Scott Shapiro's Saturday NFL Divisional Round preview
After a Wild Card round where road teams had major success and points were hard to come by, football fans will get their first postseason look at the best teams from the regular season.
Here are my thoughts on Saturday afternoon’s Divisional Round contests.
San Francisco 49ers
The Vikings got running back Dalvin Cook going early, put consistent pressure on Drew Brees, and drove down the field on the first possession in overtime behind Kirk Cousins to earn a 26-20 victory against the Saints last week. Mike Zimmer’s squad deserves credit for winning in a tough environment and making big plays when it counted, but it also ran into a New Orleans team that failed to perform at its best. Minnesota will need to play even better than it did in the Wild Card round to win its second straight road playoff game and advance to the NFC Championship Game.
The Vikings offensive line that has been up and down in 2019 did an excellent job of protecting Cousins in New Orleans. That allowed the often-maligned quarterback to settle in early and make a number of big throws late. The Minnesota offensive line will get an even tougher challenge in the Bay Area, where it will take on one of the league’s most ferocious defensive lines.
Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner, and Arik Armstead have wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks all season long, and Dee Ford is likely to return to the lineup after he missed the final six games of the regular season with a hamstring injury. Look for them to put consistent heat on Cousins and force him into a couple key mistakes.
Minnesota’s defensive front four, especially Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen, played a major role in last weekend’s victory. Hunter and Griffen each posted three quarterback hits and 1 1/2 sacks, which took future Hall of Famer Drew Brees out of his game early in the contest. For the Vikings to hang in this one and have a chance to defeat the NFC’s top seed, they will need to be at least as disruptive as they were in Louisiana. If they fail to pressure Jimmy Garoppolo, the first-time playoff starter should be able to take advantage of a Vikings secondary that once again will be without Mike Hughes and Mackensie Alexander.
The Niners are well rested off a first-round bye, and this is an obvious advantage for a San Francisco team that will also get star linebacker Kwon Alexander back. Alexander has been out with a pectoral injury.
The Vikings are 0-13-1 straight up and 1-12-1 against the spread in outdoor road games against teams with a winning record since 2016. They got the job done indoors a week ago, but I do not see it happening again.
Pick: San Francisco -7
The Ravens finished the regular season on quite a roll. They won their last 12 games and often won with ease. Second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson was brilliant in what is almost certain to be an MVP season, and Jim Harbaugh and his coaching staff have done an incredible job to build the team around their franchise quarterback’s strengths. Baltimore entered the postseason as the Super Bowl favorite on BetAmerica and currently sits at +200 to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
-4,333 Total Yards -43 TDs -66.1 Completion % -113.8 QBR -Broke Vick’s Rushing Yard Record -Broke Ravens Franchise History Passing and TD Record for a Season -Lead his team to 13-2 ALL BEFORE HE EVEN TURNED 23 Happy Birthday to the MVP?@Lj_era8 pic.twitter.com/VvNjF06RFy— Hass? (@Hass410Bmore) January 7, 2020
Tennessee has been a different squad since Ryan Tannehill took over as starting quarterback for Marcus Mariota, after the Titans' 16-0 loss to Denver in Week 6. Tennessee then won seven of its last 10 games and averaged just more than 30 points per contest. However, the Titans struggled to score last weekend against the Patriots' top-tier defense.
Tannehill has made a huge difference, but this offense still goes through the NFL’s leading rusher, Derrick Henry. Henry compiled 1,540 yards on the ground in 15 regular-season games and then ran wild in Tennessee’s 20-13 win at New England. If Mike Vrabel’s squad wants to spring the upset, it will need to find a way to get Henry going early to avoid an early deficit on the road. That is easier said than done, considering the Ravens had a league best +97 scoring differential in the first quarter.
This game was hard to gauge, because so much depends on how the first 15 minutes go. I am not in love with laying two scores against a team playing with as much confidence as the Titans, but recent history suggests the Ravens will jump on Tennessee early and force Tannehill to throw the ball more often than his team would prefer against one of the NFL’s best secondaries. If this scenario occurs, it could lead to a long day for a team that does not have the firepower to keep up with Jackson and crew.
Baltimore is far better than I expected this year and the clear favorite to win it all. The Ravens will handle the Titans easily, assuming they get off to their usual quick start.