Last week’s wild card round was…wild, culminating in unlikely outcomes, depending on your preferred narratives for each game. The Browns slayed their decades-old dragon in the form of Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field with barely ten seconds off the game clock, establishing a lead via fumble over the Steelers they never came close to relinquishing. The Ravens were supposedly too psyched out and bedraggled by the Titans to offer much resistance, especially in the playoffs, but resist they did, to the tune of Titans mammoth RB Derrick Henry’s 40 rushing yards. As clutch as the Ravens offense was, their defense deserves the real accolades in finally exposing the significant offensive issues Tennessee has if their rushing attack isn’t working. Both the Browns and Ravens acquitted themselves well and showed they “belong” in this year’s divisional round. Both are facing the AFC’s top seeds this week, so it’ll be interesting to see whether last weeks’ success was fleeting, or if each team has established something to build on during their respective playoff runs.
Baltimore Ravens @ Buffalo Bills
Saturday, January 16, 8:15 pm, NBC
Yesterday’s admission by Ravens QB Lamar Jackson that he’d never played in the snow can’t be playing well in Baltimore, given the current 40% chance of wind/snow/freezing rain in Buffalo Saturday night. Jackson’s game is obviously modeled on his ability to improvise through his considerable rushing skills, and any amount of slipping and sliding could be catastrophic to any game plan that demands establishing the run first, as Baltimore usually does. Jackson is not without some formidable weapons, of course – rookie RB J.K. Dobbins provided some exciting moments last week and may do so again against a middling Buffalo rush defense, and for the last five weeks, WR Marquise Brown has been quietly playing the best football of his short career – but the focus is and always will be on Jackson, whose jaw-dropping TD rush in the second quarter last week evened the score for the Ravens and effectively paralyzed the Titans’ defense for the rest of the game. Should the Bills or the weather fail to contain Jackson, he could have a similar, galvanizing effect on this game, and the Bills surely know it.
Conversely, Buffalo’s offense is not to be discounted either. Whether you believe QB Josh Allen’s 2020 turnaround is a fluke, or he’s truly established himself among the games’ elite, his MVP-caliber numbers are undeniable, as is his arm strength and mobility. The Bills have one of the premier passing attacks in the NFL – a necessity, as their rushing numbers have fallen off significantly this year – and are able to attack through the air from almost any angle with WRs Stefon Diggs, John Brown and Cole Beasley. Allen in particular poses issues for the pass rush, as he’s mobile enough to escape trouble with his legs, yet big and strong enough to have to tackle effectively inside and outside the pocket. Allen’s protection this season has been good, and he’s been able to strengthen it himself by staying disciplined and sensing pocket movement accordingly.
All of which – the weather, the advantages of the offenses – obviously makes the Bills’ and Ravens’ defenses paramount in stopping the opposing QB. I expect the Bills to employ a similar defensive game plan as other teams that have beaten the Ravens, which, as noted here previously, involves playing a mid-range zone and staying rigid within it, while assigning a spy to shadow Jackson out of the backfield (it should be noted this strategy failed last week in Tennessee, as Jackson simply outran his spy each time he departed the pocket). The Ravens will most likely play a typical mix of man and zone coverages, depending on down and distance. As Allen can attack most coverages effectively, the level of the Ravens’ defensive aggressiveness will depend on their urgency to score.
Reglidan: Ravens 37, Bills 27
Me: Ravens 31, Bills 28
Cleveland Browns @ Kansas City Chiefs
Sunday, January 17, 3:05 PM, CBS
Analyzing the Chiefs almost seems superfluous at this point. Last season’s Super Bowl winners, the Chiefs haven’t been playing their best football lately and still have a maddening tendency to fall behind, sometimes significantly, early in games, although that circumstance has had little effect on their record. After a week off, it’s assumed the Chiefs are rested and ready to resume dominating opponents, often in humiliating fashion. QB Pat Mahomes will supply his typical diet of pinpoint passes to multiple, equally-frightening targets, supplemented by Kansas City’s three-RB-deep rushing attack, to many scores. Very simply, it’s the most dangerous offense in the NFL, and they will score points; it’s obviously on the Browns’ defense to attempt some way, however daunting, to slow the Chiefs down.
One way to do this is on offense, where the Browns, finally at full strength after COVID-19-induced absences and nagging injuries, have the personnel to control the clock for long periods – an absolute necessity if they have any hope of winning Sunday. Both of the Browns’ excellent RBs shined last week against a good Steelers defense; it’s expected they would have a similar effect on Kansas City, but it will require a marked commitment to the running game, even if they fall behind early. Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski surely knows this; he’s renowned for his play-action schemes, and few backs are more capable of establishing it than bruiser RB Nick Chubb, who will probably get the majority of available carries this week, if only to tire out the Chiefs’ defense a bit. The Browns will score, but can they score enough, in enough time, to edge this out over the best offense in the league?
This game, like most playoff contests, will turn on the respective defenses. Again, the Browns should be at full strength, and they’ll need it in the secondary, which welcomes back CBs Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson. Despite his injury history, Ward remains the Browns’ best DB, so his presence can’t be understated in terms of his importance Sunday. Kansas City will most likely counter with a balanced run/pass defense, situationally moving defenders closer to the line of scrimmage, likely on early downs, to slow the Cleveland rushing attack. If Browns QB Baker Mayfield can read when this occurs, he could make life difficult for the Kansas City secondary by forcing them to react to his changes.
I don’t see this as a “gimme” for the Chiefs. This one could come down to more coaching brinksmanship than expected.
Reglidan: Browns 27, Chiefs 42
Me: Browns 24, Chiefs 30
See y’all there.