The Divisional Round brings us a couple of surprises in the form of two teams who weren't exactly guaranteed to be here back when the season began.
Tennessee? As the No. 1 seed? Ask an average football fan on the street in the last week or so, and they'd likely struggle to tell you the Titans earned the top spot in the conference.
But Tennessee did, and did so without Derrick Henry for half of the season (more on him later). Often disrespected, Titans fans will be quick to point this out while thumping their chest about how Tennessee is the team to beat in January.
With the surprise No. 1 in the books, we turn to perhaps the more significant unexpected outcome: Cincinnati has reached the Divisional Round. Back in the summer prediction season, most everyone (myself included) did not pick the Bengals to win the AFC North. I didn't even pick them to make it out of the cellar. And yet, here they are, division kings and winners of a wild-card game set to hit the road south for Nashville.
They'll meet a Titans team that has proven to be resilient, weathering injuries to Henry, A.J. Brown and Julio Jones to win 12 games. Can Joe Burrow and the high-flying Bengals hold off the ferocious Tennessee pass rush long enough to let their offense get into a rhythm? Is it 1988, and are the Bengals on their way to an AFC crown? Or is it 1999, with the Titans building speed toward their own Super Bowl appearance?
Here's what to watch for when the Titans host the Bengals on Saturday:
- What will the Titans get out of Derrick Henry? Henry hasn't played since Halloween, but the Titans have won six games without him. Tennessee is undoubtedly better with Henry, though, and will be happy to have him back. The question now is simple: Is Henry ready to return to form? The running back saw his first physical contact in months this week, and it's not fair to expect him to suddenly shoulder the massive workload for which he became notorious in the past. We shouldn't anticipate a 30-carry game for the hulking back, but is 15-20 totes realistic? And is it enough to get the Titans past Cincinnati's fifth-ranked run defense? Historically, Henry has played well in such scenarios, averaging 158.7 rushing yards per game in his last three contests against a team that finished the season ranked in the top five in run defense. But that was healthy Henry, not recovered-but-unproven Henry. The Bengals' defense also isn't foolproof, reaching the playoffs with its top-five ranking, but struggling against rushes outside the tackles against Las Vegas, allowing 12 yards per such rush, an average of +5.15 rushing yards over expected per attempt, and a 10-plus-yard rushing percentage of 42.9. That's precisely where Henry thrives, leading the league in yards gained on such rushes through Week 8 with 622 before suffering his foot injury. It's not quite unstoppable force versus immovable object, but the uncertainty makes for an intriguing matchup.
- Are Burrow, Ja'Marr Chase and Co. enough to win again? Folks, we have a significant contrast this weekend. Tennessee and Cincinnati operate differently when they have the ball, with the Bengals averaging the seventh-highest per-game passing yards total at 259, and the Titans just barely breaking 200 yards per game through the air. Tennessee, meanwhile, rips up chunks of yards on the ground, averaging 141.4 compared to Cincinnati's 102.5. The touchdown differential is similar: Cincinnati owns a 36-22 lead in passing touchdowns, while Tennessee leads 23-16 in rushing touchdowns. We can expect the Bengals to continue to air it out, then, with a quarterback who is on fire. Burrow became the first quarterback in NFL history to have 1,200-plus passing yards, 10-plus passing yards and zero interceptions in a three-game span (including playoffs). He broke 440 passing yards in each of his final two games of the season (Burrow rested during Week 18) before falling back to earth against a Raiders defense that thrives on its pass rush. Even amid pressure, Burrow still posted a 110.4 passer rating. Tennessee's pass rush is similarly menacing, which leads us to our next point.
- Can Cincinnati protect Burrow? The Titans are the only team in the NFL with three players (Harold Landry, Denico Autry, Jeffery Simmons) that each had eight or more sacks this season. Burrow was sacked more than any other quarterback in the NFL this season (51), and was taken down twice in the wild-card win over the Raiders. There's a line of demarcation with this: When Burrow is sacked less than three times, the Bengals are a perfect 6-0 (including playoffs), but when he's sacked three or more times, Cincinnati is just 5-6. That alone could decide this game, but that's not all. The Titans are well-equipped to take away one of Burrow's strengths: The intermediate pass. Burrow is the best quarterback in the NFL in terms of passer rating (156.8) on intermediate passes since Week 7, but the Titans rank fourth in the league in completion percentage allowed, yards per attempt, and completion percentage allowed over expected on intermediate passes. Sack Burrow three or more times and take away the intermediate pass (hint: focus on Tyler Boyd, one half of a perfect intermediate duo) and you've taken away a good chunk of Cincinnati's offensive attack, as well as lessened the load on Tennessee's bottom-10 pass defense. It'll be up to Cincinnati's offensive line to give the youngster time to throw if the Bengals hope to reach the AFC Championship Game.
- Are the full-strength Titans for real? Tennessee had skill position players (quarterback, running back, receiver, tight end) miss a combined 112 games in the regular season, the most in the NFL. Henry, Brown and Jones played all of five games together this season, yet the Titans still managed to win 12 games. Have we not yet seen the Titans at their greatest? And if so, does that mean they're the most dangerous team to whom no one is paying attention? Brown still managed to lead the Titans in receptions, receiving yards, yards per game and receiving touchdowns despite missing four games. Brown hasn't been great over his four career playoff games, but he's averaged 4.5 receptions, 67 yards and one touchdown in his last two postseason contests. And Jones hasn't come close to matching his previous form, setting career lows in receptions, yards, yards per game and touchdowns while missing seven games this season. It's a lot to ask an offense to suddenly come together in a playoff game, but Ryan Tannehill is significantly better and faces less pressure with Henry and Brown on the field at the same time. Tennessee is also 11-2 in the 13 games in which Brown has played, perhaps making him even more important than Henry. If these numbers prove to be prescient, these Titans might prove to be explosive enough to run through whatever defense awaits them, which would cause nightmares for the rest of the AFC, starting with Cincinnati.
NFL Research: Joe Burrow finished the 2021 regular season with the fifth-highest passer rating for a second-year quarterback in NFL history. Each of the four quarterbacks ahead of him (Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Kurt Warner, Dan Marino) went on to win AP NFL MVP.
Next Gen Stat of the game: Ja'Marr Chase is one of only two players in the NFL to have gained over +250 yards after catch over expected this season. Chase has gained more YACOE on his own (+362) than Tennessee's defense has allowed (+221) all season.