Matchup #1 Raiders at Bengals
Raiders’ strengths: Winning close games Raiders’ weakness: Rushing offense
Bengals’ strengths: Passing offense Bengals’ weakness: Pass protection
On the surface, the Las Vegas Raiders do not fit the profile of a playoff team. They have an interim head coach; they rank 23rd on the Simple Rating System and are 18th in the league in points scored and 26th in points allowed. The Raiders have an expected win-loss record of 7-10, but they have defied the odds in close games. After winning their final four games by a field goal or less, the Raiders remarkably finished the season 7-2 in one-possession games. The Raiders rank 28th in the NFL in rushing yards and have allowed 29 touchdowns to opposing quarterbacks to just six interceptions, yet their play in close games has them in the big dance.
The Raiders and Bengals faced off in Vegas in week 11, and a late onslaught helped the Bengals pull away with a 32-13 win. The Bengals dominated time of possession thanks mainly to their third-down success, where they went 8 for 16.
The Bengals are hard to figure out because their strength meets in the middle with their weakness. They excel at passing the ball to their elite trio of wide receivers, Jamarr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd. But their biggest weakness is giving quarterback Joe Burrow enough time to get it deep to his wide receivers. A year after major knee surgery, Burrow was sacked 51 times in the 2021 season, most in the NFL.
Cincinnati ranks top 5 against the run, so they should be able to take away the Raiders’ poor running game and dominate time of possession once again. The Bengals have the better team and should come out with a W at home, but Raiders edge rushers Yannick Ngakoue and Maxx Crosby have a chance to wreck the game. However, if Jonah Williams and Isaiah Prince (who is filling in for the injured Riley Reiff) give Joe Burrow enough time to throw, Burrow should have no problem throwing over this Raiders secondary and leading Cincy to its first home playoff win in this century.
Matchup #2 Patriots at Bills
Bills’ Strengths: Pass defense Weakness: Rushing offense
Patriots’ Strength: Rushing offense Weakness: Deep passing game
Round 3 of this AFC east rivalry will serve as the grudge match after both teams lost to one another at home. It’s projected to be a cold and windy Saturday night in Orchard Park, New York, benefiting the Patriots. While we might not get the Arctic conditions we got in the first matchup, we have seen that bad weather helps the Patriots ground and pound ball control style of play.
According to points allowed, these are the two best defenses in the NFL, and both units do a lot of things well. The Patriots rank top 5 in the fewest passing yards and passing touchdowns allowed, and they came away with 23 interceptions this year. The Pats also rank #1 in fewest rushing touchdowns allowed.
While the Bills are susceptible to the big run, their pass defense is as good as it comes. This year, quarterbacks against the Bills went 297/530 (just a 56% completion percentage) for 2,771 and just 12 touchdowns compared to 19 interceptions. The Bills pass defense is giving up about 163 passing yards a game, and they haven’t fallen off despite an injury to Tre’Davious White. It’s tough to see this Bills pass defense struggling with rookie Mac Jones in his first playoff start.
This game will ultimately come down to a battle between the Bills passing offense and the Patriots rushing attack. Whichever team can get the lead first will dictate the style of play for the remainder of the game and control the game. With their run game, the Pats are hard to stop when they get the lead, and they went 6-1 this year when they scored first. This game could come down to the offensive coordinators, Brian Daboll and Josh McDaniels. Whichever one can scheme up some good scoring drives early in the game can set the tone and could make the ultimate difference.
Josh Allen threw all over the Patriots in the second matchup and, playing from behind; the Patriots couldn’t keep up. The Bills possess an MVP caliber quarterback in Allen who can take over a game and be the best player on the field, and that is why I think the Bills will win this game.
Matchup #3 Steelers at Chiefs
Chiefs Strength: Patrick Mahomes and offensive skill position players
Chiefs’ Weakness: Secondary
Steelers’ Strength: Pass rush Weakness: Run defense
These teams matched up just a few weeks ago, and it was a nightmare for the Steelers. The Chiefs jumped out to a 30-0 lead, and the Steelers didn’t score a touchdown until less than 3 minutes were remaining in the game.
We have seen teams affect the Chiefs with their pass rush in the past, but the Steelers lack the offensive firepower to keep up without their defense dominating the game. In the earlier matchup with the Chiefs, possible defensive player of the year TJ Watt played just 55% of the snaps, and on just three blitzes, he was largely inactive in the box score.
The Steelers’ defense gave up over 2,400 yards on the ground this year, by far the worst in the league. And while running the ball isn’t the Chiefs’ mode of operation, Andy Reid is far too intelligent not to take advantage of this fact. The Chiefs bring a susceptible defense to the table, but the Steelers offense has only exceeded 350 total yards in regulation once this entire year. The Chiefs are more vulnerable in the AFC than in years past, but the Steelers are not the team to take them out.
Matchup #4 Titans vs. BYE
Titans Strength: Play action passing game Titans Weakness: Ryan Tannehill?
Bye week strength: Rest Bye week weakness: Rust
After locking up the #1 seed, the Tennessee Titans will await the lowest remaining seed in the divisional round. The Titans continued to prove that running backs don’t matter as they locked up the top spot even after star RB Derrick Henry got hurt in late October. Ryan Tannehill has excelled with play-action since arriving in Tennessee, and in 2021 he threw for 1,114 yards out of play-action on 132 attempts. Tannehill threw for 8.4 yards per attempt on play-action and 6.6 yards per attempt on all other pass attempts.
The Titans are very good against the run, and they have stars on defense with Kevin Byard and Jeffrey Simmons. The Titans have some weird losses to account for against the Jets and Texans. Still, they have been pretty consistent all year, and they have significantly improved their pass defense over the last year, leaving them with no discernable weakness. The Titans have home-field throughout the AFC playoffs, but to believe in the Titans is to believe in Ryan Tannehill, and I can’t fault anyone who still isn’t ready to believe.