The divisional round is set for the 2019 NFL playoffs. It includes the lowest-seeded teams in each conference but excludes two teams — the Patriots and Saints — who made a combined 11 such appearances in the previous decade. Upsets Saturday by the Titans over the Patriots, and Sunday by the Vikings over the Saints, accounted for the divisional shakeup.
The Titans next have a more difficult task: traveling to Baltimore to take on the AFC’s top-seeded Ravens. The Texans, who staged a comeback win over the Bills in the wild-card round, now get a rematch with the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.
In the NFC, the Vikings’ upset of the Saints puts them in line to face the No. 1-seeded 49ers. And the Packers will come in off their bye against the Seahawks, who knocked out the Eagles on Sunday.
Here’s an early look at the slate for the second weekend of the playoffs.
ESPN Football Power Index projection: SF, 67%
What to watch for: A week’s worth of discussion about, yes, running games. This game will feature two of the NFL’s six most-productive rushing offenses based on yards. The Vikings are especially dependent on the presence of tailback Dalvin Cook, who has scored 10 touchdowns in their 11 victories and three in their six losses.
How the Vikings win: First, they’ll need to upend recent history once again, one week after winning a road playoff game for the first time in 15 years. As a franchise, the Vikings have lost nine of their past 10 games in the 49ers’ home stadium. And No. 6 seeds have lost eight consecutive games in the divisional round and are 5-19 since 1990 in this round. But quite frankly, the more important factor is quarterback Kirk Cousins. As we saw Sunday at the Superdome, you don’t win road playoff games without some championship-level throws.
How the 49ers win: The Vikings have struggled against defensive fronts with the kind of athleticism that the 49ers can put on the field. Defensive end Nick Bosa has an especially strong opportunity to blow up the Vikings’ backfield, but the likely return of Dee Ford will add another element the Vikings have to account for. If deployed well by defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who has done a great job with it all season, the 49ers’ front can dominate this game.
X factor: Vikings linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. We’re naming both because at different points they’ll have similar jobs: defending the 49ers’ fleet of non-receiver pass weapons. Minnesota won’t be able to rely on safety Harrison Smith to defend tight end George Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszczyk. At one point or the other, Barr and Kendricks will have to do their part. When Kittle and Juszczyk get a step on defenders, the 49ers’ offense is difficult to slow down.
What to watch for: These teams have had some legendary and meaningful matchups. In the 2003 postseason, the Packers won an overtime matchup on a pick-six. In 2012, the Seahawks won the “Fail Mary” game on Monday Night Football. In the 2014 NFC Championship Game, the Seahawks came back from a 12-point deficit to win in overtime. And now they’ll play for the right to advance to the 2019 NFC Championship Game.
How the Seahawks win: Protect Russell Wilson from Packers defensive ends Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith. Wilson’s pressure rate this season was an NFL-high 37%, even though that is at least partially due to how long he holds the ball. The Packers’ defensive ends, especially Za’Darius Smith, have taken over games against opponents who struggle in pass protection. We know the Seahawks prefer to run the ball (although their run game was pretty ineffective on Sunday against the Eagles), but keeping Wilson clean would be a major boost.
How the Packers win: A resurrection of Playoff Aaron Rodgers. During the regular season, Rodgers was a statistically average quarterback and finished the year ranked No. 20 in QBR (50.7). It wasn’t that long ago, however, when we saw him dominate opponents in the postseason. His performances in the 2010 divisional round against the Falcons, Super Bowl XLV and the 2016 divisional round against the Cowboys were transcendent. The Packers have turned “winning ugly” into a motto, but it usually doesn’t work that way in the playoffs. They’ll need a superior, if not elite-level, game from Rodgers to ensure a victory.
X factor: Seahawks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. The Seahawks haven’t had much success with rushing the passer, finishing the regular season with the NFL’s third-lowest pressure rate (21.4%). But with Clowney, they have both a chance to collapse Rodgers’ pocket and someone athletic enough to chase down running back Aaron Jones. Clowney is a game-changer — and is playing for a contract.
ESPN Football Power Index projection: BAL, 81.8% (by an average of 11.9 points)
Chances to the make the Super Bowl: BAL 52.8%, TEN 5.0%
What to watch for: An old-fashioned run fest. The Ravens (3,296) and Titans (2,223) finished the season ranked No. 1 and No. 3 in rushing yards, respectively. We know what they like to do. The Ravens want quarterback Lamar Jackson to do his thing with read options and designed runs. The Titans like to use running back Derrick Henry, the league’s leading rusher, to wear down opponents. No secrets there.
How the Titans win: They must withstand the Ravens’ typical early onslaught. During the regular season, the Ravens had the NFL’s best first-quarter point margin (plus-97). The Titans can’t fall behind early if they intend to ride Henry in the second half. If they can reverse the Ravens’ trends — and be in a position where they don’t need to pass to catch up on the scoreboard — the Titans will have a chance for a big upset.
How the Ravens win: It’s likely that they can win using their usual formula. Jackson threw eight touchdown passes in the first quarter of games this season, tied for fourth most in the NFL, which helped his team get out to big leads. If the Ravens can do that, Jackson & Co. are good enough from a personnel standpoint to roll from there.
X factor: Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill. We know the Titans are going to ride Henry, but at some point they will — like all teams — need a play or two from their quarterback to advance to the AFC Championship Game. Tannehill was one of the NFL’s top five quarterbacks in the second half of the season, making tough and accurate throws with regularity, but the postseason is an entirely different animal. He converted some big third downs on Saturday against the Patriots, both through the air and on the ground, but he also dropped the snap on a crucial failed third-down play.
ESPN Football Power Index projection: KC, 81.5% (by an average of 11.8 points)
Chances to the make the Super Bowl: KC 37.3%, HOU 4.9%
What to watch for: What seems like many moons ago, we saw the Texans go into Arrowhead Stadium and take it to the Chiefs in Week 6. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes was hobbled by an ankle injury then, but the Texans will go to Kansas City knowing that they have done this before.
How the Texans win: They’ll need quarterback Deshaun Watson to produce a repeat of his Week 6 performance. In that game, he ran for two touchdowns and threw for a third. The Chiefs gave up 5.0 yards per rush to quarterbacks this season, which ranked 25th in the NFL. There is an opening for Watson to do significant damage on the ground if he is up to it.
How the Chiefs win: Ride Mahomes against a Texans defense that has at times been gashed by the pass. Houston gave up 33 touchdown passes this season, tied for fourth most in the NFL, and opposing quarterbacks compiled a 60.8 QBR against them, sixth highest in the NFL. It sounds simple, but things set up perfectly for the Chiefs to win with their QB — even with the return of Texans defensive end J.J. Watt.
X factor: Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu. A season-ending knee injury to fellow safety Juan Thornhill will put extra pressure on Mathieu, who was named last week to the All-Pro team. Mathieu will play the mental battle against Watson all game. Can he cause a turnover and/or take away the middle of the field from receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Kenny Stills?