NFL Playoffs: Ranking the 4 Games in the Divisional Round
The next stage of the 2021 NFL Playoffs has officially arrived. Eight teams, including Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will play in the Divisional Round in hopes of advancing to the conference championship games.
This year’s edition of Divisional Weekend features four games — two on Saturday and two on Sunday — and many of the game’s most recognizable faces. Brady and the Buccaneers host Matthew Stafford and the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday afternoon, only hours before Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes welcomes Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills to Arrowhead Stadium for the third time in 12 months. Saturday’s slate features Joe Burrow’s Cincinnati Bengals taking on Derrick Henry’s Tennessee Titans in the early window; Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers host Jimmy Garoppolo’s San Francisco 49ers that night.
Of the four games in question, which are the best? For this list, we considered everything from the players in question (obviously) to history, recent and old, between the teams facing one another.
Based on consideration of the aforementioned prerequisites, the best Divisional Round games rank as follows:
4. Los Angeles Rams-Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBC)
Three months ago, a playoff showdown between Stafford’s Rams and Brady’s Buccaneers would have sounded like an NFC Championship Game clash, especially after Stafford threw four touchdowns in a 34-24 victory over the Buccaneers on Sept. 26. Instead, the two will square off in the Divisional Round following Stafford’s first-ever playoff win — and Brady’s 35th, but who’s counting?
To be clear, the Rams-Buccaneers rematch isn’t the worst or most boring on this list. Although it has a fascinating quarterback matchup, it lacks additional intrigue compared to the other three games. Which, of course, means it’s going to be the best of the four Divisional Round games. We know how this works.
3. San Francisco 49ers-Green Bay Packers (Saturday, 8:15 p.m., Fox)
Of the four games on this list, this is the only one where the outcome feels like a foregone conclusion. However, if the Packers don’t win on Sunday, it might be time to start asking legitimate questions about Matt LaFleurs’s long-term future in Green Bay.
The 49ers’ hopes of an upset rest on quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s shoulders — or, to be specific, his sprained shoulder. The veteran quarterback will need to deal with the new injury, the torn ligament in his throwing thumb, and less-than-ideal weather on Saturday night; the temperature at kickoff is expected to be around 12 degrees in Green Bay, a far cry from the 58 degrees in San Francisco at the same time. Speaking of San Francisco and Levi’s Stadium, Garoppolo threw for 257 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception in a 30-28 home loss to the Packers on Sept. 26.
So, why does the 49ers-Packers game rank above the Rams-Buccaneers game? The idea of Rodgers losing in the playoffs yet again is especially intriguing given the questions regarding his future and his legacy.
2. Cincinnati Bengals-Tennessee Titans (Saturday, 4:30 p.m., CBS)
With respect to those who have suggested Derrick Henry is the key to the Titans’ Super Bowl hopes, they’re wrong. If Tennessee intends to finally win a Lombardi Trophy, veteran quarterback Ryan Tannehill must shake off an inconsistent 2021 season and prove he deserved to earn $29 million this season. The Texas A&M product threw 14 interceptions, the second-highest total of his career, and took 47 sacks during the regular season.
Unfortunately for Tannehill, the Bengals are expected to have Pro Bowl pass-rusher Trey Hendrickson available after he suffered a concussion in the Wild Card Round. The veteran quarterback must find a way to overcome Hendrickson’s presence and help Tennessee reach the AFC title game for the second time in three years.
Although the Titans are the higher-ranked seed, Burrow and the Bengals’ offense has looked unstoppable at times in recent months. The thought of Cincinnati and its second-year quarterback reaching the AFC Championship Game is enough to rank it second on our list.
1. Buffalo Bills-Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday, 6:30 p.m., CBS)
For a time, it felt like the New England Patriots would emerge as the Kansas City Chiefs’ primary AFC playoff rival in the Patrick Mahomes era. We got the division right, but it instead appears Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills have an opportunity to fill that role.
Mahomes and the Chiefs defeated the Bills, 38-24, in last year’s AFC Championship Game. Less than nine months later, Allen threw three touchdowns and ran for another in a 38-20 road victory on Oct. 10.
Everything points to this being the best game in the Divisional Round. Bills running back Devin Singletary is carving through defenses the way he did as an All-American running back at Florida Atlantic University. Chiefs star Travis Kelce took it upon himself in recent weeks to remind football fans that, yes, he is still the NFL’s best tight end. And, of course, two of the NFL’s top quarterbacks will take the stage on Sunday night.
All four games in the Divisional Round bring intrigue to the table, but none top what could happen at Arrowhead Stadium. Unfortunately for football fans, the winning quarterback won’t be slimed. Luckily for the losing quarterback, he won’t be named the NVP. How lucky.
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