Divisional Round NFL Predictions

College football is now over and it’s time to focus exclusively on the NFL. The bad news is that we now have only 7 games remaining in the 2020-21 NFL season: 4 games in this weekend’s divisional round, 2 games on Championship Sunday, and then of course Super Bowl LV in Tampa.

The good news is that these are the 7 most compelling games of the season.

I’m going to go through the Divisional Round games in order and give my predictions for each one. I want to get deep into the weeds here.

Rams at Packers (Saturday, Jan. 16, 4:35pm EST)

Current line: Packer -6.5

Over/under: 45.5

Implied final score: 26-19 Packers

Statistical matchup (league rank in parentheses) between Packers offense and Rams defense:

Rushing YPGPassing YPGYPPScoring Drive %Points Per Game
Packers Offense132.4 (8)256.6 (9)6.3 (2)49.7% (1)31.8 (1)
Rams Defense91.2 (3)190.7 (1)4.6 (1)27.9% (1)18.5 (1)

Analysis: We are looking at a true strength vs. strength matchup here. The Packers are the #1 offense in the league and the Rams are the #1 defense in the league.

To me, this game is pretty simple. The Rams need Jalen Ramsey to clamp Davante Adams, and they need Cam Akers to have a huge day running the ball. That’s the only way they’ll win. They cannot afford to get into a shootout with Aaron Rodgers; Jared Goff is simply not healthy enough to do that. Even if he was fully healthy, I don’t think this offense is equipped to get into a shootout with Aaron Rodgers.

Plus, Jared Goff does not do well in the cold. I still remember that game from the 2018 season, when the Rams went to Chicago in December for a regular season Sunday Night Football game, and it was a complete disaster. Goff threw four picks, was sacked three times, only threw for 180 yards and posted a 19.1 passer rating. In the frigid cold, Goff looked like he wanted to be anywhere else in the world but on that football field. You could just tell he wanted no part of that cold. Sure, Bears were the best defense in the league in 2018, but I doubt even that defense would’ve held the 2018 Rams, one of the most prolific offenses of the past decade, to just 6 points if the game was played in a warmer environment. I’m assuming the Rams will have a run-heavy gameplan, but Jared Goff is still going to have to step up and make some big throws in order to win this one. Is he capable?

This game right here is the specific reason the Rams traded two first round picks for Jalen Ramsey. They got him specifically to take away the other team’s #1 receiver in a playoff game. He needs to absolutely do work on Davante Adams this Saturday or else this game will get away from the Rams.

Aaron Donald is dealing with torn rib cartilage right now but he is expected to play. He needs be wreaking havoc in the pocket all game long. He’ll be up against Packers’ Pro Bowl guard Elgton Jenkins and their All Pro center Corey Linsley, so he’s got a tall task ahead of him. But this is Aaron Donald we’re talking about. Even with an injury, this guy is one of the greatest defensive linemen in the history of the league. He will be a problem for the Packers’ offensive line no matter what.

The bigger issue for the Packers is that All Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari is done for the season after suffering a season-ending knee injury in practice on January 1. This is a huge blow for the Packers, as Bakhtiari is arguably the best offensive tackle in the NFL. The Rams will have to attack the left side of that Packers’ O-Line and attempt to exploit the fact that Bakhtiari isn’t there. The name of the game for the Rams’ defense will be to get pressure on Aaron Rodgers as much as possible. This was how the Buccaneers beat the Packers earlier in the season, and the Rams will have to take some lessons from that game if they’re going to win this week.

If Ramsey can slow down Davante, the Packers really don’t have many other perimeter weapons that can consistently get open. Which means Rodgers will have to sit back there in the pocket for longer, which will expose him to the pass rush. This is the key to the game for both the Rams and the Packers.

As for the Rams offense vs. the Packers’ defense, it’s all about Cam Akers running the ball. The Seahawks had a top-5 run defense and Akers was still able to gash them for 131 yards on 28 attempts. The Rams are going to need something similar to that in this game. The Packers’ run defense ranks 13th in rushing yards allowed, but is tied for 16th in the league in yard-per-attempt allowed at 4.5, so that’s pretty encouraging for the Rams. However, the Packers did a damn good job of containing Derrick Henry in their week 16 matchup with Tennessee, so there is reason for optimism if you’re a Packers fan. The Packers will be able to load the box up against the run since everybody in America knows the Rams are going to be running it.

Ultimately I just don’t see the Rams being able to score enough in this game. I think the Rams defense will do a good job against Rodgers, Adams, Jones and the Packers’ offense, but I think that unless they hold the Packers to like 10 points, the offense just won’t be able to score enough. I can see the Packers winning this game 20-10 or 23-13 or something like that. However, if the Rams are able to get a pick-six or force the Packers into multiple turnovers, this game completely changes.

I just see more ways for the Packers to win this game. The Rams defense is going to have to be basically perfect or else I think they’ll fall too far behind. All the Packers need to do is score ~20 points and I think they’ll win. They don’t need to be perfect. They only need to score on like 4 of their drives.

Pick: Packers 23, Rams 13

Ravens at Bills (Saturday, 8:15pm EST)

Current line: Bills -2

Over/under: 50

Implied final score: 26-24 Bills

Statistical matchup:

Passing YPGRushing YPGYPPScoring Drive %Points Per Game
Ravens Defense221 (6)108.7 (8)5.2 (7)30.0% (3)18.9 (2)
Bills Offense288.7 (3)107.7 (20)6.1 (6)49.4% (2)31.3 (2)

Analysis: This is another matchup where we’re looking at a top offense vs. a top defense.

My concern with the Bills is that they have become too one-dimensional on offense. Zack Moss is now out for the rest of the season, so their rushing attack is now just Devin Singletary and Josh Allen. The Ravens are one of the best passing defenses in the league, and so the points will not be easy to come by for the Bills. The Bills are going to have to throw it a ton in this game.

The way I see this game playing out is that the Ravens are going to be able to score points on the Bills defense, and I think the Ravens’ defense will contain Josh Allen just enough to allow Baltimore to escape with the win.

The Ravens have the #1 rushing offense in the league and the Bills have the 17th-ranked run defense. This is a problem for the Bills, because it could mean the Ravens will be able to play a ball-control game and keep the ball away from Josh Allen. Running the ball allows you to chew up clock, and you have to imagine that will be a big part of the Ravens’ gameplan. This is a strength vs. weakness matchup for Baltimore, which works in their favor.

The Ravens are one of the worst passing offenses in the league, but the Bills are also one of the worst pass defenses in the league. So Lamar might be able to have some success through the air, too. It’s a weakness vs. weakness matchup, and I don’t think it works in Buffalo’s favor. We know Baltimore is going to run the ball, and this should eventually open up the pass.

I just don’t know what matchups Buffalo will be able to exploit in this game. The one thing Buffalo does great is pass the ball, but the Ravens have a very good pass defense. I still think Buffalo will be able to move the ball and score some points, but I just think there’s more for Baltimore to exploit overall.

When this matchup was confirmed, my initial gut reaction was that I was leaning Ravens. Now I’m leaning Ravens even more after I’ve had some time to think about it. The Ravens are way better than the Bills on defense, but the Bills offense isn’t that much better than the Ravens offense. I just think the Ravens are a better and more complete team.

Before the playoffs, I predicted the Bills would represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, and I’m already giving up on them, I guess. I just think Baltimore is better, and I think the Bills were lucky to escape with a win over Indy in the Wild Card round. I just don’t have enough faith in Josh Allen to be the Great Equalizer in this game. I don’t know if I believe in him as the difference-maker who can overcome all of his team’s shortcomings. That’s what you get with a lot of great QBs like Manning, Brady, Rodgers and Mahomes: it doesn’t matter if they have an inferior defense, inferior coaching and an inferior run game–their presence alone makes their team the favorites. I don’t know if Josh Allen is that guy yet, so I’m taking the more complete team to win.

Pick: Baltimore 30, Buffalo 24

Browns at Chiefs (Sunday, Jan. 17, 3:05pm EST)

Current line: Chiefs -10

Over/under: 56

Implied final score: 33-23 Chiefs

Analysis: This is the biggest spread of the weekend. Vegas thinks the Browns have absolutely no shot in this game. But wasn’t that what we thought about about the Browns-Steelers game?

This -10 line is based on a big assumption: that the Chiefs will be back to their normal selves after kinda sleepwalking through the end of the regular season. Vegas clearly believes they’ll flip the switch now that the playoffs have begun.

The Chiefs gave Patrick Mahomes (as well as Tyrann Mathieu and some other key players) week 17 off, meaning those two will have not played an NFL game since December 27. That’ll be a 21 day layoff for them by the time this Divisional Playoff game kicks off. Is rust going to be a factor?

CEH has been limited in practice this week after suffering an injury during the Chiefs’ win over the Saints in week 15, is he going to be fully healthy? If not, can Lev Bell handle the full workload? It’s hard to win in the playoffs if you’re one-dimensional, even if you’re the Chiefs. They need to have some running presence.

Meanwhile, the Browns get their top cornerback Denzel Ward back, which is big because they’re going to need him to shadow Tyreek Hill. They also get nickelback Kevin Johnson back. Cleveland needs all the DBs they can get for this game. But the important matchup for the Browns’ defense is at the line. Myles Garrett, Sheldon Richardson and the D-Line will need to be in Mahomes’ face all game long. I know Mahomes is great at buying time and escaping the pocket, but you can’t just let him sit back there and pick you apart. There’s really no good way to deal with Patrick Mahomes, but the least-bad option is to put pressure on him (while also containing him in the pocket and preventing him from rolling out) and hoping you can get to him before he can find Tyreek Hill deep. You just can’t give him 3-4 seconds to throw because in that time frame, Tyreek Hill will get open downfield and Mahomes will find him on a deep shot. So Myles Garrett is going to have to ball out. The good news for the Browns is that the Chiefs’ starting right tackle Mitchell Schwartz will be out for this game as he continues to deal with a back injury that has lingered since week 7. That’ll make life easier on the Browns’ edge rushers.

The thing is, though, we can talk about the Browns’ defense’s chances of slowing down KC all we want, but it’s probably not going to happen. Their defense has never really been that great this season, and I don’t think this is the week they are going to transform into an elite unit. If the Browns are going to win this game they will need to score a lot of points. The best they can hope for from their defense is a few big stops to hold Kansas City around or slightly under 30 points. So the real question is whether the Browns will be able to move the ball effectively against the Chiefs’ defense. Kansas City has been weak against the run this season, but nobody has really been able to exploit that because most teams that play the Chiefs find themselves behind early in the game and have to go to a pass-heavy game script to catch up.

The Browns are going to lean on Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt heavily in this game. Kareem has the extra “revenge” motivation going against his former team, so I expect him to have a big day. And we know what a beast Nick Chubb is. These guys are going to have to run all over the Chiefs’ defense. The Browns have no choice but to play a ball-control game as much as possible, because you have zero chance of winning if Kansas City is holding on to the ball all game. I know ball control doesn’t really work against Kansas City because their offense can score so quickly, but it’s better than the alternative. Atlanta nearly beat Kansas City in week 16 and a big part of it was that Atlanta held the ball for 33 minutes to the Chiefs’ 27.

I didn’t even realize it until now but actually a big part of the Chiefs’ gameplan is dominating time of possession. Against the Saints, Kansas City held the ball for 41 minutes to New Orleans’ 19. Against the Bucs, Kansas City won time of possession 37-23. But when the Chiefs nearly lost to the Panthers in the middle of the year, the Panthers won time of possession 38-22. The Browns will need to flip the script here.

Winning time of possession is not a guaranteed way to beat the Chiefs, but it’s your best bet. The Browns’ offense has been highly effective lately. If they could move it on the Steelers, they’ll be able to move it on the Chiefs. I think the Browns will be able to score some points. They’re going to need Baker to be on his A+ game, but he’s been lighting it up lately and really seems to have figured it out. They will rely on him for big third down throws to stay on the field and, more importantly, keeping Kansas City’s offense on the sidelines. But Baker, as good as he’s looked lately, will probably not win a shootout with Patrick Mahomes. The Browns will have to lean on the run, convert third downs, keep the Chiefs off the field, and hope for a few big stops on defense to keep Kansas City under 30.

Basically, everybody on the Browns needs to ball out. I guess that’s pretty obvious, but it’s really the only way they’ll have a chance to win. They will need at least a turnover, maybe two, to turn the tide in their favor.

That said, I think the Chiefs will be their usual selves in this game. Now that the playoffs have begun, I think they’re going to be fully dialed-in. That’s my gut feeling here, because my theory on why they looked so flat and uninspired in the regular season is that they were just waiting for the playoffs. Look, it’s possible Kansas City cannot flip the switch and the team we saw struggling in the regular season is simply who they are now, but I’m not going to bet against them. Excluding the week 17 loss to the Chargers where they benched Mahomes and other starters, the Chiefs are 23-1 in their last 24 games including the Super Bowl run. That’s hard to bet against.

Now, it’s true that the Chiefs haven’t won a game by more than 6 points since week 8 against the Jets, but I’m thinking we see the “old” Chiefs now that the playoffs are here. By “old” I mean the dominant Chiefs.

There are basically two theories on the Kansas City Chiefs right now. The first is that they are the next great NFL dynasty and will dominate the league for the next 5+ years and rewrite all the offensive record books. This theory is based on the belief that Patrick Mahomes is a transcendently great QB talent, completely unprecedented, and will redefine the position. The NFL has never seen anything like him before and he is so good that he is completely unstoppable when he wants to be. The reason they were so spotty this season is because of the typical Super Bowl hangover, and even then they went 14-1 in games they were trying to win. Face it: the Chiefs are completely unbeatable.

The second is that the Chiefs simply caught lightning in a bottle for a couple seasons, kind of like the Greatest Show on Turf, but now the league is catching up to them. Yes, Patrick Mahomes is great, but he’s not this unstoppable machine that can not and will not ever be stopped. Nobody has ever been that kind of player. People thought the same thing about Aaron Rodgers in 2011, and he came back to earth. They always do. So stop acting like the Chiefs can’t lose. They’re not magic. Eventually the league will figure them out. And given how close a lot of their recent games have been, it looks like the league has just about done so. The clock is about to strike midnight on them. Kansas City is ripe for an upset.

I’d consider myself a little of both. I think Kansas City is incredible and that we’ll see a different team in the playoffs, but I also believe the league will eventually catch up to Kansas City. Just not this week.

Pick: Chiefs 34, Browns 24.

Buccaneers at Saints (Sunday, 6:40pm EST)

Current line: Saints -3

Over/under: 51.5

Implied final score: 27-24 Saints

Analysis: I don’t know why this game is so hard to pick. I should be able to just say, “The Saints dominated the Bucs in both their matchups this season, I’m taking the Saints to complete the trifecta.”

Plus the Bucs are only 1-5 against playoff teams this year, beating the Packers but losing to the Saints twice, the Bears, the Rams and the Chiefs.

But Tampa has the GOAT. And it’s hard to see the GOAT losing to the same team three times in a season.

I don’t want to bet against the GOAT, but I also don’t know if I fully trust Tampa.

It’s true that their offense has been on fire lately, but their last four games have been against some bad teams: Vikings, Falcons, Lions, Falcons. People are acting like Tampa’s offense has turned a corner because of how great it looked in those four games, but Tampa’s offense has looked great against bad defenses all season long. They’ve beaten up on the Panthers a couple times and blew out the Raiders early in the season. But we still have no proof they can take care of business against a defense like New Orleans.

A lot of times when a team suddenly looks a lot better or a lot worse in the middle of the season, it’s not a matter of the team “turning a corner” or “figuring it out” as much as it is a function of strength of schedule. Tampa had a 1-3 stretch from week 9-12 and people were acting like they suddenly took a nosedive as a team, but the simpler explanation is that they played the Saints, Panthers, Rams and Chiefs from week 9-12, with their only win being the Panthers game. They didn’t get worse; they just played three superior teams in four weeks.

And over the final four weeks of the season, I don’t think the Bucs got better as a team. They just played 4 bad teams and beat up on them all.

Yes, Tampa did molly-whoop the Packers in week 6, but Tampa also got a pick six and another interception that was returned to inside the Green Bay 5 yard line in that game. Essentially two pick sixes. I know Tampa dominated the rest of the game, too, but I wonder if that game would’ve been different without the two picks. Aaron Rodgers almost never throws picks (48 TDs vs. 5 INTs this season), so to get two off him in one game is highly irregular and not something you can count on happening again. Tampa was behind 10-0 after the first quarter in that game and if not for the picks, that game could’ve gone south for them real quickly.

But what we really have to look at here is the week 9 Saints-Bucs matchup. It was a complete domination, with the Saints winning 38-3. We know the Saints aren’t that much better than the Bucs, so I don’t want to take too much away from that game. It seemed like everything went right for the Saints and everything went wrong for the Bucs. When that happens, you can end up with a score like 38-3. But in most NFL games, each team gets its fair share of good and bad breaks. I’m sure this playoff matchup will be a closer game.

In the week 9 game, the Bucs gained a grand total of 15 yards on their first 4 offensive possessions of the game. By the time the Bucs got the ball on their 5th possession, New Orleans was already up 21-0. On that 5th drive, Brady threw a really fluky INT. It was a batted ball at the line that somehow another Saints D-lineman was able to snag out of the air. Stuff like that doesn’t happen often. The Saints got the ball at the Tampa 27 and scored a TD 5 plays later. On Tampa’s next four possessions, they got to the New Orleans 38, 43, 1 and 42 yet came away with 0 points.

Tampa only ran for 8 yards in that game, but that’s mostly because they only tried to run the ball 5 times. That is not a typo. They had 5 rushing attempts in the game. It was just a terrible game for them all around. I think they got outcoached and outplayed, plus they had terrible luck.

If there are any things you can take away from the game, it’s that Drew Brees picked apart the Tampa secondary, and the normally stout Tampa run defense got gashed for 138 yards in the game. The Saints seem to know exactly how to attack the Tampa defense. Tampa’s defense has given up 30 or more points in only three games this season, and two of those games were against the Saints.

Conventional wisdom would say it’s hard to beat a team twice, much less three times, in one season and that Tampa will make some adjustments and get their revenge here in the playoffs. But I thought Tampa would’ve made adjustments for the week 9 matchup after losing 34-23 in week 1, and the Bucs looked worse in the second game than they did in the first. Maybe New Orleans just has Tampa’s number. Maybe New Orleans is the one team Tampa just doesn’t match up with. After all, Tampa’s three other losses this season were by a combined 7 points, but New Orleans has outscored them by a combined 46 points in their two games. (And the week 1 game was even more lopsided than the final score showed: Tampa added a late garbage time TD to make it 34-23).

I’m pessimistic about the Bucs is that I just don’t trust their secondary at all. Tampa has a below-average pass defense and it hasn’t gotten better this year. It’s a big liability for them and has been all season. I don’t see that changing now. Brees was able to pick them apart. He was 26/32 for 222 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs, 1 sack and a 98.5 QBR. Tampa only had 3 QB hits on Brees, while New Orleans hit Brady 9 times on his 38 dropbacks, or almost 1/4 of them. Tampa was the #1 run defense in the league this season but New Orleans didn’t seem to notice as they ran for 138 yards.

Plus, the Saints have been able to neutralize the Bucs’ pass rush by running a bunch of quick passing plays and timing routes. The pass rush can’t get home if Brees is getting the ball out quickly. The Bucs are going to have to jam the Saints’ receivers at the line and disrupt the timing routes for just long enough to allow the pass rush to get home. They need Drew Brees lingering in the pocket.

The problem is, Tampa hasn’t been able to do this in their prior two meetings with New Orleans this year. I keep going back to those two games but how can I not? I just think Payton and Brees are too smart. They’re not going to let that pass rush get home. And if Tampa’s pass rush can’t get to the QB, their secondary will get shredded.

On top of all this, New Orleans might actually be the more motivated team given that this is probably Drew Brees’ last hurrah in the NFL. And they’re playing at home. Unless the Rams upset the Packers, this will be Drew’s last game ever in the Superdome, win or lose. Even without a sold out crowd going crazy, it’s still going to be a very emotional moment for Brees and that whole team.

The more I think about this game the less I like Tampa’s chances. I know they have the GOAT, and that definitely counts for a lot, but I just think the Saints have their number this year. It’ll be closer than the prior two meetings, but the result will be the same.

Pick: Saints 27, Bucs 20.

Octavian

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