GOLD JACKET GAME OF THE WEEKEND
TAMPA BAY (12-5) @ NEW ORLEANS (13-4), Sunday, 6:40 p.m. (EST)
The line: Saints by 3
The weather: Dome
The story: Welcome to the Senior Bowl, where you don’t get to play quarterback unless you’re 42. The Saints’ Drew Brees is. He turned 42 Friday. Tom Brady isn’t. He’s 43. Together he and Brees comprise the oldest combination of starting quarterbacks in NFL history. They also happen to be first and second in a slew of career NFL passing categories, including most touchdown passes and most yards. Of course, Brady’s 31 playoff wins are almost twice as many as his closest pursuer, Hall-of-Famer Joe Montana (16), too. But it’s not wins, yards or TD passes that separate these two here. It’s defenses. The Saints are better defending the pass than the Bucs, and if you watched what XFLer Taylor Heinicke did to the Bucs last weekend you know what I’m talking about. Tampa hasn’t beaten New Orleans this year, coming out on the wrong end of a 72-26 ledger in two games. Worse, the Bucs were torched in the second meeting, scoring 38 points before Tampa responded with a field goal to avert the shutout. Yes, Brady is better now. Yes, his offense is rolling. And, yes, you trust him in games of this stature. But it’s hard to trust a Tampa Bay defense that kept the WFT in last weekend’s wildcard game until the end. If the Bucs lose, it won’t be because of Tom Terrific. It will be because Brees and the Saints exposed their defense … again.
Something to consider: Brees has the most passing yards per game (307.8) of any quarterback in NFL history (minimum five games). Brees, who had four TDs and no interceptions the last time these two met, aims for his fourth straight game vs. Tampa Bay with two or more TD passes and no picks.
THREE OTHERS WE CAN’T HELP BUT WATCH
L.A. RAMS (11-6) @ GREEN BAY (13-3), Saturday, 4:35 p.m.
The line: Packers by 7
The weather: Mostly cloudy, high of 33
The story: If defense wins championships, the Packers are in trouble. The Rams led the league in fewest points allowed (18.5 per game), fewest yards (281.9 per game), fewest passing yards (197.2 per game) and were second in sacks with 53. But this is Green Bay, and this is Aaron Rodgers … and the weather will be cold and Rodgers could be hot. Heck, he led the league with 48 TD passes and a 121.5 passer rating and is the league’s presumptive MVP. But it’s not Rodgers who’s the key here. It’s Rams’ quarterback Jared Goff. He’s going to start for the first time in three games, and he’s going to play with a fractured thumb. That’s a problem. So is this: His top receiver, Cooper Kupp, is hurt, listed as questionable with a knee injury. Then there’s defensive tackle Aaron Donald, so good that former quarterback Troy Aikman said he might be the best ever to play defense. I don’t know about that. What I do know is that he and teammate Leonard Floyd can make life miserable for Rodgers by pressuring the pocket and keeping the Rams in the game. The same goes for cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who should be locked up on Davante Adams. What I don’t know is the severity of Donald’s injury. He’ll play. But how effective will he be? An outcome may depend on that answer.
Something to consider: The Packers scored touchdowns on 80 percent (48 of 60) of their red-zone possessions this season. They also won eight of their past nine starts, including the past six.
BALTIMORE (12-5) @ BUFFALO (14-3), Saturday, 8:15 p.m. (EST)
The line: Bills by 2-1/2
The weather: Few snow showers, high of 37
The story: Buffalo has become America’s Team, with people who aren’t pulling for the Browns rooting for Buffalo. And I get it. Like Cleveland, a great fan base. Like the Dawg Pound, they’ve been down for longer than most. But the Bills are the AFC’s second seed now and a favorite to advance to their first conference championship game since 1993, and it’s easy to see why. They’re on a roll, winning their last seven and 10 of the past 11; they have Josh Allen and they’re home. One problem: They draw an opponent that’s hot, too, with Ravens winning their last six. Worse, Baltimore is best where the Bills are worst, and that’s the run. The Ravens led the league in rushing this season and average a whopping 296.3 yards per their last three starts. Moreover, they are the only team with three players who each produced more than 700 yards rushing this season. And the Bills? They were gashed for 245 yards rushing by Kansas City earlier this season and last week surrendered 472 yards overall to Indianapolis, including eight plays of 20 or more yards. So they’re vulnerable where the Ravens are strongest. Nevertheless, the Bills are “pretty confident” they can contain Lamar Jackson, said linebacker Matt Milano. Well, OK, good luck with that. All I know is the Bills were fortunate to survive Philip Rivers and the Colts last weekend. They may not be so lucky this time.
Something to consider: Jackson is 6-1 with 22 TDs vs. all the other quarterbacks taken in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft. Jackson was the 32nd choice; Allen was the seventh.
CLEVELAND (12-5) @ KANSAS CITY (14-2), Sunday, 3:05 p.m. (EST)
The line: Chiefs by 9-1/2
The weather: Partly cloudy, high of 43
The story: Former Chiefs’ running back Kareem Hunt, now with Cleveland, says this game is “personal.” OK, so it’s personal. Last time I checked this was a team game, and the Browns are going to need every one of Hunt’s teammates to take this “personal” to pull off the upset. I know, the Browns are a team of destiny, right? I mean, they overcame the odds and COVID-19 to get this far. But they’re going to need a minor miracle to beat Patrick Mahomes and the high-flying Chiefs. They have the weapons on offense to squeeze Kansas City, and I’m talking about Hunt and Nick Chubb. Feed them, move the chains, control the clock and you keep Mahomes off the field. It worked for the Patriots in the 2018 conference championship game. It might here. Except that’s not coach Kevin Stefanski’s style, and good luck trying to trade punches with Mahomes. The odds are against you. The good news for the Browns is that they get cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson (COVID-19 protocols) back for this game, and they’ll need them. The better news is they’ll have Stefanski (COVID-19) back, too. But they’ll need their defense to pressure the pocket, and that’s where the bad news comes in. Ben Roethlisberger last week threw 68 times, and the Browns produced zero sacks. A repeat here means a sure Brown-out. If the Browns had Olivier Vernon to bookend Myles Garrett, I’d like their chances more. But without him? They’ll need to play a near perfect game.
Something to consider: Dating back to 2018, the Chiefs scored 30 or more points in five consecutive playoff games.
OUR BEST BETS
(Picks are made vs. the spread only)
CLARK JUDGE – New Orleans (--3). Even Tom Brady can't cover the holes in Tampa Bay's pass defense (season results: 9-11).
RON BORGES – Kansas City (--9-1/2). It's not the same Arrowhead without fans in red packing the place, but it's the same Chiefs' offense (season results: 15-5).
RICK GOSSELIN – New Orleans (--3). Offense, defense, special teams -- the Saints are the most complete team in the NFC (season results: 12-8).
FIVE GUYS TO WATCH
1. GREEN BAY QB Aaron Rodgers. In 18 career playoff starts, he has 43 touchdowns (40 passing, three rushing) and a rating of 100.0. With two TD passes vs. L.A. he ties Joe Flacco for the most consecutive playoff games (8) with two or more touchdown throws.
2. KANSAS CITY DE Frank Clark. He has a sack in five straight playoff games. Another would tie him with former Jets’ star Mark Gastineau for second all-time with six. Pittsburgh’s Lamar Woodley leads everyone with seven consecutive postseason games with at least one sack.
3. NEW ORLEANS RB ALVIN KAMARA. He has 850 scrimmage yards and nine TDs in eight games vs. the Bucs.
4. BUFFALO WR STEFON DIGGS. He’s the only receiver other than Hall-of-Famer Jerry Rice to produce 125 yards receiving and one or more TDs in a playoff game with multiple teams in NFL history.
5. BALTIMORE QB LAMAR JACKSON. He has 333 yards rushing in three career playoff games.
THE WEEKEND OMG
This one comes via historian Dan Daly of Profootballdaly.com: Thirteeen quarterbacks have thrown 25 or more TD passes in the NFL playoffs. Twelve of them are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The 13th is Joe Flacco.
THE WEEKEND OMG II
When playing in games where the temperature is 32 degrees or colder at kickoff, the Rams’ Jared Goff has no touchdown passes and five interceptions. The temperature in Green Bay Saturday is expected to be in the low 30s.
THE WEEKEND OMG III
The Rams-Packers game marks the sixth time in NFL history that a two-time MVP (Aaron Rodgers) has met a two-time Defensive Player of the Year (Aaron Donald) in the playoffs. The last time was the 2012 postseason when Tom Brady met Ray Lewis. Lewis and the Ravens won.
THEY SAID IT
“Browns are going to get clapped.” – Pittsburgh WR Chase Claypool.
“I think there are three or four super elite corners, and he’s definitely one of those guys.” – Green Bay WR Davante Adams on Rams’ CB Jalen Ramsey.
“Next week’s personal.” – Former Chiefs’ RB Kareem Hunt, now with Cleveland.
“The guy that scares me is Deonte Harris.” – Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians on the Saints.
“It’s hard not to root for him when we’re playing against him. But we’re enemies on Saturday, and we both know that.” – Buffalo QB Josh Allen on Baltimore QB Lamar Jackson.
“Offensively, we’re just a better, much more efficient, team … and playing with a lot more confidence.” Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers.
FIVE NUMBERS THAT MATTER
0 – Tom Brady interceptions in his last eight road games.
4 – Starting quarterbacks in the AFC playoffs under the age of 26.
5-2 – Drew Brees’ career record vs. Tom Brady
13-1 -- The record of home teams the past three years in divisional-round playoff games, including Saturday. Only Baltimore (2019) was a loser.
8 – Playoff road wins by Baltimore’s John Harbaugh, most in the NFL.
TEN THINGS YOU PROBABLY SHOULD KNOW
1. The Packers led the league in scoring this season, while the Rams led the league in fewest points allowed. When they meet Saturday it will mark the eighth time in playoff history since the 1970 merger that the top scoring offense has met the top scoring defense. The top scoring defenses are 4-3 in previous matchups.
2. This marks the third consecutive season that two No. 6 seeds (Cleveland and the L.A. Rams) advanced to the divisional playoffs. Of the past four, only one (Tennessee, 2019) advanced to the conference championship game.
3. With a win, Kansas City becomes the first AFC team in NFL history to host three consecutive playoff games.
4. Tom Brady (6), Drew Brees (1) and Aaron Rodgers (1) combined for eight Super Bowl wins, the most by any trio of quarterbacks in a single conference’s divisional-round play.
5. The Ravens are the first team in league history to rush for 3,000 yards in consecutive seasons. “That’s like the DiMaggio record,” said coach John Harbaugh. “That’s the record that will never be broken.”
6. Look for flags in the Buffalo-Baltimore game. Carl Cheffers is the referee, and his crews called the most penalties (15 per game) this year.
7. Green Bay has allowed 16 or fewer points in its last three games.
8. Patrick Mahomes has led the Chiefs to two consecutive AFC championship games in his first two seasons as a starter.
9. Andy Reid is 7-0 vs. Cleveland in his career.
10. The Browns’ Baker Mayfield has no interceptions in his last four games, including the playoffs, and 16 TDs and one interception in his last six road starts.