Only a half dozen of the 12 teams playing this weekend and Monday will advance to the divisional round (January 13-14). Here are my candid observations and predicted outcomes for each of these contests:
Cleveland Browns @ Houston Texans
Quarterbacks at all levels throw deep balls early in games for a variety of good reasons: To back safeties away from the box. To discourage press man coverage. To showcase arm strength and create doubt and concern among pass defenders.
On the Houston Texans’ first offensive snap last week in Indianapolis, rookie QB C. J. Stroud threw a 75-yard TD pass to wide receiver Nico Collins. The ball travelled 60+ yards in the air, the first of 20 passes the likely Offensive Rookie of the Year completed against the Colts. Not only did this pass accomplish the goals listed above, but it also served notice that rookie receiving phenom Tank Dell’s absence due to injury would not deter C. J. from attacking the Colts suspect secondary. End result: a 23-to-19 Houston win.
This week, the promising young passer takes on the NFL’s stingiest pass and total yards defense: the Cleveland Browns, whose 49 sacks and 18 interceptions both qualify as top-ten numbers. Stroud will also be matching arms and wits against the oldest QB in the post-season, the venerable Joe Flacco. In 5 late-season starts, the soon-to-be 39-year-old hired gun won 4 times and threw 13 TD passes. Back on Christmas Eve day, he threw 11 completions and 2 touchdowns to Amari Cooper, and Cleveland beat Houston in Texas 36-to-22. Stroud did not play that day.
Anybody remember Flacco’s January 2013, four-game run to victory with the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII (47)? A Passer Rating of 117.2 with 1140 yards and 11 TD’s! Most of which went to Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin. Compare those numbers to Joe’s December performance this year, only substitute the names Amari Cooper and David Njoku. The parallels certainly should get Houston’s attention.
Who wins this one? Gotta go with Old Man Joe and that Cleveland defense in a low-scoring, competitive contest. C. J.’s time will come, just not this weekend.
Miami Dolphins @ Kansas City Chiefs
The advanced weather forecast for Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium Saturday night calls for snow flurries with a high of 8 degrees. That’s not a high!
Nobody truly likes playing football in freezing conditions and frigid temperatures. For the Miami Dolphins, whose ranks have been depleted by injuries and whose speed-driven offense depends on flexible receiving fingers and sure footing, bone-chilling wintry conditions do not bode well. The 2023 Dolphins beat only one team with a winning record (Dallas), and that game took place in Florida (Dec. 24th). They lost to the Chiefs in Arrowhead on November 5th. Now, it’s frostbite season!
Since that win over Miami, Andy Reid’s team has won 4 and lost 4. The Chiefs have scored more than 20 points just twice, QB Patrick Mahomes has thrown 10 TD passes against 6 interceptions, and tight end Travis Kelce has caught just one lone touchdown pass for Tay-Tay! KC’s red zone offense ranks 17th in TD’s, and only Cleveland’s receivers (42) have dropped more passes than the Chiefs (40).
Kansas City’s defense appears to be the strongest and most dependable force in this matchup. The Chiefs 57 sacks rank second only to the Ravens 60. Among playoff teams, only Cleveland allowed fewer Pass Yards per Attempt. And while both of the Dolphins starting defensive ends are injured and unavailable, KC’s premier pass rusher Chris Jones—who recorded his 10th sack of the season against the Chargers, triggering a $1.25 million contract bonus—is healthy and ready to make Miami QB Tua Tagovailoa’s passing night a cold-weather nightmare!
Mahomes and his struggling minions should score just enough points to outlast the Dolphins and ruin Tyreek Hill’s cold-weather homecoming.
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Buffalo Bills
Had Pittsburgh linebacker T. J. Watt not suffered an injury against the Ravens last weekend, I truly think the Steelers’ defense could have given the Buffalo Bills a difficult time this Sunday—at least for a while. But minus one of the NFL’s truly great edge rushers, Pittsburgh’s chances of victory most likely took a fatal hit.
Consider these things. During the regular season, the Steelers ranked 25th in total offense and 28th in Points-Scored-per-Game. Their Point-Differential (for and against) was actually negative: 304 scored, 324 given up. Despite a pair of sturdy runners and several quality skill players, they ranked 27th in red zone offense. And they needed a three-game winning streak orchestrated by a third string quarterback (Mason Rudolph)—plus a Jacksonville loss on the season’s final weekend—just to qualify for the postseason, a fairly significant feat!
The only AFC team to finish the season stronger was their upcoming opponent. The Buffalo Bills won their final 5 games, beating 3 playoff teams (Kansas City, Dallas & Miami) along the way. And they did this all after a mid-season offensive coordinator change designed to make their one-of-a-kind QB Josh Allen more effective as a passer and more responsible as a decision maker.
It all worked, until the first half last week in Miami. Pressing hard to make winning plays, Allen tossed up two balls that were picked off in the end zone, the absolute worst big game no-no. His head coach Sean McDermott even called him on it with NBC’s field reporter Melissa Stark as the Bills headed to the halftime locker room.
But in the second half, following Deonte Harty’s huge 96-yard punt return that tied the score at 14, Allen took over the contest. On an 8-play, 74-yard game-clinching possession, Allen’s five completed passes and 5 rush yards accounted for nearly all the Bills offense, as Buffalo wrestled the AFC East crown and a home playoff game away from the Dolphins.
As much as I respect Mike Tomlin and appreciate how well his backup’s backup QB has responded to a late-season call, I don’t think Rudolph and the Steelers can of will outscore the Bills in Buffalo on Sunday afternoon.
Green Bay Packers @ Dallas Cowboys
I’ll wager my entire pension that Fox Sports rolls an “Ice Bowl” segment at some point during their telecast this Sunday. Any takers?
This game will not resemble 1967’s infamous minus-50-degree wind-chill survival ordeal in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It will take place inside Dallas’s AT&T Stadium, where Jerry Jones’ Cowboys have won all 8 home games this season, the one and only 2023 team to run its home slate. Dak Prescott and CeeDee Lamb comprise the NFL’s most productive pitch and catch combination, and Dallas’ relentless, athletic pass rushers harass QB’s and force errant throws with shockingly good results.
Green Bay QB Jordan Love is used to all this. Love has been abandoning pockets and throwing balls on the run all season, also with shockingly good results. Pundits are suddenly applauding the Packers’ farsightedness for selecting Love with the 26th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. The consensus: Green Bay’s enviable QB line of succession now reads Favre, Rodgers, Love. The Pack should be good for another decade!
After a 3-6 start, Love and the Packers won 6 of their final 8 games, clinching the #7 seed with a hard-fought win over the surging Chicago Bears. Green Bay’s improving defense allowed Chicago just 3 field goals in a 17-to-9 win, the second time in two weeks the Pack limited an opponent to 10 points or less—not bad for the league’s 17th ranked defense.
But Dallas’s offense is far more formidable. The Detroit Lions were the only team to hold the Cowboys under 30 points at home this season, and Dallas’s 29.9 Points per Game average led the entire NFL. Nothing about Green Bay’s pass rushers or run stoppers suggests they’ll be able to outscore the Cowboys Sunday in Dallas.
Great job, Matt LaFleur, but your team is battling an offensive arsenal on its home turf—and the Cowboys have bigger fish to fry in the coming weeks.
Los Angeles Rams @ Detroit Lions
By now, you’ve heard the Shakespearean story line: Reigning Hero (Matt Stafford) departed his Motor City kingdom then claimed the Hold Grail for a rival—and said rival proffered its once Shining Prince (Jared Goff) to that very same Motor City kingdom, to live out his playing days in frustration and anonymity? NOT!!!!!
Yes, Stafford’s return to the town where he played his first 12 NFL seasons adds a delectable dash of irony to this game. And Detroit may not like the outcome. Prior to this season, few if any prognosticators gave the Rams any chance at all to make the playoffs. The line I heard or read most often (paraphrased) went something like this: “The Rams mortgaged their future to win Super Bowl LVI (56).”
But a closer examination reveals Puka Nacua, a fifth-round pick from BYU, whose first year receiving numbers would have earned him NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors if C. J. Stroud hadn’t emerged from the same draft. First year guard Steve Avila (TCU) is opening rush lanes for blossoming second year running back Kyren Williams (Notre Dame). And on defense, rookie starters Kobie Turner (Wake Forest) and Byron Young (Tennessee), a nose tackle and a linebacker, fit in nicely around future Hall of Fame and multliple time DPOY Aaron Donald.
Detroit likewise drafted well, especially on offense. First year running back Jahmyr Gibbs (Alabama) and first year tight end Sam LaPorta (Iowa) both scored at least 10 touchdowns, the first rookies on the same team ever to do so. LaPorta caught 86 passes, the new rookie record for NFL tight ends. Sadly, he injured himself last week against the Vikings and may not be at full strength for his first playoff game.
But the guy who makes the Lions go is the quarterback Sean McVay let go—Jared Goff! Lions head coach Dan Campbell knows mental toughness when he sees it. Coach Campbell assembled a solid O line in front of Goff, surrounded him with skilled ball carriers and pass catchers, then let Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson gameplan around Goff’s much improved pre-snap vision, post-snap reads and accuracy.
The Lions playbook boasts old-school stuff: power plays, traps, counters and pulling tackles leading ball carriers into the point of attack. It also contains lots of “option routes,” allowing receivers to work opposite the leverage that defenders apply downfield. It requires Goff and his pass catchers to react simultaneously and identically to what they see. Goff is mastering the system, and the Lions regular season offense ranked 2nd in the league in Pass Yards per Game as a result.
Of all six games this weekend, this one is the hardest to pick. Both teams exhibit defensive weaknesses, particularly against good passing attacks. And that’s exactly what both these offenses specialize in. But since somebody has to win, I’m picking the team I’d like to see advance to the next round. Good luck, Detroit and Jared Goff. It’s only fitting you exact revenge on the conquerrng hero who sent you on your own wayward but fruitful path.
Philadelphia Eagles @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last, and most certainly least, there’s this matchup--on Monday Night Football, no less. Nick Sirianni’s Eagles lost 5 of their final 6 games. The beleaguered Birds rank 26th in total defense and 31st (next-to-last) against the pass. Their pass rush has gone AWOL, they’re too old to play man coverage, too undercoached to play zone-match, and just plain terrible at tackling ball carriers anywhere and everywhere on the field.
Last week, their offense failed to show up in a costly 27-to-10 loss to the Giants. When questioned, team leaders spewed spurious votes of confidence for Sirianni and his coordinators. But recent results speak for themselves—and Coach Nick’s hackneyed boxing metaphors about being “down, but not out” aren’t salving any wounds or generating much enthusiasm. Needless to say, Philly sportswriters are publishing daily obituaries, calling the Eagles' collapse worse than the 1964 Phillies debacle, a blown 10-game lead in two weeks.
Tampa Bay isn’t much better. Winners of the NFC South with a 9-8 record, the Bucs will host the game. But their defense, though equally vulnerable to good passers, allowed far fewer points than Philly. Moreover, Todd Bowles’ bunch blitzes more than all but two other NFL teams. Jalen Hurts and the Eagles offense have not handled blitzes well lately. So expect the Bucs to send more than 4 most of the time, forcing Hurts—who’s nursing a bad finger on his throwing hand—to throw quickly and accurately to hot receivers or take off running. Either way, Hurts running and not throwing amounts to a win for Tampa.
Bucs QB Baker Mayfield is also playing hurt. Among playoff teams, only the Steelers have totaled fewer offensive yards than Tampa, and Mayfield’s current lack of mobility makes him an inviting target for a pass rush that is struggling mightily. All of which suggests this will be a low-scoring contest for two teams who will not be playing January 27th for the NFC Championship.
Since I promised to make picks this week—I’m going with the home team. I truly don’t think the Eagles can escape from the devastating downward spiral that has torpedoed their once promising season!