Co-written with Mitchell Marshall
Following the marathon of madness that was the first ever six game wild card weekend, eight teams remain in contention for the Lombardi trophy. This week’s Divisional Round will feature two of the NFL’s most historic venues in Arrowhead Stadium and Lambeau Field. The top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers will host and see their first playoff action after they were rewarded with a bye in the wildcard round. Winners from each game will proceed to their respective Conference Championship games next weekend, the last step before Super Bowl LIV on 2nd February.
AFC Divisional Round
Baltimore Ravens (11-5) @ Buffalo Bills (13-3): Saturday 1st January, 1.15 at Bills Stadium, Orchard Park, NY
Lamar Jackson v Josh Allen, the thrilling dual-threat quarterbacks of the 2018 draft class do battle in Buffalo on Saturday night. Now that’s what I call entertainment.
It took a quarter of a century for the famed ‘Bills Mafia’ to witness a playoff victory and it was the usual suspects Allen and his favourite receiver Steffon Diggs who made it happen. It wasn’t pretty though and if not for two scoreless red-zone trips and a missed chip-shot field goal by the Colts, it may well have been a different story.
Brian Daboll’s Bills offense is reliant on two things, its ability to stretch the field with the fourth most completions of 20-plus yards in the NFL and play-action, something the Ravens have struggled against this season (16th overall).
This game could well be decided over what happens on third-down, with the Bills offense leading the way in that category this season and Wink Martindale’s underrated Baltimore defence second best in combating it.
What has largely gone unnoticed in recent weeks are the Bills defensive frailties having been gutted for 926 yards in their last two games and a run defence which ranks as low as 25th overall. This does not bode well against the Lamborghini of mobile quarterbacks Lamar Jackson, who torched the Titans defence last week for 136 yards and a Barry Sanders like touchdown. If the Buffalo defence does sell out to stop the Ravens league-leading rushing attack, they can take solace in that Jackson is not one of the NFL’s premier pocket passers averaging just 183.8 yards-per-game.
One thing is for certain though, this game is the most intriguing matchup of Divisional Round weekend and promises to be a classic.
Predictions – Tadhg: Ravens by 6
Mitchell: Bills by 7
Cleveland Browns (11-5) @ Kansas City Chiefs (14-2): Sunday 17th January, 20.05 at Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City Missouri
The biggest mismatch of round two features the high-powered Chiefs led by ‘The Chosen One’ Patrick Mahomes against the scrappy underdog Cleveland Browns led by ‘Nobody Believes in Me’ Baker Mayfield.
The sportsbooks favour Kansas City by 10 points and it’s hard to believe Cleveland’s porous defence can contain the number one passing offense after giving up 500 yards to Big Ben Roethlisberger last week. The last three weeks Mahomes has looked slightly more human than normal though, throwing four picks and being sacked seven times. He has not suited up in two weeks after sitting week 17 and a bye in the wildcard round. The 2018 MVP could be rusty; or he could have learned from his mistakes and recharged for another Super Bowl run.
If the Browns have any hope of being the David to KC’s Goliath, they must wear down the Chief’s defence by grinding out longer drives with their two superb running backs, Nick Chubb and former Chief Kareem Hunt. Kansas City’s lone weakness is a 21st-ranked run defence that likely cost them both losses this year, but Head Coach Andy Reid is an x-factor known for making key adjustments. In last year’s AFC Championship game, a mediocre Chief’s run defence held All-Pro Derrick Henry to just 69 yards after he averaged 189 in the first two playoff games.
Last week after building a 28-0 lead, Cleveland took their foot off the gas and allowed Pittsburgh plenty of opportunity to make things unnecessarily nervy. However, this week playing gunslinger will mean more chances for like of Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins to wreak havoc. The Browns will have their play caller and Head Coach Kevin Stefanski back after missing last week due to Covid-19 protocols.
If the Browns have a prayer, Bakers gotta bake, they must win the time of possession, and the defence needs to force turnovers from Mahomes. All of that in front of 16,000 fans at one of the fiercest home venues in the NFL.
Predictions – Tadhg : Chiefs by 14
Mitchell : Chiefs by 17
NFC Divisional Round
Los Angeles Rams (10-6) @ Green Bay Packers (13-3) : Saturday 16th January, 21.35 at Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisconsin
The irresistible force meets the immovable object, as Green Bay’s swashbuckling offense faces LA’s top-ranked defence. For many, the Packers, who sat out last week’s Wildcard Round, are the team to beat in the NFC, having won their last six comfortably.
When Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst drafted quarterback Jordan Love in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, soon to be three-time MVP Aaron Rodgers was irate. The 37- year-old duly responded by recording the second-highest-rated regular season by a quarterback in NFL history and a career-high 48 touchdowns, 18 of which to star wide receiver Davante Adams. None of that being possible without the protection afforded to him by his offensive line, which included Pro-Bowlers Corey Linsley, Elgton Jenkins and the injured David Bakhtiari.
Lambeau Field, nicknamed the ‘Frozen Tundra’, is expected to live up to its name on Saturday with bitterly cold temperatures forecast. That could have an impact on Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald who is expected to play through a torn rib cartilage. As the Rams defence led the way in last week’s Wildcard Round victory, Fox analyst Troy Aikman described Donald as ‘the best defensive player he’s ever seen’. Him and colleague Leonard Floyd have combined for a spectacular 32 sacks this season and their ability to get to Rodgers will be pivotal. The headline act though may be the heavyweight clash of shutdown corner Jalen Ramsey and Davante Adams.
As for the Rams offense, Head-Coach Sean McVeigh has not decided who will start at QB, but one could surmise that if John Wolford is passed fit after a neck injury last week, he may get the nod over Jared Goff due to his superior athletic ability. Quarterbacks who can break the pocket and downhill running-backs like star rookie Cam Aikers are exactly what the Packers defence has struggled to cope with in recent years.
Matt LaFleur’s team have not faced a defence as dominant as the Rams all season but even if the passing attack was to be stifled, he still has the three-headed monster of Aaron Jones, Jamal Williams and AJ Dillon to call upon in the run game.
Prediction – Tadhg : Packers by 7
Mitchell : Packers by 3
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) @ New Orleans Saints (12-4) : Sunday 17th January, 23.40 at Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, Louisiana
The marquee match-up of the weekend is a clash of hall of fame quarterbacks Drew Brees and Tom Brady. At 42 and 43 respectively, they are the two oldest quarterbacks in the playoffs and at 85 the oldest combination of starters… ever; for the sake of comparison the average age of all four AFC starting quarterbacks is 24.5. Brees has the most passing yards in the history of the NFL with 80,358. Second place? You guessed it, Tom Brady with 79,204. Combined that is 100.3 miles of passes according to Sky Sport’s presenter Neil Reynold. They are also first and second all-time in touchdown passes with Brady throwing 581 to Brees 571.
In the regular season there wasn’t much competition, the Saints winning 34-23 in Week One and then crushing Tampa Bay 38-3 in Week nine. A lot can change in ten weeks though and much has for the Bucs. Brady has found a rhythm with a ridiculously deep receiving core that includes Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, and Rob Gronkowski.
The key for New Orleans’s top five defence will be pressuring the nimble but slow Tom Brady. During the regular season they were 8th in sacks and 5th in QB hits. The star of this game could be underrated Saints defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who owns 13.5 sacks on the season. Dennis Allen’s Saints defence has one major weakness which must be mentioned again… they rank 29th in red-zone defence. Something tells me Tom Brady might be able to find those weak spots better than Mitchell Trubisky.
On the other side of the ball the Saint’s offense has no shortage of weapons in every facet of the game. Drew Brees and wide receiver Michael Thomas look the healthiest they have all year after serious injuries curtailed their regular season. Last week, Tampa Bay’s defence allowed 300 yards passing to Washington’s Taylor Heinicke in his first start for Ron Riviera’s team.
Watch for Todd Bowles Tampa defence to try and limit passes under ten yards. Against Chicago in the Wildcard Round, Brees was 25 of 28 under 10 yards and three of 11 on anything over. Force Brees to go long and Tampa could take down old Saint Drew.
Prediction – Tadhg : Saints by 7
Mitchell : Saints by 3
— Frank Caliendo (@FrankCaliendo) January 13, 2021
For an in-depth discussion further previewing all four games check out The Overtime Show Podcast hosted by Sports Gazette writers.