The Ringer’s NFL writers answer the pressing questions ahead of this weekend’s divisional round.
What’s your biggest takeaway from wild-card weekend?
Kevin Clark: Things went more or less how I expected with one big exception: I did not expect the Buffalo Bills to play the most efficient offensive game in history against the best defensive coach in NFL history. That one got me. This particular development adds a huge wrinkle to the playoffs: There is now a team that can beat anyone when they play like that—and it’s not exactly a high probability that this will happen four times in a row, but after last week, I’m ready to believe anything.
Danny Heifetz: I got a lot of chores done.
Kaelen Jones: Stop expanding playoff fields. (STAND YOUR GROUND, COLLEGE FOOTBALL!) The seventh seed probably won’t go away because of revenue, but it is pointless.
Danny Kelly: That Buffalo is maybe, just maybe, going to go completely scorched earth on the entire NFL playoffs. The Bills are healthy, they have a tenacious and disciplined defense, they’ve improved in the run game over the past month, and when Josh Allen plays like he did last weekend, he is capable of completely taking over a game. He’s unstoppable.
Nora Princiotti: That when Josh Allen is on, he’s unstoppable. In retrospect, Buffalo’s decision to unlock him as a runner precipitated their turnaround from a midseason slump—three of his four games this season with double-digit carries came after the Bills’ loss to New England in Week 13. It seemed like an educated decision—made in part by Buffalo’s coaches and executives like Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane who worked with Cam Newton in Carolina—to protect Allen by not fully unleashing him for the entire regular season. The fourth game in which Allen had more than 10 carries (against the Chiefs at Arrowhead in Week 5) was arguably Buffalo’s biggest win of the season. Kansas City had four turnovers, some of them unlucky, in that game, but the Bills won 38-20. The Chiefs are a different team on offense and defense than they were back then, but I’m still not sure there’s any member of their defense who’s well-suited to guarding Allen when he tucks the ball and runs. Putting a spy on him is probably the way to do it, but no safety on Kansas City is big and fast enough to be trusted in that role. The Chiefs are going to have to pick their poison against Allen.
Steven Ruiz: I know it looked pretty easy for the Bucs against the Eagles, but Tom Brady did have some problems on third down when Philly played man coverage. It’s not like the Eagles have a bunch of cover guys either. Now that Chris Godwin is out and Antonio Brown is hanging out with Kanye, this Bucs passing game is just a whole lot easier to defend. I no longer fear Tampa Bay, which might be a mistake.
Rodger Sherman: The Dallas Cowboys, the most popular team in America’s most popular sport and the most valuable sports franchise in the world, owned by a multibillionaire who cares only about the Dallas Cowboys, should pay someone who is good at coaching football to coach their football team. (Or at least someone with a reasonable comprehension of how time works.)
Ben Solak: Most people will say that there are too many wild-card games and too many playoff teams—that’s fair. Despite the lopsided results, it still felt like the games meant more because it’s playoff football. I loved the energy the Bills brought in that Patriots rout—it reminded me how close Buffalo was to making the Super Bowl last year and how many key players have returned. I loved watching the Cardinals’ struggles against the Rams—it reminded me how little playoff experience that talented team has. I’m just happy the playoffs are back, man.
Which divisional-round game are you most excited to watch?
Clark: Aside from Bills-Chiefs, give me Packers-Niners: A different Niners team gave it to the Packers pretty good in the playoffs two years ago, and this season’s version just toppled a pretty good Cowboys team. The Packers have dropped playoff games they shouldn’t in the past two years and if things start to go south, I’m interested to see how they’ll respond. Aaron Rodgers is the best player in football this year, and I bet he gets this done, but it’ll be some of the best theater in the sport if he struggles against the talented Niners defense. I love this game.
Heifetz: Bills-Chiefs, obvs.
Jones: Chiefs-Bills might as well be a Super Bowl.
Kelly: Bills-Chiefs is maybe the game of the year. The Bills are on fire and the Chiefs look as dangerous as ever following their wild-card evisceration of the Steelers. Patrick Mahomes vs. Josh Allen is the most perfect and aesthetically pleasing quarterback matchup possible, at least when it comes to dudes doing things you didn’t think were physically possible.
Princiotti: All the other games feel like they have bigger stakes attached, but there’s something about Joe Burrow that’s appointment television for me right now.
Ruiz: BILLS-CHIEFS. BILLS-CHIEFS. BILLS-CHIEFS. BILLS-CHIEFS. BILLS-CHIEFS. BILLS-CHIEFS. BILLS-CHIEFS. BILLS-CHIEFS. BILLS-CHIEFS. BILLS-CHIEFS.
Rams-Bucs is interesting, but …
BILLS-CHIEFS. BILLS-CHIEFS. BILLS-CHIEFS. BILLS-CHIEFS. BILLS-CHIEFS. BILLS-CHIEFS. BILLS-CHIEFS. BILLS-CHIEFS. BILLS-CHIEFS. BILLS-CHIEFS.
Sherman: Bills-Chiefs! Is anybody going to say anything besides Bills-Chiefs? If they do, they’re lying, and you shouldn’t trust anything they say!
Solak: San Francisco vs. Green Bay. It feels like every game that these two teams have played recently has some dramatic ending or dominant performance. No team remaining is more fun to watch than the Niners, who are maximizing their stars to scrape together an incredible offense and defense despite significant personnel deficiencies. I think Green Bay will beat them, but this should be a classic.
What matchup are you most interested in?
Clark: Tom Brady against the Rams defense is going to be wild, especially if his offensive line is banged up. The Rams’ unit is already full of stars—Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, among others—and just dismantled a Cardinals team to the point that star quarterback Kyler Murray looked totally baffled. Brady is not Murray, but keeping him upright, and with a depleted group of receiving options, will be a challenge.
Heifetz: The Chiefs offense versus the Bills defense could be its own PornHub category.
Jones: Chiefs front seven vs. Josh Allen’s legs. The 6-foot-5, 237-pound Allen has carried the ball for more than 60 yards in five of his past six games (including four in a row). Allen’s ability to extend plays with his legs was a difference-maker in the Chiefs-Bills Week 5 matchup. Kansas City didn’t have Melvin Ingram yet, but I’m still concerned Steve Spagnuolo won’t have a consistent answer to counter Allen’s mobility.
Kelly: The banged-up Buccaneers offense against the Rams’ pass rush group. With Tristan Wirfs and Ryan Jensen both nursing injuries, Tampa Bay will have to get creative in slowing down Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and Co.
Princiotti: Rams offense vs. Bucs defense. Los Angeles’s trade for Matthew Stafford was the story of the offseason. Stafford won his first playoff game and didn’t throw a pick in the wild-card round, but Sean McVay has turned his offense into a run-heavy operation that takes a lot off of Stafford’s plate. I’m curious whether that formula can work against Tampa, or if the Rams will have to open things up for their star quarterback and live with the results.
Ruiz: I’m going a little unconventional: Joe Burrow vs. Mike Vrabel. The Titans defense does a lot of funky stuff with coverage disguises and pressure designs. Trying to figure out what defense they’re in before the snap is rough for any quarterback, but Burrow has taken control of the Bengals offense before the snap and he’s one of the best at making the necessary changes to get the offense in the right play. That’s going to be harder to do against Tennessee, and I’m fascinated to see how he handles the challenge.
Sherman: Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense against Buffalo’s defense. It already feels like a foregone conclusion that the Bills will put up points—they played arguably the best offensive game in NFL history last week against a much better defense. Can Mahomes keep pace against a team that picked him off twice in October?
Solak: Honestly, it’s Tennessee vs. Cincinnati. I’ve doubted both of these teams down the stretch, and here they are, playing for a conference championship game ticket. It’s the only game that isn’t a rematch from earlier this season as well, which leaves a lot of room for new narratives. If Burrow can throw Cincinnati to a win against this defensive front, he can do it against any front left in the field.
If you had your pick of any quarterback still in the playoffs to win you one game, who would it be?
Clark: The answer is Patrick Mahomes until he clearly proves otherwise. And it will take a lot for that to change.
Heifetz: To anyone who didn’t pick Tom Brady, remember you can call 911 on your Apple Watch.
Jones: Aaron Rodgers. I randomly think about this throw and catch way too often, not gonna lie.
Kelly: As much as I love Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers and Joe Burrow, I still can’t pick anyone except Tom Brady.
Princiotti: Tom Brady, because I am a scholar of history. Also, never invade Russia in the wintertime.
Ruiz: Brady is the obvious pick, but I’ll go with the most talented QB I’ve ever seen, Patrick Mahomes. Actually, with the way Josh Allen and Aaron Rodgers are playing, I don’t know if Brady cracks my top three. Give me the quarterbacks who can move.
Sherman: Jimmy Garoppolo. LOL, just kidding, it’s either Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen. I don’t actually have good football takes so I resort to making fun of bad QBs. It’s worked so far in my career!
Solak: I want to say Aaron Rodgers, in terms of current quality of play, but it feels disingenuous to say anyone but Tom Brady. Winning playoff games is very hard—the opposing defenses are usually, uh, quite good—and nobody has a longer history of doing what’s necessary to win those games than Brady. And sure he’s 44, but he’s literally in the best shape of his life.
Which non-QB will make the biggest impact?
Clark: Deebo Samuel is the type of player who can take over a playoff game: He can run out of the backfield, go deep, and can run you over. He was built to take over a big game like this, especially, when, uh, the 49ers have questions at quarterback.
Heifetz: Deebo Samuel makes me feel like I’m watching football’s future and past at the same time. But the less sexy answer is whether Tampa’s injured offensive line can block Aaron Donald.
Jones: Titans defensive linemen Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry are my pick(s). The Bengals offensive line struggles in pass pro (30th in ESPN’s pass-block win rate). Simmons (62 total pressures) and Autry (61) could make life difficult for Joe Burrow. Then again, he’s playing so well that it might not matter.
Kelly: It’s a tired, boring answer, but I will continue to use it until he either helps the Rams win the Super Bowl or they get eliminated: Aaron Donald.
Princiotti: Packers linebacker De’Vondre Campbell! This is a hipster pick, so excuse me while I pull on a jaunty cap before making this point. Campbell, a mostly unknown quantity on a one-year deal in Green Bay, was a surprising but deserving All-Pro pick this year. San Francisco’s offense attacks the second level of a defense like almost no other thanks to its diverse run game and a passing game that ranked ninth this season with 1,224 passing yards on throws of 10 or fewer yards past the line of scrimmage. Campbell does his work there, and he could have a chance to gain recognition on a big stage against San Francisco.
Ruiz: We’ve already seen Jeffery Simmons single-handedly win the Titans a game when he dominated the Rams offensive line in a Sunday night blowout. He might be able to do the same going up against the Bengals offensive line, which is particularly weak on the right side. Burrow has been pretty good at escaping pressure and creating big plays, but good luck doing that with a 300-pound man right in your lap a second or two after the ball is snapped. If Simmons dominates, the Titans will win.
Sherman: Derrick Henry. In past years, Henry has been a postseason force, fifth all time in postseason rushing yards per game and tied for 10th all time in 100-yard games in the postseason. He’s a finisher, at his best in fourth quarters and late in the season, when defenses are too tired, too worn, and too torn to tackle him. And this time? He hasn’t played in three months.
Solak: Deebo Samuel. This probably isn’t a perfect answer in terms of positional value and whatnot (Nick Bosa or Aaron Donald or Jalen Ramsey, yadda yadda, whatever), but it is the perfect answer in terms of general coolness. Samuel is a walking big play who solves every problem thrown at the 49ers offense with his explosiveness, toughness, and football IQ.
Are you sticking with your Super Bowl pick?
Clark: Packers-Chiefs is still on track, baby!
Heifetz: Is it too late to pick the Cowboys?
Jones: Yes, but I think I’m already regretting being a coward and choosing Chiefs-Packers for our playoff survey instead of sticking with Chiefs-Rams like I picked ahead of the season. I did this last year, too ...
Kelly: I picked the Packers and I’m ready to go down with that ship. But I’ll admit it’s very, very tempting to switch things up to the Bills.
Princiotti: [Stares wistfully at photo of Josh Allen while Taylor Swift’s “The Way I Loved You” plays.] Yes, I am sticking with the Packers, the responsible choice.
Ruiz: I picked the Chiefs, and nothing about their win over the Steelers in the wild-card round convinced me to change that pick. I will, however, need to pick a new opponent for them after picking a team coached by Mike McCarthy to win the NFC. I’m an idiot, but I won’t make the same mistake twice. Give me the favorites. A Mahomes vs. Aaron Rodgers Super Bowl would be pretty cool!
Sherman: Yeah! I’m not a coward!
Solak: Yeah. It was the Packers then, and it is now, especially with the injury situation to Jimmy Garoppolo.