It’s the first and may be the only time Tom Brady and Drew Brees will meet in the NFL playoffs. If it’s not the game of the century, it’s at least the Game of the Pandemic.
Two guaranteed Hall of Famers, both in their early 40s, who hold numerous NFL records. Brees is the No. 1 passer with more than 80,000 yards, while Brady is second and should hit the 80K mark next season. Just for comparison, they both are nearly 10,000 yards ahead of No. 3 Peyton Manning.
Brady is No. 1 in career touchdown passes with 581 and Brees is second with 571. Brady has six Super Bowl rings, all with New England, while Brees has one – lifting the previously moribund Saints franchise to its only championship in 2010.
Now they finally meet in the postseason, with everything on the line and many believing this is Brees’ final NFL season. Surprising fact: Brees is 5-2 vs. Brady in their NFL meetings.
Here are this week’s playoff picks, coming off an impressive 5-1 performance last week (missed the Rams over the Seahawks.)
NFC: No. 5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-5) at No. 2 New Orleans Saints (13-4), Sunday, Jan. 17, NBC, 8:20 pm EST.
Line: New Orleans by 3.5
So who is going to win? It may be the toughest matchup to call, these teams are so even. The Bucs come in as the visiting wildcard, but they also are rolling on offense with Brady enjoying weapons he rarely had with the Patriots. Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown might comprise the best receiving corps of Brady’s career, and he has his stalwart at tight end in Rob Gronkowski.
It adds up to a slight edge on offense to the Bucs, but only because the Saints haven’t had the whole band together for much of the season. They will for this game – Brees returned a month ago from rib injuries and now he has Michael Thomas and Taquon Smith back to go with Emmanuel Sanders, Jared Cook and Deonte Harris.
Of those players, New Orleans will be very concerned with Brown, a superstar who joined the Bucs in midseason and is a tough cover.
Worrying the Bucs is Harris, which may not be the name you expected, but he is the kind of quick, powerful receiver that can be a problem for the Bucs defensive backs, who are big and strong but not particularly fast.
Defensively the pass rush is even (48 sacks for the Bucs, 45 for the Saints) but the overall edge goes to New Orleans. It’s the best defense the Saints have had under Sean Payton and the only one to achieve a No. 1 ranking in the NFL during a regular season. The run defense is outstanding and the secondary allows one of the lowest completion percentages in the league.
On coaching, the edge goes to New Orleans. Payton may be the best coach in the league not named Bill Belichick.
This is also the third time these two teams will play this season. You always hear it’s hard to beat the same team three times in the same season, but it’s not true. Of the 21 times two teams have met for a third game – always in the playoffs – since the Super Bowl merger, the team that won the first two meetings has won 67 percent of those matchups.
The game is in New Orleans but that won’t mean much with few fans in the stadium. Tampa comes in as the hotter team and is the trendy pick. But you learn that what happened last week in the NFL often doesn’t mean a thing this week. I see a classic in the making and ultimately I feel like the Saints just won’t be denied in their quest to get Brees to a second Super Bowl.
Pick: Saints 31, Bucs 28.
NFC: No. 6 Los Angeles Rams (11-6) at No. 1 Green Bay Packers (12-4), Saturday, Jan. 16, FOX, 4:35 pm EST.
Line: Green Bay by 6.5
Where have you gone John Wolford? Never thought the absence of a backup quarterback would be cause for concern, but with Rams starter Jared Goff playing even as he recovers from thumb surgery, there’s no real option for L.A. if Goff struggles. Wolford, who led the Rams to a victory in Week 17 to get into the playoffs, is out after suffering a shot to his head in the playoff win over Seattle last week.
Goff got the job done, but his passes were not quite on target and we’ll have to see how his thumb, which has a pin in it to hold it in place, affects him after another week of healing.
If you believe in defense, the Rams have the best in the league, led by a menace at tackle in Aaron Donald. It makes Los Angeles a tempting pick, given that Green Bay’s defense is not nearly as good and its offensive line is patched together – though the Packers have picked up some strong veterans from non-playoff teams the past several weeks.
What Green Bay has is Aaron Rodgers, who will win the NFL Most Valuable Player award this season, and perhaps the league’s best receiver in Davante Adams. Indeed, Adams gets more balls thrown his way than any receiver in the league – he is targeted on a whopping 30 percent of the routes he runs. But that’s also a risk, since the Rams most likely will seek to neutralize Adams and force Rodgers to go to his second and third options. Someone will have to step up to take the pressure off.
Green Bay’s defense has played better the past six weeks but it’s still probably the weakest defense left in the playoffs.
The Packers are favored by a touchdown, which shows the concern about the Rams quarterback injuries. If Goff were healthy I’d pick the Rams because I think on paper, they have the better team. Remember, Green Bay piled up six wins by playing in the weak NFC North (Detroit, Chicago, Minnesota) while LA faced the toughest division in the NFL (Seattle, Arizona, San Francisco).
The Rams will come after Rodgers, but that doesn’t mean they’ll stop him. The larger question is whether LA can score enough with its offense limping along.
I’ll go with the MVP, barely.
Pick: Packers 24, Rams 21
AFC: No. 5 Baltimore Ravens (12-5) at No. 2 Buffalo Bills (14-3), Saturday, NBC, 8:15 pm EST.
Line: Buffalo by 2.5
Having correctly picked the Ravens to knock off the Tennessee Titans last week, I see no reason to jump off the Lamar Jackson Express.
Jackson is still coming into his own as an NFL quarterback and now that he has won a playoff game after a few disappointments, he’s going to be hard to handle. I’ve said all season that the Chiefs and Ravens are the teams to watch in the AFC. The Ravens suffered through a weird season with lots of COVID-19 impacts and rescheduled games, but coach John Harbaugh has done a masterful job of keeping them on track for the postseason.
The Bills have a fantastic team, particularly on offense, and Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs give them a combo that can strike at any time. Allen is a fiery competitor at the start of a great career – first division title for Buffalo in 25 seasons – and he’ll face his strongest test against a physical Ravens defense used to shutting down promising QBs.
If there is a concern about the Bills, it is how well they can hold up defensively against a player who can run and throw as well as 1,000-yard rusher Jackson. Then there is running back J.K. Dobbins, a rookie who rushed for more than 800 yards and another Ravens running back, Gus Edwards, who topped 700 yards. That’s 2,500 yards rushing from three guys.
Meanwhile, the Bills just lost Zack Moss, their best running back, to a season-ending ankle injury. That is a major blow.
It all adds up to the Ravens moving on to the AFC Championship Game.
Pick: Ravens 31, Bills 24
AFC: No. 6 Cleveland Browns at No. 1 Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, CBS, 3:05 EST.
Line: Kansas City by 10
The defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs begin their title defense after a week of rest, taking on the NFL’s feel-good story of the year in the Cleveland Browns.
Just about every NFL fan not devoted to the Steelers had to rejoice last week in seeing the Browns, one of the league’s most downtrodden franchises, finally break the jinx and win its first playoff game since 1994.
Yes, it took a combination of disastrous Steeler mistakes and an opportunistic Browns offense to pull it off, but they did it. And as a reward they get to play the best team in the league, with the most dangerous quarterback, and Cleveland comes into the game as the biggest playoff underdog this weekend.
That’s because Patrick Mahomes is so hard to stop. He can throw it anywhere, no play is dead if he’s got the ball in his hands and he has an offensive arsenal that presents many matchup problems for the Browns. There’s no doubt Cleveland can keep this close and have a chance to win if their formula works – a power running game to control the clock and a defense that must find ways to get to Mahomes often enough to stall Chiefs possessions.
It’s a lot to ask for four quarters. People forget that Kansas City has the No. 3 defense in the NFL. They will be a problem for Browns QB Baker Mayfield, who will need the Cleveland running game to help him keep the Chiefs at bay.
The larger problem for Cleveland is the Chiefs can run it, throw it and run and throw it. Tyreek Hill was second in the league with 17 touchdown receptions and rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire had 1,100 yards from scrimmage even missing three games due to injury.
It’s the NFL and anything can happen, but it’s a lot to ask for Cleveland to stay with these guys. Too much star power in KC.
Pick: Chiefs 35, Browns 20
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