NFL Divisional Playoffs Weekend Preview: Brady and Brees Set to Go Head-to-Head

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJanuary 11, 2021

NFL Divisional Playoffs Weekend Preview: Brady and Brees Set to Go Head-to-Head

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    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    In the last 48 hours, 19 percent of the NFL's 32 teams were eliminated from the playoffs. 

    That has us down to the elite eight, with the Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns left to challenge the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC and the New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Los Angeles Rams still standing as challengers to the No. 1 seed Green Bay Packers in the NFC. 

    With that in mind, we bring you an initial breakdown of the four tilts slated for what many believe is the best weekend on the NFL calendar.

NFC: (6) Los Angeles Rams at (1) Green Bay Packers

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    Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

    In a nutshell: The Rams limped into the playoffs, survived on the road despite a quarterback mess in the wild-card round and are trying to find magic against a Packers team that strutted into the playoffs, is well-rested and features first-team All-Pro (and likely MVP) quarterback Aaron Rodgers

    Date/time: Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET

    TV: Fox

    Location: Lambeau Field (Green Bay, Wisconsin)

    Fans in attendance: More than 6,000

    Early line: Green Bay -7.5

    Early total: 46.5

          

    Key Matchups

    Rodgers vs. Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey

    With Donald leading the way up front and Ramsey holding it down in the secondary, the Rams had the league's No. 1 scoring defense this season. That unit held Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to just 11 completions on 27 attempts on Wild Card Weekend, but now they'll have to deal with Rodgers, and Donald has a rib injury. 

    Rodgers is coming off the second-highest-rated regular season in NFL history, and with first-team All-Pros Davante Adams and Corey Linsley, the Packers had the league's highest-scoring offense in 2020. One potential issue? They won't have All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari, who is done for the season because of a knee injury. 

         

    Cam Akers vs. Green Bay's run defense

    The Rams had the league's fourth-rated rushing offense in terms of DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at Football Outsiders in 2020, and Akers gained 175 yards on 30 touches to carry the offense in Seattle. They probably shouldn't count on either John Wolford (neck) and Jared Goff (thumb) to shine under center, which puts a lot of pressure on Akers. 

    The good news for the Rams in that regard is the Packers are vulnerable against the run. That unit ranked 18th in DVOA, and they struggled to stop Dalvin Cook, James Robinson and David Montgomery in November/December. 

         

    Other Potential X-Factors

    Rams: Blake Bortles

    The recently signed veteran backup quarterback could wind up playing part or all of this game. Wolford's neck injury was pretty scary in Seattle, and it's possible he won't be available, while Goff really struggled coming off thumb surgery on his throwing hand.

    Goff should be healthy enough to start unless he suffered a setback in the wild-card round, but if he's ineffective against a fairly strong pass defense, head coach Sean McVay could roll the dice on Bortles. 

         

    Packers: Aaron Jones

    All eyes will be on Rodgers and Adams, but the team's No. 1 running back somewhat quietly averaged a fantastic 6.5 yards per carry during the final six weeks of 2020, and he's accumulated more than 3,000 scrimmage yards and 30 touchdowns the last two seasons.

    He can't be overlooked by the Rams, and his matchup with star Los Angeles safety John Johnson III could be an under-the-radar factor throughout this game. 

         

    Injuries to Watch

    Rams: Donald, Goff, Wolford and WR Cooper KuppPer NFL Network's Mike Garafolo, the team is "hopeful" that the six-time first-team All-Pro Donald will be able to play after injuring his ribs in Seattle. Meanwhile, Kupp is day-to-day after suffering a scary knee injury against the Seahawks. 

    Packers: NoneThe recent loss of Bakhtiari could hurt, but the Packers are astonishingly healthy outside of that.

NFC: (5) Tampa Bay Buccaneers at (2) New Orleans Saints

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    Jason Behnken/Associated Press

    In a nutshell: Hours beyond Drew Brees' 42nd birthday, the two oldest players in the NFL and the two most prolific passers in NFL history do battle in a divisional matchup between teams that both ranked in the top five defending both the run and pass in DVOA in 2020.

    The Saints won both regular-season meetings, outscoring Tampa Bay 72-27, but Tom Brady has never lost to the same team three times in one season and has only lost twice to the same opponent in one campaign twice in his two decades in the NFL.

    Date/time: Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET

    TV: Fox

    Location: Mercedes-Benz Superdome (New Orleans)

    Fans in attendance: Likely 3,000 or more

    Early line: New Orleans -3.5

    Early total: 51.5

          

    Key Matchups

    Tom Brady vs. the New Orleans pass rush

    The 43-year-old held up extremely well against a fierce Washington Football Team defensive front in the wild-card round but will face another stiff test against a Saints defense that ranks even better in terms of DVOA.

    Only five teams recorded higher pressure rates this year than New Orleans. Cameron Jordan is a six-time Pro Bowler, while Trey Hendrickson broke out with 13.5 sacks in 2020. They'll need to be at their best to slow down Brady, who has posted five consecutive triple-digit passer rating outings and has a 14-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio during that span. 

         

    Alvin Kamara vs. Tampa's top-ranked run defense

    Back from the reserve/COVID-19 list, the NFL regular-season touchdown leader compiled 116 yards from scrimmage in the wild-card round but will be in for a tough game against a run D that surrendered a league-low 3.6 yards per carry in 2020. 

    But Kamara's most intriguing potential one-on-one matchups could come in the passing game if Brees tries to use him as a safety valve because Tampa has tremendous talent in underneath coverage with Lavonte David at linebacker and rookie sensation Antoine Winfield Jr. in the secondary.  

         

    Other Potential X-Factors

    Buccaneers: Leonard Fournette

    He was Tampa Bay's lead back with 132 scrimmage yards Saturday night in Washington, and now they might lean on him again in order to keep that pass rush at bay.

    The problem for Fournette is he'll be facing a run defense that ranked second in DVOA behind only the Bucs during the regular season and limited the Bears to just 2.5 yards per rush in Sunday's wild-card victory. The Bucs could really use Ronald Jones II, who averaged 5.1 yards per carry this season but didn't play Sunday due to a quad contusion. 

         

    Saints: Drew Brees

    Tampa's pass D is loaded with talent but can be beaten. We saw that when the Bucs made backup Taylor Heinicke look like John Elway in his prime Saturday night. Now that unit will have to deal with a future Hall of Famer who might be inspired to put together one last run before potentially retiring this offseason. 

    Brees is hardly still the centerpiece of the Saints offense, but he's got all of his weapons now, and that has rarely been the case this season. He's thrown five touchdown passes to zero picks the last two weeks. 

         

    Injuries to Watch

    Buccaneers: Jones, G Alex CappaJones was active before his quad injury flared up Saturday, so it's anyone's guess. Cappa could be missing after being ruled out early Saturday with a groin injury, but Tampa is deep and strong along the line. 

    Saints: Hendrickson, RB Latavius Murray, CB Patrick RobinsonMurray and Robinson both left Sunday's wild-card win over Chicago with thigh injuries. Hendrickson, whom they really could use to put pressure on Brady, missed Wild Card Weekend with a neck injury. He's been in and out of the lineup since Week 15.

AFC: (6) Cleveland Browns at (1) Kansas City Chiefs

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    In a nutshell: Coming off their first playoff win of the 21st century, the Browns hope to get some players and coaches back from injuries and the reserve/COVID-19 list after beating Pittsburgh Steelers despite being depleted significantly.

    They'll need all hands on deck for the defending Super Bowl champion and top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs, who have won 23 of their last 24 games with superstar Patrick Mahomes under center. 

    Date/time: Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET

    TV: CBS

    Location: Arrowhead Stadium (Kansas City)

    Fans in attendance: Limited

    Early line: Kansas City -9.5

    Early total: 55.5

          

    Key Matchups

    Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt vs. Kansas City's run defense

    This is the one matchup that clearly favors the Browns in this game. Chubb and Hunt combined for 206 yards from scrimmage Sunday night, and they're the main reason the Browns had the league's No. 7-ranked rushing offense in terms of DVOA

    Now that unit hopes to have star veteran Joel Bitonio back from the reserve/COVID-19 list against the league's 31st-ranked run D in that same metric. That unit performed better as the season wore on but still struggled to stop Melvin Gordon, Ronald Jones II and Alvin Kamara down the stretch.  

         

    Patrick Mahomes vs. Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward

    As we saw in Pittsburgh, Cleveland's defense is all or nothing. That group ranked in the bottom 10 in DVOA during the regular season but recorded three or more takeaways for the fifth time this year against the Steelers. 

    Garrett (Cleveland's top pass-rusher) and Ward (the Browns' top cornerback) weren't huge factors in that game (Ward didn't play at all as he remained on the reserve/COVID-19 list) but both will likely need to step up against Mahomes. The reigning Super Bowl MVP has a career 106.6 passer rating in five playoff games, with the Chiefs scoring more than 30 points in all of those outings. 

         

    Other Potential X-Factors

    Browns: Baker Mayfield

    The 2018 No. 1 overall pick has thrown just one interception in his last 10 games, and he performed very well in his first playoff test against a fierce Steelers defense on Sunday.

    Now he'll have to deal with a healthier, more-rested D, led by havoc-wreaking defensive lineman Chris Jones and first-team All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu. 

         

    Chiefs: Jones

    We could have just as easily gone with All-Pros Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce here, but the Chiefs don't win last year's Super Bowl without Jones. He was an absolute force in that victory over the San Francisco 49ers, and he'll be charged with leading the defense against Mayfield and Co. on Sunday. 

    Particularly dangerous for Cleveland is the fact Bitonio remains a question mark while they lost right tackle Jack Conklin to a hamstring injury against the Steelers. They can't afford to be significantly short-handed in this spot. 

         

    Injuries to Watch

    Browns: Bitonio, Ward, S Ronnie Harrison, CB Kevin Johnson, ConklinThe only "injury" belongs to Conklin. Cleveland fans will be hoping the others are cleared from the reserve/COVID-19 list by Sunday, along with head coach Kevin Stefanski.

    Chiefs: RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, WR Sammy WatkinsThe team's top rusher has been out since Week 15 due to hip and ankle injuries but has a chance to return Sunday. Watkins suffered a calf injury in Week 16. 

AFC: (5) Baltimore Ravens at (2) Buffalo Bills

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    John Munson/Associated Press

    In a nutshell: The Bills, like the Browns, are coming off their first playoff win of the 21st century. The Ravens, though, also ripped a monkey off their back on Wild Card Weekend with their first postseason victory of the Lamar Jackson era. Now, two teams with dynamic quarterbacks from the first round of the 2018 draft go head-to-head with a trip to the final four on the line. 

    Date/time: Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET

    TV: NBC

    Location: Bills Stadium (Orchard Park, New York)

    Fans in attendance: Likely at least 6,772

    Early line: Buffalo -2.5

    Early total: 49.5

          

    Key Matchups

    Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs vs. Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters

    The sensational third-year quarterback completed all but nine of 35 passes for 324 yards in an interception-free performance Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts, with the NFL regular-season catch and receiving yardage leader accounting for 128 of those yards and a touchdown.

    They have become one of the best quarterback-receiver teams in the league, but now they'll have to deal with another top-10 pass defense in DVOA and several steller veteran cornerbacks in Humphrey, Peters and Jimmy Smith. That crew had some trouble with Ryan Tannehill and A.J. Brown early in their wild-card matchup with the Tennessee Titans, but they got it together in a comeback win. 

         

    Jackson and J.K. Dobbins vs. Buffalo's run defense

    There were times when the Titans had to know a Jackson keeper was coming, but it just didn't matter. The human cheat code rushed for 136 yards on 16 carries, while Dobbins and Gus Edwards added 81 more in more traditional roles against Tennessee. 

    Buffalo's run defense ranked below the league median in DVOA after allowing seven backs to average more than five yards per carry on double-digit attempts during the regular season. That unit surrendered 153 yards on 27 carries against Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines on Wild Card Weekend, and for what it's worth, they surrendered 61 yards and two touchdowns to Kyler Murray but generally held Cam Newton in check in their matchups with significantly mobile quarterbacks this season. 

         

    Other Potential X-Factors

    Ravens: Marquise Brown

    Brown versus star Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White is also a tantalizing matchup after the second-year wide receiver caught seven passes for 109 yards against Tennessee. He hasn't been overly consistent this year, but he scored three touchdowns in the final two weeks of the season, and it looks like he's gaining steam in January. 

    He could have his hands full with White and fellow Bills corner Levi Wallace, who was actually the highest-graded defensive player at Pro Football Focus from Saturday's three Wild Card games.

         

    Bills: Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde

    Buffalo's standout safety duo played a huge part when the Bills limited Jackson to just 40 rushing yards on 11 carries when these two met in 2019. They were also two of Buffalo's best players in Saturday's victory over Indianapolis. 

    Slowing down Jackson is a team effort, but a lot is likely to fall on Poyer and Hyde, and the former has a particular penchant for big plays coming off a campaign with two picks, two sacks, two forced fumbles and 124 tackles. 

         

    Injuries to Watch

    Ravens: NoneEvery Raven listed on the team's final wild-card round injury report was active against Tennessee. 

    Bills: RB Zack MossThe rookie had been getting more work than backfield-mate Devin Singletary of late, but he suffered what looked to be a serious ankle injury on Saturday. 

         

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