PITTS VS CLEVELAND
The Browns almost blew it against a below strength Steelers in Week 17, surviving a late rally from back up QB Mason Rudolph, in for rested Ben Roethlisberger, and getting over the line in a highly competitive AFC that saw the 10-6 Dolphins miss out on a playoff spot, after their implosion against Buffalo.
It’s hard to work out what should trouble Cleveland fans more; the fact that they allowed a depleted Steelers front 7 sack Baker Mayfield four times despite having their own O-Line re-upped with the return of Jedrick Wills and Wyatt Teller, or that their defense – albeit one missing star corner Denzel Ward – made Rudolph look pretty comfortable.
The Browns have developed significantly under first year head coach Kevin Stefanski, who has created cohesion, and introduced direction & composure to a talented but erratic roster. This is particularly evident in Mayfield’s own progression – a player who started the season effectively playing for his Cleveland career, but has surely now done enough to cement the starting job for the foreseeable future. It helps that he has a strong ground game going, and the return of Wills and Teller was evident to Nick Chubb, who struggled against the hapless Jets the week before without him but gashed the Steelers for over 100+ yards and 7.7 yards a carry and will look to do the same again.
Tom Brady is going to his 10th Super Bowl
18% of all Super Bowls have featured Tom Brady
The Greatest there has been. The greatest there ever will be pic.twitter.com/9SKxsUbfXj
— Unibet (@unibet) January 24, 2021
For their biggest game in almost two decades they’ll be without their head coach – and veteran offensive lineman Joel Bitonio – both testing positive for Covid-19 and out of the game. Play calling will be in the hands of offensive co-ordinator Alex Van Pelt, but Stefanski will have mapped out the first chunk of plays for the offense to run, so will make some contribution. Nevertheless, it’s a major blow.
Pittsburgh were misfiring for much of the tail end of the season – the second half against the Colts in Wek 16 notwithstanding – and whilst the veteran Roethlisberger, who’s taken a lot of damage over the years, will no doubt benefit from the rest, some suggest they shouldn’t have benched him for the game, to maintain the rhythm regained against the Colts, but lacking over previous weeks. The short, sharp passing game the Steelers have favoured this season is dependent on that rhythm and is further pressured by the lack of a ground game. Cleveland had success stifling the Steelers run game last weekend – as have many this season, Pittsburgh ranking dead last in the NFL with just 84.4 rushing yards per game.
Much of the Pittsburgh regression in weeks 13, 14 & 15 (and the first half of week 16) was down to receivers dropping far too many balls. Glass half full Steelers will argue this rarely persists, whilst the pessimists will worry about the surety of their wideouts at crunch time. Ultimately, I’m backing the experience here – both of Roethlisberger over Mayfield, but also Mike Tomlin over the Cleveland deputies but I expect Cleveland to go down swinging.
TENNESSE V BALTIMORE
I’ll double the Steelers with the Ravens, who are rolling into the playoffs and I think overcome the Titans this time around, having lost to Tennessee in the 2020 postseason. This will be a ground game slug fest, two of the most potent rushing attacks in the league, with Tennessee most likely falling short because their defense lacks a clinical bite – particularly in the pass rush. This will allow Lamar Jackson time – a dangerous present for a QB of his nature.
Mike Vrabel is one of the best in the league, a highly impressive coach but this time round he’s too short stacked on the defensive side of the ball, although any offense with Derrick Henry, the best running back of his generation and a play action passing game controlled by the underrated Ryan Tannehill should be feared, I think Jackson answers his critics, and leads Baltimore to victory and revenge for last year’s defeat.
WASHINGTON V TAMPA BAY & NEW ORLEANS V CHICAGO
I also like both Tom Brady & the Bucs to overcome Washington and Drew Brees New Orleans to take down Chicago comfortably, and suggest teasing both lines down to -4 in a two-team tease.
Most QB wins by month
Sep – Tom Brady – 43
Oct – Tom Brady – 63
Nov – Tom Brady – 52
Dec – Tom Brady – 66
Jan – Tom Brady – 29
Feb – Tom Brady – 6
— John Bianchi (@_jmb22) January 4, 2021
The Bucs will inevitably look to neutralise the Washington pass rush with RB’s Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette, and Brady has the passing offense humming, surrounded by playmaking ability, in a stacked receiving corp. It’s unlikely that Washington – even with the intriguing suggestion of tag teaming QB’s Alex Smith and Taylor Heinicke – will be able to keep up. Similar situation with the Saints who will make relatively straightforward work of a Bears offense whose resurgence in recent weeks is overrated, predicated on weak opponents.