Divisional Round Lines
My record from Wild Card Round: 5-1-0 SU, 4-2-0 ATS, 2-4-0 O/U
My record this season: 187-74-1 SU, 150-108-4 ATS, 134-119-9 O/U
(11-6) Los Angeles Rams @ (13-3) Green Bay Packers
TV Info: 1/16/21, 4:35 PM EST, FOX
Aaron Rodgers looks poised to earn the third MVP trophy of his illustrious career in a couple of weeks, and he’s in pursuit of the second Super Bowl title of his career. Rodgers put together arguably his most impressive regular season as he completed 70.7% of his passes, a career-high, for 48 touchdowns and 5 interceptions, a career-best TD:INT ratio. Rodgers’s career campaign came amidst the Packers becoming the highest-scoring offense in the NFL with 31.8 points per game, up from 23.5 points per game last year (15th) – a massive change. Head coach Matt LaFleur and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett deserve a ton of credit for creating this offensive juggernaut.
Davante Adams was the team’s top offensive weapon as he caught 115 balls for 1,374 yards and 18 touchdowns in just 14 games during the regular season. Aaron Jones led the team on the ground with 201 carries for 1,104 yards and 9 touchdowns and 47 catches for 355 yards and 2 touchdowns in just 14 games. The offensive trio of Rodgers, Adams, and Jones is one of the best in the NFL, but they’re going to be put to the test this week against arguably the best defense in football.
This week’s matchup represents an unstoppable force, the Packers’ offense, running into an immovable object, the Rams’ defense. First-year defensive coordinator Brandon Staley led LA to just 18.5 points per game allowed, the fewest in the NFL. Some highlights for this Rams defense included allowing the fewest points and yards, the fewest passing yards and passing touchdowns, the fewest first downs, and forcing the 10th-most turnovers. Aaron Donald led the team with 13.5 sacks, 27 quarterback hits, and 14 tackles for a loss, a campaign worthy of consideration for his third Defensive Player of the Year award. Donald will come up against Corey Linsley, arguably the best center in football and the first-team All-Pro nominee at his position. Donald is dealing with some torn rib cartilage suffered last week, but Sean McVay told reporters, “the Terminator will be ready.”
The Rams’ pass rush was all over Russell Wilson last week as they racked up 5 sacks. Donald and Leonard Floyd each took Wilson down twice while Morgan Fox added another. Jared Veldheer is expected to start for Green Bay this week after starting for the Colts in the playoffs last week, making him the first player in NFL history to take snaps for two different teams in the postseason. The Packers’ offensive line will need to be at its best to stop this ferocious pass rush.
LA’s secondary was also dominant last week in holding Wilson to a horrid QBR of just 17.6. Darious Williams took an interception to the house while Jalen Ramsey provided lockdown coverage for the most part – this is the best cornerback duo in the NFL. Ramsey held D.K. Metcalf to just 3-33 on six targets last week. Troy Hill is also a very strong slot cornerback. The Rams allowed opponents to have a passer rating of just 80.4 during the regular season, the second-lowest in the NFL. Davante Adams will likely see a ton of Jalen Ramsey this week, which allowed just a 44.6% catch rate during the regular season on four targets per game while shadowing the opposing team’s top receiver just about every week. Meanwhile, Darious Williams and Troy Hill represent difficult matchups for Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Allen Lazard, who have already not been very efficient this season.
It’s going to be important for the Rams’ defense to play well if LA will keep this game close, as it’s hard to expect much from their offense. The Rams did put up 30 points on the Seahawks last week, but that’s a bit misleading as Jared Goff was not very good in the game. He finished with a paltry QBR of just 49.7 and completed less than 50% of his passes, although he did throw a touchdown and didn’t turn the ball over. His broken thumb certainly held him back, as the Seahawks have been a very beatable pass defense. The Packers ranked in the top ten in both passing yards and passing touchdowns allowed during the regular season. Goff is already at a disadvantage given his injury and the cold weather situation. Goff has played in two games in below-freezing weather in his NFL career and has completed just 47% of passes for 381 yards and zero touchdowns with five interceptions. It’s possible John Wolford could get the start this week if he’s cleared to play. Cooper Kupp is dealing with a knee injury that could limit him this week, although he does face a winnable matchup against Chandon Sullivan in the slot. Robert Woods will likely see a lot of Jaire Alexander this week, one of the best lockdown cornerbacks in the NFL.
The Rams would be wise to heavily feature Cam Akers this week after his massive game last week. Akers racked up 176 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown on 30 touches against Seattle last week and will be the go-to back for Los Angeles again. Green Bay allowed opposing rushers to run at a 4.5 YPC clip during the regular season, the 12th-highest mark in the NFL, so this should be a great opportunity for Akers to continue his strong play. The Rams saw Andrew Whitworth return last week, and the 39-year-old veteran left tackle continues to be one of the best at his position in the NFL. David Edwards is questionable for this game but should play, and the 5-man group of Whitworth, Edwards, Austin Blythe, Austin Corbett, and Rob Havenstein should be intact this week. Havenstein gets the toughest assignment against Za’Darius Smith, who had 12.5 sacks during the regular season.
The Rams’ defense was dominant during the regular season and shut down Russell Wilson on the road last week. However, the Packers’ offense is a different type of beast, and Aaron Rodgers gets the ball out of his hands faster than just about anyone. That will render the Rams’ ferocious pass rush less effective, especially with Aaron Donald’s injury. Davante Adams is arguably the best receiver in the NFL and should win out more often than not against Jalen Ramsey and company. I don’t see the Packers offering the Rams the same luxury of strong field position with their minimal amount of turnovers during the regular season. Jared Goff is not used to playing in the cold, which will be this weekend in Wisconsin, and Cooper Kupp’s injury only complicates things. The Rams’ defense keeps this a relatively low-scoring bout, but their offense ultimately lets them down as the Packers cover the touchdown spread at home. However, I’ll still take the over with how low this points total is trending and what we’ve seen from Green Bay offensively this season.
Matchups to watch: Davante Adams vs. Jalen Ramsey, Aaron Donald vs. Corey Linsley, Rob Havenstein vs. Za’Darius Smith
Los Angeles Rams: DT Aaron Donald (ribs) Q, WR Cooper Kupp (knee) Q, OT Andrew Whitworth (knee) Q, OG David Edwards (Achilles), QB John Wolford (neck) Q, LB Terrell Lewis (ankle) Q, S Taylor Rapp (knee) IR eligible to return
Green Bay Packers: OT Ricky Wagner (knee) Q, CB Kevin King (Achilles) Q, LB Za’Darius Smith (ankle) Q, DE Kingsley Keke (concussion) Q, OG Simon Stepaniak (knee) Q, WR Allen Lazard (abdomen) Q, TE Marcedes Lewis (knee) Q, WR Equanamious St. Brown (knee) Q, CB Kabion Ento (undisclosed) IR eligible to return, DB Parry Nickerson (hamstring) IR eligible to return, S Raven Greene (shoulder) IR eligible to return, LB James Burgess (hamstring) IR eligible to return, RB Tyler Ervin (foot) IR eligible to return
Betting Trends to Know:
Los Angeles Rams: 6-3 ATS in last 9 games, 1-5 SU in last 6 games vs. Green Bay, 0-6 ATS in last 6 games vs. Green Bay, the total has gone under in 4 of LA’s last 5 games
Green Bay Packers: 6-0 SU in last 6 games, 4-2 ATS in last 6 games, 5-0 SU in last 5 games at home, the total has gone under in 5 of Green Bay’s last 6 games at home vs. LA
Odds: Packers -7, O/U 45.5
Keys to a Rams win: emphasize Cam Akers on offense to keep the ball away from Aaron Rodgers, get Aaron Donald healthy and attack a patchwork Packers’ offensive line, limit turnovers.
Keys to a Packers win: find ways to get Davante Adams away from Jalen Ramsey, get the ball out of Rodgers’s hands quickly, stack the box and force Jared Goff into difficult throws.
My prediction: Packers win 28-19, Packers cover, over 45.5 points
(12-5) Baltimore Ravens @ (14-3) Buffalo Bills
TV Info: 1/16/21, 8:15 PM EST, NBC
The Bills earned their first playoff victory in 25 years last week, and everyone involved with the franchise top-to-bottom deserves a ton of credit for making it happen. Terry Pegula has created a winning culture since buying the team in 2014 – they’ve only had two losing seasons. Brandon Beane is getting national recognition as one of the best executives in football and is certainly making his dad Billy proud – just kidding, there’s no relation. Head coach Sean McDermott is a leading Coach of the Year candidate and has contributed to building a top-notch, winning culture. Josh Allen is a fringe MVP candidate and, on the heels of a phenomenal regular season, came through last week with a tremendous game to deliver Buffaloitss playoff breakthrough.
Josh Allen completed 26 of 35 passes last week for 324 yards and 2 touchdowns. He also ran 11 times for 54 yards and a touchdown to finish with a sparkling QBR of 85.0. Stefon Diggs also had a phenomenal game last week with 6 catches for 128 yards and a touchdown. The Allen-Diggs combination was one of the most lethal during the regular season as Diggs led the NFL in catches (127) and receiving yards (1,535), and that continued into the playoffs. Josh Allen’s passing and rushing ability will be even more integral against Baltimore, who held Derrick Henry to just 18 carries for 40 yards last week and features a dominant front seven that will shut down an already-limited Buffalo run game, especially after Zack Moss’s injury last week. Devin Singletary had just 3 carries for 21 yards against Indianapolis, and Devonta Freeman, recently signed to the team, has run for just 3.2 YPC this season. Allen certainly has the ability to move the ball on the ground – he ran for 421 yards and 8 touchdowns during the regular season – but his career-best 69.2% completion and 37 touchdowns to 10 interceptions will be the key to a win for Buffalo.
Allen and Diggs will face a tough test this week against Baltimore, who arguably has the best trio of cornerbacks in the NFL. Diggs will likely see a lot of Marcus Peters, who leads the NFL with 33 interceptions since his rookie season in 2015. For context, second-place in that list is Xavien Howard with 23 interceptions over that span. Peters is the definition of a ballhawk at cornerback and will be one of the best defenders Diggs faces this year. When Peters isn’t covering him, Diggs could see Jimmy Smith, who has allowed just 4.8 yards per target since last season and is an All-Pro caliber cornerback. Marlon Humphery, arguably the best cornerback on the team, operates primarily out of the slot when the Ravens are in nickel. Since the Bills run 3-wide sets primarily, Diggs will likely not see a lot of Humphery. Cole Beasley, Buffalo’s top slot receiver and 2nd-team All-Pro, will be hard-pressed to find breathing room against Humphery. John Brown was surprisingly held without a catch against the Colts last week, and whether he faces Peters or Smith on the perimeter, I don’t expect a huge game from him. Gabriel Davis was the second-leading receiver last week with 4 catches for 85 yards and has been a huge contributor as a fourth-round rookie who was obviously undervalued by NFL teams. It’s going to be fun to see Diggs and this talented bunch of receivers take on one of the most talented crops of cornerbacks in the NFL.
On the other side of the ball, I’m looking forward to Buffalo’s run defense to try to come to terms with Baltimore’s absurd rushing attack. Buffalo allowed 4.6 YPC (7th-most) and 21 rushing touchdowns (6th-most) during the regular season, making this a very enticing matchup for the Ravens’ ground game. Lamar Jackson leads the rushing attack as the first quarterback in NFL history with back-to-back 1,000+ yard rushing seasons at just 24 years old. He racked up 136 yards and a touchdown against the Titans last week and finished the regular season with 1,005 yards and 7 touchdowns on 159 carries. Rookie J.K. Dobbins has come on down the stretch and scored a touchdown last week, while Gus Edwards has chipped in as well. The Ravens finished with 236 yards and 2 touchdowns as a team last week. Baltimore’s run game is the perfect vehicle to keep the ball out of Josh Allen’s hands, and it’s going to help them keep this game at a manageable pace. Buffalo allowed the Colts to run for 163 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries as a team last week. The Bills will likely look to stack the box against the Ravens to keep their run game in check.
If Buffalo does look to stack the box often this week, that will leave one-on-one opportunities for Baltimore’s receivers on the perimeter. However, I’d bet on the Bills’ cornerbacks winning out. Marquise Brown was the team’s X-factor last week as he caught 7 balls for 109 yards against Tennessee, but he’ll likely see a lot of Tre’Davious White in coverage this week. White was an All-Pro cornerback in 2019 and has turned in another strong season this year. He’s allowed a 56% catch rate for his career and will provide a tough challenge for Brown. Levi Wallace, an above-average player in coverage, will likely cover Miles Boykin on the other side, while Willie Snead sees a beatable matchup against Taron Johnson in the slot. The Bills are also very vulnerable to the tight end position, something the Colts exposed last week. The trio of Jack Doyle, Trey Burton, and Mo Alie-Cox combined for 14 catches for 136 yards and a score last week. When the Ravens played the Bills last year, Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst, and Nick Boyle combined for 6 catches for 97 yards and 2 touchdowns. When Jackson does go to the air, he often looks in Andrews’s direction as the top-tier tight end finished with 58 catches for 701 yards and 7 touchdowns during the regular season. Andrews will likely be the key to the passing game this week.
The last time the Bills faced the Ravens, Baltimore earned a 7-point victory on the back of 3 passing touchdowns from Lamar Jackson. However, Tre’Davious White didn’t play in that game, and Stefon Diggs was not yet on the team. Josh Allen is also a better and more mature quarterback now, and he has the arm talent to take down this tough Baltimore secondary. Baltimore has some excellent pass rush talent in Yannick Ngakoue, Calais Campbell, Pernell McPhee, and Matthew Judon, but I trust Dion Dawkins and Daryl Williams to keep Allen upright. With how weak Buffalo’s front seven has been at times, there’s a chance the Ravens’ run game helps them dominate possession and earn a win in a low-scoring game. However, Buffalo can stack the box against Baltimore without too much concern as their top-notch coverage players should hold up downfield. Josh Allen has exposed some great defenses down the stretch of the season, and I’m betting on him to continue his torrid stretch, even against perhaps his toughest test of the year. The Bills take a narrow one that comes down to a late game-winning drive by Josh Allen as he continues to emerge as one of the very best quarterbacks in the NFL.
Matchups to watch: Stefon Diggs vs. Marcus Peters/Jimmy Smith, Marquise Brown vs. Tre’Davious White, Jerry Hughes vs. Ravens’ right tackle (D.J. Fluker? Tyre Phillips?)
Baltimore Ravens: CB Marcus Peters (back) Q, LB Matthew Judon (illness) Q, OT D.J. Fluker (knee) Q, CB Davontae Harris (thigh) IR eligible to return, CB Khalil Dorsey (shoulder) IR eligible to return, LB Otaro Alaka (knee) IR eligible to return, QB Trace McSorley (knee) IR eligible to return, QB Robert Griffin III (thigh) IR eligible to return
Buffalo Bills: WR Stefon Diggs (oblique) Q, WR Cole Beasley (knee) Q, DE Darryl Johnson (knee) Q, LB Tremaine Edmunds (hamstring) Q, DT Ed Oliver (ankle) Q, DT Justin Zimmer (groin) Q, RB Zack Moss (ankle) O, CB Cam Lewis (wrist) IR eligible to return
Betting Trends to Know:
Baltimore Ravens: 6-0 SU in last 6 games, 7-0 ATS in last 7 games, 4-1 SU in last 5 games vs. Buffalo, 6-3 ATS in last 9 games vs. Buffalo, 13-2 SU in last 15 road games
Buffalo Bills: 7-0 SU in last 7 games, 8-1 ATS in last 9 games, 6-0 SU in last 6 games at home, the total has gone under in 4 of Buffalo’s last 5 games at home vs. Baltimore
Odds: Bills -2.5, O/U 50.5
Keys to a Ravens win: run the heck out of the ball to dominate time of possession and keep the pace slow, utilize top-notch cornerbacks in creative coverage schemes, target Mark Andrews early and often.
Keys to a Bills win: stack the box and force Lamar Jackson to win through the air downfield, spread the ball around through the air, get Devin Singletary more involved to avoid one-dimensional offense.
My prediction: Bills win 24-23, Ravens cover, under 50.5 points
(12-5) Cleveland Browns @ (14-2) Kansas City Chiefs
TV Info: 1/17/21, 3:05 PM EST, CBS
The Bills weren’t the only team to shake off long-time playoff demons this past weekend as the Browns earned their first playoff victory in 25 years. JuJu Smith-Schuster called them the same old Browns heading into the game, and they proved that to be entirely untrue as they dismantled the Steelers on their way to a 48-37 win. That final score is misleading, as well, as Cleveland led 28-0 at the end of the first quarter and 35-10 at the end of the first half. Five Pittsburgh turnovers did the trick to put Cleveland in consistently great field position, but the impressive performances on the offensive side shouldn’t be overlooked. Baker Mayfield completed 21 of 34 passes for 263 yards and 3 touchdowns, good for a sparkling 92.8 QBR, and he has more than earned a lucrative long-term extension from Cleveland.
Head coach, Kevin Stefanski’s system, has worked wonders for Mayfield’s efficiency, and he made some big-time throws last week to deliver the win. With Stefanski back to call plays from the sideline this week after a bout with COVID-19, Mayfield should be in for another strong performance against the Chiefs. With Odell Beckham Jr. missing since Week 7 with a season-ending knee injury, Jarvis Landry (518 receiving yards) and Rashard Higgins (546 receiving yards) have led Cleveland’s passing attack. The Chiefs held opposing wide receivers to the second-fewest yards during the regular season. Steve Spagnuolo has schemed up a tremendous pass defense with Bashaud Breeland, Charvarius Ward, L’Jarius Sneed, and Rashad Fenton leading the cornerback room.
However, the key to the Browns’ top-half scoring offense has been one of the best rushing attacks in football. Nick Chubb led the team with 190 carries for 1,067 yards (5.6 YPC) and 12 touchdowns in just 12 games during the regular season, while Kareem Hunt racked up 198 carries for 841 yards and 6 touchdowns. Hunt also caught 38 balls for 304 yards and 5 touchdowns during the regular season, and the former Chief ran for two touchdowns last week. Chubb and Hunt represent the most talented RB duo in football at the moment, and they run behind one of the league’s best offensive lines.
There isn’t a better trio than Joel Bitonio, Wyatt Teller, and J.C. Tretter in the interior of the offensive line. While they are all three dealing with minor injuries of sorts (Bitonio is on the COVID-19 IR list), I would expect them all to play. They will be matched up with Chris Jones, one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL who had 36 tackles, 19 QB knockdowns (3rd-most), and 7.5 sacks during the regular season. Jones is the leader of what is often a mediocre Chiefs’ pass rush and run defense, and if Cleveland can neutralize him, they will be well on their way to generating offense. Jack Conklin is also on the injury report with a hamstring knock, but he should play. Left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. will face Frank Clark, who had 6 sacks during the regular season. The Chiefs had a mediocre run defense during the regular season, and the Browns’ ability to run the ball will be critical to them dictating the pace of the game.
The Browns’ critical aspect of finding a way to pull off an upset victory will be figuring out how to slow down the Chiefs’ lethal passing attack. Patrick Mahomes threw for 4,740 yards, 38 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions during the regular season and had a QBR of 82.9, the second-best in the NFL. No matter what metric you use to measure his play this year, he was one of the best QBs of the season. His play slipped slightly towards the end of the year as he didn’t surpass a 100+ passer rating once in his final four games, but he should be just fine against a very beatable Browns’ secondary. However, the Browns’ secondary is likely about to be the healthiest it’s been all season. Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson came off the COVID-19 Injured Reserve list this week and will play while Greedy Williams has hinted at a potential return this week.
Denzel Ward is the only cornerback in the NFL who’s allowed less than a 40% completion rate over the past three seasons, and he’s down at 31%. He has 4.32 40-yard dash speed and can certainly hang with the speedy Tyreek Hill on the perimeter, especially with Hill dealing with a hamstring injury. However, Hill ran the majority of his routes from out of the slot this season, so he’ll likely see Kevin Johnson with bracket coverage from safeties Andrew Sendejo and Ronnie Harrison. Ward will represent a major challenge for Sammy Watkins on the outside, while Hill will likely be capable of beating Johnson on more than a few occasions. Travis Kelce also presents a ton of matchup problems – he racked up 105 catches for 1,416 yards and 11 touchdowns and registered a 7-99-2 line the last time he faced the Browns. He received every All-Pro vote at the tight end position.
One of the keys for the Browns defensively this week will be the All-Pro defensive end, Myles Garret. The Chiefs are expected to be without top-tier right tackle Mitchell Schwartz again this week, and Mike Remmers will get another start in his absence. Remmers has been sturdy on the right side but has dealt with a number of injuries over the past month and faces his toughest test of the season, arguably, against Garrett. The interior of the Chiefs’ offensive line will also be put to the test against Sheldon Richardson. Still, Eric Fisher gets an easier matchup against Adrian Clayborn with Olivier Vernon on Injured Reserve. Kansas City’s run game has virtually been non-existent this season at times. Clyde Edwards-Helaire has underwhelmed as a rookie, and Le’Veon Bell is a shadow of the player he once was. The Cleveland run defense held Pittsburgh to 52 yards of rushing last week, and I’m not expecting a strong rushing effort from Kansas City. A one-dimensional KC offense can work, as we’ve seen several times, but Cleveland’s secondary is as strong as it’s been all year, and I don’t expect huge fireworks from the Chiefs.
Cleveland is going to look to slow down this game from the offset with their top-notch rushing attack, and the Chiefs don’t have the defensive bodies in the front seven to slow them down. We should expect both Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to have strong games against the KC run defense. Baker Mayfield has been a tremendously efficient passer and should be able to keep the chains moving. On the other side of the ball, Cleveland’s secondary is the healthiest it’s been all season. While Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce all had tremendous regular seasons, they slowed down at the close of the season and haven’t played in a few weeks. I’m projecting this game to be lower-scoring than some might expect, and I’ll pick the Chiefs to continue to struggle to cover the spread. Give me Kansas City in a close one.
Matchups to watch: Myles Garrett vs. Mike Remmers, Tyreek Hill vs. Kevin Johnson, Chris Jones vs. Wyatt Teller, J.C. Tretter, and Joel Bitonio
Cleveland Browns: DE Myles Garrett (shoulder) Q, DT Sheldon Richardson (neck) Q, OG Wyatt Teller (ankle) Q, C J.C. Tretter (knee) Q, OT Jack Conklin (hamstring) Q, TE David Njoku (hamstring) Q, MLB B.J. Goodson (shoulder) Q, CB Robert Jackson (hamstring) Q, CB Greedy Williams (shoulder) IR eligible to return, WR Taywan Taylor (neck) IR eligible to return, OG Joel Bitonio (COVID-19) IR, CB Denzel Ward (COVID-19) IR, CB Kevin Johnson (COVID-19) IR, WR Khadarel Hodge (COVID-19) IR
Kansas City Chiefs: WR Tyreek Hill (hamstring) Q, RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle) Q, WR Sammy Watkins (calf) Q, OT Mike Remmers (back) Q, LB Ben Niemann (hamstring) Q, LB Willie Gay Jr. (ankle) Q, CB Rashad Fenton (ankle) Q, TE Deon Yelder (groin) Q, OT Mitchell Schwartz (back) IR eligible to return, DE Taco Charlton (lower leg) IR eligible to return, LB Dorian O’Daniel (ankle) IR eligible to return
Betting Trends to Know:
Cleveland Browns: 7-2 SU in last 9 games, 4-8 ATS in last 12 games, 5-2 ATS in last 7 games vs. Kansas City, 1-4 SU in last 5 games vs. Kansas City, the total has gone over in 5 of Cleveland’s last 7 games
Kansas City Chiefs: 10-1 SU in last 11 games, 13-2 SU in last 15 games at home, 0-7-1 ATS in last 8 games, the total has gone over in 6 of Kansas City’s last 9 games vs. Cleveland
Odds: Chiefs -10, O/U 56
Keys to a Browns win: run the ball as much as possible to control the time of possession, bracket Tyreek Hill and don’t let him get loose, create pressure on Patrick Mahomes.
Keys to a Chiefs win: get the offense hot early, stack the box and make Baker Mayfield win deep, win the turnover battle.
My prediction: Chiefs win 28-24, Browns cover, under 56 points
(12-5) Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ (13-4) New Orleans Saints
TV Info: 1/17/21, 6:40 PM EST, FOX
This is the matchup we’ve all been waiting for. Tom Brady vs. Drew Brees in a heated division rivalry game for a spot in the NFC Championship game. Brady and Brees have been facing off for two decades, dating back to when Brady’s Michigan Wolverines beat Brees’s Purdue Boilermakers in 1999, with both teams in the top 20 in the country. The Saints’ quarterback has since taken five of seven games against Brady in the NFL and has a 20-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, dramatically better than the former Michigan QB’s 9-11 ratio in their games. Of course, Brady won six Super Bowls with the Patriots while Brees has just one title win in his career, but both of these guys are among the greatest players at their position in NFL history.
The Saints’ defense seemed to figure out Brady during the regular season as the Tampa Bay passer threw five of his twelve interceptions in two meetings against New Orleans with just two of his forty touchdowns in those games. The Buccaneers will need to come into this game with a different gameplan in order for their offense to succeed, as Tampa scored just 13 points on average in two meetings with New Orleans. Brady ended the regular season on quite a tear as he threw for 12 touchdowns to just one interception in four games following the team’s bye week and has thrown for 350+ yards in four straight games. The Saints’ pass defense was electric during the regular season as they allowed just 217 passing yards per game, the fifth-fewest in the NFL.
Tampa’s offensive skill players have turned into some of the best in the NFL, and they arguably have the best trio of receivers in football. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are both dealing with injuries and have been seemingly all season. Evans (knee) and Godwin (hip, quadriceps) were both limited in practice this week. However, Evans has surpassed 1,000 receiving yards in seven straight seasons, while Godwin broke through last season with 86 catches for 1,333 yards and 9 touchdowns. Evans was held to 5 catches for 66 yards and a touchdown across two games against the Saints, while Godwin was held to 9 catches for 120 yards in those games – not bad results, but certainly not representative of their top-tier ceiling. Antonio Brown has turned into arguably the team’s top receiver with 315 receiving yards and five touchdowns over the past four weeks. He was held to 3 catches for 31 yards against the Saints in Week 9, but he should be able to come through with better results this week.
Marshon Lattimore will likely see a lot of Evans this week, a matchup Lattimore has repeatedly excelled in. Meanwhile, Janoris Jenkins provides strong coverage on the other side and should be able to succeed against Antonio Brown. Chris Godwin has the easiest matchup against Chauncey Gardner-Johnson in the slot. If the trio of excellent Bucs’ wide receivers can win their one-on-one matchups, Tampa will be well on their way to winning this game. Rob Gronkowski was held without a catch last week, but he had 45 catches for 623 yards and 7 touchdowns during the regular season and should get more involved this week.
The Buccaneers will also be looking to establish their run game more effectively this week. Tampa was held to 86 yards on 26 carries (3.3 YPC) in the teams’ first matchup, and in the second matchup, the Bucs had virtually no run game with just 8 yards on 5 carries. New Orleans had one of the best rushing defenses in the NFL during the regular season. It’s going to be very important for the rushing game to be effective this week as a one-dimensional offense will not work against New Orleans. Leonard Fournette racked up 93 yards, and a touchdown on 19 carries last week, while Ronald Jones didn’t see a single touch. Regardless of who Bruce Arians decide to roll with at running back this week, they’ll need their run game to be a significant factor.
The Saints’ front seven has been one of the best in the NFL as they racked up 45 sacks, the eighth-most, and held opponents to 3.8 YPC, the fourth-fewest. Trey Hendrickson led the team with 13.5 sacks and 25 QB hits, while Cameron Jordan, a Pro Bowl defensive end, had 7.5 sacks and 51 tackles during the regular season. This Bucs’ offensive line is arguably the best of Tom Brady’s career. The offensive tackle duo of Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs will be put to the test against Hendrickson, Jordan, and Marcus Davenport. Demario Davis, an All-Pro linebacker, also had a tremendous season.
On the other side of the ball, the Saints got their top two offensive weapons back last week in Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas. Kamara racked up 116 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown on 25 touches last week, but he’s struggled in past matchups against the Buccaneers. In two games against Tampa this week, Kamra ran for just 56 yards on 21 carries (2.6 YPC). He was good for 10 catches, but that inefficiency on the ground is problematic for this offense. Tampa held opponents to just 1,289 rushing yards, 3.6 YPC, and 10 rushing touchdowns this season, all the fewest in the NFL. Kamara’s rushing production hasn’t been strong in games against this elite defense, and I don’t see him improving a ton this week.
The Saints also got Michael Thomas, their top receiver, back from injury last week. He was good for 5 catches for 73 yards and a touchdown against the Bears last week and will continue to be arguably the most important weapon for this team. Thomas was held to just 3 catches for 17 yards against the Buccaneers in Week 1 of this season, and he didn’t face them in their second matchup this year. However, the year prior, he was good for a combined 19 catches for 296 yards and 3 touchdowns in two games against Tampa. Emmanuel Sanders, Deonte Harris, and Marquez Callaway will be likely all factor in as well. Tampa’s Carlton Davis is dealing with a groin injury but should be able to play this week, and he lines up across from the solid Jamel Dean. However, Thomas will likely see a lot of his snaps from out of the slot against a very beatable Sean Murphy-Bunting.
New Orleans’ offensive line is going to be pushed to the limit this week against Tampa’s elite pass rush that racked up 48 sacks, tied for the third-most in the NFL. Terron Armstead, a Pro Bowl left tackle, will face Jason Pierre-Paul, a Pro Bowl defensive end. Pierre-Paul led the team with 9.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles during the regular season. Devin White (140 tackles, 15 tackles for a loss, 9 sacks, 16 QB hits) and Lavonte David (117 tackles, 12 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks) were both All-Pro linebackers and provided a dominant one-two punch for this team. Shaquil Barrett (8 sacks, 16 QB hits) and Ndamukong Suh (6 sacks, 19 QB hits) were also dominant pieces of this front seven. Tampa’s defense is built to put pressure on Drew Brees, a quarterback who struggles to pass under pressure, and I’m rising on the Bucs’ defense heading into this matchup.
These two NFC South teams are arguably the most talented squads in the NFL top-to-bottom. Two elite defenses and two elite offenses should make this a must-see game. Tom Brady has never lost to the same team three times in the same season, and Drew Brees’s declining arm talent is bound to let this team down at some point. Then again, I’d give the Saints the coaching advantage with Sean Payton over Tampa’s Bruce Arians. This game is truly a toss-up, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see either team win or to see any game script play out. However, I’m betting on Tom Brady to keep his hot streak rolling and get a big win with the best receiving corps in the NFL on the road.
Matchups to watch: Cameron Jordan vs. Tristan Wirfs, Jason Pierre-Paul vs. Terron Armstead, Michael Thomas vs. Sean Murphy-Bunting
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: WR Chris Godwin (hip) Q, WR Mike Evans (knee) Q, CB Carlton Davis (groin) Q, LB Jason Pierre-Paul (knee) Q, RB Ronald Jones (quadriceps) Q, RB LeSean McCoy (illness) Q, DE Jeremiah Ledbetter (calf) Q, OG Alex Cappa (ankle) O, LB Kevin Minter (COVID-19) IR
New Orleans Saints: TE Jared Cook (back) Q, OT Terron Armstead (elbow) Q, QB Taysom Hill (knee) Q, DE Trey Hendrickson (neck) Q, RB Latavius Murray (thigh) Q, CB Patrick Robinson (thigh) Q, DE Anthony Lanier (undisclosed) Q, WR Bennie Fowler (shoulder) IR eligible to return, P Ben Gillikin (back) IR eligible to return
Betting Trends to Know:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 5-0 SU in last 5 games, 4-2 ATS in last 6 games, 0-5 SU in last 5 games vs. New Orleans, 0-5 ATS in last 5 games vs. New Orleans, the total has gone over in 4 of last 5 games on the road vs. New Orleans
New Orleans Saints: 12-2 SU in last 14 games, 8-1-1 ATS in last 10 games, 6-1 SU in last 7 games at home, 3-0 SU in last 3 games vs. Tampa Bay the total has gone over in 5 of last 7 games vs. Tampa Bay
Odds: Saints -3, O/U 52
Keys to a Buccaneers win: keep the pocket clean for Tom Brady, get the run game going early, so the offense doesn’t become one-dimensional, find a way to neutralize Michael Thomas.
Keys to a Saints win: keep the pocket clean for Drew Brees, get Michael Thomas the ball as much as possible, maintain strong coverage on Bucs’ wide receivers.
My prediction: Buccaneers win 29-26, Buccaneers cover, over 52 points