What's Next for NFL's Divisional Round Losers?
Only four NFL teams are left alive in the hunt to be crowned the champion of Super Bowl LV.
Both No. 1 seeds are still playing after the Green Bay Packers handled the Los Angeles Rams and the Kansas City Chiefs outlasted the Cleveland Browns.
The No. 2 seed Buffalo Bills downed the Baltimore Ravens at home to book their spot in the AFC title game. And after upsetting the Saints in New Orleans, Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will play the role of Cinderella when they head north to face the Pack on Sunday.
Much will be written about those two games and four teams over the days to come. But what about the four teams whose seasons ended this past weekend?
What does another postseason defeat mean for Jared Goff in Los Angeles? How will Lamar Jackson and the Ravens handle more playoff disappointment? Can the Browns build on their 2020 success and address their most glaring flaw? And what the heck are the Saints going to do if Drew Brees retires?
Let's dig into those questions and find some answers.
Los Angeles Rams: Making a Lot from a Little
After missing the playoffs in 2019, the Los Angeles Rams made it back into the postseason this year and knocked off the Seahawks in Seattle in the Wild Card Round. But after reaching Super Bowl LIII in 2018, expectations have risen in Los Angeles.
The same goes for the salary of quarterback Jared Goff, who received a four-year, $134 million extension after that Super Bowl. While Goff didn't play poorly in Saturday's 32-18 loss to the Green Bay Packers, he didn't play great, either.
After the loss, head coach Sean McVay didn't exactly offer a ringing endorsement of Goff when reporters asked him about his future as the starter.
"Yeah," McVay said, "he's the quarterback right now."
That comment will undoubtedly lead to a bevy of speculation about Goff's status. However, the Rams aren't well-positioned to improve their roster this offseason at quarterback or elsewhere.
Cutting Goff before June 1 would leave the Rams with a $65.2 million dead cap hit. Even if they convince another team to take on his massive contract, they'll have a dead cap hit of $22.2 million with a pre-June 1 trade.
However, NFL Network's Steve Wyche reported Monday that Goff and McVay's relationship is in need of repair:
"The people I've spoken to said basically at this moment the relationship with Goff and McVay: not great. They need marriage counseling is what one person said to me. I think this is something that they're going to be able to work through, but there's got to be some healing and that's not just with Jared Goff's injured thumb."
The Rams won't be spending big in free agency, either. They need to clear over $22 million off the books just to get under the projected salary cap for 2021, per Over the Cap. And that's without considering the pending free agency of players such as edge-rusher Leonard Floyd, cornerback Troy Hill and safety John Johnson.
The Rams' roster-building issues extend into April's draft as well. Thanks to the trade that brought Jalen Ramsey to town, they don't have a first-round pick in 2021. In fact, they haven't had one since they drafted Goff back in 2016.
The Rams do appear to have found a gem in running back Cam Akers in the second round of the 2020 draft. But general manager Les Snead is woefully short on resources with which to close the gap between his team and the heavyweights in the NFC.
Baltimore Ravens: The Lamar Jackson Paradox
Life comes at you fast in the NFL. Just ask Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson.
When Saturday dawned, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported the Ravens were preparing to explore signing Jackson to a "big-time extension" this offseason. Fast-forward 12 hours, and there were plenty of folks banging drums for Baltimore to reconsider.
What happened in between was yet another postseason disappointment for Jackson and the Ravens. He struggled mightily in the 17-3 loss to the Buffalo Bills, throwing for only 162 yards with a passer rating of 61.5 and a devastating pick-six before leaving early with a concussion.
After the game, guard Bradley Bozeman told reporters that Jackson wasn't pleased with how Baltimore's season ended.
"I talked to Lamar last night. He was upset, he was pissed off that we didn't get the win, we didn't do the things we needed to execute and get done. That's the entire group, the offensive line, the running backs, the quarterbacks, the whole offense. We didn't do the things we needed to do to get the win. We practiced all week, prepared, got ready, just didn't execute or get it done last night."
Wide receiver Marquise Brown added that he expects Jackson to use the loss as fuel in the offseason.
"We had a long talk," Brown said. "I know this for a fact, that this offseason probably going to be the best offseason and we're going to go to work and come back motivated and ready to go."
There are undoubtedly valid concerns regarding Jackson's growth as a passer. But the notion that an extension that looked good at noon is a bad idea at midnight of that same day is nonsense.
Jackson has led the Ravens to three postseason trips in as many years. He's the youngest player ever to win the league's MVP award, and he's the only quarterback in NFL history with multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
Yes, Jackson has work to do this offseason. But so do the Ravens—making the line in front of him and the weapons around him better.
Cleveland Browns: Defensive Overhaul
The Cleveland Browns just had their most successful season in decades.
The Browns won 11 games and notched a playoff win for the first time since 1994. They're now entering the offseason with more positive momentum than they've had since re-joining the NFL in 1999.
To take the next step toward Super Bowl contention, they'll need to bolster their defense this offseason.
After their 22-17 loss to the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs, Brown head coach Kevin Stefanski made a point not to single out any particular player or unit.
"Extremely disappointed that we weren't able get the job done today. We had our opportunity there late in that ball game and we didn't do it. And we're going to share in this defeat like we share in those victories. I appreciate how our guys battled. They fought like they do every single week and it just wasn't enough."
While Stefanski didn't put his defense on blast, the Browns allowed 438 yards of offense, including almost 300 in the first half. The Chiefs averaged over 5.1 yards per carry and converted half of their third-down attempts.
The Browns were good at taking the ball away in 2020 and logged a respectable 38 sacks. But they finished the regular season 21st in the league in scoring defense and 22nd against the pass.
Cleveland has a great pass-rusher in Myles Garrett, but batterymate Olivier Vernon is a free agent fresh off an Achilles tear. The linebacker corps was a weak spot all season long. The Browns could stand to upgrade both at safety and at cornerback opposite Denzel Ward, too.
The Browns could look to add an impact player or two in free agency. They have just under $25 million in wiggle room, per Over the Cap, and players like Detroit Lions edge-rusher Romeo Okwara, Arizona Cardinals linebacker De'Vondre Campbell and Los Angeles Rams cornerback Troy Hill could all be reasonabl -priced targets.
But the Browns have some free agents of their own on that side of the ball (including Vernon, top linebacker BJ Goodson and cornerback Terrance Mitchell), so they'll likely go defense-heavy in the early rounds of the 2021 draft as well.
To take another step forward next season, the Browns need to improve their defense. How it gets done isn't as important as getting it done.
New Orleans Saints: The Breespocalypse
This appears to be the moment that the New Orleans Saints have dreaded for years.
Prior to their 30-20 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Fox Sports' Jay Glazer reported Saints quarterback Drew Brees plans to retire after this season. After the game, the 42-year-old told reporters that he's unsure whether he'll ever suit up again.
"I'm gonna give myself an opportunity to think about the season, think about a lot of things, just like I did last year, and make a decision," Brees said.
The Saints won 12 games and the NFC South in 2020, but Brees missed significant time because of an injury for a second straight season. He was also terrible in the playoff loss, finishing with only 134 passing yards, three interceptions (that led to 14 Buccaneers points) and a horrific passer rating of 38.1.
As Bleacher Report's Brent Sobleski wrote after the game, that pitiful effort showed just how much Brees' arm strength appears to have deteriorated:
"Everyone watching Sunday knew the 13-time Pro Bowl selection lacked the physical ability to lead the Saints offense. Brees attempted 34 passes and averaged a pitiful 3.9 yards per attempt. For context, the longtime starter previously fell under 4.0 yards per attempt only four times, and not once since 2013. In this particular case, the future first-ballot Hall of Famer struggled when trying to push the ball down the field or outside the numbers."
If that game really was curtains for Brees, the Saints are screwed in the short term.
The Saints have been mortgaging the future against the present for years in an effort to prolong their Super Bowl window with Brees. Now the bill has come due, as New Orleans is more than $95 million over the projected cap for 2021.
Even if Brees walks away, the Saints will still incur a dead cap hit of $22.65 million. In-house free agents such as tight end Jared Cook and edge-rusher Trey Hendrickson will be almost impossible to bring back. It'll be equally difficult for the Saints to afford outside free agents.
If this is it for Brees, New Orleans' best course of action is probably to go into full-blown rebuild mode.
That's a tough pill to swallow for a team that was thinking about a Super Bowl trip a few days ago.