2020-21 NFL Playoffs preview: Divisional Round

After Super Wild Card weekend, the NFL playoffs return to normalcy as the divisional playoff round will consist of the usual four matchups as eight teams battle for a berth in the conference championship games. The top-seeded Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs will begin their playoff journey after receiving a bye from last week’s games. Last weekend, the road teams went 4-2, meaning the five and six seeds in each conference advanced to the next round. Will they continue their hot streaks or will the top-seeded teams uphold their dominance? Here is my preview of all four divisional playoff games.

1/16/2021: Los Angeles Rams at Green Bay Packers @ 4:35 p.m. EST on FOX

The Rams square off against the Packers to kick off the divisional playoff round. This is the third time these franchises have squared off in the postseason with the Packers winning in 1967 and the Rams crushing the Packers in 2001. The last time these two teams faced off was in 2018, a 29-27 Rams victory that saw Packers’ kick returner, Ty Montgomery, fumble a late kickoff to seal the Rams’ win.

In 2018, the Rams were led by their explosive offense. This time around, the Rams are led by their top-ranked defense. The Rams come into this game off their 30-20 win at Seattle last weekend, sacking Seahawks’ quarterback Russell Wilson five times and disrupting the rhythm of the Seahawks’ offense. Despite QB John Wolford getting knocked out of the game in the first quarter and Jared Goff struggling in relief, the Rams’ offense did just enough to win with 176 total yards from rookie running back Cam Akers. He was the spark the offense needed and they will need another strong performance from him if the Rams want to pull off the upset.

The Packers come into their postseason campaign with plenty of momentum, winning their last six regular season games. Aaron Rodgers produced one of the best seasons ever from a QB with 70.7 completion percentage, 4,299 yards, 48 touchdowns and only five interceptions. A huge reason for Rodgers’ success has been the stellar production from wide receiver Davante Adams, who caught 115 passes for 1,374 yards and a league-high 18 touchdowns. These two have remarkable chemistry and appear to be nearly unstoppable. Defensively, the Packers have eased the pressure of the offense to carry the team as they rank ninth in total defense and seventh in pass defense. While they only rank 13th in rush defense, the Packers have jumped out to so many leads that it hasn’t been a concern as they lead the NFL in first half points.

For the Rams to have any chance in this game, they must disrupt the rhythm of the Packers’ offense, Akers must have a huge game and the Rams cannot fall behind the Packers early. While Rams’ All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey may contain Adams, Rodgers is great at spreading the ball around and will get the ball out quickly to neutralize the Rams’ pass rush. The Packers, fresh off a bye week, will score on their first two drives, forcing the Rams offense to play catchup the entire game. With a strong Packers’ defense, the Packers will cruise into next week’s NFC Championship game.

Prediction: Packers 24 Rams 6

1/16/2021: Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills @ 8:15 p.m. EST on NBC

The Bills will host a playoff game for the second week in a row as they welcome the Ravens to town on Saturday night. This is only the 10th meeting between the two teams with the Ravens winning six of their previous nine meetings. The last time the two teams met was in 2019 where the Ravens slugged out a 24-17 win at Buffalo. It is the first playoff meeting between the two teams.

Ravens’ QB Lamar Jackson finally won his first playoff game last week as the Ravens defeated the Titans 20-13, avenging their 28-12 loss in the playoffs last year. Jackson had a phenomenal game with 315 total yards, including 136 on the ground. The Ravens’ defense impressed, allowing the Titans to only score three points after the first quarter while holding Derrick Henry, who had 2,027 yards in the regular season, to 40 yards on 18 carries. The Ravens are now on a six-game winning streak and look as dangerous as anyone in the divisional playoff round.

They will face a Bills’ team currently on a seven-game winning streak. However, the Bills barely escaped the Indianapolis Colts last week in their 27-24 win. While the Bills won with special plays from QB Josh Allen and WR Stefon Diggs, they were outgained and lost the battle in other categories such as third-down efficiency and time of possession. In fact, the Colts were the first team in NFL postseason history to lose despite gaining 450+ yards without a turnover. If the Colts were able to score more in the redzone, the Bills may have gone home early. The Bills survived nonetheless and will ride with Allen for their battle against the Ravens.

The forecast calls for some heavy winds, which benefits a run-heavy team like the Ravens. Allen and the Bills have had a special season, going 13-3 and winning their first playoff game since 1995 with a MVP-caliber season from Allen. However, their season will end on Saturday as the Ravens will control the clock and run all over the Bills’ 17th-ranked rush defense. Also, Allen will struggle against the conditions and the Ravens’ strong defense. The Ravens will clinch a spot in their first AFC Championship game since 2012, the season where they won their last Super Bowl.

Prediction: Ravens 27 Bills 17

1/17/2021: Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs @ 3:05 p.m. EST on CBS

This is a classic David-versus-Goliath battle in the NFL postseason. The Browns are the lovable underdogs coming off a historic win at Pittsburgh last week, and the Chiefs are the reigning Super Bowl champions and the AFC’s top seed. This is the first playoff matchup between the two teams, and the Chiefs won the last meeting, winning at Cleveland 37-21 in 2018, the first game after the Browns fired head coach Hue Jackson.

The Browns made the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and despite missing head coach Kevin Stefanski and guard Joel Bitonio due to COVID-19, the Browns proved they belonged. They jumped out to a 28-0 lead in the first quarter and held on for the 48-37 win over the Steelers. Despite missing several key starters and playing guys who QB Baker Mayfield hadn’t previously met, the offensive line was stout, not allowing a single QB pressure against the NFL’s leading sack unit. Mayfield was comfortable and the two-headed monster of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt in the backfield were able to score three combined touchdowns in the win. Defensively, while they allowed 501 passing yards from Steelers’ QB Ben Roethlisberger, they intercepted him four times and scored a defensive touchdown on the game’s first play after a bad Steelers’ snap.

The Browns defense needs to make more plays like that if they are going to defeat the reigning champions in the Chiefs. The Chiefs finished as the top-ranked total and pass offense with Patrick Mahomes throwing for 4,740 yards and 38 touchdowns. However, the Chiefs looked vulnerable down the stretch as their last-seven victories came within one possession. The offense looked inconsistent and stagnant at times, allowing teams to stay in games with them. With a defense ranking toward the middle of the pack in most statistical categories, the pressure will be on the offense to deliver when needed the most.

The Browns are the underdogs, especially considering Chiefs’ head coach Andy Reid’s 23-5 record off a bye. However, the Browns have a clear recipe to win: use the ground game to keep the ball away from Mahomes and come up with timely stops. The Browns will stay in the game with their talented offense and pass rusher Myles Garrett will make a huge play or two on defense. In the end though, the Browns’ secondary will be unable to contain the Chiefs’ elite WR corp and the Chiefs’ defense will make enough key plays to send the Chiefs to their third-straight AFC Championship game.

Prediction: Chiefs 41 Browns 28

1/17/2021: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints @ 6:40 p.m. EST on FOX

There is no better way to end the divisional playoff round than with the game of the weekend. The Buccaneers and Saints will square off for a third time this season with legendary QBs, Tom Brady and Drew Brees, perhaps facing off for the final time. The Saints dominated the Buccaneers in the regular season, winning 34-23 in Week 1 and 38-3 at Tampa Bay in Week 9. This is the first time these two division rivals will face off in the postseason.

The Bucs cruised into the postseason with an 11-5 record and last week, Tom Brady put on another dazzling performance with 381 yards and two touchdowns against the Washington Football Team. Washington QB Taylor Heinicke put up a spirited performance with 352 total yards and two touchdowns. However, Brady and the Bucs’ offense was too good with 507 total yards, propelling them to a 31-23 victory. Aside from Brady, running back Leonard Fournette stepped up with 93 yards and a touchdown, a huge performance considering the Bucs finished the regular season 29th in rushing offense.

The Saints look to defeat the Bucs a third time on Sunday, a feat they accomplished in 2017 as they beat the Carolina Panthers three times. The Saints in the past have usually relied on Brees and the offense to succeed. This year, however, is different as the defense is the dominant unit on the team, highlighted by the Saints’ 21-9 win over the Chicago Bears last weekend. The Bears’ offense gained only 11 first downs, one third-down conversion and 239 total yards of offense. The Saints’ offense, while starting slow, put together two-consecutive touchdown drives in the second half to pull away from the victory. Brees threw for 265 yards and two touchdowns with running back Alvin Kamara rushing for 99 yards and a touchdown.

If the Bucs fall behind in this game early and are unable to run the ball, it may be a long evening for Tampa Bay. However, the Bucs’ defense is familiar with the Saints’ offense and will do enough to keep Tampa Bay in the game. Brady will find some success through the air but it will not be enough. The Saints’ rush defense will lock down Fournette and Brees will make a huge throw late to send the Saints to the NFC Championship game.

Prediction: Saints 24 Buccaneers 21

Published by Sean Clark

I am an aspiring sports journalist at Northern Arizona University. I am very passionate about sports such as football, soccer and basketball and I'm excited to use this platform to write about the sports I love.

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