NFL 2021 NFC Divisional Round Preview

The divisional round on the NFC side brings us two rematches from Week 3, which feels like eons ago. The Rams will attempt to win a third-straight game against Tom Brady’s Buccaneers. Only three teams have handed Brady three straight losses: 2005-06 Broncos (four if you count 2009), 2005-06 Colts, and 2007-11 Giants.

But first, the Packers try to win a playoff game against the 49ers, something that was not a problem in the 90s, proving that is still the best decade ever.

A lot of people are going to predict a rematch of the Bays next week, but wouldn’t that be something if it was 49ers-Rams III? Good luck though. Since 1990, only twice has a conference saw both home teams lose in the divisional round: 2006 AFC (Chargers and Ravens lost to Patriots and Colts) and 2008 NFC (Panthers and Giants lost to Cardinals and Eagles). 2008 was also a weekend where the top-seeded Titans lost to the Ravens, leaving the home teams at 1-3.

Will history repeat itself in a year begging for some upsets and with a top-seeded Titans team people like to disrespect?

You can see my two AFC previews here.

49ers at Packers (-5.5)

Every time these teams play that clip resurfaces of a young Aaron Rodgers at the 2005 draft. When asked how disappointed he was that the 49ers didn’t draft him, he says “not as disappointed as the 49ers will be that they didn’t draft me.”

Rodgers is right that the 49ers likely would have been happier had they drafted him instead of Alex Smith. While there is no guarantee he would go on to be a multi-MVP winner and one of the greatest ever had he started out on Mike Nolan’s team in 2005, I think it’s a given he’d have done a better job than Smith, who was given numerous opportunities to be a franchise quarterback there.

And yet, the fact remains all these years later that Rodgers is 0-3 in the playoffs against San Francisco, and the 49ers have done more to keep him out of Super Bowls than vice versa. The 49ers have even been to one more Super Bowl than Rodgers has so far. They just didn’t get a win because of where a pass Colin Kaepernick threw in the end zone on fourth down landed and because of Patrick Mahomes on third-and-15.

So, this one is pretty personal as buddies Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur meet in their second playoff game after the 49ers routed the Packers in the 2019 NFC Championship Game. But out of the four matchups, this is Rodgers’ best chance to beat the 49ers in the playoffs. If he loses this one at home where the Packers are 8-0 this year, it could even be his last game with the team.

49ers: Why Things Can Be Different This Time

When these teams met in San Francisco on SNF in Week 3, the 49ers did a good job of rallying back from a 17-0 deficit. The defense made just enough stops to prevent the Packers from putting the game away late. Jimmy Garoppolo led a solid 75-yard touchdown drive to take the lead with 37 seconds left. But even that was too much time as Rodgers found Davante Adams twice for 42 yards to set up a game-winning field goal and the Packers won 30-28.

If you want to believe in the 49ers this weekend, you have to like that the team is different than it was in Week 3, especially on offense. Trey Sermon was the leading back that night and he only had 10 carries for 31 yards. Apparently, Shanahan can’t just sub in any back and embarrass the Packers like he did with Raheem Mostert (220 yards, four touchdowns) in the 2019 NFC title game.

Rookie back Elijah Mitchell was out that night. He’s back, and in his last eight games of the season, he averaged 96.8 rushing yards. What did he have in Dallas on Sunday in the playoffs? He had 96 rushing yads and a touchdown. He has been fairly consistent. The 49ers also started using Deebo Samuel more as a runner in Week 10, which kickstarted this 8-2 run after a 3-5 start. While I still think Samuel is too valuable of a receiver to not get him more targets in the passing game, this has been successful for the 49ers. Deebo has rushed for a touchdown in seven of the last nine games and he is ridiculously hard to tackle. The Packers held him to 52 yards on seven touches in Week 3, an impressive effort. But he’s going to be more productive this time.

The question is can the 49ers get tight end George Kittle going again to go along with Mitchell, Samuel, and the sometimes useful Brandon Aiyuk? Kittle had a 39-yard catch that was mostly YAC, his specialty, in Week 3 to help the 49ers get that go-ahead touchdown drive started. It was San Francisco’s only 20-yard play that night.

But Kittle only has 78 yards in his last four games combined. He caught one ball for 18 yards in Dallas and was fortunate to drop a low ball late in the game or else it would have been a brutal fumble. He needs to do more in this matchup.

The 49ers look to be getting good news on the injury front as Garoppolo, Nick Bosa, and Fred Warner are trending towards playing Saturday. There was some concern that rookie Trey Lance would have to start this game, which would likely be disastrous for the 49ers. Remember when Jordan Love had to start against the Chiefs? It’d probably look like a slightly better version of that. The 49ers are going to have to bring the offense this week as Rodgers has led the Packers to at least 20 points in all 20 of his playoff starts, an NFL record.

But I definitely give the 49ers a fighting a chance as that offense has shown the ability to put together very long scoring drives that can shorten the game and shrink Rodgers’ margin of error. The 49ers had a 13:05 drive for a field goal against Jacksonville and a touchdown drive against the Rams that took 11:03 off the clock.

The 49ers are 8-2 in the last 10 games. The Seahawks own them, but the only other loss was on a last-second field goal in Tennessee, the other No. 1 seed this year. Say what you want about Garoppolo and his mistakes, but he led road wins in Cincinnati, Los Angeles (after trailing 17-0), and Dallas last week. That’s two weeks in a row with huge road wins as underdogs, so three in a row would be really hard to do against a rested No. 1 seed.

But the 49ers bring in a good mixture of talent, coaching, balance, and experience to pull off such an upset. It wouldn’t even be a top-four shocking upset in Lambeau this century.

Packers: Same Old Story Or…?

Another year, another likely MVP for Aaron Rodgers, another No. 1 seed, but will it be another playoff exit short of the Super Bowl? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

As much as I personally need the Packers to do well this postseason, I have a hard time buying that this team is better suited for a deep run this season. It especially doesn’t help that I think all three remaining teams (49ers, Rams, Buccaneers) are capable of winning in Green Bay.

The offense regressed from 2020. Rodgers will still win MVP by default, but he was better a year ago. Davante Adams remains incredible, but Marques Valdes-Scantling has been hurt and is doubtful this Saturday. They don’t have a tight end with 250 yards after losing Robert Tonyan. Left tackle David Bakhtiari only returned in Week 18 and played his first 27 snaps in over a year as the offensive line was not as dominant. I do like running back A.J. Dillon, who provides more of a physical style than Aaron Jones, but I don’t see the Packers riding their RB2 to the Super Bowl here.

The defense has actually declined from 14th in yards per drive and 17th in points per drive to 21st in both categories this year. In Weeks 11-14, the Packers allowed 28-34 points in each game, including games against the lowly Bears and the Ravens with a backup QB (Tyler Huntley). Sure, injuries have not been kind to that unit. The Packers lost Za’Darius Smith in Week 1. Corner Jaire Alexander has not played since Week 4. He hopes to return, which could be big, especially if the Packers make it to next week. He intercepted Garoppolo in Week 3.

Spoiler alert: defenses that finish 21st in points per drive tend to do poorly in the playoffs. You basically have to be the 2006 Colts or 2011 Giants to still win a championship. The Packers are also disastrous on special teams, but fortunately, that’s not a strength for the 49ers either. But it is something that could come back to bite Green Bay before this season is over.

But if I’m being optimistic about the Packers this week, then I like what I saw in Week 3. While the 49ers are using their offensive players differently now, they didn’t have any 20-yard plays until Kittle in the final minute. They didn’t run all over Green Bay. Nick Bosa and company got almost no pressure on Rodgers, who had his lowest pressure rate of the season in a game he attacked downfield. Adams got whatever he wanted against that secondary, the weakness of the defense. What are they going to do, guard him with Josh Norman? Allen Lazard has also come along well late in the season as another option for Rodgers, who plays better at home. The 49ers have committed a league-high 20 defensive pass interference penalties, six more than any other defense. Few quarterbacks draw more of those than Rodgers.

When the 49ers swept the Packers in 2019, we saw that domination right away in the first matchup. We didn’t see anything like it this year with the Packers going up 17-0 before a long kick return before halftime got the 49ers back in the game. The Packers have had an issue with putting games away comfortably this year.

The Prediction

The Packers have lost two games this year that Rodgers finished. One was that weird Week 1 game in Jacksonville against the Saints. Bad things just happen when Rodgers goes down to Florida. The other was a 34-31 shootout with the Vikings, a division foe that knows them well. This team has answered every other challenge, including a 4-0 record against the NFC West that has plagued them for a decade.

I do not know if you’ll see me pick the Packers to win another game this season after this week. I do not know if this will end up being the end of the road for Rodgers in Green Bay. But I do know I’m confident enough to pick the Packers to pull out a win on Saturday. I’m just skeptical enough to pick the 49ers to cover.

Final: Packers 27, 49ers 23

Rams at Buccaneers (-3)

The 2021 Rams are trying to be the 2020 Buccaneers but standing in their way is a Tampa team trying to repeat as champions. This is a very intriguing matchup with both teams looking a bit different from their Week 3 showdown, won 34-24 by the Rams. That was a wire-to-wire win, but now that we’re in a pivotal playoff round, you have to worry about some LOAT stuff going down Sunday. Anything is possible if Tom Brady puts his willpower to it.

Rams: To Be the Man…

Fair or not, the Matthew Stafford narrative is about to write its biggest chapter yet. For a team that is going all in on a Super Bowl this season, this would be a major disappointment to lose Sunday even if it is on the road against the defending champions. But the Rams are only a three-point dog and already handed Tampa Bay a 10-point loss this year.

This is the kind of win that could really change the perception for Stafford, who infamously entered this season with an 8-68 (.105) record against teams that finished the season with a winning record. How have things gone so far?

  • Stafford has led the Rams to a 4-5 record against winning teams, including the first winning streak of his career with wins over the Colts and Buccaneers in Weeks 2-3.
  • It is the first season in Stafford’s career where he has logged multiple wins over winning teams.
  • Stafford is still 5-35 (.125) on the road against winning teams (2-2 this year).
  • Stafford is 3-28 (.097) against 12-win teams, but he did get the win over Tampa Bay (13-4) this year.
  • Stafford is 42-52-1 (.447) at 4QC/GWD opportunities in his career, but that record drops to 3-35 (.079) against teams with a winning record.
  • Stafford is still 0-53 when his team allows more than 24 points against a winning team. The Rams are 0-5 when allowing more than 24 points this year and 13-0 otherwise.

That last part feels most significant as the Buccaneers are used to scoring a lot of points. Since 2020, Tampa Bay is 26-0 when scoring at least 28 points, easily the best record in the league and the most such games.

That is why this weekend cannot be all about Stafford as road virtuoso performances by a quarterback are few and far between in NFL playoff history. He needs his defense to step up and there are big names in that group too with Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and Jalen Ramsey. Despite those names and the injuries throughout the season to the Tampa Bay secondary, the Bucs still boast a championship-caliber defense, coordinated by Todd Bowles, who showed in the playoffs that he can adjust to specific opponents like he did for the Chiefs in the Super Bowl.

The Buccaneers rank No. 6 in points per drive allowed, No. 7 in takeaways per drive, No. 12 in third-down conversion rate, No. 4 in net yards per pass attempt, and allowed the third-fewest rushing yards. That bests the Rams’ defense in each category.

The Rams could catch a break this week with the health of the Tampa Bay offensive line, one of the best units in the league. Right tackle Tristan Wirfs and center Ryan Jensen were injured in the wild card game against the Eagles. Wirfs tried to return before leaving for good. Jensen was back almost immediately and finished the game. Neither practiced on Wednesday and Thursday, but there is optimism they’ll be on the field Sunday. Jensen in particular looks like a guy who could have his hand amputated and still want to return to the game. Maybe then Brady would deserve the excessive praise if he played with a center missing a hand. But chances are his studs will be there against a Los Angeles defense that only ranks 25th in pressure rate (via Pro Football Reference), the lowest of any defense in the playoffs this year.

The Eagles had the second-lowest pressure rate among the playoff field, and they are much less aggressive with blitzing, but they still sacked Brady four times and held the Bucs to 4-of-13 on third down. It stands to reason to believe Jensen and Wirfs will not be 100% if they play Sunday. This is why that trio of Donald, Miller (sack in five straight games), and Leonard Floyd must cause havoc in Brady’s face if the Rams are to win this one. Despite their low pressure rate, the Rams had 50 sacks because of how impactful their talent can be when they get to the quarterback. Those guys have to get Brady’s jersey dirty early in this one. He took three sacks on 61 plays in Week 3.

In the secondary, I would shadow Mike Evans with Jalen Ramsey and double Rob Gronkowski on obvious passing downs. This is a different ballgame when Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown are out. It changes to a speed & size matchup with Evans and Gronk having some advantages. But I’d make the other players earn it first. Gio Bernard led the Bucs with nine catches in Week 3. Brady will dink and dunk all day with those throws to the backs, but I’m confident I would not give up more than 24 points if Bernard is the leading receiver again. The Rams cannot let Evans and Gronk beat them.

But things really do come back to Stafford and if he’ll protect the ball well. He threw 13 interceptions in the last nine games of the regular season after having four picks in the first eight games.

Sean McVay’s defense held Brady to 13 points in the Super Bowl a couple years ago, but the offense was of no help that night. The offense has a grand total of 34 points in McVay’s three playoff losses combined. He brought in Stafford to change this history. Last season, the Rams went into Tampa Bay for a Monday night game in Week 11. Jared Goff threw 51 passes for 376 yards while the running game only contributed 19 carries for 37 yards. The Rams still scored 27 points and won by three with the defense forcing Brady into an ugly game. Stafford is 1-3 this year when he throws 40 passes, the only win coming against awful Detroit.

McVay’s plan the last three years against Tampa Bay has been to neglect the run game in favor of the pass. Will he continue that in a road playoff game? Stafford threw just 17 passes on Monday night against Arizona, the first game in his 186-game career where he threw less than 21 passes without leaving injured. That’s some way to win your first playoff game, but it wasn’t necessary to throw more with the way Arizona shit the bed all night.

Stafford is going to have to do more this week and I’m skeptical. If we go back to Week 3, he was outstanding. But Stafford had completions of 75 (TD) and 40 yards to DeSean Jackson, who is no longer with the team. No other play went for more than 22 yards. Cooper Kupp has been incredible all season and in recent games against Tampa Bay. He had two touchdowns in Week 3. The only two games Kupp was under 92 yards all year were the two home games against Arizona. Odell Beckham also looked good on Monday, though he is still averaging career lows across the board with the Rams this season. Cam Akers looked so explosive despite his Achilles injury this summer.

But chances are the Rams are not going to have a good rushing performance this week, and the defense is going to be tested far more than it was against the Cardinals. Stafford is going to have to deliver in the biggest game of his career, and even then, he might need to pull that horseshoe out of Brady’s ass to get the win.

Buccaneers: Everything Is Alright?

For two decades, the best way to beat Tom Brady is to make him play poorly. Take an early lead, force him into mistakes, and put the game out of reach so he can’t come back to win it. Don’t let his team hang around. His statistics in losses have always been well behind those of his lofty peers, because if he is playing well, there’s almost no hope of beating his teams.

This is why I am really concerned about the Rams pulling off another win over this team. In Week 3, Brady dropped back 61 times and did not have a turnover in a game that had zero turnovers from both teams. Brady was 41-of-55 for 432 yards, a touchdown, a rush touchdown, and the Buccaneers only turned it over on downs once. They also missed a 55-yard field goal before halftime, which was set up by a Brady strip-sack by Aaron Donald that the Bucs recovered.

It was not an offensive masterclass, but it was not a total dud like he had in the 9-0 shutout loss to the Saints, or turnover-filled losses against the Saints and Washington this year. It was a 34-24 game where the Rams were just better on offense at home. Brady was also his team’s leading rusher with 14 yards as the Bucs abandoned the run. That is unlikely to happen again this week, especially with Leonard Fournette likely making his return.

This is not the formula to beating Brady, who is 45-4 when he throws for at least 325 yards with zero interceptions. Of course, that Rams game is only the second game in that 49-game sample where his team didn’t score at least 29 points. Brady is also 111-7 (.941) when averaging at least 7.2 yards per attempt and not throwing an interception.

In 2020, the Rams delivered on defense in Tampa Bay the way you want to see. Brady had a season-low 2.8 completed air yards per attempt and 3.2 YAC/completion. He threw a season-high 13 inaccurate throws. The Rams barely pressured him, but it didn’t matter because they covered well, intercepted two passes, including one in crunch time, and they held Brady to 4.5 YPA, his second-worst game with Tampa Bay. That would work this week. But in Week 3, the Rams actually blitzed Brady 13 times, pressured him 11 times (season high and second-highest rate), and he still threw for a first down on 41.4% of his passes (fourth-highest game of season). That’s not going to be winning defense for the Rams this time around.

The Buccaneers are not whole on offense, but if the line is intact, then Gronk and Evans are plenty to get things moving. Gronk had one of his lowest snap counts in Week 3 as that was the game he took a shot in the back, which started his injury problems. He’s been playing at a high level once again. Evans just had a season-high 117 yards against the Eagles.

If the Buccaneers win the turnover battle, they are likely winning this game. In the last two postseasons, Tampa Bay has seven touchdown drives that started in opponent territory. The rest of the NFL has nine in this time. Only the Patriots (11) and Chiefs (seven) have as many playoff touchdown drives on short fields as Tampa Bay since 2014, and the Bucs did not even make the playoffs in 2014-19.

Shawn Hochuli, Ed’s son, is the head referee for this game, which is probably not a good thing for either team or any fan watching the game. His games have had 1,903 penalty yards this season, the third-highest amount in the league. His crew called 28 penalties in Dallas on Thanksgiving, but he may not be that biased towards home teams. He also flagged Tampa Bay 11 times on opening night against Dallas. But chances are this game will trend towards more penalties with him getting his precious screen time, a Hochuli family tradition. At the very least, it’s not Carl Cheffers, who called the most penalties this year and gave Tampa Bay two phantom DPI flags in the second quarter of Super Bowl 55. Then again, Hochuli called 22 DPI flags this year, tied with Cheffers for the second most.

The Prediction

The Rams have a lot of the right elements to deal with Tampa Bay, but I’d sooner go bankrupt than back Stafford to overcome Brady’s luck in a road playoff game. After no turnovers in Week 3, I expect them to be the story of this game. The Rams are 6-1 in close games, the best record in the league, but they did just blow a 17-0 lead to the 49ers in excruciating fashion in Week 18.

I’ve been saying for weeks that Tampa Bay vs. Green Bay is all that matters in the NFC playoffs this year. It’s up to the 49ers and Rams to prove me wrong.

Final: Buccaneers 27, Rams 24

One thought on “NFL 2021 NFC Divisional Round Preview

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