Divisional Round Preview: Demons to be Exorcised

Travis Kelce and the Chiefs broke the Bills' hearts in the 2021 Divisional Round, just as they did in the previous year's AFC Championship Game. Can Buffalo finally get over the hump on Sunday?

I’m back! It’s been a while but by now we should all have a feel for the remaining teams in the NFL playoffs, right? Picking these games should be easy, right?

Uh, maybe not. What is shaping up to be a terrific weekend of football comes with an undertone of burden, specifically for the home teams.

Number 1 seeds are 16-4 the last 10 years, but both the Ravens and 49ers have some baggage lately. Baltimore has won just two postseason games since capturing Super Bowl XLVII following the 2012 season. The 49ers have had great regular-season success, but have only appeared in the Big Game once since then and have not taken home the Lombardi in 29 years. Can both teams take a major step toward Super Sunday?

There are also the Bills and Lions, forlorn franchises seeking their first Super Bowl win (and in the Lions’ case, their first appearance). The Lions have reached the NFC Championship Game just once in the Super Bowl era, a 41-10 shellacking at the hands of the Redskins in 1991. The Bills have appeared in four Super Bowls, consecutively from 1990-93, but lost all of them, and have not been back since. Recently, Josh Allen has not been able to overcome Patrick Mahomes in January. The Bills have won their last three visits to Arrowhead, but lost the two postseason meetings with the Chiefs. They’ll finally get a chance to face Mahomes and the Chiefs in Buffalo, marking the first time these quarterbacks will square off in Orchard Park in front of fans (KC won in Buffalo during the 2020 regular season).

So, if the favorites are to advance, they will have to overcome history as much as their actual opponent. Can they do it? Let’s dive in:

Houston at Baltimore (-9.5)

C.J. Stroud is attempting to do what no rookie quarterback ever has — reach the Super Bowl. However, it will be a tall order against a Ravens team that led the NFL in point-differential and takeaways (tied with the Giants) during the regular season. It’s hard to ignore the pressure on the Ravens, who have not won a home playoff game since the 2012 Wild Card game against Indianapolis en route to winning it all. Often times, getting the first one is harder than the potential ensuing victories, and the thinking is that Houston is the team with nothing to lose. My expectation is the Texans keep this one close, even though the Ravens should prevail. Pick: Texans.

Green Bay at San Francisco (-9.5)

No 7 seed has ever gotten past the Wild Card round, yet here are the Packers, fresh off a 48-32 whooping of the Cowboys last week. They are playing loose and relaxed and have a hot quarterback in Jordan Love. There are a lot of reasons to like the upset here, but you simply can’t ignore the ridiculous level of talent the 49ers possess. A year after coming up just short of the Super Bowl, nothing less will suffice in the Bay Area, and a healthy Christian McCaffrey and Brock Purdy (the latter was knocked out early in last year’s Championship Game) give the 49ers an edge over anyone. My hunch is the Packers can certainly hang, and while an upset isn’t out of the question, a simple cover seems more likely for Green Bay. Pick: Packers.

Tampa Bay at Detroit (-6.5)

In years past, teams that end long playoff droughts have to struggle to do so. However, once the seal is broken, things seem to come a little bit easier. The Lions are looking to follow in the footsteps of conference-champion teams like the 2021 Bengals (31-year drought), 2006 Bears (16-year home playoff win drought, Super Bowl appearance), and 2005 Seahawks (21-year drought). After holding off a very talented Rams team, the Lions should have less of an issue against a Bucs team they beat handily in Week 6, 20-6. Tampa Bay is certainly deserving of being here, but this feels like Detroit’s time, and with the monkey off their back, it should be an easier go-round against the Bucs on Sunday. Pick: Lions.

Kansas City at Buffalo (-3)

I think most of America is pulling for the Bills here, but the defensive injuries for Buffalo are very worrisome. As usual, it seems that the Chiefs are close to fully healthy while an opponent is not. Kansas City had a scare last year with Mahomes, but he ultimately played through it en route to winning Super Bowl LVII. Mahomes is finally playing a road playoff game, but that may actually put more pressure on the Bills, who lost badly in this round at home last year against Cincinnati on a snowy day. Buffalo always seems to find a way to shoot itself in the foot, even as they’ve reeled off six straight wins. Mojo was on their side in Week 14 at Arrowhead when Kelce’s lateral to Kadarius Toney was called back, but it felt like KC certainly should have won that one (not to mention they were without bruising running back Isiah Pacheco that day). As much as my heart wants the Bills, I can’t ignore history. Mahomes is 5-0 in the divisional round, and this is the best defense he has had (the Chiefs are the only team in the NFL not to allow more than 27 points in a game this year). Kansas City should pull out a close one and continue its playoff mastery of the Bills. Pick: Chiefs.

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