OK, here we go, people. The first of the Divisional Round’s quartet of games may not feature Josh Allen or Patrick Mahomes, but it’s an intriguing match-up with much to look forward to. Can Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase maintain their recent hot streak, or will Derrick Henry steal the headlines on his return from injury?
This weekend’s slate kicks off at 9:30 (UK) on Saturday with the Tennessee Titans (12-5) hosting the 10-7 Cincinnati Bengals. As the AFC conference’s No.1 seed, the Titans are fully rested after last week’s bye and a win would propel them back to the Conference championship game for the second time in three years. The last time they took to the field, they faced an unexpectedly spirited Houston Texans team and allowed a 21-0 lead to slip, only to hold on for a 28-25 win and earn a free pass to this Saturday’s game.
In contrast, Cincy are still getting patched up after an attritional and emotional 26-19 win against the Raiders a week ago. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ll know by now that it was their first playoff win in 31 years – interestingly, that was back in 1991 against the Houston Oilers, a previous incarnation of the Titans franchise.
With that particular primate off their backs, the Bengals are coming into Nashville with nothing to lose and everything to play for. The Bengals have won three of their last four meetings but haven’t won in Nashville for a decade. The oddsmakers have the home team as the 3.5-point favourite, a spread that has crept up slightly during the week with Cincy’s defensive injuries coinciding with Henry’s return.
Derrick Henry’s workload
At the time of writing, Derrick Henry is still officially listed as questionable but the power-back – missing since Hallowe’en with a fractured foot but still racking up 937 yards (12th in the NFL) and 10 TDs (sixth) – is widely expected to play. If that’s the case, nose tackle Teair Tart looks like being the only doubt on the Titans side.
If Henry does indeed return, is he back to being 100%? And how will his workload be managed? Tennessee ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing without him and won six of nine games in his absence. Stand-ins D’Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard combined for 916 yards and five TDs in that time, so they didn’t lose their stride. However, neither is a genuine game-changer like Henry, and Cincinnati have allowed just 102.5 rushing yards per game so Henry’s presence seems pivotal.
Whoever suits up, things are likely to continue in the same vein, especially knowing that they can’t possibly be as wasteful as the Raiders once they hit the red zone. They’ll also know that Cincy’s stand-out defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, who had ankle surgery earlier this week, will be a big loss.
If Tennessee get early success on the ground, Tannehill will find options for play action, with wideouts AJ Brown and Julio Jones rested and ready to go. But weirdly, the Titans’ passing offence has regressed without Henry: their scoring dropped from 28.4 to 24 points per game, while Tannehill (3,734 yards, 21 TDs, 14 INTs) saw his average passing yards fall by more than 30 yards. Henry’s workload on Saturday is very much an unknown but if he goes full-on all game, he’ll give the Bengals plenty of tackling practice.
The Burrow–Chase connection
Tennessee has restricted seven of its last nine opponents to 22 points or less but can they do it again against one the most explosive tandems in the NFL? If Henry can grind out the yards and boss the time of possession, Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase will be left twiddling their thumbs on the sideline. But when they do hit the field, there may be fireworks.
In 2021, Chase broke the rookie receiving record, as well as the Bengals all-time single-season receiving record, with 1,455 yards and 13 TDs. He also has a record seven TD catches on throws of 20-plus yards. Over the last month, he’s looked particularly impressive, with 125 yards against Baltimore and a monster 266-yard, 3TD game against Kansas City. This weekend, he’ll probably be up against All-Pro safety Kevin Byard, who has five interceptions in 2021, tied for second-most in the NFL. Byard and his secondary have allowed only three teams to pass for 300 air yards all season and their coverage will be crucial against a Cincy attack team that has averaged 385 yards passing in its last four games.
If Joe Mixon can get any joy running the ball, it’ll boost his team’s chances of an upset, but I don’t think it’ll be a Mixon game, with Tennessee ranked as the second-best team at stopping the run. So for me, it’s more about their 25th-ranked passing defence trying to contain the league’s seventh-ranked passing offence.
Burrow (4,611 yards, 34 TDs, 14 INTs) seems immune to the pass rush of late, getting the ball out quickly and accurately despite a nothing-more-than-adequate O-line and by most measures, he is better than Tannehill. By kick-off, the second-year QB will have gone 48 days without throwing an INT. Meanwhile, Mr T seems to do well in a good team but doesn’t drive everyone else’s levels up when needed. To adopt the vernacular used by Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks on their Move The Sticks podcast, he’s a ‘trailer’ and Burrow is a ‘truck’.
In their last three starts against Baltimore, Kansas City and Las Vegas, Chase has 27 catches for 517 yards (19.1 yards per catch). How will Tennessee DC Shane Bowen slow down what is fast becoming one of the best connections in the NFL? And if he focuses on that, how much could Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins benefit from the extra space and time?
Burrow was sacked a worrying 51 times in the regular season, and the Titans have the likes of Harold Landry (12.5 sacks), Denico Autry (9) and Jeffrey Simmons (8.5), all of whom can bring the heat as pass rushers. The Titans finished the year with 43 sacks and should have the advantage over Cincinnati’s leaky offensive line, potentially leaving Joey B to scramble out of trouble rather than pick his man with ease.
Cincinnati, meanwhile, have been much improved when it comes to pressure and sacks, with Trey Hendrickson (leading the team with 14 sacks) now cleared to play after going through the concussion protocol. With Ogunjobi out, Sam Hubbard will be looking to make his mark off the edge and add to his own tally of 7.5 sacks.
How the game will go
The Bengals are the hot team here and if they can start well and prevent the Titans from taking control, things could get tasty. They have been solid enough on defence to make an upset at least a possibility, but they’ll have to be at their best for four quarters if Burrow and Chase are to continue to play high-octane, big-play, interception-free football.
The other X-factor is obviously Derrick Henry. As much as I want the Bengals to secure their first trip to the AFC championship in more than three decades, I feel his return could shift the pendulum enough to alter the game script. I also suspect that the more experienced coach, Mike Vrabel, will have some tricks up his sleeve, leaving Zac Taylor scrambling to adjust. Whatever transpires, I’m sure it’s going to be close but I think the home team will just shade this one in an entertaining, attacking game.
As a Cincy fan, I just hope that if we do lose, it’s because Henry has bulldozed his team to victory and not because Randy Bullock, the error-prone ex-Bengal, kicks a 50-yard game-winning FG as time expires.
Prediction: Cincinnati 27, Tennessee 31
Feature image: Christopher Hanewinckel – USA TODAY Sports