NFL Divisional Round Preview

The divisional round is upon us and it’s time to see which of the final eight teams are legitimate contenders and which of them have some work to do in the offseason. The Rams and Browns pulled off upsets on the road to keep their names in the conversation, but all the other favorites won. Let’s take a look at the fallout and the resulting matchups. 

(#6 NFC) Los Angeles Rams at (#1 NFC) Green Bay Packers (-6.5, 45.5)

Breakdown: The Los Angeles Rams upset the Seahawks in Seattle and earned a date with the Packers on The Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field to kick off the Divisional Round on Saturday. The narrative is that the Rams are all defense and the Packers are all offense, but that’s not entirely true. So let’s take a look at the numbers.

The Rams sort of hobbled into the playoffs going 3-3 over their last six games while the Packers looked their best en route to a 6-game win streak to close out the season. During that stretch, Green Bay had 3 wins over playoff teams while the Rams had none and lost twice to teams with losing records. Yes, LA did beat a 12-4 Seattle team but, despite the record, the Hawks struggled mightily down the stretch and played one of their worst games in the Russell Wilson era. Strength of Schedule/Heat Check Edge: Packers

LA legitimately has the best defense in the league this season. They are 1st in total yards allowed, yards per play, scoring, passing yards, scoring percentage, average drive time, and points per drive. If that wasn’t daunting enough, they’re also 3rd in rushing, 2nd in sacks (despite being near the bottom of the league in quarterback hurries), and 3rd best on 3rd down. However, Green Bay is also bringing a Top-10 defense into this matchup. The Packers are 9th overall, 7th in passing, 14th in rushing, and 13th in scoring. They’re also 11th in sacks and on 3rd down, but they are actually slightly better than the rams in red-zone defense. Let’s not forget GB also played with a lot of big leads which contributes to the higher yardage numbers. The Rams certainly have the better defense, but the Packers aren’t inept on the defensive side either. Defensive Edge: Rams

Even with injured ribs, Aaron Donald will be a handful for a banged up Packers’ O-line

As obvious as the Rams defensive advantage is, the Packers have a clear edge on offense. Green Bay is 1st in scoring, 3rd in yards, 1st in total TDs, 2nd on 3rd down, 1st in red zone %, and 1st in scoring %, average drive time, and points per drive. Most of that comes from Aaron Rodgers ridiculous season of 48-TDs (1st) to only 5-interceptions (1st), but the Packers also run the ball slightly better as well (8th). The Rams’ offense isn’t terrible, 11th in overall yardage (13th pass, 10th rush), but scoring is the problem and they average 9-pts less per game. Here’s some context: Rodgers threw for 11-TDs more than the Rams’ entire offense combined…let that sink in. As a team, the Packers scored 25 more total TDs and had the fewest turnovers in the league. The Rams turn the ball over more than twice as much and also have the lowest 3rd down % (12th) and worst red zone % (19th) of the remaining playoff teams. The gap between defenses isn’t nearly as big as the one between their offenses. Offensive Edge: Packers 

Green Bay doesn’t kick many field goals (last in the league) because they are so damn efficient at scoring TDs, but Mason Crosby is a perfect 16/16 this season. Matt Gay is the Rams’ third kicker this season but his 14/16 mark this season isn’t too far from Crosby. Most of the other special teams’ metrics are pretty even but, with game-time temperatures in the 30s and the potential for snow, I’d rather have Crosby kicking for me. Kicking Edge: Packers

This is going to be fun to watch as both guys will likely make some plays

Now for the fun part, Davante Adams vs Jalen Ramsey. These two have never really seen one another in this context before. They’ve lined up across from one another at the Pro Bowl on a few plays and on a couple of snaps years ago in Ramsey’s debut, but there’s no meaningful film to study and that makes this exciting. Without much to draw from it’s hard to say how it’s going to go. Ramsey won’t necessarily follow Adams around the field, so there will be some opportunities to get Davante the ball. Thinking back on the “Legion of Boom” days, Rodgers would rarely throw in the direction of Richard Sherman which effectively eliminated one side of the field. We’ll see how the Packers want to attack Ramsey and how the Rams want to use him to limit Adams. X-Factor Edge: Push

Pick: Packers

ATS: Rams +6.5

Over/Under: Under 45.5


(#5 AFC) Baltimore Ravens at (#2 AFC) Buffalo Bills (-2.5, 50)

Breakdown: I didn’t plan on going too deep into the numbers as my Buffalo Bills welcome the Baltimore Ravens to Orchard Park in the Saturday night game. However, the national narrative says the Bills should be afraid of the Ravens and has been promoting this misconception that Baltimore is the hottest team in the NFL. I’m going to tell you why that’s annoying and just factually incorrect.

Let’s address that part first. Yes, the Ravens are on a 6-game win streak including their victory over the Titans in the Wildcard Round, but the Bills have won 7 in a row (longest streak in the NFL) and did it against better competition along the way including the Wild Card victory over the Colts who were Top-10 in offense, defense, and special teams. Over Baltimore’s win streak, their opponents’ had a combined win rate of 40%(39-56-1) while Buffalo’s opponents had a 52% win rate (58-54) during their seven games. During their hot streak, the Ravens have been averaging an eye-popping 34-ppg but it’s come mostly against poor defenses. Four of their six opponents had defenses in the Bottom-10, with the Giants’ 12th ranked group being the best of the bunch. The Bills, on the other hand, played six defenses ranked in the Top-10 in scoring during their stretch and averaged 36.5-ppg in the process. And if not for the Hail Murray in Arizona, the Bills would be on a 10-game win streak. So, please, tell me again how the Ravens are the hotter team. Heat Check Edge: Bills

The strength of schedule is pretty comparable for these teams. Including the first round of the playoffs, Buffalo’s opponents’ win percentage in 52% and Baltimore’s is 50%. The Bills have six wins against teams with at least 10-wins while the Ravens have four. In terms of common opponents, both teams lost to the Chiefs and Titans during the regular season, both teams have since beaten the Colts, but Buffalo holds wins over New England and Pittsburgh who beat Baltimore. The Ravens now have a win over the Titans who beat the Bills in Week 5. Between the teams, they’ve only each lost to one team that didn’t have a winning record. It’s a coin toss category. Strength of Schedule: Push

Now let’s get into the really interesting stuff. Both teams are in the Top-10 when it comes to scoring offense, but they go about it very differently. The Bills are bringing the #2 offense in the league into this matchup on the strength of their 3rd ranked passing attack, while the Ravens are 19th, mostly due to their dead last passing game. When it comes to running the ball, it’s the opposite. Baltimore is 1st with nearly 200-YPG on the ground while Buffalo comes in at 20th with 107-YPG. They are both Top-5 in 3rd down conversion rate and right next to one another at 12th & 13th in red-zone TD percentage. They are also eerily similar in scoring pct., drive time, and points per drive. However, there’s more to it than the straight numbers.

Baltimore only managed 20-pts against a Titans’ defense that was one of the worst in the league. In games against Top-10 scoring defenses, the Ravens were 3-3 and only scored 22.8-ppg in those games. The Bills were 5-0 against teams with Top-10 overall defenses, averaging 29.8-ppg, and 7-0 against teams with Top-10 scoring defenses, averaging 33.4-ppg, including 35-pts against the Rams’ #1 defense and 27-pts against the Colts last week. Offensive Edge: Bills

The Ravens’ defense made Josh Allen look bad last time these teams met, but it was still close

I don’t need to dig too deep to know the Ravens have the better defense. They have a significant edge against both the pass and the run, their scoring defense is 2nd in the league behind the Rams and their 3rd down conversion pct is 2nd best. All I can say is that the Bills offense has stared down some of the league’s best defenses already, including last week, and done just fine. While Buffalo’s defense doesn’t rank very high, they’ve played a lot better down the stretch. Defensive Edge: Ravens

Both of these guys are going to be fun to watch

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Josh Allen has had a far better season than Lamar Jackson. Allen set career highs and franchise records in basically everything while Jackson regressed in completion pct, TDs, INTs, and yardage. Considering his MVP campaign last season, a little back step is expected and that doesn’t mean he’s not as dynamic as ever. However, aside from an amazing day on the ground in Tennessee, he underwhelmed as a passer (17/24, 179-yds, 0-TDs, and a pick) against a bad defense. The Bills aren’t the elite defense they were over the past few seasons but they are better than the Titans. Meanwhile, Allen was 26/35 for 324-yds, 2-TDs, no picks, and added 54-yds rushing and a score against the Colts’ Top-10 defense. For the same reason I gave Jackson the edge over King Henry, Allen has more ways to hurt you. X-Factor Edge: Bills

Losing Zach Moss for the remainder of the playoffs definitely hurts, but the injury report is pretty clean for both teams beyond that. The Bills did Devonta Freeman to the roster, but the odds of him making a splash right away are limited. Health Edge: Ravens

It’s going to be cold on Saturday night in Western New York, but snow isn’t in the forecast so far. If the Bills can slow the run game a little, keep edge contain, and force Jackson to win it with his arm, Buffalo should win comfortably. The Ravens won 24-17 when these teams met last season but the Bills have gotten a lot better since then and I can’t say the same about the Ravens. Let’s Go Buffalo!!

Pick: Bills

ATS: Bills by a Billion

Over/Under: Over 50


(#6 AFC) Cleveland Browns at (#1 AFC) Kansas City Chiefs (-10, 57)

Breakdown: Kicking off Sunday’s matchups, we get Cleveland at Kansas City. The Browns are playing with house money after upsetting the Steelers in Pittsburgh on Wild Card Super Weekend. The defending Super Bowl Champion Chiefs, on the other hand, haven’t played a meaningful game in a month and most of their key starters will have had 20 days in between starts. I know people are saying, “It’s an Andy Reid team, they’ll be ready” but that’s a long layoff between competition when you need to be firing on all cylinders. 

Patrick Mahomes, and many other Chiefs’ starters, will play their first snaps in about 3 weeks

I’ve never been a fan of limping into the playoffs, but that’s what the Chiefs decided to do when they rested their guys in Week 17 and lost to the Chargers. They still had the best record in the league and were 4-0 against playoff teams, including four of the remaining playoff teams (BAL, BUF, NO, & TB). So, the quality of their wins far exceeds their losses. The Browns had some good wins but were 4-3 against playoff teams during the regular season and had the lower opponent win percentage. Back-to-back Ws over the Steelers has the Browns hot though. 

Strength of Schedule Edge: Chiefs

Heat Check Edge: Browns

There’s no use in beating around the bush, on paper, Kansas City is an offensive juggernaut and, even without truly playing their best, the Chiefs still have the number one offense in the league overall en route to a 14-2 record. KC definitely has the offensive advantage but there are two areas where the Browns have the edge offensively, rushing and red zone TD percentage. Cleveland has the 3rd best rushing attack in football, averaging nearly 150-yds rushing per game between Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, and they convert red-zone trips into TDs about 13% more than the Chiefs. Third down conversion rate, avg. drive length and points per drive are basically even, so it’ll be interesting to see who can impose their will. Offensive Edge: Chiefs

Good luck dealing with these two all day and Hunt will look to get a little payback vs his former team

Defensively, these teams are separated by 2-yds total at 16th and 17th overall. A pair of potent offenses and vulnerable defenses has the makings of a shootout, especially when both teams are strongest where the opponent is weakest. Cleveland has the 22nd ranked pass defense and the KC has the 21st ranked run defense. The champs are a little better in ppg allowed and 3rd down conversion rate against, but again, the Browns have a massive 16% edge in red zone TDs against. The Chiefs’ defense is dead last in red-zone TD%, giving up the good 76% of the time. Defensive Edge: Push

It’s hard to count out a team that has Patrick Mahomes at QB. He’s “struggled” a little bit this year but he was still in the Top-5 in all the key categories: 38-TDs(4th), 4,740-yds(2nd), 6-INTS(2nd fewest with 300 attempts), and QB-rating 108.2(3rd). If that’s an “off” season for him, the league is in for a rude awakening. The Browns’ two-headed monster at running back is something special. Nick Chubb missed four games with a bad knee injury and still came back to run for 1,067-yds (7th) and 12-TDs (4th). His blend of smooth power gives everyone trouble and the Chiefs aren’t well equipped to deal with it. Then there’s Kareem Hunt who ran for 841-yds (16th) and 6-TDs. Neither guy really dominated last week because Pittsburgh kept giving up a short field, but they combined for 124-yds and 2-TDs and averaged 4.7-YPC against one of the very best run defenses in the league. Food for thought. X-Factor Edge: Chiefs

The dynamic playmaking ability of Mahomes and Tyreek Hill is unmatched

After a week where the team was struck by a Covid outbreak, the Browns are getting some key pieces back for this matchup. Pro Bowl guard Joe Bitonio returns to the offensive line, Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson are back in the secondary, and Head Coach Kevin Stefanski is back with the team as well. The Chiefs are well-rested but will be without veteran wideout Sammy Watkins and linebacker Willie Gay, and the Hyphen Clyde Edwards-Helaire is still questionable. All things considered, it sounds like a small victory for the Browns who now have nobody on the Covid list. Health Edge: Browns

If you want to have a shot at beating the Chiefs, you have to be able to run the ball, control the clock, and keep Mahomes on the sideline. The Browns can do those things and handling Chubb and Hunt after three weeks of vacation is a tall order for any team. I smell an upset. 

Pick: Browns

ATS: Browns +10

Over/Under: Under 57


(#5 NFC) Tampa Bay Buccaneers at (#2 NFC) New Orleans Saints (-3, 52)

Breakdown: The divisional round comes to a close as the Bucs head to New Orleans to see if the third time’s the charm against the Saints. Considering how statistically similar these teams are, it’s a little surprising how easily the Saints dispatched of them in both meetings. When they met in Week 1, you didn’t really expect the Bucs to win. It was more of an audition to see where they were going to be with Tom Brady. The 11-pt loss wasn’t the end of the world for the Bucs, but it was clear that winning the division would be an uphill battle. When the teams met again two months later in Tampa Bay, both teams were 6-2 and the division hung in the balance. New Orleans put a one-sided and embarrassing 38-3 beating on the Bucs. This is the one playoff matchup where there’s a decided head-to-head advantage, but it’s tough to beat a team three times in the same season. Heads Up Edge: Saints

Michael Thomas is back for this matchup and Drew Brees is looking better every week as he recovers from broken ribs. Cornerback Patrick Robinson is out for the Saints but they’re basically as healthy as they’ve been all season. Tampa Bay will be without guard Alex Cappa who went to injured reserve and depth defensive lineman Jeremiah Ledbetter. They also have a bunch of guys who didn’t practice for a variety of reasons but are likely to play. Health Edge: Saints

We’ve got the #7 (TB) and the #12 (NO) offenses, 3rd and 5th in scoring respectively, but, even with Tampa’s late-season surge, these teams are pretty even in yards and points. The Bucs like to do things through the air (ranked 2nd), but that’s because their run game is ineffective (ranked 29th). New Orleans does things the other way around with the #6 rushing offense and the #19 passing game. They are very even in 3rd down conversion percentage, red zone TD %, scoring %, average drive time, and points per drive. There’s no real edge either way, but the Saints’ advantage on the ground could help them control the pace of the game. Offensive Edge: Push  

The story is basically the same on defense. New Orleans is 4th in total defense, TB is 6th. The Saints are 5th in scoring defense, the Bucs are 8th. Both teams are in the Top-5 in rush defense but New Orleans is much better against the pass (5th) than Tampa (21st) and, while the teams are essentially even in 3rd down defense, scoring % against, and drive averages against, the Saints are a tad bit better in the red zone. In their two meetings, Brady was sacked six times and threw 5-INTS. Defensive Edge: Saints

Brady saw this a lot in two games vs the Saints

Playing in the same division, the strength of schedule is a wash but they did both lose to the Chiefs. Tampa does hold a decisive win over the Packers who beat New Orleans but, then again, the Saints have a pair of wins over the Bears who beat the Bucs. Make what you will of that. 

Pick: Saints

ATS: Saints -3

Over/Under: Over 52

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