Exploiting the Matchups: Upgrades & Mismatches for the Divisional Round

Exploiting the Matchups: Upgrades & Mismatches for the Divisional Round

This article is part of our Exploiting the Matchups series.

Blowouts were the story of the wild-card round, with every game decided by six or more points and only two of them coming down to the final few minutes. Maybe it plays out that way again, but the quality of the teams makes me think otherwise. As a Ravens fan, I'm still (slightly) disappointed. As a football fan, this is a perfect Elite 8.

Cincinnati Bengals at Tennessee Titans

Time/Weather: Saturday, 4:30 ET — ~35 degrees, minimal wind, sunny

Implied Totals: Titans 25.5 - Bengals 22.0  — (Titans - 3.5, O/U 47.5)

Key Injuries: Titans RB Derrick Henry (IR/foot), NT Teair Tart (Questionable/ankle)

Tart is the lone starter listed on either injury report, and he finished the regular season with only 16 tackles (and zero sacks) in 11 games. That leaves Henry as the only significant question mark, with most/all signs pointing toward a return Saturday. Titans coach Mike Vrabel said the decision will be made Friday... TBD if it's also public information before Saturday. Keep in mind that activating Henry from IR doesn't automatically mean he'll play, though it obviously would be a strong hint in that direction. (And here's another one below.)


Biggest Mismatch: Bengals WRs > Titans CBs

This is the one that first sticks out when perusing depth charts, though that'll often be the case when three of a team's top-15 players play the same position. The Cincinnati wideouts have an advantage over pretty much every CB group they face, and while that's certainly the case this weekend against Janoris Jenkins, Kristian Fulton and Elijah Molden, things get a little more complicated once we dive deeper into the matchup. 

First and foremost, Kevin Byard and Amani Hooker have a case for best safety duo in the league, following a regular season in which both earned top-10 PFF grades at the position. Hooker might not actually be quite that good, but Byard is, and the Titans also have two interior pass rushers (Jeffery Simmons, Denico Autry) who can collapse the pocket and make it harder for Joe Burrow to get the ball downfield.

Simmons and Autry combined for 17.5 sacks and 34 QB hits this season, and they'll now open the playoffs against an O-line that has three starters with bottom-10 PFF grades (C Trey Hopkins - 35/39, RG Hakeem Adeniji 75/84, RT Isaiah Prince 78/84). Simmons and Autry should get pressure inside against Hopkins and Adeniji, while OLB Harold Landry (12.0 sacks) can take aim at Prince. 

Quick throws would be the obvious way for the Bengals to partially negate these advantages, perhaps favoring Boyd over Chase and Higgins (relatively speaking), though all three are more than capable of doing damage with short passes. There isn't a clear pick here in terms of the WR/CB matchups, as the Titans didn't shadow this year and don't have a true No. 1 corner. Jenkins, of course, is the most familiar name, but he's now 33 and finished the year with per-snap stats and PFF grades very similar to Fulton's and Molden's. All three were right around one target per seven cover snaps and one yard allowed per cover snap.


Matchup Upgrade(s): Titans QB Ryan Tannehill, Bengals WR Tee Higgins

The Bengals defense is neither particularly good nor bad, lacking distinct strengths and weaknesses apart from standout safety Jessie Bates. They make for a middling matchup by regular-season standards but a good one by playoff standards, especially for a QB who may finally have a healthy supporting cast after playing most of the season surrounded by backups. Even if we don't see the best versions of Henry and Julio Jones this weekend, Tannehill should be glad to have them in the lineup.


San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers

Time/Weather: Saturday, 8:15 ET — ~10 degrees, winds around 10 mph, clear skies

Implied Totals: Packers 26.26 - 49ers 20.75 — (Packers - 5.5, O/U 47.0)

Key Injuries: Packers LT David Bakhtiari (Q/knee), CB Jaire Alexander (Q/shoulder), OLB Za'Darius Smith (IR/back), WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling (D/back); 49ers CB Ambry Thomas (Q/knee)

Bakhtiari made his first appearance of the season Week 18, and despite sitting out two practices this week, likely will be able to play again. Alexander and Smith, meanwhile, seem on track to return from absences of three-plus months. It's not 100 percent clear all three will play, nor will they necessarily be at their best, but it's hard to argue with adding three legit standouts who missed nearly all of the season. They're unlikely to make things worse, and could make the Packers much, much better. 

The other two starters listed above, Thomas and Valdes-Scantling, aren't nearly as impactful, though for fantasy purposes there's still plenty of relevance. It looks like Thomas will play and MVS won't, FWIW.


Biggest Mismatch: 49ers running game vs. Packers front seven

The last three playoff matchups between these teams went for San Francisco, led by a powerful running game each time. To be fair, two of those games were in the Harbaugh/Kaepernick era, and the other was two years ago against a softer version of the Green Bay defense (with a different DC as well).

Still, the 49ers have a top-5 offensive line and arguably the best designed running game in the league, while the Packers remain a finesse team more so than a power one, even if they've worked to close that gap. Aaron Rodgers' brilliance allowed the team to thrive all season despite ranking 28th in run-defense DVOA, but that sort of thing will be exposed far more often in the playoffs.

When the Packers beat the Niners earlier this year, back in Week 3, it was with Trey Sermon and Kyle Juszczyk splitting backfield snaps in San Francisco, and in a game where the Packers jumped out to a 10-0 lead within their first two drives an led 17-0 by halftime. That could happen again, to be sure, but don't expect the Niners to be so easily bullied out of their run game now that they have Mitchell and Deebo taking the carries instead of Sermon/ Juice.

Matchup Upgrade(s): RB Elijah Mitchell, WR Allen Lazard 

Mitchell and Samuel are the ones who benefit from San Francisco's advantage up front, assuming the 49ers defense doesn't get steamrolled by Aaron Rodgers, who is up against a fearsome pass rush backed by a beatable secondary. The Niners consistently played good defense throughout the second half of the year, especially against the run, but nobody will mistake Thomas, Emmanuel Moseley and K'Waun Williams for a dominant group of corners.

That's obviously good news for Davante Adams, who always does his thing, and it also sets up nicely for Lazard to continue his red-hot finish to the regular season. With Valdes-Scantling out and Randall Cobb coming back from a month-and-a-half absence, there's little doubt Lazard enters Saturdays as Green Bay's No. 2 receiver


Matchup Downgrade(s): RB AJ Dillon

The Niners have allowed just one opponent since Week 9 to reach 100 team rushing yards, and that was back in Week 13 when the Seahawks had 75 of their 146 on a fake punt. Despite some early struggles, San Francisco finished the year No. 2 in run-defense DVOA, with the bonus of getting LB Dre Greenlaw back in the lineup right before the playoffs. Aaron Jones also has a tough matchup here, but he does more damage as a receiver and could get a larger share of the workload in the playoffs. Dillon might just be looking at 5-10 carries, and against a dominant front seven at that.


Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Los Angeles Rams

Time/Weather: Sunday, 3:30 ET — ~55 degrees, winds around 10 mph, sunny

Implied Totals: Bucs 25.25 - Rams 22.75 — (Bucs -2.5, O/U 48.0)

Key Injuries: Bucs WR Breshad Perriman (abdomen), WR Cyril Grayson (hamstring), RB Leonard Fournette (IR/hamstring), RT Tristan Wirfs (ankle), C Ryan Jensen (ankle); Rams FS Taylor Rapp (O/concussion), LT Andrew Whitworth (O/knee)

The Bucs are the more banged-up team here, but both have key guys missing. Lavonte David, Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul all returned from injuries within the past couple weeks, and there's now some chance that Chris Godwin (IR/ACL) will be the only starter missing for Tampa Bay this Sunday. 

The problem is that two of Godwin's backups are hurt, though the Rams are similarly depleted at safety with Jordan Fuller (ankle) out for the year and Rapp on the injury report after missing last week. The other problem for Tampa? Wirfs and Jensen are both on the injury report, with Wirfs in particular looking shaky for Sunday. The protection might not be what Brady's used to, especially against Aaron Donald and Von Miller. And we can say the same for Matthew Stafford, with Whitworth being a massive loss at LT for the Rams.


Biggest Mismatch: Rams CBs > Bucs WRs

We're nitpicking here, just like we'll have to in the next matchup, but there is a real issue with receiving depth in a post-Godwin/A.B. world. It's a world where Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski are near-locks for hefty target volume, though Evans figures to see a lot of CB Jalen Ramsey in addition to seeing a lot of targets.

Behind Big Mike, the Bucs may be down to Tyler Johnson and Scotty Miller, a duo that seemed promising a year ago... but not so much these days. On the other hand, the Bucs still have Evans and Tom Brady, and the Rams cornerbacks will be under more pressure this week with one starting safety (Jordan Fuller - IR) definitely out and the other (Taylor Rapp - concussion) uncertain to play.

Matchup Upgrade(s): TE Cameron Brate

The depth issues at WR have allowed for Brate's reemergence as a complementary weapon, catching 2-3 passes in six straight games. That's not enough to get excited about, usually, but for this slate it makes him one of the better bottom-of-the-bin DFS plays. 


Matchup Downgrade(s): WR Mike Evans, RB Cam Akers

The Bucs remain a bottom-five matchup for running backs, and while Akers took over more of the workload last week and could see his role continue to grow, this isn't a matchup where he's likely to be efficient per-carry.


Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs

Time/Weather: Sunday, 6:30 ET — ~40 degrees, minimal wind, partly cloudy

Implied Totals: Chiefs 28 - Bills 26 — (Chiefs -2.0, O/U 54.0)

Key Injuries: RB Darrel Williams (toe)

Apart from Bills CB Tre'Davious White, who has been out since November with a torn ACL, all the big names and key starters are set to play in this one. The winner probably becomes the Super Bowl favorite, unless the Packers completely destroy the Niners.

It's a kind of strange matchup, with both teams pretty similar (in a good way) and also looking formidable of late. The Bills beat the Chiefs by 18 points in Kansas City earlier this year, but both teams have come a long way since then, especially Mahomes and the boys. With good weather, good coaching and great QB play all in the forecast, it's no surprise to see this game nearly a full TD ahead of all the others for the over/under. Just keep in mind that the Buffalo and KC defenses are pretty good, even if they're a step behind the respective offenses.


Biggest Mismatch: Chiefs O-Line vs. Bills D-Line

Like most "mismatches" in the playoffs, this is a compliment to one side rather than an insult to the other. Other teams would look at the Buffalo front seven and call that a strength, but it's a relative weakness in this matchup of elites. The left side of KC's O-line should be illegal, featuring Orlando Brown, Joe Thuney and star rookie Creed Humphrey (RG Trey Smith and RT Andrew Wylie haven't been bad either).

The Bills have depth up front on defense, to be sure, but they lack a dominant player while the Chiefs' O-line arguably starts three. I'll also note that Josh Allen doesn't enjoy the same quality of blocking, though most of the time he doesn't seem to need it, in any case. KC's advantage up front means it probably won't be enough if Allen plays Mahomes to a draw; he needs to one-up him on his own turf. 

Matchup Upgrade(s): WR Tyreek Hill

The deal with Hill is similar to Cincinnati's receivers; he has an advantage over the cornerbacks, but with top-notch safety play as a complicating factor. Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer were just as good as Byard and Hooker this year, and Buffalo's duo has the longer track record together. Their solid work has allowed Buffalo to replace White with a 2020 seventh-round pick (Robert Jackson) without missing a beat... but Reid, Mahomes and Hill could very well crack the code.


Matchup Downgrade(s): WRs Gabriel Davis, Emmanuel Sanders, Cole Beasley, Isaiah McKenzie

Allen and Stefon Diggs should be okay, but the tough-ish matchup is a big problem for the other guys here now that the division of snaps/routes is looking messy. Davis led the quartet with 71 percent snap share (and 2-41-1 on three targets) last week against the Pats, but it won't be any huge surprise if more of that work goes to Sanders (46% snap share last week), Beasley (30%) or McKenzie (34%). 


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Jerry Donabedian
Jerry was a 2018 finalist for the FSWA's Player Notes Writer of the Year and DFS Writer of the Year awards. A Baltimore native, Jerry roots for the Ravens and watches "The Wire" in his spare time.
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