2024 Divisional Playoffs: Picks & Preview

By Chip Bayless (click Howie for more Chip)

 

 

*All matchup stats are based on 2023 regular season data*

 

 

Houston Texans @ Baltimore Ravens

Let me first start by saying this: C.J. Stroud is an absolute magic man both in terms of his ability to launch a football into a shoebox where only his receiver can get it, and in terms of his ability to dance around defenders uncork a deep ball, hitting his receiver right in the bread basket.

I genuinely believe C.J. Stroud will have a career similar to Mahomes in terms of the pure numbers Stroud will put up (Super Bowls are up for debate as the Texans are the Texans) and the level of play we can expect to see from Stroud throughout his career.

Stroud’s arm strength, accuracy, and mobility certainly appears on par with Mahomes based on the eye test, and at the moment Stroud has a far more talented receiving core to work with.

Among 2023 QBs, Stroud finished:

  • 3rd in completed air yards per attempt (per Next Gen Stats)
  • 8th in passing yards (per ESPN)
  • 5th in YPA (per ESPN)
  • 7th in passer rating (per ESPN)

What he did in just his first NFL season with the majority of his offensive line injured at the start of the year, a 1st-time head coach, and a roster and team that was a bottom of the barrel squad just last year is absolutely insane.




Key matchup stats

  • CJ. Stroud ranked 3rd in average completed air yards in 2023
  • Texans had the fewest % of offensive drives ending in a turnover in 2023
  • Ravens had the most rush YPG during the regular season
    • Texans had the 10th-fewest rush YPG (per ESPN)
  • Ravens ranked 5th in 2023 PPG
    • Texans ranked 14th (per ESPN)
  • Ravens had the 6th-highest 1st down rush %
    • Texans had the 2nd-lowest 1st down rush % (per NFL.com, trailing only the Bucs)
  • Ravens defense allowed the 2nd-lowest red zone conversion % in 2023
  • Ravens were 2nd in QBR off of play action with 83
    • Texans defense allowed the highest QBR off of play action this season

I unfortunately haven’t learned my lesson picking against the lifter-of-all-tides and future MVP candidate who is C.J. Stroud, as I was dead wrong when I picked the Browns to win last week.

While the Texans have plenty of firepower to keep up with the Ravens and should make this the most competitive game the Ravens have played over the last month or so, the Ravens defense is simply more talented and well-coached than the Texans.

In a game with two of the top-5 most talented quarterbacks on opposing sides who both have some explosive receivers to work with, both offenses should be able to move the ball and put up points.

Therefore, this should be a game that comes down to the wire with one possession or turnover making all the difference in the world, and the Ravens seem more likely to come up with that turnover or final possession than the Texans as Baltimore’s defense has occasionally dominated some of the most “unstoppable” offenses in the NFL – like when they blew out the 49ers.

It helps that Baltimore’s offensive line is the most solid and dependable unit in the league, and while Lamar accounts for some of this stat, it is no accident that the Ravens led the NFL in both rushing yards and rushing yards before contact with 1806 (no other team even cracked 1600, per Pro Football Reference) due to gaping holes created by their agile and powerful o-linemen.

Plus, Lamar Jackson, who is the most dynamic quarterback we’ve seen at the position since Michael Vick, is playing maybe the best football of his life as both a runner and a passer.

There’s a reason Jackson has one of the top MVP cases this season. For all the “he can’t throw” detractors, here’s how some of Jackson’s passing numbers stacked up against the rest of this season’s QBs:

 

 

Green Bay Packers @ San Francisco 49ers

Much like the Texans, the Packers find themselves in the second round of the playoffs in large part due to their young, athletic quarterback showing off his supreme accuracy on both short and deep passes.

Jordan Love is playing like the second coming of Aaron Rodgers, with off-base and on-the-run throws that leave you questioning how he zipped the football through suck a tight window.

Since Week 11 (including playoffs), Jordan Love leads the NFL in total QBR, throwing 21 TDs to only one interception over that span.

On the other sideline, Brock Purdy has done it a little more like Tom Brady than Aaron Rodgers, but has put up MVP-caliber numbers, much like the 49ers’ do-it-all running back.

Key matchup stats

  • Packers had the 8th-fewest % of offensive drives ending in a turnover in 2023
  • The 49ers had the 4th-highest third down conversion % in the regular season
  • 49ers ranked 2nd in YPG in 2023
    • Packers ranked 11th
  • 49ers allowed the 3rd-fewest rush YPG during the regular season
    • Packers allowed the 5th-most rush YPG (per ESPN)
  • 49ers defense had the 3rd-most QB hits in 2023
    • Packers ranked 11th



While the Packers’ offensive line, Jordan Love, and Aaron Jones proved last week that they can keep up with anyone (Cowboys led the NFL in scoring during the regular season), the 49ers simply have too much firepower on both sides of the ball.

Deebo Samuel is the best swiss-army knife the NFL has to offer, and there’s a reason #19 lines up in the backfield despite the fact that he is listed at receiver, as evidenced by the fact that Samuel led all players in YAC per reception.

CMC is also the best running back in football, as evidenced by his MVP case, which is becoming increasingly rare with the NFL’s passing evolution.

Even without Trent Williams, the 49ers’ offensive line has maintained their stellar standard of play.

While CMC has run with nothing short of pure brilliance for the vast majority of the season, it helps that his offensive line plays with sound technique and every single member works hard every play to sustain their blocks with wide bases and quick feet (as evidenced by the fact that the 49ers ranked 5th in rushing yards before contact during the regular season, per Pro Football Reference).

Aiyuk is also a top-20 talent at the WR position, and George Kittle is an undisputed top-5 TE in terms of his sheer talent level.

Finally, the 49ers have a smothering defense that rarely makes mistakes as they missed the 2nd-fewest tackles in the regular season (per Pro Football Reference), and Nick Bosa’s talent level far outranks anyone the Packer’s defense has to offer.

Although, I’m a big fan of both Jaire Alexander’s elite shadowing skills and Preston Smith’s pass-rushing talent in addition to the Green Bay linebacker unit as a whole, which is one of the most slept-on position groups in the NFL.

Prediction: 49ers win

 

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Detroit Lions

After watching Lions fans cry their eyes out last week over their much-deserved first playoff win in decades, how can anyone root against this team?

Regardless of what team you’re a fan of, what happened last week in Detroit was one of the most satisfying sport exorcisms we’ve ever seen in terms of a historically-laughable franchise finally breaking its playoff drought.

However, the Bucs have enough talent on both sides of the ball to make this a close, competitive game.

Key matchup stats

  • Lions ranked 2nd in pass yards off play action in 2023
  • Lions had the 2nd-most total plays on offense in 2023
  • Bucs defense ranked 7th in % of opposing drives ending in a turnover
  • Bucs ranked 9th in turnover differential in the regular season
    • Lions ranked 16th (per ESPN)
  • Amon-Ra St. Brown was among the top-4 WRs in: receiving yards, receptions, YAC, receptions for 1st downs (per ESPN) and scrimmage yards per touch (per Pro Football Reference) in 2023

While the Eagles have struggled as much as any NFL team down the stretch of this season, they were in the Super Bowl just last year, and the Bucs absolutely blew them out last week.

The Bucs are also getting hot and playing their best football of the season. Baker Mayfield is confidently throwing dimes, Chris Godwin and Mike Evans are seemingly always open, and Rachaad White looks as determined to break tackles as any running back in the NFL.

Rachaad White showed this season that despite the detractors who claim he doesn’t have the size needed for a starting NFL back, he proved this season he is a true every-down, do-it-all back who’s just as much of a threat as a receiver as a runner.

Among all 2023 RBs, Rachaad White ranked:

Lavonte David is one of the best MLBs the NFL has to offer, and his ability to play sideline-to-sideline and stick opposing players with a full head of steam is impressive (especially considering the modern rules to prevent higher-impact hits).

Vita Vea is also one of the best DTs in the league, and so far this season he’s been the only defensive tackle who has been able to impact the “tush push” enough to actually stop the play, like the Bucs did on a key Eagles two-point conversion attempt.

This game should be close for the reasons outlined above, but ultimately the Lions’ superior offensive line, defense, and play-calling will likely wear down the Bucs and end with wide shot of a resurgent Baker Mayfield sulking on the bench as time expires while the Lions kneel the clock out.

Aiden Hutchinson and the rest of the Lions’ pass rushers combined with a talented and well-coached defensive backfield that rarely makes often proves a lethal combination for opposing teams.

This postseason, Hutchinson has 12 QB pressures (no other defender has 9), 10 pass-rush wins (no other defender has 7), three sacks (nobody else has more than two).

On the offensive side of the ball, the Bucs have David Montgomery (5th in rush % over expected, per Next Gen Stats), Jahmyr Gibbs (11th in rush yards over expected per attempt, per Next Gen Stats), Amon-Ra St. Brown (8th among all WRs in catch %, per Next Gen Stats), and the speedy Jameson Williams (8th among all WRs in ADOT in 2023, per Pro Football Reference) to worry about.

Amon-Ra St. Brown especially is a playmaker to keep your eye on in this one, as it seems like you know he’s going to score once he gets in space. His acceleration off the line of scrimmage and his agility are as elite as they come at the receiver position.

St. Brown’s creative ability to set up defenders and use pursuit angles against them is top-notch, and his overall playing style should give the Bucs fits throughout this game considering Tampa Bay also has to gameplan for the Lions’ dominant offensive line and pair of top-10 RBs, both of which have the athleticism to dance around defenders and the speed to scream down the sideline at any time (worth noting the Lions led the NFL in rushing TDs while the Bucs had the 4th-fewest rushing TDs, per NFL.com).

Prediction: Lions win

Kansas City Chiefs @ Buffalo Bills

For the first time in his career, Patrick Mahomes will have to play a road playoff game in a game in which his team is the underdog, according to sports books and the general media.

Mahomes travels to Buffalo to face the Bills, who are red-hot lately on both offense and defense, on the ground and through the air.

The Bills’ offense has looked unstoppable over the final stretch of the season, and Josh Allen has minimized his turnovers which is propelling the Bills’ offensive efficiency into the stratosphere.

James Cook also runs and catches the ball at an elite level which forces defenses to defend every blade of grass on the field, and respect the run more than defenses ever have in Josh Allen’s career.

This contest should showcase two top-tier offenses, albeit the Chiefs 2024 struggles (courtesy of Matt Nagy, former Bears offensive guru and Justin Fields developmental specialist) and record-setting drop numbers (some databases list 35-45 total drops for Kansas City in 2023).

The Bills were lucky enough to face a Steelers team that crawled into the playoffs (with an injured T.J. Watt and an inconsistent offense(, and they destroyed Pittsburgh.

The Chiefs on the other hand were fortunate enough to find themselves battling a Miami Dolphins team (with basically half their defensive starters on IR, and at home in zero-degree weather), and they leveled Miami.

It won’t be close to the same story for either team this week. Neither will cakewalk their way to a victory in the Divisional round, as each elite QB will face a stingier defense while each top-5 defense will face a far more competent offense.



Key matchup stats

  • Chiefs had the 5th-worst turnover differential in the regular season
    • Bills had the 12th-best turnover differential (per ESPN)
  • Both teams ranked in the top-4 in point differential in the AFC in 2023 (per Pro Football Reference)
  • Bills had the 8th-most penalty yards in 2023
  • Bills o-line allowed the lowest sack % in the regular season
  • Chiefs allowed the 2nd-fewest PPG
    • Bills allowed the 4th-fewest (per ESPN)
  • Bills ran the ball on 1st down more than any other team
    • Chiefs ran the ball on 1st down the 8th-most (per NFL.com)
  • Bills defense led the NFL in % of opposing drives ending in a turnover
  • Chiefs missed the 3rd-fewest tackles in 2023

In spite of how phenomenal the Bills played on both sides of the ball lately, Mahomes remains the best quarterback in the NFL, this is the best defense he’s ever had to work with, and Kansas City appears to have finally figured out a critical solution to their offensive issues: benching Toney/MVS and targeting Rashee Rice as much as Travis Kelce.

Rashee Rice’s route-running improvement over just one season, which also happens to be his first in the NFL, is one of the most remarkable developments I’ve seen at the WR position over the last few years.

Rice’s vision and decisiveness as a runner is possibly the best the WR position has to offer, and he turns up-field as quickly as any player in the NFL, as evidenced by the fact that he was second to only Deebo Samuel in YAC per reception during the regular season.

Speaking of Kelce, a critical element to a Chiefs win will have to be him returning to form rather. Throughout the season, Kelce surprisingly struggled with routine catches and didn’t seem to have his usual after-the-catch gusto.

Maybe Taylor will do the work for once and Kelce’s hands/fingers won’t be too tired to catch passes.

Defensively, the Chiefs are as talented as any unit in the league. But to call out a few key elements, L’Jarius Sneed showed last week his lockdown ability enables all-around defensive creativity, and the Chiefs have a bunch of ball-hawks in the defensive backfield.

Additionally, Chris Jones tosses offensive lineman around, and Nick Bolton might be the most underrated middle linebacker in the NFL. Willie Gay and Drue Tranquill are no slouches either, and the Chiefs have devised unique blitz schemes and do a great job of winning their one-on-one matchups as pass-rushers, and the Chiefs had the 2nd-most QB hits (per Pro Football Reference) during the 2023 regular season – trailing only the Dolphins who they dismantled last week.

This game will likely come down to one possession, but also likely a Chiefs win despite Matt Nagy’s Enron-like management style, drops, and offensive holds on some big Chiefs play downfield (per usual).

In spite of the Chiefs league-leading drop %, Mahomes still managed to drag this team into the top-10 in point differential, often due to breaking tackles and buying an extra look.

Mahomes was sacked at the 2nd-lowest rate in 2023, and the Chiefs ended the season tied for 3rd in yards per scramble (per Pro Football Reference).

Although, it is very possible that Joe Brady’s newfound offensive creativity, Josh Allen’s hot streak, and a few devasting Chiefs drops cost the Mahomes his Super Bowl aspirations for this season, finally forcing them to find Tyreek Hill’s replacement whilst launching Kadarius Toney and MVS into deep space.

Prediction: Chiefs win

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