The 2021-22 NFL playoff field is set, with 14 teams advancing to the postseason to compete for Super Bowl 56. Some teams have higher title aspirations than others, but anything […]
The 2021-22 NFL playoff field is set, with 14 teams advancing to the postseason to compete for Super Bowl 56. Some teams have higher title aspirations than others, but anything can happen, and any of these 14 teams could hoist the Lombardi Trophy with just three or four playoff wins.
Which teams will meet up in Super Bowl 56? Could the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers treat us to a rematch of last year’s Super Bowl? Can Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers finally return to the big game after nearly a decade since their last appearance? The Tennessee Titans only need to win two home games to advance to Super Bowl 56, and should be getting Derrick Henry back for their playoff run. Or maybe Josh Allen’s Buffalo Bills, Dak Prescott’s Dallas Cowboys, Joe Burrow’s Cincinnati Bengals or Matthew Stafford’s Los Angeles Rams will step up to the task.
Read on for my playoff predictions and projected bracket from Wildcard Weekend all the way to Super Bowl 56. If you’d like to debate or discuss any selections, join the conversation with @SakSports on Twitter.
#4 Cincinnati Bengals at #1 Tennessee Titans
The Tennessee Titans were fortunate to earn the AFC’s top seed despite a midseason slump, and even more fortunate to be getting Derrick Henry back on the field just in time for the playoffs. But as great as Henry is, does his return guarantee a win for Tennessee?
Assuming the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Las Vegas Raiders in the wildcard round, Joe Burrow will have won four straight starts for the Bengals, including Week 17’s impressive 34-31 win over the Chiefs. The Titans have beaten their fair share of good teams this season, including the Bills, Rams, Chiefs, and Colts. But they have also fallen to the Cardinals, Patriots, Steelers and somehow, the Jets and Texans.
The Titans are a much better team with Henry on the field, but relying on him too much may not be a winning formula for Ryan Tannehill the Titans here. I think the Bengals, with explosive weapons like Ja’Marr Chase, Joe Mixon, and Tee Higgins, will score in bunches, and dare Tennessee to keep up. The Titans have enjoyed a solid season, but Burrow and the Bengals stay hot to advance to the AFC Championship.
Bengals win 34-24
#3 Buffalo Bills at #2 Kansas City Chiefs
Despite falling to the Bengals in Week 17, the Kansas City Chiefs are still among the hottest teams in the NFL, with a 9-1 record in their final ten games of the regular season. Patrick Mahomes is also an extremely tough out in the playoffs, with a 6-2 career postseason record, losing only to Tom Brady (once in the AFC Championship against the Patriots and once in Super Bowl 55 against the Buccaneers.)
But if any team can stop Mahomes and the Chiefs from reaching a third straight Super Bowl, it just might be the Buffalo Bills.
It’s been a long season and a lot has changed, but when the Bills and Chiefs met in Week 5, Buffalo steamrolled the Chiefs in Kansas City, winning 38-20. With the Chiefs improving since their early season struggles, the Bills probably won’t win by 18 points again, but it’s certainly possible they emerge victorious again.
The Chiefs are the best team in the AFC right now (sorry Tennessee) and are the favorite to represent the conference in Super Bowl 56. But the favorites can’t always sweep the table, and in this case, I think Josh Allen and the Bills have the tools to send the Chiefs home early this postseason.
Bills win 30-26
#6 San Francisco 49ers at #1 Green Bay Packers
I have Jimmy Garoppolo and the San Francisco 49ers upsetting the Dallas Cowboys in the wildcard round of the playoffs to set up a date with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. After closing out the season on a 7-2 stretch, the 49ers should be able to expose Dallas for not being good as their 12-5 record suggests.
But there’s nothing fraudulent about the Packers team, as without a meaningless Week 17 loss to the Lions and a midseason loss to the Chiefs when Rodgers had COVID, the Packers are 13-2 when playing to win with Rodgers under center this season.
If San Francisco can control the tempo of the game on offense and defense, they could potentially make this game interesting. But the moment Rodgers and the Packers take control of the game’s flow, there won’t be much the 49ers can do to stop the best team in the NFL.
Packers win 27-20
#5 Arizona Cardinals at #2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals are my other Wildcard Weekend upset pick. Despite a lackluster finish to the regular season, I think the Cardinals can emulate the formula they used in a Week 17 win over the Cowboys to down another offensive powerhouse, the Los Angeles Rams. But like the 49ers, Arizona will run into an opponent that’s just too powerful for them in the divisional round of the playoffs: the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
At 7-0, the Cardinals looked like they could have been a Super Bowl contender. Arizona went 1-4 over their last five regular season games, and aren’t the same team that started so strong for a reason: without DeAndre Hopkins at wide receiver, Murray’s offense simply isn’t the same.
Tom Brady and the Buccaneers have appeared to be vulnerable from time-to-time this season, such as in a 9-0 loss to the Saints a few weeks ago, but this is the playoffs, where Brady is so hard to beat. Tampa Bay’s defense is also known to give up some points, so if Murray and the Cardinals are firing on all cylinders, this could be a fun one. More likely though, the Buccaneers will be in control of this game well before the final whistle.
Buccaneers win 34-24
AFC: #4 Cincinnati Bengals at #3 Buffalo Bills
This would be the first time in three seasons that the AFC Championship wasn’t hosted by the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. After the Buffalo Bills dethrone Mahomes and the Chiefs in the divisional round, with the Cincinnati Bengals knocking off the top-seeded Titans, the two teams meet in the AFC Championship with a trip to Super Bowl 56 on the line.
Josh Allen and the Bills would be the favorite in this situation for a few reasons. For one, the game would take place in Buffalo, a tough environment for road teams. The Bills have also been here before, falling to the Chiefs in last year’s AFC Championship game. But most importantly, the Bills have a more well-rounded football team.
Both teams can score in bunches, with Joe Burrow’s Bengals putting up 27.1 PPG (7th in the NFL) and 259 passing yards per game (also 7th.) The Bills offense is even better, averaging 28.4 PPG (3rd in the NFL) while ranking ninth in passing yards and sixth in rushing offense. But the main difference between these two teams is their defense: the Bills allow the fewest points per game (17.0) in the NFL, while the 22.1 points per game Cincinnati allows ranks just 17th in the league.
Ideally, both offenses will be clicking and this will be a thrilling AFC Championship Game. While it would be a great story for Burrow to lead the Bengals to the Super Bowl, in just his second year in the NFL and after tearing his ACL last season, the Bills have more going for them in the multiple facets of the game. The Bills finally reaching the Super Bowl, after being competitive for the past few seasons with Allen, would still be a breathe of fresh air as well.
Bills win 34-31
NFC: #2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers at #1 Green Bay Packers
In a rematch of last year’s NFC Championship Game, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Green Bay Packers meet once again with a Super Bowl trip on the line. The Buccaneers won that game 31-26, holding off a Packers comeback attempt despite three interceptions thrown by Tom Brady. That game was also hosted by Green Bay, who also fell short in the 2020 NFC Championship Game against the 49ers, but this year might just be different.
As far as football games go, this would likely be the most anticipated game of the postseason, once again pitting two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks against each other. The result should be a back-and-forth game that isn’t decided until the final whistle. But will the Buccaneers make back-to-back Super Bowls with Brady, or will Rodgers return to the big game with the Packers for the first time in a decade?
The Packers also had the #1 seed in the NFC last season, but this year, they’re even better. Perhaps most impressive this season was Green Bay’s ability to win consistently with a banged-up defense: but Za’Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander are slated to return and give the Packers a playoff boost.
While Green Bay gets stronger, the Buccaneers offense has lost both Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown over the last month. Brady still has weapons in the passing game, but won’t have the full arsenal of tools he had in the regualr season.
I think this is Green Bay’s year to finally break through to the Super Bowl once again, with the Packers grinding out an NFC Championship Game victory.
Packers win 27-24
Super Bowl 56
#3 Buffalo Bills vs. #1 Green Bay Packers
After both falling short in their respective Conference Championship Games last season, the Buffalo Bills and Green Bay Packers reach Super Bowl 56. This matchup would be a breathe of fresh air, with the Packers not appearing in a Super Bowl since a 2011 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Bills not making the big game since four consecutive losing appearances from 1991-1994.
This was also my preseason pick for the Super Bowl 56 matchup, and five months later, it still holds up, which is more than I can say about previous preseason Super Bowl picks. In September, I chose the Bills to narrowly defeat the Packers in the big game. But do I still stand by that decision?
The Bills aren’t a perfect team, and simply coming out of the AFC would be a big accomplishment. Buffalo has the #3 scoring offense and #1 scoring defense in the league, compared to Green Bay’s #10 offense and #19 defense. But even with a 17-game sample size, these numbers are slightly skewed. The Bills rankings look great, but without a 35-0 win over the Dolphins, 40-0 over the Texans, 45-17 win over the Jets, and 31-6 win over the Saints, Buffalo wouldn’t rank so high on offense or defense. The Bills went just 2-4 against eventual playoff teams this season, beating the Chiefs and Patriots once, but also falling to the Patriots as well as the Steelers, Titans, and Buccaneers. To Buffalo’s favor, all four losses came by a score or less, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Bills did most of their damage this season against non-playoff teams.
Green Bay, on the other hand, went 5-1 against playoff teams during the regular season, losing only to the Chiefs with Rodgers sidelined.
While the Bills have flashy numbers, they’re not as consistent as the Packers, especially against the league’s stronger teams. Once again, I think this will be a close game, but I’m flip-flopping my predicted winner from September: instead of the Bills winning and Allen earning Super Bowl MVP honors, the Packers will come out on top, with Rodgers earning his second Super Bowl MVP.
Packers win 27-24
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Header Photo: via Betting Super Bowl