7 Bold Predictions for the 2021 NFL Playoffs

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJanuary 5, 2022

7 Bold Predictions for the 2021 NFL Playoffs

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    Emilee Chinn/Associated Press

    The 2021-22 NFL postseason is nearly here. One week remains of regular-season action, with three playoff spots and two division titles still up for grabs.

    It's been a wild NFL season filled with surprises—like the Cincinnati Bengals going from worst to first—and disappointments (what happened to the Cleveland Browns?). While we're finally getting a grip on which teams are good enough to make the playoffs, there's no telling what might happen from here.

    Last year's postseason saw four wild-card teams advance to the divisional round, and upsets and more surprises are likely to come.

    Here, though, we'll take a crack at predicting what might go down over the next month. We're thinking outside the box a bit with seven bold predictions for the 2021-22 NFL playoffs.

New Orleans Sneaks into the Playoffs

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    The New Orleans Saints don't have the longest odds of reaching the postseason—the Baltimore Ravens only have a two percent shot of getting in, according to the New York Times—but they're far from shoo-ins.

    The Saints need a win over the Atlanta Falcons plus a loss by the San Francisco 49ers in Week 18 to reach the postseason. Our first bold prediction is that this is how things play out.

    Fans who haven't watched New Orleans might not think much of dual-threat quarterback Taysom Hill, who was the Saints' third starter of the season after Jameis Winston and Trevor Siemian. However, Hill has played relatively well in recent weeks, and New Orleans has won its past three games with him under center.

    The Saints' Week 15 loss came with rookie Ian Book at quarterback.

    With a stout defense and Hill doing just enough, the Saints will get past the Falcons this weekend. Things then fall on the 49ers, who have beaten the Los Angeles Rams five straight times.

    L.A. will be desperate for a win, though, as it would give the Rams the NFC West title and a home playoff game. Expect L.A. to best San Francisco for the first time since 2018, giving New Orleans a playoff berth that felt incredibly unlikely when the team was 5-7 in early December.

Dallas Cowboys Bow out Early

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    Roger Steinman/Associated Press

    There have been points during the season when the Dallas Cowboys have felt like the best team in the NFC, if not all of football.

    They have a healthy Dak Prescott under center, a plethora of offensive weapons—though wideout Michael Gallup is out for the year with a torn ACL—and a defense that has racked up 38 sacks and 33 takeaways.

    However, the Cowboys could easily be out before they reach the NFC title game. There are a few reasons why.

    Perhaps the biggest is that the offense has lacked cohesion down the stretch. After topping 28 points five times in the first six games, Dallas has topped 27 points only once in its past five. Running back Ezekiel Elliott seems to have lost his burst and has only reached 50 rushing yards once since Week 9.

    With Gallup out and Elliott struggling, Dallas may have to rely on its defense to go deep in the postseason. The problem there—as evidenced in last week's loss to the Arizona Cardinals—is the Cowboys defense is very turnover-dependent.

    The Cowboys are just 1-3 in games in which the defense doesn't force a takeaway this season. The Las Vegas Raiders and Denver Broncos aren't particularly elite teams, and both beat Dallas by protecting the football.

    A team like Arizona or the Philadelphia Eagles could even take out Dallas in the opening round if it plays a mistake-free game. Philly could be a particularly daunting threat with its top-ranked rushing attack against a Dallas defense ranked 24th in yards per carry allowed.

Derrick Henry Runs for 150-Plus in Playoff Return

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    Zach Bolinger/Associated Press

    There's a chance Derrick Henry makes his return from foot surgery this week. The Tennessee Titans need a win over the Houston Texans to secure the AFC's No. 1 seed, and Tennessee did fall to Houston back in Week 11.

    "We'll see where that goes," Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said, per Turron Davenport of ESPN. "He is doing some work today and we'll see when that window opens and probably make a decision midweek."

    Even if Henry does come back this week, he may only see enough action to get back in the groove before a one-week layoff. Expect a full workload to be awaiting Henry in the divisional round, and there's a good chance he goes off.

    The AFC playoff field isn't exactly loaded with stellar run defenses. The Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills are the only likely opponents who rank in the top half of the league in yards per carry allowed. The Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs, Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers all rank in the bottom third.

    Cincinnati has allowed 130 or more rushing yards in five different games, and it surrendered 155 to Kansas City last week. The Bills have been gashed on the ground lately, giving up an average of 151 rushing yards over the past five weeks.

    While we don't know who the Titans could or will face when they open the postseason, expect Henry to hit the ground running with 150 or more yards on the ground.

Patriots Rush for Four Touchdowns in a Game

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    Paul Connors/Associated Press

    While the Patriots don't have a back of Henry's caliber, they do have a productive and physical backfield headlined by Damien Harris and rookie Rhamondre Stevenson.

    The Patriots have been especially good at getting ball carriers into the end zone. New England has 22 rushing touchdowns on the season—only the Titans and Eagles have more. Last week against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Harris and Stevenson rushed for two touchdowns apiece.

    The Patriots also rushed for four touchdowns against the New York Jets back in Week 7

    While rushing for four touchdowns against Jacksonville or New York may not seem like a remarkable feat, repeating the performance against a playoff team would be impressive. However, there's a very real chance that New England does exactly that.

    As previously mentioned, the AFC field isn't stacked with elite run-stoppers. With a rookie quarterback in Mac Jones seeing his first playoff action, Bill Belichick will likely be extra cautious when he gets into scoring position.

    Regardless of who New England plays in the opening round or where it plays—the AFC East is still undecided—we should expect a run-heavy approach. We'll go out on a limb and predict that the heavy workload results in four rushing touchdowns in New England's playoff opener.

Odell Beckham Jr. Scores Twice in One Game

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    Terrance Williams/Associated Press

    While we don't know if the Rams will win the NFC West just yet, we do know that they're in the playoffs. This means that wideout Odell Beckham Jr. is set to play a postseason game for only the second time in his career.

    When the New York Giants made the playoffs in 2016, Beckham had an underwhelming four-catch, 28-yard outing. Expect a more fruitful game from OBJ this time around.

    While Beckham hasn't been a particularly prolific receiver since joining the Rams—he has 25 catches for 287 yards in seven games—he has emerged as a red-zone threat. Beckham has scored in five of his past six games after only catching seven touchdown passes in 29 games with the Cleveland Browns.

    While opposing defenses aren't going to ignore Beckham, they're going to focus heavily on slowing Rams wideout Cooper Kupp, who has a chance to set new single-season receptions and receiving yards records in Week 18.

    With Kupp regularly seeing double-coverage, expect quarterback Matthew Stafford to target Beckham in the red zone.

    Beckham may not be the same game-breaking receiver he was at the start of his career, but he still knows how to find space near the goal line. Expect him to do that at least twice in his Los Angeles playoff debut.

Ja'Marr Chase Has Another 200-Yard Game

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    Rookie wideout Ja'Marr Chase has been a revelation for the Bengals this season, and he's played a huge role in getting Cincinnati into the postseason. Paired with former college teammate and quarterback Joe Burrow, Chase has been virtually unstoppable at times.

    "That's why we picked him," Bengals coach Zac Taylor said, per Geoff Hobson of the team's official website. "The chemistry that he and Joe have together has probably helped accelerate his performance. He's a great player for any team, but I think that certainly helps."

    Chase already has 1,429 receiving yards, 13 touchdowns and a league-high 18.1 yards-per-catch average. He's also gone over 200 receiving yards in two different games this season.

    Most recently, Chase torched the Chiefs for 11 catches, 266 yards and three touchdowns.

    The Bengals could see some quality pass defenses early in the postseason—New England ranks fourth in passing yards allowed, while Buffalo ranks first. However, Burrow knows how to get the ball to Chase when it matters most, and that's going to matter in a win-or-go-home scenario.

    Chase might not break Eric Moulds' playoff record of 240 yards in a game, but no one should be shocked if the rookie phenom out of LSU doubles up the century mark in his inaugural NFL postseason.

Cincinnati Wins Its First Playoff Game Since 1990

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    Jeff Dean/Associated Press

    The Bengals haven't been the NFL's most consistent team this season, and they've suffered inexplicable losses to teams like the Chicago Bears, the Jets and the Browns. However, Cincinnati has been arguably the league's hottest team and Burrow its best quarterback over the past two weeks.

    In wins over the Ravens and Chiefs, Burrow threw for a combined 971 yards with eight touchdowns and no interceptions.

    This team isn't all about Burrow and Chase, either. Cincinnati has other weapons in Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, Joe Mixon and C.J. Uzomah. The Bengals' 18th-ranked defense is a bit of a concern, but Cincinnati can match points with any team in the AFC field.

    Sunday's win over Kansas City should also give Cincinnati the confidence it needs to play well in the postseason despite a lack of playoff experience. That game had a playoff atmosphere, and the Bengals did what needed to be done to close out the reigning AFC champions.

    If the Bengals can knock off the Chiefs at home, they should be able to beat teams like the Colts, Patriots, Raiders and Chargers. L.A. did rout Cincinnati in Week 13, but the Bengals turned it over four times in that game. If they can avoid costly mistakes, they can beat anyone.

    And if the Steelers or Ravens make an unlikely push into the postseason, forget about it. The Bengals swept those AFC North rivals by an average margin of 22 points.

    Cincinnati hasn't won a playoff game since the 1990 season, back when Boomer Esiason was under center. These aren't the same Bengals we've seen over the past three decades, though, and they're going to finally snap their postseason losing streak.