For most NFL fans, the opening round of the playoffs was somewhat of a surprise. The Tennessee Titans pulled one of the more remarkable upsets in NFL playoff history knocking off a New England team that had played in eight straight AFC title games. Three of four road teams were victorious as well. Will the surprises continue in the divisional round?
Efficiency Key for Minnesota, San Francisco
The Vikings were one of the three teams that won on the road last week getting an overtime touchdown pass from QB Kirk Cousins to TE Kyle Rudolph to eliminate New Orleans. Running back Dalvin Cook rushed for 94 yards and two touchdowns and the Vikings converted 10-of-18 third down tries. Minnesota will have to continue that efficiency to have a shot against the 49ers.
San Francisco should have DE Dee Ford back from a hamstring injury and the Niners may have LB Kwon Alexander back. Alexander missed half the season with a torn pectoral muscle. The 49ers were the NFL’s second-best rushing attack and TE George Kittle, who caught 85 passes for 1,053 yards this season, will be QB Jimmy Garoppolo’s top target.
The key on Saturday will once again be third down and red zone efficiency. San Francisco was excellent on defense on third down most of the season, but over the final three weeks allowed opponents to convert on 50 percent of their third downs. The Niners had the same problem in the red zone. Opposing offenses converted just 60 percent of their red zone trips into touchdowns, but over the final three weeks of the season that percentage moved up to 90 percent.
Can Titans Pull Upset Again?
Tennessee head coach Mike Vrabel went into New England and beat his former coach and mentor Bill Belichick and the Patriots last week. The Patriots got a heavy dose of RB Derrick Henry, the NFL’s leading rusher this season. Henry rushed for 182 yards on 34 carries and the Titans defense held the Patriots to a single touchdown in the 20-13 win.
The wild card round loss is likely the end of the road for Patriots QB Tom Brady, who at 42 finally appeared to regress over the latter half of the regular season. Having beaten one of the all-time greats, now the Titans must focus on beating the most dynamic quarterback in the NFL – Lamar Jackson.
Jackson set the NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a single season with 1,206. He also threw for 3,127 and accounted for 43 total touchdowns. Jackson was just one part of the Ravens rushing attack, one that led the NFL with 206 yards per game. Having last week off allowed RB Mark Ingram to rest and heal.
With all the focus on Jackson, many might forget that the Ravens defense ranked third in opponent red zone touchdown percentage. Remarkably, the Titans were first in offensive red zone efficiency and converting in the red zone will be huge for Tennessee on Saturday night.
Chiefs Well Rested
A surprising Patriots loss to Miami in Week 17 gave Kansas City last week off and that bye might be exactly was the Chiefs need to advance this postseason. Since Andy Reid became the Chiefs head coach, Kansas City is 22-4 after a bye whether in the regular season or postseason.
The Texans needed overtime to beat Buffalo last week. The Bills ran all over Houston gashing them for 172 rushing yards. For all the talk of Kansas City QB Patrick Mahomes and the passing game, the Chiefs do average 120 yards on the ground per game (12th in the NFL). That type of balance will be hard to stop, especially playing at Arrowhead Stadium.
Don’t forget though, Houston beat Kansas City earlier this season…at Arrowhead. It’s worth noting that the Chiefs were without WR Sammy Watkins, LT Eric Fisher, LG Andrew Wylie, DT Chris Jones, and LB Anthony Hitchens. Though Wylie is listed as questionable, all are expected to play Sunday.
Another Ugly Win?
Both the Packers and Seahawks have won ugly this year. Seattle committed 11 penalties (and lost 114 yards) in last week’s win over Philadelphia. Green Bay averages just 21.6 points a game and had to rally to beat the Detroit Lions in Week 17.
Seattle and Green Bay have some playoff history. The teams have played three playoff games. The home team has won each time. They last met in the 2014 NFC title game in Seattle. QB Russell Wilson threw a 35-yard TD pass in overtime for the Seahawks 28-22 victory.
The other two playoff games were in Green Bay. In the 2007 divisional playoffs, the Packers won big 42-20 with a guy named Brett Favre at quarterback. The key for Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers on Sunday is RB Aaron Jones. Jones was Green Bay’s first 1,000-yard rusher in almost a decade and if he is successful, he will open up Rodgers and the Packers passing game to attack the NFL’s 27th-ranked pass defense.