DIVISIONAL ROUND: I say it every season and it remains true: the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs is the best football weekend of the year. Four games featuring eight teams who are just two wins away from the sport’s ultimate stage… it’s when the playoffs really begin to feel like the playoffs. The top seeds in each conference will be making their postseason debuts, lovable underdogs like the Jags and Giants are still alive and kicking, and some great teams, and great players, are sure to be eliminated. Bring it on– Saturday afternoon can’t get here fast enough.
Here are my thoughts on how all four games might play out:
Jacksonville Jaguars @ Kansas City Chiefs Saturday 21:30 GMT
Line: Kansas City -9.5 (52.5)
The Cinderella Jags seemed to have finally run out of magic last week when they let the Chargers get out to a 27-0 2nd-quarter lead, but a near-perfect second half that saw Trevor Lawrence truly emerge as a star quarterback has put them on the doorstep of the AFC Championship game and may have permanently altered the trajectory of the franchise. They’re playing with house money up in Kansas City this week, and when these teams met in Arrowhead back in November the Jags thoroughly outplayed the Chiefs in the second half, so they know it can be done.
They need a repeat of last week’s performance from edge rushers Josh Allen and Travon Walker, who were in Justin Herbert’s lap throughout much of the game and really disrupted the LA offense in some crucial situations. Making Mahomes uncomfortable and forcing him into a turnover or two may be Jacksonville’s only chance here, because the secondary won’t be able to hold up if the game’s best QB can just sit back in the pocket unmolested. The Jags D has been awfully opportunistic lately, however, and the offense has turned into one of the most explosive units in the league behind Lawrence’s right arm and an underrated collection of skill-position talent. The Kansas City secondary gives up lots of big plays, so Lawrence will have opportunities downfield. Something tells me he connects on a few of them and this game ends up being much closer than the experts predict. Prediction: Kansas City 34, Jacksonville 31
New York Giants @ Philadelphia Eagles Sunday 01:15 GMT
Line: Philadelphia -7.5 (48)
This is probably a frustrating and yet fitting matchup for both of these teams, bitter division rivals who face off twice a year and just played a hard-fought game in Week 18. Philly escaped with a win that day, but what the game really showed us is that both teams know exactly what the other wants to do and how to stop it, as they both averaged fewer than 5 yards per play in a 22-16 Eagles victory. There are rumblings out of Philly that Jalen Hurts is still having issues with that right shoulder, and he didn’t play well in Week 18, throwing for just 229 yards and getting picked off once. Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has done a tremendous job with his unit this season, and I expect him to have a plan for this one that will make life difficult for Hurts and will really test that shoulder– we’ll see how comfortable the Eagles are taking shots downfield. On the other side of the ball, Daniel Jones is playing the best football of his career and is probably eager to face these Eagles after being held out of the Week 18 game on account of the outcome being meaningless for New York. Jones and Saquon Barkely should find some room to run against a Philly defense that is allowing 4.6 yards per rush, and I really believe an upset is a distinct possibility here. Take the points. Prediction: Philadelphia 24, New York 23
Cincinnati Bengals @ Buffalo Bills Sunday 20:00 GMT
Line: Buffalo -6 (49)
Sometimes things just kind of work out how they’re supposed to, and while Bengals fans would probably say that this game should be in Cincinnati, which it would have been if the Bengals had been victorious on that infamous Week 17 Monday night, when the entire NFL world held its collective breath as Damar Hamlin lay motionless on the field, the fact that these two teams are squaring off in the Divisional Round feels like some sort of cosmic justice. Neither team has lost since November, both teams have top-shelf talent at both the quarterback and wide receiver positions, and they both put up points in bunches, with Buffalo averaging 28.4 ppg and Cincinnati 26.1. For NFL fans, this is appointment television.
You could argue all day about which of these teams has the better offense or better quarterback, but there’s no argument about who has the better defense: Buffalo ranked sixth in the league in yards allowed and second in points allowed, surrendering just 17.9 ppg. The Cincinnati defense can be exploited in the secondary, and while they did put up some good numbers over the second half of the season, go back and look at their schedule and you’ll see that they haven’t faced a decent offense in six weeks (not an exaggeration). Don’t be surprised if the x-factor in this game is Josh Allen’s running ability– the Bengals will undoubtedly be focused on shutting down Stefon Diggs and limiting big plays in the passing game, but Allen can kill you with his legs, and I’m not sure Cincinnati (or anyone else, for that matter) has the antidote for one of the game’s most dynamic players. It’s going to be a grey, sub-freezing day in Buffalo, the crowd is going to be at a fever pitch, and the Bengals will have to deal with Josh Allen and one of the league’s best defenses. It just feels like a tall order, doesn’t it? Prediction: Buffalo 27, Cincinnati 20
Dallas Cowboys @ San Francisco 49ers Sunday 23:30 GMT
Line: San Francisco -4 (46.5)
The first thing I did when I woke up on Tuesday morning was place a bet on this game. It’s one of those that, right or wrong, I knew exactly which side I was going to be on before Monday night’s Tampa Bay/Dallas game was even over.
While they struggled with consistency earlier this season, the Cowboys looked an awful lot like a Super Bowl team over the second half of the year, winning 6 of their final 8 games and then blowing out Brady and the Bucs in the Wildcard round. And it’s not just that they’ve been winning, it’s the overall balance and all the different pieces– the offense can both throw the ball and run the ball at an elite or near-elite level, and the defense features a dynamic linebacking corps, the best pass-rusher in the league, and a ball-hawking secondary. Are they the best defense in the league? No, they’re not. Have they had issues at the cornerback position since losing Anthony Brown to an Achilles injury last month? Yes, they have. However, with rookie Brock Purdy at the helm the 49ers are ill-equipped to take advantage of Dallas’ weakness at the No. 2 corner spot, and though Purdy has yet to lose as a starter and the Niners have been rolling through everybody since October, I’m not sold on the idea that a rookie who was a middling player at Iowa State is going to put on a Joe Montana show and coolly lead his team past a talented and hungry contender like Dallas. To me, San Francisco has felt all year like a dominant regular season team that is a prime candidate to lay an egg in the playoffs. Well, here we are. Prediction: Dallas 24, San Francisco 20