NFL Preview: Divisional Round
I'm starting to think it is important to have a good quarterback.
Last week: 1-4-1
Well, it wasn’t a great week for me as far as picks went. The good news is that while the picks didn’t go that well, most of the teams I suspected would advance did. The last round also solidified a lot of opinions I already had, even if they didn’t necessarily transfer into picking success last week. This week, there are a lot of interesting matchups to sort though, but the most interesting aspect is how good all the quarterbacks are. Last week eliminated every team that didn’t have a top notch QB except the Rams (if you want to consider Jared Goff top notch fine, it’s your funeral). This is why it is such a big deal that DeShaun Watson wants out of Houston. It is incredibly rare for an elite young QB to change teams (Drew Brees is the last major example of this, but it happened in large part because of a major shoulder injury. The only other example I can think of is Jay Culter. That was just because he was an ass.), and it’s almost as hard to find them in the draft. Even the Dolphins, who were seemingly ecstatic to get Tua just last draft have to consider trading for Watson, because even Tua (with his pedigree) is more likely than not to be a worse player than Watson, simply because Watson is THAT good, and we know it for certain. The teams with the best QBs win, which is why the best QB in every matchup is favored (except maybe the Brees vs. Brady one, but that is like picking which Ommegang Beer to drink, there isn’t really a wrong answer).
Best Call: Well, I only got one right, so it has to be the Saints, who easily dispatched the worst QB in the playoffs. I was also somewhat right about the feistiness of the WFT though. They gave the Bucs some trouble before being dispatched in what ended up being a push.
Worst Call: The Browns absolutely murdered the Steelers in a matchup that should be followed up by a true crime podcast. Today the Steelers fired a bunch of victi… errr… coaches, and I am assuming Tomlin had to do that to keep out of pris… his job. The truth is, however, that the Browns just had the better quarterback. Ben was totally washed. Unless the coaches were fired for failing to build a time machine (and they are being replaced by SKYNET), firing them isn’t going to help the Steelers next year. Baker’s stock is on the way up, after a year where he has shown real growth. And the best QB usually wins.
Bad beat: The Bills didn’t cover, but it never felt like they shouldn’t have been able too. They let Philip Rivers sneak his way back into the game, and never did get that game sealing INT that is a Rivers staple. It was a tough break, because I still think the Bills are pretty overwhelming, and they survived one of the toughest challenges for a young team, winning as the favorite for the first time. Many young teams have a very tough time when they move from the underdog to the favorite. Just look at the Ravens last year. The Bills made it though.
This week, we get to take advantage of one of the oldest tricks in the book. Week one of the playoffs always dramatically boosts the stock of the teams that won, causing everyone to forget why they were in the wild card round. This will affect the lines, and it will definitely cause some undeserved confidence in some teams. It might still be hard to choose, however. Look at the quarterbacks here. The last two MVPs are here, Mahomes and Jackson. The two best candidates for this year’s MVP are here, Allen and Rodgers. The all time QB stats kings are here, Brees and Brady (the GOAT). Also, Jared Goff and Baker Mayfield, while not being great players at this point, are both number 1 overall picks who have had major success at the NFL level (a Super Bowl trip for Goff and, until this year, the best rookie QB season ever from Mayfield). They don’t exactly suck. If you are wondering what it takes win the Super Bowl, the answer is: an elite QB. In the last 20 years, the Super Bowl has been won by likely future Hall of Fame QBs every year but 3. Nick Foles, Joe Flacco and Brad Johnson are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Los Angeles Rams vs. Green Bay Packers -6.5
Aaron Donald and company just absolutely wrecked one of the best QBs in the NFL last week. They have consistently dominated the competition of late, and their overall approach to defense is perfectly designed to frustrate the Packers. They have a cornerback who can match up with Devante Adams in Jalen Ramsey. They have Donald in the center to stop the run. Adams and Aaron Jones been the core of the Packers offense this year (as far as production goes). Aaron Rodgers has relied heavily on those two players to move the ball. They will also be missing multiple tackles from the offensive line, including All-Pro David Bakhtiari. Meanwhile, the Packers defense has been very bad against the run most of the year. The Rams offense is all about using the run to set up play-action. The less they demand of Goff the better.
The Packers have some things going well for them too. Aaron Rodgers was the top graded NFL player this year by PFF (tied with… Aaron Donald). The weather, as you can see from the graphic, matches what you can typically expect from Green Bay this time of year. The Packers are the classic, everyone forgets how good they have been because they didn’t play last week, team. The Rams are reliant on a player who is notoriously unreliable to move the ball in Jared Goff, and it is clear he is not 100 percent healthy.
The game: I think the Rams can cover this line, even as I think the Packers will probably win. The week off is so nice for teams at this point in the year. Still, I am really worried about this matchup for the Packers. The mix of elite defense, against which Rodgers has struggled in recent years, and the strong, committed running game are going to be tough for them (see 49ers last January). Ultimately, I think this will be surprisingly low scoring. I would take the under more than either of the two teams. I’ll go Rams +6.5 here however.
Cleveland Browns vs. Kansas City Chiefs -10
The Browns exorcised a lot of demons last week in their outright beat down of the Steelers. Two things are very clear about this Browns team. Their offensive line is very powerful, and probably the best in the league. Their play action pass/run approach is very effective. Still, no one expects them to win. Especially not this week. However, this team has all the feelings of a team of destiny after overcoming a disastrous week of COVID to come out clean on the other side of the drain pipe with Andy Dufresne. Their defense is still not good (they gave up over 30 points again) but the offense can mitigate some of that by holding the ball. The Chiefs will have to prove they can stop the run to meet this spread.
So, if the Browns give up 30 points every game, and the Chiefs get 30 points a game, I would be very concerned just how high this can all go. The Chiefs defense has been quietly good all season, keeping opponents mostly contained, even if they aren’t dominant. The big concern for them is just the line here. It’s 10 points. That might not seem like a huge thing for such a great offensive team, but the last time they won a game by two scores was November 1st. Against the Jets. Since then, the offense has sputtered a bit. Here is the good news for Chiefs fans though. Noted offensive genius Andy Reid, and his sharp minded assistant Eric Bieniemy, has had 3 weeks to sit around and think up solutions.
The game: This feels like a bad matchup for the Browns to me. Their whole thing is running the ball to set up the pass. That will work if they can get out in front and stay there, or at least close to even. The Chiefs whole thing is getting a lead very quickly and then forcing you to be one dimensional. I don’t think the Browns defense (which is bad) can keep the Chiefs offense in check long enough for them to keep their offensive game plan in place. Unlike Ben Roethlisberger, who is washed, Patrick Mahomes is extremely unwashed. Like Leo DiCaprio in The Revenant unwashed. While it is a lot of points for the Chiefs right now, I think they cover. Chiefs -10.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Buffalo Bills -3:
The Ravens stepped up in a revenge game for them against the Titans, and curb stomped their offense, which had been one of the best in the league. On the other side, Lamar Jackson did enough to get the win, showing what he can do with a dazzling run in the second quarter. While he wasn’t great throwing the ball, he was good enough. Now, they face a Bills defense that is much stronger than the Titans were. After barely squeezing out 20 points against the Titans, I am worried what will happen against a sharp, well schemed Bills unit. Plus, now that Steven A Smith said that, I would be very concerned to be the team he feels confident in.
This feels like a VERY bad situation for the Ravens. By design, they blitz constantly. That is really the heart of their defense. There is a problem here with the Bills, however. Josh Allen is massive. Big Ben big. You can’t obscure his vision by blitzing. He can take any hit, and sometimes keep going anyway. He has a missile launcher for an arm that will get to a target very quickly, allowing him that half second extra each play. The stats bear this out. He is damn near impossible to blitz. The last super blitz heavy team to face him was the Dolphins, and he absolutely destroyed what, up to that point, had been a very good defense.
The game: As if this weren’t already a bad enough matchup for the Ravens, the weather is going to be cold, snowy and windy. While both Jackson and Allen are very good runners, Allen’s more physical style, with less cut backs, is designed to work in these conditions. Lamar Jackson doesn’t know if his does, because he has NEVER in his life played in snow. As an upstate New Yorker, I have seen what southerners do while driving up here in the snow for the first time, and I expect Lamar to try something similar. By contrast, Allen has played for the Bills and went to school in Wyoming. He will be fine.
This is one of my most confident picks of the year. Bills -3.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. New Orleans Saints -3
Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
The Saints have had the Bucs number since Bruce Arians arrived. The arrival of Tom Brady had no effect, as the Bucs were obliterated in both matchups this season. The Bucs have been something of a bully, smoking bad teams, but getting beat by good ones this year. A big part of that is that their offensive struggles against good defenses. Their losses this year are to the Saints twice, the Bears, the Chiefs, and the Rams. Those were also the only good defenses they played against all year. This team can be bottled up. On the other side of the ball, they are great at stopping the run, but not good at stopping the pass. Drew Brees has 6 tds to 0 picks against them this year. The Bucs defense, while still a good unit, will be the worst unit on the field Sunday. The one things they have going for them, is that it is always hard for a team to beat another team 3 times in a year. The simple reality is that most teams don’t have much more than a 60 percent chance of winning a playoff game in any one game should be proof of why that is. There is a lot of randomness.
The problem for the Bucs with the difficulty of beating a team three times is, usually, football games between playoff teams are close. This season, the Saints/Bucs games have not been remotely close. Beyond that, the Saints have known antidotes for some of the Bucs key weapons. Marshon Lattimore covers Mike Evans like gravy on a biscuit. The Bucs leading rusher is hurt. And Drew Brees knows how to pick apart a soft secondary that trying to stop the run every play. Even further beyond that… this is it for the Saints. They are not going to be a serious contender next season. Look at that tweet. They are 100 million over the cap next year. The next closest team has almost half that amount over. They are going to have to shed a LOT of salary just to be able to have a roster. Drew Brees is almost certain to retire because of this. This is the last stand for the Saints. They have to leave everything out there this season.
The game: I just don’t see it for the Bucs. The 3 point line is more a reflection of Brady’s legacy and the Bucs recent hot streak than it is these two teams and this matchup. Nothing about their seasons up to this point gives me reason to believe the Bucs will cover. I have deep respect for Tom Brady, but I also have respect for Drew Brees. He’s no slouch. Alvin Kamara is a massive upgrade over what the Bucs have at RB, and the Saints defense is significantly better than the Bucs. Saints -3.