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NFL Notes: Divisional Round Edition

20210119-nflnotes-divweekendrecap

The entire complexion of the NFL postseason may have changed Sunday evening in Kansas City, and that could be great news for Green Bay (not to mention Buffalo) as the Packers were the most impressive of the four weekend winners. Here are some thoughts on the four divisional round games.

Packers 32, Rams 18

My first impression: great offense beats great defense in today's NFL. In a matchup of the top units on both sides, the Packers won easily.

The Chiefs offense gets most of the pub – with good reason – but what the Packers are doing right now looks almost effortless. Aaron Rodgers is in complete control of his attack, and with Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams piling up the yards on the ground, Green Bay appears to be almost unstoppable.

That said, give some credit to the undermanned Rams for staying competitive throughout. Playing without top receiver Cooper Kupp and with Defensive Player of the Year candidate Aaron Donald nowhere near 100 percent, Los Angeles managed to hang around. Jared Goff gamely played with his surgically repaired thumb and had his moments, but ultimately the Rams couldn't keep up with the high-powered Pack.

Rodgers showed great patience early as the Rams forced him to methodically march downfield rather than give up the chunks Green Bay has preferred. It didn't matter as the Packers scored on their first five possessions. The first touchdown was an example of coach Matt LaFleur's creativity, which saw him move Davante Adams in motion both ways, forcing the Rams top corner, Jalen Ramsey, to chase while having to avoid his teammates prior to the snap. It resulted in an easy touchdown as Ramsey was late.

While Green Bay appeared to be comfortably ahead all night, the Rams wouldn't go away. Cam Akers was impressive as the lead back, and Goff efficiently moved the ball with quick, short throws. The Rams touchdown at the end of the half made it 16-10, but Rodgers managed a field goal in the final 30-plus seconds. 

This field goal drive featured a huge sequence in which the Rams lost a huge opportunity. Rodgers took two shots in the end zone on the final two plays, and both should have been intercepted. First Troy Hill dropped one with :08 left, then John Johnson had a chance, only to be interfered with by intended receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling. There was no call, and Mason Crosby nailed the 38-yard field goal.

Bill Belichick often says dropped interceptions are like turnovers, and that was a lost chance for the Rams to take momentum to the locker room. Still Goff kept the Rams in it with another impressive drive and they trailed 25-18 and had the ball before Green Bay's defense came up with a stop. Rodgers then put it away with a bomb to Allen Lazard.

Goff was clearly limited once again, but his performance this postseason was reminiscent of Philip Rivers back in 2007. Rivers lost the AFC title game in Foxborough but earned tons of respect by playing with a torn ACL. Goff's thumb injury is obviously far less severe, but his toughness was on display and he was not the reason his team lost.

As for LaFleur, he is now 28-7 as Green Bay's coach and Rodgers is set to host the NFC title game for the first time of his career.

Bills 17, Ravens 3

Defense dominated this one with Buffalo earning tons of respect for winning the physical battle up front all night long. The Ravens had trouble getting their running game going with Gus Edwards, D.K. Dobbins and Lamar Jackson combining for 29 carries and 118 yards. With the wind impacting the passing game for both teams, moving the ball became a huge problem for Lamar Jackson.

The key juncture came late in the third quarter. After Buffalo opened the second half with an impressive touchdown drive to take a 10-3 lead, Baltimore appeared poised to match it. The two sustained drives consumed almost the entire quarter, but Jackson's lone big mistake changed the complexion of the game. Taron Johnson dropped into a zone and picked of Jackson's pass and returned it 101 yards for a touchdown. The Bills were in control the rest of the way.

Buffalo had its share of struggles throughout. Early on the Ravens lined up to go for it on fourth-and-inches, but Buffalo's A.J. Klein lined up in the neutral zone and negated Buffalo's stop. Rookie Gabriel Davis later dropped a touchdown pass and forced the Bills to settle for a field goal. 

Baltimore's normally perfect kicker Justin Tucker missed a pair of field goals, but Buffalo returned the favor by missing a pair as well. For the second straight game Josh Allen lost the ball on a sack and was fortunate that one of his linemen saved the day. 

Ultimately the sloppy game was more about lost opportunities on both sides. Ravens center Patrick Mekari had trouble navigating the wind all night as several of his snaps were off target. Jackson was knocked out of the game as a result of one, having to scramble back near his end zone to pick up an errant snap. His head slammed to the turf as he threw the pass away, and fourth-stringer Tyler Huntley came on. 

Chasing two touchdowns Huntley did a nice job, but he had one throw he'd like back. Facing a fourth-and-eight with just under seven minutes left, Huntley went deep to a wide open Hollywood Brown. As was the case all night for both teams when throwing deep, Huntley overthrew Brown and instead of applying pressure on Allen and the Bills the game was essentially over.

Huntley had another chance to inch closer and this time put a fourth-down pass right on the hands of Mark Andrews, but the tight end couldn't hold on and the Bills were off to Kansas City.

Couple of things to keep in mind. Allen made some plays but seemed to be affected by the wind whenever he tried his luck down the field. And rookie kicker Tyler Bass also saw the wind impact his performance, which is something to keep in mind next week.

Chiefs 22, Browns 17

It's rare when one injury changes the entire outlook of the league but that's exactly what happened when Patrick Mahomes was knocked out of the game with a concussion. To that point it was business as usual for Andy Reid's Chiefs. KC dominated the first two-plus quarters and was in complete command, although it should be noted that Cleveland's Rashard Higgins fumbled at the Chiefs 1 while trying to stretch for a touchdown in the final two minutes of the first half. The play resulted in a touchback, and KC then tacked on a field goal.

The play immediately sparked thoughts of Bill Belichick warning against such recklessness. He often tells his players not to reach the ball out in such situation unless it's fourth down. Instead of first-and-goal, Cleveland took a shot to the stomach and trailed 19-3 at the break.

The lead was 19-10 and the Chiefs were poised for more when Mahomes ran an option on third-and-short midway through the third quarter. Mahomes went down awkwardly and had trouble getting back to his feet. It was apparent that his day was done and veteran backup Chad Henne would need to finish it off. Thanks to a couple of big runs by Darrell Williams that picked up 28 yards, the Chiefs tacked on a field goal. But that would be it for the Chiefs offense.

The Browns kept the pressure on and chipped away. A touchdown early in the fourth quarter made it 22-17, and put the onus on Henne. At times it appeared that Reid was a bit too aggressive. The Chiefs moved to the Browns 23 when a penalty for an illegal crack back block set up a first-and-25 at the 38. Rather than play for the field goal, which would have made it an 8-point game, Reid went for it all and Henne threw a bad interception in the end zone.

But KC's defense responded, and this is where Cleveland's Kevin Stefanski was guilty of being too passive. Taking over at their 20, the Browns faced a fourth-and-1 and Stefanski correctly rolled the dice with six minutes left. Four plays later it was fourth down again, only this time the Browns needed 9 yards. With 4:19 and just one timeout left, Stefnaski punted from his 32. Cleveland never saw the ball again.

The Browns needed a stop either way, so why not take a shot and go for it? Cleveland converted all three fourth downs prior to that, and although needing 9 yards is a huge difference, the risk of not getting another chance was too great not to risk it.

Henne came up big, first by scrambling for 13 yards on third-and-14, then rewarding his coach's confidence by completing a pass to Tyreek Hill on fourth down to put the game away.

But the only question coming out of this game is the status of Mahomes. If he can't play, and watching him stumble to his feet would certainly put his availability in jeopardy, Buffalo would become the favorite. Suddenly the defending champs look vulnerable – which is exactly what should have been expected in this crazy COVID year.

Buccaneers 30, Saints 20

Despite the final score, this is another game where the defenses dominated. Turnovers and special teams allowed both teams to put up most of their points, and ultimately it was the Saints turnovers that spelled the difference.

Entering the game it was all about Tom Brady and Drew Brees, two of the most respected quarterbacks in history, going at it for perhaps the final time. But it came down the Bus defense, which outshined New Orleans thanks to the four takeaways. 

Truth is neither quarterback played particularly well, but Brees' inability to get the ball downfield with any degree of velocity was the difference. It wasn't so much how far the passes traveled as it was about how long it took some of the longer throws to get where they needed to be. Tampa's defensive backs sat on the short stuff and jumped routes throughout. That led to three interceptions, the latter two coming late when Brees could no longer be content to take the underneath stuff.

Despite all the struggles, the Saints were in great shape midway through the third quarter. A couple of early punt returns by Deonte Harris set up a pair of field goals (the second one probably should have been a touchdown but was called back for a questionable block in the back penalty), and the Saints came out of the halftime break with a terrific touchdown drive to take a 20-13 lead.

After forcing a Bucs punt, New Orleans appeared poised for more when Brees hit Jared Cook to convert a third down in Bucs territory, but Cook fumbled and Devin White returned it to the Saints 40. The game was soon tied heading to the fourth, and Tampa dominated the rest of the way.

The Bucs defense, which was pedestrian at best a week earlier in Washington, won the game. Sean Murphy-Bunting's early pick changed momentum (although he appeared to get away with a hold that created the turnover), and the Cook fumble did so yet again. And when Brees was forced to play from behind, his lack of arm strength did him in. 

The difference was White, who did not play a week ago. He was the best player of the field, finishing with 11 tackles, a pick and a fumble recovery. His athleticism and physicality stood out all night long.

The result was Brady advancing to his 14th conference title game in his 19 years as a starter. After a late first down at the two-minute warning allowed the Bucs to end it in victory formation, Brady came to the sideline where offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and coach Bruce Arians were waiting with celebratory hugs. Brady's almost stoic demeanor spoke volumes, as if to say "Relax, we haven't done anything yet."

Power 4

We're down to the final four, with three of the top four seeds still alive. Only Brady's Bucs crashed the party.

  1. Green Bay (3rd last week) – The Packers performance coupled with Mahomes' concussion changed things at the top.
  2. Buffalo (2nd last week) – The Bills have too much offense if Mahomes can't answer the bell next week, and the defense has played much better down the stretch.
  3. Kansas City (1st last week) – All eyes will be on Mahomes and the medical staff assigned to assess his condition. The Chiefs can win without him, but I don't think they will.
  4. Tampa Bay (6th last week) – The Bucs defense stole the show, but Rodgers won't have to dink and dunk all day like Brees has to.

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