The 2021 NFL playoffs are finally here. After 18 weeks, we're set to begin the tournament that will determine which team will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, which will represent the NFC, and which win ultimately take home the Lombardi Trophy and end the season as champions.
The first game of the weekend pits the AFC's No. 4 seed, the Cincinnati Bengals, against the No. 5 seed, the Las Vegas Raiders. As usual, we are here to break down the matchup, highlighting the key pressure points on both sides of the ball. Before we do that, though, here's a look at how you can watch the game.
How to watch
When the Raiders have the ball
In the first matchup between these two teams, which took place back in Week 11, neither offense accomplished much of note. The defensive lines dominated the proceedings -- particularly Cincinnati's. Derek Carr was under pressure on 41 percent of his dropbacks, according to Tru Media, and that was despite the Bengals sending only five blitzes on 29 intended passing plays. It was relentless, and it was ugly.
Vegas' passing game consisted almost entirely of isolating Darren Waller on the back side of the formation and letting him try to win a one-on-one, and hoping he could take a short pass and turn it into a longer gain. That was even successful a few times, and it created the Raiders' biggest plays of the afternoon.
Carr was so locked in on Waller all game, though, that it contributed to the interception he threw in the fourth quarter. He didn't see Eli Apple sinking off his coverage of Zay Jones on an underneath route, and cutting access to the corner route on which Carr was trying to hit Waller. It resulted in one of the easiest picks of Apple's life.
The Bengals should again have matchup advantages up front in this game, particularly with Sam Hubbard rushing off the left side of the defensive line against right tackle Brandon Parker, who has struggled in pass protection both this season (he ranked 74th out of 88 qualifying tackles in pass-blocking grade at Pro Football Focus) and throughout his career. Kolton Miller should be able to hold up a bit better against Trey Hendrickson on the opposite side, but nobody has really been able to keep Hendrickson at bay this year. He finished the year fourth among edge rushers in total pressures, notching 14 sacks along the way.
The Raiders will have to count on Waller and Hunter Renfrow to win their respective matchups very quickly. That's probably Renfrow's single-best skill, and there are very few corners who can stop him from winning in the slot. Bengals slot corner Mike Hilton is solid, and very experienced, and he had a bit of a bounceback season in coverage this year. Getting Waller matched up on linebackers, if at all possible, is likely the Raiders' best bet for success through the air. Waller missed a good portion of the latter half of the season, though, and played a season-low (except for the game in which he got injured) 78 percent of snaps in his return last week. We don't yet know if he's back to full strength. (He caught only two of nine passes against the Chargers, but he did have to deal with Derwin James for much of the evening.)
The Raiders won four consecutive games to end the regular season, but did not exactly play inspiring offense along the way. They actually turned the ball over multiple times in each of the first three victories, and narrowly escaped with a win in each of them. The Bengals are more likely than the Browns, Broncos, or Colts to make them pay if they make those same kinds of mistakes on Saturday. Protecting Carr and ensuring he can throw from a clean pocket needs to be priority No. 1.
Cincinnati's rush defense was actually better than its pass unit this season, per Football Outsiders' DVOA, and the Las Vegas rush offense was a bottom-half of the league unit. Josh Jacobs did have a couple 100-plus yard games down the stretch, though, so one could argue they're hitting their stride at the right time. Still, it's likely that the fate of the Raiders offense rests on Carr's right shoulder, and those of the men tasked with keeping rushmen away from him.
When the Bengals have the ball
Going back and watching the Bengals offense from their game against the Raiders earlier in the season is like traveling to a parallel universe. Cincinnati was a mess in that contest, and still managed to score 32 points. Joe Burrow, though, was just 20 of 29 for 148 yards and a touchdown, repeatedly throwing screens and short passes over the middle of the field while operating in the face of heavy pressure. The Bengals offensive line was frequently overwhelmed, and Burrow often seemed like he was running for his life.
All that pressure led to repeated checkdowns, with Burrow firing the ball to the closest receiver to the line of scrimmage simply to avoid getting hit. It's no wonder he averaged less than 5 yards per attempt on the game.
The few deep shots the Bengals were able to attempt were just forced one-on-one jump balls, and even those were thrown with defenders in Burrow's lap. He got absolutely clocked on a deep ball to Ja'Marr Chase early in the game, to the point where I was kind of surprised he didn't have to go get checked in the medical tent.
Burrow's one touchdown pass in the game was an absolute laser to Chase in the back of the end zone, which he ripped over the top of two closing defenders. It certainly did not hurt that the underneath cornerback fell down as he attempted to jump and break up the pass, but I'm not sure it would have mattered.
After that Raiders game, though, is when Burrow took off. Through the rest of the season, he went 151 of 205 (73.6%) passing for 1,966 yards (9.6 per attempt), 13 touchdowns, three interceptions, and a 118.5 passer rating. He ranked third in the NFL in EPA per dropback from that point on, per Tru Media tracking, and he actually ranked first in EPA per throw; what dragged him down were sacks. (The offensive line was still an issue, with Burrow under pressure on 37.8 percent of dropbacks from Week 12 on and sacked on 10.1 percent of them.)
What was most notable, though, was how often the Bengals beat teams with the deep pass. That's not something they did much of during Burrow's rookie season, for reasons relating to both the line and Burrow himself. Acquiring Chase changed that, and leaning into his and Tee Higgins' ability to win downfield led to Burrow's six touchdown tosses of 30-plus yards down the stretch of the year.
It will be a challenge to give Burrow enough time to find his receivers deep. Maxx Crosby led the NFL with 101 pressures this season, and he is an absolute menace. The Bengals would be wise to provide chip help on his rushes, but that also removes a receiving option early in the snap, and Burrow likes to get rid of the ball quickly. Still, the perimeter receiving talent is so overwhelming that it's tough to see Las Vegas stopping these guys from moving the ball through the air... so long as Burrow has time to throw.
It would not be surprising to see Joe Mixon play a larger passing-game role in the playoffs than he did during the regular season, when it seemed like his relative lack of third-down usage was more about managing his reps. Cincinnati was very run heavy early in the year, but pivoted hard to an attack based around Burrow and the receivers when they went on their second-half run. The Bengals offensive line can lean on defenses when in the lead and help Mixon run it out, but it's likely that they'll use the pass to set up the run, rather than the other way around.
Prediction: Bengals 27, Raiders 20