SUNDAY’S GOLD JACKET GAME
BALTIMORE (11-5) @ TENNESSEE (11-5), 1:05 p.m. (EST)
The line: Ravens by 3
The weather: Partly cloudy, high of 43
The story: This should be all about Derrick Henry and how the Ravens plan to derail the league’s latest 2,000-yard back and the guy who sent them home for January a year ago. And it is just that. But I believe it’s something more … something about how Ravens’ Lamar Jackson handles another playoff game. The guy hasn’t beaten the Titans in two games the past calendar year, including the 2019 playoffs, and is 0-2 in the postseason. The book on Jackson is that he can’t win big games nor win coming from behind. This is his chance to dispel that reputation … and good luck. King Henry is waiting. And let’s be honest: He’s the key. If he runs all over Baltimore, just as he did a year ago, the Titans control the clock, move the chains and keep their porous defense off the field. Moreover, maybe, just maybe, they get out in front … and we all know what can happen then.
Something to consider: The Titans accumulated 400 or more yards in six of their past seven games. That’s the good news. Here’s the bad: They allowed an NFL-worst 36 TD passes.
TWO MORE TO KEEP YOU ON BED REST
CHICAGO (8-8) @ NEW ORLEANS (12-4), 4:40 p.m. (EST)
The line: Saints by 10
The weather: Dome
The story: Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Patrick Robinson and Deonte Harris were all activated to the Saints’ roster Saturday, and that's good for New Orleans. Not so good for the Bears. The Saints are home vs. an opponent that lost as many as it won, will be without star linebacker Roquan Smith (elbow) and isn’t really sold on its quarterback. What are we missing here? Nothing. With Kamara cleared from COVID protocol, New Orleans has the NFL's leading touchdown maker. With Thomas, it has one of its elite receivers. With Drew Brees, it has one of the game's top quarterbacks. Ever. Put them together, and you have a potential beatdown in the making.
Something to consider: Over the past six games, the Bears’ David Montgomery averages 99.7 yards a game and 5.15 yards per carry.
CLEVELAND (11-5) @ PITTSBURGH (12-4), 8:15 p.m. (EST)
The weather: Steelers by 6
The line: Partly cloudy, high of 41
The story: Cleveland held off the Steelers last week to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2002 … when it met the Steelers in the playoffs at Heinz Field. One difference: That team wasn’t playing two opponents. This one is. The Steelers. And the pandemic. The past two weeks their building has been closed off and on because of COVID. Two weeks ago, they played without their four top receivers. Last weekend they were missing assistant coaches. Now it’s Coach Kevin Stefanski who’s the latest to test positive for COVID. He won’t make it to the game, but special teams coordinator Mike Priefer will. He’s the Browns’ interim coach and good luck. At last count, there were six coaches and nine players on COVID isolation. Yeah, I know, the Steelers lost four of their last five to limp into January, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s injured knee is a bigger concern than anyone admits. But they rested starters last week, Big Ben is 15-0 vs. Cleveland at home, their coach, Mike Tomlin, isn’t sidelined by coronavirus and Browns’ quarterback Baker Mayfield didn’t throw a ball in practice until Friday. Hard not to like the Steelers here.
Something to consider: This is the third time the Steelers will have met an opponent in the same season, and Pittsburgh is 10-1 in those games – including twice vs. the Browns (1994 and 2002).
OUR BEST BETS
(All picks are made vs. the spread only)
CLARK JUDGE – New Orleans (--10). Call it the Big Easy (season record: 7-11).
RON BORGES – New Orleans (--10). I don’t like that 10-point spread. But I like the Bears less (season record: 13-5).
RICK GOSSELIN – New Orleans (--10). The league’s fourth-best defense vs. its 26th-best offense (season record: 10-8).
FIVE GUYS TO WATCH
1. BEN ROETHLISBERGER, QB, Pittsburgh. The guy is 15-0 vs. Cleveland at home. With another victory, he ties Peyton Manning, John Elway and Terry Bradshaw for the third-most playoff wins by a quarterback (14). Only Tom Brady (30) and Joe Montana (16) have more.
2. JARED COOK, TE, New Orleans. His 22 touchdown receptions since 2018 rank second among tight ends.
3. BAKER MAYFIELD, QB, Cleveland. With a victory he becomes the first quarterback chosen with the No. 1 draft pick to win his first playoff start since Alex Smith did it in 2011.
4. MYLES GARRETT, DE, Cleveland. He aims for his fourth consecutive game vs. Pittsburgh with a sack.
5. MARLON HUMPHREY, CB, Baltimore. He led the team with eight pass deflections and led the NFL with a career-best eight forced fumbles.
THE WEEKEND OMG
Beware, Tennessee. History is not kind to playoff teams with 2,000-yard rushers. There have been eight backs to run for 2K, including the Titans’ Derrick Henry this season, and all but one (Terrell Davis, 1998) failed to win their playoff openers that season. Of the two others, two didn’t reach the playoffs – O.J. Simpson (1973) and Chris Johnson (2009) – while Eric Dickerson (1984), Barry Sanders (1997), Jamal Lewis (2003) and Adrian Peterson (2012) lost their playoff openers.
THE WEEKEND OMG II
The Steelers are one of 12 teams in the Super Bowl era to start the season 11-0. Of the 11 others, all but two advanced to Super Bowls. And the two that did not? The 2011 Green Bay Packers and the 2005 Indianapolis Colts each lost in the divisional round.
THE WEEKEND OMG III
Watch out for visitors. Including Saturday's results, road teams the past two seasons won eight of 11 wild-card playoff games. Dating back to the 2017 playoffs, road teams are 10-5 in wild-card contests.
THEY SAID IT
“Over the course of a week you’d be surprised what we can do. We are looking forward to the challenge.” – Chicago LB Khalil Mack on meeting New Orleans.
“This could be a defining postseason.” – Baltimore offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
“If I got breath in my body, I’m gonna play.” – injured Tennessee WR A.J. Brown.
“I will address the team the night before the game like I normally do. Once it is game time and in that locker room, coach Priefer will be serving that role. I have a ton of faith in him.” – Cleveland coach Kevin Stefanski on how the Browns will approach Sunday’s game without him.
FIVE NUMBERS THAT MATTER
4 -- Times that Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and New Orleans won this season after trailing by 10 or more points. The three led the league in that department. Pittsburgh and Kansas City led the league with four wins each after trailing at the half.
17 -- T.J. Watt forced fumbles since 2017, the most in the NFL during that time. He’s also the only active player to have 13 or more sacks in each of the past three seasons.
73 – Consecutive games in which Pittsburgh has a sack, an NFL record.
150 – Yards needed by Tennessee running back Derrick Henry to tie Hall-of-Famer Terrell Davis for most games (4) with 150 or more yards rushing in playoff games.
2,362 – Combined scrimmage yards for Cleveland’s Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
TEN THINGS YOU PROBABLY SHOULD REMEMBER
1. There are seven teams in this year’s playoffs that weren’t there a year ago: Indianapolis, Chicago, Tampa Bay, Washington, the L.A. Rams, Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Since 1990, at least four teams each year qualified for the playoffs after missing the postseason the previous season.
2. Winners of wild-card round games have won the Super Bowl nine times.
3. Five teams averaged 30 or more points this season, and four play this weekend. They are Buffalo (31.3), Tampa Bay (30.8), Tennessee (30.7) and New Orleans (30.1). The fifth is the Green Bay Packers (31.8). There have never been five teams averaging 30 or more points in NFL history.
4. The Baltimore-Tennessee game marks the first time that teams have met in consecutive postseasons since Carolina played Arizona and Seattle in the 2014-15 playoffs.
5. Only two teams were unbeaten in their divisions this season: Buffalo and New Orleans. Each was 6-0.
6. The Steelers forced multiple turnovers in 11 games this season, most in the NFL.
7. Pittsburgh allowed the fewest sacks this season (14) and had one five-game span where it surrendered none.
8. Chicago allowed 30 touchdowns in its last 10 games. It allowed just nine in its first six.
9. The Tennessee-Baltimore game features the top two rushing teams in the NFL. Baltimore led the league with an average 191.9, yards, while the Titans were second at 168.1. The two teams each scored 20 or more rushing TDs in each of the past two seasons, while averaging at least 4.99 yards per attempt. Only the 1953-54 San Francisco 49ers accomplished that.
10. In five of the previous eight seasons, the NFC West represented the conference in the Super Bowl.