NFL 2021 AFC Divisional Round Preview

Despite only one team getting a first-round bye now, the divisional weekend is still prime for some of the richest drama in NFL history. I just recapped some of the most dramatic games in divisional round history that tested 14 eventual Super Bowl champions.

Of course, the bigger story in that link is that we have gone 19 straight playoff games without a fourth-quarter lead change, one shy of tying the record from 1935-50.

Maybe we’ll get something memorable this weekend, but this has been a difficult round for the road teams to win. Since 2011, home teams are 31-9 (.775) in the divisional round. But most years have that one upset and 2016 was the last time there were two road winners (Packers in Dallas and Steelers in Kansas City).

The Titans stunned the hell out of the top-seeded Ravens in 2019, and the Buccaneers avoided a three-game sweep by the Saints last year, propelling them to a Super Bowl win.

The NFC previews will be posted on Friday. Let’s start with a new matchup in the AFC and a crucial rematch of last year’s AFC Championship Game.

Bengals at Titans (-3.5)

See my early preview for this game at BMR.

The Bengals finally ended their long playoff drought last week with a 26-19 win over the Raiders. The young offense, led by Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, did not crack in the first playoff game for this new era of Cincinnati football, but the Raiders were one of the worst playoff teams in history.

Now the Bengals must try to shake an 0-7 road playoff record against the top-seeded Titans. And no, the Titans are not the worst No. 1 seed in history. I refuse to even call them the worst Tennessee team to be the No. 1 seed in the AFC. That 2008 team with Jeff Fisher and Kerry Collins was such fool’s gold at 10-0 before stumbling down the stretch.

These Titans have much better skill players when healthy, Mike Vrabel has been an awesome coach when playing the role of an underdog, and this team can win high-scoring games and close games. They are also battled tested, winning more games (eight) in one season against teams with a winning record than any team in NFL history and having the best win percentage (8-3, .727) in such games (min. nine games).

Now, are those records a little misleading? Yes, the 17th game helped 8-8 teams Tennessee beat like the Saints and Dolphins finish with a winning record at 9-8. But the Titans still boast more quality wins than any team this year, already hammering the Chiefs and beating the Bills in a shootout. Now the Titans just have to beat an inexperienced Cincinnati team and only one of those AFC powerhouses to get to a Super Bowl. Yeah, the Titans lost to the Jets, but so did the Bengals.

Derrick Henry expects to be back for his first game since Week 8, but I think the Titans have shown they can win some big games without him or with him being ineffective. The health of A.J. Brown may be more important to the offense than any other non-quarterback. Tennessee is 10-1 when Brown plays at least 60% of the snaps in a game and 2-4 when he does not. He needs to have a big game. Brown scored Tennessee’s only touchdown in a disappointing 20-13 home playoff loss to the Ravens last year. This team seems to perform better when the chips are stacked against them.

Three of the four biggest receiving games against the Bengals this year were done by top-tier tight ends, but Davante Adams also had 206 yards and a touchdown in Cincinnati. Julio Jones being back should also help the passing game. It’s been so rare this season for the Titans to have Brown, Jones, and Henry on the field together. The wideouts being out had a lot to do with that overtime loss to the Jets early this season, and the significant injuries that hit the Titans in losses to the Steelers, Patriots, and Texans had to contribute to Tennessee turning the ball over 13 times in those three games. This offense usually protects the ball well. The Bengals are not great at taking the ball away.

I think the week of rest is big for the Titans to get as healthy as possible for this matchup. I was surprised to see how close the Titans and Bengals are defensively this season, but I’d still give the Titans an edge there. No quarterbacks have been sacked more than Burrow (51) and Ryan Tannehill (47) this year. The Bengals have the better quarterback right now as Tannehill did not have his best season with the injuries around him, and Tannehill has been pedestrian in his four playoff starts. But I think unlike the Raiders, who called 58 passes and ran Josh Jacobs 13 times despite success on the ground, the Titans are going to stay balanced and stick to their usual game plan. The Titans are also better on third down and in the red zone. The Bengals struggled in the red zone against a historically bad red zone defense last week. That area has been money for the Titans under Tannehill, and they were fifth this year in touchdown rate (63.9%).

This isn’t Jeff Fisher and Kerry Collins trying to win a 13-10 game. I’m sticking with my gut and the NFL history that says a pass-happy team with a young offensive core is prime for a letdown on the road in the playoffs against a physical team, especially when it’s that team’s first postseason. Maybe Henry is rusty and fumbles early or is completely ineffective like he was last year against the Ravens, and the Bengals ride their top pass connection to an early lead. We’ve seen it before. But I’m going to trust the better coach and the team that’s been better this year and should be healthy at the right time to win this one.

We can talk next week about why the Titans won’t get to the Super Bowl, but I like them on Saturday. Just hang onto the victory cigar for later, Joe.

Final: Titans 28, Bengals 20

Bills at Chiefs (-1.5)

It is not unheard of to consider a game early in the playoffs to be “the real Super Bowl” if you will. When the NFC won every Super Bowl from 1984 through 1996, the NFC Championship Game was often thought of as the real Super Bowl those years, especially when it was Dallas vs. San Francisco in 1992-94. The 2006 AFC Championship Game between the Patriots and Colts was thought to be the real Super Bowl that year because of the entity known as Rex Grossman waiting for the winner in Miami.

But wow, I cannot remember a divisional round game being thought of as the Super Bowl, especially between two teams that are not the No. 1 seed. Maybe I’m tripping and this is too high praise, but I think these teams are the real deal in the AFC and this is an epic rematch of last year’s AFC Championship Game. The Chiefs were the AFC favorites going into the season, and the Bills took over that spot when they won 38-20 in Kansas City in Week 5. They had some bad losses since, but Buffalo just had the most perfect offensive game imaginable in crazy conditions against the Patriots, scoring a touchdown on all seven possessions. In fact, this is the first playoff game in NFL history between two quarterbacks who threw five touchdown passes the previous week. Patrick Mahomes threw his five touchdowns in a span of 11:31 against the Steelers.

This could be the next great rivalry in the NFL. This will already be the fourth meeting between Mahomes and Josh Allen in the last two years. John Elway and Dan Marino were in the same conference for 16 seasons and only met three times with two of those coming in Elway’s final season (1998). The Chiefs sent Buffalo home last year to end an eight-game winning streak. The Bills got some revenge this year by handing Mahomes the worst home loss of his career (18 points). His other home losses have been by no more than eight points. The spread has already moved a point towards Buffalo since opening at Chiefs -2.5.

I’m going to break this preview up into the two main questions I have about this matchup.

Question 1: Can the Chiefs turn around the 38-20 defeat from Week 5, and was it really that lopsided?

Results can vary wildly from week to week in the NFL, but on wild card weekend, all five rematches were won by the team who won the previous matchup, including these Bills and Chiefs. Buffalo scored the most points anyone has against New England since 1990. The Chiefs pounded the Steelers for the second time in a month, sending Ben Roethlisberger into retirement.

Both offenses should cool down a little from that historic territory, but there should be more pressure on Kansas City to adjust from that 38-20 walloping the Bills put on them in Week 5. It is hard to beat a great team twice in the same season, but for teams that have already done it, on the road no less, it actually is easier than average in the rematch.

Since 2002, road teams attempting a sweep in the playoffs are now 13-13. The Bills and Rams just reversed their home losses last week by beating the Patriots and Cardinals. The Rams in particular turned a 17-point home loss into a 23-point win on Monday night, but obviously the Cardinals were on life support down the stretch and already lost a home game to their division rival Rams. Likewise, the Patriots flopped down the stretch this year, including two games (without the bad wind) where they couldn’t get the Bills to punt. This is Mahomes in Kansas City, so a bit different.

However, consider these numbers. Since 2002, teams that win the regular-season matchup by at least 18 points are 25-9 (.735) in the playoff rematch. When those teams are the underdog in the playoffs, a rare situation, they are still 5-1 in the playoffs. The only loss was the 2004 Broncos vs. Colts, but that whole example is misleading since Indy rested starters in Week 17 before blowing the Broncos out at home in the playoffs.

But let me rant on my own stat for a brief moment here. This is something I really need to start focusing on more in the offseason. I just gave you a stat on a sample size of 34 games based on games where a team won by at least 18 points. Yes, the Bills beat the Chiefs by 18 points, but an 18-point win is a lot closer to an 11-point win than it is a 31-point win like seven of the games in that sample were. So, why am I looking at a group of “comparable games” when my game is at the lowest end of that qualifier? I’d be better off looking at games decided by 11-to-25 points, or a 7-point window around 18 points. In that case, 23-17 (.575) is the record since 2002, not nearly as one-sided as 25-9 (.735). Just something to think about with stats like that.

It is fair to say the Chiefs were embarrassed by Buffalo in Week 5 as the Bills learned a few things from their 2020 losses. The “don’t blitz Mahomes” thing that got so popular this year? The Bills were actually the first defense to do that, blitzing zero times in the 2020 game on Monday Night Football. The Chiefs just had a great running attack that night and Mahomes made an incredible conversion on third-and-12 to Byron Pringle to put the game away. But it was the lowest-scoring game between these two at 26-17.

In Week 5, Mahomes threw a season-high 54 passes but was only blitzed twice. He was not even pressured that often – 14.3% tied for second-lowest game this season – but did not handle the different looks well. Mahomes scrambled seven times that night, twice more than any other game, as he was not comfortable in the pocket. The Bills, who were destroyed by short throws and YAC from the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game, also tackled very well in Week 5, holding Mahomes to 4.2 YAC/completion, his second-lowest game of 2021.

On the other side of the ball, the Bills struggled to get any big plays going in their two losses to the 2020 Chiefs. That sure changed in Week 5. Allen had pass completions of 61, 53 (TD), 41, and 35 (TD) yards as he completed 15-of-26 passes for 315 yards without a sack or turnover. Despite his reputation for a big arm, Week 5 remains the only game of Allen’s NFL career where he threw multiple touchdown passes of 25-plus yards. Mahomes has 11 such games in his career.

As it turns out, throwing the deep ball with safety Daniel Sorensen in coverage is quite profitable. Sorensen allowed the two longest completions for 114 yards that night. For the season, he allows 12.1 yards per target in coverage, but the Chiefs have been wise to limit his snaps since that night. Sorensen went from playing 98% of snaps in Weeks 1-5 to 47% of snaps in Weeks 6-17.

Allen also rushed for a team-high 59 yards and a touchdown. Mahomes led the Chiefs with 61 rushing yards but that is not as ideal for Kansas City as it is Buffalo. Jerick McKinnon just had the game of his life for the Chiefs with 142 yards from scrimmage against Pittsburgh, but the Steelers were horrible against running backs this year. With the Kansas City backfield being so inconsistent this year, look for the Bills to contain whichever back gets the majority of touches this time.

There’s this idea that Mahomes has had to adjust with the way defenses are playing the Chiefs, copying that Super Bowl blueprint of minimal blitzes and two-deep safeties. There is definitely truth to this. Mahomes has six games this season with an aDOT under 6.5 yards and all six of those games are since Week 11. His lowest game of the season (5.0 yards) was against the Steelers on Sunday as the Chiefs had big YAC plays.

So, while there is truth to it, let’s not overblow it out of proportion. The Chiefs have had success with long drives in past years. They weren’t all 60-yard bombs to Hill for scores. In fact, Mahomes just threw the longest touchdown pass of his career to Kelce (48 yards) on Sunday night. Mahomes did still attack the Steelers (Week 16) and Bengals (Week 17) deep late in the season with success. I just think it’s important for Kansas City to get Hill and Kelce involved this week. They’ve had some really quiet games down the stretch here, and while the lesser players have stepped up, I’m not sure the Chiefs can continuously score without their stars doing big things.

More than anything, the Chiefs are simply going to have to protect the ball better this time after losing the turnover battle 4-0 in Week 5. Sure, there was a tipped ball off Tyreek Hill’s hands that went to the Bills for a pick-six to make it 31-13 in the third quarter. But guess what? Hill has tipped multiple picks for interceptions this year as Mahomes has had numerous picks come off tipped balls. There was also that red-zone pick by Buffalo, a very good defense at forcing takeaways, on a tipped ball that cost the Chiefs more points that night. Again, guess what? The Chiefs have had multiple tipped picks in scoring territory this year, including against the Giants on MNF and last Sunday against the Steelers.

Mistakes just happen at bad times for this offense, and it’s been that way for much of the season. I’m not sure we can just magically count on them to not do it this week against one of the best defenses they’ll see. On the other hand, one thing they could control is to not give up the obligatory Chiefs fumble by not calling a fvcking Wildcat play when you have Mahomes at QB. The Chiefs called a wildcat play against Pittsburgh, and it blew up for a touchdown return by T.J. Watt. So, let’s scratch that one from the playbook this week, but you’re on your own fortune for tipped picks.

I guess what I’m getting at is if you keep Sorensen off the field and don’t give up as many big plays, and you avoid the tipped pick-six, that could cut 14 points off that 18-point deficit. I think this game should be a lot closer this time, and that could be a bad thing for the Bills, who are 0-5 at 4QC/GWD opportunities this season. Buffalo’s 1-5 record in close games was the worst in the NFL this season.

This was not an issue for Allen’s first three seasons, and his fourth quarter stats look great this year (71.1% complete, 10 TD, 0 INT, 7.6 YPA, 117.7 PR). But they are simply not finishing the drives in crunch time. You saw the red-zone failures in the windy game against New England, a 14-10 loss. He was erratic against the Steelers in Week 1. He was stopped short on the sneak in Tennessee. He choked badly against Jacksonville in a 9-6 stunner. Mahomes is 43-1 when the Chiefs allow fewer than 27 points. The Bills cannot expect to be in position to win a low-scoring game this week.

But in my view, that effort to come back from 17 points down in the fourth quarter in Tampa Bay was big for this team. While they did not win the game in overtime, they tied it up and had a chance in regulation had the referees called defensive pass interference the way they called it for Tampa in overtime (go figure; #LOAT). If I’m a Chiefs fan and Allen has the ball late to win the game, I am nervous as hell. After not blowing a fourth-quarter lead in 2020, the Chiefs have done it three times this year (Ravens, Chargers, Bengals), and that doesn’t even include the epic comeback in Los Angeles when the Chiefs had to win in overtime. Those losses are the reason why this team wasn’t resting as the No. 1 seed and opening with a softer opponent like the Bengals.

Question 2: Do we trust Buffalo’s No. 1 scoring defense for the whole season or Kansas City’s No. 1 scoring defense since Week 6?

This is an interesting matchup as the Bills have the No. 1 scoring defense and were the only team to allow fewer than 300 points this season. But after a horrible start to the season where the Chiefs allowed at least 29 points in all five games, Kansas City turned things around under veteran defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Since Week 6, the Chiefs have the No. 1 scoring defense, allowing 24 fewer points than No. 5 Buffalo in that time. The Bengals (34) were the only team to hit 29 points on the Chiefs since Week 6.

Do we trust the season stats or the more recent stats? I’m not sure anyone has ever posted a definitive study of this, or if anything on it would even be conclusive enough as the league is just goofy like that. For example, when I look at the fewest points allowed by a team in Games 6-16 since 2011, the top of the list is the 2011 Steelers. You know, the defense that let Tim Tebow complete 10 passes for 316 yards in a 29-23 wild card loss. Right behind them are the 2014 Seahawks, famous for blowing a 10-point fourth-quarter lead in the Super Bowl, and the 2015 Chiefs, who lost 27-20 in New England.

With defense, it’s all about how you play that day, and who you play usually plays a huge role in that. Sure, we can say the Bills padded their defensive stats by playing rookie Davis Mills in the rain, a 40-0 shutout where he threw for 87 yards and four picks. We can see that Mahomes (272) and Brady (363) were the only quarterbacks to pass for more than 260 yards on Buffalo this year, and Brady (105.6) was the only one to have a passer rating higher than 86.7. That looks daunting for Mahomes, but it’s less daunting when you see this starting QB list for Buffalo:

  • Three cast members of The Walking Dead (2021 Big Ben, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton)
  • Six rookies in a terrible rookie year (Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Davis Mills, Mac Jones 3x)
  • Two hopeful employees in 2022 (Taylor Heinicke, Trevor Siemian)
  • One bus driver (Carson Wentz)
  • One create-a-player with a generic name (Mike White)

That leaves Brady and his aforementioned big game that still needed overtime and one blown coverage, Mahomes and the game we went over, and Ryan Tannehill got a huge game from Derrick Henry on an effective night where the Titans scored 34 points in a win.

In other words, I’m not sure the Chiefs need to be that scared of this defense, especially without corner Tre’Davious White (ACL) to take on Hill. In Week 5, Mahomes was just 5-of-11 for 36 yards when targeting White in coverage. He’s gone now.

On the other hand, the Bills can look at this Kansas City defensive improvement and point to the schedule as well. Like getting Daniel Jones and the Giants on any week. Getting the Cowboys when they were in a funk and Amari Cooper had COVID and CeeDee Lamb left at halftime with a concussion. Two games against zombie Big Ben with a foot in the door for retirement. Two games against Derek Carr, who has spent eight years teasing the Raiders he’s a franchise quarterback. One big game against Green Bay where Aaron Rodgers was out with COVID, forcing Jordan Love to make his first start. It didn’t go well. Teddy and Drew Lock? Please, and they actually let Lock run wild in that rematch. A huge fumble by Melvin Gordon won that game for the Chiefs.

But what happened when the improved Chiefs faced the Chargers in a first-place showdown in Week 15 and a red-hot Joe Burrow with the No. 1 seed in contention in Week 16? The defense did not perform well. Mahomes and the offense had to rally in Los Angeles, hope for some Chargering, and got the ball first in overtime to end it 34-28. Despite leading by double-digits multiple times in Cincinnati, the Chiefs gave up 34 points and the game-winning drive to end it after committing multiple penalties again. The defense even allowed a third-and-27 conversion for 30 yards to Ja’Marr Chase.

So, the over/under is 54 points and you can see why with the way these offenses are capable of lighting it up, and neither defense is exactly reliable against what would be considered a good offense this year.

The Chiefs are undeniably playing better defense than they did to start the season when they were arguably the worst in the league. But is this a championship-caliber defense like 2019 was? After seeing the games in Week 15-16, I say no. But they’ll have a great opportunity to prove it on Sunday, as will Buffalo’s top-ranked scoring defense. I said last year that if the Bills could combine their 2020 offense with their 2019 defense, they would win the Super Bowl. The 2021 Bills, Jacksonville loss be damned, are trying to be that team.

The Prediction

In the preseason, I picked the Chiefs to get back to the Super Bowl. But it’s really hard to get back to a third in a row, especially coming off such a brutal 31-9 loss. We’ve already seen the Chiefs lose this year to the Ravens, Chargers, Bills, Titans, and Bengals. They are 0-3 against the remaining playoff field in the AFC. I think this is the week where having the bad-bounce turnovers and giving up too many plays to good offenses combine to hurt the Chiefs and send the Bills to the next round and a step closer to that elusive Super Bowl win.

My detailed prediction: I see the Chiefs leading 27-24 late as KC and under bettors are sweating bullets. Allen finally puts his gaudy fourth-quarter stats to use this year and leads the first game-winning drive of the season for a touchdown in the final minute.

Is it the ending I want? No, but if the early game on Sunday goes my way, I can watch this one in peace and be satisfied with anything that happens.

Final: Bills 31, Chiefs 27

2 thoughts on “NFL 2021 AFC Divisional Round Preview

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