NFL Divisional Round: Predictions and Picks
After a season that many were skeptical would even happen, we made it to the playoffs! January football has always been my favorite football, and last week was no exception. The Cleveland Browns (yep, THOSE Browns) ended an 18-year playoff drought, and the Buffalo Bills ended a drought long enough it was about to get a discount on car insurance. You never know what is going to happen any given week. That said, I’ve dusted off my crystal ball to try and gain insight into this weekend’s matchups. Here’s what I saw. Warning: Results may vary.
Los Angeles Rams (+7) at Green Bay Packers: O/U 46.5
This game is the perfect game for debating your dad about offense (Packers 30.8 PPG) vs. defense (Rams 18.1 PPG). Does defense still win championships, Dad? Green Bay benefits right off the bat in two ways: they had the coveted bye last week, and they’re playing in the frozen fortress that is Lambeau Field. That said, LA is not a team you want to underestimate. They made Russ’s cooking look like soggy leftovers in his own house, and that defense will be coming for Aaron Rodgers and company. Green Bay is still dealing with injuries on both sides of the ball, limiting Rodgers’ pass options in the event Davante Adams is shut down in a wildly difficult matchup with Jalen Ramsey and creating opportunities for Cam Akers to run wild.
The big question mark in this whole matchup is the questionable tag on Aaron Donald, who is dealing with a rib injury. If he goes, I really like LA’s chances. The Rams have a great running game and a stellar defensive line, both of which seem to be Rodgers’ kryptonite: keep the pressure on him and keep the ball out of his hands. The Packers simply don’t have an answer for Donald after David Bakhtiari’s injury forced them into a game of musical chairs on the o-line. If Donald doesn’t go, things get a little trickier, but luckily (depending on your allegiances), he’s expected to suit up Saturday.
I expect this game to be a grind. LA will stick to the ground and pound plan against a lukewarm Packers defensive line, giving Rodgers little chance to perform his signature post-season magic. The cold won’t make it any easier for him in the pass game, and LA’s defensive line will severely limit the effectiveness of Aaron Jones on the ground. I’m going LA +7 and the under. Straight up? Ooof…the outlook isn’t as clear on that one. It’s hard to bet against Aaron Rodgers, but I love a good underdog. Fuck it. Go Rams!
Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills (-2.5): O/U 49.5
The Baltimore/Titans game wasn’t exactly the shootout everyone was predicting last week, but I don’t expect the same to be the case Saturday in Buffalo. Both quarterbacks are electric dual-threat talents, and both teams are fairly healthy (I mean, as healthy as you can be in January). Josh Allen has drastically improved in the passing game this season, and he’s always been a rushing threat. Lamar Jackson has always been a threat on the ground, but if you contain him and control the clock, you can temper his output. He’s never been a prolific passer, so a winning game plan is one that focuses on stopping him on the ground.
I think the edge goes to Buffalo due to their passing attack, second overall in the league behind only the Chiefs. Stefon Diggs was an immediate fit in this offense, and you can’t sleep on Cole Beasley, Gabriel Davis, or the big tight end Dawson Knox. The Ravens are going to have their hands full trying to stop all the Bills’ weapons. Give me the Bills in a close game straight up. I’m also taking them -2.5 and the over.
Cleveland Browns (+10) at Kansas City Chiefs: O/U 55.5
Hot damn, y’all! We’ve got the underdog of underdogs going against the defending Super Bowl champions. No one denied that the Browns roster was talented, but Kevin Stefanski molded and showcased that talent on a level we haven’t seen in Cleveland before…at least not in the past 20 years. The Chiefs, however, have never been denied praise, and they have the stats to back it up. They’re the number one overall offense, boasting an impressive 415 total yards per game. So how will these two Big-10 rivals match up this Sunday?
The Chiefs offense needs no introduction. Everyone knows they’re the best. The focus here is on the Browns and how well they will be able to contain Andy Reid’s crew. To be fair, the Browns’ defense looked salty in the first half against Pittsburgh. After, eh, not so much. Although they forced Big Ben to throw four interceptions, they also allowed him to throw for 500 yards and four touchdowns. They also had zero sacks against one of the slowest quarterbacks in the league; how are they going to contain Mahomes?
The Browns need a balanced offensive attack if they hope to have any chance against the Chiefs’ mind-blowing offense. Lucky for them, they have it. Mayfield has become increasingly comfortable down the stretch, and the one-two punch of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt bode well for clock management and keeping the ball away from Mahomes et al. Chubb ran for over 1,000 yards this season (and that’s with him missing six weeks). Fortunately for the Browns, Kansas City’s run defense allowed 122.1 YPG. Oh, did I mention this is a revenge game for Hunt? If Stefanski can manage the clock and keep the ball away from Kansas City, I like their chances.
This is probably the toughest and most wishful prediction I have, but my undergrad advisor and long-time friend is an Ohio native and long-time victim of the Browns. It’s time he gets a big win. I see this game being a shoot-out, and it’s going to come down to who can control the clock. I’m taking the Browns +10 and straight up and taking the over. (Remember the warning in the opening paragraph? This is why.)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints (-3): O/U 51.5
It’s hard to beat a divisional opponent twice in one season. It’s even harder to defeat them a third time, yet the Saints are seeking to do just that and hand the GOAT a third loss Sunday. In their first two meetings, the Saints forced Brady into bad situations, which led to a staggering five interceptions and only two touchdowns. He was also sacked six times in those two games. Ouch. To make matter worse for Tom Brady, the Bucs lost their starting right guard, Alex Cappa, to a likely ankle fracture. When it rains, it pours, eh Tom?
On the opposing side, the Saints are running near full strength with the return of Michael Thomas and Drew Brees in recent weeks. Losing center Nick Easton to a concussion is a big blow, but the Buccaneers are dealing with injuries on their defensive line. If the defense can exploit Brady’s mistakes as they did in the first two meetings, expect the New Orleans offense to feast. For some context, Kamara only had nine carries in their Week 11 win, and Michael Thomas was held to five receptions and 51 yards. Brees still threw for four touchdowns; the Saints are just that stacked.
Historically, Brady has struggled when he hasn’t had a bye in the wild card round. Look for more of the same this go-around. I’m taking Saints -3 and the over. I’m also taking the Saints straight up. May the best old man win!
If you like bad takes, beer, and lots of dog pictures, follow me on Twitter @Britt_Flinn