We’re down to the final eight in the race for the Super Bowl as we hit the Divisional Round with four mouth-watering contests over Saturday and Sunday night.
The top seeded Titans and Packer enter proceedings and both the rest and home field advantage will be working in their favour as they host the high-flying Bengals and the hard-running 49ers respectively.
Tom Brady is still going in the defence of Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl title, and they next face the Los Angeles Rams at home while our final game could well be the best of the lot as Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills visit Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs with the two pre-season AFC favourites both producing out of this world performances last week.
Cincinnati Bengals @ Tennessee Titans
The two biggest outsiders left in the Super Bowl running clash in Nashville, but there’s plenty of talent on show with Bengals QB Joe Burrow an undoubted star of the future. His connection with wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase has been outstanding and with those two this team will always be a threat.
Despite playing in just his second season, Burrow has extraordinary poise and confidence – he’s cooler than the other side of the pillow and he’ll likely produce some big plays. The Bengals did struggle to punch it in against the Raiders last week though, scoring twice from five red zone trips.
That won’t cut it against a well-rested Titans side who had last week off, are healthier than they have been all season and will have terrifying running back Derrick Henry back in the team.
In truth, the Titans can run the ball just as well without Henry, but having him on the field presents both an x-factor and fear factor for the Bengals to deal with. That also distracts from towering receivers AJ Brown and Julio Jones, who have also had their injury problems this season.
Titans coach Mike Vrabel is 4-0 after a bye week too so expect these tough Titans to come out hard and fast at home and get a lead. They won seven one-score games this season with an average winning margin of 3.8pts this season, so they also know how to grind it out.
Best bet: Titans -5.5pts at 21/20
Touchdowns: Chase & Brown to score at 7/2
San Francisco 49ers @ Green Bay Packers
A blockbuster at Lambeau Field late on Saturday night as MVP favourite Aaron Rodgers and the Packers come face-to-face with their play-off nemesis in the tough-running San Francisco 49ers. Nobody really wanted to run into the Niners in the play-offs – but maybe the Packers most of all.
For Rodgers it’s personal. A 49ers fan as a local kid who played college in the area, he was snubbed by his team in the draft and despite going 6-3 against them in the regular season he’s gone 0-3 in the play-offs. That includes the 2020 NFC Championship game when the Niners ran all over the Packers defence.
As Green Bay look to make the NFC title match-up for the third straight year they’ll again be confronted with a running challenge, and a unique one containing wide receiver (or wide back as he now calls himself) Deebo Samuel.
Samuel had 10 TDs in his last nine games, eight of them rushing, and averages 6.6 yards per carry down that stretch. His combination of size and speed, plus a complex but effective blocking scheme means the Niners will be dangerous.
Rodgers and Davante Adams, of course, will look to blow them away and force Niners QB Jimmy Garoppolo into winning the game. He did it against the Rams but faltered badly against the Cowboys with some late errors – Kyle Shanahan would rather not put the game in his hands.
The starting line-ups will offer more clues, as the Packers are getting important players back like David Bakhtiari, Za’Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander, while the Niners are sweating over defensive stars Nick Bosa and Fred Warner.
We could have another night of late drama at Lambeau but you have to side with the Packers. Rodgers is on a mission this season, for various reasons, and he knows that after knocking on the door for so long he HAS to get back to a second Super Bowl. A first play-off win over the 49ers would be a great start.
Best bet: Packers -3.5pts at 3/4
TDs: Allen Lazard & Deebo Samuel at 6/1
Los Angeles Rams @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
At 44, Tom Brady is older than the three opposition coaches left in the NFC play-offs race, but he’s better than ever after leading the league in touchdowns, yards and completions. The man who came second in the TD stakes is Matthew Stafford – Sunday’s opposing QB.
Stafford has all the arm talent in the world, but last week was his very first play-off win after he was brought in at great expense from Detroit to offer the LA Rams a QB upgrade capable of winning these types of games.
Doubts remain whether he can do it though, as he didn’t really have to get out of second gear against the hapless Cardinals last week, and the week before fluffed his lines in a big game against the 49ers – throwing costly interceptions that have made his name.
This game is about much more than the two QBs, but the narrative will be built around the two superstars – how Stafford handles Tampa Bay’s turnover machines in defence and how Brady deals with Aaron Donald and Von Miller up in his face all night long.
Both teams should and will run the ball, but there’s a chance this gets out of control with Brady and Stafford slinging the ball around in what would be an exciting shootout.
Brady has his old mate Rob Gronkowski, who has caught 15 TDs in 21 play-off games with The GOAT, while Cooper Kupp is Stafford’s star man but don’t rule out Odell Beckham from finding the end zone again like he did last week.
Play-off games are usually tighter with a tense finish. And in that case you’re backing Brady, who is 14-2 in the Divisional Round, every time.
Best bet: Bucs -2.5pts at 4/5
TDs: Rob Gronkowski & Odell Beckham at 4/1
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Buffalo Bills @ Kansas City Chiefs
There can’t have been two more impressive play-off performances from teams to meet in the Divisional Round than those from the Bills and Chiefs last week.
Being a repeat of last year’s AFC Championship was always going to make this a mouth-watering contest, but the fact Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen produced such astounding performances last week has just taken things up a notch.
The Bills scored seven TDs on seven possessions as they battered the Patriots with Allen playing out of his skin, but Mahomes answered with the Chiefs scoring TDs on six straight drives as they walloped the Steelers.
Who knows what these two uber-talented QBs will do next. Mahomes is a stylistic magician with sidearms and no-look passes, while Allen has a rocket right arm and is a bulldozing runner to boot. He showed this when throwing three TDs and running in two more as the Bills won 38-20 at Arrowhead in Week Five.
The game was a bit closer than the score suggests though, and the Chiefs have improved massively since then – being hugely more dogged in defence and more effective on offence. Mahomes has 17 TDs and just two picks in his last six games as the Chiefs averaged 36.5pts per game with just four turnovers.
More of that and even the Bills will struggle to keep up, especially if KC or their fans can get Allen a bit more jumpy in the pocket – he was serenely calm against the Pats and it’s clear he plays his best this way, but he’s been known to get a bit hyper at times.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see either one win this, and it will be fun finding out. I’d plump with the Chiefs if pushed purely because of being at home and Mahomes having been there and done it, but whichever way it goes there should be plenty of action.
Best bet: Over 6.5 touchdowns at 21/20
TDs: Josh Allen rush TD & Travis Kelce rec TD at 31/10