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2021 Playoffs: Thoughts Before Divisional Round

I decided to make this post in order to log my thoughts on these division games before they happen. After the weekend ends, I’ll be revisiting the words I wrote here to assess my estimations and understanding of all the teams involved in these games.

Bengals @ Titans

Cincinnati did well to ward off Las Vegas last week when they tried to stage a comeback. But the road for them has to end here. It just wouldn’t make sense otherwise.

Tennessee has too much raw talent and quality coaching for the Bengals to overcome. Cincinnati’s lone advantage here is at quarterback, but that alone can’t compensate for all the other cards the Titans hold over them, namely coaching and home field advantage. On top of that, Cincinnati hasn’t really proven itself a team capable of comebacks, especially on the road.

I expect the Titans to come firing out of the gates here on top of a wave of emotion. Tennessee should dominate this affair from start to finish.

49ers @ Packers

The Packers are on notice after San Francisco surprised folks last week with a decisive win over the Cowboys. And they certainly should be - San Francisco has some fierce potential here given the quality of their coaching as well as the overall talent of their roster.

The problem here is I’m not quite sure the 49ers are talented enough to upset Green Bay over on the frozen tundra in Wisconsin. I mean…San Francisco’s front only has one marquis player in Nick Bosa. If Bosa is shut down and nobody else can sustain consistent pressure against Rodgers, their defense will be picked apart - Rodgers is too damn good to not find somebody so long as his offensive line holds opposing pass rushers at bay long enough. To be fair though, San Francisco has a fair number of defensive linemen who can emerge as impact players, so it’s not as if the 49ers are hopeless defensively. Still, it won’t be easy for any of their linemen to break out against the game’s best quarterback.

What’s far more concerning is Jimmy Garoppalo. The man has a ceiling, something that was made abundantly clear last week against the Cowboys when he nearly gave the win away in the last third of the game. Garoppalo can manage a few touchdown drives here and there, but enduring success isn’t quite his forte, especially given his spotty track record this season staging comebacks. Sure, he waged a few successful road comebacks, but the key word there is “few” - he hasn’t done it enough to ward off my lingering doubts about his toughness.

In the end, San Francisco is a live dog when it comes to the spread. When it comes to winning though, give me the elite quarterback playing on his home turf.

Rams @ Buccaneers

It’s weird for me to think of the Rams as a legitimate contender here, but the reality is that Sean McVay and company have gotten the better of Tampa Bay twice now. His secret has always been invoking the hurry-up offense early and often. Tampa Bay has one of the league’s most aggressive defenses when it comes to rushing the passer, but that pass rush is neutered if a team opts to sell the pass rush short.

Although now that I’m watching the tape from their last game back in September…I notice Bowles finally wised up in the second half, electing to play the Rams much more conservatively by sending only four men to rush the passer while the rest dropped back into some sort of hybrid zone/man coverage. And it still didn’t work - Stafford was given way too much oxygen in the pocket. Shaquil Barrett in particular really failed to impact the game much. One could argue Jason Pierre-Paul not being present that day really set their pass rush back, but given his limited production this season, that argument doesn’t hold much weight.

So if we assume the Rams have proven themselves superior to the Buccaneers regardless of coaching adjustments, how can Tampa Bay win the game? I’m not sure. Los Angeles hasn’t really suffered any major setbacks between then and now. Yes, Robert Woods will no longer be there, but it seems the organization has found a suitable replacement in Odell Beckham. On top of that, the pass rush has been upgraded now that Von Miller has joined the roster. Leonard Floyd never really developed into that cornerstone piece capable of complimenting Aaron Donald inside the trenches, but Miller has that potential so long as the coaches can regulate his snap count to keep him fresh.

Now Tampa on the other hand…their roster has been suffering setback after setback for the better part of the season. Sure, a few players are expected to return just in time for this game, but it’s quite possible there’ll still be vital players absent on Sunday, namely offensive linemen. And for those men returning this week, in what shape are they in? Are they fully healthy? Bruce Arians isn’t necessarily above forcing roster personnel into action even if they haven’t fully recovered from whatever kept them inactive. If anything, throwing injured players into battle may end up being detrimental to the club’s chances of winning.

The only clear advantage Tampa has entering this contest will be home field advantage. Other than that, not much has changed, and that doesn’t bode well for the defending champs. I’m not sure the hostile vibes of enemy territory will be enough to kill Stafford and company, especially if McVay can just reuse the same concepts and plays that were so resoundingly successful in their regular season meeting.

Bills @ Chiefs

Ever since the Bills brutalized the Patriots last week, so many people have been too happy hopping on the Bills bandwagon. To be fair, it’s hard to really downplay their achievements after the way they’ve schooled Belichick and his boys over the past couple weeks. These Bills deserves serious credit for rediscovering their groove after being left for dead by those same Patriots that Monday night up in Buffalo.

That being said…this team is still lacking so many qualities that championship teams need to see their way through the postseason. They don’t have an elite quarterback. They don’t have any elite defensive linemen lining up in the trenches, let alone any players with elite potential. They’ve failed to mount a single comeback this season. Their strengths rest in all their diverse weaponry on offense as well as their overall coaching on both ends of the ball. While so many other playoff teams would love to have the coaching intellect Buffalo has in droves, it’s not enough by itself to win Super Bowls. Remember the cardinal rule underpinning my playoff model - no one thing can single-handedly carry a team to a Lombardi trophy. A team needs to be strong in a preponderance of championship aspects to be considered a legitimate contender to win the Super Bowl.

But that’s not what we’re evaluating here, is it? The question here is whether Buffalo is built to beat Kansas in the divisional round. And to be frank, it’s a possibility. The Bills have already beaten these Chiefs earlier in the season. But that was when this Kansas defense was at its lowest point of the year. It was comically inept. No longer the case anymore now that playoffs have begun. It’s pretty far from being a dominant unit, but it’s made tremendous strides towards the middle now that Chris Jones has shifted back to playing within his comfort zone from the interior of the defensive line. On top of that, Melvin Ingram has arrived as an edge rusher worthy of lining up opposite Frank Clark. The cornerbacks have been better in coverage too, something absolutely critical given how often the Chiefs love to blitz.

Furthermore, Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid have adjusted a bit on offense now that defenses are much more committed to playing deep coverage against Tyreek Hill. Mahomes is a bit more willing to throw the ball underneath. Byron Pringle’s also emerged as a possibly reliable third weapon alongside Kelce and Hill, so that should help. Will it be enough to change the outcome from that early-season outing? Quite possibly. I’m giving the edge here to Kansas City.