After an N.F.L. wild-card round in which both No. 6 seeds advanced and three teams won on the road, the bar is set awfully high for this weekend’s action. Enter Baltimore, San Francisco, Kansas City and Green Bay, which just spent a bye week resting and plotting a course to the conference championship games.
Here are our predictions for how the divisional round games will sort out, with all picks made against the spread.
Last weekend’s record against the spread: 2-1-1.
No. 6 Minnesota Vikings at No. 1 San Francisco 49ers, 4:35 p.m., NBC
Line: 49ers -7 | Total: 44.5
Thanks to an all-around effort on both sides of the ball, the Vikings (10-6) pulled off the biggest upset of the wild-card round, eliminating the New Orleans Saints, thus establishing themselves as the feel-good team of the postseason. But the importance of the 49ers’ first-round bye cannot be overstated. Thanks to the week off, the 49ers (13-3) should have Dee Ford (hamstring) back at edge rusher, thus sorting out the rotation on their defensive line, and Jaquiski Tartt (rib) back at safety, fortifying their secondary.
Those reintroductions were expected, but in one that wasn’t, linebacker Kwon Alexander, who tore his pectoral muscle in Week 9, is potentially coming off the injured reserve list for the game. Alexander, like many of his teammates, tends to struggle with run defense, but his coverage skills at linebacker are among the best in the league. His presence alone could force Vikings running back Dalvin Cook into a more one-dimensional role than the one he inhabited last weekend, when he rushed for 94 yards and gained 36 through the air.
With those key defenders back, San Francisco can do what it does best: Send some combination of Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Ford at the quarterback on nearly every play, and let Richard Sherman lead a secondary more than capable of holding its coverage for an extended period. That Vikings wide receivers Adam Thielen (ankle) and Stefon Diggs (illness) will potentially play at less than 100 percent makes life even more difficult for quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Minnesota’s defense is hardly a group of pushovers, but San Francisco’s run-heavy approach should be effective, and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has shown some creativity in getting the ball to his receivers and to his favorite weapon, tight end George Kittle. This game seems like an obvious win for San Francisco. Of course, the same could have been said of New Orleans. Pick: 49ers -7
No. 6 Tennessee Titans at No. 1 Baltimore Ravens, 8:15 p.m., CBS
Line: Ravens -10 | Total: 46.5
The aesthetics are not similar, but the strategy for both the Titans (9-7) and the Ravens (14-2) has been well established: Run the ball, run the ball more, run the ball a few more times, then catch the defense sleeping with a big passing play. It may not be Sean McVay or Kliff Kingsbury’s idea of a modern and sophisticated approach to offense, but it is hard to argue with the results.
Led by quarterback Lamar Jackson — who should set a reminder on his phone to pick up his Most Valuable Player Award on Feb. 1 — the Ravens were the No. 1 rushing team in the N.F.L. But saying they were No. 1 almost sells them short. Baltimore’s 3,296 rushing yards were the most in N.F.L. history, and 1,073 more than Tennessee managed despite the Titans finishing third in the league. Almost as a side note, Jackson, who set a single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback, also led the N.F.L. in passing touchdowns with 36.
Tennessee will do its best to counter the Ravens with a power running game led by Derrick Henry and a vertical passing attack led by Ryan Tannehill. Based on how things typically played out for the Titans this season, the expectation should be for Baltimore to build up an early lead and for Tennessee to claw its way back to respectability. The prospect of an upset is remote, and Tennessee’s season will almost assuredly end, but it is hard to believe that Titans Coach Mike Vrabel will allow his team to go out quietly in a blowout. Pick: Titans +10
No. 4 Houston Texans at No. 2 Kansas City Chiefs, 3:05 p.m., CBS
Line: Chiefs -10 | Total: 51
Kansas City had an enormous imbalance between its offense and its defense in 2018, and it appeared that gap would grow in 2019 when the Chiefs (12-4) lost Dee Ford, Justin Houston, Eric Berry, Allen Bailey, Ron Parker and Steven Nelson through trades and free agency. That group accounted for 29 sacks, 14 forced fumbles and four interceptions in 2018 and had combined for 10 career Pro Bowl appearances.
Instead, a reworked defense led by the veteran Tyrann Mathieu, whose off-season signing solidified the team at safety, and Chandler Jones, a terrific defensive tackle, improved the Chiefs from 24th in points allowed last season to seventh in points allowed this season, while also dragging Kansas City from 31st in yards allowed per game to 17th.
In Week 6, however, things did not look so good for the team. They were beaten at home by the Texans (10-6), with quarterback Deshaun Watson outplaying Patrick Mahomes. It was Kansas City’s second consecutive loss at Arrowhead Stadium, and came ahead of a stretch in which the Chiefs played two games without Mahomes thanks to a knee injury, during which they split the results.
Since getting Mahomes back and in rhythm, Kansas City has found its groove on both sides of the ball, while Houston underperformed relative to its talent. The Texans very nearly lost an A.F.C. South division title that had seemed like a foregone conclusion over the season’s first nine weeks.
Watson is terrific, but it required an outrageous comeback, and a play for the ages, for him to get his team past Buffalo in overtime last weekend. That is not a likely scenario against the Chiefs. The Texans are a reasonable bet to cover the spread, but the chances of them winning are remote. Pick: Texans +10
No. 5 Seattle Seahawks at No. 2 Green Bay Packers, 6:40 p.m., Fox
Line: Packers -4.5 | Total: 47
The National Weather Service is predicting heavy snow in Green Bay on Saturday night, but on Sunday things should be clear, if a bit chilly, with a high for the day of 25 degrees. That is nothing new for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers (13-3), who seem to run and throw with ease regardless of conditions, but it could present an issue for the Seahawks (11-5), who did not play a game this season with a kickoff temperature below 40 degrees.
Coach Pete Carroll said on Monday that running back Marshawn Lynch would play a larger role in the offense this weekend — specifically mentioning the weather as a key factor — and that makes a great deal of sense given how effective Lynch has looked in limited action over the last two weeks, especially around the goal line.
Trying to contain Lynch will be a Green Bay defense that did not deliver on its early-season promise, finishing in the middle of the pack in most advanced defensive statistical categories. That may give the man they call Beast Mode some room to run. But should the conditions limit quarterback Russell Wilson, that would give Rodgers and Packers running back Aaron Jones all the advantage they would need to take care of business at home. Pick: Packers -4.5.
All times are Eastern; won-lost records reflect the regular season only.