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Who should Broncos Country root for in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs?

Can Von Miller knock Tom Brady out of the playoffs?

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San Francisco 49ers v Los Angeles Rams
Can Miller take out Brady again?
Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Following a rather droll wildcard weekend, we now roll on to the divisional round. While a 7-10 season means the Denver Broncos are sifting through 10 candidates to settle on their 17th head coach in franchise history, there’s plenty of reasons for Broncos Country to keep an eye on the NFL playoffs.

The following guide is my attempt at helping those who need a reason to root for someone in each game. I dove into each playoff team to find Broncos connections you may care about. This isn’t exhaustive, so if I do miss a connection, please let me know in the comments below. Keep in mind this isn’t anything close to science and you’re completely free to root for whoever you like.

1) Green Bay Packers

The matchup: vs. 49ers

Connections to the Broncos

  • Billy Turner signed a four-year, $28 million deal with the Packers after serving as the Broncos’ best right tackle since Orlando Franklin in 2018.
  • Isaac Yiadom is a cornerback Elway drafted in the third round in 2018 who wound up in Green Bay after a one-year stint with the New York Giants.
  • Nathaniel Hackett is a candidate for the Broncos’ vacant head coaching spot. The 42-year-old offensive coordinator has helped both Aaron Rodgers- and Blake Bortles-led units finish with top 10 red zone offenses in the NFL.
  • Luke Getsy is also a candidate for Fangio’s old post. The quarterback coach has his hands on the Packers’ third down offense, which is one of the best in football.

Two big questions

1. Can the Packers slow down the 49ers’ ground game?

The Pack have the weakest run defense in the playoffs, ranking 28th by Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. Outside of Kenny Clark and De’Vondre Campbell, there’s simply a lack of talent. It could cost them against a Kyle Shanahan offense that plays more than half their snaps out of heavy personnel groupings. A big first half lead helped to limit the Niners’ rushing attack in the first matchup this season, but the last time San Francisco met Green Bay in the playoffs, Jimmy Garoppolo threw the ball eight times as the 49ers bludgeoned the Packers on their way to Super Bowl 54.

2. Can the teams be special?

Believe it or not, Green Bay is one of only two teams who finished the 2021 season with a worse special teams DVOA than the Broncos under Tom McMahon. The Bears’ Jakeem Grant ripped off a 97-yard return touchdown about a month ago, Amari Rodgers has had his fair share of struggles fielding punts, and Mason Crosby’s wrapping up the worst season of his career with eight missed field goals inside the 40.

2) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The matchup: vs. Rams

Connections to the Broncos

  • Shaq Barrett signed with the Broncos out of Colorado State and forced four fumbles during the Broncos’ Super Bowl season in 2015. He signed a one-year prove-it deal with Tampa Bay after his rookie contract expired and has since become one of the best edge rushers in football.

Two big questions

1. Is Tom Brady enough?

One of the secrets to Tampa’s Super Bowl run a season ago was a remarkably clean bill of health, and sorry injury luck could spell the end for them this time around. Chris Godwin is on Injured Reserve while right tackle Tristan Wirfs and center Ryan Jensen got hurt in the Bucs’ wildcard win over the Philadelphia Eagles. Wirfs hasn’t practiced this week and his backup looked overmatched the wild card round. Von Miller has to be licking his chops.

2. Can Todd Bowles force Stafford to err?

Tampa’s defense is built around pressuring opponents into mistakes and Matthew Stafford’s thrown 17 interceptions this year, but it’s not so simple if you dig beneath the surface. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles blitzes more than anyone while the Rams’ quarterback has completed 85 of 118 passes for 1,031 yards, 530 air yards, 14 touchdowns, and no interceptions against five+ rushers this year. Look for Sean McVay to dial up a lot of empty sets, as it will help Stafford identify where the pressure is coming from pre-snap.

4) Los Angeles Rams

The matchup: at Buccaneers

Connections to the Broncos

  • Warren Jackson spent his first training camp out of Colorado State with the Broncos and landed on the Rams’ practice squad after he was released.
  • Von Miller will go down as one of the best players in Broncos history. The MVP of Super Bowl 50 has the most sacks in franchise history. Traded to the Los Angeles Rams after Week 9, he finished the regular season with the fourth most pressures of any Denver defender despite playing in only seven games.
  • Kevin O’Connell is a candidate for the Broncos’ head coaching job. Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator entered the league as a 3rd round quarterback by the Patriots and has worked for nine different teams in some capacity.

Two big questions

1. Can they shut down the run?

The Rams’ defense tends to bait teams into running the ball with their light box counts and Tampa is going to test it in an effort to limit Brady’s exposure to the L.A. pass rush. The Bucs are pretty banged up, but Leonard Fournette practiced Thursday and looks like he could return from a hamstring injury. His return would be an especially huge boon to the short yardage offense, as he routinely displays the play strength and contact balance to fall forward in a scrum.

2. Who wins in the red zone?

The Bucs finished the season with the best red zone DVOA of any offense in the league, while the Rams were the second best red zone defense. Brady is a legend in part because he’s so good at identifying mismatches and taking advantage of slivers of space with his pinpoint accuracy.

6) San Francisco 49ers

The matchup: at Packers

Connections to the Broncos

  • Kyle Shanahan is always going to be connected to the Broncos because of his dad Mike. The 49ers’ head coach also interviewed to become the Broncos’ head coach after the 2017 season.
  • Bobby Turner is the 49ers’ running back coach after he held the same position with the Broncos from 1995 through 2009, a stretch when the Broncos had seven different thousand yard rushers.
  • Wes Welker caught 73 Peyton Manning passes for 778 yards and 10 touchdowns as part of the best offense in Broncos history. He now coaches the 49ers’ wide receivers.
  • River Cracraft is a 49ers receiver who spent two years in Denver and hauled in a 44-yard pass from Case Keenum against the Los Angeles Chargers. He has six catches for 41 yards since.
  • Rich Scangarello is in his second stint as the 49ers’ quarterback coach after a year as the Broncos’ offensive coordinator and a season with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Two big questions

  1. How does San Fran hide their corners?

The 49ers’ pass defense is the biggest question in this game for either side. Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans rarely called man coverage this year because the Niners were abysmal at it and leaned heavily into cover three shells, which Matt LaFleur’s offense is designed to shred. The Niners finished the regular season with the second worst DVOA in the league against number one wide receivers and deep passes, which looks like a death knell against Davante Adams and Aaron Rodgers. I expect a lot of quarters in this game to respect the pass over the top and provide help on Adams. San Fran is going to need to win with their front seven, so Fred Warner’s and Nick Bosa’s status for the divisional round bears monitoring after both left the wildcard matchup following scary injuries. Warner practiced Thursday, while Bosa has to clear concussion protocols.

2. Does Jimmy G stay out of his own way?

The Packers will want to make Garoppolo throw to beat them. His fourth quarter interception almost doomed the 49ers against the Dallas Cowboys after they entered the fourth quarter with a 23-7 lead. The veteran quarterback’s success is a testament to Shanahan’s prowess as a play caller, as he’s a so-so processor who will put the ball in harm’s way.

The 49ers rarely use man coverage because they’re bad at it. That looks like a big problem against Aaron Rodgers.
Ryan Weisman / The Kneeldown

1) Tennessee Titans

The matchup: vs. Bengals

Connections to the Broncos:

  • Brett Kern was a Broncos punter before Josh McDaniels traded him in 2009.
  • Jamal Carter is a DB on the Titans’ practice squad after entering the league as the Broncos’ highest paid UDFA rookie in 2017.
  • Kyle Pecko signed with the Broncos after going undrafted in 2016 and played in six games across two years. He’s now a part of the Titans’ defensive line rotation.

Two big questions

1. How does Derrick Henry look?

The last time we saw the Titans’ All Pro running back, he was on pace for 465 carries and 1,992 yards. There’s little doubt his return from the broken foot he suffered in week eight is expected to improve every facet of the Tennessee offense, but there’s a couple aspects to consider. After a dominating, three-touchdown week six that led to a discussion about a running back’s chances at earning MVP, Henry averaged 2.7 yards per carry over his last two games of the regular season. The day after he played through pain against the Indianapolis Colts tests revealed he suffered a Jones fracture, which typically take 6-8 weeks to heal. Today marks 2 months and 22 days, so it seems safe to assume he’s healthy. Can the 6’3”, 240 lb. back return to being an elite big play threat?

2. Can Tennessee dominate the line of scrimmage?

Outside Kevin Byard, the Titans secondary looks overmatched against the Bengals’ high-powered offense. Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd are the best trio of receivers left in the dance, but Joe Burrow also stands behind the weakest offensive line in the playoffs. On this side of kickoff, right guard Hakeem Adeniji looks completely overmatched against the Titans’ Jeffrey Simmons. One way Zac Taylor could try and protect his quarterback is with a healthy dose of outside zone. Tennessee’s defense has been consistently good this year, but they finished the regular season among the two worst teams in the league against outside runs by Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards.

2) Kansas City Chiefs

The matchup: vs. Bills

Connections to the Broncos

  • Eric Bieniemy is one of the Broncos’ head coach candidates.

Two big questions

1. Will Spags fluster Josh Allen?

According to FO’s variance stat, the Bills were the most inconsistent team in the league this year, and their offense is the biggest reason. Buffalo’s rushing attack is extremely reliant on Josh Allen to stay on track, so when he’s off, the whole thing flops like a house of cards. The Chiefs will try to muddy Allen’s reads and land body blows when he keeps the ball. When the Bills go to the air, the Chiefs will try to bait Allen into mistakes with trap coverages when Spags isn’t sending one of his patented blitzes.

2. How does Reid attack the mismatches?

Kansas City has one of the best offensive lines in football and carry the right players to play smash mouth football, which could be a huge issue for a Buffalo defense that’s struggled against heavier personnel groupings. Tyreek Hill also looks like a huge concern for a Bills defense that has lost Tre’Davious White since the first matchup. I expect Leslie Frazier to lean into quarters and cover six to try to force Patrick Mahomes into longer drives with the hopes that Buffalo can get ahead of the sticks before the Chiefs find paydirt.

3) Buffalo Bills

The matchup: at Chiefs

Connections to the Broncos

  • Isaiah McKenzie is one of Elway’s fifth round picks, and he’s a tertiary receiver and returner. He carried the ball three times for 29 yards and caught all three of his targets for 45 yards in the Bills’ wildcard win over the Patriots.
  • Emmanuel Sanders joined the Broncos in 2014 and finished his career in Denver with 427 catches for 5637 yards, 28 touchdowns, and a Super Bowl ring. He signed with the Bills last offseason and is currently third on the team in targets.

Two big questions

1. Can the Bills force the Chiefs to settle for field goals?

Buffalo’s defense is going to look a lot different this time around because they’re unlikely to use man coverage as often without White and they simply lack the personnel to match up on Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill without him. I expect Leslie Frazier to lean into more two high shells and make Patrick Mahomes march the length of the field, which will set the stage for some dramatic moments in the redzone. While Kansas City has found ways to put points on the board this year, they’re actually 22nd in redzone DVOA and only 62.5% of their trips end in six.

2. Can the lines do enough?

Chris Jones and Melvin Ingram didn’t play in the first matchup, and they’ve been instrumental in Kansas City’s defense evolution from one of the worst defenses in the league to one of the best. On the other side of the ball, Buffalo’s struggled stopping opponents in short yardage situations this year, which is all the more troubling when you consider they played the softest schedule in the league.

4) Cincinnati Bengals

The matchup: vs. Titans

Connections to the Broncos

Two big questions

1. What is Lou Anarumo’s gameplan?

The Bengals’ defensive coordinator has done a fantastic job heating up quarterbacks when they find themselves in must-pass situations, but their weaknesses line up perfectly with Tennessee’s strengths. An injury to Larry Ogunjobi won’t help a Cincinnati run defense that’s had issues in short yardage. Chidobe Awuzie has been huge for Cincy since he signed as a free agent last year, but they’ve had issues against number two receivers. While A.J. Brown and Julio Jones played 120 snaps together this year, they’re both healthy and pose as a huge problem.

2. Will Mike Vrabel embarrass Zac Taylor?

Vrabel looks to be heading for a Coach of the Year award after steering the Titans to the number one seed using 91 different players, but it’s his ability to exploit minute edges that makes Tennessee a true wildcard in these playoffs. In case you forgot, the Titans’ head coach outfoxed Bill Belichick just two short years ago.

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