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The Keys to Every NFL Divisional-Round Matchup

How will Aaron Rodgers fare against a stout Rams defense? Do the Browns have a prayer against Patrick Mahomes? And what should we expect in the Brees-Brady Bowl? That and more in the divisional-round preview.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There are seven games left in the NFL season. Four of them are this weekend. Three of those four are cold-weather games, and one—Buffalo vs. Baltimore—might be played in the snow. But even without the weather factor, these games will be delightfully weird. Tom Brady vs. Drew Brees is the oldest quarterback matchup in NFL history. Bills-Ravens features two of the most ridiculous passers in the NFL. Browns-Chiefs is a rematch of a 2016 Big 12 game, when Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes combined for 1,279 passing yards, the most ever in a college football game. And before all of that, we have the greatest showdown in the history of the name Aaron.

Saturday Games

Los Angeles Rams (10-6) @ Green Bay Packers (13-3)

Time: 4:35 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Opening point spread: Packers -7
Over/under: 46.5
Key to the Game: The Rams defense outwitting Aaron Rodgers

This week, Aaron Rodgers revealed that he will be guest-hosting Jeopardy! after the NFL season ends. But this game will come down to whether the Packers can keep their QB out of jeopardy. Rodgers, the likely 2020 MVP, will be going up against Aaron Donald, the likely Defensive Player of the Year. The Packers scored the most points in the NFL this season, while the Rams defense allowed the fewest. Something has to give. But the onus is on the Rams defense because their offense is leaning on Jared Goff and his broken thumb at quarterback.

In order to slow down Rodgers, the Rams will have to pressure him. He is simply too good when he has time in the pocket. Fortunately, the Rams have been great at pressuring the quarterback this season—they had the second-best regular-season pass-rushing grade in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. But the Packers offensive line had the second-best pass-blocking grade. These are two elite units. But neither is at full strength.

Donald tore his rib cartilage last weekend while bringing down Russell Wilson, and though he’ll likely play on Saturday, he’ll be operating through a painful injury. Donald is usually on the field for at least five of every six Rams defensive snaps, but that number could decrease this weekend. Meanwhile, the Packers lost All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari to a torn ACL in late December. Green Bay was so desperate to find a lineman to help fill Bakhtiari’s role that it signed Jared Veldheer, who started at left tackle for the Colts last week. But then Veldheer tested positive for the coronavirus, so he won’t play either. The team already moved right guard Billy Turner to left tackle and plugged in Rick Wagner on the right side. If either gets hurt, the Packers won’t have a natural backup.

To keep Rodgers safe, the Packers will need to get him out of the tackle box. It’ll be too easy for Donald to get to Rodgers if the QB is always in the same spot during his dropbacks. Coach Matt LaFleur will have to deploy some designed rollouts, a concept Rodgers has had success with this season—his QBR on those plays was 98.3, per ESPN’s Matt Bowen, and the scale only goes to 100. Good things happen when Rodgers moves toward the sideline.

Most of those good things involve wide receiver Davante Adams. Adams broke the Packers single-season record for catches this year (115) and led the NFL in receiving yards per game (98.1). Adams also led the NFL with 18 touchdown catches, more than the Rams defense allowed all season (17). But this week, Adams will be covered by Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey. Both players were named first-team All-Pros this season, and whenever Adams is the lone receiver on one side of the field, Ramsey will likely shadow him in man coverage. Last week, Ramsey dominated Seattle’s DK Metcalf in one-on-one coverage, but Adams will be harder to stop. Adams’s 2020 campaign graded as the most productive receiver season in the past 14 years—ahead of 2007 Randy Moss—according to Pro Football Focus analyst Kevin Cole’s plus-minus wide receiver grading. Adams also has dad strength.

L.A.’s defense is a paradox. The Rams have one of the few defenses in the NFL that prioritizes stopping the pass instead of the run. As The Athletic’s Robert Mays noted, this unit lines up in light boxes more than any other defense. This suggests that coordinator Brandon Staley’s group could be gashed on the ground. Instead, they were the best run defense by expected points allowed per play. And their pass defense is great too, ranking in the top five in Football Outsiders’ DVOA.

This is the most frustrating defense to play in the entire NFL. But if anyone can figure it out, it’s Rodgers.

Baltimore Ravens (11-5) @ Buffalo Bills (13-3)

Time: 8:15 p.m. ET
Channel: NBC
Opening point spread: Bills -3
Over/under: 49.5
Key to the Game: Buffalo’s run defense

The Bills have few weaknesses, but their biggest may be defending the run. They’ve given up 518 rushing yards in the past four games, including 163 to the Colts last week. And the Ravens are rushing mavens. Baltimore ran for more than 400 yards against the Bengals just two weeks ago. If there is a way for the Ravens to crack this game open, it’s by controlling the line of scrimmage.

As The Athletic’s Matthew Fairburn noted, only five players had more than seven runs of 20-plus yards this season. The Ravens had three of those five players (Lamar Jackson, J.K. Dobbins, and Gus Edwards). Since December 8, Baltimore hasn’t had fewer than 159 rushing yards in a game, and in that 6-0 stretch, the team is averaging more than 260 yards per game on the ground. The Ravens’ rushing attack breaks teams and it’s their best chance of winning this game.

The Bills also have a strategic decision to make in pass defense. Buffalo’s secondary might be the best in the NFL. The unit features All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White and the league’s best safety duo in Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. The Ravens, meanwhile, have the worst receiving group of any team left in the playoffs. But the question is how the Bills cover them. In man coverage, Baltimore’s receivers have a tough time getting open, but Lamar Jackson is a more effective runner because defenders have their back to the ball. In zone coverage, Baltimore’s receivers fare better, but Lamar’s rushing ability is mitigated (because defenders see him scrambling). The Bills usually play zone coverage, and while man coverage might help them stop the run, both have risks.

Baltimore’s key player in this game may be tight end Mark Andrews. The Bills allowed more receiving yards to tight ends this season than every team except the Jets, and they also allowed the most catches to tight ends. Last week, the Colts tight end group collectively managed 14 catches for 136 yards, a touchdown, and a two-point conversion. Andrews has had drops in just about every big game he’s played. But this week, he should have a chance at redemption.


Sunday Games

Cleveland Browns (11-5) @ Kansas City Chiefs (14-2)

Time: 3:05 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Opening point spread: Chiefs -10
Over/under: 54
Key to the Game: Slowing down Kansas City’s passing game (LOL)

The first key to this game is figuring out who the heck is allowed to play for the Browns. Head coach Kevin Stefanski returned to practice Thursday and will be able to coach in this game. The Browns also got cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson—both starters—back from the COVID-19 list. Those activations are crucial because backup cornerback Robert Jackson, who started against the Steelers last week, suffered a hamstring injury and is out for the season. Guard Joel Bitonio, Cleveland’s best lineman, is still on the COVID-19 list. His backup, Michael Dunn, started against the Steelers but also suffered an injury and is out for the rest of the playoffs. If Bitonio can’t play, the Browns will start Blake Hance, a.k.a. “Some guy named Blake.”

Cleveland getting its cornerbacks back is great news. The bad news is they are playing the Chiefs.

With Andy Reid calling the shots and Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, Kansas City has averaged 38 points coming off byes. Cleveland’s secondary, meanwhile, has been decimated by injuries and illness this season and has had little time to build continuity. The Browns’ best hope is controlling the line of scrimmage and rushing Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt directly into the Chiefs defense. But unless the Browns secondary can keep up with Kansas City’s speed, this Browns fairy tale may be coming to an end.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) @ New Orleans Saints (12-4)

Time: 6:40 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Opening point spread: Saints -3.5
Over/under: 49
Key to the Game: Sacking the geriatrics (or stopping them on third down)

Before we dig into this matchup, let’s look at the quarterbacks. This week, Tom Brady posted a tweet suggesting that this game—which features the 43-year-old Brady and the 42-year-old Brees—should be on the History channel.

This picture makes Brady look like a hot Hogwarts professor while Brees looks like he should be selling catheters on Fox News. Does this count as bulletin-board material? It probably does, considering Brady and Brees are old enough to remember using actual bulletin boards.

But this tweet is not the only reason this is a strange game. The Saints are 2-0 against the Bucs this season. New Orleans sunk the Buccaneers 34-23 in Week 1, when Brady and the rest of the offense hadn’t yet jelled. Then they met again on Sunday Night Football in Week 9 and the Saints won 38-3 in perhaps the most dominant game any team played all season. The Buccaneers were so futile in that contest that they ran the ball only five times, the fewest in a game in NFL history. While many will point out it’s hard to beat a team three times in one season, it’s also hard to beat a team that recently beat you 38-3.

That’s where these quarterbacks come in. With age comes wisdom. Brady and Brees were two of the hardest quarterbacks to sack this season. They each took sacks on just 3 percent of their dropbacks, but they achieved that in different ways. Brees gets rid of the ball fast. The Saints pepper the short and middle of the field with quick routes. Brees’s average pass traveled just 6 yards this season, which ranked 34th out of 35 qualifying quarterbacks, according to NFL GSIS. But Brady was the opposite. His passes traveled more than 9 yards per throw, the farthest of any quarterback in the NFL. Whereas the Saints dominate short routes, the Bucs are one of the most aggressive downfield teams in football.

But when teams get pressure on Brady, he is not effective. As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell noted before the wild-card round, Brady ranked fifth in QBR without pressure, but tied for 31st when under pressure. Washington was not able to get to Brady much last week, but the Saints have a better defense. New Orleans would benefit from getting back Trey Hendrickson, their rising defensive end who missed last week with a neck injury. (Hendrickson has been limited in practice this week and his status is uncertain.) He had 13.5 sacks this season, tied with Aaron Donald for second in the NFL.

The key for the Bucs will be turnovers and stops. Tampa Bay tied for fifth in takeaways this season. And while Brees doesn’t turn it over much, Taysom Hill lost five fumbles in the regular season. Even if the Bucs can’t get turnovers, just getting stops on third down will be crucial. Saints kicker Wil Lutz has missed four of his past seven field goal attempts. He also missed an extra point in Week 17. For all the talk that this game is about two of the most legendary quarterbacks ever, don’t be surprised if it comes down to a 26-year-old kicker from Georgia State. This game might age Lutz more than Brady’s Photoshop-aged Brees.