It's another week of no Seahawks football, but pure lovers of the game should be excited for what the NFL has in store this weekend. Eight teams remain in the hunt for Super Bowl LVI, with all four divisional-round matchups featuring teams that complement one another extraordinarily well.
Who will advance to their respective conference's championship games? Corbin Smith, Ty Dane Gonzalez, Colby Patnode, Nick Lee and Rishi Rastogi make their picks.
Bengals at Titans
Corbin Smith: Bengals 27, Titans 23
Before the season, I picked the Titans to face the Bills in the AFC championship game. The No. 1 seed in the conference will be at full strength with Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, and Julio Jones all suiting up after a much-needed bye week. But in the present, I can't pick against the calm, collected Joe Burrow and the upstart Bengals, who are too young and stubborn to realize they aren't supposed to advance this far in the playoffs yet. Burrow has been slinging the pigskin all season with Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd on the outside and he has a top-10 back in Joe Mixon to complement him. I predict Burrow will throw three touchdowns in this game against a Titans secondary that can be exploited. Tennessee will keep things close by grounding and pounding with Henry, but the quarterback talent advantage will play in Cincinnati's favor as coach Zac Taylor's team advances to the AFC championship game for the first time since 1989.
Ty Dane Gonzalez: Titans 33, Bengals 23
In a game featuring two of the league's worst passing defenses, this very well may turn into a shootout between Joe Burrow and Ryan Tannehill. But for as long as they can, the Titans are going to try and control the pace of play on the back of a returning Derrick Henry versus a Bengals defense that allowed a modest 4.28 yards per carry during the regular season and is currently missing Larry Ogunjobi. Winning the time of possession battle by half a quarter, Tennessee will successfully keep the ball away from Burrow and Cincinnati's explosive offense, with Henry punching in two scores to seal the deal.
Colby Patnode: Titans 28, Bengals 27
I hope I'm wrong, but it feels like the Bengals just aren't ready to tango with the top of the AFC. Their defense is still a year away from truly being able to compete with the upper echelon of the league's offenses, which will be their undoing this year. Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase are game-changers and a big outing by the duo could lead to an upset, but I'm taking the Titans in a very close affair.
Nick Lee: Titans 30, Bengals 20
The Bengals probably have the most flawed roster from three through 53 (after Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase) of any team left in the playoffs. The Titans are rested and getting their king back in Derrick Henry. Henry’s return may tip the scales in this matchup, keeping the best part of the Bengals’ team on the sidelines. Tennessee has likely seen the disrespect from the media despite its place as the No. 1 seed. As such, Mike Vrabel's squad should come out recharged and motivated, which is a dangerous combo.
Rishi Rastogi: Bengals 23, Titans 20
Entering this game, the Titans don’t feel like a typical No. 1. They don’t have an overpowering dominance like the Packers do in the NFC, and there have been numerous occasions towards the end of the regular season where their vulnerabilities have been showcased. That being said, the Bengals are a clear underdog in this game. Ultimately, it comes down to the battle in the trenches and the Cincinnati offensive line against the star-studded Tennessee pass rush. Derrick Henry is a key factor as well, but it’s unlikely he’ll be able to return to pre-injury form in his first game back. With Bengals edge rusher Trey Hendrickson medically cleared to play, the Titans could definitely be on upset watch; and though he’s matching up against All-Pro safety Kevin Byard, I have no doubts that Ja’Marr Chase will find a way to largely impact the game as he’s done all year long.
49ers at Packers
Corbin Smith: Packers 30, 49ers 24
In the past, the 49ers have given the Packers fits, but they won their playoff matchup two years ago in Santa Clara. This time around, Jimmy Garoppolo will have to win at Lambeau Field against a healthy No. 1 seed led by Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams and I'm simply not seeing it. San Francisco's rushing attack and pass rush will keep the game close throughout, but the trifecta of Rodgers, Adams and Aaron Jones will be a bit too much to handle on the road in Green Bay; and Garoppolo will throw two critical interceptions in the second half to prevent his team from pulling the upset. Green Bay advances to the NFC championship game for a third consecutive year behind three touchdown tosses from Rodgers and 115 all-purpose yards and a score by Jones.
Ty Dane Gonzalez: Packers 23, 49ers 17
Losers of their last three playoff games against the 49ers, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have some demons to exorcise on Saturday night. They're as healthy as they've been all season and, in a year where parity has reigned supreme, have looked like the NFL's most complete team. That said, they're not perfect by any stretch of the imagination; their mark of 4.70 yards allowed per carry ranks 30th in the league, which should have Kyle Shanahan and company licking their chops. San Francisco's high-powered run game and unrelenting—albeit wounded—defense should keep things tight for all 60 minutes. But Jimmy Garoppolo will have to make several key throws at some point, which will be the difference in this one. Unable to overcome thumb and shoulder injuries in below-freezing temperatures, Garoppolo will cough up a pair of turnovers as Green Bay moves on for a chance to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LVI.
Colby Patnode: Packers 34, 49ers 24
The 49ers are just too banged up to hang with a healthy Packers team. Even in the best of circumstances, asking Jimmy Garapollo to win in Lambeau Field is a tough ask. But with Garoppolo carrying an injured shoulder and thumb into the matchup... well, can Debo Samuel also play quarterback?
Nick Lee: Packers 31, 49ers 23
The health status of Nick Bosa and Fred Warner may decide just how competitive the 49ers will be. The Packers should be the most feared team in the playoffs now, with Aaron Rodgers on the verge of back-to-back MVPs and playing host in a raucous environment that will likely be in the single digits, temperature-wise. After playing in comfortable environments for the majority of the home stretch, this is a tough ask of a banged-up San Francisco squad.
Rishi Rastogi: 49ers 30, Packers 24
The 49ers are “a bad matchup” for the Packers, but I think it's time they get their due credit. They’re an exceptionally built roster with the ability to get their playmakers to influence the game week in and week out. Ultimately, it’ll come down to the success of their run game. While Green Bay had a great rush defense mid season, the unit showed signs of regression as it allowed three straight rushing performances north of 100 yards between Weeks 14-16. Time of possession will be critical for the 49ers as they’ll aim to keep Aaron Rodgers on the sideline for much of the game. With Nick Bosa and Fred Warner both likely to play, it’s fair to count on the swarming Niners defense to get a handful of stops against the likely MVP of the league. All in all, I think it’ll be a playoff disappointment for the Rodgers-led Packers once again.
Rams at Buccaneers
Corbin Smith: Rams 33, Buccaneers 30
Shootout, anyone? While both the Rams and Buccaneers have plenty of defensive star power, quarterbacks and talented receivers will reign supreme in this rematch. Look for Matthew Stafford and Tom Brady to engage in an epic duel of veteran signal callers, taking their shots to Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski. Interestingly, the team able to achieve the most offensive balance running the football may be the one most likely to advance to the NFC championship gamw. Looking mighty spry coming off a torn Achilles, I'm taking Cam Akers along with Sony Michel to be a bit more effective than Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette, which makes all the difference in a down-to-the-wire affair.
Ty Dane Gonzalez: Rams 31, Buccaneers 27
While it's never been the wisest decision to pick against Tom Brady, the Buccaneers are limping into the divisional round of the playoffs and look rather vulnerable. Even Brady needs some form of help and he'll be going into battle with a weakened receiving corps and two of his key offensive linemen, Ryan Jensen and Tristan Wirfs, considerably banged up. With Aaron Donald, Greg Gaines, Von Miller and crew on the opposite end of the ball, it's going to be incredibly difficult for Tampa Bay to sustain drives. Meanwhile, with the likes of Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham Jr. and Cam Akers, the Rams have an offense built to keep Brady off the field. If Matthew Stafford is able to execute in the biggest moment of his career, complemented by a strong rushing attack, this could get out of hand. In the end, I'll take L.A. in a close game, with Stafford connecting on a pair of touchdowns to Tyler Higbee.
Colby Patnode: Buccaneers 27, Rams 23
Matthew Stafford got his first playoff win last week, but hardly had to roll out of bed to make it happen. Against Tampa Bay, he will need to be sharp. A surprising note that gave me pause: the Bucs had the third-worst run defense in the league. If the Rams can win on the ground with Cam Akers and Sony Michel, they'll have a good chance to win this game. But I'm leaning towards the defending champs in this one.
Nick Lee: Rams 27, Buccaneers 24
The Rams’ confidence has to be sky-high after they shellacked their division rival in the wild-card round. Their offense is clicking and their defense looked tenacious. The deciding factor of this game could be Tampa Bay's health along the offensive line against one of the most ferocious defensive fronts in football. Both its starting center and right tackle are struggling to get back to practice after suffering injuries against the Eagles last weekend. With Aaron Donald, Leonard Floyd, Von Miller and company bearing down on Tom Brady without needing to manufacture pressure by over-blitzing, that's your ballgame right there. Matthew Stafford has weapons galore to score enough points to upset Brady and advance to the NFC championship game.
Rishi Rastogi: Rams 31, Buccaneers 23
While the Buccaneers are ranked as the fifth best defensive unit in the NFL according to DVOA, their scheme relies heavily on the ability to simulate pressure on opposing quarterbacks. I expect their league-high blitz rate of 40.8 percent to serve as their demise. Matthew Stafford is ranked as the No. 1 quarterback against the blitz and just came off a performance against the Cardinals in which he threw for 148 yards and a touchdown against nine blitzes. The Buccaneers' offense is also shorthanded against the Rams' star-studded defensive core of Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and Von Miller. It’s never a great idea to bet against Tom Brady, but this matchup doesn’t quite favor him like most do.
Bills at Chiefs
Corbin Smith: Bills 38, Chiefs 35
In another contest setting up to be an offensive slugfest featuring two elite gun-slinging quarterbacks in Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, the scoreboard operator will be working overtime in Buffalo. This game could go either way, as both teams have several notable weapons on the outside and enough of a run game to keep opposing defenses honest when needed. After throwing five touchdowns against the Patriots last weekend and turning in arguably the most impressive playoff performance by a quarterback ever in single-digit temperatures, this seems like Allen's year to finally get Buffalo back to the AFC championship game after coming up short in Kansas City a year ago. The former Wyoming star will enact revenge and edge out Mahomes with the two quarterbacks combining for 780 passing yards and eight touchdown passes. The difference will be Allen's running ability, as he will tack on a late touchdown on the ground to seal the deal.
Ty Dane Gonzalez: Bills 37, Chiefs 31 (OT)
With the way these two teams are playing right now, football fans could be in for quite a treat on Sunday night. Led by the seemingly unstoppable Josh Allen and a criminally underrated defense that's in the business of "ending eras," the Bills are primed to take the next step and overcome a Chiefs team looking to make their fourth consecutive AFC championship game. In a rematch of last year's title bout, Allen and Patrick Mahomes will trade blows all the way past the game's 60-minute threshold. But after winning the overtime coin toss, Allen won't give his elite counterpart the opportunity to respond, leading Buffalo down the field for a walk-off touchdown to Gabriel Davis.
Colby Patnode: Chiefs 34, Bills 31
What an awesome matchup of two of the best and most exciting young quarterbacks in the game. The Bills and Chiefs absolutely dominated inferior opponents last week and each team is as hot as can be. This game truly is a toss-up so I'll give the edge to the home team in the best matchup of the divisional round.
Nick Lee: Bills 33, Chiefs 28
This has “instant classic” written all over it. It’s Patrick Mahomes vs the No. 1-ranked defense in the NFL with a trip to the AFC title game on the line. That is likely where this game will be won or lost and we saw a preview of it in October, when Buffalo held Mahomes to one of his worst games of the season. On the other side, the fact that Josh Allen’s squad torched a Bill Belichick defense to the tune of 47 points, including seven touchdown drives without a punt or turnover, should scare the heck out of every single team in the playoffs, including Kansas City. Both offenses are humming but I’m siding with the team with just as much defensive momentum.
Rishi Rastogi: Chiefs 38, Bills 17
The Bills and Chiefs are both coming into this game as two of the hottest teams in the league and this should be an exceptional matchup to watch. It's Patrick Mahomes versus Josh Allen in a repeat of last year's conference championship—what's not to love? While the Bills did convincingly win in their earlier matchup this season, both teams are much different this time around. There are many factors, but in the end, Chiefs offensive star power will likely be too much for the Bills to handle and their ability to get off to quick starts should be a key factor.
Playoff Prediction Records