There’s a lot of talk about these two games being rematches, but I’m more interested in the contrasts. In the NFC, we’ll see the top-two seeds squaring off in what I believe will be a much closer contest than some are expecting. In the AFC, we have a number two seed hosting the upstart, sixth-seeded giant-killers that knocked off the defending champs and this year’s number one seed in quick succession. We’ll see a high-flying passing squad going toe-to-toe against a bruising rushing team. We’ll see a storied veteran QB, hungry for a return trip to the big game which has eluded him for nine years, facing off against a young signal-caller who has more rings than he does.
There’s lots to like about this Sunday’s games. I’m hoping for a couple of great matchups, in which the players get to decide the outcomes, and with no bad officiating to taint the proceedings.
Let’s break ‘em down:
Tennessee at KC (Racist Cosplay Stadium)
One of my best friends is a Tennessee fan. A real fan, going back to their days as the Houston Oilers. Lots of ups and downs, highs and lows. I’m going to say some things about his team in this column that he’ll hate hearing. He probably won’t disagree, but he’ll still hate reading it.
Derrick Henry is playing at such a high, dominant level right now, it’s difficult to fathom. Since being held out of Tennessee’s Week 16 game against New Orleans, all Henry has done is carry the ball 96 times for just under 590 yards(!) in three games. After watching him steamroll an excellent New England defence, that knew he was getting the ball, on Wild Card Weekend, I said to my wife something to the effect that I don’t know what else will happen with this team, but it only gets easier for Henry from this point on. True to form, Henry went out last week and steamrolled a Baltimore defence that was good, though not as good as New England’s, and that also knew what was coming. His performance has chewed up clock as it’s chewed up yards, keeping the likes of Tom Brady and Lamar Jackson on the bench for long stretches. Even the mere threat of Henry running allows Ryan Tannehill to make plays off play-action, as DBs creep towards the line to help out against Henry, only to allow Tennessee’s receivers to get open. The threat of Henry running is so acute, that it even allowed Henry himself to throw a weird, jump-shot TD pass against Baltimore.
Now, with an extra day’s rest (Tennessee played last Saturday, KC on Sunday), Henry faces a below-average defence that is terrible against the run, and that has its best run defender hurt.
I know, I know, that’s a lot about one player. But, I mean, he’s earned it, don’t you think?
Now, Patrick Mahomes is no slouch either. Don’t let the slip in his numbers fool you. He’s every bit as good as he was last season. You could make the case that he’s the most complete QB in the whole league. Lately, and particularly last week, Mahomes has been playing with a real fire. I attribute this to a combination of the sting of losing to New England in last year’s playoffs, when he did not get a chance to touch the ball in OT, and his getting injured this season. He looks and sounds like a man who will do anything it takes to win. His complement of receiving weapons is extremely dangerous. With Andy Reid’s play designs, the talent and speed at the receiving positions, and Mahomes making the whole thing go, this is a unit designed to score points quickly.
Tennessee’s defence, not particularly a strength throughout the regular season, has been outstanding thus far in the postseason. That they were able to so thoroughly stymie New England’s offence was not a huge surprise, due to the Pats’ offensive woes, but that still doesn’t change the fact that Tennessee played a disciplined game. Their performance against Baltimore was more impressive considering what they were facing, but the defensive philosophy was essentially the same. Tennessee needed to play a disciplined scheme that took away what Baltimore did best all year. It’s the perfect defensive strategy for a team with an offence like Tennessee’s.
To me, it’s kind of like watching last season’s New England team. Take away what the opponent does best on offence, control the clock, keep the opponent’s defence on the field. Anyone remember who eliminated KC from the playoffs last season?
KC is going to move the ball. They’ve got too much talent. Mike Vrabel knows this, just as Bill Belichick knew it last year. The key to beating KC is accepting this, but limiting the amount of points they get on drives, and not giving up big plays. Shortening the game reduces the number of possessions Mahomes gets. Remember how many yards Lamar Jackson racked up in the second half against Tennessee last week? How many points did Baltimore score? Twelve. That’s it. Andy Reid is great at drawing up plays, but he has a long history of being a terrible in-game coach, doing things like failing to adjust game plans, insisting on winning “his way,” butchering the clock, and so on. What will he do if Tennessee starts asserting its will over the flow and tempo of the game?
Because Tennessee doesn’t have a great pass rush, they need to keep Mahomes in the pocket, limit his mobility, avoid giving up big plays. If Tennessee does that, and their offence holds up its end, we could see an upset.
Green Bay at San Francisco (Canadian Tuxedo Stadium)
San Francisco’s defence is formidable: strong up front, with excellent pass-rushers, deep and talented at LB, and a secondary anchored by the resurgent Richard Sherman, who is playing his best football in years. After struggling with injuries to key personnel, last week we got to see San Fran’s defence the healthiest it’s been in a while, and the results were impressive. However, I just can’t shake the feeling that, yes, they shut down their opponent, but the opponent in this case was Minnesota.
For all the hoo-hah, ballyhoo, and numbers, Minnesota isn’t Green Bay. Or, to be more succinct, Kirk Cousins isn’t Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers can still do Rodgers things. He can make all the throws, with power, touch, and remarkable accuracy. He’s mobile, throws well on the run, and rushes well enough to keep a defence honest. He has one excellent WR, Davante Adams, and a host of talented young wideouts. He has TE Jimmy Graham. He has RB Aaron Jones, a fantastic runner and good pass-catcher. His OL is playing very well. Green Bay absolutely has the personnel to be successful against San Fran’s defence.
San Francisco’s offence has played extremely well for most of the season. They run the ball well, and Jimmy Garoppolo runs the offence efficiently and without a lot of mistakes. Green Bay has a defence that has played better than any the team has had in years. Like San Fran, Green Bay has excellent pass-rushers who can disrupt any offence, plus lots of depth and talent throughout the rest of the defence. Garoppolo hasn’t faced a lot of pressure this season, so in an offence that relies so much on executing coach Kyle Shanahan’s offensive schemes, I have to question whether Garoppolo can maintain his composure if plays break down. Also, despite having run the ball fairly successfully this season, none of the ‘niners’ RBs are elite. I expect Green Bay’s defence to try to focus primarily on slowing down San Fran’s best receiver, George Kittle, and hope that their defensive front can limit the run and get pressure on Garoppolo.
For Rodgers and Co. to be successful against San Fran’s well-balanced defence, first and foremost, Tackles Bryan Bulaga and David Bakhtiari have to play the whole game. Few teams have the talent at T to handle edge rushers of the quality that San Fran has, but Bulaga and Bakhtiari can handle guys like Dee Ford and MAGA-Idiot Bosa one-on-one. If Green Bay’s OL plays well, and they can run the ball effectively, they can take some shots in the passing game because Sherman can’t cover everyone.
A lot of people probably think that this one is a foregone conclusion, because San Fran is playing so well, and because they trounced Green Bay earlier this season. I think this has the potential to be a great matchup that goes right down to the wire. I hope I’m right.
Winner: Green Bay
(Maybe you’ll think I’m crazy, but folks thought I was nuts for picking two underdogs in last year’s conference championship games, and that turned out ok for me. ~~ RO)