The A.F.C.’s young quarterbacks fight for a trip to the conference championship, while veterans, and defense, lead the way in the N.F.C.
Few thought the Los Angeles Rams or the Cleveland Browns would get this far, and the Buffalo Bills had far more success than could be expected. The Baltimore Ravens stormed back into contention, a pair of 40-something quarterbacks will face off in New Orleans and everyone is (or should be) scared of the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs. The wheat has been separated from the chaff, and the divisional round will narrow things further.
Here is a look at this weekend’s N.F.L. playoff matchups. Unlike in the regular season, the picks are not made against the point spread.
Los Angeles Rams at Green Bay Packers, 4:35 p.m., Fox
Line: Packers -6.5 | Total: 45.5
Much will be made about the relationship between Coach Sean McVay of the Rams and Coach Matt LaFleur of the Packers. LaFleur served as McVay’s offensive coordinator in 2017, and they were offensive assistants together on Washington’s staff from 2010 to 2013. They are key figures in an offensive revolution, but if you are hoping for a high-scoring affair, you might want to try another game.
Green Bay led the N.F.L. in scoring thanks to a turn-the-clock-way-back season from Aaron Rodgers that has him in contention for the Most Valuable Player Award. His success came with help from the running of Aaron Jones (1,459 yards from scrimmage), the vertical threat of Marquez Valdes-Scantling (20.9 yards per reception) and the all-around brilliance of Davante Adams (115 catches, 1,374 yards and 18 touchdowns).
But if there is a team designed to slow the Packers, it is the Rams.
Few defenses can match the relentless pass rush of Aaron Donald and Leonard Floyd, and while Rodgers does not fluster easily, the few times he has shown weakness in recent years have come when he is under consistent pressure. Complicating matters is the absence of the star left tackle David Bakhtiari, whose season ended with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Week 16.
Jones could be neutralized by a Rams front seven that ranked third in the N.F.L. in run defense — yes, Donald leads the way there too. Green Bay relying on the home run threat of Valdes-Scantling is risky thanks to his propensity for dropped passes.
That leaves the most intriguing matchup as the one between the shutdown cornerback Jalen Ramsey and Adams, who can make a case as the N.F.L.’s best, and most underappreciated, current receiver.
“You know me, I’d like to go against anybody and have good-on-good as much as possible,” Adams said this week when asked about Ramsey.
On neutral ground, and with equal health, this could add up to a Rams upset. But Green Bay fought hard to gain the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and that hard work could be the team’s saving grace. It is expected to be around 30 degrees at kickoff in Green Bay, Wis., and Rams quarterback Jared Goff is only a few weeks removed from surgery on the thumb of his throwing hand. He appeared to struggle with his grip last week, and the cold, combined with a good-enough Packers defense, should give Green Bay all the edge it needs. Pick: Packers
Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills, 8:15 p.m., NBC
Line: Bills -2.5 | Total: 50
The Ravens have not lost a game since Dec. 2. The Bills have not lost one since Nov. 15. Both have weatherproof offenses and defenses capable of game-changing plays. And both overcame some psychological weight in the wild-card round — Buffalo got its first postseason victory since the 1995 season; Lamar Jackson of the Ravens won a playoff game for the first time.
There are myriad reasons to pull for both teams — and a persistent belief that either team advancing is just signing up to lose to Kansas City in the next round — but it is hard to believe that Buffalo, even at home, can slow Baltimore’s juggernaut running game.
When the Ravens hit the “reset button” after a midseason lull, the team focused nearly all of its attack on the running of quarterback Lamar Jackson and running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards. That led to Baltimore’s rushing for 230 or more yards in four of its final five games of the regular season, including a ludicrous 404 — the fifth-most rushing yards in N.F.L. history — in a Week 17 win over Cincinnati. That kept up in the wild-card round, with the Ravens running for 236 yards.
Buffalo ranked 17th in run defense this season, but that ranking would have been worse had teams not been forced to pass to keep up with the Bills’ electric offense. That shows up in the fact that Buffalo ranked among the N.F.L.’s six worst run defenses in yards per carry (4.6) and rushing touchdowns allowed (21).
The Bills’ defense has several players capable of serious disruption, but much of that comes in the secondary. On a chilly day in Orchard Park, N.Y., the Ravens could focus on running the ball, and it is hard to see the Bills being able to stop them. Buffalo’s offense can’t be counted out, even against a solid Ravens defense, but Baltimore should control the clock and the game. Pick: Ravens
Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs, 3:05 p.m., CBS
Line: Chiefs -10 | Total: 56.5
For all intents and purposes, Cleveland advanced to the divisional round after slightly more than 13 minutes of its wild-card game against Pittsburgh. A playoff game has rarely gone sideways so quickly, with the Browns’ defense forcing three quick turnovers and their offense handling its end of the deal by running up a 28-0 lead with 1 minute 56 seconds left in the first quarter.
The Browns’ 48-37 win should not be written off as a fluke — Cleveland has its best team since Coach Bill Belichick was roaming the sideline in the mid-1990s — but taking advantage of Ben Roethlisberger’s mistakes is a lot different from forcing Patrick Mahomes into some, so expecting a repeat of that lightning-fast start would be foolish.
Kansas City might get running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire back from a scary-looking hip injury in Week 15. Even if they don’t, a combination of Le’Veon Bell and Damien Williams provides enough balance that Mahomes should be able to shred Cleveland’s secondary with deep passes to wide receiver Tyreek Hill and throws underneath to tight end Travis Kelce.
Cleveland’s offense has occasionally shown some burst — last week’s effort was the franchise’s highest-scoring postseason game since the 1954 N.F.L. championship — and the Browns can chew up the clock thanks to the superb combination of running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. But even Baker Mayfield’s most ardent believers should struggle to take him in a head-to-head matchup with Mahomes. The Browns aren’t pushovers, but they probably cannot do much to stand in Kansas City’s way. Pick: Chiefs
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints, 6:40 p.m., Fox
Line: Saints -3 | Total: 52
The oldest starting quarterback left in the A.F.C. playoffs is Baker Mayfield, who doesn’t turn 26 until April. Three of the four starters in that conference were first-round picks in the 2018 draft. By the time any of the four had started a game in the N.F.L., Tom Brady had already won five Super Bowls and Drew Brees was closing in on Dan Marino’s record for career passing yards.
The young players have largely reimagined the quarterback position, using their mobility to empower their passing while contributing to a leaguewide scoring explosion. Yet Brady and Brees, museum-quality examples of a forgotten age of pocket passers, carry on, leading serious Super Bowl contenders in the second week of the playoffs.
In truth, this game shouldn’t be defined just by its famous quarterbacks. Brees’s Saints had plenty of offense this season — running back Alvin Kamara led the N.F.L. with 21 total touchdowns — but relied just as much on the defense, which Dennis Allen, the team’s defensive coordinator, built into a powerhouse.
Tampa Bay has a talented young defense as well — the support on that side of the ball undoubtedly played a role in Brady’s decision to sign there — and in recent weeks, the Buccaneers have started to truly click on offense. The team’s wealth of receiving options — wide receivers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown; tight end Rob Gronkowski — powered Brady to his best statistical season since at least 2017 and one of the best of his career.
The regular-season meetings between these teams were laughable. The Saints won both, with a combined score of 72-26. And they are playing at home, which plays a role for them even if the impact is lessened by the tiny crowds that the team is allowed to host. The Buccaneers are a good enough team that they should be respected — in many ways, this feels like a tossup — but the Saints are rightly narrow favorites in what could be the most competitive game of the weekend. Pick: Saints.
All times are Eastern.