Sports | January 12, 2021 8:20 am

The Biggest Questions for All 4 NFL Divisional Round Games

Drew Brees and Tom Brady will face off for the third time this season on Sunday night

The Biggest Questions for All 4 of This Weekend's Divisional Round NFL Games
Drew Brees of the Saints and Tom Brady of the Buccaneers speak after a regular season game.
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With Super Wild Card Weekend complete, the stage is set for the second round of the NFL playoffs this weekend.

Only eight teams remain in the league’s postseason and the divisional round will feature Green Bay (13-3) hosting the Los Angeles Rams (11-6) and Baltimore (12-5) going to Buffalo (14-3) on Saturday as well as Cleveland (12-5) visiting Kansas City (14-2) and Tampa Bay (12-5) traveling to New Orleans (13-4) on Sunday.

Here, in no particular order, are the questions that will likely decide each of the weekend’s four games. Picks about winners and losers will come later this week in Friday’s edition of Best Bets.

Can Lamar Jackson throw the ball if he has to?

In the first half of Baltimore’s win over the Titans, things did not look great for third-year quarterback Lamar Jackson or the Ravens offense.

Baltimore fell behind by 10 points, Jackson took four first-half sacks and also had a brutal interception where he either misread coverage or wildly misjudged his throw — or both.

Jackson, who had lost both his playoff starts prior to Sunday, was holding onto the ball way too long and was largely unable to scramble out of the pocket to gain yards with his legs.

Luckily for the Ravens, that all changed on a third-and-9 in the second quarter that saw Jackson dart up the middle of the field through a crease in the Titan defenses before rumbling 48 yards down the field for a game-tying touchdown.

Afterward, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh called the 48-yard score “the best run I’ve ever seen by a quarterback.” Whether Harbaugh’s statement was an exercise in hyperbole or not, that run seemed to open things up for the Ravens, and Baltimore’s offense was better in the second half, with Jackson sacked only once in the final two quarters of the win.

On the day, Jackson finished with 179 passing yards, 136 rushing yards and, most importantly, his first postseason victory. But the performance did not exactly inspire confidence that Jackson, if forced, can beat teams with his arm instead of with his legs.

In three playoff games, including Sunday’s win, Jackson has just a trio of touchdown passes to go along with four interceptions, two fumbles and a putrid 18 taken sacks. To beat this week’s opponent, the Bills, Jackson will almost certainly have to throw the ball down the field in order to keep pace with a Buffalo offense that has scored at least 30 points in seven of their past nine games and is averaging 36.7 points overall during that span.

That doesn’t mean he won’t be called upon to run against a Buffalo defense that has given up the third-most rushing touchdowns (seven) and seventh-highest average rushing yards per carry (5.2) to opposing quarterbacks, but the Bills will likely scheme to keep Jackson in the pocket and force him to win the game with his arm.

At this point it remains to be seen if Jackson, who has completed only 55.36 of his passes in his postseason career to this point, can do that.

How will Aaron Rodgers handle the NFL’s best defense?

This season, Green Bay Packers signal-caller Aaron Rodgers was sacked only 20 times, the second-lowest amount in the league among quarterbacks who started all 16 games. This week’s opponent, the Los Angeles Rams, will look to change that number this week and Aaron Donald, possibly the league’s best defensive player, will be leading the charge.

Donald, who ranked second in the league this season with 13.5 sacks and 43 pressures, will lead a talented Rams defensive front that also boasts talented pass-rushers Morgan Fox and Leonard Floyd. They routinely hassled Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in the first round of the playoffs, sacking him five times and holding him below 175 yards passing.

Though it was close at the start of the season, Rodgers ended up having a much better season than Wilson, but he may have similar struggles against a Rams secondary that allowed an NFL-low 190.7 passing yards per game and just 17 passing touchdowns this season. (Packers star wide receiver Davante Adams caught 18 TDs by himself this season.)

Adams will likely be shadowed on Saturday by cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who just did a decent job against Seattle’s D.K. Metcalf despite surrendering a pair of scores. Two of Green Bay’s three losses this season came in their two lowest-scoring games, and the Rams will almost certainly gameplan to run the ball, bleed the clock and keep Rodgers and the Packers offense off of the field.

L.A., which will either be using a gimpy John Wolford or banged-up Jared Goff at quarterback, will not be able to keep up with Green Bay if the game turns into a shootout, but they will have a chance at winning at Lambeau Field for just the second time in the past 24 years if they can keep Rodgers on the sideline and off the scoreboard.

While the Rams’ offense, which scored an average of 12.7 points per game during the final three weeks of the regular season, won’t win the game for them, they need to score at least 20 points against an improved Green Bay team that has allowed 17.2 points per game since Week 13. That means the defense will likely have to keep the Packers at about 20 points or fewer, something L.A. has been able to do to four of their last five opponents.

Of course, none of those opponents had the putative league MVP at quarterback. The Packers do — and Rodgers’s presence may be more than enough to beat the league’s best defense.

Will the Chiefs take the Browns seriously?

The Browns being able to jump out to a 28-point lead in the first quarter against an uninterested Steelers team and withstand a late Pittsburgh surge to notch Cleveland’s first postseason triumph since the 1994 season was one of the best stories to emerge from Wild Card weekend. But the next chapter of that story will require them to play the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, a venue where the home team has won three playoff games over the past two seasons.

Led by quarterback Baker Mayfield and possessing plenty of offensive talent with playmaking running backs Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb as well as veteran wideout Jarvis Landry, the Browns head to Kansas City as the weekend’s biggest underdogs. Deservedly so, as Kansas City returned 20 of its 22 starters from last year’s Super Bowl-winning team and rested last week as the Browns played on the road in Pittsburgh.

Blessed with the best passing attack in the NFL and arguably the league’s best player in Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs and star receivers Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill will go up against a Cleveland defense that ranked No. 25 in touchdown passes allowed (31) and No. 24 in the NFL in opposing QBR this season.

Considering that secondary just allowed 47 completions (the most completed passes in a game in NFL history), 501 yards and four touchdowns to Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers in a game that Pittsburgh didn’t really seem to want to play, Mahomes should be able to shred it like wet tissue paper.

Mayfield — who previously beat Mahomes when the two were in college — should be able to get his against Kansas City as well, but the Chiefs, who have been nearly unbeatable off the bye with Andy Reid in charge, should probably be more concerned with beating themselves with sloppy play and mental mistakes than the Browns knocking them off straight-up.

“Everyone had a chance to see how good they are and it’ll take all of that,” Reid said. “We have to keep our eye right on that.”

As long as they avoid turning over the ball five times like the Steelers did, the Chiefs should roll against the Browns — they just need to do the opposite of what Pittsburgh did and actually show up to play.

Can Tom Brady keep carrying Tampa Bay?

To close out the weekend, old-timers Tom Brady and Drew Brees will face off for the third time this season in what will likely be the final meeting ever between the two star quarterbacks. That’s because Brees, despite being two years younger than 43-year-old Brady, is expected to retire following the season in order to step into the broadcast booth for NBC.

It is probably a smart move, as Brees, who passed for 265 yds and two touchdowns as the Saints beat the Bears in New Orleans on Sunday, has largely looked like a passenger this season, deferring at times to the Saints’ excellent defense, running back Alvin Kamara and coach Sean Payton using gadget player/backup QB Taysom Hill to perfection.

Brees’s Tampa Bay counterpart, Brady, has been anything but a passenger this season, and is the primary reason the Buccaneers won their first playoff game in 18 years on Saturday night in Washington.

In Tampa’s last five games (all wins), they’ve averaged 35.8 points per game, and Brady has tossed 14 touchdowns compared to just one interception. While he wasn’t perfect in Tampa’s 31-23 win over Washington, Brady made plays when it mattered and passed George Blanda as the oldest player in NFL history to throw a TD pass in a playoff game.

If Brady is going to be able to lead Tampa to a win on Sunday, he’ll have to compensate for an inconsistent Bucs defense as well as a porous offensive line that got him sacked him six times earlier this season against New Orleans.

Thanks to the well-rounded team he has around him, Brees will not have to be perfect in order for the Saints to win. The same cannot be said for Brady, as Tampa, as the team has all season, will go as he goes.

Should Brady lead the Bucs to a victory, which would be his record 32nd win in the playoffs, it would be Tampa’s first against New Orleans since Bruce Arians took over as head coach in 2019. In the team’s four losses over that span, the Saints have outscored the Bucs by a combined 137-67 margin.

Also, this game will mark the 22nd time two teams will face off in the playoffs after one team swept the other during the regular season. In the previous 21 instances, the team that went 2-0 during the regular season went 14-7 in the third meeting.  

That’s a lot of history to overcome, but Brady is certainly the guy to do it. But to send Brees into retirement, he’ll have to conquer a top-five defense and outscore a Saints offense that produced more rushing touchdowns (30) than any other team in the NFL as well as continue to beat an opponent who has never lost: Father Time.

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