Three NFL veterans, two up-and-coming stars, two surprising invites, and one reigning world champion take the field this weekend for their chance to play for their division championship. Eight teams remain with just three weeks until the Super Bowl; that means we’ve made it to the Divisional Round of the NFL postseason. With one weekend of playoffs in the books, there are a couple of familiar faces still alive, with plenty of new blood too. Here are two of my favorite picks for the NFL Divisional Round.
LA Rams vs. Green Bay Packers -6.5
In the first game of the NFL Divisional Round, I’m laying the points with the Green Bay Packers. Just one week ago, we watched in awe as Jared Goff came off the bench to lead the LA Rams to an improbable playoff win over the Seattle Seahawks. Can he do it again this week? I am betting not. Sean McVay announced Goff will be starting under center and Wolford is out on Saturday, which was expected after Goff’s performance last weekend.
Another lingering question is the health of defensive tackle, Aaron Donald. He is expected to play through torn rib cartilage, but he may be on a limited snap count and will certainly not be 100%. If he is healthy, it will be strength against strength on that side of the ball as LA’s defense boasts the number one ranking in Expected Points Added (EPA) and Green Bay’s offense is first in the same metric. The Rams’ defense is top-five in every category, but they are 25th in strength of schedule of offenses faced, according to Football Outsider’s DVOA. They will have their hands full on Saturday against the Packers’ number-one scoring offense.
Aaron Rodgers’ offense versus Aaron Donald’s defense could be a wash, but on the opposite side of the ball, it’s a different story. LA’s offense has been anemic recently, scoring just four touchdowns on their last 45 drives. In the past four games, their offense ranks 31st in run success rate and 30th in passing success rate. They are 31st in explosive offensive play rate in the same time frame and Jared Goff ranks 36th in deep ball percentage out of 38 NFL quarterbacks. This is going to make the Rams one-dimensional and allow the Packers’ defense to keep the ball in front of them.
Additionally, the Rams’ top wide receiver, Cooper Kupp is expected to play through a knee injury. Combine that with the question marks at quarterback and it could be a long afternoon for LA’s offense. One bright spot in the Rams’ backfield is Cam Akers, who racked up 176 yards from scrimmage and one touchdown in last week’s game against the Seahawks. However, the Packers’ defense has been trending in the right direction to stifle that run game and ranks sixth in run success rate allowed since Week 9. Their defense is also fourth in EPA per play since then. If Kupp is limited, expect Green Bay’s all-pro cornerback Jaire Alexander to lockdown Robert Woods, leaving the rest of the defense to focus on Akers. If the Packers can jump out to an early lead, the Rams will abandon the run game and it could get ugly.
Another factor on Green Bay’s side is the weather that comes with January football in the north. The temperature is supposed to be in the low 30s by kickoff, with the windchill as low as 21 or 22 degrees. This will be a stark contrast for the Rams, who are traveling from Thousand Oaks, where temperatures have been hovering in the 70-80s all week. The weather won’t be an issue for Rodgers as he is 26-9-1 against the spread (ATS) in games below freezing. But with Goff coming off thumb surgery, the cold could impact his ability to hold on to and throw the ball. Goff has played in freezing conditions just twice and is 0-2 ATS and outright, with zero touchdowns and five interceptions. It has been said that weather is the great equalizer, but here I think it creates a great disparity. I’ll take the Pack -6.5.
Baltimore Ravens +2.5 at Buffalo Bills
Last week Lamar Jackson sealed his first-ever career playoff win with the Baltimore Ravens now they travel to face the Buffalo Bills, who are coming off their first postseason victory since 1995. Both teams are in fantastic postseason form; the Ravens haven’t lost since Week 12 versus the Steelers and the Bills haven’t lost since the “Hail-Murray” in Week 10 against the Cardinals. That is in part due to the Ravens resurgence on defense, where they rank first in opponent run success rate and third in pass success rate over the past four games. They have improved from allowing 333 yards per game through 11 weeks, to just 302 yards per game in their past five. That includes holding the Tennessee Titans to just 76 yards and three points in the final 45 minutes of last week’s Wild Card game.
Baltimore ranks first in the NFL on third-down defense and will face an equally stout Buffalo team that ranks first on third down offense. The Bills’ offense has been surprisingly efficient this year, averaging 31.1 points per game, second only in the league to the Packers. In last year’s meeting between these two teams, the Ravens were able to slow down Josh Allen and the Bills’ offensive attack only because defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale blitzed Allen on 63% of his drop-backs, causing him to go 7-for-24 for 52 yards when pressured. But Allen has adjusted, and so too will the defensive game plan. Allen has been masterful against the blitz this season, posting a 111.6 passer rating with 18 touchdowns and two interceptions. Martindale and Baltimore will need to find a way to make Allen uncomfortable in the pocket without sending extra guys every play.
The Bills’ offense against the Ravens’ defense will be an even match, however, on the other side of the ball is the biggest mismatch of the game. The advantage lies with Lamar Jackson and Baltimore’s rushing attack against the Bills’ run defense. Overall, the Bills rank 17th in rushing defense according to DVOA. They’ve given up 4.6 rush yards per carry, which is tied for 26th in the league. They will face an offense that runs the ball more than any other team in the NFL, by a wide margin. Baltimore is first in the NFL in running back yards, rush yards per carry, and total rushing yards just to name a few categories. Also, they are first in explosive runs this year with 31 and will face a Bills team that ranks 29th in explosive run rate allowed according to Sharp Football Analysis. The Ravens have run for over 230 yards in five of the past six games and I don’t expect anything different on Saturday. Harbaugh will have a solid game plan to control the clock and keep Josh Allen on the bench. Give me the Ravens +2.5.