NFL Saturday divisional playoff winners, losers: Heartbreak for Aaron Rodgers, Packers

·9 min read

The divisional round of the NFL's 2021 playoffs commenced Saturday – the postseason quarterfinals if you prefer – and what a memorable day it was.

Football fans weren't privy to a pair of beautifully played games, but – on the heels of an almost instantly forgettable "Super" wild-card weekend – they got a heaping helping of drama as the Cincinnati Bengals and San Francisco 49ers vanquished the top-seeded Tennessee Titans and Green Bay Packers, respectively, both games decided by a field goal on the final snap.

Each contest was grimy yet compelling and, especially as it pertains to the Pack's loss, reshaped the conversation around Super Bowl 56.

WINNERS

49ers special teams: The oft-underappreciated third phase made all the difference for San Francisco. Jimmie Ward blocked a field-goal attempt by the Packers' Mason Crosby to end the first half, but the game's turning point came when Talanoa Hufanga recovered a blocked Green Bay punt for a touchdown to tie the game 10-10 with 4:41 to go.

Robbie Gould: And speaking of Niners specialists, their kicker is pure Gould. He's now made all 52 playoff kicks (20 field goals, 32 extra points) of his 17-year career, the most recent a 45-yard three-pointer on a windswept Wisconsin night to vanquish the Pack 13-10 and advance the Niners to the NFC title round. Given his many sterling years dealing with adverse weather conditions in Chicago (and Green Bay), Gould wasn't the guy the Packers wanted this game to ride on with everything on the line.

Joe Burrow: The second-year quarterback took a physical beating but still passed for 348 yards while adding a new chapter to his growing legend as the Bengals won their first road playoff game in the franchise's 54-season history. Now, Joey B.'s just two wins from smoking the biggest cigar of his life. You betting against him? (Well, you probably are.)

Deebo Samuel: The 49ers' All-Pro "receiver" was the best player on the field Saturday night at Lambeau Field. Sure, he had a modest three catches for 44 yards. He also had a 45-yard kickoff return to start the second half and set up a field goal for San Francisco's initial points. Most important, Samuel's final touch – a 9-yard run on third-and-7 in the game's final minute – allowed the Niners to kill the clock before lining up for Gould's dagger at the gun. Samuel finished with 142 all-purpose yards on a night when they were very hard to come by given the frigid, snowy conditions.

Buccaneers or Rams: The 49ers' win means Sunday's Los Angeles-Tampa Bay winner will host the NFC championship game ... though it turns out Wisconsin is an inviting locale – more on that later.

Bills or Chiefs: The Bengals' win means Sunday night's Buffalo-Kansas City winner will host the AFC championship game ... though it turns out Music City is an inviting locale – more on that later.

'Money Mac': AKA Bengals rookie K Evan McPherson, who drilled all four of his field-goal attempts Saturday, including a 54-yarder and the game-winner from 52 yards. Burrow relayed that McPherson said prior to his decisive boot, "Looks like we're going to the AFC championship game." McPherson, who was the only kicker drafted in 2021 (fifth round), set a team record with nine FGs from at least 50 yards during the regular season. He's also the first kicker ever to drill at least four FGs twice in the same postseason. Are we looking at Justin Tucker's eventual successor as the league's top marksman?

Jeffery Simmons: If you didn't already recognize him as the best interior defender east of LA (and Aaron Donald), the burgeoning Titans star served a reminder with his three-sack performance that nearly wrecked Burrow and the Bengals.

Mike Hilton: Cincinnati's nickelback made the play of the game – his third-quarter interception not only a Herculean individual effort but one that snuffed a Titans drive that had reached the Bengals' 9-yard line. Just a massive momentum swing in a nip-and-tuck affair.

A.J. Brown: He was effectively Tennessee's passing attack, accounting for a franchise playoff record 142 receiving yards while cuffing a TD pass with one hand to tie the game 16-16 at the end of the third quarter.

LOSERS

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) exits the field after losing to the San Francisco 49ers during a NFC Divisional playoff football game at Lambeau Field.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) exits the field after losing to the San Francisco 49ers during a NFC Divisional playoff football game at Lambeau Field.

Aaron Rodgers: Oy vey. Hope the presumptive league MVP is immunized for the fallout that's coming in the aftermath of another disappointing playoff showing. Rodgers is now 0-4 in postseason against the 49ers, the team that opted not to draft him No. 1 overall in 2005, and has squandered the NFC's top seed all three times (2011, 2020, 2021) he's had it in his career. Saturday's loss hardly falls solely at the feet of Rodgers, who completed 20 of 29 throws for 225 yards in suboptimal passing conditions. But he knows better than anyone that more is expected of the quarterback – particularly a Packers superstar quarterback who's had the spotlight trained on him without fail for the past six months for a wide array of reasons. Now the questions about Rodgers' uncertain future begin a heckuva lot sooner than he'd hoped or certainly expected.

No. 1 seeds: We're now in Year 2 of the 14-team playoff field and quickly learning you don't want home-field advantage and the first-round bye. The Packers and Titans are both one-and-done, meaning none of the four top seeds from the past two seasons will wind up with the Lombardi Trophy. The 2020 Chiefs are the only one of the quartet to even advance to the Super Bowl. Particularly tough pill to swallow for the Packers, who were 8-0 this season at Lambeau Field ... where they've also dropped their last two postseason affairs. This marks the first time in 11 years that both top seeds fell prior to championship weekend.

Ryan Tannehill: Brutal. The Titans QB was picked on the game's first play of scrimmage, which ultimately gave Cincinnati three points. His first throw of the second half was swiped in the red zone and cost Tennessee at least three points. His final pass of the day was also intercepted, costing the Titans any shot at victory while putting the Bengals on their way to McPherson's lethal kick. After two stellar seasons in Nashville, Tannehill regressed to a form closer to what Miami Dolphins fans might recognize. This offseason is sure to come with questions about whether Tennessee should upgrade under center, but it's a virtual certainty he'll be the starter in 2022 – largely because he restructured his contract last year to accommodate the Julio Jones trade, and his $29 million salary for next season is now guaranteed.

Bengals offensive line: Nine sacks on Burrow? Tying a playoff record for most allowed? Ridiculous. It's long past the time for questioning whether Cincinnati should have taken a lineman instead of likely offensive rookie of the year Ja'Marr Chase in the 2021 draft. But the protection issue remains – many of the takedowns Burrow absorbed coming on absolute jailbreaks by Tennessee's front. And on those other (slow-developing) plays, when Burrow had no viable hot option, maybe coach Zac Taylor needs to take a hard look at some route or blocking adjustments. Burrow has been sacked at least three times in a dozen games this season and has been bagged a league-high 62 times overall.

Davante Adams: The two-time All-Pro, who had nine catches for 90 yards against the Niners, is no longer under contract in Green Bay. The Packers, who must slash more than $40 million in salary just to be compliant with cap before free agency begins, would have to cut even deeper to accommodate a franchise tag for Adams – knowing that's probably not the outcome he wants anyway. But there's no denying much is in flux with the futures of the team's two best players, Rodgers and Adams, in limbo.

Home field in Nashville: The Titans haven't won a playoff game in their own building in 19 years and now have a 2-4 playoff record at Nissan Stadium after dropping their third in a row Saturday. Tennessee is also 0-3 in three collective postseason trips as the AFC's No. 1 seed, including 2000 and 2008.

CBS' broadcast: The network's No. 2 announcing team of play-by-play man Ian Eagle and analyst Charles Davis is so good – knowledgeable, typically understated and insightful with a collective sharp wit that extends beyond football. So it was a bummer that COVID-19 protocols prevented Davis, arguably also the classiest guy you'll meet in this business, from making his final call of the season. (But it did warm the cockles of this writer's heart to hear Eagle reference "Good block from Nate Davis" and "key block" by Nate Davis, my doppelgänger offensive guard for the Titans.) [Disclaimer: I'm related neither to Charles Davis nor Nate Davis 2.0.]

D'Onta Foreman: He was pretty effective as RB Derrick Henry's replacement this season, rushing for a career-best 566 yards in nine games. The Titans understandably leaned on Henry in his first game back from foot surgery – he wasn't his normally explosive self with 62 yards (and a TD) on 20 carries – but should have worked Foreman in more considering he picked up 66 yards on four touches, including a 45-yard gallop just after halftime that was wasted by Tannehill's second INT.

N'Keal Harry: Wait, didn't his team lose last week? Yes, yes it did. Saturday was just the latest reminder that the New England Patriots selected Harry – he of the 57 receptions in three NFL seasons – with the final pick of Round 1 in the 2019 draft ... when Samuel and Brown were both still on the board.

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Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL divisional playoff winners, losers: Heartbreak for Aaron Rodgers