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Aaron Gash/Associated Press
The Wild Card Round of the 2021-22 NFL playoffs was all about chalk—five of six games last week were won by the higher-seeded team.
Saturday, that chalk went out the window.
The first day of the divisional round featured the first postseason performances from the No. 1 seeds in each conference. The Tennessee Titans played host to the Cincinnati Bengals, while the Green Bay Packers welcomed the San Francisco 49ers to Lambeau Field.
Saturday also marked the last playoff game of the season for both of the top seeds. Green Bay and Tennessee were both stunned on last-second field goals.
The Packers lost a snowy, frigid game 13-10, while young quarterback Joe Burrow led the Bengals to a 19-16 upset in Nashville.
The stunners left us with several takeaways as we wait for the other two semifinalists to be determined on Sunday.
Here’s a look at a few, beginning with a quarterback who absolutely has to up his game to give his team a chance next week.
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Matt Ludtke/Associated Press
San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan is widely regarded as one of the NFL’s brightest offensive minds.
However, it’s no secret that for all Shanahan’s innovation, he has something of an old-school approach. The 49ers win by running the football and playing defense.
It’s a strategy the team employed successfully in Saturday’s stunning upset of the top-seeded Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. It was also (this week at least) a plan born of necessity.
The Niners didn’t win because of veteran quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo—they won in spite of him.
To be fair, Garoppolo came into the game nursing injuries to both his right thumb and shoulder. But as Nick Wagoner wrote for ESPN, the signal-caller said before the game that he knew he would have to tough it out and play well to win.
“It’s playoff football,” Garoppolo said. “We know what time it is, and there ain’t no time to rest right now.”
The toughing it out he did. The playing well part—not so much.
Quite the opposite, in fact, as Garoppolo completed just 11 of 19 passes for 131 yards with a passer rating of just 57.1. He also threw a brutal interception deep in Packers territory just before the end of the first half.
San Francisco overcame Garoppolo’s poor showing by grinding out 106 yards on the ground and holding Green Bay’s potent offense to just 263 yards of offense and one touchdown.
This was a game played in brutal weather conditions in which the Packers had a massive meltdown on special teams (more on that in a second). Next week, the Niners will either be inside or playing in Florida and are assured an opponent that ranks inside the top-10 in both yards and points per game.
Garoppolo will have to sharpen up to get the 49ers into the Super Bowl for the second time in three years. He’s going to have to make more throws and avoid making mistakes.
Accomplish that, and 49ers general manager John Lynch will have quite the offseason decision to make between Garoppolo and rookie Trey Lance.
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Mark Zaleski/Associated Press
There’s good news galore for the Cincinnati Bengals after the team upset the top-seeded Tennessee Titans. The Bengals are headed to the AFC Championship Game for the first time since the 1988 season and have won a playoff game away from the Queen City for the first time in franchise history.
Young quarterback Joe Burrow continued his ascent to superstardom, throwing for 348 yards. Rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase caught five of Burrow’s passes for 109 yards.
Break out the chili and (shudder) cinnamon—it’s party time in Cincinnati.
But among all the celebrating and back-slapping, there’s a huge concern looming over the Bengals as they prepare to hit the road again and head to Buffalo or Kansas City. A number that should concern “Who Dey” nation a lot.
That’s how many times that Burrow was sacked against the Titans. Per the CBS telecast, he joined Donovan McNabb as the only two quarterbacks in postseason history to win a game after being dropped eight or more times.
Those nine sacks also tied for the most in a playoff game, and Burrow absorbed 13 QB hits and was harassed just about every time he dropped back to pass.
Now, it’s not like we didn’t know that the Bengals weren’t especially stout along the offensive line. Only two teams allowed more sacks than Cincinnati in 2021, and Burrow hit the ground 51 times, more than any other single quarterback in the league.
In PFF’s final offensive line rankings for the 2021 season, the Bengals checked in 20th.
But if the Bengals are going to have any chance of pulling off another upset next week and reaching Super Bowl LVI, Zac Taylor needs to devise some way to improve the protection in front of Burrow, especially with both the Bills and Chiefs among the NFL leaders in generating pressure on quarterbacks.
They aren’t going to get away with allowing nine sacks again.
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Quinn Harris/Getty Images
It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Not like this. Not after another 13-win season—Green Bay’s third in a row.
There will be no shortage of second-guessing about what went so terribly wrong for the Packers Saturday night.
Why Green Bay marched the length of the field on their first drive of the game and then didn’t score another touchdown the rest of the game. Why Green Bay is short of the Super Bowl for the 16th time in Aaron Rodgers’ 17 NFL seasons.
It’s really not that difficult to see why Green Bay was stunned 13-10 by the visiting 49ers, though.
The Packers special teams were atrocious.
This isn’t a new problem. Mason Crosby has struggled to kick the ball for much of the 2021 season, hitting on less than 75 percent of his field-goal attempts for just the second time in his career.
In his recent rankings of the league’s special teams units, Rick Gosselin of Sports Illustrated slotted the Pack dead last in the National Football League.
In a hard-fought, defensive struggle against the Niners, it was Green Bay’s special teams that doomed the Packers.
With a chance to extend their lead just before halftime, Crosby had a field goal attempt blocked by Niners safety Jimmie Ward. A fourth-quarter punt was also blocked by defensive lineman Jordan Willis before Talanoa Hufanga scooped it up and ran into the end zone for San Francisco’s only touchdown.
This was a game where Rodgers outplayed Jimmy Garoppolo by a country mile. Where Green Bay out-gained the 49ers by a sizable margin and limited San Francisco to just 212 yards of offense.
But because Green Bay’s special teams were anything but special, the Niners are headed to either Tampa or Los Angeles, and the Packers are headed home.
And the Aaron Rodgers era in Titletown may have ended with a thud.
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John Amis/Associated Press
There was talk out of Nashville before Saturday’s divisional-round game that the AFC’s No. 1 seed was being “disrespected.”
Of the teams remaining in the postseason entering the weekend, Tennessee had the third-worst odds to win the Super Bowl via DraftKings sportsbook. Per Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings, the 2021 Titans were the worst No. 1 seed since 1983.
From looking at many of the stats from the game, one might think that Tennessee had proven all those doubting Thomases wrong. Despite Derrick Henry being held largely in check, the Titans amassed 140 yards on the ground, averaging over five yards a carry.
Defensively, the Titans allowed just 65 rushing yards, didn’t surrender a touchdown through the air and dropped Joe Burrow nine times.
But when the AFC Championship Game kicks off next week, the Titans will be watching it on TV instead of hosting it at Nissan Stadium. And there’s one primary reason why Tennessee’s season is over.
Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill was abjectly awful.
Tannehill’s first pass of the game was intercepted by Bengals safety Jessie Bates III. His first throw of the second half was picked off by cornerback Mike Hilton. His final throw of the game was snared by Cincinnati linebacker Logan Wilson.
Two of those picks led to points for the Bengals, including the 52-yard field goal that sent Cincy on to the AFC title game.
Overall, Tannehill was 15-of-24 for 220 yards with a touchdown and those three interceptions. His passer rating for the game was a miserable 66.7. It was the lone position in the game where the Titans were outplayed—and Tannehill was outplayed badly.
While speaking to reporters after the game, Titans head coach Mike Vrabel came to the defense of his quarterback.
“It’s never going to be about one person,” Vrabel said.
The problem is that Saturday afternoon, it really was.
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