NFL divisional playoffs predictions: Upsets are coming in AFC and NFC

Rams head coach Sean McVay paces the sideline.
Rams coach Sean McVay, shown Monday at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, will be pacing the sideline in Tampa on Sunday for an NFC divisional round playoff game against the Buccaneers.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Times NFL writer Sam Farmer examines this weekend’s playoff matchups in the divisional round. Lines are according to FanDuel. Last week’s record: 6-0. Using point spreads with the scores Farmer had predicted, the record against the spread last week also was 6-0.


AFC: No. 4 Cincinnati at No. 1 Tennessee

Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry runs a drill.
The return of Derrick Henry creates many possibilities for the Tennessee Titans’ offense.
(Associated Press)

When: Saturday, 1:30 p.m. PT, Channel 2 (CBS). Line: Titans by 3½.

How the Bengals can win: Joe Burrow is spectacular, and he’s got two fantastic weapons in Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. The Bengals are loaded on offense. The question will be the depth at defensive tackle and how Derrick Henry’s return affects that.

How the Titans can win: Providing Henry is healthy, the Titans can bang him up the middle against the broken-down interior of the Bengals’ line. That opens up A.J. Brown‘s crossing routes and takes advantage of his run-after-catch capabilities. Maybe a deep shot or two to Julio Jones.

Farmer’s pick: For the first time in 29 years, the Bengals won a playoff game. That was emotional and awesome, but it stops here against a more postseason-savvy team. TITANS 28, BENGALS 24


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NFC: No. 6 San Francisco at No. 1 Green Bay

Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers sets to throw at Lambeau Field.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is accustomed to slinging the football in cold temperatures at Lambeau Field.
(Aaron Gash / Associated Press)

When: Saturday, 5:15 p.m. PT, Channel 11 (FOX). Line: Packers by 6.

How the 49ers can win: The 49ers are going to be able to run the ball, so it could be a big day for rookie Elijah Mitchell. Get the ball in the hands of Deebo Samuel, whether as a receiver or out of the backfield. Jimmy Garoppolo needs to play turnover-free.

How the Packers can win: Watch for Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams to play pitch and catch, exploiting San Francisco’s shortcomings at cornerback. The way to beat the 49ers is on the outside, and they don’t have anyone who can shut down Adams.

Farmer’s pick: San Francisco is so physical and so good at establishing the run, the 49ers can play keep away. But Rodgers is the better and the more experienced quarterback — playing in his element — and that’s the difference. PACKERS 27, 49ERS 20

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NFC: No. 4 Rams at No. 2 Tampa Bay

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford takes the field before an NFC wild-card game against the Cardinals.
Facing the defending champion Buccaneers is the reason the Rams thought they needed a proven veteran quarterback such as Matthew Stafford.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

When: Sunday, noon PT, Channel 4 (NBC). Line: Buccaneers by 3.

How the Rams can win: Keep mixing Sony Michel and Cam Akers to establish the run, a difficult task against that tough Tampa Bay front. Cave in the pocket up the middle to disrupt Tom Brady. Sean McVay likes to swing the offensive spotlight from game to game, and Van Jefferson is due.

How the Buccaneers can win: Protect Brady long enough for him to get the ball to his tight ends and exploit the Rams’ lack of safety depth. Build an early lead — or at least suppress the Rams — to keep the crowd loud and impactful. Stuff the run the way they have for much of the season.

Farmer’s pick: This was a team the Buccaneers didn’t want to see. The Rams aren’t scared of them and tend to play well on the East Coast. Matthew Stafford keeps it rolling. RAMS 30, BUCCANEERS 24

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AFC: No. 3 Buffalo at No. 2 Kansas City

 Josh Allen, second from left, celebrates with his offensive linemen.
Quarterback Josh Allen, second from left, celebrates with his offensive linemen after the Bills scored against the Patriots in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
(Joshua Bessex / Associated Press)

When: Sunday, 3:30 p.m. PT, Channel 2 (CBS). Line: Chiefs by 1½.

How the Bills can win: Let Josh Allen do what he does, finding his receivers and tucking the ball and running over defenders every so often. But it’s the defense that has carried this franchise in 2021. Make their kicks. The Bills had two extra points blocked in the wild-card round and one graze an upright.

How the Chiefs can win: Try to establish the run and — this is key — stick with it. Teams have been able to run on Buffalo this season, and that would help open the range of possibilities for the tremendous Patrick Mahomes and his scorching receivers. Go to Travis Kelce. Often.

Farmer’s pick: Allen and Mahomes trade punches — both will throw for a ton and run for at least a couple first downs — but it’s the better defense that decides this one. BILLS 31, CHIEFS 28

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