A football game is really contested among four teams: two offenses and two defenses. In recent seasons, though, explosive offenses have dominated much of the coverage. Each playoff team’s chances are usually discussed in terms of offensive output, while defenses need to be as dominant as the 49ers’ to define a team’s identity.
The Bills and Bengals are capable of scoring outbursts and came away with wild-card wins last week as big favorites. But both teams failed to cover the spread after struggling to contain opponents that started backup quarterbacks.
The remaining playoff teams are as evenly matched as they have been all year, and that’s especially true of the offenses. Of the eight teams left in the postseason, seven finished the regular season in the top 10 for offensive efficiency, while only five have top-10 defenses. Those stronger defenses should provide the edge in this weekend’s divisional round matchups.
Last week’s record: 2-3-1
All times Eastern.
No. 4 Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 1 Kansas City, 4:30 p.m., NBC
Line: Kansas City -9 | Total: 52.5
The Jaguars have played their best when they’ve been expected to do the least. After starting with a 3-7 record that left Jacksonville way outside the playoff picture, the team won six of their final seven regular-season games to force its way in. In the wild-card round against the Chargers, Trevor Lawrence threw four picks in the first half, seemingly burying the Jags with a 27-0 deficit. But the Jaguars rallied for one of the biggest comebacks in playoff history.
By that logic, the underdog Jaguars could put on another show in a game they’re not expected to win — playing top-seeded Kansas City, who had the N.F.L.’s best regular-season offense. Because Kansas City has been so good, the team has laid big numbers in game after game and won a lot of games it failed to cover. In its last nine home games, they are 1-7-1 against the spread. That could be because the market is giving them too many points for home-field advantage. It also could be a consequence of a defense that likes to get aggressive when playing with a comfortable lead.
Kansas City’s defense — which ranks 20th in passing defense, per Football Outsiders’ Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (D.V.O.A.) metric — takes more chances with their pass rush when ahead. It’s a high-risk, high-reward scenario that can often end games with a quarterback sack or give up big plays late. Time running down, playing from behind, that’s when Lawrence and company have shined. Pick: Jaguars +9
No. 6 Giants at No. 1 Philadelphia Eagles, 8:15 p.m., Fox
Line: Eagles -7.5 | Total: 48
All season, the Giants thrived on climbing back into games they trailed, with four fourth-quarter comebacks in the regular season. But Daniel Jones may have given the best performance (301 passing yards and 78 rushing yards) of the wild-card weekend, when the Giants scored four touchdowns and played from ahead most of the way in an upset of the Vikings. The lead owed as much to the team getting back defensive starters from injury and their limiting the Vikings’ big plays.
The defense will have to re-up on that effort against the Eagles and Jalen Hurts, who enter the game rested thanks to last week’s bye. The Eagles beat the Giants in both of their regular-season meetings, but those games are probably not terribly predictive: The Giants had significant offensive-line injuries in the first meeting (Philadelphia won, 48-22), and they rested their starters in a 22-16 loss in Week 18.
Despite Jones’s dual-threat abilities and the re-emergence of running back Saquon Barkley in contract seasons for both, the Giants feasted on a loser’s schedule this season. Against top-10 defenses, the team went 2-4-1. Those games were all within reach: All but one were decided by eight points of fewer.
Philadelphia ranks sixth in defensive D.V.O.A. and first in passing D.V.O.A., and the Eagles are particularly dangerous pass rushers: They are the N.F.L. sack leaders (70), led by Haason Reddick’s 16 and three other players with double-digit totals.
The line opened at 7, and sharp action on the Eagles quickly moved it to 7.5. Since then, the Giants have taken the vast majority of the money, but the line hasn’t gone back to 7 yet. It’s possible that by kickoff this spread gets even bigger, not smaller. Pick: Eagles -7.5
No. 3 Cincinnati Bengals at No. 2 Buffalo Bills, 3 p.m., CBS
Line: Bills -5 | Total: 48
The Bills should be playing on emotion in this rematch of the Week 17 game that was canceled after Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest during the contest. Hamlin reportedly will be in attendance on the Bills’ sideline for the first time, and that could give a major morale boost. But the Bills have struggled with turnovers, particularly when quarterback Josh Allen’s opportunistic throws ignore easy, clock-controlling short pick-ups.
The Bengals have locked up opponents late thanks largely to defensive adjustments made in-game by the coordinator Lou Anarumo that limit big plays long enough for the Bengals’ offense to do damage (and in some cases, defensive linemen have forced turnovers that led to touchdowns).
Cincinnati may need the help putting up points. The offensive line’s injury woes continued last week when Jonah Williams went down with a knee injury in the wild-card win over the Ravens. Williams and Alex Cappa, another starter on the line who injured his ankle in Week 18, did not practice Wednesday. Joe Burrow has adapted to the pressure: He’s been getting the ball out in an average of 2.49 seconds, the second fastest in the league behind Tom Brady.
Buffalo’s defense hasn’t been as strong in the last half of the season, especially since losing Von Miller to a knee injury in November, and they’ve been forced to blitz more than they probably want to. Miami exploited Buffalo’s secondary, with the receiver combo of Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill getting 113 yards on 10 catches. If Skylar Thompson can do that, imagine what Burrow can do with Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase spreading the field. Pick: Bengals +5
No. 5 Dallas Cowboys at No. 2 San Francisco 49ers, 6:30 p.m., Fox
Line: 49ers -3.5 | Total: 46
The Dallas Cowboys notched their first road playoff win in thirty years last week to set up this throwback to the rivalry games of the 1990s. There have been some stylistic updates for both franchises, though.
Brock Purdy is not Steve Young, and he hasn’t had to be. The 49ers have won 11 straight, with the rookie backup Purdy under center for seven of those games. His bevy of options, from tight end George Kittle to running back Christian McCaffrey to Deebo Samuel, are fast and hard to tackle, and they rack up yards after the catch.
This won’t be an offensive bonanza for either side, though, after both teams absolutely wrecked their opponents in the wild-card round. The market has made the San Francisco a 3.5-point favorite, the narrowest spread of the weekend, and the total of 46 points is its lowest. The 49ers’ Nick Bosa and Cowboys’ Micah Parsons are the two leading contenders for the defensive player of the year, so these quarterbacks should be pressured more than they have been all season.
Dak Prescott is the better of the two quarterbacks, but he’ll need his running backs, Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott, to help keep the 49ers’ defense honest. San Francisco is better at defending the pass than the rush, and went 2-4 in games in which they allowed 99 or more yards on the ground. Assuming the 49ers are able to neutralize receiver CeeDee Lamb as well as other teams have recently, the Cowboys may need to rely on Dalton Schultz, and for Prescott to avoid a disaster turnover. It’s a lot that needs to go right, but that’s why Dallas is getting the points. Pick: Cowboys +3.5
How Betting Lines Work
A quick primer for those who are not familiar with betting lines: Favorites are listed next to a negative number that represents how many points they must win by to cover the spread. Buccaneers -2.5, for example, means that Tampa Bay must beat the Seahawks by at least 3 points for its backers to win their bet. Gamblers can also bet on the total score, which is whether the teams’ combined score in the game is over or under a preselected number of points.
Betting-market data is taken from Action Network’s Public Betting data, and lines are taken from Unabated’s real-time-odds tracker.