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NFL Divisional Round bold predictions: Buffalo Bills exorcise playoff demons, QB swings 49ers-Packers duel

NFL Divisional Round
Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL Divisional Round is here with eight teams duking it out on Saturday and Sunday for spots in the NFC and AFC Championship games. With NFL stars like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen all taking the field, this football slate will be great.

Our road to Super Bowl LVI begins on Saturday with a rematch between the Tennessee Titans and Cincinnati Bengals. The Titans enter as one of the most overlooked No. 1 seeds in NFL history, but getting Derrick Henry back could change things. There is a ton at stake for Cincinnati, with Joe Burrow trying to push this franchise to its first AFC title game since 1988.

Closing out Saturday’s NFL playoff action, it’s a playoff classic. The San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers have plenty of history, especially this time of year. Green Bay is favored, but it would only be fitting for San Francisco to end Rodgers ‘Last Dance’ prematurely.

Of course, the best game of the NFL Divisional Round is saved for last. Allen vs. Mahomes, a rematch of the conference title bout a year ago. The winner becomes the overwhelming favorite to represent the AFC in Super Bowl 2022.

With that in mind, let’s dive into our bold predictions for the NFL Divisional Round.

Related: NFL games today – 2023 NFL schedule

Derrick Henry return sparks Tennessee Titans comeback win

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Cincinnati Bengals
Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

When Derrick Henry fractured his foot in Week 8, many counted the Titans out. But this team found a way to stay alive, constantly overcoming injuries. Tennessee could have brought Henry back for Week 18, but it exercised caution and will now see the All-Pro rusher in the backfield for the NFL Divisional Round.

The additional two weeks of rest is crucial. As doctors have explained, 6-10 weeks is the typical recovery timeline for a Jones fracture. But additional rest allows an athlete more time to heal and makes it easier for the bone to handle movement. We’re now 12 weeks removed from the injury.

Henry doesn’t need to be at 100% to have success in this game. Before the playoffs, opponents averaged 4.6 ypr and 126.4 rushing ypg (Week 14-18) vs. Tennessee. In the playoffs, Josh Jacobs turned just 13 carries into 83 yards. Tennessee can mix Henry in periodically in the first half, letting Ryan Tannehill use the threat of the run to hit A.J. Brown and Julio Jones on play-action throws.

In the fourth quarter, Henry takes over and leads the Titans in a fourth-quarter rally to win the game. Against a tired Bengals’ defense, the best running back in the NFL will prove why he is unlike any other at his position.

Jimmy Garoppolo freezes late, sends Green Bay Packers to NFC Championship Game

NFL: NFC Wild Card Playoff-San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Jimmy Garoppolo and Kyle Shanahan boast a 3-1 playoff record, a strong mark for a quarterback who draws a lot of criticism. While the 49ers are underdogs to the Packers in the NFL Divisional Round, this is certainly a matchup they can win.

We’ve seen Green Bay’s run defense falter often in the playoffs. Everyone remembers the 2020 NFC Championship Game, which saw Raheem Mostert explode for 220 yards and four touchdowns. In that victory, Garoppolo attempted just eight passes. There’s no doubt the Packers’ defense is better in 2022, but this is a bad schematic matchup for them.

There are two things Green Bay has going for it. First, San Francisco’s secondary is the Achilles heel of its defense as we saw against Rodgers (261 yards, 2 TDs, 113.3 QB rating) on Sept. 26. If the Packers protect Rodgers, he can give them an early lead. That takes us to the factor that swings this matchup.

Garoppolo is playing with a painful thumb injury, one he described as a feeling of ‘the webbing in your hand is kind of tearing a little bit.’ He has held up well in two starts since, but that came in perfect weather conditions. Playing in frigid temperatures at Lambeau Field, things will be a lot worse. In a close game, history tells us Garoppolo will give the Packers’ defense a chance to seal the game and they won’t waste it as Dallas did.

Josh Allen delivers MVP moment, Bills take down Patrick Mahomes

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs
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This is the matchup everyone needs to see in the NFL Divisional Round, the icing on the cake of a phenomenal slate of football games. Patrick Mahomes vs. Josh Allen, a quarterback duel that will likely become the 2020s version of Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning.

Everyone is expecting a shootout. These two teams combined for 58 points in their prior meeting this season and this matchup projects to be a lot closer than the 38-20 final from Week 5. Of course, there is also recent postseason history between Kansas City and Buffalo. Allen wants revenge for the 38-24 AFC title loss one year ago.

We believe he’s going to get it. Buffalo finished the regular season with the highest pressure rate (30.8%) and the highest hurry rate (15.4%) in the NFL. Keep in mind, all of that was accomplished with defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier only sending a blitz 26% of the time (13th in NFL). Pressuring Mahomes without blitzing is how you make him look mortal.

  • Patrick Mahomes stats vs. pressure (Pro Football Focus): 69.8 QB rating (16th), 9-5 TD-INT ratio, 42.% completion rate (27th) in the regular season

Buffalo’s secondary, even without Tre’Davious White, is one of the best in the NFL. The Bills have the personnel to slow down a Chiefs’ offense that is often inconsistent by its own doing. With Kansas City’s leaky defense now facing Allen and Stefon Diggs, Buffalo gets its revenge.