With Wild Card Weekend behind us, the NFL playoffs are in full swing. In both the AFC and the NFC, the 2, 5, and 6 seeds won their games, setting up pairs of matchups between #1 and #6, and #2 and #5. Wild Card Weekend featured some great games and some stunning upsets, so this weekend promises more of the same. Last week, this column only went 3/6 on game predictions, and missed on pretty much all stat-based and game-event predictions, so hopefully this week will be better.
No. 2 Buffalo Bills vs No. 5 Baltimore Ravens- Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
The Bills offense kept it rolling last week on their way to a 27-24 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. Josh Allen threw for 324 yards, 128 of them to the NFL’s leading receiver Stefon Diggs. For the Ravens, Lamar Jackson finally secured his first playoff win after two disappointing appearances. Although he started slow, including a terrible interception thrown to Malcolm Butler, he eventually warmed up, and took over the game with his legs. His 48-yard touchdown run in the second quarter may be one of the best ever seen from a quarterback.
What to watch for – Marcus Peters versus Stephon Diggs
This will likely be the matchup that determines the outcome of the game. While the Bills certainly have more weapons than just Diggs, their offense runs through the Allen to Diggs connection. The league-leader in both receptions and yardage, stopping Diggs will be the key to the Ravens pulling off the upset, and Peters certainly has the talent to do it.
While Lamar Jackson is likely the best running quarterback in the league, Josh Allen is also capable of changing the game with his legs. Don’t be surprised when the pair combine for 150 yards on the ground and at least one touchdown. In the end, the Bills offense will do just enough against a strong Baltimore defense, and Buffalo will advance to the AFC Championship Game 24-20.
No. 1 Kansas City Chiefs vs No. 6 Cleveland Browns- Sunday, 3:05 p.m.
Coming off their upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Browns now face an even tougher task of trying to take the down the reigning Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs. Their offense has looked incredible all year, and their defense has been a top-ten scoring unit all year. They look to be the favorite out of the AFC to go to the Super Bowl, and very well may become the first repeat champions since the New England Patriots almost 20 years ago. The Browns, meanwhile, used four interceptions and a fumble recovery in the endzone to take down the Pittsburgh Steelers to win their first postseason game since 1994. They’ll be looking to continue their unexpected run by beating the heavily favored Chiefs.
What to watch for – Chiefs passing game vs Browns cornerbacks
There’s no debating that the Chiefs have one of the most prolific passing attacks in the NFL, spearheaded by tight end Travis Kelce, wide receiver Tyreek Hill, and quarterback Patrick Mahomes. While the Browns defense seemed unbreakable in the first half against the Steelers with three interceptions, Ben Roethlisberger ended up throwing for 501 yards. That’s a huge number for a Steelers offense that ranked 15th in the league in passing yards per game. The Chiefs? They rank first, averaging more than 300 per game. If the Browns secondary isn’t able to play to the same level they did in the first half for a whole game, this one could get ugly quickly.
Patrick Mahomes hasn’t played in nearly a month, so he may be a little rusty when this game starts. This game may follow a similar script as all of Kansas City’s games last postseason – they fall behind early and then dominate from the second quarter on. The Browns will jump out to a 7-0 or 10-0 lead, and then Mahomes will bring it back and throw for at least 4 touchdowns in a 38-24 win as the Chiefs move on to face Buffalo in the AFC Championship game.
No. 1 Green Bay Packers vs No. 6 Los Angeles Rams- Saturday, 4:35 p.m.
This game features the league’s highest scoring offense and the team that allowed the least points per game, which makes for a compelling watch. The Packers locked up the NFC’s one seed by going 13-3, including ending the regular season on a 6-game winning streak. The Rams went into Seattle on Wild Card Weekend and beat the Rams 30-20 with an injured Jared Goff at quarterback.
What to watch for – Bye Week Blues for Packers?
Under head coach Matt LeFleur, the Packers are 0-2 coming off of their bye. In those two losses, they’ve been outscored 75-18. The Packers will have to jump back to full speed right away, especially against a Los Angeles defense that makes you work for everything. Jalen Ramsey is one of very few cornerbacks in the league that is capable of making life difficult for Davante Adams, so if the Packers come out rusty, the Rams could actually pull off this upset.
It’s tough to tell which way this game is going to go. The Packers are the better team, but their struggles after their bye week are real. Getting destroyed by a playoff team this year coming off their bye, losing to the Buccaneers 38-10, doesn’t inspire any confidence at all. Let’s go crazy and pick the Rams to win 27-20. Look for Aaron Donald and Leonard Floyd to combine for 3 sacks as the Rams defensive line makes life hard on Rodgers. Cam Akers will also rush for 120 yards as the Rams move onto the NFC Championship game.
No. 2 New Orleans Saints vs No. 5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers- Sunday, 6:40 p.m.
Both these teams took care of business on Wild Card Weekend to get here. The Saints got both Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas back and took down the Bears 21-9. Thomas caught his first touchdown pass of the year to open the scoring, and Kamara closed it with a rushing touchdown. For the Buccaneers, the Washington Football Team managed to keep it close, but Tom Brady closed out the overmatched NFC East champions. He threw for 381 yards and a pair of touchdowns to set up a matchup of the two oldest quarterbacks in the league.
What to watch for – Third time’s the charm for Tampa?
This will be the third time that the Saints and Buccaneers face this season, with the Saints winning both previous meetings. Since the merger in 1970, this scenario has happened 21 times, where two teams meet in the playoffs with the three-game sweep on the line. 14 of those times, the sweep happened, going against the idea that it’s harder to beat a team multiple times in the same year. Will the trend hold in this game, or will the Buccaneers be able to fight back and make their first win against the Saints the most important?
Unfortunately for the Bucs, the trend is going to continue in this game. The Saints are back to full health, and Kamara and Thomas are finally able to contribute at the same time. Meanwhile, the Bucs won a one-score game against a quarterback starting his second career game and are not good against the pass. Expect Thomas and Kamara to each catch a touchdown pass and for the Saints to win again, by a final score of 31-27.