DIVISIONAL ROUND: Wildcard weekend doesn’t include the top seeds. Championship Sunday is just one day, and only features four teams. The Super Bowl, of course, is only one game, and the game itself often feels secondary in importance to all the surrounding hype and pageantry. But this weekend– Divisional Round weekend– is just about perfect. There’s plenty of variety, the best teams are all in action, major upsets often happen, and the players are all business– there will be no postgame champagne toasts, because everyone knows that one more victory is required to reach the sport’s ultimate stage. This, undoubtedly, is the best football weekend of the year.
All four games have ready-made storylines: Aaron Rodgers vs. Aaron Donald and the tremendous Rams D on a frigid day at Lambeau; two of the games most exciting young quarterbacks– similar in many ways, opposites in many others– meet in Buffalo is the biggest game of either’s career thus far; the NFL’s best team and most transcendent player face an opponent that, stylistically, may be their kryptonite; and then there’s the weekend’s final game, a read-about-it-in-the-history-books clash of two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, with both surrounded by enough talent to carry them to the Super Bowl and a storybook final act. If these games don’t get your blood pumping as a football fan, you might want to find another sport to watch.
Last week went pretty much according to plan, as we went 4-2 against the number and lost the ones we were most nervous about (Tennessee, Pittsburgh). There’s no magic formula or secret edge this time of year; the lines are sharp, everyone has seen the teams and has access to the same information, and the players and coaches have no agenda other than winning. Here are my thoughts on all four of this weekend’s games:
Los Angeles Rams @ Green Bay Packers- Saturday, 21:35 GMT
Line: Green Bay -6.5, 46.5
This game features the NFL’s top-scoring offense against the defense that led the league in points allowed, and it’s going to be cold and wet in Green Bay on Saturday, with near-freezing temperatures and snow/rain showers expected. Normally one might think that would be an advantage for the defense, and indeed it may help the Rams in slowing down Aaron Rodgers and the high-scoring Pack, but it will also help the Green Bay defense, of course, and Rams quarterback Jared Goff, a California kid who has struggled in cold weather as a pro, will be attempting to grip the cold, wet ball with a broken thumb on his throwing hand. The thumb concerned L.A. coach Sean McVay enough last week that he elected to give young Jon Wolford his second career start instead of chancing it with Goff, and though Goff ended up relieving Wolford and playing fairly well, it’s difficult to trust him in this spot, all things considered (and by “all things”, I mean his inconsistent play over the second half of the season in addition to the thumb/cold issue). Plus, the Packers are better than people realize in the secondary, as they allowed just 221.2 pass yards per game this season, the 7th-best mark in the league. I simply don’t have much faith in the L.A. offense in this situation, and even if the defense is able to frustrate Rodgers, can they possibly keep an offense this explosive down the whole game? I have my doubts.
Prediction: Green Bay 27, Los Angeles 16
Baltimore Ravens @ Buffalo Bills- Sunday, 01:15 GMT
Line: Buffalo -2.5 (49)
Though the Sunday night battle of the Hall of Famers has been circled as this week’s feature game, the one I’m most looking forward to is the Saturday night showdown in Buffalo, where two young quarterbacks who have really made their mark in the league over the past couple of seasons will look to put on a show. Despite both defenses being talented and well-coached, I do expect a high-scoring game here, as I’m not sure the Buffalo front seven is going to able to deal with Lamar Jackson’s mobility, while no defense in the league seems to have an answer for Josh Allen and the Bills at the moment. The Bills have now put up 26 points or more in nine consecutive games, their longest such streak since Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas were slicing up opposing defenses in the 90s, and Allen has blossomed from a raw, run-first playmaker into a sort of “super QB” with the arm of Dan Marino and the legs of Randall Cunningham. Hyperbole, you say? If you’ve seen Allen play lately, you know it’s not too far off the mark. And to me, that is the primary difference between these teams: Buffalo now has not only a functional passing attack, but an explosive one that features one of the NFL’s most dangerous perimeter weapons in Stefon Diggs, while the Ravens are still extremely one-dimensional on offense, ranking last in the NFL in passing yards but first in rushing. Baltimore’s “one dimension” is usually good enough to win, but I don’t know if it’ll be enough to derail the Buffalo freight train. The Bills have the look of a Super Bowl team.
Prediction: Buffalo 34, Baltimore 27
Cleveland Browns @ Kansas City Chiefs- Sunday, 20:05 GMT
Line: Kansas City -10.5, 57.5
The Chiefs had won 10 straight games prior to resting their key starters in a Week 17 loss to L.A., and the Patrick Mahomes-led offense, which led the NFL in total yards this season with over 415 per game, has proven to be an unsolvable riddle for defenses around the league. Don’t expect Cleveland to have any answers– the Browns were vulnerable in the secondary this season, and with the two-deep zone they’re likely to employ to limit big plays downfield, Travis Kelce and the KC intermediate passing game should feast. But the Browns should have some answers on the other side of the ball– they have the best RB tandem in the NFL, and coach Kevin Stefanski likes to throw early, softening opposing defenses up a bit, before pounding them to dust with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. This strategy has been extremely successful, as the Browns have been ruthlessly efficient on offense, leading the NFL in red zone touchdown rate. And as great as the Chiefs offense has been, it has not translated into a whole lot of big wins– as a matter of fact, each of Kansas City’s last seven victories has come by 6 points or fewer, which should give anyone thinking about laying a double-digit number a little pause. I’ll be surprised if Cleveland is able to pull off the outright upset, but I expect a close, competitive game here, with Stefanski doing all he can to control the ball and limit Kansas City’s time of possession.
Prediction: Kansas City 35, Cleveland 31
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ New Orleans Saints- Sunday, 23:40 GMT
Line: New Orleans -3, 52
It doesn’t get much better than this, does it? Two legends on the homestretch of their careers, both leading teams talented enough to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, facing off in primetime with a trip to the NFC Championship game on the line. The Saints easily handled the Bucs in the teams’ first two meetings this season, winning 34-23 back in Week 1 and 38-3 in Week 9, as the Tampa offensive line had tremendous difficulty blocking the defensive front seven of New Orleans. Tom Brady was harried and roughed up in both games, throwing a combined 5 interceptions, and the Bucs rushed for just 90 combined yards on 39 carries. But the Tampa offense really found its rhythm over the second half of the season, and Brady has been playing at an elite level over the last couple of months, finishing the season ranked third in the league in passing yards and throwing for 40 touchdowns, the second-highest total of his illustrious career. The emergence of Antonio Brown has made the Bucs passing attack downright scary, which stands in stark contrast to the way the New Orleans offense has evolved– the Saints want to pound the ball with Alvin Kamara, Latavius Murray, and Taysom Hill, and that might be just about all they CAN do at this point, because Drew Brees has looked disturbingly… well, old since returning from an injury that cost him several games. He’s never had a particularly strong arm, which is now more evident than ever, and though his intelligence and accuracy on short throws is still intact, you no longer get the sense that the Saints can stretch a defense. They basically dink-and-dunk their way down the field, which is good enough to win most weeks, but this isn’t most weeks– Tampa has been rolling, and Brady has his eyes on the prize. Longtime readers know I loathe to pick against Brees in the Superdome, but I’ve got a funny feeling that the clock has finally run out on these Saints.
Prediction: Tampa Bay 30, New Orleans 28