By: Charlie Mullan (Twitter: @charliepmullan)
After a thrilling and compelling Super Wild Card weekend, the NFL playoffs move on to the Divisional round hoping for even more drama. Each conference is down to the final four teams and we will highlight the key for each team to make it to Tampa Bay on February 7 for Super Bowl LV.
Kansas City Chiefs
Let’s start with the champions Chiefs. Kansas City head coach Andy Reid proved his brilliance to win the franchise’s first Vince Lombardi trophy in 50 years last season. Reid is not afraid to allow Patrick Mahomes to improvise under center. Ahead of this weekend’s home game with the Browns, Reid will hope to improve his personal record to 19-3 in games after a bye week.
Reid’s players will be fresh and we can expect more creative plays to help them reach their third successive AFC Championship game. Last season, the Chiefs won all three playoff games by coming from double-digit deficits to be crowned champions but they cannot continue to rely on their powers of recovery.
The Chiefs could do with starting faster after scoring the first points in six of their 16 games this season. Opposition teams have had plenty of time to figure out a way of stopping the Chiefs from finding a way back into games.
The Chiefs host the Browns this weekend in what could be one of the best match-ups of the weekend. Cleveland erased 26 years of hurt and 26 years of missing out on the playoffs by beating the Steelers 48-37 at Heinz Field. The Browns defense set the tone in the first quarter forcing three turnovers en route to establishing a 28-0 lead that the Steelers never recovered from. But it was also Cleveland’s defense that also allowed the Steelers to close to within 11 points of them.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski will be back on the sidelines following his positive Covid-19 test and he will hope his side can improve their third and fourth down efficiency. Of the eight teams remaining in this season’s playoffs, the Browns rank last in stopping their opponents on third down (43.9%) and last in fourth-down stops (81.5%). And they are also the worst at trying to convert fourth down with a success rate of just 33.3%.
Buffalo’s reward for beating the Colts last weekend, is a second playoff game at home after going 8,779 days without a postseason game in Orchard Park. The Bills are not just here to make up the numbers and they will fancy their chances against the Ravens. If Buffalo is to advance to the Conference game, QB Josh Allen needs to be at his very best, which he has been for the last couple of months.
Allen led the Bills with 54 rushing yards last week against the Colts and he also found the endzone on a five-yard dash. His ability to run will be crucial this weekend too. Allen cannot do things on his own. He needs his defense to step up after giving up 26 and 24 points in their last two games.
One of the Bills’ strengths this season has been their ability to shut down opponents early. They led the league in allowing just 3.1 points in the first quarter throughout the regular season and they limited the Colts to a field goal in the opening 15 minutes last week.
There is an argument that Buffalo has been playing the best football of any team in recent weeks, but Baltimore might want to challenge them on that. The Ravens have won their last six and Lamar Jackson is back to his ‘Lamarvelous’ best when he won the MVP award last season.
This season has seen a record 128 rushing TDs scored by QBs with Jackson contributing eight of those. A stunning 48-yard rushing score was the perfect way to silence Jackson’s critics who said he was unable to win a play-off game. Jackson was the only QB to rush for over 1,000 yards this year which is a milestone he also achieved last season. It’s no surprise that Baltimore led the league with a higher percentage (55.9%) of running plays than any other team.
Another key to the Ravens achieving their ultimate goal this season will be their ability to score points in each quarter. Baltimore has managed to post points in 56 (87.5%) of the 64 quarters they played during the regular season which is the most in the NFL this season.
Green Bay Packers
Switching to the NFC, the Packers enter the postseason in tremendous form and they host the Rams on Saturday. After his second successive 13-3 campaign, head coach Matt LeFleur has his Packers team playing to their potential with the irrepressible Aaron Rodgers under center.
Rodgers is on course to win his third MVP award but he would swap that for a second Super Bowl ring. One of the reasons why Green Bay earned the number one seed was their offensive line which has given up just 21 sacks.
It’s been almost a decade since the Vince Lombardi trophy called Lambeau Field home, and if this is the year Titletown celebrates another success. The Packers will want to continue their superb second-quarter performances.
Green Bay led the league with 219 second-quarter points, scoring double-digit points 13 times. And they have outscored their opponents by 127 points in the 15 minutes before half-time. A lot of that success has been down to Rodgers’ partnership with Davante Adams who have combined for a league-high 18 TDs through the air.
Los Angeles Rams
If there is a defense that could shut down Rodgers and the Packers offense, it could well be the Rams. In Aaron Donald, they have arguably the best defensive player in the league. Donald led the NFC with 13.5 sacks and he added two more to that total last week against the Seahawks. And in Jalen Ramsey, the Rams have one of the best cornerbacks in the league.
Ramsey’s match-up with Adams could be one that decides the outcome of this game. Of the eight teams still alive in the postseason, Sean McVay’s team has the worst turnover differential at -3 and that is because of their stuttering offense which has scored just one TD in their last three games.
QB Jared Goff has returned from a broken thumb and a lot will depend on his decision making at Lambeau Field. It’s a good job the Rams are the least penalized team left in the play-offs and with an under-performing offense, shortening the field for the Packers will not help their cause.
New Orleans Saints
The final game of the divisional round is a battle between the NFL’s all-time leading TD passers. In the away corner is Buccaneers QB Tom Brady with 581 and in the home corner is Saints play-caller Drew Brees with 571. And between them, they have thrown for 159,562 yards with Brees edging the head-to-head with 80,358 compared to Brady’s 79,204 yards. This game could be decided through the air, but each team’s running game will be crucial.
The Saints have the advantage with RB Alvin Kamara coming off a superb season with 16 rushing TDs. Who could forget his six TD performance on Christmas Day as the Saints put 52 points on the Vikings? Saints have built their success this season on their first-half displays.
Of the Saints 12 wins, 10 have come after leading at half-time. The two games Saints have won against the Buccaneers this season have come after strong first half performances leading by 10 and 31 points at the half before going on to win 34-23 and 38-3.
The Saints did not win a game in regulation time having trailed at the half and they will hope they won’t have to rally from a deficit to win this contest. New Orleans is the only team left that has scored 21 points or more in every game this season.
Last weekend, Tom Brady won his 31st play-off as his incredible career continues in Tampa Bay. Brady will be aware no team has contested a Super Bowl in their own stadium let alone win it. But in his search for a seventh Super Bowl title, that narrative could change if they can get past the Saints in the Superdome this weekend.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
There is an argument that the Buccaneers rely too much on Brady and his passing game and a more balanced offense might be needed for this game.
Only 36.3% of Bruce Arians’s calls have been run designed and with RB Roland Jones injured, it places a lot of pressure on Leonard Fournette who stepped up with 93 yards and a TD on 19 carries in their Wild Card win over the Washington Football Team.
The Bucs went through a spell where they scored just one TD in the opening quarter in seven games, but they seem to have sorted that side of their game out in recent matches.
Whatever happens, it promises to be another action-packed weekend of memorable play-off football as we move closer to Super Bowl LV at the start of next month.