BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
The 2021 NFL season has concluded, and the playoff pairings are set. Aaron Rodgers has the Green Bay Packers sitting atop the NFC bracket, and they have the only bye in the conference with six other teams squaring off to to advance to the second round. In the AFC, the Tennessee Titans secured the #1 seed and join the Packers in watching the other playoff teams vying to advance.
The Titans will have the luxury of resting injured superstar Derrick Henry for an extra week, making him that much more capable of performing at a high level. Both teams will have two weeks off to rest their players, but Green Bay benched many of their starters in their week 18 game against Detroit, having clinched the top seed a week earlier. The additional week of recovery time is certainly an advantage for the Packers, seeking to win the second Super Bowl of Rodgers career in what may well be his final season for the franchise, given his well-chronicled disdain for General Manager Brian Gutekunst. Las Vegas has established the Packers as the Super Bowl favorite, and there will be rampant speculation as to the future of their three- time MVP quarterback (with a fourth very much a possibility in 2021) as the playoffs proceed.
Given the looming shadow the coronavirus pandemic casts, and the lack of a truly dominant team, there is more uncertainty baked into these playoffs than in any other recent season. The 2021 season saw a host of seemingly inexplicable outcomes-Jacksonville beating Buffalo 9-6 as 16-point underdogs and the 1-11-1 Lions destroying the 10-3 Cardinals 30-12, becoming only the third team since 1970 to beat the team with the best record in the league while having the worst record (minimum of 8 games played). The Colts, needing to win to secure a playoff spot in Week 18, lost 26-11 to Jacksonville, a 15-point underdog, who came into the game 2-14. Given the parity that has enveloped the NFL, it isn’t difficult to imagine almost any Super Bowl pairing occurring, especially when an untimely outbreak of positive COVID-19 tests could waylay the aspirations of any team at any time. With those realities in mind, here is a look at the matchups we’ll be watching:
The Raiders emerged victorious in overtime in the final game of the 2021 NFL season, kicking the winning field goal as time expired to set the pairings in the AFC. The loss eliminated their valiant opponent, the Chargers, whose furious comeback behind second year quarterback Justin Herbert (converting six of seven fourth downs) was thrilling for fans around the league-aside from those in Pittsburgh. The Steelers would have been bounced out of the playoffs had the game ended in a tie, a very real possibility as the game moved into the late stages. Alas, the Raiders are a now playoff team, a reality that would have been difficult to forecast given the tumult surrounding the franchise in 2021.
Their former head coach John Gruden resigned amid a racist (and homophobic) e-mail scandal, and their top receiver Henry Ruggs was arrested after hitting and killing a 23-year-old woman and her dog while driving under the influence of alcohol. 2020 first round draft pick Damon Arnette was waived after an online video showed him wielding guns and making death threats. Through all that drama, interim head coach Rich Bisaccia led his team to four straight wins to finish the season, leaning heavily upon third year running back Josh Jacobs and a resurgent Derek Carr.
Despite being outscored by 65 points this year, Las Vegas will be in the postseason, facing the AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals feature the NFL’s second best passer in second year QB Joe Burrow, whose 108 QBR this season trails only Green Bay’s Rodgers. Burrow has the luxury of throwing to his former LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase, the likely Offensive Rookie of the Year, whose 1455 receiving yards set the Bengals all-time record, eclipsing Chad Johnson’s mark of 1440, set in 2007. Chase was second in the NFL with 18 yards per catch, and his breakaway speed led to several highlight reel touchdowns. Joe Mixon finished third in the NFL in rushing yards, so the potent Bengals offense figures to pose a real problem for the Raiders.
Two AFC East squads will square off in another Wild Card match-up as division champion Buffalo hosts New England. The Bills won the East for the second consecutive year, something they haven’t done since they won four straight from 1988-1991. QB Josh Allen led the team to 483 points, throwing for 36 touchdowns and 4407 yards, adding another six TDs and 763 yards running the ball. Stefon Diggs was his favorite target, hauling in 103 catches for 1225 yards and 10 TDs in 2021. The Bills defense allowed the fewest points in the NFL, the fewest yards gained and the fewest passing touchdowns, and will be tasked with throttling the Patriots offense. Head coach Sean McDermott has gone 49-32 in his five years as Buffalo’s head coach, including 2-3 in the playoffs. The Bills split their matchups with the Patriots this season.
Sean McDermott will match wits with Bill Belichick , perhaps the best NFL coach ever. In his 27-year head-coaching career, Belichick is 290-143, including a 31-12 mark in the postseason and six Super Bowl victories. The master tactician will endeavor to illuminate his younger opponent on the finer points of football strategy, seeking to lean on his own stout defensive personnel to contain Allen. The Patriots allowed the second fewest points in the league, but were vulnerable to the run, allowing 4.5 yards per attempt (22nd in the league), though they were stingy against the pass, surrendering only 5.5 yards per attempt in that department (2nd). Their rookie QB Mac Jones had a remarkably efficient year, throwing for 22 TDs and posting a 92.3 rating following a stellar career at Alabama. He depends on Hunter Henry around the goal line, and the tight end led the team with nine receiving TDs. Lead backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson combined to run for 1535 yards and 20 TDs, and figure to be key components of the game plan against Buffalo.
The Pittsburgh Steelers managed to qualify for the playoffs when the Raiders knocked out the Chargers in overtime, giving long-time Steeler QB Ben Roethlisberger the chance of another trip to the Super Bowl. Despite being outscored by 55 points this year and ranking in the bottom third of the league offensively and defensively, Mike Tomlin expertly guided his team into the postseason for the tenth time in his 15 years at the helm. He’s 8-8 in those playoff games, having won a Super Bowl with Big Ben in 2008, but the 2021 version of Roethlisberger is a shadow of his former self. He threw for 5.43 average net yards per attempt in 2021, the lowest figure in that metric for a full season since 2008. His ability to throw the ball downfield, once an area he excelled at, dropped to 9.5 and 9.6 yards/completion the past two seasons, the only seasons in his career that he’s been below 10 (his career average is 11.8). The defense is led by T.J. Watt, the NFL sacks leader with 22.5 and possible Defensive Player of the Year, but Watt alone wasn’t able to drive the Pittsburgh defense towards meaningful results. They allowed 398 points, 20th best in the league, and were gashed for a full 5.0 yards per rushing attempt, the worst figure in football in 2021.
Watt and that Steeler defense will be asked to slow down Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs if they hope to advance beyond this weekend. Mahomes has guided the Chiefs to the AFC West title every year he’s been a starter (2018-2021), and head coach Andy Reid has now won six straight division titles. Reid is 233-135 in his 23 years as a head coach, including 103-42 with Kansas City. He’s 17-15 in 17 postseasons including winning the Super Bowl after the 2019 season against the 49ers. Mahomes has had such an incredible start to his career that his 2021 season qualifies as his worst-and he still threw for 4839 yards and a career best 66.3 completion percentage with 37 TDs and 13 interceptions. His 98.5 QB rating was well below his career mark of 105.8. He still has dependable targets in Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, who combined to snare 203 catches for 2364 yards and 18 TDs. Their defense is led by veterans Chris Jones and Tyrann Mathieu, who helped the team allow the eighth fewest points in the league despite giving up 6.7 net yards per passing attempt, the worst of any of the 14 playoff teams still alive. Reid and Mahomes have been to the last two Super Bowls, and it will take a gargantuan effort by Pittsburgh to knock them out in Kansas City.
Given that this writer called for the Cleveland Browns to beat the LA Rams in the Super Bowl in the season preview, take these prognostications with the proper amount of skepticism.
WILD CARD ROUND:
Cincinnati (4) over Las Vegas (5)
Buffalo (3) over New England (6)
Kansas City (2) over Pittsburgh (7)
Kansas City (2) over Buffalo (3)
Tennessee (1) over Cincinnati (4)
Kansas City (2) over Tennessee (1)
Statistical research by Matt Vogel