By Geoff Schwartz
FOX Sports NFL Analyst
Now that the divisional round is on deck, where do I lean early in the week?
The Bengals won their first playoff game since 1991 in dramatic fashion, as Cincinnati held off the Raiders inside the 10-yard line on the final play of the game. It wasn’t the cleanest game for the AFC North champions, and they will need to fix that to be competitive against the well-rested Titans.
The Titans will win if … they are truly tired of being disrespected.
Y’all know I enjoy using efficiency numbers, and the Titans are one of the worst No. 1 seeds in NFL history. They are ranked 20th in team efficiency, breaking down to 20th on offense, 12th on defense and 21st on special teams.
What these numbers don’t account for is their injuries, which have cost them nearly 300 games. They’ve played the most players for a single season in NFL history. Yet they are the 1-seed after beating the Bills, Chiefs, Rams and 49ers, to name just a few.
While Tennessee’s run offense has not struggled without Derrick Henry — the numbers are almost the same with or without him — Ryan Tannehill has struggled a bit without the RB. But the bye week allowed Henry to return to the lineup, and I expect the offense to be humming against a poor Bengals defense.
If the Bengals can’t rush the passer, they are toast on defense. They ranked 24th in pass defense, and if A.J. Brown and Julio Jones are both healthy for the Titans, we know they can hit those home-run passes off play-action.
The Titans are well-coached and well-rested, and they have the extra motivation of hearing how poor they are.
The Bengals will win if … the offensive line has its best game.
The Bengals’ offensive line is not good. It allows a ton of pressure, and the Titans’ defensive line can light up opposing offensive lines. The Titans also have a lower than average blitz percentage, so they are able to sit back in zone and get after the QB. Joe Burrow makes it work because he throws the ball quickly, which is much easier against man coverage and pressure than against zone.
The Bengals’ offensive line must be perfect in their assignments next week. This is the first legit road game for Cincinnati since the Bengals went to Denver in Week 15, so they need to get used to playing with noise and a rowdy crowd. Burrow will need time to find Ja’Marr Chase and his other weapons. The score of this game will approach the 30s, as I think the Titans can score against Cincinnati.
Lastly, being able to move the ball on the ground could help the Bengals avoid third-and-long situations. But their offensive line needs to have its best game of the year.
The pick: I like the Titans to win this game. They are rested and ready for battle.
The Chiefs hosting the Bills is a heavyweight battle that will feel like the AFC Championship. I cannot wait. The team with the ball last might be the winner.
The Bills will win if … they play offense like they did against the Patriots.
The Bills we saw Saturday had the most perfect offensive game in NFL history, but that Bills team has not shown up much this season. Now, of course, a historic night won’t happen more than a few times in a lifetime, but the Bills’ offense is capable of being nearly unstoppable. And with Josh Allen, this version of the offense can win a Super Bowl.
When Allen is accurate and making plays with his legs, when the offensive line is run-blocking and when the playcalling keeps defenses off-balance, the Bills’ offense is a scoring machine. But the Bills are 31st in Football Outsiders variance, which means that week to week, they are the 31st-most consistent team. At times, they look unstoppable, and other times, they score six points against the Jaguars.
In this game, the Bills just need to be consistent. They need a calm and relaxed offense to pair with their excellent defense.
The Chiefs will win if … they just play their game.
It’s difficult for me to believe that after 19 weeks of watching the 2021 Chiefs, they will all of a sudden play a complete game, because they’ve rarely done that. After all, the Steelers were winning 7-0 early in the second quarter Sunday.
That is not good football. The K.C. offense will just go dormant at times. The Chiefs’ offensive line is moving people off the ball, but then they’ll go away from the run. Receivers aren’t getting open, drops happen, or Patrick Mahomes misses his target. The offense looked disjointed too often this season.
On defense, the Chiefs look incredible at times, rushing the quarterback with success and not allowing explosive passing plays. But other times, they can’t tackle, or they call defenses with players out of position or are easily targeted in bad matchups.
If they can put together 60 minutes of their best football, the Chiefs will win going away. But we haven’t seen it this season, and I’m concerned that will cost them next weekend.
The pick: Mahomes is now 7-2 in the playoffs, with his two losses coming against Tom Brady. I think the Chiefs win close.
Geoff Schwartz played eight seasons in the NFL for five different teams. He started at right tackle for the University of Oregon for three seasons and was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection his senior year. He is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffSchwartz.
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