Two 6-at-1 matchup of seeds Saturday—and neither is a gimme by any stretch. Then two quarterback classics Sunday: Watson at Mahomes and Wilson at Rodgers. You’re coming off a breathless wild-card weekend, and the divisional round should be pretty good too.
Minnesota (11-6, 6th seed, NFC) at San Francisco (13-3, 1st seed, NFC)
4:35 p.m. ET, Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif., TV: NBC
San Francisco favored by 6.5
This is where winning a bye is so advantageous. Minnesota, in a Sunday road game, wins an emotional game against a prohibitive favorite in extra time. Short week of practice. Flies two time zones west, 1,600 miles, to play a Saturday roadie against the top seed in the conference. Said top seed will have 13 days between games, which seems like enough to get healthy but not too many to get stale.
Here’s what the Vikings gained other a win in Minnesota: On offense, they probably can trust Kirk Cousins in a big spot more, and they certainly know that putting the ball in the hands of Dalvin Cook (94 rushing yards, two touchdowns) is a win for them. On defense, if they penetrate as well as they did in the ‘Dome, Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter, who made Drew Brees’ life uncharacteristically miserable Sunday, could do some mental damage to Jimmy Garoppolo in his first playoff game. I expect the San Francisco pass-rush to be more dangerous than Minnesota’s, though, and that athleticism should make a big difference in quickening Cousins’ pace. Oh, and there’s this: Sunday’s win for the Vikings was the first road playoff win for the franchise in 15 years.
Tennessee (10-7, 6th seed, AFC) at Baltimore (13-3, 1st seed, AFC)
8:15 p.m. ET, M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore, TV: CBS
Baltimore favored by 10
I bet if you gave Baltimore coach John Harbaugh truth serum, he’d say he’d have rather faced the Patriots in the divisional round. To me, there are three borderline unstoppable forces in the eight-team field:
• Patrick Mahomes, the defending MVP, totally healthy and rested after a midseason kneecap injury;
• Lamar Jackson, the most versatile quarterback in the game;
• Derrick Henry, the Tennessee running back who wrecked the Patriots on Saturday night.
The thing about Henry is everyone knows he’s coming, and no one can stop him behind that beefy and productive offensive line in Tennessee. In his last seven games, Henry is on the kind of run that some of the greatest backs ever have not experienced: 1,078 yards, 6.23 yards per rush, and did I happen to mention that everyone knows he’s getting the ball, over and over? Look at these seven games: 188 yards, 159, 149, 103, 86, 211 and 182. Baltimore was average against the run this year—4.4 yards per rush allowed. The Ravens’ three-man front averages 328 pounds, which is good, because they’ll need that beef.
The advantage the Ravens have, of course, is that no defense has been able to slow the Jackson-led offense. The biggest X-factor, other than handling Henry, might be how Baltimore responds after several key guys have had 19 days between games. And I should mention the obvious: Baltimore is a great running team. It’s not just the quarterback. Baltimore rushed for a league-best (and amazing) 3,296 yards. So Tennessee’s going to have at least as tough a time stopping Baltimore’s run as the other way around.
Houston (11-6, 4th seed, AFC) at Kansas City (12-4, 2nd seed, AFC)
3:05 p.m. ET, Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, TV: CBS
Kansas City favored by 8.5
I’ve got a hankering to call this The Runner-up Bowl. You know, as in the QBs who went 2-3 in the 2017 draft, when Mitchell Trubisky was the first quarterback off the board. We’ve already seen one of them, and it was a gem: Chiefs led 24-23 on Oct 13 at Arrowhead, and held that lead for a full quarter. Midway through the fourth, Deshaun Watson capped a 93-yard, 8:32 drive with a one-yard TD run. Kansas City (zero sacks, generous against the run) hadn’t found its defensive legs under Steve Spagnuolo yet, so this game should be different. If the Texans get a slow start on offense as they did Saturday against Buffalo, they’ll be too far out of it too early to make it a game.
As for Mahomes, he seems determined after the failure against New England in the 2019 AFC title game to play 60-minute playoff games and not waste some of the drives he did against the Patriots last year. Look for Mahomes to use Travis Kelce a lot in this game, because adding a J.J. Watt jolt to the Houston defense means Mahomes will have less time to survey the field.
As for Watson, he was so good and so unstoppable in the second half that Kansas City’s game plan should be to pen him in so he can’t make plays on the edges the way he did against the Bills. Easy to say, harder to do.
Seattle (12-5, 5th seed, NFC) at Green Bay (13-3, 2nd seed, NFC)
6:40 p.m. ET, Lambeau Field, Green Bay, TV: FOX
Green Bay favored by 4
In his third season in the NFL, Russell Wilson played what’s likely his most memorable of 142 professional games: the 2014 NFC Championship. (My opinion; I’ve never asked him.) Playing in Seattle, Wilson threw three interceptions in the first half and Seattle trailed 16-0 at halftime. Not smart when you’re dueling Aaron Rodgers. It was still 19-7 with four minutes left in the fourth quarter, but Seattle rallied for two touchdowns to tie it and send the game to overtime. Wilson threw a 35-yard touchdown dart to Jermaine Kearse to win it. That game showed much about Wilson. A pick or two or three (or four, in this game) doesn’t ruin him.
What a wonderful rematch, on an evening that’s forecast to be in the high twenties with no snow—but you never know this time of year. It’s been an odd year for Rodgers. The Packers have been marvelous, thanks in part to a big boost from the rush provided by free-agents Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith; their job this week will be to form a shield to keep Wilson in the pocket. The Green Bay offense, 15th in the NFL in scoring, will probably have to be better than 23 points a game to make it to the Super Bowl in Miami.