Who wins this weekend, and how do they get it done? As always, the pressure falls on the quarterbacks.
Minnesota @ San Francisco
Kirk Cousins won the biggest game of his life last Sunday, throwing two beautiful passes during the game winning drive. His 43 yarder, dropped in a bucket to Adam Thielen, and the touchdown fade to Kyle Rudolph showed the talent all knew Cousins possessed. Don’t slough at those who questioned whether he could win a big game, however. Cousins’ record against winning teams before Sunday was 6-30; his record on Monday Night is 0-9. The win in New Orleans was big and Cousins played brilliantly. The questions were legit, however.
Which quarterback do you trust? The forecast calls for 15-25 MPH winds, so two teams who want to run the ball will be more inclined to do so. Both teams rank in the top five in rushing yards per game, and both defenses are middling at stopping the run. Getting the lead will be paramount. Neither coach wants the game in their QB’s hands. This is especially true of Mike Zimmer and the Vikings. San Fran’s defense is the best in the league against the pass and third in the NFL in sack percentage. If they can force him to throw, don’t look for Cousins to repeat the successes of last week. Richard Sherman and K’Waun Williams can lock up Adam Thielen and Stephon Diggs long enough to allow the 49ers’ front four of Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, and DeForest Buckner to put Cousins on his back. Dalvin Cook has to break multiple long runs for Minnesota to score.
Pay attention when either team gets into the red zone. Minnesota has an advantage on both sides of the ball deep in scoring territory. The Vikings score touchdowns on 62% of their red zone drives (10th in the league) and allow touchdowns on only 44% of their opponents’ red zone opportunities (2nd). San Francisco, meanwhile, is 21st offensively (53%) and 23rd defensively (60%) inside the 20s. If Minnesota pulls the upset, it’ll stem from their offense’s ability to score touchdowns while the D holds the 49ers to field goals.
How will Jimmy Garoppolo react to the playoff stage? He prepared as a backup in New England, but the step up will test his nerve. Garoppolo was awful in the Niners first loss of the season in overtime against Seattle, but made big throws late in victories in New Orleans and against the Rams. Jimmy G’s 13 picks on the season will be on Kyle Shanahan’s mind, though. The Vikings intercepted 17 passes on the season. If San Francisco has to throw, Danielle Hunter will force Garoppolo to throw quicker than he’s comfortable with.
San Francisco’s defense has been outstanding all year; their front four is the best in football. They’ll pressure Kirk Cousins into mistakes while their running back trio of Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert, and Matt Breida wear out Minny’s defense.
San Francisco, 23-14
Tennessee @ Baltimore
Any doubt attached to this Ravens bunch disappeared long ago, but Tennessee must be John Harbaugh’s worst nightmare. The Titans revel in the physical style Baltimore wants to play. Tennessee will pound Derrick Henry and attempt to hit A.J. Brown deep after the defense has fallen asleep. Ryan Tannehill doesn’t turn it over, only throwing 6 picks on the season. These teams mimic the other’s style, but only one has Lamar Jackson.
Both teams want to run. Who can stop the other? The Ravens struggle to defend the run, giving up 4.4 yards per rush, 21st in the league, while the Titans fare better, allowing 4.1 (7th). Lamar Jackson is a different animal, however. The Ravens pounce on teams early while defenses are adjusting to his speed. A few designed runs gash opponents, causing them to inch toward the line of scrimmage. Jackson then throws it over their heads. Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards are coming for you too. Tennessee must stop them first.
Discipline from the Titans is paramount. Though it can lead to other problems, they must spy Jackson with Rashaan Evans, Jayon Brown and Kenny Vaccaro. Mix it up; give Lamar different looks; just don’t leave him unattended. Corners Logan Ryan and Adoree’ Jackson, along with safety Kevin Byard, must shut down Baltimore’s tight ends and wide receivers in one-on-one man match-ups to have any chance. All others on defense must focus on stopping the lethal run game.
Tennessee has to take advantage of Baltimore’s so-so run defense. Pound Derrick Henry. Mix in Dion Lewis’ speed for a change of pace. They’ll need at least one deep ball connection between Tannehill and A.J. Brown to put the Ravens on their heels. Baltimore has been stingy against the pass, allowing opposing QBs to complete only 58% of their passes and just 6 yards per attempt (6th lowest). Tannehill has had success taking the top off defenses, but Henry will need to cook to unlock this option for his offense.
Baltimore has been a juggernaut since losing to the Browns in Week 4. Lamar Jackson is the unquestioned league MVP. They have the highest scoring offense and 3rd stingiest defense in the NFL and are playing at home in front of one of the best crowds in football. Tennessee gained an enormous boost going to New England and knocking off the champs last week, however. The Titans aren’t afraid to take a punch and will dish out a few themselves. This one feels closer than expected.
Houston @ Kansas City
This one looks ugly for Houston. Ten point dogs, the Texans struggled at home to beat a Buffalo team not ready for the playoffs. The Bills led until 4:37 left in the 4th quarter, and, though he tried, Josh Allen couldn’t get the Houston defense to take the ball from him. The Texans dropped 4-5 would be interceptions and couldn’t recover an insane lateral by Allen on Buffalo’s final drive that sent the game into overtime. Coaching blunders and clock mismanagement littered a poorly played game by each side. Now Houston must travel to Arrowhead to face a Chiefs team more prepared than ever to reach the Super Bowl.
Patrick Mahomes fought injury most of the season, missing 2 games and a half of another with a dislocated kneecap. While his yards and touchdown passes were down from a year ago, so were his interceptions, cut from 12 to 5. Mahomes’ injury and Lamar Jackson’s ascendance to an MVP level has allowed the Chiefs an unassuming entrance into the playoffs. Baltimore is bludgeoning people in the manner K.C. did a year ago. Will the relative quiet surrounding the Chiefs work to their benefit?
Even without Mahomes for 1/8 of the season, K.C.’s offense purred. Houston’s defense is ill-equipped to handle the myriad of weapons at Mahomes’ disposal. Tyreek Hill, who missed four games himself, and Travis Kelce are two of the best at their positions in the league. Add rookie Mecole Hardman and the fleet Demarcus Robinson to Mahomes’ arsenal and the Texans’ 29th rated pass defense is in trouble.
J. J. Watt played 50 of 81 snaps last week, an absurdity considering the team ruled him out for the season in October with a torn pectoral muscle. A behemoth, Watt must wreck the K.C. offense for the Texans to remain close. A possibility if healthy, the task seems insurmountable now. The Texans rank in the bottom half of the league in every imaginable defensive stat. They’re last in the league in giving up touchdowns in the red zone. They give up 6 yards per play, 30th in the league. Teams convert 3rd downs at a rate of 48% against them, and they allow 7.1 yards per pass, 24th worst in the league. Unless the Chiefs turn it over multiple times, Houston’s defense will get steamrolled.
While K.C.’s defense improved over last year, offenses can still get them in the run game. Chris Jones and Frank Clark are dynamic rushing the passer from the edges, and will force Deshaun Watson out of the pocket against the Texans’ weak offensive line. The Chiefs allow the 4th worst completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks and hold them to the 5th worst passer rating in the league. K.C. gave up 128 yards per game on the ground, however, and the Texans must attack here if they hope to stay close. They must lean on Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde to grind yards and clock. Designed QB runs with Watson could help slow the pass rush.
Houston’s margins are thin. Watson is fantastic, however, and can sway games on his own. The Texans have to push the envelope, going for touchdowns instead of field goals and taking chances on 4th down. Baltimore tried this strategy in week 3 before they began eviscerating the league. The Ravens ran the ball 32 times, were 3-4 on fourth down conversions, and went for 2 on 3 different occasions, including the first touchdown of the game. The Texans must use the same strategy. This won’t be another low scoring playoff game; the Chiefs offense is too good and the Houston defense is poor. This will take a massive effort from Deshaun Watson and Bill O’Brien. Watson may have a huge game. O’Brien out coaching Andy Reid is less likely.
Kansas City, 30-17
Seattle @ Green Bay
The toughest game of the week to call and a battle of two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Green Bay finished 13-3, but what do they do well? Aaron Jones established himself as a weapon both running and receiving while Aaron Rodgers became more of a game manager in 2019. Seattle wants to run the ball, but their strength offensively is in the passing game. Seattle’s defense is poor in every category, but they force turnovers. Ditto for Green Bay, but the Smith’s, Preston and Za’Darius, haunt opposing quarterbacks. This one may turn into a shootout.
The Seahawk defense is bad at everything. 22nd against the run, 26th against the pass; they don’t sack the quarterback and they give up touchdowns in the red zone. They were fourth in the league in takeaways, but don’t expect Aaron Rodgers to throw picks at Lambeau. Rodgers had only 4 interceptions on the year and hasn’t thrown one at home since week 6. He hasn’t torched defenses like in years’ past, but he also hasn’t had to.
Rodgers put up good numbers by other quarterbacks’ standards, but below average according to his. 4002 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 62% completions are all well under his career averages. Davante Adams failed to reach 1000 yards, and tight end Jimmy Graham again disappointed. Aaron Jones surged, however, the only member of the Green Bay offense to exceed expectations. If the Pack win on Sunday, Jones will have shredded Seattle’s porous run defense.
Green Bay’s defense doesn’t stop the run either, but can defend the opponent’s passing attack because of the Smiths. A combined 25.5 sacks have made opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket. Russell Wilson can move, however, and the Packers have faced immobile signal callers all year. Wilson will slow the Packer pass rush on his own and pick up a few first downs with his legs. The likely second-place finisher in the MVP vote, it has taken an otherworldly season from Lamar Jackson to deny Russ the award.
Can Seattle’s offensive line give Wilson time? Injuries have ravaged the unit. Left tackle Duane Brown and guard Mike Iupati both missed Sunday’s game against the Eagles but practiced some on Thursday. They’ll help stabilize things in front of Wilson. Will the Seahawks force the issue in the running game? Marshawn Lynch has been dynamite in short yardage situations in his return to Seattle, and rookie Travis Homer and flashed on a couple of chunk runs against San Francisco the last week of the season, but only gained 12 yards on 11 carries against Philly. Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer have made it no secret they prefer to run the ball. Russell Wilson represents their path to victory, however.
The last game of the weekend is a tossup. This one may come down to the QB who has the ball last.