Home-field advantage basically didn't exist during the unprecedented 2020 NFL season, and that carried over into wild card weekend as four of the six road teams won outright. It will be a lot tougher in the divisional round. It always is. But all four of these games should be close. Kansas City and Green Bay are strong 1 seeds but neither is unbeatable. Expect a fun-filled divisional weekend that has the potential for a few more surprises.
L.A. RAMS (11-6) AT GREEN BAY (13-3)
TV: Ch. 5, 4:35 p.m.
Green Bay by 6.5; O/U: 45.5
Forecasts call for temperatures to be in the high 20s Saturday night in Green Bay. If the Rams expect to pull off a second straight upset on the road, they’ll need to keep Aaron Rodgers and the well-rested Packers in the low 20s. If Rodgers (the likely MVP after his 48 TD-to-5 INT season) and Davante Adams (18 TD catches) put up 30-plus, L.A. won’t be able to keep up with the No. 1 seed. Jared Goff has made a quick recovery from his fractured thumb and will start at quarterback. He’s not 100%, but Sean McVay will play to his team’s strengths and devise a game plan to chew clock and keep Rodgers on the sidelines. The main reason why I see this being a close game: Two things that always travel in the playoffs are defense and good coaching. And the Rams specialize in both those areas. McVay is 37-0 when leading at halftime. The Rams’ No. 1-ranked defense dominated Russell Wilson and Seattle last week with a pick-6 and five sacks. Aaron Donald is a little banged-up, but he’s going to play. The key matchup will be Jalen Ramsey vs. Adams. Ramsey and the Rams’ secondary should limit the big plays and keep this close.
The pick: Los Angeles
The score: Green Bay 24, L.A. Rams 20
BALTIMORE (12-5) AT BUFFALO (14-3)
TV: Ch. 4, 8:15 p.m.
Buffalo by 2.5; O/U: 50
When we made our postseason predictions last week, Baltimore at Buffalo was my pick . . . for the AFC Championship Game. Then Cleveland won, setting up a battle of two of the NFL’s hottest teams on a cold, (snowy?) Saturday night in January. Buffalo has won seven in a row (all covers except for last week’s 27-24 wild-card win over the Colts). Baltimore has won six in a row (all covers, including last week’s 20-13 win at Tennessee). Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson both earned their first playoff wins. That both are playing exceptionally well and look capable of taking their teams all the way to Tampa Bay makes this the most difficult game to pick. Jackson leading the Ravens back from a 10-0 hole at Tennessee was impressive considering he’s had trouble playing from behind, but I’m going to stick with my Super Bowl pick and back Buffalo. Having to play last week instead of getting a bye should be a boost for a young Bills team: 1) It showed them they can win a hard-fought game; 2) They can address last week’s mistakes. Expect a close one. Maybe even overtime close.
The pick: Buffalo
The score: Buffalo 30, Baltimore 27 (OT)
CLEVELAND (12-5) AT KANSAS CITY (14-2)
TV: Ch. 2, 3:05 p.m.
Kansas City by 10; O/U: 57
There are two ways to look at this intriguing matchup between the defending champs and a team that just won its first playoff game in 26 seasons: 1) Cleveland is just happy to be here after beating its rival Pittsburgh in shocking fashion; 2) The Browns are playing with house money, know all the pressure is on Kansas City and will be super-motivated to move one step closer to the tortured franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance. I choose Door No. 2. Yes, Patrick Mahomes and the hosts will find a way to win – don’t they always? – but it’s not going to be easy. Kansas City went 14-1 in the games Mahomes started, and what you’re about to read might sound odd, but it wasn’t a dominant 14-1. Let me explain: Eight of those wins were by six or fewer points, four by three and one by two. Five-win Carolina and four-win Atlanta gave KC all it could handle in down-to-the-wire losses at Arrowhead. After last year’s slow playoff starts (24-0 vs. Texans, 10-0 vs. Titans and 20-10 vs. 49ers), KC will want to start fast so picking it to score first is a good prop play. But this is a ton of points, and Baker Mayfield (renewing his Big 12 rivalry with Mahomes), Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt (facing his old team) can score in the 30s.
The pick: Cleveland
The score: Kansas City 38, Cleveland 31
TAMPA BAY (12-5) AT NEW ORLEANS (13-4)
TV: Ch. 5, 6:40 p.m.
New Orleans by 3; O/U: 52
Saints 34, Bucs 23. Saints 38, Bucs 3. If you base your pick solely on how the teams’ first two meetings went, it’s a N.O.-brainer. But if you put any stock into the adage of "it’s hard to beat a team twice in one season," well then, it must be difficult to do it three times, right? Especially when that second defeat was such an embarrassing one, on Sunday Night Football, in your own building. You think Tom Brady & Co. weren’t hoping to face the Saints this week? New Orleans’ 21-9 win over Chicago last Sunday was a yawn fest if not for the entertaining Nickelodeon broadcast. Maybe it’s because I’ve been slimed by the Saints the last couple of playoffs, but they just don’t feel like a dominant team to me. If Brady and the Bucs – on a five-game win streak with point totals of 26, 31, 47, 44 and 31 – jump out to an early lead, it wouldn’t surprise me. The Saints have intercepted Brady five times this season, but in a weird way, that makes me want to pick him even more! Brady, the NFL’s all-time passing touchdowns leader with 581, gets the best of the second guy on that list, Drew Brees (571) in an instant classic as Tampa Bay sets up a "Battle of the Bays" NFC Championship Game and moves one step closer to becoming the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium.
The pick: Tampa Bay
The score: Tampa Bay 34, New Orleans 31
(best bets in bold)
L.A. Rams Buffalo Cleveland Tampa Bay
Regular Season: 122-125-9
Green Bay Baltimore Kansas City New Orleans
Regular Season: 128-119-9
Green Bay Baltimore Kansas City Tampa Bay
Regular Season: 127-120-9
Green Bay Buffalo Kansas City Tampa Bay
Regular Season: 123-124-9