NFL Divisional Round Story Lines: Air Raid QBs, Old QBs and More

Some call the divisional round the NFL’s best weekend of the year, and this year’s four games are full of superstar QBs and intriguing matchups.
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There may not be slime this weekend—unless, of course, you have created some at home, which we very much endorse—and there’s a bit less football to watch than during last week’s 36-hour marathon. Regardless, there is still much to anticipate in this week’s slate of divisional round games. Here are the top four story lines we’ll have our eyes on:

1. Davante Adams vs. Jalen Ramsey

The game hasn’t even been played yet, and you may already be sick of hearing about this matchup. But for good reason: Coaches often say that football is a game of matchups, and there may be no better one-on-one this weekend. The Packers’ Adams has long had the unique distinction of being better-respected among his peers than the general public based on his devastating release and smooth route-running. This year, as the receiver pulled down a career-high 18 touchdowns, he was Aaron Rodgers’s preferred partner in the Packers QB’s likely MVP campaign. Ramsey, on the other hand, has been the back-end complement to Aaron Donald in Brandon Staley’s suffocating Rams defense, regularly blanketing the opponent’s top receiver, including thrice stifling D.K. Metcalf. This promises to be entertaining.

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2. The revenge of the Air Raid QBs

Long dismissed as college confections, Air Raid QBs are having their moment in the NFL. Look no further than the Sunday-afternoon matchup between Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield. Of course, this week’s game has given the sports world license to cite that ridiculous 2016 game between Mahomes’s Texas Tech and Mayfield’s Oklahoma, which Oklahoma won by a 66–59 margin as the teams combined for an absurd 1,708 yards of total offense. But it wasn’t long ago that such a performance would be waved off by NFL evaluators, still stuck on Tim Couch’s stunted NFL career.

3. Our much-awaited Tom Brady–Drew Brees playoff matchup

Some of the anticipation has been tamped down by the fact that Brady and Brees now coexist in the same division and have already played twice this season. But that should not take away from the fact that the 43-year-old and 42-year-old, who spent the previous decade and a half playing in different conferences, have never met in the postseason. Per Elias, their matchup on Sunday will be the first playoff game in which the opposing QBs have a combined 500 regular-season starts. The Saints swept the regular-season series, and I want to acknowledge that I have been peddling the false narrative that it’s hard to beat an opponent three times in one year. To correct this, I would like to cite this excellent work from Football Perspective’s Chase Stuart, who determined that there have been 21 times since the AFL-NFL merger when a team swept an opponent during the regular season then faced them in the playoffs. The sweeping team, Stuart writes, has in fact gone 14–7 in those postseason matchups.

4. Will even Lambeau Field bear home field advantage?

We talked last week about how during this largely fan-less pandemic season, home field advantage did not exist during the regular season for the first time since the 1970 merger. Then, during the first round of the playoffs, road teams won four of the six wild-card contests. All eyes now turn to Lambeau Field, where the Packers have secured home field advantage through the NFC playoffs and this week host an opponent from sunny California. This week’s conditions in Green Bay, though, are forecast to be relatively mild, a far cry from the Ice Bowl.

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5. Young playmakers clash in the AFC

Mayfield is one of three first-round quarterbacks from the 2018 draft playing in the AFC this weekend, and the other two will face each other. Both Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson rebounded from prior playoff disappointments with their first playoff wins. Two of the most exciting playmakers in football now square off—last season's MVP against a guy whose production could make him an MVP in most years. While the Browns have more of a playing-with-house-money feel heading into Arrowhead, the Ravens and Bills have higher expectations. The Bills have not advanced to the AFC title game since the 1993 season, the last of their four straight Super Bowl losses. The Ravens have had more success this century but Jackson has, fairly or unfairly, worn the narrative of his two playoff exits a little harder. Once those elder statesmen in the NFC retire, the league will still be in good hands, with one of these third-year quarterbacks already having a conference championship appearance (at least) under his belt.