this one. Prediction: Buffalo 24, Kansas City 21

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