NFL playoffs divisional round: Schedule, previews for AFC, NFC

ByStephen Holder and Seth Walder ESPN logo
Tuesday, January 16, 2024

All sixwild-card games are in the books, and the divisional round matchupsare finally set. In the AFC, the Texans will travel to Baltimore to play the Ravens, while the Chiefs will head to Buffalo to face the Bills. On the NFC side, the Packers will see the 49ers in San Francisco, and theLions will host the Buccaneers afterTampa Bay beat Philadelphia on Monday night.

Let's look ahead to the divisional round schedule, which will include the first postseason games for the Niners and theRavens, who each had a bye. To get you ready for next week's slate, Stephen Holder picked out the biggest thing to watch in each matchup, and Seth Walder explored how each team can win to advance to the conference championships. We also provided projections from ESPN's Football Power Index(FPI) and opening lines from ESPN BET.

Jump to a matchup:



(7) Green Bay Packers at (1) San Francisco 49ers

When: Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET (Fox)

FPI projection: SF, 78.6%

Opening line: SF -9.5 (50.5)

What to know:Packers quarterback Jordan Love showed stunning accuracy against the Cowboys' edge rush and coverage in his playoff debut Sunday. But the challenge posed by the rested 49ers provides an even bigger test. San Francisco quarterback Brock Purdy is no postseason rookie, and he has some unfinished business after his hot start in the 2022 playoffs was short-circuited by an elbow injury in the NFC Championship Game.

With Niners coach Kyle Shanahan aiming to improve his postseason record to 7-3 (over seven seasons), look for San Francisco to rely heavily on Christian McCaffrey and the running game. That's where this matchup could turn, allowing the 49ers to attack a Green Bay weakness. No NFL team had more running plays of 10 or more yards than San Francisco's 74 in the regular season. Meanwhile, the Packers rank 29th in rushing yards against after first contact (906) and 23rd in yards allowed per rush (4.4). -- Holder

Why the 49ers will win:Why won't they win? I can ask that question from now until the Super Bowl, because after the Packers dismantled the Cowboys, that left San Francisco without a major threat remaining in the conference. The 49ers are the best team in football, and they're the best team left in the NFC, by far.

San Francisco boasts the best trait a Super Bowl hopeful can have: the No. 1 offense (including the No. 1 passing offense). And it's by a lot. The Niners' 0.16 expected points added (EPA) per play was well ahead of the No. 2 team, the already-eliminatedDolphinsat 0.12. Purdy is supported by an absurd set of playmakers in McCaffrey, Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel and George Kittle. Oh, and don't forget the defense, with Nick Bosa, Javon Hargrave and Chase Young rushing the passer. The 49ers have so many strengths that they don't even need them all to click to win.-- Walder

Why the Packers will win:The flip side of all the compliments I bestowed on San Francisco is that they are all bad news for Green Bay. These two teams are not in the same league. But it's football. Things happen. The Packers could win, and it starts with Love -- not just because he's the quarterback but because of the type of quarterback he has evolved into over the course of the campaign. From Week 10 until the end of the regular season, Love finished second in QBR. The only signal-caller ahead of him? Dak Prescott, whom Love just outdueled in the wild-card round.

Defensively, even though the Packers have been disappointing all season, this is still a talented group. Could the Packers put it all together in their biggest game of the season? It remains possible. Turnovers, lucky bounces and an A-game from their defense are probably all necessary for the Packers to pull off this upset. But it could happen.-- Walder

(4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers at (3) Detroit Lions

When: Sunday, 3 p.m. ET (NBC)

FPI projection: DET, 62.5%

Opening line: DET -6 (48.5)

What to know: The Lions have the chance to make more history by winning multiple playoff games in the same season for the first time since their 1957 championship run. No doubt, Eminem will want to show up for that. It's no mystery how they've gotten here, either. The city of Detroit might embrace its underdog personality, but after beating the Rams to advance, the Lions will be favored here because of their productive offense. They ranked in the top five this season in yards per play (third), scoring (fifth), passing yards (second) and rushing yards (fifth). The Lions displayed that offensive proficiency in a 20-6 regular-season win over the Buccaneers, outgaining Tampa Bay 380 yards to 251 in October.

But the Bucs have won six out of seven -- including Monday night's victory over the Eagles -- and are an experienced bunch when it comes to postseason play. Tom Brady is gone, but many of the teammates who joined him in those playoff appearances remain. They won't be intimidated by the stakes. -- Holder

Why Lions will win: Edge rusherAidan Hutchinson is suddenly playing at a different level. He has always been good, but the advanced metrics were never fantastic. Now? He's suddenly on a three-game multiple-sack streak. And he posted a 33% pass rush win rate in the wild-card round -- the highest of any player in the playoffs entering Monday night. Against Tampa Bay tackleLuke Goedeke (who registered a below-average 86% pass block win rate in the regular season), Hutchinson has the advantage, and that could make a big difference for the defense -- the unit that is supposed to be Detroit's weakness.

The other side of the ball is clicking under offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, who is getting the most out of quarterbackJared Goff. Tight endSam LaPorta, who missed the second half of the Lions' regular-season finale because of a left knee injury, was able to return to action Sunday. And Detroit has one of the best running games in the league. Let's be real: The Lions are the superior team here. They just have to play up to their ability. -- Walder

Why Buccaneers will win: If you squint at these teams' strengths and weaknesses, you can see a path for the Bucs. Their offense is imbalanced. They can't run the ball, but their pass game has been fairly effective all season withBaker Mayfield. Tampa Bay ranked ninth in EPA per dropback (0.10) in the regular season. That's just fine against Detroit. The Lions' run defense is solid; pass defense is where they struggle.

In order to beat Philadelphia, the Bucs deployed their typical blitz-heavy strategy: They blitzed on 40% of opponent dropbacks in the regular season, third most in the league, and it worked against the Eagles. Could it work again versus Detroit? The Lions aren't blitz beaters. Goff's QBR dropped from 11th overall to 15th when facing the blitz. Mix in a little luck, and you can't rule Tampa Bay out. -- Walder


(4) Houston Texans at (1) Baltimore Ravens

When: Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET (ESPN/ABC/ESPN+)

FPI projection: BAL, 81.7%

Opening line: BAL -9 (45.5)

What to know: Welcome back to the postseason, Lamar Jackson. The leading candidate for NFL MVP will start his first postseason game since the 2020 season. Jackson was injured and missed Baltimore's lone playoff game last season, but his presence gives the Ravens their biggest reason for optimism in making a run at the Super Bowl.

For the Texans, it's a chance to shock the world. But for rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud and rookie coach DeMeco Ryans, it will be a massive test against a Baltimore defense that led the NFL in sacks during the regular season (60). Houston will be facing the hottest team in the league down the stretch, as the Ravens won six of their past seven games. And since Week 11, Baltimore has the highest point margin in the NFL (plus-90). -- Holder

Why the Ravens will win:The 2023 Ravens' defense finished sixth in EPA per play (minus-0.1) among all teams over the past 10 seasons. Baltimore's incredible defense -- with all its simulated pressure that seems to constantly create sack opportunities -- gives the Ravens a great chance against anyone.

I haven't even mentioned the likely league MVP yet. Jackson finished the season hot, with incredible performances against the 49ers and the Dolphins to close out his regular season (he sat in Week 18). With real receivers on this offense, including Zay Flowers and Odell Beckham Jr., every play is a constant dual threat of Jackson's legs and arm. Baltimore can win with offense or defense (heck, or even special teams). And that's why the Ravens are so tough.-- Walder

Why the Texans will win: Well, how about Stroud? Sure, there are other reasons -- from receiver Nico Collins to rookie edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. -- to like Houston, but what Stroud has done in recent weeks gives the Texans hope against anyone. And that includes Baltimore. Since Week 16, Stroud ranks third in QBR, behind only Jackson and Love. Stroud is a rookie growing into the professional quarterback he'll become before our eyes, and the progression is happening fast. He's already at the point that Houston has become dangerous.

Oh, and the only defense that was better than Baltimore this season? Cleveland. And Stroud handled that test just fine in the wild-card round.-- Walder

(3) Kansas City Chiefs at (2) Buffalo Bills

When: Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET (CBS)

FPI projection: BUF, 56.6%

Opening line: BUF -2.5 (45.5)

What to know: Time to hit the road, Patrick Mahomes. The Chiefs quarterback will play a road playoff game for the first time in his brilliant career, giving the Bills another shot at a team that has ousted them from the playoffs twice in the past three seasons. In a rematch of the overtime playoff classic between these teams in the 2021 divisional round, the Chiefs and Bills will meet again at Highmark Stadium.

Both clubs won their opening-round games with relative ease, with the Chiefs eliminating the Dolphins and the Bills sending the Steelers home. The intensity gets ratcheted up next weekend, though. Mahomes wasn't particularly fazed by playing on the road this season, completing 69.7% of his pass attempts. And he is 38-11 on the road in the regular season for his career, the most wins by any QB in their first 50 road starts since 1950, per ESPN Stats & Information. But Mahomes also had eight interceptions in games played away from Arrowhead in 2023. Will that trend continue in Buffalo? -- Holder

Why the Bills will win:Did you see Josh Allen's 52-yard touchdown run? For all the attention focused on Allen's mistakes, Buffalo has one of the best offenses in the league because of how dangerous he can be while creating on his own. He generated double the EPA (60.2) of any other quarterback on designed carries and scrambles this season.

Outdueling Mahomes is something entirely different than besting Mason Rudolph, like Allen did easily in the wild-card round. But on paper, the Bills have the better offense, and it's not even close. That's the most important advantage to have in this game.-- Walder

Why the Chiefs will win:The Chiefs will be underdogs, but they have a couple of key factors (beyond the obvious of Mahomes) working in their favor. First, the emergence of receiver Rashee Rice. The Chiefs' offense was plagued throughout the season by the lack of a second receiving option beyond an aging and declining Travis Kelce. Rice, who produced a strong 2.6 yards per route run in the regular season, played an increasing role as the year went on and then exploded in the wild-card round for 130 yards on eight receptions against the Dolphins. The Chiefs might have found the playmaker they needed just in time.

Second, Kansas City's defense is legitimate. Sure, the weather might have hindered the Dolphins on Saturday. But it took more than low temperatures to hold what was the second-best offense in football in the regular season to just seven points. The Chiefs' defense moved up to fourth in EPA per play (minus-0.06) for the season with its performance. That side of the ball absolutely gives them a chance against Buffalo.-- Walder

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