The first weekend of the playoffs was absolutely thrilling. Two six seeds pulled off big upsets, there were two overtime games, and mainstays of the playoffs were eliminated round one. Ryan Tannehill and Kirk Cousins triumphed, and Tom Brady and Drew Brees are now at home. The Divisional Round is perhaps the most exciting of the playoffs, given the even further elevated stakes, and the Top 2 seeds in each conference now getting involved.
Minnesota at San Francisco
Practically everyone, myself included, gave the Vikings no shot to win in New Orleans. They went in, played an excellent game, survived a rally, and delivered a dagger to stun the Superdome into silence. In the biggest moment of his career, Kirk Cousins delivered. Not enough can be said about how Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen dominated for the Vikings defensively. The returns of Dalvin Cook and Adam Thielen also clearly had a huge impact for the Vikings.
Now, Minnesota heads out to Santa Clara to take on the top-seeded Niners. The extra week of rest will be significant for the 49ers, giving them extra time to prepare for this matchup and for players like Dee Ford to heal up. San Francisco won this position, surviving a thrilling Week 17 showdown against rival Seattle. However, it certainly wasn’t like they snuck into that spot in the final week of the season. For most of the year, San Fran looked like the most dominant team in the NFC. The Niners feature a complete roster, with playmakers all over the offense and an electric defense.
That said, the Niners have looked far more mortal recently than earlier in the year. The offense has still produced, but the defense has tailed off a bit. They did hold the mighty Ravens offense in check a month ago, but were unable to produce enough on offense. And when the defense lagged against the Saints and Rams, the offense exploded and outproduced their opponents.
That was then, and this is now. This will be this iteration of the Niners first time in the playoffs. The Vikings roster is battle tested, with Cousins and Cook being the only two not heavily featured two years ago when Minnesota was in the NFC title game. The Niners stared down possible losses against the Rams and Saints, but held on strong. But how will they react now when the pressure is turned up even further?
Despite how powerful both these offenses can be, the ferocity on both defensive lines will likely create problems for both Cousins and Jimmy Garoppolo. While Cousins certainly shifted the narrative on his career last week, that won’t mean much if he goes and plays poorly this week. San Fran fought all season for this moment, and they have been more consistent to this point. The main issue will be, once the pressure really turns up if Garoppolo is ready for this moment. Then again, the last time Minnesota faced a one seed on their turf, it did not go so well.
San Francisco 27 Minnesota 17
Tennessee at Baltimore
The Titans played an excellent game through and through last week. Derrick Henry was an unstoppable force. Mike Vrabel out coached the master, and the Titans toppled New England. Even though Tennessee outplayed the Patriots, the excellent New England defense kept them in the game. The Titans did exactly what they had to and were able to come away with a huge win. They are going to need an even greater effort this week against the best team in the league this year. The week off again plays a huge factor here. Baltimore has had more time to rest and plan. This was well needed for a player like Mark Ingram.
Tennessee’s defense was not challenged much by the New England offense, but they will have their hands entirely full with the potent Ravens attack, headed by probable MVP Lamar Jackson. The Ravens have been an absolute force this year. The Ravens have not lost since Week 4 and have destroyed other teams allegedly “on their level,” like the Texans and Patriots.
Tennessee is built differently than both those crews on offense, but their defense is the weak point. The Patriots were unable to push Tennessee the way Baltimore will. When the Titans faced the, at the time, hot Saints, they got 38 put up on them in Nashville.
The Titans do have a chance here, as do all the teams playing this weekend. They just need to play a perfect game. They need far more from everyone on offense who isn’t Derrick Henry. On the other hand, Henry has been so sensational, he could be the path to victory again. But the Titans’ offense has to do far better than 14 points in this contest. Baltimore’s defense is not the Pats, but they have morphed into a strong group. This is of course bolstered by the fact they know they have their offense building big leads and sustaining drives.
With the extra time, the Ravens surely have added some wrinkles to the offense with which to attack the Titans. Relying on Henry will not work for the Titans if they are down by multiple scores or if they need to score quickly. Baltimore’s secondary is littered with talent, and the only true threat the Titans’ pass game features is AJ Brown, a rookie. Tennessee has had a fantastic season, redeemed by the switch to Ryan Tannehill. Even if it ends here, they will go down as (maybe) having ended the Patriots’ reign of dominance, with an assist from the Dolphins.
Baltimore 34 Tennessee 17
Houston at Kansas City
Well, the Texans almost did it again. Thankfully for them, the Bills Billed and choked away a strong first half performance. Deshaun Watson put the entire organization on his back and dragged his team to victory by sheer force of will. The Texans absolutely cannot afford to play a first half like last week against the Chiefs. Houston was dead in the water until the Bills went into turtle mode. And then Buffalo could not manufacture any consistent offense to speak of. The Houston Deshaun Watsons were the team making clutch plays at the end. Watson was unreal and showed out when it mattered most.
Outside of the Ravens, no team has played as well recently as Kansas City. They have been entirely locked in, with their last loss being an absolutely wild game in Week 10 versus the Titans. Since then, the KC defense has improved dramatically, and the offense has been consistent if unspectacular. These two teams met in Week 6. The Chiefs built, and then lost an early lead. This was when Patrick Mahomes was still hurt, and the Chiefs’ defense was somewhat a mess. That game was the high point for the Texans, as they have trended around mediocre since. The possible return of Will Fuller could give the Texans offense some juice to stay on pace with the Chiefs.
The defenses are the real difference here. The Texans have allowed 22 points per game over their last six full games, Week 17 thrown out. The Chiefs have ceded just 11.5. The Texans have a propensity to get ripped through the air and are now facing one of the most threatening air games in football. You would be hard-pressed to find a duo as dynamic as Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, paired with the arm of Mahomes. Watson is excellent, but his only real weapon is Deandre Hopkins, and the Chiefs know this. The Chiefs will punish any slip up the Texans offer them. Josh Allen did it for a half, but Mahomes and Co. will do it for a full sixty.
That first half the Texans played cannot just be forgotten. They were able to claw back due to their excellent quarterback, and the quality of their opponent. Some of the decisions made by Bill O’Brien were unbelievable, and the team’s execution was awful at times. In his career, Andy Reid is 22-3 with a bye week. The Chiefs are going to start this game locked in and will not let off.
Kansas City 35 Houston 21
Seattle at Green Bay
Seattle continued their season of living on the razor’s edge, aided by the early exit of Carson Wentz. The Seahawks relied on budding star DK Metcalf and the always excellent Russell Wilson to do just enough to get by a decimated Eagles crew. Seattle is also a team ravaged by injury, but what the Eagles went through this year was ridiculous, and they still turned in a division title. Kudos to Philadelphia.
Seattle now gets to move on to Lambeau Field to face the Packers. No one is entirely sure what to make of Green Bay. They haven’t exactly dominated anyone, but they are 13-and-3, got a bye, and are a win away from the NFC title game. There is no way to discredit that. The Packers have rebounded excellently after two down years.
Green Bay’s defense has been revitalized this year but has been susceptible to the run game. The Seahawks ran 17 times for 19 yards against a stellar Philly front, so that could change. However, the Packers also stonewalled their divisional rivals on the ground the last three weeks of the season. Granted, the only real threat of that crew was the Vikings, and they did not have Dalvin Cook.
The Packers are truly a confusing team to figure out. They dominated the Vikings, and then went to the wire with the Lions. The Seahawks are an equally befuddling team, who limped to the finish, literally, and needed some serious breaks to defeat the Eagles. And yet, in this game again, they have the best player on the field. No disrespect to Mr. Rodgers, but Russell Wilson is perhaps the best quarterback in the league. That means everything in a game like this.
Seattle features a stud pass rusher in Jadeveon Clowney, but their front is not much after that. If the Seahawks cannot generate pressure, Aaron Rodgers will make them pay. Even if he is not the Rodgers of several years ago, he is still a cerebral passer and has a stud target in Davante Adams. Also bolstering the Packers is rising star Aaron Jones. The Seahawks will need to rely on Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright to monitor Jones. The Packers have stars Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, plus Kenny Clark. That front will undoubtedly create pressure on Wilson, but he seems to thrive in chaos. If there is one thing these two teams have done this season, it is exceed expectations. For one of them, that will end Sunday night.
The NFC playoffs are fascinating. The first game features a team no one gave a shot against the top conference seed. This contest is two bizarre teams, that are part of the “old guard.” These two have met before. The 2014 NFC Championship was an insane game the Packers totally let get away. We have the potential for an NFC North NFC Championship, or an NFC West NFC Championship rematch. The NFC has been the “iron sharpens iron” conference the last few years, and it will be fascinating to see it play out this weekend.