Notebook Review: NFL Playoffs Divisional Round
An inside look at how the playoff field of eight became four with Championship Sunday looming on the horizon
By: Maxwell Argento
Green Bay Packers 32–18 Los Angeles Rams
~ All teams can ever hope for going into these matchups is for the game to play out in a manner that fits their style of play and allows them to feel comfortable. In the case of the Packers, getting the first points on the board (and extending the lead in the second quarter) allowed the game to play out in a manner that completely favored them. The lead allowed Rodgers to be patient and attack off of play-action, and made the Rams feel pressure to throw the ball to get back in the game, which is never a place they like being in (especially when you consider that pass defense is Green Bay’s biggest strength).
~ For as good as Aaron Rodgers continues to be, the real difference in the game was the ability of Matt LaFleur’s offense to run the football with power and consistency. The trio of Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams and rookie A.J. Dillon combined for 191 yards on 32 carries, which forced the Rams to play defense on the Packers’ terms instead of pinning their ears back and flying all over the field.
~ Someone smart once said, “comparison is the thief of joy”, which definitely applies to the dynamic present when Sean McVay looks at Aaron Rodgers, and then looks at his own sideline and sees Jared Goff. Certain detractors of the Rams pass-thrower may say that using the word “comparison” in the context of these two quarterbacks is foolish because they aren’t in the same stratosphere, but I’m not that mean, so I’ll say this instead: $33.5 million dollars seems like a bit too much to pay Goff next year.
~ I am not going to say with any amount of certainty that the game would’ve been different if Rams superstar Aaron Donald was completely healthy and playing his normal amount of snaps, but you can’t tell me that his abscense didn't take a huge load off the Packers and enhance their ability to effectively move the football. To me, the Rams playing defense without their centerpiece would’ve been like the Packers lining up on offense with no Davante Adams. When you frame it in that manner, it’s not shocking that Brandon Staley’s defense lacked the pop to adequately harm the hosts.
Buffalo Bills 17–3 Baltimore Ravens
~ The Buffalo Bills defense wins the (newly created and completely imaginary) “Unit of the Week” award for holding last year’s NFL MVP and one of the best rushing attacks in football to three lowly points. Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier knew they had to sell out to stop the Ravens ground-game, and sell out they did. The lack of bona fide threats on the outside for the Ravens made everything easier for the Bills inside the box, but that doesn’t take away from the performance, even an iota.
~ When the margins in these games are as slim as they are, sometimes the victory can be traced to one singular play. That one singular play in this game was Taron Johnson’s 101 yard pick-six when the game was still hanging in the balance. If the Ravens put seven on the board at that moment and tie the game at 10 going into the fourth quarter, who knows what happens down the stretch. The interception completely shifted the momentum of the game, and the Ravens were never able to rebound.
~ The Ravens defense (who must’ve known that the only legitimate rushing threat for the Bills was Josh Allen) had one job; stop Stefon Diggs. Eight receptions, 106 yards and a touchdown later, and I can firmly state…the Ravens did not stop Stefon Diggs. Big mistake.
Kansas City Chiefs 22–17 Cleveland Browns
~ If you are a Cleveland Browns fan and aren’t anything other than ecstatic at where your team ended the year, you’re lost. Take a step back and understand that for the first time in decades your organization has a clear plan, a clear voice at head coach, and a clear head at quarterback. Giving the champions a serious run for their money in Arrowhead Stadium a year after going through the Freddie Kitchens Experience cannot be underestimated. Baby steps, people.
~ This contest was a case of two different games: the game where the Chiefs looked completely in control, and the game where Patrick Mahomes was injured. Before #15 in red left the game, the Browns did not look equipped to get enough stops to win the game, but were obviously buoyed by the introduction of Chad Henne in the third quarter. I give immense credit to the Browns for staying in the game and pushing for the late win, but I’m not sure they’re even in that position if not for Mahomes being withdrawn.
~ I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I think the rule involving fumbling through the end zone has a lot of people pretty mad, especially in the lovely state of Ohio.
~ Great teams are generally great because “the money” (otherwise known as the best, highest paid players) on their team perform when they are needed the most. Tyrann Mathieu came up with an interception in a crucial part of the game, Chris Jones helped nullify the vaunted Browns rush game, while Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill combined for 16 receptions for 219 yards and a touchdown. Big time players show up in big time spots, and the Chiefs stars have a penchant for doing so with alarming consistency.
~ It’s official: Baker Mayfield looks the genuine article under center for the Browns. What we saw on Sunday from the former Oklahoma quarterback was an exercise in positive intent, poise, and arm talent. All throughout the game Mayfield fit the ball into tight windows down the middle of the field, and smartly threw the ball away during moments of pressure. The perfect play that describes Mayfield’s confidence as part of Kevin Stefanski’s offense was his touchdown pass to Jarvis Landry, where he threw from an unorthodox platform but put a laser right on the screws for his receiver in the corner of the endzone. Another season of growth and another offseason under the eventual ‘2020 Coach of the Year’ will surely thrust Baker into the argument for being one of the top-10 quarterbacks in football when this time comes around next year.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30–20 New Orleans Saints
~ Although it didn’t end the way Drew Brees would’ve wanted, thanks must be given to #9 in black and gold for giving us a 20 year glimpse at what a consummate professional, leader, and champion can do for an organization, and for a city. To say that he started his NFL journey as an undersized question mark and is ending it as no-doubt, first-ballot Hall of Famer (and one of the 10 best players at his position of all time) is what dreams are made of. To Drew Brees (my first “favorite NFL player” growing up)…I salute you.
~ A salute must be directed to Tom Brady as well, simply for making this whole “going to the conference championship game” thing look way too easy. The onus wasn’t necessarily on him in this particular game to be perfect or overly dazzling, but his experience and proper management of the contest is unparalleled, and the sense of calm he gives his teammates is clearly visible during the game. The real question is: when are we going to hear Brady in a press conference say he’s going to try and play until he’s 50? This offseason? The next? If he keeps looking as sprightly in the pocket and throwing the ball with as much assertiveness as he has this season, I figure it won’t be long.
~ The combination of the Buccaneers’ collective speed and physicality on defense paired with the Saints’ lack of a down-the-field passing game allowed Todd Bowles to ramp up the pressure and get his men in the face of Sean Payton’s playmakers all game long. Having the assurance that they were never going to get beat over their own heads meant that the secondary could cover the New Orleans wideouts in press-man, effectively eliminating the “nickle & diming” tendencies of the Saints. The change in approach meant terrible things for the Saints, who turned the ball over four times and never looked like mounting a serious run of successful drives to get themselves in a superior position on the scoreboard.
~ Credit must also be given to Bruce Arians, who managed to figure out that a steady diet of Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones via the ground was best way to go about attacking this iteration of the Saints defense. 30 combined carries for 125 yards may not seem like that much, but it was essential in providing Brady with crucial chances in play-action, and allowed the Bucs to keep the Saints offense on the sideline. It wouldn’t shock me if we see just as many carries from Fournette and Jones come this weekend, especially when Arians takes into account what the weather may be like when they travel up to Green Bay, Wisconsin this weekend.