The Divisional Round is here, and the matchups ahead certainly whet the appetites of football fans everywhere.
The road to Super Bowl LVI is narrowing. Impact players have a great opportunity to add to their individual legacies -- and those of their teams. With that in mind, I've identified five mano a mano matchups that loom large in Round 2 of the NFL playoffs.
But there's a bit of a twist: I'm choosing which individual I trust more to step up in the big spots that will arise this weekend.
1) Deebo Samuel or Davante Adams?
Adams is arguably the best receiver in the NFL, so this should be an easy call, right? Wrong. While Adams and Aaron Rodgers have teamed up to form a deadly quarterback-receiver duo, few players are more important -- and have proven to be more impactful -- than Samuel in 2021.
Under the guidance of coach Kyle Shanahan, Samuel has morphed into more than just a productive receiver; he's now also a dangerous runner. Shanahan is the latest to follow the trend of turning wideouts into straight ball carriers, lining up Samuel in the backfield to immediately receive the ball and make defenses pay. Since Week 10, Deebo has averaged seven carries per game, slightly lowering his total scrimmage yards per game (113.0 in Weeks 1-9 vs. 108.4 since Week 10), but changing how he's gaining those yards. More importantly, he's finding the end zone more often, scoring 10 scrimmage touchdowns from Week 10 onward, as opposed to five in Weeks 1-9. Samuel was racking up receiving yards at an incredible clip early in the 2021 campaign, but Shanahan wisely predicted defenses would adjust accordingly. When opponents planned on San Francisco zigging, Shanahan zagged, shifting Samuel to the backfield and watching his ball-carrying receiver rack up scores. This implementation paid dividends on Super Wild Card Weekend, when Samuel took a handoff around the right tackle for the 26-yard touchdown that ultimately proved to be the difference in the Niners' 23-17 win over the Cowboys.
Samuel is my choice here because his usage makes him a threat in more than just the passing game, meaning defenses are going to have to do more to limit his impact on a game. Green Bay was steamrolled by San Francisco in the 2019 NFC Championship Game, but the Packers have since improved when it comes to defending Shanahan's rushing attack. However, they've yet to face a 49ers ground game that includes a heavy dose of Deebo, which could end up proving to be significant, as it did in San Francisco's win over Dallas.
2) Josh Allen or Patrick Mahomes?
The tale of these two quarterbacks has been somewhat similar this season, as both began with MVP buzz before struggling at times. Allen and Mahomes have each rebounded as of late, powering their respective teams to division titles and blowout wins on Super Wild Card Weekend. Now it's time for Allen and the Bills to pay a visit to Kansas City, site of their last postseason loss.
When it comes to selecting who I'm more confident in in this matchup, I have to go with the longer track record. Mahomes has done it all: He's won NFL MVP and a Super Bowl, and he's been the face of the AFC kings in each of the last two campaigns. Mahomes is 2-1 against Allen's Bills in career meetings (including the playoffs), owning the better figures in completion percentage (70.3 to 56.4), passing yards per game (274 to 241.3) and passer rating (102.4 to 93.8) in the series. They have identical touchdown-to-interception ratios in the three matchups (7-2), and both just rollicked through Super Wild Card Weekend with five TD passes.
It's a gargantuan quarterback matchup: These are two of three signal-callers this season with 35-plus passing touchdowns and fewer than 30 sacks taken (Tom Brady's the third). They also have the two highest career averages of passing and rushing yards per game in the playoffs in NFL history (minimum five postseason games), with Allen owning a slight lead over Mahomes (338.4 to 329.2). But experience tends to be king in these scenarios, so even though Buffalo shut down a struggling Mahomes back in Week 5, I'm rolling with the Super Bowl LIV MVP.
3) Joe Mixon or Derrick Henry?
In a vacuum (in which injuries do not exist), this is an easy choice: King Henry. But the 2019/2020 rushing champ is still working his way back from a broken foot that cost him the final nine games of the regular season, throwing a massive question mark into the equation. (UPDATE: The Titans officially activated Henry on Friday, putting the running back in line to return to action against the Bengals in Saturday's Divisional Round bout.) Before he exited, Henry was well on his way to another season spent atop the rushing leaderboard. In fact, he still leads the league in rushing yards per game (117.1) and ranked ninth with 937 total rushing yards despite only playing in eight games. Henry's workload was always astounding -- almost superhuman -- but the question now is whether he can return near the same form. Two and a half months is a long time to spend off the field, and it's a lot to ask a player to suddenly come back and contribute significantly, even a superstar the caliber of Henry.
So, this seems like the debate is leaning toward Mixon, right? Well, not quite. In the first eight weeks of the season, Henry and Mixon each ranked in the top three or better in yards gained after contact and rushing yards gained outside the tackles, per Next Gen Stats -- but the gap between Henry and Mixon was significant, with the former blowing away the latter. If Henry can even be 90 percent of what he was before the injury, I'm still taking him over Mixon, who has enjoyed a very good season for the AFC North champion Bengals, but simply isn't Henry.
4) Kyle Shanahan or Matt LaFleur?
The battle of coaching friends is renewed with another playoff meeting, this time in Green Bay. The last time these two squads met in the postseason, Shanahan's 49ers rolled to a dominant win over the Packers at Levi's Stadium that sent San Francisco to the Super Bowl. This time around, it's LaFleur's Packers who have the home-field advantage and are expected to advance. So who might I choose between these two coaches? Well, it's not as simple as picking the favorite.
LaFleur's Packers are again rolling, going 13-2 this season in games finished by Aaron Rodgers. But Shanahan's 49ers made things difficult for LaFleur and the Packers back in Week 3, as Green Bay needed a trademark game-ending drive from Rodgers to nip San Francisco, 30-28. Those 49ers were different than they are now, riding a hot streak into the Divisional Round with an offense that has incorporated Deebo Samuel into its rushing attack.
As for the tale of the tape, LaFleur has won more games than any other head coach in his first three seasons with a team in NFL history. That's fine and dandy, but LaFleur hasn't gotten the Packers over the hump -- and into the Super Bowl -- in each of the last two postseasons. Shanahan, meanwhile, has done so, winning the NFC crown in the 2019 season. Green Bay might be more talented, but when it comes to coaching, I'm taking Shanahan's ingenuity over LaFleur's historic (regular-season) success. The latter still needs to prove he can do it in the most important games.
5) Jessie Bates or Kevin Byard?
This one is easier than the rest. Byard is again playing at an elite level, making his second All-Pro team and second Pro Bowl. He's benefitted from playing in a defense that was the only unit in the NFL with three players boasting eight-plus sacks during the regular season (Harold Landry, Denico Autry, Jeffery Simmons), allowing Byard to clean things up on the back end. The deep ball will be a concern against the Bengals, of course, with Joe Burrow averaging 10-plus passing yards per attempt in three of his final four starts in the regular season. But according to NFL Research, the Bengals are 5-6 when Burrow has been sacked three-plus times. If Tennessee can apply the pressure most anticipate, that should create opportunities for Byard to strike.
Bates is a fine safety, but he's experiencing a down year, failing to record three interceptions in a campaign for the first time in his NFL career. Add in just four passes defensed and an underwhelming ballhawk rate of 7.7 percent, and it's easily the least productive season in Bates' four-year Cincy tenure. Byard is playing better ball (five interceptions, 13 passes defensed, 25.5 percent ballhawk rate) and is the clear choice in this debate.