National Football League

Picture-Perfect Playoff Pairings

6 days ago

By Geoff Schwartz
FOX Sports NFL analyst

Super Wild Card Weekend started with a fabulous contest, and it ended with a shocking upset.

Our perfect weekend of the best quarterbacks in the NFL was taken from us, but nonetheless, these matchups are fantastic for divisional weekend. 

No. 6 Los Angeles Rams at No. 1 Green Bay Packers
NFC Divisional Playoff
Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET, FOX

FOX BET LINE: Packers by 7

What a gutty win for the Rams in Seattle. Jared Goff did not start after undergoing hand surgery, but he was listed as the backup quarterback. It’s possible to view that as Goff being benched for John Wolford, but that didn’t hurt Goff’s confidence.

When Wolford was injured on the Rams' second drive of the game, Goff was pressed into action. It wasn’t a pretty box score, with Goff completing just 9 of 19 passes for 155 yards and a touchdown. But after getting three screws inserted into the thumb on his throwing hand just a week before, his performance was excellent.

While the Rams offense did enough, their defense was incredible. LA sacked Russell Wilson five times, hit him five other times, and forced him to hurry 19 throws. And the Rams did this without Defensive Player of the Year candidate Aaron Donald for a good part of the second half.

Their top ranked passing defense harassed Wilson and held him to his worst efficiency game of the season. The Rams will need that pass defense against Saturday.

The Green Bay Packers have an elite offense, and I can’t wait for this matchup pitting Aaron Rodgers against the NFL's No. 1 defense. The Rams will desperately need Donald to be healthy (it appears he will be) because even with the LA pass defense being elite, they must pressure Rodgers.

This game also features the best one-on-one matchup of the weekend. Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey will square off with Packers receiver Davante Adams in a battle of All-Pros. They are two of the best at their positions, and they likely will be head-to-head all game.

The Rams must attack the Packers rushing defense, which is not good enough to "win" them a game. If the Rams can slow up the Packers passing attack, they can win their way on offense. The strategy will feature smart and safe passes for Goff and running the fooball behind rookie Cam Akers

No. 5 Baltimore Ravens at No. 2 Buffalo Bills
AFC Divisional Playoff
Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET, CBS

FOX BET LINE: Bills by 2.5

The Ravens started slowly on offense against the Titans, and we all got that familiar feeling. It looked as if Baltimore's playoff offense was back, and their run-heavy attack again would stall in the postseason.

That all ended with Lamar Jackson’s 48-yard touchdown run where he put on the after-burners.

Baltimore's passing attack is just so limited that it hampers the overall success of the offense if they can’t run for first downs. But, luckily for them, the Bills rushing defense is really poor, and I think the Ravens have a great edge here. 

The most impressive aspect of the Ravens' performance in Tennessee was their defense. They held a Titans offense that scored the second-most points in the AFC to just 13. They dominated the line of scrimmage and forced Derrick Henry into an awful day. They hit and harassed Ryan Tannehill as well.

Slowing down the Buffalo offense will be an even bigger challenge, as quarterback Josh Allen can make rushers miss, and the Bills have receivers who can win against man-to-man coverage. I do worry about Allen turning erratic at the end of games when things get close. We saw that appear at the end of their victory over the Colts.

If the Ravens can force Allen into turnovers, they can win this game. 

No. 6 Cleveland Browns at No. 1 Kansas City Chiefs
AFC Divisional Playoff
Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET, CBS

FOX BET LINE: Chiefs by 10

The Cleveland Browns scored a stunning upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night. The Browns scored 28 points in the first quarter and held on for a 48-37 victory. The Browns had everything go right. On the first play of the game, the Steelers center snapped the ball 15 yards over the QB's head and the Browns eventually fell on it in the end zone for a quick touchdown.

Cleveland intercepted multiple passes off tips, including one by a defensive lineman laying all the way out. And the Browns did this without head coach Kevin Stefanski and several other staff members, as they missed the game due to COVID-19 protocol.

The Browns weren’t able to meet as a group and get on the practice field until late in the week. It’s worth pointing out that because the Steelers are a familiar divisional opponent, this style of preparation can work. If the Browns were playing a team they hadn’t faced all season, I’d worry more about the lack of practice time. Now the question is whether the Browns can carry over this play against the defending Super Bowl champions.

The Kansas City Chiefs are the far better team. There’s no question about that. The Browns entered this game ranked 18th in DVOA, while the Chiefs are sixth. The Browns defense is suspect, and the Chiefs should be able to score at will. KC is rested, healthy, and ready to make another run to a Super Bowl.

The Chiefs could lose, of course, but only if they play down to the Browns, or turn it over multiple times like the Steelers did. Many of the Steelers' errors were unforced, coming off poor throws by Ben Roethlisberger, which is something Patrick Mahomes doesn’t often do.

The Browns have an advantage with their rushing attack and red-zone offense, but once again, they must outscore the Chiefs. Rushing the ball does not beat the Chiefs. 

No. 5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers at No. 2 New Orleans Saints
NFC Divisional Playoff
Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET, FOX

FOX BET LINE: Saints by 3

These NFC South rivals meet for the third time this season. The first two games were Saints' blowouts — a decisive win on opening night in New Orleans and then a 38-3 shellacking eight weeks later in Tampa Bay. I would not fault anyone who believes this Sunday will produce the same result. However, this Tampa Bay team is nothing like the team the Saints saw in the first half of the season. 

The Bucs have found their identity on offense. Finally. It took almost three months, but coach Bruce Arians has found his rhythm. No longer is the offense just stubbornly making Tom Brady attempt throws he struggles with. They’ve started to hit teams with a heavy dose of play-action passes, an approach that plays to Brady's strengths. They’ve also used more motion to allow Brady to read the defense.

The Bucs offensive line continues to play well. They should have had three players make the All-Pro team. This unit must play better than their first two contests against the Saints. Tampa Bay’s defense is good on paper and even with advanced stats, but every time I watch them play, I feel unsatisfied. They allowed Taylor Heinicke to rip them apart in the Wild Card round. Washington receivers were open all over, and the young QB used his legs to make plays. 

New Orleans beat a bad Bears team Sunday. The Saints have a mental block in the playoffs. They’ve yet to win more than one playoff game in a year since they won the Super Bowl in 2010. They don’t look like the same offense when play tightens up in the postseason. I don’t have a great reason why, but their offensive output numbers take a dip.

Add in Sean Payton’s odd obsession with using Taysom Hill at quarterback, and I do not trust them Sunday. The Saints might have the most talented team in the NFL, but they don’t always play like it. 

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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