We survived the regular season, more or less. Here’s hoping your favorite team made it into the draw and has a chance to move forward. If not, I’m sure you’re already poring over scouting reports and draft prospects, looking for that magic bullet that will guarantee 2021 success. Either way, you’re sure to settle in and watch playoff football, because this is where the real fun begins.
Note: This preview concerns the AFC only; I saw no need to delve into the NFL’s lesser conference until they send their marginal rep to the Super Bowl.
Indianapolis Colts @ Buffalo Bills
Saturday, January 9, 1:05 pm, CBS
Dome team means frigid weather team in frigid weather. This seems to happen every year or two, and generally the team that’s most acclimated to harsher elements takes it. In this case, that’s most assuredly the Bills, who’ve used the 2020 season to eradicate the Ghosts of Patriots Past and begin establishing their own legacy. QB Josh Allen has “seen the light”, finally playing like the elite QB he was touted to be a few years ago, and the addition of WR Stefon Diggs via trade has only bolstered his arsenal, giving him one of the most reliable, explosive targets in the league to work with. If the Bills have a flaw on offense, it’s their underwhelming rushing attack, anchored by RB Devin Singletary, who was expected to make more of an impact than he’s delivered. He’s currently splitting carries with rookie RB Zach Moss, and it’s expected Moss will transition into a larger role next season.
Defensively, the Bills are a middle-of-the-pack, at times suspect group, but with an offense that finished second in scoring in the NFL during the regular season, a great defense isn’t always required for team success. The Colts may score a few points, but with venerable (read: old) QB Phillip Rivers winding down his career and few recognizable names at the skill positions beyond holdover WR T.Y. Hilton, it’s tough to imagine they’ll be able to contend with Buffalo’s offensive capabilities. The Colts play very good defense at times, led by stalwart LB Darius Leonard, but I just can’t see them slowing the Bills’ attack enough to make a difference.
John Cocktoasten: Colts 24, Bills 21
Me: Colts 24, Bills 35
Baltimore Ravens @ Tennessee Titans
Sunday, January 10, 1:05 pm, ABC/ESPN
New year, same matchup, albeit in Nashville this time, although given the general lack of spectators this year, I’m not sure how much difference locations will make. The usual storylines and speculation are circulating – Ravens QB Lamar Jackson can’t win a playoff game, the Titans are in the Ravens’ heads, Titans’ RB Derrick Henry can’t be stopped, plus myriad other half-truths, suppositions and meanderings. Simply put, this is another chance for Jackson and the Ravens to redeem themselves after last January’s embarrassing loss in Baltimore, and they may be able to do it, given their relative health and current momentum.
The biggest difference? Lack of pressure. Jackson’s performances lately have given fans the impression he’s having a lot of fun just playing football, as he’s seemingly been given approval to operate the offense based on his instincts, rather than forcing him to adhere to a rigid system. Jackson’s game is based primarily on his unpredictable and uncanny ability to escape pressure and produce yards – sometimes lots of them – on seemingly broken plays. I would posit the pressure is far less on Jackson than it is the Ravens’ defense, who have surrendered an average of 161 rushing yards to Henry alone in each of their last two games against the Titans, and who repeatedly failed to tackle Tennessee’s wideouts effectively, particularly in the red zone. With a healthy secondary, the Ravens should be able to shore up their suspect pass defense, but the onus is on them to contain Henry, and they have yet to prove they can.
The Titans’ defense, simply put, isn’t very good, and if Jackson and company can consistently move the ball, they have an honest shot of stealing this one. Given the mental edge the Titans seemingly hold over the Ravens currently, though, it remains to be seen if they will.
John Cocktoasten: Titans 30, Ravens 23
Me: Titans 24, Ravens 31
Cleveland Browns @ Pittsburgh Steelers
Sunday, January 10, 8:15 pm, NBC
Deja vu and all that. It’s been less than a week since these teams squared off in Cleveland, but it can be safely assumed that game bears little resemblance to this one in terms of personnel. The Steelers return QB Ben Roethlisberger to the starting lineup in hopes his late-season fade simply required a bit of rest to rejuvenate him, in addition to returnees C Maurkice Pouncey, LB T.J. Watt and DE Cam Heyward. Needless to say, these players alone change the complexion of this game significantly and require the Browns to rely little on what they saw last week.
With Roethlisberger, the Steelers will resume their typical offensive balance of approximately 70% pass/30% rush, due mostly to their deficiencies at RB. The Browns are missing their best CB in Denzel Ward due to COVID-19, so this circumstance plays directly to Pittsburgh’s current strength. The Browns will counter offensively with their excellent rushing attack, led by bruising RB Nick Chubb, but even that may be difficult with Pro Bowl G Joel Bitonio also apparently sidelined for COVID-19 considerations. Add in head coach Kevin Stefanski suffering the same fate, and this looks quite problematic for the Browns, who by rights should be celebrating their first playoff appearance since…some time ago.
Regardless, the Browns defied a lot of naysayers to get here, and I wouldn’t expect this to be the Pittsburgh walkover some fans are predicting. There’s always the element of familiarity between division rivals, and it can manifest itself in curious ways in the playoffs, such as knowing which way a WR prefers to turn when running routes, or preferred rushing gaps to cover. As with any typical AFCN game, this could go either way, although from this author’s perspective, it probably won’t.
John Cocktoasten: Browns 20, Steelers 27
Me: Browns 27, Steelers 34
See y’all there.