All four divisional games spanning Saturday & Sunday have key elements and impact players whose stats can shed light on who has any chance of pulling off an upset this weekend.
The Divisional Round is finally upon us! Praise the football overlords for allowing the 2020-21 season to transpire the way it did and for giving the Chiefs an extra week of rest before their matchup with the surging Cleveland Browns.
The Chiefs-Browns game is just one of four win-or-go-home matchups this weekend, all having their own respective problems and solutions to look at, and with those problems come preparation and planning unlike the regular season.
Throughout this Staturday edition, I’m going to lay out what to watch for in each game and why, much like last week, hopefully shedding some sort of light on something, or someone, that could completely change the pace, score, and feel of each game.
#6 Los Angeles Rams @ #1 Green Bay Packers (-7) – Saturday, 4:35 ET
The Rams defense held strong last week, keeping Russell Wilson, D.K. Metcalf & Tyler Lockett tied down for the most part, but this week’s situation is a little different.
The Rams have played the Packers a lot since their first meeting in 1937 (95 times to be exact) but they have not played them since 2018. They haven’t played them in the playoffs since the 45-17 romping of Green Bay back in the 2001 NFC Divisional game where the Rams forced eight (!) turnovers.
So in a game where Aaron Rodgers has been resting and Aaron Donald has been housing a rib injury he sustained last week, what should viewers watch for, especially if their team is still in the playoffs?
The key to this game is Jalen Ramsey versus Davante Adams–which I’m sure many people were already preparing for–but the trick to the Rams’ upset is Ramsey giving the WR1 enough trouble to keep Rodgers from aiming in his direction.
That sounds easy enough, considering Ramsey is having an insane defensive year, stat-wise, but it’s been overshadowed by Aaron Donald’s brute intensity and ecstatic performances as well as the overall tenacity of the Rams’ defense all year.
Ramsey hasn’t allowed a 50-yard receiver since Amari Cooper in the first week of the season, and he’s covered some of the best WRs in the league this year: Mike Evans (4 receptions/40 yds), Stefon Diggs (1 recs/4 yds), D.K. Metcalf (4 recs/44 yds), and the list goes on and on–in fact, he’s averaging 20 yds/gm against him when targeted. This means Rodgers needs a backup plan.
On the other side of the field there’s Adams, who’s had the best season of his career in almost every category, he ranks 1st in TD receptions (18) this year, 5th in receiving yards (1,374), and 2nd in receptions (115). Currently, he’s averaging 98.1 yds/gm, which is 1st in the NFL among WRs who started 15+ games and anyone covering him has, for the most part, looked foolish or gotten exposed heavily.
When people talk about “Aaron Rodgers’ weapons” they tend to focus intently on Adams and RB Aaron Jones, and that’s exactly what the Rams should do when preparing for this Divisional matchup. If Adams can be shut down, then the main threat to contain is the running game–which Aaron Donald and the #1 rush defense (according to Lineups)are definitely capable of doing.
If Adams stays contained, and Aaron Donald is playing at even 80% of his ability, then the Rams have a legitimate chance at upsetting a rested Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
#5 Baltimore Ravens @ #2 Buffalo Bills (-3) – Saturday, 8:15 ET
Buffalo looked incomplete and caught with their pants down for most of last week’s game. They seemed to be lacking their usual prowess and although the stats may look like Buffalo balled out and won outright–especially with QB Josh Allen throwing for 324 & 2 TDs and WR Diggs hauling in 128 & a TD–that was not the case at all.
The game against the Colts showed a lot to the AFC teams that will have to face them, including their opponent this week, and although they came away with their first playoff win in 25 years, the game showed that the Bills defense has trouble written all over it, especially against the run.
That is the key to this matchup, the thing that will make or break either of the Cinderella stories that these QBs have brought to fruition, the thing to watch for from the first snap till the last second ticks off the clock: How the Bills control the running game of Baltimore.
If there is a team in the NFL that everyone expects to run the ball, it’s the Baltimore Ravens. They led the league in rushing yards (3,071) and ran the ball a league-leading 55.82% of the time (according to TeamRankings). On top of that, they’ve actually rushed the ball MORE (63.5%) in the past three weeks while the pressure and spotlight have been on them.
The Bills defense is ranked 17th against the run and has the 5th-most rushing TDs scored on them, but all is not lost because their pass defense is bolstered with experienced talent like Josh Norman and Micah Hyde which has led them to pick the ball off 15 times (T-3rd in the league).
Now even though Lamar Jackson broke his playoff “curse” and simultaneously silenced the narratives about his ability to play from behind, this game still rides on his ability to control the ball and the time of possession–something he’s excelled at since he came in the league.
The Bills have the ability to gain momentum early though, especially with an air-raid onslaught that has devoured secondaries better than Baltimore’s, because their offense can score much like Kansas City’s–whenever (they lead the AFC in explosive pass plays (70).
This means that Lamar’s running-while-behind offense from last week might have to be brought back, something that I’m sure the Bills’ defense is hoping for and preparing for.
Could Lamar do it again if it happened though? The Bills defense is better than the Titans’ team they played just a week ago, especially against the pass, meaning if this becomes a shootout late in the game Lamar is going to have to make magic happen with his legs and his arm. How the Bills defense reacts is the key.
#6 Cleveland Browns @ #1 Kansas City Chiefs (-10) – Sunday, 3:05 ET
Cleveland did it. They beat the overhyped, underwhelming Steelers and Big Ben Roethlisberger threw four interceptions, which is impressive for the defense all things considered. They should be celebrating like they have all week, and they should be hyped about their story so far this postseason, especially after a huge blowout win against Pittsburgh.
But the Chiefs are not the Steelers, even if we are relying on RB Le’veon Bell to pick up the slack a little more than he has so far this season, and for that reason, one would rightfully think that the Browns’ are going to bring their all–even more than they did last week–and try to knock off the champs.
If you read my stats and score prediction, then you’ll know I predict the Chiefs to win close but hold a large lead early in the game like they tend to do. While there are so many fun stories this game holds–Kareem’s “personal” beef, the Mayfield/Mahomes Round Three, Stefanski’s first real playoff game as HC–the main thing to watch for in this game is this: how does Cleveland play if they fall behind?
Kansas City fans have had to deal with heart-attack-inducing endings to games all season, causing some to doubt their ability to win big like they did last season and causing some to ponder if Reid and Mahomes were playing down to the level of their competition and keeping the best plays stored for moments like this.
With that being said, opposing QBs have had to play from behind by at least 10 points in 10 of Mahomes’ 15 games this season. So how does Cleveland look when it’s time to rely on Baker Mayfield’s arm instead of RB Nick Chubb’s and former Chief RB Kareem Hunt’s legs?
Overall, Baker has some of the best talent around the league, yet he hasn’t performed to the level of a #1 overall pick, only throwing for 3,563 yds (18th) and 26 TDs (T-12th), and while he looks great occasionally, it is when he is behind that he tends to make mistakes, especially without the reliability of the running game fueling the offense.
Rookie CB L’Jarius Sneed and a well-rested Tyrann Mathieu will be prepared for the likes of Jarvis Landry, who only has 4 TDs and 932 receiving yds (including the postseason), and hopefully Dan Sorenson can clean up his missed tackle problem (he has a team-high 14 on the season) so that Baker’s checkdowns to his dangerous running backs don’t get too far.
If the Chiefs offense can do what they do best–namely, bombard the secondary and confuse the defense all the way to speedy TDs–and get ahead of the Browns early, then the deadly Cleveland running game will have to take a backseat to Mayfield’s arm talent and decision-making. That will be where the game is won or lost for the Browns.
#5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ #2 New Orleans Saints (-3.5) – Sunday, 6:40 ET
The battle of the two oldest QBs in the league is slated to finish out the Divisional rounds, most likely because this will probably be the last time we see the two greats go at it again.
While it will be a sobering, somber moment to watch both these Hall of Famers sling it against each other one final time, it is still a game that holds a lot of key players and deciding factors that aren’t named Brady or Brees.
The key aspect of this game is the offensive lines of both teams and how well-protected their aging QB stays throughout the game, especially with the news that Tampa Bay’s both defensive linemen Jason Pierre-Paul (knee) & Ndamukong Suh will be expected to play.
As I stated last week, the Bucs’ offensive line is really good, ranked in the top five in almost every statistic that they can give an OL, especially with the rising talent of RT Tristan Wirfs. But the right side of the line also has a new addition to it, Aaron Stinnie, who will be replacing RG Alex Cappa after he fractured his ankle during the Wild Card matchup against Washington.
This means DE Cam Jordan (7.5 sacks), DT David Onyemata (6.5 sacks), and possibly one of their talented DBs–all of which have plenty of postseason experience & experience against Tom Brady (2-0 this season vs TB)–will all be trying to attack the right side of Brady’s security blanket,
On the other side of the ball, the Saints’ offensive line will have to try and thwart off the Bucs defense which racked up 50 sacks so far this season (4th-most in the league) and they don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
And if it wasn’t obvious enough already, it’s very important that if either of these QBs get hit, they do not get hit like they’re 20-somethings, a trait that Tom Brady has perfected over the years, especially considering Brees’ recent rib injury.
Every offensive lineman on both sides of the field should acknowledge that if they let even one sack get past them, it could be the last time they are able to protect that QB…(okay that was a little exaggerated but come on, they’re old).
This weekend’s slate of games is definitely going to be interesting, some will most likely be extremely close, and some look like they could get away from certain teams quickly.
This week is also interesting because the NFC Divisional rounds contain the oldest average age of starting QBs in NFL history (37 yrs, 77 days) while the AFC is filled with nothing but 24 & 25 year-olds. Also on the NFC side, every QB has at least one Super Bowl trip in their career–meaning the playoff experience is much deeper on the NFC’s side than the AFC (only Mahomes has made it past the Divisional round).
If the teams prepare correctly and execute to the best of their ability, then there’s a good chance they’ll come out on top…but everyone knows just how crazy, unprecedented, fickle, and sometimes miraculous the NFL playoffs can be.