First look at the divisional round: Previewing the three set matchups, every team’s reason for optimism
- Previously covered the Kansas City Chiefs for the Kansas City Star and Oklahoma University for the Oklahoman.
With just one game left in the wild-card round for the 2022 season, we have seven of eight NFL playoff divisional-round teams locked in. And we know three of the four matchups on deck next weekend, with the last one still waiting on the winner of Monday night’s Cowboys-Buccaneers game.
Let’s look ahead to a stacked divisional-round schedule, which includes the first postseason contests of the season for the Chiefs and Eagles, who each had a bye after 14-win campaigns. To get you ready for next week’s slate, Brooke Pryor picked out the biggest thing to watch for in each game, and Seth Walder explored how each team can win to advance to the conference championship games.
Note: Odds and game lines are via Caesars Sportsbook.
(4) Jacksonville Jaguars at (1) Kansas City Chiefs
Saturday, Jan. 21, at 4:30 p.m. ET (NBC)
Opening line: KC -9 (52)
What to watch for: After a season of MVP-like performances, Patrick Mahomes comes into this one well-rested. But the Jaguars enter the game riding a wave of momentum — and a roller coaster of emotions — after coming back from a 27-point hole and four Trevor Lawrence first-half interceptions to beat the Chargers on a walk-off field goal in the wild-card round.
In these teams’ regular-season meeting, Mahomes lit up the Jaguars for four passing touchdowns and 331 yards with one interception. The Chiefs jumped out to a 20-0 lead in the second quarter, but the upset-minded Jaguars did what they’ve done all season and tried to mount a comeback. Lawrence threw for 259 yards and two touchdown passes, but the Jaguars didn’t get any closer than a 10-point deficit late in the fourth. The Jags are a much-improved team from a season ago, but in this battle of former Philadelphia head coaches, Andy Reid’s group is simply playing at another level.
Why the Chiefs will win: Patrick Mahomes. Andy Reid. Travis Kelce. There are other people involved here, and we can say a lot more, but these three are the biggest reasons the Chiefs will be deserved strong favorites. Over the course of the regular season, the Chiefs had the most efficient offense in football, and it wasn’t even close (0.17 expected points added per play, with the Bills next at 0.12). The offensive line deserves credit for that number too.
Chris Jones has had a magnificent season. His 79 pass rush wins were 26 more than any other defensive tackle. But this defense overall is simply average. And that’s all it needs to be most weeks. Offense is key to championships, and the Chiefs have the better one in this game. Yes, Lawrence has had a nice season, and he was sensational in the second half of Saturday’s comeback against the Chargers. But let’s be real: Lawrence isn’t on Mahomes’ level, at least not right now.
Why the Jaguars will win: A great outing from Lawrence, performances of the year from some of his teammates and a little luck could get it done. That’s all it will take.
The Jaguars showed how good they can be in the second half against the Chargers. Not only was Lawrence elite in that contest, but he also got solid protection, and teammates Christian Kirk and Evan Engram stepped up in the receiving game. Against the Chiefs, though, they will need even more. But with Lawrence, there’s always a chance. He proved that on Saturday.
(3) Cincinnati Bengals at (2) Buffalo Bills
Sunday, Jan. 22, at 3 p.m. ET (CBS)
Opening line: BUF -4 (50)
What to watch for: This one is going to be emotional for all the obvious reasons. Bills safety Damar Hamlin and the abrupt, traumatic and emotionally abbreviated game between these squads earlier this month will obviously be on the forefront of each player’s mind. But Hamlin, who collapsed on the field after suffering cardiac arrest on a routine play in the first quarter of that Jan. 2 tilt, is out of the hospital and recovering at his home in Buffalo. Before Hamlin’s medical emergency, the Week 17 game had been billed as one of the most important of the season, as two AFC juggernauts squared off with playoff seeding on the line.
The circumstances and stakes are different this time around, but the storylines remain the same. Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase against Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs, plus Cincinnati’s front vs. a Bills offensive line that gave up seven sacks in the wild-card round. The regular-season contest had all the makings of a classic when it first appeared on the schedule, and this go-round promises to be an exciting showdown.
Why the Bills will win: The Bills’ exceptional play over the course of the season is a much more important indicator for their next game than their struggles against the Dolphins in the wild-card round. And the Bills were awfully good in the regular season. Both of these offenses are led by exceptional quarterbacks, and each has an elite-tier wide receiver.
But there’s one key difference here, and that’s the offensive line. While Allen will have time to throw — and is the better rusher if he chooses to scramble — the Bengals’ O-line is banged up. Left tackle Jonah Williams left Sunday’s wild-card game against the Ravens and didn’t return. And frankly, Cincinnati’s line wasn’t particularly good when healthy. That means Buffalo’s Greg Rousseau & Co. will likely be in the backfield disrupting Burrow and the Bengals’ pass game.
And just in general, the Bills have the defensive edge here thanks in part to strong linebacker play from Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds. With a slight advantage on both sides of the ball and the game being played on their home turf, the Bills are big favorites.
Why the Bengals will win: The Bills might have been the better team in the regular season. But could the Bengals be the better squad right now? Cincinnati didn’t have Chase for part of the season, and star pass-rusher Trey Hendrickson missed a few games. The Bills, meanwhile, were bolstered by a superstar pass-rusher they no longer have in injured Von Miller. And for as good as Allen was in the regular season, he did lead all quarterbacks in turnovers.
Add in Buffalo struggling to pull away from a Miami team that was starting its third-string quarterback and the Bengals might just have the edge.
(6) New York Giants at (1) Philadelphia Eagles
Saturday, Jan. 21, at 8:15 p.m. ET (FOX)
Opening line: PHI -7.5 (47)
What to watch for: Only one of the two matchups between these teams this season featured both teams’ starting quarterbacks, and the Eagles throttled the Giants (Week 14), more than doubling New York’s points total with a balanced offensive attack that scored four times on the ground and twice through the air. The Giants gave up 437 yards of offense to Philadelphia. But in the last three regular-season games, coordinator Wink Martindale’s defense allowed only an average of 315 yards, and it gave up 332 to Minnesota in the wild-card round. And with the offense capitalizing on his mobility, Giants quarterback Daniel Jones has also played better as of late, and he led the Giants with 78 rushing yards against the Vikings — including seven first-down runs.
But make no mistake: Even with the Giants’ late-season surge and Philadelphia quarterback Jalen Hurts still recovering from a shoulder sprain suffered in Week 15, the Eagles have the edge coming off the bye week. One other thing to keep in mind: In that Week 14 game, the Eagles held New York running back Saquon Barkley to just 28 rushing yards, his second-lowest output of the season.
Why the Eagles will win: Simply put, Philadelphia is better in almost every facet of the game. Quarterback? Check. Offensive line? Check. Receivers? Check. Defensive line? Check. Linebackers? Check. Defensive backs? Check.
I’ll give the Giants the running back position, and maybe kicker, in the head-to-head comparison. But that’s about it. The Eagles can beat you in different ways. Offensively, Hurts can run on the Giants — who allowed 5.2 yards per carry to opposing quarterbacks this season, second worst in the NFL — or hit receivers A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith through the air. Defensively, the pass rush can wreck a pass play before the ball is out of the quarterback’s hand. And if not, the best secondary in the game is there to smother receivers.
Why the Giants will win: The Giants are outmatched but do have a few factors going for them. First, Jones’ rushing ability offers a needed out when pass plays go awry, as we saw against the Vikings. And Barkley looked like the early-season version of himself against Minnesota, with plus-22 rush yards over expectation in the contest. Between him and Jones, the Giants will have to generate production on the ground because the Eagles’ pass defense is vicious. On the other side of the ball, defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence is on a tear right now and can blow up opposing offenses from the inside of the line.
There’s also Hurts’ health. If the Eagles quarterback is limited, anything is possible.
TBD at (2) San Francisco 49ers
Sunday, Jan. 22, at 6:30 p.m. ET (FOX)
The winner of Monday night’s game between the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers will play at the 49ers in the divisional round.
Why 49ers will win: No matter how you want to divide the credit between quarterback Brock Purdy, the incredible supporting cast and coach Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers’ offense has been outrageous since the seventh-round rookie took over as the starter. With Purdy on the field, San Francisco averages 0.19 expected points added (EPA) per play. For context, the Chiefs with Patrick Mahomes average 0.18.
Oh, and it’s quite possible that the offense is the 49ers’ worse side of the ball. No team recorded a better EPA per play on defense this season than San Francisco, which excelled against both the run and the pass. From Nick Bosa to Fred Warner to Dre Greenlaw to Talanoa Hufanga, this defense can get the 49ers a win even if the offense has an off day. Now we wait on the Niners’ opponent …
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