The two divisional round games on Saturday, at their most elemental, are contrasts between pass-happy teams battling run-first offenses.
In the first game, the upstart Cincinnati Bengals will ride an offense that hinges on quarterback Joe Burrow and the passing attack as they travel to take on the top-seeded Titans. Tennessee hopes that running back Derrick Henry will return for the game after missing more than half the regular season with a foot injury.
In the nightcap, the San Francisco 49ers will go to frosty Lambeau Field to play the Green Bay Packers, the top seed in the N.F.C. The 49ers knocked off the Dallas Cowboys in the wild-card round, a messy game that would have been a blowout if Jimmy Garoppolo hadn’t overthrown 49ers receiver, Brandon Aiyuk, late in the third quarter.
San Francisco’s pass rush and stout running game helped the 49ers hold on, 23-17, for last weekend’s only upset victory. The team now turns its attention to maintaining its three-game postseason winning streak over Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
Cincinnati Bengals at Tennessee Titans, 4:30 p.m. (CBS)
The game could hinge on the return of Derrick Henry, the reigning offensive player of the year who led the league in rushing for the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Playing in just eight games this season, Henry had again topped most rushing categories until he fractured his right foot against the Colts in late October.
After practicing this week, Henry told reporters that he felt ready for Saturday’s game. But Coach Mike Vrabel cautioned that the running back needed to reacclimate to picking up blocking schemes and recognizing openings, tasks that may not prove difficult for the prodigiously talented Henry.
More worrisome will be how quickly he can assume his previous workload: In his eight games this season, Henry carried the ball 219 times for 937 yards and 10 touchdowns. Without him, or with a lesser version of him, the Titans are not as compelling an offense, and finished ranked 23rd in passing yardage this year.
On Monday, Vrabel also acknowledged what has been apparent all season: the Bengals have a “really explosive” offense. Burrow, in his second season, turned the Bengals into a weekly highlight reel, throwing with abandon to his Louisiana State University teammate, Ja’Marr Chase, who had 1,455 receiving yards this season, the most by a rookie in the Super Bowl era. (He had 116 receiving yards against the Raiders in the wild-card round.)
Burrow, who threw for 4,611 yards and completed 70.4 percent of his passes, also has plenty of other playmaking options among receivers Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, tight end C.J. Uzomah and running back Joe Mixon.
San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers, 8:15 p.m. (Fox).
In the Packers’ last seven games, Aaron Rodgers has completed 72 percent of his passes and thrown 20 touchdowns without an interception. He is, at 38, still at the pinnacle of his craft, and likely to win his second straight — and fourth overall — Most Valuable Player Award.
For all of his individual brilliance, Rodgers has played in only one Super Bowl, 11 years ago, and since he can determine where he plays next season, this might be his last opportunity at making it to another one with Green Bay.
The Packers have surrounded Rodgers with his best team since Matt LaFleur took over before the 2019 season, bolstering the defense with cornerbacks Rasul Douglas and Eric Stokes and All-Pro linebacker De’Vondre Campbell. On offense, receiver Davante Adams, who recorded single-season highs in receptions (123) and yardage (1,553), is a mismatch regardless of which cornerbacks — and how many — are defending him.
Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon lead a solid rushing attack that could be running behind an offensive line regaining left tackle David Bakhtiari, right tackle Billy Turner and center Josh Myers. The Packers will benefit from the potential returns of all their injured players — including cornerback Jaire Alexander and outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith — to counter the hottest team left in the playoffs.
To make the postseason, San Francisco won seven of its final nine games, including a Week 18 overtime victory at the Los Angeles Rams, when Garoppolo engineered a comeback from a 17-point first-half deficit.
Garoppolo has been to a Super Bowl far more recently than Rodgers — just two years ago — but the 49ers, like Green Bay, have drafted his presumptive replacement. Garoppolo has staved off the ascension of Trey Lance by throwing short, quickly and on time to yards-after-catch monsters Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel and handing off, again and again, to Elijah Mitchell and Samuel. San Francisco pummeled Dallas last week for 169 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
The 49ers’ diverse, powerful running game is capable of devastating Green Bay’s vulnerable run defense, and their front seven, with speedy linebackers and a strong pass rush, can minimize a modest secondary. The availability of stars Nick Bosa (concussion) and Fred Warner (ankle) will help determine whether San Francisco can reprise the pass rush that generated a 45.8 percent pressure rate — the team’s season high, according to N.F.L.’s Next Gen Stats — last week against Dallas.
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