National Football League

Breaking Down The NFL Playoffs

January 8

By Geoff Schwartz
FOX Sports NFL analyst

No team has won the Super Bowl without a first-round bye since the Baltimore Ravens in 2012. And for good reason. The bye allows your body to take a physical and — almost more importantly — mental break.

The season is a long haul, and you get the chance to decompress without a playoff game on the first weekend. When you return to work Monday, the team tends to have more purpose. Players have a clearer mind, fresher legs and the excitement that they only need two wins to hoist the conference championship trophy. 

With the expanded playoffs this season, only the top seeds in each conference will get the benefit of the first-round bye.

The Kansas City Chiefs (14-2) are the Super Bowl favorites again after winning it all last season. They clinched the first seed before Week 17 and got to rest their starters Sunday.

The KC offense has regressed as the season has wound down. Now, now, don’t get upset, Chiefs fans. KC's  "bad" games are better than most offense's good games. But I do worry about the champs  just a tad. On defense, the Chiefs continue to be steady. They don’t have the best numbers, in the red zone for example, but they do enough to limit scoring.  They are the favorites for a reason.

The Green Bay Packers remind me of the Kansas City from last season. The Packers, like the 2019 Chiefs, are coming off a loss in the conference championship game. Like the Chiefs last season, the Packers are playing their best football to end the year. Green Bay has a dynamic offense with the likely MVP at quarterback.

Where the Packers are ascending the most is on defense, same as the Chiefs last season. KC's defense was poor for the first half of 2019, but that unit turned it up down the stretch. This is exactly what the Packers defense have done in the second half of this season. They rush the passer and force turnovers, which is all they need to do. Now they get every team coming to Lambeau, which is a huge home-field advantage especially against a dome team like the Saints. 

As for the 12 teams in action on Super Wild Card Weekend, here's a breakdown of the tripleheaders Saturday and Sunday:

Bills quarterback Josh Allen emerged as an MVP candidate, throwing 37 touchdown passes with just 10 picks for the league's No. 2 scoring offense.

No. 7 Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at No. 2 Buffalo Bills (13-3)
AFC Wild Card Game
Saturday, 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS

LINE: Bills by 6.5

Good luck to the Colts with playing the Bills right now. Buffalo is playing the best football in the NFL. They are one "Hail Mary" against the Cardinals away from having won 10 straight. In the last three weeks they’ve won with a point differential of plus-88 and they roared to the No. 2 seed.

Josh Allen is remarkable in the red zone. The Bills QB is so dialed in that it must keep defensive coordinators up all night. The Bills defense, which started slow, is rounding into form. However, I’m a bit concerned they haven’t faced an offense in the top 17 of DVOA since Seattle in Week 9. 

I’m not sure what the Colts are. What do they lean on? What is their calling card. When I watch them I can never tell. They want to run the football. That is clear. And against the Bills that would be advised as their rushing defense is poor.

Phillip Rivers is not to be trusted in this spot. Outside, in the cold, against the Bills. We’ve seen this story before. The Colts will need to rely on their defense to make enough plays. They are a top 10 defense in efficiency and will need to force turnovers to give their offense life. I’m terrified of the Colts closing out a close game, as we’ve seen them struggle to do so. 

Aaron Donald, left, and Russell Wilson know each other very well, with the Rams and Seahawks have split their two regular-season meetings.

No. 6 Los Angeles Rams (10-6) at No. 3 Seattle Seahawks (12-4)
NFC Wild Card Game
Saturday, 4:40 p.m. ET, FOX

LINE: Seahawks by 4.5

The Seattle Seahawks do not play normal games. That’s the best way to summarize their style. They play down to opponents, yet find ways to close out games. The Seahawks' win over the 49ers on Sunday was as ugly as any victory they've had all season, but it’s a win.

The Seattle offense went from high-powered and explosive at the start the season, to the balanced offense Seahawks fans have grown accustomed to under Peter Carroll. Run first, pass second.

Russell Wilson (40 TD passes, 13 interceptions) saves the day after playing it safe the first three quarters. As the season progressed, Wilson stopped throwing deep, which I cannot explain other than he’s worried about turning the ball over. Seattle’s defense has improved with the addition of Carlos Dunlap and a healthy Jamal Adams. However, for Seattle to win multiple playoff games, the offense will need to return to its early season success.

The Los Angeles Rams defense is fantastic. They have the best game-wrecker in the NFL with defensive tackle Aaron Donald. But what makes them one of the game's best units, if not the best, is their pass defense. They excel at defending the pass, especially the deep pass, which limits opposing offenses to try attacking them by slowly driving down the field. That allows Donald to just wreck the offensive game plan. This defense will be ready for Sunday against an NFC West opponent it knows well.

The offense ... well, yikes. Is Jared Goff ready to play after undergoing surgery for a broken thumb on his throwing hand? Is Andrew Whitworth back? Until I have answers, the Rams can't beat the Seahawks.

Tom Brady and the Bucs offense are starting to click, but Tampa Bay is concerned about the health of wide receiver Mike Evans, who was injured in Week 17.

No. 5 Tampa Bay Buccaners (11-5) at No. 4 Washington Football Team (7-9)
NFC Wild Card Game
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, NBC
LINE: Bucs by 7.5

Tampa Bay is peaking at the right. The Bucs offense is finding its footing. They’ve added more pre-snap motion, more play-action passes and Tom Brady (40 TD passes, 12 interceptions) finally looks comfortable in the pocket. The Bucs offensive line will have its hands full with a fierce Washington pass rush, but I like where their offense is heading. Hopefully, Mike Evans can play as well.

On defense, the Bucs should have no concerns with Washington. The goal of any defense with an outstanding offense in the playoffs is just getting some stops and forcing turnovers, something the Bucs can do enough.

Someone had to win the NFC East, and it ended up being Washington. But, man, did the WFT look bad on offense against the Eagles. It’s remarkable how quarterback Alex Smith was able to play this season, let alone reach the postseason. His reconstructed leg is clearly bothering him, but he battled through it Sunday night in Philly. I can't imagine he will play any better against Tampa Bay. Washington will need to win Saturday night with its pass rush and defense. It’s a tough spot to be in.

Derrick Henry rans for 133 yards on 28 carries, including the game-winning touchdown in overtime, as Tennessee won 30-24 in Baltimore in late November.

No. 5 Baltimore Ravens (11-5) at No. 4 Tennessee Titans (11-5)
AFC Wild Card Game
Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC

LINE: Ravens by 3.5

This game is an intriguing rematch of the Titans' stunning upset of the Ravens in the divisional playoffs last year, but the roles are reversed here. The Titans won the AFC South for the first time since 2008, while the Ravens enter as a wild-card team.

The Tennessee offense is outstanding, one of the top four in the NFL right now. Derrick Henry topped 2,000 rushing yards, and Ryan Tannehill continues to be efficient and make the most of his deep shots. While the Titans offense is a well-oiled machine, their defense is, by far, the worst defense of any playoff team. The Titans can’t get stops on third down and don’t rush the passer. Their kicking game is also suspect at times. They need to score in the 30s to beat the Ravens.

There is no team in the NFL that dominates poor opponents like the Ravens. Just look at the last month of the season. Baltimore scored blowout wins against the Cowboys, Jaguars, Giants and Bengals, sandwiched around a thrilling win against the playoff-bound Browns.

The Ravens have slightly redesigned their rushing attack, spreading out defenses and attacking a more wide-open field. With the rushing attacking picking up, Lamar Jackson has gotten back to being more efficient with his downfield passes. On the other side of the ball, we know what the Ravens want to do. They will pressure. They will try to force Tannehill into mistakes.

I’m pumped to see the Ravens in this role, as the underdog and with nothing to lose.

Alvin Kamara, Drew Brees and the Saints escaped Chicago with a 26-23 overtime victory in Week 8.

No. 7 Chicago Bears (8-8) at No. 2 New Orleans (12-4)
NFC Wild Card Game
Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, CBS

LINE: Saints by 8.5

In Drew Brees' first start after breaking 11 ribs and puncturing a lung, the 41-year-old quarterback looked rusty against the Chiefs. Quite frankly he looked at the end of his Hall of Fame career. The overaction was harsh, but as Brees has gotten healthier, the Saints look ready for the playoffs. Their offense is humming along and should get Alvin Kamara back for the game Sunday after he tested positive for COVID-19 and missed Week 17. If Michael Thomas can rejoin the squad, it will add another weapon.

The Saints have an advantage in this game with their ability to rush the passer and defend the pass, both things Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky struggles with. However, the Saints have struggled to close out games the last two postseasons at home. I’m not sure I totally trust them. 

The Bears deserve congratulations for reaching the playoffs. After starting 5-0, then losing six straight, Chicago inserted Trubisky back into the lineup. The Bears lost Trubisky’s return against the Lions, but then easily dispatched three awful teams while scoring 30-plus points. Their three game winning streak came to a crashing halt Sunday after getting blown out by the Packers 35-16.

Green Bay would have scored 42 points, if not for a dropped TD pass. It wasn’t close, but with the Cardinals losing, the Bears snuck into the playoffs. Chicago will struggle mightily against the Saints defense. I’d be surprised if this game stayed under a double-digit win for the Saints. 

Nick Chubb and the Browns squeaked past a patchwork Steelers team to reach the playoffs in Week 17. Now, they get a postseason rematch in Pittsburgh.

No. 6 Cleveland Browns (11-5) at No. 3 Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
AFC Wild Card Game
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, NBC
Line: Steelers by 4.5

The Steelers smartly rested their most critical veterans in Week 17 against the Browns. Pittsburgh hadn’t had a proper bye all season and needed to let veteran quaterback Ben Roethlisberger rest.

The last time we saw the first-string Steelers offense, it looked fantastic in the second half against the Colts. I need to see more than a single half of good football before I declare their offense back. However, the Browns defense is not good. On Sunday, Steelers backup quarterback Mason Rudolph was able to generate explosive plays.

The Steelers' edge in this game is their pressure on defense. Baker Mayfield, like most quarterbacks, does not thrive when getting pressured. Pittsburgh pressures better than any team in the NFL. But Mayfield will feel more than physical pressure in this game. There’s the weight of the entire Cleveland organization resting on his shoulders.

The Browns have been a dumpster fire for years, and now they backed their way into the playoffs with poor performances against the Jets and backup Steelers. The Steelers have owned the Browns since the franchise returned to Cleveland. If the Browns were to win this game, they would exorcise past demons.

These Browns have never played in a game like this, and I expect this to be emotional for them. The Steelers have been there. They know how this goes. I’m excited to watch this matchup.

Geoff Schwartz played nine seasons in the NFL for five different teams. He started at right tackle for the University of Oregon for three seasons and was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection his senior year. He is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports.


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