The Super Bowl hype machine is in full effect.
This week, the NFL dropped a promo featuring the California All-Stars that will be entertaining us all during the Half Time Show and if the cinematic short is anything to go by, then Dre, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, MJB and Snoop could be on for an all-time barnstormer of a show. If they don’t wrap with California Love, there will be outrage. I just can’t wait for the shots of all those filling corporate boxes at So-Fi Stadium getting down. Shame Jerry Jones and his hi-five crew won’t be in the house.
But who will be, team-wise? We’re down to the last eight and a Divisional Round that is fascinating and hard to call in each instance. As has been the way for most of the season, no team has emerged in either conference as a definitive front-runner. As such, a case can be made for any of the quarter finalists to go on and win the whole thing.
|Match Up||Nat’s pick|
|Titans vs Bengals||Bengals|
|Packers vs 49ers||Packers|
|Buccaneers vs Rams||Rams|
|Chiefs vs Bills||Chiefs|
|Divisional Round accumulator||13.28/1 with Sky Bet|
Odds correct at time of publication. 18+ only. T&Cs apply. BeGambleAware
49ers @ Packers
Green Bay are the most balanced side and could have some key players on both sides of the ball returning for what’s undoubtedly going to be a bruising encounter against San Francisco, who brushed aside Dallas in the Wildcard Round with a combination of up-front muscle and innovative offense. The 49ers’ front shut down the Cowboys much vaunted ground game and roughed up a solid offensive line, sacking Dak Prescott five times and knocking him out of rhythm for much of the game.
The expected return of All-Pro tackle David Bakhtiari will be a welcome boost for the Packers, particularly if Nick Bosa clears concussion protocol, as is expected. Aaron Rodgers may not be a new school dual threat style quarterback, but his improvisational, on-the-fly reactions provide a similar advantage. He freewheels out of danger, keeps play alive until receivers are open, and weaves some magic when most mere mortal quarterbacks would flounder.
Defensively, questions about the fitness of San Fran’s starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo abound. His game against Dallas was representative of much of his career — solid for a big part of it, unravelling as the game went on, not expected to win the game through moments of brilliance, but rather hold firm and oversee a fluent interplay of game-changers like Deebo Samuel schemed up by the creative stylings of Kyle Shanahan.
The versatile dynamo that is Samuel picked up 10 carries for 72 yards and a touchdown — not bad for a receiver, and the ground is where the 49ers may look to exploit. The heir apparent to Jimmy G, rookie Trey Lance, is an explosive runner and may see a number of situational opportunities, in the same way that the Saints have used Taysom Hill and the Raiders Marcus Mariota. If it’s pinch-hitting cameos, then San Fran has a shot. If it’s all on Lance’s shoulders, the Packers should take it.
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Bengals @ Titans
The Titans are going way under the radar, perhaps the most unfancied number one seed that I can remember. It’s partly the market — Tennessee doesn’t grab the same kind of attention as others, including their opponents this weekend the Bengals — and that they’ve got an understated roster with few box office players, but an abundance of talent nevertheless.
Derrick Henry is a superstar, and is expected back this weekend, though just how much he’ll feature in his return from injury is questionable. The ground game of the Titans has held up reasonably well in his absence — D’Onta Foreman in particular stepping up, but the big play threat of Henry is they key. Often, defenses can hold him marginal YPC for the majority of a game, then, out of nowhere, he’ll break off a 44-yard blast and swing the game. The commitment to a ground game sets up a more effective play action that Ryan Tannehill can exploit with Julio Jones and AJ Brown; on the basis his line can hold firm against the Bengals’ Trey Hendrickson.
The Titans possess a stronger run blocking line than pass blocking, so that battle in the trenches will be fascinating. Similarly, the run D of Tennessee, one of the most effective in the NFL, could force Joe Burrow to win it in the air, and therein lies the crux of this one. The Titans’ pass D on paper looks weak, but it’s fast improving, ranks in the Top 12 for many statistical categories, and in Kevin Byard has a ball hawking safety that’s one of the best in the business.
Can Burrow exploit their weaker corners? If Cincy can blaze into an early lead the Titans will struggle — they’re not a team built to come from behind, so expect early strikes to Chase and Higgins to do just that. The swagger and moxie that Cincy have shown means they won’t be fazed — especially after overcoming Vegas in round one.
Bills @ Chiefs
In one of the other two Divisional Round games Kansas City host Buffalo in a rematch of last season’s AFC Championship.
It’s a stronger, more mature Bills side that’s heading to Arrowhead off the back of one of the most comprehensive performances of the season, but the Chiefs have been steadily improving on both sides of the ball as the season has rolled out. While they can be hurt on ground — and the emergence of Devin Singletary has enhanced the Bills’ run game to a whole new level — Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes will set the pace, and I’m not convinced Buffalo will keep up.
Rams @ Buccaneers
This could be the end of the road for Tampa Bay too. Brady’s champs are banged up — his offensive line in particular a worry if Tristan Wirfs and/or centre Ryan Jensen can’t go (Wirfs back up Josh Wells is also questionable).
The Rams’ front, led by Aaron Donald and a resurgent Von Miller (not to overlook the underrated Greg Gaines) will capitalise, and if the Bucs can’t establish a ground game (Playoff Lenny is out, and Ronald Jones questionable) then Brady may struggle to find his rhythm.
Mike Evans (alongside Gronk in the shorter gains, and RedZone) will be his go-to guy, but with Jalen Ramsay likely to be covering the Bucs number one, I think the Rams stifle Tampa and do enough to take it as a result. Expect Cam Akers to feature heavily in the Rams’ gameplan, and for Stafford to keep it simple.
|NFL Divisional Round accumulator|
|Full predictions @ 13.28/1 with SkyBet|
|Odds correct at time of publication.
18+ only. T&Cs apply. BeGambleAware
Nat Coombs is a British writer, broadcaster and NFL expert who has been anchoring live sport across UK TV & radio for over ten years. For more from Nat on the NFL postseason, check out his podcast here.