Even after the questionable changes to wild card weekend, the divisional round is still my favorite week of the whole NFL season. The games look really good on paper this week and we should get a dramatic finish or two after not having a single second-half lead change in last week’s six playoff games.
Again, I am breaking my previews in half, starting with the two Saturday games before I post Sunday’s games tomorrow. I have already posted my previews (links below) for Rams-Packers and Ravens-Bills on Sportsbook Review, so check those out first, but I am providing more content and my final score prediction below.
Rams at Packers (-6.5)
Defense wins championships, right? When Aaron Rodgers reached his only Super Bowl, he had his best Green Bay defense in 2010. That unit delivered in the playoffs with a game-ending interception off Michael Vick, a game-changing pick-six off Matt Ryan, a game-sealing pick-six off Caleb Hanie, and more crucial takeaways and a final defensive stop against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers in the Super Bowl.
The 2020 Rams have scored a defensive touchdown in five of their last seven games, including a pick-six off Russell Wilson in Saturday’s 30-20 wild card win. Interesting.
However, you still have to score points on offense to win playoff games. The Rams have scored more than 23 offensive points in only one of their last seven games. That’s not going to get the job done against the NFL’s highest-scoring team, who has the fewest turnovers (11) in the league.
Does anyone remember the 1993 Giants? Dan Reeves took his schtick to New York and got a Pro Bowl season out of a 38-year-old Phil Simms, sparing us one more year before the bad commentary to come. That team won with the No. 1 defense. In fact, they only had one game all season where they allowed more than 20 points. But while they won a wild card game 17-10, they had to travel to San Francisco in the divisional round and take on the No. 1 offense and Steve Young. Guess what happened? (Or don’t.) The 49ers won 44-3. The great defense, saddled by an inept offense that put them in some bad field position, allowed 44 points on the first 10 drives.
No one remembers this game, but it is one of the eight playoff games in the earlier rounds (non-Super Bowl) since the merger where the No. 1 scoring offense faced the No. 1 scoring defense. The defense is 3-5 in those games. One of those defensive wins was the 2014 Seahawks completing the season sweep of Rodgers’ Packers in the NFC Championship Game, but even that took an insane comeback from the offense with a crucial onside kick recovery by the special teams just to get to overtime.
While people should be skeptical of how Rodgers will perform against another stout NFC West defense, I’m more concerned with the Rams shitting their pants offensively so that Rodgers doesn’t need to score many points to win this game at home in weather that gives Jared Goff night terrors when he’s healthy, let alone nursing his thumb boo-boo.
Simply put, this is a great offense/suspect defense hosting a shoddy offense/great defense. While NFL history is filled with examples of great defenses shutting down great offenses, those games are usually played in the championship round like the two recent Denver Super Bowls where the 2013 offense lost to Seattle, but the 2015 defense beat Carolina.
I only picked Denver as an example because the games are recent, but it is interesting to point out how the Broncos turned so quickly from an offensive team to a defensive team. Does that sound like anyone else we know? Sean McVay’s 2018 Rams were in the Super Bowl after scoring 527 points. They had three points in that last game, dropped out of the top 10 offenses in 2019, and this season has seen the Rams fall to 25th in points per drive while boasting the best defense led by the best defensive player, Aaron Donald.
Remember how the Broncos had a great pass rusher like Von Miller but the results weren’t there defensively until 2015 when they added more talent? Now the Rams have All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey for his first full season with the team and look where they are again. Can this be a Denver-like turnaround for the Rams where they win a championship with a weak offense and great defense? The 2015 Broncos ranked 25th in offensive points per drive too.
Well, I think the run ends this week, but I can at least understand how the Rams could pull off this upset. Run the ball great with Cam Akers, Goff protects the ball and makes his easy play-action throws, and the defense kicks ass. There is a formula there, and at least a defense like the Rams holding down the Packers would make sense unlike the mediocre 2019 Titans shutting down Baltimore’s insane offense a year ago.
NFL history is loaded with playoff burnouts from its highest scoring teams. The 12 highest-scoring teams in NFL history have won zero championships. Only the 2011 Saints (32) and 2018 Chiefs (31) scored 30 points in their playoff loss.
Fortunately, the Packers are the 20th highest-scoring team at 509 points, or one behind the 2009 Saints, the only No. 1 scoring offense to win a Super Bowl since 2000. But you can see only five of the 24 teams in the 500-point club won a championship, and that includes the 1961 Oilers winning the AFL Championship Game by a score of 10-3. Even the 1999 Rams, the last team with a player (Kurt Warner) to win MVP and Super Bowl in the same season, needed an 11-6 win over Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship Game.
You usually need your defense to show up at some point in the playoffs, but this is not the matchup where I am concerned with Green Bay’s so-so unit costing them the season.
Green Bay’s best unit, the offense, just cannot feed into the upset chances by gifting the Rams turnovers (field position) in a way they did against the Buccaneers and Colts this year. The Packers had six of their 11 turnovers this season in those two losses. On the bright side for the Rams, their offense is coming off its first game this season without a giveaway.
While left tackle David Bakhtiari is out, the Rams get their best pressure from the interior with Donald, who has torn rib cartilage, which you would think makes it humanly impossible for him to be 100% on Saturday. That is big for the Packers, but it is why it would be coaching malpractice if the Rams do not deploy their other huge weapon in this matchup.
This is much easier to say from behind a keyboard, but Jalen Ramsey, you have to want all the smoke from Davante Adams this week. It might lead to you getting smoked for a big play, but just limit it to one early drive. If Ramsey can shadow Adams and successfully slow him down, it should make things so much easier on the Rams to win this game. The Rams have allowed three 100-yard receivers, good for second fewest in 2020.
The Rams defended the run very well this year. They were the only defense in either of the last two seasons to allow fewer than 140 rushing yards in all 16 games. I’m putting Ramsey on Adams and taking my chances with Robert Tonyan (high catch rate but hasn’t topped 40 yards since Week 12) and Marques Valdes-Scantling (big plays, big mistakes) beating me.
I know all the narratives and cliches about pass-happy offensive teams going up against stout defenses in the playoffs. I know the Packers have lost multiple home playoff games, including 2011 when they last were the No. 1 seed, and still do not handle teams that punch them in the mouth well. I just cannot find the faith in Goff to channel his inner Eli Manning and get this road win. Despite starting a Super Bowl already, Goff has been very underwhelming in his playoff games. At least in 2011 Manning had a track record (Super Bowl MVP) and was having his best season.
Not to mention the Rams failed to beat the 0-13 Jets…
Final: Packers 24, Rams 16
Ravens at Bills (-2.5)
I had so much to say about this game already that it turned out to be my first 2,000-word preview on SBR. The potential for an instant classic feels high with this one as the AFC finally gets some new blood in this round. It’s just too bad the stadium cannot be full. I think the Ravens already played in the regular season Game of the Year when they won 47-42 in Cleveland.
Notice that the Bills made my table above for the 500-point club a year after the Ravens did it behind Lamar Jackson’s MVP season. Josh Allen won’t win MVP this season but the fact that he was in the conversation says so much about how far he has come. And he’ll probably still get a vote before Russell Wilson does.
Both offenses do great things, and while I like Buffalo’s style better and find it more sustainable for the long term, I have to admit that the Ravens are better designed to go far this postseason. In this particular matchup, if there’s snow, it’s even more pronounced for me despite Jackson’s candid lack of experience playing in such weather.
Thanks to Jackson, Baltimore is arguably the most consistent rushing offense in NFL history. The Ravens have only been held under 110 rushing yards once in his 40 career starts, though I must point out that was his first playoff game (90 yards vs. 2018 Chargers) and that the 2019 Bills held the Ravens to a season-low 118 rushing yards (121 excluding those pesky kneeldowns). But the Buffalo defense is not as good this year and has had five games (two losses and three wins by a field goal each) that would make me incredibly nervous that the Ravens are going to run wild Saturday night. Baltimore has rushed for at least 230 yards in five of the last six games since Jackson returned from COVID, which were all wins of course. He’s in full YOLO mode, and by the Pro Football Reference EPA model, the Ravens offense had its five best games this season in Weeks 13-17 after Jackson returned from his COVID battle.
The Ravens are not going to do something stupid and come out throwing a ton of passes. They’ll do what they do best, and they know that is running the ball, often with Jackson taking it himself by design or like his brilliant 48-yard touchdown scramble on Sunday in Tennessee.
Jackson is 26-1 when he attempts fewer than 28 passes, and that one loss (2018 at Kansas City) saw Robert Griffin III finish the final drive in overtime. He keeps his attempts low and the turnovers low. Jackson’s four-turnover meltdown against the Steelers was the only time this season the Ravens had multiple turnovers with him at quarterback. When they had their second pick against Washington, that was with RG3 in the game late. Jackson usually protects the ball well and he’ll have to here as the Bills were good with 26 takeaways (but none against the Colts in the wild card).
Also, when they do throw, they have tight end Mark Andrews or wide receiver Marquise Brown. It’s usually one or the other who goes off, and on Sunday, it was Brown with a season-high 109 yards on seven catches. Interesting to note that Brown had 126 yards (his most since his NFL debut game) against the Titans in the 2019 playoffs and 128 scrimmage yards (his most this year) on Sunday. Maybe he just likes playing the Titans, but he better hope history doesn’t repeat itself with the Bills. Last year, Buffalo held Brown to -3 yards on 3 catches, the worst statistical game of his career. I find that unlikely to repeat itself despite the Bills still having Tre’Davious White at corner, but maybe this is an Andrews week after the way the Colts got some big plays to tight ends in Buffalo last week.
So we know the Ravens are running out the gate. When it comes the Bills, we are looking at the most blitzed quarterback this season against the most blitz-happy defense in football. Allen was blitzed a career-high 31 times last year when he played the Ravens and he was terrible against it. He’s gotten a lot of experience with seeing it this year and has managed very well. Still, I think the Ravens will continue to do it and rely on their excellent secondary to cover these wide receivers, who looked very good on Saturday against the Colts.
But the weather was quite nice for January in Buffalo on Saturday, and if things are indeed freezing and/or snowy in this one, then a precision passing game and one-dimensional offense that barely hands the ball off to running backs just may not work that great this time around. Does Gabriel Davis make those sideline toe-drag catches by a matters of centimeters in harsher conditions? Probably not. Some (not me) don’t even think he caught them last week, but the 50/50 plays largely went Buffalo’s way in a tough game where they had horrible field position in the first half and were a season-worst 2/9 on third down after leading all offenses in conversion rate this regular season.
If you came here to read both previews and already read my take in LAR-GB on great offense vs. great defense in the playoffs, then you might expect one of these 500-point club members is likely to disappoint this weekend.
If it happens, then I think it will be Buffalo just because the Ravens have the offense and dynamic quarterback that can score a lot of points, unlike the Rams. Allen is going to have to be special and handle the blitz well. Baltimore has allowed a league-low two 100-yard receivers this year, and none of the top 100 performances in receiving yards have come against the Ravens. Even though Corey Davis got them for over 100 in Week 11, he had no catches on Sunday. This defense just held the Titans to a season-low 13 points and we know that offense was also one of the best all year.
Much like the Rams have to contain Davante Adams, the Ravens need to contain Stefon Diggs. You can live with Cole Beasley making the short catches (just not too many on third down), you don’t expect Davis to be as great this week, but you cannot get roasted by Diggs, who has been on a tear for a team that would be on an 11-game winning streak had it not been for a Hail Mary in Arizona.
Again, this is probably the first time I have ever been excited to watch a Ravens-Bills game, but that is what happens when you finally have great offenses and exciting quarterbacks to watch. We have been waiting a long time to see that from Baltimore and Buffalo, and maybe this will be the first of multiple playoff meetings to come.
Final: Ravens 27, Bills 24
I’ll be back tomorrow to put the Chiefs on upset alert and explain why I think the Buccaneers are a paper tiger.