Green Bay Packers 20, Los Angeles Rams 17
The Packers arrive at the Divisional Round rested. That stands in contrast to the Rams, who enter this game with so many of their best players (and their top two quarterbacks) banged up.
I will go to my grave believing this would have been John Wolford’s magical playoff run if he stayed healthy, but he didn’t. Even during Jared Goff’s relief outing last week, he was slow to process his reads and his biggest play, a 44-yarder to Cooper Kupp, came on a poor throw possibly impacted by his surgically repaired thumb. The Packers’ defense improved to average late in the season and an average defense should limit this Rams group.
That doesn’t mean this will be a blowout. Watching Jalen Ramsey against Davante Adams and Aaron Donald against Aaron Rodgers will be worth the price of admission. Sean McVay hired defensive coordinator Brandon Staley largely because Staley was part of a staff that knew how to shut down a McVayian attack. Now Staley can do the same to old Rams staffer Matt LaFleur, keeping the Rams closer to a big upset than they have any right to with such a limited passing attack.
- Davante Adams will not achieve two of the three following stat categories: 9 receptions, 100 yards receiving, 1 TD. Adams only topped two of these benchmarks in the same game seven times this season. He’s going up against Jalen Ramsey, who didn’t give up those numbers once. The Rams cornerback is more likely to commit a big penalty than give up a big play.
- The Packers will not win the game by more than 7.5 points. That’s too many points to spot the best defense in football.
Baltimore Ravens 30, Buffalo Bills 28
While recency bias may be at play here, my slight edge goes to the Ravens because the Bills defense that showed up in the Wild Card Round looked too much like the Bills defense from the first half of the season. The Bills have given up more than 200 rushing yards twice this year and seven times since Sean McDermott took over. Indianapolis had chances to win last week because Buffalo’s defense was overwhelmed by a cohesive rushing attack that got to the outside in key moments.
Baltimore’s defense, meanwhile, is peaking. The Ravens won’t be able to blitz Allen into submission like they did late last regular season, but even a handful of negative plays and a turnover would be enough in a game unlikely to feature many defensive stops. Buffalo’s pass rush is also unlikely to bother Jackson, putting too much pressure on linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano to constantly save the day.
Allen is the X-factor. In a quarterback league, no one is playing better. Even if the Ravens have the right game plan, he can make plays that are impossible to defend outside the pocket. The same could be said about Jackson, even if the Ravens’ passing game is more sporadic. This may be the best matchup of young, mobile quarterbacks in nfl playoff history, and I’m just thrilled to watch it no matter what happens.
- Josh Allen will have more combined passing and rushing yards than Lamar Jackson. I love Jackson, but Allen had over 1,000 combined yards more than him in the regular season. Allen’s legs also figure to be a big factor in the playoffs, like last week.
- The total points scored in the game will be more than 50.5. Bizarre number, which should be close to 56. Great offense beats good defense in 2021.
Kansas City Chiefs 34, Cleveland Browns 30
In theory, this is the biggest mismatch of the Divisional Round. In reality, it pits the two worst defenses left in the playoffs against two elite offenses. Points will be scored.
After a strong start to the year, Kansas City’s defense quietly collapsed because it can’t pressure the passer beyond Chris Jones and its linebackers often play out of position. Enter Kevin Stefanski’s offense, which is expert at finding mismatches. After a week where Baker Mayfield literally wasn’t touched by the Steelers, it’s hard to imagine the Chiefs bothering the cohesive Browns group up front. Mayfield is throwing the ball well and adding in some second-reaction plays that, while not exactly Mahomesian, have helped the Browns control the ball. The combination of limiting possessions while staying aggressive offensively is a Raiders-like recipe to make Chiefs fans nervous in the fourth quarter, like they have been all year.
There is a theory that the Chiefs have been playing possum all season, somehow only motivated enough to barely beat teams like the Falcons and Broncos. I don’t buy that, but I do believe the team that wins in Arrowhead has to present more defensive challenges to Patrick Mahomes than this Browns group is capable of, even with Denzel Ward and slot corner Kevin Johnson back this week. There are no moral victories in January, but it’s amazing this Browns offense is already good enough to win a Super Bowl even without Odell Beckham on the field.
- Tyreek Hill will not score the first touchdown for the Chiefs. This is a wild one. You get Travis Kelce and the field against Hill, which is an unfair matchup.
- Patrick Mahomes will throw fewer than 3.5 touchdowns. I know the Browns’ defense is rough, but throwing for four touchdowns is extremely rare, even for Mahomes. He did it three times in the 2020 regular season and has done it once in five postseason games.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30, New Orleans Saints 27
The Saints have to be thrilled with this matchup. Sean Payton is 4-0 against the Bruce Arians-led Buccaneers and the Saints’ 38-3 prime-time victory in Week 9 looms large. Teams that win two regular-season games against an opponent are 20-12 in the ensuing third matchup. Yet I’m picking the Bucs because the last month matters more than historical precedent, and Tom Brady is playing so much better than Drew Brees.
Any remaining doubt about the Bucs’ strong closing stretch evaporated in Washington when they put up 31 points on a top-five defense despite converting just one of five trips to the red zone. Tampa Bay’s offense is diverse enough to dominate without Ronald Jones, with Antonio Brown only playing 33 snaps and Cameron Brate going off while Rob Gronkowski does the dirty work. The Bucs’ offensive line, which will miss guard Alex Cappa, kept Brady pristine against a great pass rush.
The Saints’ front is nasty, too. Trey Hendrickson’s status is huge this week because he dominated his matchup against Donovan Smith in the regular season. Saints corner Marshon Lattimore has historically shut down Mike Evans and this is perhaps the best defense of the Brees era. But I have a hard time picking based on defense, and the Saints are working hard for their yards lately. They had seven points in their first six drives against the Bears. Brees has thrown for fewer than 7.0 yards per attempt in six of his last seven games.
If this is it for Brees, he’ll probably go out with good numbers. The Bucs’ defense, especially the pass rush, gets worse by the week. Payton knows where to find the holes in Todd Bowles’ boom-or-bust defense, exploiting linebacker Devin White in coverage last time. But the Saints’ offense has barely played with a full complement of stars all year and the unit lack’s explosion. Brady is throwing the ball as well as he has since 2017, setting up for the 43-year-old wonder to leave Brees in his shadow, like so much of the last two decades.
- Tom Brady will reach 225 passing yards before Drew Brees. Brady has the tougher matchup, but he’s playing at a far higher level.
- Alvin Kamara will not achieve at least two of three of the following stat categories: 65 rushing yards, 60 receiving yards, 2 TDs. Kamara only hit two of these three benchmarks in the same game six times this season, and the Bucs’ fun defense is good enough to scare me off.