NFL Divisional Round Picks: Rams Built To Stop Bucs? Finally Bills’ Time?

The best weekend of the football season is here

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The NFL wild-card round, it turns out, was a necessary evil, crucial to ensuring the divisional round is as good as it can be.

Football fans are entitled to their opinions regarding the expanded playoff field. More games equal more money and opportunity, which probably benefits everyone (except for maybe the players, ironically) in the long run. But we certainly didn’t get the crispest, most entertaining football last week.

This week, however, should be a completely different story. Because just about everything went according to plan in the wild-card round. The pretenders — the Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, Las Vegas Raiders and even the New England Patriots of the world — are gone. And one could argue the remaining teams have been the eight consistently best clubs all season long, making for a terrific divisional round.

NESN.com’s Mike Cole and Ricky Doyle are looking forward to the action and are preparing by making their weekly against-the-spread picks. Before they make their predictions, though, here’s how they fared on Super Wild Card Weekend.

Now, here are their divisional-round picks, with lines from DraftKings Sportsbook.

SATURDAY, JAN. 22

Cincinnati Bengals at (-3.5) Tennessee Titans, 4:30 p.m. ET
Mike: Titans.
Cincinnati’s injury issues, particularly on the defensive line, could be a major issue. The Bengals will be without their top defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, and they also could be missing pass rusher Trey Hendrickson. The former is huge in the run game, and the former’s absence was clearly felt versus Las Vegas. The Titans are a bad matchup for a shorthanded defensive unit, especially considering they could have Derrick Henry back in addition to having A.J. Brown and Julio Jones healthy. The Tennessee pass rush also could be a problem for the Bengals, who let Joe Burrow get crunched all season long.
Ricky: Titans. Tennessee is positioned to run all over Cincinnati — with or without Henry. The Bengals’ defense ranked 30th in run success rate from Weeks 13 through 18 — a stretch in which they went 3-3 straight-up — and the Titans’ offensive line is back intact after dealing with various moving parts earlier in the season. The Titans, second in average time of possession, will dictate the pace and extend drives by converting manageable third downs, so long as Mike Vrabel’s team takes care of the football.

San Francisco 49ers at (-5.5) Green Bay Packers, 8:15 p.m.
Mike: Packers.
All things being equal, it’s not a great matchup for the Packers, who struggle to stop the run, especially to the tackle and outside, which is where the 49ers excel. But there’s just too much smoke around Jimmy Garoppolo and his ailing shoulder and toe to be confident in taking anything less than a touchdown with the Niners. If he can’t play, Trey Lance makes his third career start and first in the playoffs at a frozen Lambeau Field opposite the likely MVP. If Aaron Rodgers can’t take advantage of that — Lance’s dynamic capabilities aside — then he really is a choking dog.
Ricky: Packers. The 49ers came away from their wild-card win over the Cowboys worse for wear, with Nick Bosa (concussion) and Fred Warner (ankle) — San Francisco’s two best defensive players — suffering injuries in addition to Garoppolo. It sounds like Warner will play, as could Bosa, but questions remain about the 49ers’ ability to slow the Packers’ passing game. San Francisco’s defense, which ranked 23rd in dropback EPA this season, ranked 31st in pass DVOA vs. No. 1 wide receivers, per Football Outsiders. Not ideal when facing Davante Adams, who torched the Niners in the teams’ Week 3 matchup (12 catches on 18 targets for 132 yards with a touchdown) and in Week 9 of last season (10 catches on 12 targets for 173 yards plus a TD).

SUNDAY, JAN. 23

Los Angeles Rams at (-3) Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 3 p.m.
Mike: Rams.
We were all over the Bucs last week with a favorable matchup versus Philly. This week, on paper at least, it appears Tampa Bay is on the wrong side of the matchup. The Rams have not only the personnel but the willingness to air it out against a Bucs secondary that is banged up and struggled at times this season, especially when shorthanded. Tampa, like everyone else, had no answer for Cooper Kupp in Week 3 when Matthew Stafford torched them. Speaking of Stafford, only Garoppolo had a higher passer rating against the blitz, and no team blitzes more than the Bucs. Sure, it’s difficult to take a measly field goal and side with Stafford versus Tom Brady, but the Aaron Donald-led Rams defense — who led the league in pass rush win rate — could have its way up front, especially if Ryan Jensen and Tristan Wirfs can’t go or are limited by injuries on the Bucs’ offensive line.
Ricky: Rams. Just how much can one man overcome? It’s been a fool’s errand over the years to bet against Brady, and the Bucs maintain a decisive quarterback advantage, particularly when you consider Stafford’s propensity for back-breaking turnovers. But the injuries along Tampa Bay’s offensive line threaten to disrupt the one other constant in what’s been a strange year for the Bucs. Even if Jensen and Wirfs — two Pro Bowl linemen — play Sunday, their assignment of slowing down Donald and Co. is concerning. This feels like a bad matchup for the Bucs.

Buffalo Bills at (-2) Kansas City Chiefs, 6:30 p.m.
Mike: Bills.
At this point, picking the Bills is more or less picking an outright win, and I do believe it’s Buffalo’s time. It almost certainly won’t look as easy for the Bills as it did last week against the Patriots, but their ceiling is arguably higher than Kansas City’s. Typically, the Chiefs’ biggest advantage in any game is Patrick Mahomes, but Josh Allen is the closest thing we’ve seen to Mahomes for pretty much his entire career. The kicker might be the Buffalo defense, which helped the Bills outgain KC by 3 yards per play in their Week 5 matchup — which Buffalo won going away, at Arrowhead Stadium. As long as the Bills don’t fall flat, they have everything it takes to win this and advance.
Ricky: Bills. Offensively, these teams cancel each other out. Which brings us to the defense, where Buffalo (No. 1 in DVOA) holds a strong edge over Kansas City (No. 24 in DVOA) despite the Chiefs’ improvement on that side of the ball as the season progressed. The Bills have developed a decent running attack of late, and that could be a real difference-maker against a Chiefs defense ranked 31st in rush success rate. It also will set up play-action, where the Chiefs allowed 1,545 passing yards (third-most in the NFL) and an 80.2 QBR (highest in the NFL), per ESPN.

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