Cover 2: The Key Matchups to Watch in the AFC Divisional Playoffs
The NFL’s Super Wild Card Weekend is in the books, which means we can formally welcome the Tennessee Titans and Green Bay Packers to the playoffs.
Last weekend saw more blowouts than close calls, but now the real fun begins. Teams that either snuck into the playoffs or weren’t given much of a chance of raising the Lombardi Trophy – the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles – have exited to make way for a pair of legit Super Bowl contenders in the Titans and Packers.
While the matchups seemingly get better, teams with home field have held a significant advantage in the divisional round, as there have been fewer upsets of the conference’s top two seeds in the last decade. That wasn’t the case the previous 10 years, when the conference’s top two seeds were more prone to getting knocked off coming out of their first-round bye.
Playoff Records by Top Two Seeds in Divisional Round
|No. 1 Seed||16-4||13-7|
|No. 2 Seed||15-5||12-8|
The Titans were one of those teams that stumbled coming out of their first-round bye in the first decade of this century. The only two previous times the franchise owned the AFC’s top seed in 2000 and ‘08, it lost its first playoff game in the divisional round – both times falling to the Baltimore Ravens.
Good news for Tennessee – it doesn’t have to face Baltimore – a team that also bounced it from the playoffs last season in the wild-card round.
Even better news – it appears the Titans will be getting the 2020 AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year back on the field for the first time in nearly three months.
Cincinnati Bengals at Tennessee Titans (Saturday, 4:30 ET, CBS)
Line: Titans by 3.5
The Analyst Win Probability: Titans 57%
Reasons to watch: Not only does the AFC’s top seed join the playoff party, it looks like the Titans will be bolstered by the likely return of Derrick Henry in a matchup against a team brimming with confidence after Joe Burrow led the Bengals to their first playoff victory in 31 years last week.
The Titans had the luxury of resting up last weekend after earning the AFC’s top seed, and while possessing the No. 1 seed historically hadn’t been any sort of advantage for Tennessee, extra time off has benefited the Titans under the current regime. Over the last four seasons since Mike Vrabel took over as coach, Tennessee has gone 8-0 when coming off a bye week or had extra rest from a Thursday night game.
The first-round bye also gave Henry more time to get healthy as he targets a return from a broken right foot sustained in Week 8. He’s been practicing with the team for more than a week and is expected to play in the Titans’ first matchup against the Bengals since Cincinnati won 31-20 in Week 8 of last season.
While the Titans are seeking a second berth in the AFC championship game in the last three years, the Bengals are in the divisional round for the first time since 1990 after snapping an eight-game losing streak in the playoffs with last Saturday’s 26-19 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders.
In leading the Bengals to their biggest victory in three decades, Burrow was exceptional in his first career playoff start and picked up right where he left off after sitting out Cincinnati’s virtually meaningless regular-season finale, completing 70.6% of his passes for 244 yards and two touchdowns without a turnover. Burrow had an extremely similar stat line against the Titans last season, completing 70.3% of his passes for 249 yards and two TDs without a turnover. For only the third time in 27 career games, he was not sacked.
The 25-year-old quarterback is showing the poise in the pocket of a seasoned veteran having thrown 180 passes since his last interception, the league’s second-longest active streak behind Aaron Rodgers at 243. Burrow hooked up with Ja’Marr Chase nine times last weekend as the rookie receiver finished with 116 receiving yards for his sixth game reaching the century mark. Only one other Cincinnati receiver has had six games with 100 or more receiving yards in a single season, and that was A.J. Green in 2013.
The Burrow-to-Chase connection has been lethal lately as the top pick of last year’s draft has been looking in the direction of his former LSU teammate more and more.
While Burrow targeted Chase 12 times last week – six more targets than any other Bengals player – his touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd coming out of the two-minute warning in the second quarter may have been his biggest throw. Flushed from the pocket, Burrow scrambled toward the sideline and just before stepping out of bounds he fired the ball to an open Boyd in the end zone to help put the Bengals up by 14 points.
That play exemplified one aspect of Burrow’s game that had come under the microscope in recent weeks. Though he shows mobility, Burrow was sacked an NFL-high 51 times in the regular season and was facing a dangerous Vegas pass rush. He managed to evade the pressure, however, and was sacked just twice – the first time since Week 12 he was sacked fewer than three times.
Most importantly for Burrow and the offense, the Bengals didn’t turn the ball over, extending their streak of consecutive games without a giveaway to five – the longest single-season stretch in franchise history.
Key Matchup: Derrick Henry vs. Cincinnati’s Rush Defense
Apologies to Ryan Tannehill, but all eyes will be on Henry when the Titans have the ball and he’s in the backfield. At the time of his injury back in Week 8, Henry was leading the league with 10 rushing touchdowns, 20 runs of 10+ yards and his average of 117.1 rushing yards per game was 19.8 more than the next-closest player, the Cleveland Brows’ Nick Chubb.
Despite missing more than half the season, only eight players surpassed Henry’s rushing total of 937 yards, as the NFL’s 2019 and ’20 rushing leader still finished ninth in the league in yards rushing.
Even after Henry was injured, the Titans didn’t change their identity as a run-heavy team. In Weeks 1-8 with a healthy Henry, the Titans ran 47.4% of the time – the fourth-highest clip in the NFL. After Henry got hurt, Tennessee actually increased the percent of time it ran, running on 49.8% of its offensive plays in Weeks 9-18.
That’s not to say the offense was better without him.
Even Tannehill was more effective with Henry on the field, posting a passer rating of 17 points higher, as opposing defenses focused their attention on slowing down the bruising back. With one of the league’s most fearsome running backs lining up in the backfield with a quarterback like Tannehill, it’s not surprising the Titans rely heavily on play-action and bootlegs. And with Henry on the field, Tennessee averaged 9.94 yards per play on play-action and bootlegs. Without him on such plays, their average nearly dropped three full yards to 7.06.
Of course, it will also be a boon to the Tennessee offense to have Henry, A.J. Brown and Julio Jones on the field together. Henry, Brown and Jones played in just five games together this season, and no big surprise, the Titans’ offense was considerably more potent with the trio together. In 120 plays with the three on the field, Tennessee averaged 7.10 yards per play. That’s nearly two yards higher than the Titans’ season average of 5.14, which ranked 22nd in the league – slightly ahead of such notable teams as the Jacksonville Jaguars (5.05) and New York Jets (5.03).
So now Henry appears to be back in the fold, but what can we expect from the two-time Pro Bowler in his first game action since Halloween? On one hand, he should be good physical shape having avoided all the bumps and bruises and wear and tear that comes along with the grind of a full NFL season. On the other, will he have any rust from the long layoff between games and what kind workload will he be able to handle?
He’ll be going up against a Bengals’ defense that ranked fifth in the NFL against the run in the regular season, permitting an average of 102.5 yards per game. Cincinnati also yielded 0.954 rushing yards fewer than expected on expected running plays in the regular season – the second-best rate in the league.
The defensive front that takes the field Saturday for the Bengals, however, isn’t at full strength.
Larry Ogunjobi, who started 16 games and ranked third on the team with seven sacks, was placed on injured reserve Monday after being carted off the field last week with a right foot injury. Josh Tupou has been limited in practice this week due to a knee injury and his backup, Mike Daniels, has already been ruled out with a groin injury sustained last week.
A bit of good news for the Bengals defensive front is sacks leaders Trey Hendrickson has been cleared to play after suffering a concussion last week.
Cincinnati finished its wild-card game with just two healthy tackles and the result wasn’t pretty. The Bengals were gashed for an average of 7.36 yards per run by a Vegas team that finished the regular season with the league’s fifth-worst rushing offense.
D.J. Reader and B.J. Hill will start on the inside as the Bengals try to slow down Henry, who averaged 4.38 yards on carries up the middle – the fifth-best mark in the league among those with at least 50 carries.
Henry rushed for 112 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries against the Bengals last season, which is right in line with what he’s averaging in six career playoff games – 111.7 rushing yards.
Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday, 6:30 ET, CBS)
Line: Chiefs by 2
The Analyst Win Probability: Chiefs 51%
Reasons to watch: Two of the league’s hottest offenses square off as two of the NFL’s top young quarterbacks go head-to-head in the playoffs for the second year in a row and for the fourth time since the start of last season. Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs got the better of Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills in last season’s AFC championship game, securing a second straight Super Bowl berth with a 38-24 victory behind Mahomes’ 325 yards passing and three touchdowns.
Allen averaged 204.5 passing yards with four TDs and two interceptions for a 78.1 passer rating in a pair of losses to Kansas City last season before posting a 139.1 QB rating with 315 yards and three touchdowns without a turnover in the Bills’ 38-20 win at Arrowhead Stadium in Week 5.
That defeat was part of the Chiefs’ 2-3 start, but they’ve only lost twice since then, while going 7-0 at home – including last Sunday’s 42-21 rout of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild-card game.
The Chiefs have exhibited one of the league’s most potent offenses since Mahomes took the reins, but they’ve been even more prolific lately, racking up 126 points in their last three games at Arrowhead Stadium – the franchise’s highest point total over a three-game home stretch since scoring 128 in three straight home games in the 1965 season. The Chiefs are also averaging 37.6 points in winning their last five playoff games at Arrowhead.
Against the Steelers, the Chiefs scored touchdowns on six straight possessions bridging the second and third quarters, amassing 407 yards on 41 plays on those drives. That’s an average of 9.92 yards per play.
The Bills, however, may have the firepower to keep up with Mahomes.
Twenty-four hours before the Chiefs demolished the Steelers, the Bills were putting the finishing touches on humiliating Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots, rolling to a 47-17 victory. They became the first team in the Super Bowl era to score a touchdown on each of their first seven drives in a playoff game.
Allen completed 21-of-25 passes for 308 yards with five touchdowns and also ran for 66 yards to become the first player to complete 80% of his passes, throw for five or more TDs and rush for at least 50 yards in any game in NFL history. His average of 12.32 yards per attempt marked the fourth highest in a playoff game in the Super Bowl era by a QB with a minimum of 25 throws behind a pair of Peyton Manning outings and one by Dan Marino.
Not to be outdone, Mahomes also put together a performance for the ages in Kansas City’s wild-card rout, becoming the first QB in NFL history to throw for at least 400 yards with five TD passes in a postseason victory.
Travis Kelce hauled in one of those touchdown passes – he also threw for one – and finished with five receptions for 108 yards and Tyreek Hill didn’t appear to be slowed by a heel injury sustained prior to the regular-season finale, finishing with five catches for 57 yards with a touchdown.
Of all the playmakers on Kansas City’s high-powered offense, Jerick McKinnon supplied a surprising spark. With Clyde Edwards-Helaire still sidelined with a shoulder injury and Darrel Williams dealing with a sore toe, McKinnon made his first start of the season and rushed for 61 yards on 12 carries while catching six passes for 81 yards and a TD. McKinnon joined Ed Podolak from a 1971 divisional game, as the only Chiefs players to have 50+ rushing yards and 75+ receiving yards in a playoff game.
Although the Chiefs marched up and down the field on the Steelers in the game’s middle two quarters, that came after their first five possessions ended with three punts, an interception and a fumble, which led to the game’s first points.
While the Chiefs were able to get away with being that sloppy last weekend against an offensively challenged Steelers team, they can ill-afford to be that careless and still expect to win against the Bills.
A concern all season for Kansas City has been its turnovers. Last Sunday’s two-turnover game marked the ninth time this season the Chiefs had at least two turnovers after having seven such games the previous two seasons combined.
Giving extra possessions to Allen is a recipe for disaster as Buffalo is 8-0 this season when registering at least two takeaways. Buffalo scored touchdowns on both of its drives following interceptions of Mac Jones last weekend, and the Bills’ 81 points off takeaways in the regular season were sixth most in the NFL.
A failure to take care of the ball led to the Chiefs’ demise against the Bills back in October, as Kansas City turned the ball over four times.
The Chiefs also don’t want to come out flat this weekend like they did in the wild-card game. It’s one thing to spot the Steelers five possessions without a point to show for it, but that’s not going to work against the Bills.
Yes, Kansas City has the firepower on offense to play catch-up and yes, it has proven it can rally in the playoffs – see last season’s AFC championship game when it came back from a 9-0 first-quarter deficit to beat the Bills. But it really doesn’t want to find itself needing to stage a comeback against this year’s Bills team, especially with the way Allen and company have been starting lately.
Key Matchup: Patrick Mahomes vs. Buffalo’s Defense
While Allen has been putting up remarkable passing numbers, the Bills have been outstanding against the pass.
Buffalo became the fifth team in the Super Bowl era to finish a regular season leading the league in fewest passing yards per game (163.0), fewest passing touchdowns (12), lowest completion percentage (56.0) and lowest passer rating (65.3). The Bills also led the league in defensive EVE (minus-0.907 yards allowed under expected), EVE against the pass (minus-1.480) and pass yards allowed under expected on expected pass plays (minus-1.163).
While much has been made of Buffalo’s stingy pass defense, they haven’t exactly faced the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks.
Yes, they flummoxed Mahomes back in Week 5 – with the 2018 league MVP throwing two picks and recording a 70.9 passer rating on a career-high 54 throws – but this season they’ve also stifled the likes of Davis Mills, Taylor Heinicke, Trevor Lawrence, Mike White, Zach Wilson, Trevor Siemian and Cam Newton. None of those quarterbacks are being confused for Aaron Rodgers, Dak Prescott or Matthew Stafford.
Other than Mahomes, the only other QB they faced this season with a passer rating in the top 10 was Tom Brady, and he threw for 363 yards and two touchdowns without an interception while posting a 105.6 QB rating in the Buccaneers’ Week 14 win over the Bills.
So now, after frustrating Jones in the rookie’s playoff debut, Buffalo turns its attention to Mahomes, who averages 310.3 passing yards with 20 passing touchdowns to one interception with a 120.1 QB rating in seven AFC playoff games.
While Mahomes and the Chiefs have several different ways to beat you, the screen pass might be the avenue they take against the Bills.
During the regular season, only the Patriots and Browns gained an average of more yards on screen passes than the Chiefs’ average of 7.12.
Kansas City efficiently moved the ball down the field utilizing short passes last week against the Steelers. Mahomes had an average of 5.78 air yards on his throws last Sunday after averaging 7.52 air yards per pass in the regular season, as the Chiefs ran nine screens for 75 yards – an average of 8.3 yards per play.
McKinnon proved to be the biggest weapon, scampering for 57 yards on his three screen plays. Although the box score has McKinnon with 81 receiving yards, he actually had 107 yards after the catch with his six receptions coming at an average of 4.3 yards behind the line of scrimmage. He finished with an average of 17.8 yards after catch – the highest by anyone in a playoff game in the last 30 seasons with a minimum of six receptions.
While the Bills did many things well last week against the Patriots, defending the screen wasn’t one of them. Jones completed three screen passes for 43 yards – an average of 14.3 yards per play.
Buffalo ranked 23rd in defending screen passes during the regular season, permitting an average of 6.29 yards per play. The NFL average was 5.59.
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Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads and Greg Gifford contributed. Design by Matt Sisneros.