From left: Staff Writer Karl Winter, Sports Editor Paxton Ritchey, Assistant News Editor Kyle McCabe, Photo Editor Ali Levens, Assistant Sports Editor Justin Touhey and Staff Writer Austin Hall. This group of six made its picks for the Divisional round of the NFL playoffs. Art by Madeline Duvall
Super Wild Card Weekend provided plenty of drama and suspense, leaving only eight teams and seven games remaining in the NFL season.
Road teams won four of the six games, with the Rams and Browns pulling off the most surprising upsets of the weekend. Los Angeles used dominant defense and an inspiring effort by injured quarterback Jared Goff to hand Seattle their first home playoff loss in Pete Carroll’s tenure. Cleveland capitalized on the Steelers’ comedy of errors to take a commanding 28–0, first-quarter lead, en route to their first win in Pittsburgh since 2003 and first playoff win since 1994.
Baltimore overcame past playoff demons against Tennessee, dancing on the Titans’ logo after a late-game interception. Buffalo posted its first playoff win since 1995. New Orleans took care of business. Tampa Bay held off a heroic effort by Washington quarterback Taylor Heinecke.
Last week, we mistakenly wrote that Super Bowl LV would take place in Miami, but in fact the game will be on the Gulf coast of Florida rather than South Beach. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are attempting to become the first team in NFL history to play in the Super Bowl in their home stadium.
The Buccaneers’ game this week, aside from being the ninth career head-to-head matchup between 42-year-old Drew Brees and 43-year-old Tom Brady, will break a tie between new Sports Editor Paxton Ritchey and his predecessor, Staff Writer Karl Winter.
Without further ado, allow Staff Writers Winter and Austin Hall, Assistant Sports Editor Justin Touhey, Ritchey, Photo Editor Ali Levens and Assistant News Editor Kyle McCabe to make their selections, starting with a chilly battle at Lambeau Field.
NFC No. 6 Los Angeles Rams (11–6) at No. 1 Green Bay Packers (13–3) (Saturday, Jan. 16 at 1:35 p.m., PST)
“Aaron Rodgers’ revenge tour, playoff edition, is about to start. They’re my pick to get to the Super Bowl from the NFC. I think they have a really good shot of winning it. They’re at Lambeau, which is pretty damn cold this time of year, far from the beautiful sunshine of Los Angeles in the wintertime. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have won last six games — they don’t look to be slowing down. Rodgers played the last game of the season, and he had a bye last week, so he’s not too rusty. He’s getting old, so the bye week is definitely a useful time. I think the Packers will be playing in Tampa.” — Justin
“In this no-fans COVID time, Lambeau is the best home-field advantage that any team has right now with the weather. The Rams would be overmatched anyway, but with John Wolford, Jared Goff, Cooper Kupp and Aaron Donald all doubtful to questionable and certainly not going to be 100% if they do play, they really don’t have much working for them at all. The Rams’ defense needs to outscore the Rams offense — and probably even the Packers offense — for the Rams to have a chance at winning this game. They’ve been playing well lately, and they deserve to be where they are, but the ride is going to stop here for sure.” — Paxton
“[Rams’ defensive coordinator] Brandon Staley is just an excellent defensive young mind. He’s a Vic Fangio guy. They have a chance; they’ll cover and they can run the ball against the Packers, but in my mind, it kind of ends there. The Rams have a lot to feel good about heading into next season, especially in their division. But there isn’t an NFC team I could see stopping the Packers right now. The real matchups are still in the AFC.” — Austin
“Cheese.” — Ali
“I don’t think that [the Rams] really have any shot in this game. Going into Lambeau against Aaron Rodgers with what seems to be one of the best teams he’s had around him in a while — I can’t convince myself to bet against him even just to be a contrarian.” — Kyle
“We talked about how good the Packers are at home, especially in the winter. Game-time temperature is going to be in the 20s, more than likely, so it’s not going to be easy, whether it’s John Wolford — slightly banged up — or Jared Goff with a broken thumb. The Rams’ defense is super impressive — the best defense in the NFL in terms of total defense. But this is the number one offense in the NFL in Green Bay, and they’re going to have enough to overcome them. With the week off, I can’t bet against Rodgers, and like I said earlier in the year, this is the best team I’ve seen around Rodgers. This is the best that I’ve seen their offensive line play in a while [and] it’s the best I’ve seen their defense play in a while. If LA can get the run game going, they definitely have a chance, but with Aaron Donald being limited with a rib injury, I think that Green Bay line is going to hold up and they’ll be just fine.” — Karl
An updated playoff bracket depicts the eight teams remaining on the road to Super Bowl LV in Tampa Bay. Photo courtesy of sportingnews.com
AFC No. 5 Baltimore Ravens (12–5) at No. 2 Buffalo Bills (14–3) (Saturday, Jan. 16 at 5:15 p.m., PST)
“Although the Bills, toward the end of the game against the Colts, were a little shaky, I still think Josh Allen has proven to be a reliable quarterback when it comes down to the wire. It is in Buffalo, and the whole state of New York is behind them. […] They will give Kansas City a run for their money if Kansas City advances. They could make the Super Bowl. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. They’re just incredibly hot at the moment.” — Justin
“This one’s got all the makings of a classic. These are two teams playing their best football of the year. […] [The Ravens] are ridiculously hot. They had a larger margin of victory than the Bills did over Indianapolis. They looked stronger in the fourth quarter than the Bills did against Indianapolis. With all that being said, I agree; it’s going to be a really close game, a classic game. Now that the Steelers are out of the playoffs, it’s time to remind everybody I’ve been on the Bills’ hype train since Week 1. I’ve been really excited watching Josh Allen this year. This is going to be a great coming-out party for him, a great victory. I don’t think the Ravens will play badly. This is going to be one of the better games of the year — certainly the postseason.” — Paxton
“Had they played a complete game against the Titans, I would feel very strongly about Baltimore. Because they didn’t, and because Lamar really had to run his way out of that game, and the defense had to make some stops, I don’t feel confident in doing that. I’m bummed I haven’t watched that many Bills games this year — probably only one or two of them from beginning to end. I missed out because they are playing so well. Josh Allen right now has, like, 600 total yards more than Lamar had last year and three more touchdowns. He’s playing like an MVP, even though it’s a foregone conclusion that he’s not going to win the award. That’s hats off to him and their offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll, who’s going to get a head coaching job. The Bills are scorching. I don’t know if they’ll be competitive with the Chiefs, but I do feel strongly about them winning this. It’s also funny that the first two games are [Sean] McVay and [John] Harbaugh because they are both Miami of Ohio grads, along with Ben Roethlisberger. Tough week for Miami of Ohio graduates.” — Austin
“The Bills are a really good team. They’re going to the Super Bowl if the Chiefs don’t make it. They’re just such a strong team in almost every single category, and I can’t confidently say that about any other team. You know it means something if I’m the one saying it, because I don’t pay attention to that much stuff. The Ravens are talented, but I don’t think they have a strong enough offense and defense coordination to push over this really good New York team.” — Ali
“From what I’ve seen with from the parts of Bills games I’ve seen this year, this is a really good team that doesn’t have the same sorts of weaknesses that Tennessee does. It’s an intriguing matchup — two very hot teams — but the Bills are even hotter, and they’re a better football team.” — Kyle
“There are some good reasons to pick the Ravens. They have a really good run defense and overall great defense — better run defense than the Bills — and the Bills are going to have trouble stopping that attack of Lamar and J. K. Dobbins and the entire Ravens backfield. The Ravens also have averaged 34 points a game during their six-game winning streak. But when it comes down to it, the Bills are hitting their stride at the right time. Their defense is hitting their stride at the right time. When it comes to the better quarterback, Josh Allen has 22 touchdowns against three interceptions during the seven-game winning streak. He’s put up a ton of yards, the game lies on his shoulders, and I just don’t see any reason to pick against him to basically stop being on fire. This is the Bills’ [game] to win, and they would have to make some mistakes to lose.” — Karl
AFC No. 6 Cleveland Browns (12–5) at No. 1 Kansas City Chiefs (14–2) (Sunday, Jan. 17 at 12:05 p.m., PST)
“I am going to go with the Cleveland Browns — big shocker. I didn’t think that Cleveland was going to be able to beat Pittsburgh two weeks in a row, especially not without their head coach, but then they absolutely obliterated them. If their head coach [Kevin Stefanski] is smart, he will allow the Chiefs to come into his red zone. The way you beat the Chiefs is make them run their red zone offense. It’s the worst part of their offense. They’re terrible in the red zone — make them run it, force them to kick field goals and then score touchdowns yourselves. The Broncos tried it, but we just aren’t that good at scoring touchdowns, so we couldn’t beat them. The Browns can score touchdowns! It is definitely a possibility the Browns pull off this upset. Obviously it’s not easy; the Chiefs are still a very good team, but I am hopeful. I’m going with the pick that I want to see happen.” — Kyle
“The Browns’ emotions are sky high after beating the Steelers. There were a lot of people who thought they were just lucky to get in [the playoffs] with a victory, and now they have a chance to play the defending Super Bowl champs. I am concerned a little bit about the Chiefs because they have been sleepwalking through the year. Pat Mahomes hasn’t played super great in December. He’s been pretty mediocre. They’ve had two weeks off, and Mahomes didn’t play the last game of the season and had the bye, so I expect he might be a little rusty. The Browns have changed a lot in the sense that their discipline and their culture is very good right now. But again, it’s hard to go against the defending champs and a team that just makes it look so easy to win all the time. Especially if it’s a close game, you just have a feeling that Chiefs are going to pull it out. The Browns pulling the upset would be incredible, but I can’t in good faith go against the Chiefs.” — Justin
“I do not think the Browns have a chance in this game. The Browns played really well against Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh also just played terrible. Somewhat overshadowed by the fact that Ben Roethlisberger threw four interceptions is that he also threw for over 500 yards on the Browns defense. I would not really feel super confident about Patrick Mahomes having a worse day than Ben Roethlisberger. The Browns’ defense is in a lot of trouble. I do think the only way the Browns get within striking distance is if they’re so good running the football that Mahomes barely touches it. Even that’s going to be tough to accomplish if everybody knows that’s what you have to do. The Chiefs are too good. There’s a possibility this game is close or the Browns are even up at halftime, but we’ve seen so many times the Chiefs get in a big hole in the first half and then just decide to win the game in the third quarter, and we could see some similar here.” — Paxton
“Andy Reid in his career, coming off of a bye, is 23–3. That includes two playoff games, which is insane. […] In my mind the Cleveland defense played good enough [against Pittsburgh]. They were basically in prevent. They’ve been playing musical chairs with their defensive backs for weeks now, due to COVID-19 and injuries and whatnot. If that was any other position group in their defense that they hadn’t played musical chairs with, I would feel better about Cleveland, but because it’s their secondary — we obviously all know about the Chiefs’ weapons. It’s not a good matchup, but I think it will be close. The Browns could be up a field goal at the half, but I just can’t go with this Browns team. By the weekend, Patrick Mahomes won’t have played in over three weeks, which is interesting, but, I mean — it’s Patrick Mahomes. I remember this game between [Baker Mayfield and Mahomes] when they were in college at Oklahoma and Texas Tech — it was a 66-to-59 game that Oklahoma won and the stat lines of the game were insane. […] They’re both a couple of Big 12 gunslingers, and I’m excited to see them play, but yeah, Chiefs are headed back to the AFC Championship for sure.” — Austin
“I have a little bit of hometown pride for Patrick Mahomes. I did go to the same Jonas Brothers concert as him, so we have that bond, so who am I to pick against him? I have the same concern as Justin, to where he will probably be a little bit rusty. It will probably take about five minutes for him to get back into the swing of it. He just needs to throw a Hail Mary to [Travis] Kelce or something, and then they’ll be back in it, and it’ll be the Super Bowl team once again. It’ll be a really good game — the Browns destroyed the Steelers — but I think their gas is out.” — Ali
“The Browns are going to be fired up. They’re going to come out hot again. They’re going to be able to run the ball; they’re going to be able to score points. Maybe they’ll even go up by 10 points. But the question is whether the Chiefs wake up, because they’ve been sleepwalking through the season. I expect them to be able to do that. It becomes a question of whether the Browns can stop the Chiefs, and I just don’t see that it’s going to happen. There’s no way that the Chiefs are going to be as mistake-prone as the Steelers were. Even if they get down 10–0, it’s a team that you just never really expect to lose because they have that ability to be so explosive. It’s hard to bet against a team that’s been as good over the last year and a half as the Chiefs have to fall in their first playoff game here.” — Karl
Infographic by Inez Kim
NFC No. 5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12–5) at No. 2 New Orleans Saints (13–4) (Sunday, Jan. 17 at 3:40 p.m., PST)
“This is the one upset I have these playoffs so far. The reason why is the Buccaneers’ offense looks to finally be clicking on all cylinders. Tom Brady’s weapons that he has, with the receivers Mike Evans and Antonio Brown — they look to be pretty formidable. Granted, obviously, it was against the Washington Football Team, but also the Saints did play the Chicago Bears.” — Justin
“I thought I was going to be alone in this — I’m also going to take Tamba Bay. It’s playoff Tom Brady! Come on! He’s an animal. It’s definitely going to be a good game. It’s really funny that both of these quarterbacks are in their 40s. […] I don’t pay attention to the defense, I don’t pay attention to the offense. I just think Tom Brady is cooler in the playoffs, and I don’t think anyone can disagree with me on that.” — Ali
“I was not very impressed with the Saints last week. […] The Saints’ defense has gotten really good as the season has gone on. They’re better on defense than they were the last few times they played the Bucs. I also think the Bucs are a lot better than when they played the last two times. And I’m going to take the Bucs actually. […] I also hope [Brady] retires, but I think he’s been playing the best football he has all season in the last several weeks. He made a lot of mistakes the first two times these teams played each other — two touchdowns, five picks. […] The Bucs’ defense wasn’t convincing last week — they gave up three touchdowns to Taylor Heinecke — but they were able to bottle up Alvin Kamara in their first two games. If they’re able to do that again, that gives them a good shot. Their offensive line was great against a good Football Team front seven, so if they’re able to give [Brady] as much time as they were last week, the receivers will get open. They have one of the best rosters in the league on offense. It’s hard to beat a team three times in the same season, so I’m going to stick with it and take my one upset here.” — Karl
“I said last week in picking the Saints to beat the Bears that I was going to be watching their defense, and seeing how good the Saints’ defense could perform to see how they’d stack up against the more elite offenses in later rounds. Except for Jimmy Graham’s mic-drop moment, they allowed three points the entire game to Chicago and really put on a dominating performance. This is a team in Tampa Bay that they’ve already beaten twice. That doesn’t mean everything, especially in the playoffs and especially with Tom Brady, but they have a track record of demonstrating they can disrupt the Buccaneers rhythm and that their defense can handle the Buccaneers weapons. Tampa can’t say the same so far. It’s going to take a monster, overachieving performance from Tampa Bay to beat New Orleans. This is what we’ve been saying Tampa is all season — they’re a solid playoff team, they’re going to end up being a top-four team in the NFC, but they’re not a Super Bowl contender. […] Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas, before the game against the Bears, had played only 100 snaps together all season. The fact that Kamara is not going to be in the COVID protocol this week and Thomas will be fully healthy and Brees continues to get healthier and healthier — we’re going to see a lot more from those three than we’ve seen over the season so far.” — Paxton
“Are the Buccaneers due for one? It’s super difficult to beat someone three times in one year. I love Brees, I really like the Saints, and I’ve sort of been low-balling the Bucs all year. [The Bucs] getting to the playoffs definitely proved me wrong. None of them looked amazing at all, but the Saints’ defense, man — when they’re playing, they can really hum, they can really make plays. They got [Alex] Anzalone back, who’s one of my favorite linebackers. The Saints are the healthiest they’ve ever been, which is also really big. As good as the Buccaneers’ offensive line looked against the nasty Football Team front seven. I don’t know if they can move it like they were at times against the Football Team. I also think Tom Brady can play better but still lose. Brees does own the career head-to-head [matchups] 5–3, but this is the first time they’re meeting the playoffs, which is hilarious because they both been in the league for, like, 72 years. Brady will play slightly better but will still lose.” — Austin
“These two teams had the easiest path to the second round besides the teams with byes because these guys played Washington and Chicago. Neither of those [wins] were that impressive — the Saints only scoring three touchdowns on Chicago, and the Buccaneers quite nearly dropping the game to the Football Team, who I also picked. I’m going to go with Paxton and say the Saints have the edge. They’ve already beat them twice. I don’t want to see Tom Brady have any more success. I want to see him retire. I want to see him get out of here. I want to stop thinking about Tom Brady. He’s in my mind every single day, and I hate it.” — Kyle
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Contact Karl Winter via Twitter: @karlwinter23 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org