2021 NFL Divisional Round Preview

The National Football League’s Elite 8 will take center stage in the 2021-22 NFL Playoffs Divisional Round.  Probably the most anticipated match-up will be the  Kansas City Chiefs vs. Buffalo Bills as a trip to the AFC Championship Game will be on the line

(Philadelphia, Pa) — The “Elite Eight” round better known as the NFL Playoffs Divisional Round startsthe “real” games as far as I am concerned.  Most fans and media love the hype of the National Football League’s Conference Championships and Super Bowl.  But you can put my wholehearted vote in for the NFL Divisional Playoffs as the most exciting portion of the league’s now year-round calendar. 

The splendor of the divisional playoff round is that the two best teams from the regular season, after a well-deserved bye week, finally get to enter the fracas to take on pumped-up Super Wildcard Round upstarts.  The NFL Playoffs’ Wildcard round usually does a pretty good job of removing some of the teams that I like to call “Frauds” from the playoff picture – sorry Cowboys fans 

However if some frauds are still leftover, surely the divisional round will sniff them out.  The final eight usually brings out the best in teams leading to highly competitive games before the suffocating hype, pressure, and “big stage” mentality of getting to the Super Bowl sets in.The great thing about divisional round games are that now teams that excelled in the regular season have to “Prove It” when it matters most. Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay said in 2018 about playing in the playoffs, “We talk about seizing the moment all the time. We don’t shy away from what a big game this is.  For a long time teams coming off byes seemed to automatically advance to the Conference Championship round of the playoffs. 

Since the league went to 12 playoff teams in 1990, — gave the top two seeds in each conference first-round byes — only 13 times has a team won the Super Bowl without having a bye, with the last unit accomplishing this feat was last season by the 2020 Super Champion Tampa Buccaneers.  Additionally, teams with a first-round bye have reached the big game 49 times during this period, including the 2020 Kansas City Chiefs, who were the AFC’s No. 1 seed and made it to Super Bowl 55.

However it is always “Any Given Sunday” in the NFL and the non-predictability of the divisional round playoffs has clearly been shown in seasons like 2010. Both No. 1 seeds (New England Patriots –AFC and Atlanta Falcons – NFC) came off byes and lost in the divisional playoffs. After the dust had settled for Super Bowl XLV in Dallas, the AFC’s No. 2 seeded Steelers and the NFC’s No. 6 seeded Green Bay Packers were left.  Remember there are no longer the dynasty bully teams of the past — think of Paul Brown’s Cleveland Browns of the ‘50s, Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers of the ‘60s, Chuck Knoll’s Pittsburgh Steelers of the ‘70s, Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers of the ‘80s, Jerry Jones’ Dallas Cowboys of the ‘90s, and Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots of the ‘00s and ‘10s – with “Parity” still the driving factor in the NFL. 

To show the parity around the NFL in the regulars season, you just have to point to “unthinkable” upsets that occurred in 2021 – Jaguars (finished 3-14) defeating the Colts (finished 9-8) by score of 26-11 in Week 18 and the lowly Texans (finished 4-13) defeating the eventual No. 1 seeded Titans (12-5) by a score of 22-13 in Nashville, TN.  So all 8 remaining teams have a legitimate chance, no matter what all the talking heads around the league are saying.

To no surprise of many, after home teams went a combined 5-1 in the Super Wildcard Round, Vegas is favoring all of the hosts (Packers -5.5, Titans -3.5, Bucs -2.5 and Chiefs -2) in the divisional round.  However the hosts definitely should proceed with some trepidation as road teams have won at least 1 divisional round game in the past 10 out of 11 NFL playoffs with the 2018 playoffs being an anomaly as hosts KC, NO, LAR, and NE all won.  So nothing is guaranteed, even if fans are hoping for a Super Match-up of the two No. 1 seeds, Green Bay Packers (13-4) and Tennessee Titans (12-5).  Yes, in recent history the 2017 NFL Season’s Super Bowl match-up of the Eagles-Patriots was a No. 1 seed showdown, but I am not sure if the “Chalk” will fall into place this season.  

Somewhere former NFL Commissioner Bert Bell is smiling as the phrase he coined, “On Any Given Sunday” still is reigning true. Bell’s dream theory of equitability where any team, whether top or bottom, could beat each other on a weekly basis, was majorly driven home last week in the Super Wildcard round.  As the SF 49ers went into Dallas and beat the higher seeded and favored Cowboys by a score of 23-17.  

Definitely keep an eye on the winners from the Wild Card round as former Super Bowl Champions (Steelers ‘05, Colts ‘06, Giants ‘07, Steelers ‘08, Packers ’10, Giants ’11, Ravens 12 and Buccaneers ‘20) won on Wildcard weekend.  Hopefully head coach Mike Vrabel, QB Ryan Tanneyhill, and the rest of the Titans were paying attention, as should the also coming off of a bye, Green Bay Packers.  Preparation and execution will be the keys to beating their opponents in front of them.  The other alternative from non-preparation will be joining the Eagles, Cowboys, Steelers, Cardinals, Raiders, Patriots and the 18 other non-playoff teams on the sidelines.  Patriots head coach Bill Belichick once said of playing in the divisional playoffs after a bye, “Now the team is 0-0”.

Three of the divisional round matchups will be rematches from the regular season (SF-GB in WK3: won by Packers 30-28; LAR-TB in WK3: won by LA Rams 34-24; BUF-KC in WK5: won by Bills 38-20). Of course having played and beaten a team in the regular season may bring a partial psychological edge in game planning, and dissecting tendencies. But tried-and-true playoff tenants of Strong Quarterback Play (i.e. Taking Care of the Football), Good Attacking Defense, a Balanced Offensive Attack based first in the Run, Sound Special Teams Play, Getting off the Field on 3rd Downs Defensively, Scoring Touchdowns rather field goals in the Redzone, Limiting Penalties/Turnovers, and just plain “Want-to” will be the deciding factors as to which teams move on to the Conference Championship round on the long treacherous road to Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, CA.

Other than the playoff tenants that we discussed earlier, “Great” playoff teams that usually advance far in the postseason win the battle in Adjustments and Turnovers.  The NFL is a copycat league where teams can catch-up quickly and adjustments are the only way to stay ahead of the pack and combat falling behind.  With the Super Wildcard Round behind us, it is time for the “great” coaches to make the adjustments necessary to get their teams to the next round of the playoffs – think Saints head coach Sean Payton calling a surprise successful onside kick after halftime of Super Bowl XLIV.  However we all know that nothing goes as “planned” in the NFL. It is all well and good to look at old tape and previous games against your opponent to prepare a dossier.  But during the course of a game, plans can quickly go out the window.

Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson used to always say before a fight in his classic lisp voice, “Everybody has a plan, until they get hit.”  That quote is so very true in the NFL too as former Super Bowl winning coaches in this year’s divisional round(Andy Reid and Bruce Arians) have been known to make in-game adjustments to their original game plans that have led to playoff victories.  As important as adjustments are, plain and simple nothing is an important factor in wining playoff games than “turnovers”. 

Nothing can put a dagger in a team’s playoff hopes quicker than giving away the ball, especially turnovers that go to the house for points. Who could ever forget on of the worst turnover games in memory, where the highly favored Carolina Panthers lost at home 33-13 in a whitewash to the underdog Arizona Cardinals in the 2008 NFL Playoffs Divisional round.  Panthers QB Jake Delhomme (17-34, 205 yards, 1 TD, 5 INTs and 1 fumble) accounted for six turnovers by himself and the Cardinals scored 23 of their 33 points off of those takeaways.

I usually also like to look at the hottest teams going into playoff games as favorites and no team is hotter than the Buffalo Bills (5 straight wins including their dominating 47-17 win over the Patriots).  The operative phrase for all the teams remaining in the single-elimination NFL Playoffs is “Moving On”. Because winning the battle on the stat sheet means nothing (remember Brady throwing for over 500 yards and the Patriots still losing to the Eagles in the Super Bowl in 2017) as getting “W’s” are all that really matters this time of the year.  Style points are out the window as an “ugly” win is just as good as an offensive highlight reel win – Just ask the 2007 and 2011 Super Bowl Champion New York Giants who continued to win “ugly throughout most of their playoff runs 

Sadly the 2021 season will soon be over, so definitely enjoy this weekend’s slate of four quality matchups.


2021-22 NFL Playoffs Divisional Round Games

Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022

(4) Cincinnati Bengals (11-7) at (1) Tennessee Titans (12-5), 4:30 p.m. (ET) (CBS, Paramount+)

LV’s Pick:  The Titans are a (-3.5) favorite and the over/under is 47.5 points. This looks like a close game as the Bengals high-flying offense can put up pointd quickly from deep plays to rookie star WR Ja’Marr Chase and the Titans secondary can be vulnerable on the outside.  Bengals defensive front, led by DE’s Hendrickson and Hubbard — will need to load up to stop comebacking RB Derrick Henry (foot) and make inconsistent QB Ryan Tanneyhill make plays.  I still believe the Titans will be rested and will be able to get pressure on Bengals QB Joe Burrow due to his leaky offensive line. Expect a close field goal game where Titans kicker Randy Bullock factors into the final score —  Titans 23, Bengals 20


(6) San Francisco 49ers (10-8) at (1) Green Bay Packers (13-4), 8:15 p.m. (ET) (FOX, FOX Deport)

LV’s Pick: The home team Packers are a (-5.5) favorite and the over/under is 47 points. You have to wonder if the Niners have much left in the tank after they fought through injuries (DE Nick Bosa – concussion, QB Jimmy Garapuolo – shoulder/thumb, and ILB Fred Warner – leg) to beat the higher seeded Cowboys.  Expect the weather to be cold in Lambeau Stadium and for the home team Packers, led by probable MVP QB Aaron Rodgers, to be rested and ready coming off a bye.  This game is a Week 3 rematch (won by GB 30-28) so expect some familiarity. I believe the main keys for this game are the Packers ability to contain the NIners physical run game (i.e. RB Elijah Mitchell), the Packers running the ball with RB’s AJ Dillon and Aaron Jones to setup play-action passes to WR Davante Adams, and whether Garapuolo can continue to play mistake free football (had 1 INT late against DAL).  I fully expect the Packers to win this one as HC Matt LaFleur is 2-0 in the  divisional round (had a bye in 2019 and 2020) since becoming Green Bay’s head coach in 2019. – Packers 27, Niners 20


Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022

(3) Los Angeles Rams (13-5) at (2) Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 3 p.m. (ET)  (NBC, Peacock, Universo)

LV’s Pick:  Tampa Bay is a (-2.5) favorite and the over/under is 48 points.  Went these two teams last met in a Week 3 late afternoon game, the host LA Rams won 34-24.  However this time the game will be played at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa and the defending champs will be more than prepared.  Bucs QB Tom Brady’s record in the divisional round of the playoffs is stellar 14-2, which doesn’t bode well for the upstart Rams.  Conversely, Rams QB Matthew Stafford finally picked up his much anticipated first playoff victory last week against the Cardinals (now 1-3 in postseason).  Last time these two teams met, Stafford was on fire (343 passing yards, 4 TDs, and 0 INTs) and he will need a similar effort against Bruce Arians team.  Defensive pressure from each team’s front four will be the key to this game – LA’s sack tandem DT Aaron Donald and DE Von Miller / Bucs Suh, Pierre-Paul, and Shaq Barrett – as both quarterbacks can get rattled and turn the football over when they are not comfortable in the pocket.  Watch  for RB’s Cam Akers (Rams) and Gio Bernard (Bucs) as their production both running and catching will tell the story of this game.  – Buccaneers 31, Rams 27


(3) Buffalo Bills (12-6) at (2) Kansas City Chiefs (13-5) 6:30 p.m. (ET) (CBS, Paramount+)

LV’s Pick:  The Chiefs are a close (-2) point favorite entering this game and the over/under is a whopping 54 points.  Vegas is a expecting a highlight driven aerial high-scoring affair and who could blame them after both quarterbacks (Brady and Allen) had a combined 7 TDs in their Super Wildcard wins with margins of 31-15 (Bucs over Eagles ) and 47-17 (Bills over Patriots).  Even though the quarterbacks are at the top the marquee for this game, it will be the team that can establish the run and keep their opponent’s offense off the field who will win this game.  Even though the Bills Josh Allen ran for 66 yards in Buffalo’s win over the Patriots last week, just as impressive was RB Devin Singletary (16 rushes for 81 yards, 2 TDs).  The Bills secondary – sans injured CB TreDavious White – will need to contain Chiefs pass catchers (TE Travis Kelce and WR Tyreek Hill) and limit their big plays.  The Chiefs defense, led by DT Chris Jones and DE Melvin Ingram, will need to force Josh Allen into mistakes with pressure and limit his running opportunities.  These two teams know each other well from their Week 5 and Bills HC Sean McDermott being a disciple of Andy Reid’s coaching tree.  As the line indicates, fans should expect a close field goal type game.  In the 2020 AFC Championship game, the Chiefs at home in Arrowhead Stadium won 38-24 over the upstart Bills and they will be looking to do it again — Bills 26, Chiefs 23



Lloyd Vance is the Editor for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA). Lloyd can be reached on Twitter (@lloydvance)