Wild Card Round Lines
My record this season: 182-73-1 SU, 146-106-4 ATS, 132-115-9 O/U
(11-5) Indianapolis Colts @ (13-3) Buffalo Bills
TV Info: 1/9/21, 1:05 PM EST, CBS
Since their Week 11 bye, the Bills have racked up six straight wins to bring them to a 13-3 record. Buffalo has scored 38.1 points per game over that span as Josh Allen has racked up 16 passing touchdowns to just 3 interceptions. He finished the regular season with 45 total touchdowns and 4,544 passing yards, the franchise record. Stefon Diggs led the team and the entire NFL with 127 catches for 1,535 yards and 8 touchdowns. John Brown returned to the lineup with 4 catches for 72 yards and a touchdown last week, while Gabriel Davis finished the regular season with 35 catches for 599 yards and 7 touchdowns as a part-time rookie backup. Even if Cole Beasley cannot play this week after missing the last two matchups with a knee injury, the Colts’ cornerbacks will have their work cut out for them.
Xavier Rhodes has spent most of the season playing on the right side of the formation, but Rock Ya-Sin’s concussion kept him out last week, and Rhodes lined up on both sides of the formation, allowing five catches for 57 yards and a touchdown against Jacksonville. If Ya-Sin misses this week, Josh Allen will exploit T.J. Carrie opposite Rhodes with either Brown or Davis. Diggs will also win his one-on-one matchups against his former teammate in Rhodes, a player who has been overrated for much of his career.
The Colts’ pass rush looked stellar last week in racking up 6 sacks against Mike Glennon. However, Buffalo’s offensive line is much better-equipped than Jacksonville’s. Darius Leonard is a playmaker in the middle of the field with 132 tackles, the ninth-most in the NFL, and DeForest Buckner is a force to be reckoned with in the middle of the defensive line. Justin Houston has 8 sacks, and 12 QB hits this season as the team’s top edge rusher. However, Josh Allen’s ability to move around the pocket and make plays with his legs as a passer or runner gives him the upper hand.
Indianapolis does have the ability to make Buffalo’s offense very one-dimensional. DeForest Buckner holds an advantage across the front and leads the team with 9.5 sacks, 10 tackles for a loss, and 26 quarterback hits this season. He and Denico Autry (9 tackles for a loss) will clog up the middle of the line of scrimmage and hold Buffalo’s rushing attack at bay. Indy is allowing just 90.5 rushing yards per game, the second-fewest in the NFL, and Buffalo’s combination of Devin Singletary and Zack Moss has been far from stellar this season – both players have run for under 4.5 YPC.
On the other side of the ball, the Colts have had to deal with an injury to their top left tackle in Anthony Costanzo. Additionally, Le’Raven Clark would be the top backup, but he has been put on Injured Reserve. The Bills’ pass rush hasn’t been top-notch, but Philip Rivers doesn’t deal with pressure well at this stage of his career, and the loss of Costanzo will hurt this team moving forward. Mario Addison isn’t the same player at this stage of his career, but he’ll likely be matched up with the recently signed Jared Veldheer on the left side. Addison does have five sacks this year, and the veteran could be a huge difference-maker for Buffalo’s defense.
T.Y. Hilton had emerged as the team’s top wideout with 27 catches for 435 yards and 5 touchdowns since Week 12, exactly when he was finally removed from the injury report with a hamstring issue. That would have been a 16-game pace of 72 catches for 1,160 yards and 13 touchdowns. However, he’ll be matched up with Tre’Davious White this week, one of the top shadow cornerbacks in the NFL, and it’s hard to make the case that Hilton will be able to beat him too often. The Colts have had little in the way of consistent pass-catchers outside of Hilton’s late surge this season.
Jonathan Taylor racked up 30 carries for 253 yards and 2 touchdowns last week against Jacksonville, and Indianapolis will look to get him the ball early and often again this week. His workload was limited earlier in the season, specifically for this time of the year. The Bills’ run defense has been beatable with 4.6 YPC allowed, the seventh-most, and 21 rushing touchdowns allowed, the sixth-most.
Indianapolis also holds the advantage in turnover margin – their +10 differential is the second-best in the NFL, while the Bills are closer to the middle of the pack at +4. The recipe for success for the Colts in this game will be ball control through Taylor to keep the ball away from Allen. However, the Bills’ passing offense has been on an incredible tear, and I don’t trust the Colts’ defense to slow them down. I’ll take the Bills to keep the good times rolling on offense and cover this spread at home.
Matchup to watch: Stefon Diggs (led NFL with 127 catches for 1,535 yards) vs. Colts’ cornerbacks
Indianapolis Colts: CB Rock Ya-Sin (concussion) Q, SS Khari Willis (concussion) Q, OG Will Holden (ankle) Q, OT Anthony Costanzo (ankle) IR, OT Le’Raven Clark (Achilles) IR
Buffalo Bills: WR Cole Beasley (knee) Q, TE Reggie Gilliam (knee) Q, S Siran Neal (head) Q, OT Ty Nsekhe (illness) Q, CB Cam Lewis (wrist) IR eligible to return, RB T.J. Yeldon (COVID-19) IR
Betting Trends to Know:
Indianapolis Colts: 11-5 SU this season, 8-8 ATS this season, 2-4 ATS in last 6 games, 2-4 ATS in last 6 games vs. Buffalo, the total has gone over in 8 of Indianapolis’s last 12 games
Buffalo Bills: 13-3 SU this season, 11-5 ATS this season, 8-0 ATS in last 8 games, 6-0 SU in last 6 games, the total has gone over in 11 of Buffalo’s last 16 games
Odds: Bills -6.5, O/U 52.5
Keys to a Colts win: ball control with Jonathan Taylor, keep the ball out of Josh Allen’s hands, make Buffalo’s offense one-dimensional, creative coverage schemes
Keys to a Bills win: attack the left side of Colts’ offensive line, shadow T.Y. Hilton with Tre’Davious White, emphasize vertical passing game with Stefon Diggs and John Brown
My prediction: Bills win 33-24, Bills cover, over 52.5 points
(10-6) Los Angeles Rams @ (12-4) Seattle Seahawks
TV Info: 1/9/21, 4:40 PM EST, FOX
The Seahawks have won just five of their last seven games against the Rams, so they can’t be thrilled about drawing this matchup against their divisional foe in the opening round. However, the Rams are far from 100% healthy. Jared Goff is reportedly a longshot to play this week, and John Wolford would be in line to earn his second career start for the Rams. Wolford completed 22 of 38 passes for 231 yards and an interception last week, although he led the team rushing with 6 carries for 56 yards. The Rams would obviously be better off with Jared Goff under center this week given his experience, but I’ve long held the opinion that Sean McVay’s tremendous offensive mastery has overshadowed an inconsistent, overpaid passer in Jared Goff. If there’s any offensive mind in the NFL I would trust to coax production out of this situation; it’s Sean McVay.
Whichever quarterback suits up for LA this week, they’ll be greeted with one of the worst passing defenses in the NFL. D.J. Reed has emerged as an effective option alongside Shaquem Griffin, but Quinton Dunbar is on Injured Reserve, and McVay will be able to exploit this patchwork secondary. The Seahawks didn’t allow a historic number of passing yards like they were on pace to do early in the season, but make no qualms about it – their secondary is very beatable. Cooper Kupp leads the team with 92 catches for 974 yards and 3 touchdowns, while Robert Woods has 90 catches for 936 yards and 6 touchdowns. The Seahawks have allowed 285 passing yards per game, the second-most in the NFL, but they’ve been closer to the middle of the pack recently.
An injury to Jamal Adams could prove to be very significant for Seattle, especially in run defense. Seattle has allowed the fifth-fewest rushing yards per game. Darrell Henderson will remain out with an ankle injury, and the team will miss his 138 carries for 624 yards and 5 touchdowns. Rookie Cam Akers has been hit-or-miss this season, but he’s seen 20+ carries in three of his last four games and will be relied upon to handle the bulk of the workload for LA. Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright still represent one of the best interior run-stopping linebacker duos in the NFL. If the Rams want to get their run game going early, they’ll have their work cut out for them against those two linebackers in the second level. However, the likely return of veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth this week would be a boon for both pass protection and the run game.
On the other side of the ball, Russell Wilson faces a defense that has been uniquely adept at making life difficult on him. Despite strong play at left tackle from Duane Brown, the Seahawks’ offensive line continues to be one of the most overmatched units in football – Wilson has been sacked 3 times per game, the fifth-most in the NFL, and was sacked a whopping 11 times across two games against the Rams. Aaron Donald had 13.5 sacks in the regular season, the second-most in the NFL, while Leonard Floyd had 10.5 sacks, the ninth-most. Seattle’s offensive line is going to cause major headaches for them moving forward.
The Rams are also uniquely able to cover the star wide receiver duo of D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. Metcalf had 83 catches for 1,303 yards and 10 touchdowns in the regular season, but he’ll see a lot of Jalen Ramsey this week, one of the best cover corners in football. Lockett had 100 catches for 1,054 yards and 10 touchdowns in the regular season, but he’ll likely be matched up with the emergent third-year corner Darious Williams. The Rams have allowed just 3,051 passing yards and 17 passing touchdowns this year, both the fewest in the NFL.
LA’s stellar defense hasn’t stopped against the pass – they’ve allowed just 91.3 rushing yards per game, the third-fewest in the NFL, and 12 rushing touchdowns, tied for the fourth-fewest. They boast the #1 scoring defense in football, as a result. Seattle’s rushing offense has been inconsistent amidst injuries to Chris Carson and Carlos Hyde, and while everyone is expected to be healthy, the poor offensive line does the rushing game no favors. Seattle does have a +4 turnover margin to -3 for the Rams, but Russell Wilson has been very turnover prone at times this season, especially against a stout defense of this nature.
Call me crazy, but I’m rolling with the Rams in this game, even if it’s John Wolford under center instead of Jared Goff. Wolford’s mobility and downfield aggressiveness opened up the playbook for Sean McVay, and I expect defensive coordinator Brandon Staley to put together a brilliant gameplan to stop Russell Wilson. This is destined to be a low-scoring game, like the two prior meetings between these clubs, and I’m taking the more talented team top-to-bottom to win out.
Matchup to watch: Rams’ defensive line (53 sacks, 2nd-most) vs. Seattle offensive line (allowed 3.0 sacks per game, 5th-most)
Los Angeles Rams: QB Jared Goff (thumb) Q, MLB Micah Kiser (knee) Q, S Taylor Rapp (knee) IR eligible to return, OT Andrew Whitworth (MCL) IR eligible to return, K Kai Forbath (ankle) IR eligible to return, WR Cooper Kupp (COVID-19) IR, DE Michael Brockers (COVID-19) IR, RB Darrell Henderson (ankle) IR
Seattle Seahawks: S Jamal Adams (shoulder) Q, DT Jarran Reed (abdomen) Q, TE Greg Olsen (foot) Q, RB Carlos Hyde (illness) Q, DB Jayson Stanley (hamstring) Q, RB DeeJay Dallas (ankle) Q, OG Mike Iupati (neck) Q, RB Travis Homer (knee) IR eligible to return, S Lano Hill (back) IR eligible to return, CB Neiko Thorpe (abdomen) IR eligible to return, OT Brandon Shell (COVID-19) IR, S Damarious Randall (foot) IR, WR Phillip Dorsett (foot) IR, CB Quinton Dunbar (knee) IR, LB Bruce Irvin (ACL) IR, S Marquise Blair (ACL) IR
Odds: Seahawks -5, O/U 42
Keys to a Rams win: constant pressure on Russell Wilson, keep the pace of game slow with the effective run game, put little burden on Jared Goff/John Wolford, exploit mismatches in secondary.
Keys to a Seahawks win: force Rams’ QB into mistakes, move pocket around creatively for Wilson, use the run game to keep Rams’ front seven honest, find one-on-one opportunities for D.K. Metcalf
My prediction: Rams win 20-17, Rams cover, under 42 points
(11-5) Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ (7-9) Washington Football Team
TV Info: 1/9/21, 8:15 PM EST, NBC
Heading into this season, the collective football media world seemed to have written off Tom Brady’s ability to be a difference-making quarterback in the NFL. After all, no other QB had even started a game at his age of 43, and he was coming off one of the worst seasons of his career in New England. However, Brady has once again made his doubters look silly as he racked up 4,633 passing yards, 40 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, finishing with a 102.2 passer rating that was his best in three years. Over his past seven games, Brady is averaging 319.7 passing yards, 2.85 touchdowns, and 0.71 interceptions – that would be a 16-game pace of 5,115 passing yards, 46 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, clear MVP-level numbers. Washington allows just 191.8 passing yards per game, the second-fewest in football, and a passer rating of 81.4, the third-lowest, so Brady will have his work cut out for him this week. He won’t be without help, though, in the form of some elite skill players for Tampa Bay.
Mike Evans is dealing with a hyperextended knee, but an MRI revealed no structural damage, and there’s a chance he can play this week. If he can’t go, Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin would handle the bulk of the target share. Brown came down with 11 catches for 138 yards and 2 touchdowns against the Falcons last week, his best game with Tampa, while Godwin caught 5 balls for 133 yards and 2 scores. Rob Gronkowski, meanwhile, has 45 catches for 623 yards and 7 touchdowns. Washington is one of the best teams in the NFL against the pass, but they’ve been most beatable in the slot with Jimmy Moreland surrendering a subpar 71.8% catch rate. That leaves Chris Godwin with a juicy matchup this week. Ronald Darby has been excellent this year in allowing just 7.9 yards per target, but AB’s talent is undeniable, and he looks to be mentally right at the moment. The one-on-one matchups for Godwin and Brown will determine how effective Tampa’s passing game can be.
The Buccaneers’ offensive line is one of the best Brady has ever played behind, and they’ll have to be at their best against Washington’s front seven. Montez Sweat leads Washington with 9.0 sacks, and he’ll be matched up with the standout rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs. Left tackle Donovan Smith will face arguably his toughest test of the year in rookie Chase Young who has 7.5 sacks and 10 tackles for a loss this year. Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, and Alex Cappa will have to handle two stud defensive tackles in Jonathan Allen and Da’Ron Payne in the middle of the field. This battle in the trenches could ultimately decide the outcome of this game. Tampa will look to keep their offense balanced with a steady serving of Ronald Jones in the run game. Jones finished with 12 carries for 78 yards and a touchdown last week, and he racked up 192 carries for 978 yards and 7 touchdowns during the regular season.
Washington has not been a picture of offensive consistency this season as they’ve scored just 20.9 points per game, the eighth-fewest in football. However, in six starts for Alex Smith this year, Washington has gone 5-1 and averaged 25.6 points per game. Smith has completed 66.7% of passes for 1,582 yards and 6 touchdowns to 8 interceptions, but he’s been the best passer for the team this season. However, his calf injury is an issue that could result in more Taylor Heinecke for Washington this week, per Ron Rivera. Washington’s offensive line has been solid this year, but Smith’s complete lack of mobility is problematic against such a stout Tampa front seven that has 48 sacks, tied for the fourth-most. Shaquil Barrett, Devin White, and Steve McLendon popped up on the COVID-19 Injured Reserve this week, although Barret and McLendon are expected to play. However, Devin White is in serious doubt with his positive test and would be a massive loss with his team-leading 140 tackles and 9 sacks.
Even without Devin White, Tampa still features a strong collection of talent in the front seven. Jason Pierre-Paul led the team with 9.5 sacks and was named to the Pro Bowl, while Lavonte David has once again been one of the best interior linebackers in the NFL. Anthony Nelson, William Gholston, and Ndomakung Suh have rounded out a stout defensive line. For Washington, Antonio Gibson has impressed in his rookie season with 170 carries for 795 yards and 11 touchdowns, but he’ll be hard-pressed to find running room against Tampa, who allows just 80.6 rushing yards per game and 3.6 YPC, both the fewest in the NFL.
Tampa is also well-equipped to handle Terry McLaurin, the team’s top wideout who has registered 87 catches for 1,118 yards and 4 touchdowns this year. Even with Carlton Davis injured, Jamel Dean is a strong player and has allowed just 5.0 yards per target this year. Washington rarely uses their other wide receivers, while J.D. McKissic (80-589-2) and Logan Thomas (72-670-6) have been the second and third options. Tampa’s defense should have a little problem slowing down this offense, especially with Alex Smith’s calf injury further hampering his already limited mobility.
This game has the makings of one of the lowest-scoring playoff games in recent memory with a collection of some of the best front seven talents in football. Injuries to Jason Pierre-Paul and Carlton Davis, as well as a COVID-19 diagnosis for Devin White, leaves Tampa a little light on defense, but I still have concerns about Alex Smith’s ability to move the ball against this stout front seven. Meanwhile, an injury to Mike Evans is significant for Tampa, but Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin will be able to pick up the slack in beatable matchups. Tampa’s offensive line has its work cut out for it against Washington’s front seven, but if they can keep the pocket relatively clean for Tom Brady, the Buccaneers should be able to comfortably cover this spread.
Matchup to watch: Tampa offensive line (allowing 1.4 sacks per game, fourth-fewest) vs. Washington front seven (47 sacks, sixth-most)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: LB Jason Pierre-Paul (knee) Q, WR Mike Evans (knee) Q, CB Carlton Davis (groin) Q, RB LeSean McCoy (undisclosed) Q, S Justin Evans (foot) Q, DE Jeremiah Ledbetter (calf) Q, LB Shaquil Barrett (COVID-19) IR, LB Devin White (COVID-19) IR, DT Steve McLendon (COVID-19) IR
Washington Football Team: LB Kevin Pierre-Louis (ankle) Q, LB Thomas Davis (knee) Q, CB Greg Stroman (foot) IR eligible to return, OT Geron Christian (knee) IR eligible to return, DE Ryan Anderson (knee) IR eligible to return, LB Reuben Foster (knee) IR
Odds: Buccaneers -6.5, O/U 46.5
Keys to a Tampa win: Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown win one-on-one matchups, make life difficult for Alex Smith with the pass rush, limit turnovers and mistakes
Keys to a Washington win: keep the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands with a ball-control offense, overwhelm the offensive line with variable blitzing, keep pocket clean for Alex Smith
My prediction: Buccaneers win 26-16, Buccaneers cover, under 46.5 points
(11-5) Baltimore Ravens @ (11-5) Tennessee Titans
TV Info: 1/10/21, 1:05 PM EST, ABC
The Titans had the Ravens’ number as of late with a statement 28-12 win over Baltimore in the AFC Divisional Round last season prior to a walk-off, overtime victory in their rematch earlier this year. Derrick Henry stole the show on both occasions, taking a combined 58 carries for 328 yards (5.6 YPC). Last week, Henry needed 223 rushing yards to surpass 2,000 for the year in a win-and-in situation for the playoffs for Tennessee – he ran all over Houston for 250 yards and 2 scores. He set career-highs across the board with 378 carries for 2,027 yards and 17 touchdowns. He is just the 8th player in NFL history with 2,000+ rushing yards and finishes as the rushing leader in back-to-back seasons. Derrick Henry could be bound for Canton at the end of this illustrious career. The Ravens have been solid against the run, allowing the eighth-fewest rushing yards and sixth-fewest rushing touchdowns, but Henry is a different beast entirely.
Derrick Henry’s monstrous production is particularly impressive when you consider the level of transformation Tennessee’s offensive line underwent. Stalwart left tackle Taylor Lewan was lost for the year with a torn ACL, while Ty Sambrailo, his replacement, has missed a handful of games. David Quessenberry, a player who has seen minimal playing time since being a 6th-round pick in 2013, is expected to get the start on Sunday and will have to face Pernell McPhee, Calais Campbell, and Yannick Ngakoue on the left side. Along with Brandon Williams, Derek Wolfe, and Matthew Judon, the Ravens’ defensive line is much-improved and will be able to generate pressure on Ryan Tannehill and make life difficult for the Titans’ offensive line.
To Tannehill’s credit, he does very well under pressure and benefits from opposing teams having to stack the box frequently to account for Derrick Henry. A.J. Brown has been even better in his sophomore season, catching 70 balls for 1,075 yards and 11 touchdowns and even scoring a touchdown on an onsides kick recovery. Corey Davis, meanwhile, has accounted for 65 catches for 984 yards and 5 touchdowns. Jimmy Smith remains on the injury report with a shoulder issue, but Marlon Humphery and Marcus Peters have been tremendous this season, and Baltimore has a deep cadre of top-notch coverage players that extends to its safeties in Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott. It’s no wonder that Baltimore allowed an opposing passer rating of just 87.1, the seventh-lowest in the NFL. Ryan Tannehill has impressed this season with 33 touchdowns to just 7 interceptions, but this is going to be a tough matchup for him.
Tennessee will be matched up with one of the only two teams that ran the ball at a higher frequency than them. Baltimore finished with 191.9 rushing yards per game as a team and was led by Lamar Jackson, who finished with 1,005 rushing yards and 7 touchdowns in 15 games. That makes him the first quarterback with two 1,000+ yard rushing seasons, and he’s still only 23 years old. Rookie J.K. Dobbins emerged over the second half of the season and finished with 134 carries for 805 yards and 9 touchdowns, along with 18 catches for 120 yards. Gus Edwards was the touch leader out of the backfield with 144 carries for 723 yards and 6 touchdowns. Despite having a weakened offensive line as a result of Marshal Yanda’s retirement, the Ravens still led the NFL in rushing yards and YPC (5.5). The Titans’ defense ranked middle of the pack against the run, and Baltimore should challenge their front seven in this game.
Despite enduring a season-ending ankle injury to franchise left tackle Ronnie Stanley, the Ravens’ offensive line has been very good. Orlando Brown Jr. has been stellar in fill-in duty on the left side while the rest of the line has combined to allow just 2 sacks per game, putting the Ravens in the middle of the pack. The Titans have just 19 sacks this season, more than just two other teams, so a clean pocket shouldn’t be a concern for Lamar Jackson this week – that’s down from 43 sacks last season for Tennessee. Jackson has been better as a passer lately with 8 touchdowns to 2 interceptions over his last three games and should be able to take advantage of a Tennessee secondary that has allowed the fourth-most passing yards and the second-most passing touchdowns this season.
Marquise Brown leads the team with 58 catches for 769 yards and 8 touchdowns, while Mark Andrews registered 58 catches for 701 yards and 7 touchdowns during the regular season. Willie Snead (33-432-3) and Miles Boykin (19-266-4) were fairly involved, as well. If the Ravens can get their passing attack moving against Tennessee, it will only serve to open up more for them in the run game, which is their bread and butter. Outside of Malcolm Butler, the Titans feature a slew of beatable cornerbacks in Jonathan Joseph, Kristian Fulton, Tye Smith, and Desmond King. Season-ending injuries to Jadeveon Clowney and Jayon Brown have left the Tennessee front seven very light, as well.
The Ravens’ offense has been on fire lately as they’ve scored 37.2 points per game over their past five outings, and the Titans’ defense is not going to be able to stop them as they’ve allowed the eighth-most points per game this season and surrendered 38 points last week to Deshaun Watson and the Texans. This is an opportunity for a statement win for Lamar Jackson after two straight one-and-done playoff trips, and while the Titans’ offense is clearly dangerous, the Ravens have some answers for them defensively. I’m picking the Ravens to earn a measure of revenge against a team that’s had their number as of late in a shootout.
Matchup to watch: Lamar Jackson vs. Titans’ pass defense (allowing fourth-most passing yards and second-most passing touchdowns)
Baltimore Ravens: DE Yannick Ngakoue (thigh) Q, CB Jimmy Smith (shoulder) Q, OG Patrick Mekari (back) Q, WR Willie Snead (ankle) Q, CB Khalil Dorsey (shoulder) IR eligible to return, LB Otaro Alaka (knee) IR eligible to return, QB Robert Griffin III (thigh) IR eligible to return, QB Trace McSorley (knee) IR eligible to return, P Sam Koch (COVID-19) IR
Tennessee Titans: OG Roger Saffold (ankle) Q, LB Derick Roberson (hamstring) Q, OT Ty Sambrailo (undisclosed) IR eligible to return, WR Adam Humphries (concussion) IR eligible to return, CB Breon Borders (hip) IR eligible to return, K Stephen Gostkowski (COVID-19) IR, DT Teair Tart (COVID-19) IR
Odds: Ravens -4, O/U 54.5
Keys to a Ravens win: air out the offense early with Lamar Jackson, don’t leave A.J. Brown in one-on-one coverage too often, keep the pressure on Ryan Tannehill
Keys to a Titans win: Derrick Henry, Derrick Henry, and more Derrick Henry, build an early lead, create interior pressure against Jackson.
My prediction: Ravens win 34-27, Ravens cover, over 54.5 points
(8-8) Chicago Bears @ (12-4) New Orleans Saints
TV Info: 1/10/21, 4:40 PM EST, CBS
It’s hard to take much away from the last meeting between the Bears and Saints earlier this season as both teams have changed a ton since then. For the Bears, a switch back to Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback has reignited their offense and allowed them to turn into one of the hottest scoring units in football. Since Trubisky regained his role as the starter following the team’s Week 11 bye, the Bears have scored 30.1 points per game – that would have made them the fifth-highest scoring offense in the NFL over the course of a full season. Trubisky threw for 240+ yards in all but one game over that span and threw for 9 touchdowns to 5 interceptions with another score on the ground. He’ll be pushed to the limit against the Saints, though, as they allow the fifth-fewest passing yards per game and the fourth-lowest opposing passer rating.
Perhaps more importantly for the Bears, the reinserting of Trubisky at QB rejuvenated the team’s rushing attack. David Montgomery looked like a different player over the second half of the season as he compiled 136.8 yards from scrimmage per game over the team’s final six games of the season. The Saints have allowed the fourth-fewest rushing yards and tied for the third-fewest rushing touchdowns allowed, but it’s important for Chicago to have somewhat of a two-dimensional offense in this game to keep New Orleans’s pass rush honest. The Saints racked up 45 sacks during the regular season, led by Trey Hendrickson with a whopping 13.5 sacks and 25 QB hits. Cameron Jordan racked up 7.5 sacks and 16 QB hits, while David Onyemata had 6.5 sacks and 16 QB hits. Chicago’s offensive line has been better lately, and Trubisky’s mobility certainly helps, but Charles Leno and Germain Ifedi will have to be at their best at the tackle spots to keep the Saints’ edge rushers at bay.
The area that should give Bears’ fans some hope is in the passing game. Allen Robinson is one of the most talented receivers in the NFL, and he finished the regular season with 102 catches for 1,250 yards and 6 touchdowns despite the team’s quarterback controversy playing a major factor. Robinson will likely see a ton of Marshon Lattimore, a player who was completely undeserving of a Pro Bowl nod this year. Robinson finished with 6 catches for 87 yards and a touchdown in these team’s last meeting, covered mostly by Lattimore, and he should be even more effective with Mitchell Trubisky this week. Darnell Mooney will likely struggle against Janoris Jenkins on the opposite side, while Anthony Miller draws a beatable matchup against P.J. Williams in the slot. Mooney finished with 5 catches for 69 yards and a score, while Miller had 8 catches for 73 yards the last time these teams played. An injury to stalwart free safety Marcus Williams hangs over New Orleans as well, and I’m expecting a solid level of production from the Chicago passing game.
On the other side of the ball, the Saints should be enjoying the return of running back Alvin Kamara this week. He’s likely the team’s MVP this season as he finished with an absurd level of production – 1,688 yards from scrimmage and 21 total touchdowns. The Bears are allowing just 4.1 YPC, the eighth-lowest mark in the NFL, but Kamara racked up nine catches for 96 yards the last time these teams played and are a lethal weapon in the passing game. With Drew Brees’s lack of mobility against a stout Chicago pass rush, Kamara’s role as an outlet receiver is very important. The Bears boast Khalil Mack, one of the most talented edge rushers in the NFL who’s raw statistics don’t do justice to how elite of a season he had. Akeim Hicks and Bilal Nichols round out a solid defensive front, while Roquan Smith’s sideline-to-sideline playmaking makes him a force at middle linebacker. Smith racked up 139 tackles, 18 tackles for a loss, 4 sacks, and 6 QB hits this season, making him arguably the team’s MVP.
New Orleans will be hoping to have Michael Thomas back this week as well after his extended stay on the Injured Reserve. with an ankle injury. Veteran Emmanuel Sanders has stepped up with 61 catches for 726 yards and 5 scores in his absence. He racked up 9 catches for 63 yards and a touchdown last week against the Panthers. New Orleans and Thomas would tell you he’s every bit the same record-breaking receiver from the past couple of seasons, and the Saints will need him to step up this week. Michael Thomas oftentimes lines up for the Saints in the slot, an area where the Bears have struggled to defend. Whether it’s been slot corner Duke Shelley, safety Eddie Jackson, or any of the team’s linebackers, they haven’t had a consistent plan for covering receivers in the middle of the field. The last time Michael Thomas faced the Bears, he racked up 9 catches for 131 yards, and Chicago will need to come up with a perfect gameplan to keep him in check.
Drew Brees isn’t the same player at this point in his career, although he did rank sixth in the NFL with a 106.4 passer rating. However, he struggles under pressure, and the Bears will present him with plenty of it. Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk will be hard-pressed to handle Robert Quinn and Khalil Mack on the edges, but they have been one of the better tackle tandems in football this season. Brees will also have his full group of skill players this week for the first time all season in Thomas, Kamara, Sanders, Jared Cook, and Adam Trautman. Sean Payton is a brilliant offensive mind and is going to break down this Chicago defense with the pieces at his disposal. However, I expect the Bears to keep it close given the way their offense has produced and their favorable matchups in the secondary.
Matchup to watch: Michael Thomas vs. Bears’ pass defense (he had 9 catches for 131 yards against them last time)
Chicago Bears: CB Jaylon Johnson (shoulder) Q, CB Buster Skrine (concussion) Q, LB Roquan Smith (elbow) Q, DB Deon Bush (foot) Q, WR Darnell Mooney (ankle) Q, WR Dwayne Harris (triceps) IR eligible to return, OT Bobby Massie (knee) IR eligible to return, K Kai Forbath (ankle) IR eligible to return, K Eddy Pineiro (groin) IR eligible to return
New Orleans Saints: FS Marcus Williams (ankle) Q, TE Josh Hill (hand) Q, WR Michael Thomas (ankle) IR eligible to return, WR Bennie Fowler (shoulder) IR eligible to return, P Blake Gillikin (back) IR eligible to return, CB Patrick Robinson (hamstring) IR eligible to return, RB Alvin Kamara (COVID-19) IR, S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (COVID-19) IR, RB Latavius Murray (COVID-19) IR, S D.J. Swearinger (COVID-19) IR, RB Dwayne Washington (COVID-19) IR, RB Michael Burton (COVID-19) IR
Odds: Saints -9.5, O/U 48
Keys to a Bears win: variable pressure on Drew Brees, find a way to keep Michael Thomas in check, get the ball to Allen Robinson as often as possible
Keys to a Saints win: get Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara back and comfortable, create constant mismatches with Thomas, get Janoris Jenkins on Allen Robinson if possible
My predictions: Saints win 26-20, Bears cover, under 48 points
(11-5) Cleveland Browns @ (12-4) Pittsburgh Steelers
TV Info: 1/10/21, 8:15 PM EST, NBC
In Kevin Stefanski’s first year as the Browns’ head coach, he led the team to an 11-5 record, their first winning record and their first playoff berth since 2007. Their last 11-win season came in 1994. However, Stefanski tested positive for COVID-19 this week and will be unable to coach from the sideline – Mike Priefer will take his place. Three-time Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio, and wide receiver Khadarel Hodge also tested positive, along with two other position coaches.
The biggest strength of this Cleveland team has been their run game – they rank third with 148.4 rushing yards per game and fifth with 21 rushing touchdowns. Nick Chubb led the team with 190 carries for 1,067 yards and 12 touchdowns, while Kareem Hunt added another 198 carries for 841 yards and 6 touchdowns. Hunt was also a force in the receiving game with 38 catches for 304 yards and five scores. In the first meeting between these teams, the Steelers garnered an early lead that relegated the Browns to just 75 rushing yards as a team without Nick Chubb on the field. However, last week Cleveland racked up 31 carries for 192 yards and 2 touchdowns as a team. Chubb is one of the best rushers in football, and the Browns have been a much better team with him active.
The Browns also have one of the best interior offensive lines in the game with Joel Bitonio, J.C. Tretter, and Wyatt Teller, all of whom are among the best players in the NFL at their respective positions. The Steelers have a stout interior defensive line with Cameron Heyward, Tyson Alalu, and Stephon Tuitt, and this matchup in the trenches could decide the matchup. Additionally, Jack Conklin has been one of the best right tackles in football, but he’ll have to be at his best to take on T.J. Watt, a leading DPOY contender. Watt leads the NFL with 15 sacks and 26 tackles for a loss, and he’s one of the best edge rushers in football. On the opposite side, Alex Highsmith has been promoted to a starter following a season-ending injury to Bud Dupree, who had 8 sacks in 11 games. Highsmith will be matched up with Jedrick Wills Jr., as the rookie left tackle who has been hit-or-miss this season. Pittsburgh has racked up 56 sacks, the most in the NFL, while Cleveland has allowed just 26 sacks, the eighth-fewest. This is going to be a fun matchup in the trenches.
Since Odell Beckham Jr.’s season-ending ACL injury, the Browns have had little in the way of consistent pass-catchers. Jarvis Landry leads the team with 72 catches for 840 yards and 3 touchdowns. He’s one of the better slot receivers in football, and he’ll draw a beatable matchup against Mike Hilton of the Steelers. Landry caught 5 balls for 51 yards against the Steelers last week. With Khadarel Hodge likely out after his positive COVID-19 test, Rashard Higgins (37-599-4) and Donovan Peoples-Jones (14-304-2) will handle the outside receiving roles. Tight end Austin Hooper (46-435-4) will likely be heavily involved as well. However, with how productive the Browns’ run game is, there doesn’t need to be a ton of passing volume for their offense to succeed.
The Steelers are not in the same boat. Pittsburgh’s run game has been nonexistent all season – they have just 84.4 rushing yards per game, the fewest in the NFL, and have run for just 3.6 YPC, the lowest mark. James Conner has underwhelmed with just 169 carries for 721 yards and 6 touchdowns through 13 games, while Benny Snell (3.3 YPC) has been even less effective. Rookie Anthony McFarland (3.4 YPC) and Jaylen Samuels (3.1 YPC) haven’t offered much relief. Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro were named to the Pro Bowl, but it was arguably undeserved as the Steelers’ offensive line just hasn’t been the same unit this season. The loss of former offensive line coach Mike Munchak has hurt this team. The Browns have allowed just 110.8 rushing yards per game, the ninth-fewest in the NFL, and it’s hard to expect the Steelers’ ground game to get much traction with Sheldon Richardson locking down the middle of the field. Alejandro Villanueva will be put to the test against Myles Garrett this week, which leads the team with 12 sacks, 48 tackles, and 18 QB hits in just 14 games.
Pittsburgh will be forced to move the ball through the air, something they’ve been effective in doing this season. Ben Roethlisberger completed 65.6% of his passes for 3,803 yards and 33 touchdowns with 10 interceptions during the regular season. JuJu Smith-Schuster (97-831-9), Diontae Johnson (88-923-7), and Chase Claypool (62-873-9) are arguably the most talented trio of receivers in the NFL, and James Washington (30-392-5) has been an X-factor for the team. Greedy Williams is eligible to return from IR for the Browns, and they’ll need him back this week. Denzel Ward, meanwhile, is hopefully going to come off of the COVID-19 IR, and his presence would be massive. The status of these cornerbacks is absolutely crucial heading into Sunday. Slot cornerback Kevin Johnson is also on the COVID-19 IR list, and he would be matched up with Smith-Schuster for most of this game.
The Browns have had a fun run through this season, but their slew of positive COVID-19 tests could not have come at a worse time. The Steelers’ defense has seen its fair share of injuries, but the defensive line group of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alalu, and T.J. Watt is built to challenge the Browns’ biggest strength in their offensive line and run game. With Kevin Stefanski unable to coach this week and Joel Bitonio’s status in doubt, the betting market has been pushed hard in the direction of Pittsburgh. The uncertainty in Cleveland’s secondary is only more of a reason to bet on the Steelers here. The Steelers get the job done at home this week and move onto the next round, but the Browns can hold their heads high, knowing this season was a huge step in the right direction for this long-suffering franchise.
Matchup to watch: Steelers’ defensive line (most sacks, tenth-fewest rushing yards allowed) vs. Browns’ offensive line (eighth-fewest sacks allowed, third-most rushing yards)
Cleveland Browns: C Nick Harris (knee) Q, OT Kendall Lamm (illness) Q, WR Donovan Peoples-Jones (concussion) Q, CB Greedy Williams (shoulder) IR eligible to return, WR Taywan Taylor (neck) IR eligible to return, DE Olivier Vernon (Achilles) O, C Javon Patterson (illness) O, CB Denzel Ward (COVID-19) IR, FS Andrew Sendejo (COVID-19) IR, MLB B.J. Goodson (COVID-19) IR, TE Harrison Bryant (COVID-19) IR, CB Kevin Johnson (COVID-19) IR, LB Malcolm Smith (COVID-19) IR
Pittsburgh Steelers: S Terrell Edmunds (shoulder) Q, K Chris Boswell (groin) Q, TE Zach Gentry (knee) IR eligible to return, LB Robert Spillane (knee) IR eligible to return, RB Trey Edmunds (hamstring) IR eligible to return, CB Joe Haden (COVID-19) IR, TE Eric Ebron (COVID-19) IR, LB Cassius Marsh (COVID-19) IR
Odds: Steelers -5.5, O/U 47
My predictions: Steelers win 28-23, Browns cover, over 47 points