Your weekly NFL picks brought to you by our staff retired gambler, LaCharles himself
Chiefs Focus @ChiefsFocus Charles Robinson @CRob5769
Every Friday that passes, I think to myself “what if this is the last Red Friday of the season?” It’s a sobering thought, one that I don’t like letting pass through the hallways of my mind, but when you get into the playoffs it’s a constant reality. It’s one of the largest existential crises I go through annually – the reality that football season is nearly over whether the Chiefs go to the Super Bowl or not. There are only 23 days of football left in the 2021-2022 season, so what word do we need to zero in on over these next 23 days? Gratitude. Be grateful that football is still on, whether your team is still playing or not. If you team is, be grateful that they’re having a great season! Only 25% of the league remains standing, so that means 75% of NFL fans are watching just for kicks. But remember, watching football recreationally is still better than watching no football at all.
After a less than competitive Wild Card weekend, we shift our focus to the best weekend of the NFL season – the Divisional Round of the AFC and NFC playoffs. Each of the 8 teams remaining have more than a shot at hoisting the Lombardi Trophy when this is all said and done. Each team has their own strengths and weaknesses, injury concerns, and matchup nightmares to deal with. But all of them are talented enough on both sides of the ball to make things difficult for their opponents for a full 60 minutes. There are no pretenders lefts in this field of divisional playoff teams. The 4 best teams from each conference are still left standing and will face off Saturday and Sunday for the right to compete for their conference’s respective titles.
The matchups this weekend are certainly hype worthy. You have Aaron Rodgers taking on a team that he has never defeated in the postseason (0-3) in the 49ers, who appear to be peaking at the exact right time. There’s a clash of styles going on in Nashville Derrick Henry returns for the Titans bruising rushing attack as they take the field against the Bengals high flying offense led by Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase. The Rams have gone all in on this season, bringing in Matt Stafford, Von Miller, and OBJ to make a run at a Super Bowl, but they will have to go through Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl Champion Buccaneers in Tampa Bay. To cap off the weekend, the two hottest QBs in the game will square up when Josh Allen leads the Buffalo Bills into Arrowhead Stadium to face Patrick Mahomes and the defending AFC Champion Kansas City Chiefs. We have to scrap to find even a couple of matchups of this quality in any given week in the regular season, let alone 4 of them coming at us all at once. Every team left won their division, or in the 49ers case beat the team that won their division (the Rams) twice in the regular season. Oddly enough the one wild card team left in the dance might just be the most dangerous of them all.
No sense in looking back at the regular season at this point. It’s over and I crushed it. Sorry, but not sorry. That was an expert display of picking and even though I told you not to bet with them, you could have. And you could have made good money. But still don’t follow my picks. This is a ticking time bomb. Last week in the Wild Card round we had a solid showing. 5-1 straight up, with only the Cowboys disappointing us and all of the Yankees, Alabama, and Lakers fans out there. 4-2 against the spread for an aggregate 9-3 on the weekend. I will take that. The only thing in my life more humbling that the skeletons in my gambling closet are the “Memories” that pop up on my Facebook feed every day. It is a constant exercise in deletion and escaping a past filled with questionable shares and lack of humor. But I did find a memory from 2011 recently that reminded me that my picks used to be my biggest personal flaw. I went 0-4 in the wild card weekend that year, as a brazen 22 year old wanna-be blogger. 5-1 shows improvement, and I’m glad to be better at 33 than I was at 22 in at least one way.
Let’s get to it, shall we?
(4) Cincinnati Bengals at (1) Tennessee Titans – AFC – Saturday 3:30 CST; CBS
Titans -3; Over/Under 47 Betway
The return of Derrick Henry will undoubtedly have the fans at Nissan Stadium rocking on Saturday afternoon as the Titans make their return to playoff action following the bye last week and a disappointing Wild Card round exit against the Baltimore Ravens a year ago. When they take the field for the first time since week 18 they will be met by a Cincinnati Bengals team riding high off of their first playoff win in over 30 years. Both teams had banner years, but for different reasons. Cincinnati, in two calendar years, has climbed from a 2-14 cellar dweller to 10-7 AFC North champions. Joe Burrow has had a lot to do with that, but so have the evolution of this Bengals offense and the firepower inside of it behind third year head coach Zac Taylor. Taylor isn’t in the cool kids club that used to coach for the Washington Football team like Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, and Matt LaFleur, but he has found success as a young head coach in the league nonetheless. He’ll take the Bengals sideline across from Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, who will almost certainly be named NFL Coach of the Year this season.
Derrick Henry will certainly be the story this Saturday, but how much will be actually contribute? He’s got a plate in his foot, and while it won’t be frigid cold in Nashville (around 38 degrees at kickoff), temps will be freezing by the fourth quarter. While it’s tough to say how that will impact Henry himself, the Titans should not put too much emphasis on getting the King 30 carriers on Saturday. D’Onta Foreman filled in exceptionally well for Henry in his absence, particularly in the last 6 games of the season. The Titans as a whole rushed for 164 yards per game in the last 6, 5 of those over 100 yards and 2 over 200. Their offensive line is clicking, and against a Bengals that was 5th in the NFL in rush yards allowed this year, they’re going to need to be on their A game. The biggest lynchpin for the Titans offense, though? AJ Brown. Brown nearly single handedly gave the Titans a huge win in a week 16 matchup against the San Francisco 49ers in Nashville hauling in 11 catches for 145 yards and a score. He also scored against Houston in a must win game that the Titans won. Brown’s size and physicality on the outside coupled with his ability to find the chains and move them as a possession receiver make him a threat to do some damage on Cincinnati’s comparatively smaller corners.
Defensively for the Titans, they were one of the league’s best at generating pressure with their front 4. That could be a problem for Joe Burrow and the Bengals offense. Burrow and Cincinnati lit the league up in week 16 and 17, with big wins over the Ravens and Chiefs where they combined for 75 points, Burrow had 971 passing yard and 8 touchdowns passes, and in one game Tee Higgins had 194 receiving yards and 2 TD and the next Ja’Marr Chase had 266 receiving yards and 3 TD. And unbelievable back to back showing from the Cinci offense no doubt, but how sustainable is that against the Titans defense? Tennessee had the league’s 6th best scoring defense in 2021, and was the second best in the league in both sacks (35) and QB pressures (153) while rushing 4. That means that the Titans should be able to rush 4 against Burrow and more than likely get to him while allowing the linebackers and defensive back to bracket Chase, Higgins, and Tyler Boyd. What about Joe Mixon? Well, that front 4 is good at defending the run at well. The Titans were the league’s second best run defense in 2021, allowing only 84.6 yards per game to opponents. Joe Burrow has done his best work against the blitz this year, with an 83.7 QBR when opposing defenses send the house. Tennessee only blitzes 18% of the time, so Burrow is going to have to find his teammates in white while they’re surrounded by a whole lot of blue.
Cincinnati’s run to this point has been impressive, and their run as a contender in the AFC is just beginning. But if Tennessee can do what they have done all year – run the football, find AJ Brown to move the chains, and play sounds defense behind that monstrously versatile front 4, they should prevail in this one. I look for this year’s AFC Championship game to be played in Nashville.
Tennessee 31, Cincinnati 17 (Titans -3.5, Over 47) Betway
(6) San Francisco 49ers at (1) Green Bay Packers NFC – Saturday 7:15 CST; FOX
Packers -5; Over/Under 47.5 Betway
John Stockton, Karl Malone, Reggie Miller, Patrick Ewing – numerous NBA players from the late 1980’s to the late 1990’s had the same problem. They could never get past Michael Jordan. Aaron Rodgers faces the same problem with the San Francisco 49ers. And these 49ers are by no means a walk in the park for Rodgers and the Packers this time around. Rodgers lost to the 49ers in back-to-back years in 2013 and 2014, first in the divisional round, and then in the wild card round. His third dance with San Fran ended the same, but this time with higher stakes in the 2020 NFC Championship game. It would be easy to go with the trend here, but before we decide on that let’s look at how this one might shape up.
It’s going to be around 11 degrees at Lambeau when this game kicks off on Saturday night. Everyone talked about how cold it was in Buffalo last week – it’s going to be just as cold in Wisconsin this weekend. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are used to this. Pretty sure it gets below freezing in late September there. The Niners? Not so much. The team is built like a cold weather team, but they do not get out in the elements much. In fact, 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has never started a game in temperatures below 40 degrees. That means he’s never taken a snap in a 29-degree game. Well, it’s going to be 29 degrees colder than 40 degrees when this game kicks off and will get colder. Gripping the ball in the cold can be a problem, especially for Jimmy G who is nursing a thumb injury he suffered in week 18.
So what does that mean for San Fran? More of the same. Hand the ball off to their stable of running backs, Elijah Mitchell the hottest of those hands, and heavy doses of Deebo Samuel. Last week against the Cowboys the 49ers built a lead on the run game and a defense that has flown around and been physical all year but have some banged up key pieces going into Saturday night’s game. Fred Warner, the heartbeat of the San Francisco D, was hobbled last week with an ankle injury. He was a full participant in practice Wednesday and Thursday, but if those issues linger and he is limited, Green Bay could take advantage of the middle of the 49ers defense. Star edge defender Nick Bosa is still listed as questionable, but will likely play after a scary concussion against Dallas, and 8 other 49ers are also dealing with nagging injuries. If the San Francisco defense isn’t at full strength, the Green Bay offense will feast, in more than one way.
Green Bay’s passing attack is well know, but their running game is just as deadly. Especially with David Bakhtiari and Josh Myers coming back for the postseason. The Packers offensive line is a silent strength, 4th in the league this year in run blocking and 5th in pass blocking without their All-Pro left tackle for the entire regular season (minus some snaps against Detroit in the season finale) and starting center for most of the year. If Green Bay has these two back healthy, and San Francisco isn’t at the peak on the defensive front, Green Bay could do to San Fran what they have done to others – give them a steady dose of the run all night long.
With all of that said, this is going to be a slug fest. The 49ers will be able to move the ball on the Green Bay defense on the ground. Defensively the Packers rush defense has been somewhat of a liability all season long, giving up a hair over 109 yards per game. The San Fran aerial attack will be questionable, though. Garoppolo tried to give the game away last week against Dallas with a late pick, if he does that this week, Aaron Rodgers will make him pay. I started by pointing out that Green Bay had lost their last 3 in the postseason to San Francisco, but Rodgers is 6-3 was the 49ers in his career in the regular season, including a come from behind win in Santa Clara in week 3. No one in the league is as petty as Aaron Rodgers, so you can rest assured that he is seeing all of the talk about his postseason failures against San Fran and will come out firing. Green Bay wins a close one at home.
Green Bay 27, San Francisco 24 (49ers +5, Over 47.5) Betway
(4) Los Angeles Rams at (2) Tampa Bay Buccaneers – NFC – Sunday 2:00 CST; NBC
Buccaneers -3; Over/Under 48.5 Betway
The Los Angeles Rams have mortgaged their future on going for a title in the immediate future. This didn’t start this year – LA is in year 5 without a first-round pick in 2021, and will be without a first rounder in 2022 and 2023 as well. So to say that they need to make this playoff run count would be an understatement. No time like the present to play the defending Super Bowl champs on the road, right? LA comes into Tampa after both teams waxed their opponents in the opening wild card round, both with injuries at key positions to the outcome of this game, and both with bigger aspirations than an exit in the divisional round.
Tampa rolled over Philadelphia as expected, but in the process had two key pieces of their offensive line banged up. Right tackle Tristan Wirfs and center Ryan Jensen both came away from the win with ankle injuries and are both listed as questionable going into Sunday’s divisional game. The two players who will line up nearest those two positions on the Bucs offensive line? Aaron Donald and Von Miller. If not Miller, Leonard Floyd. All bad things for the Bucs, who don’t exactly have the most mobile quarterback in the NFL. To add to the injury concerns up front, the Bucs just ruled out running back Ronald Jones and receiver Breshad Perriman. 5 other players showed up on the injury report this week as well, including corner Sean Murphy-Bunting, who would likely draw the assignment of containing Rams All-Pro wideout Cooper Kupp.
The Rams are dealing with some injuries of their own, most notably safety Taylor Rapp, and left tackle Andrew Whitworth. They will both be out Sunday. Rapp’s absence adds to a depleted secondary for LA that just added 37-year-old Eric Weddle off of the street ahead of the Wild Card round. Whitworth will be sorely missed at left tackle, a position he has held down for the Rams for a vast majority of the last 5 seasons. With him absent and Matthew Stafford still gimpy from the season finale against the 49ers, the susceptibility of his blind side will be something that the Buccaneers will undoubtedly key on with pass rushers like Shaq Barrett and potentially Jason Pierre Paul. Los Angeles has done a nice job running the football the past few weeks behind Sony Michel and the return of Cam Akers, but the Bucs run defense is stout to say the least. Vita Vea and Devin White are two of the best at their positions at defensive tackle and middle linebacker, and without Whitworth up front will likely throw some wrenches into the gears of the Rams running game.
This one is a toss up to me, and I think it will be close. In close games in the playoffs, it is impossible to bet against Tom Brady. The one aspect of the Rams defense that is not top notch – their linebacking corps. Look for Brady to get very familiar with Rob Gronkowki Sunday afternoon, as they have time and time again in playoffs past, and make the Rams regret not being able to take a linebacker in the first round of next year’s draft.
Tampa 28, Los Angeles 24 (Buccaneers -3; Over 48.5) Betway
(3) Buffalo Bills at (2) Kansas City Chiefs – AFC – Sunday 5:30 CST; CBS
Chiefs -2; Over/Under 54.5 Betway
Again, going to make you guys wait for this one. Tune in tomorrow for the full breakdown of Chiefs vs. Bills.
The divisional round is as real as it gets, especially in 2022. Be grateful for another weekend of football. Happy Red Friday, Chiefs Kingdom.