TWO of the all-time greats square off for what will most likely be the last time, as the Saints' Drew Brees, almost certain to retire at the end of the season, hosts Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Bucs.
They’ve played twice already this season, with the Saints coming out on top on both occasions, but take those results with a pinch of salt. The first win was in Week 1 – a brand new team for Brady to get to grips with a fractious off-season because of Covid – and the 38-3 rubbing in Week 9 was a very different Bucs offense to the one we’ll see in the Divisional round.
Improbably, Brady still faces criticism routinely, despite demonstrating this season that he can thrive outside of Foxboro, not only driving the Bucs to the playoffs, but getting stronger and stronger as the season has rolled on. He’s got an abundance of talent around him – seasoned, elite vets like Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown, who, week on week, are sharpening their contribution. Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Scotty Miller and Cameron Brate are all playmaking receiving threats, and Leonard Fournette – a former top 5 draft pick who’s lost his way somewhat – stepped up in the Wild Card round against Washington – when his tag team partner, and lead RB, Ronald Jones injured himself in warm up. Jones’ fitness is important to the Bucs chances – he’s back in training but may not go. Without him, Fournette will need to repeat the trick against a strong Saints defense which is far from a given – but Brady, playing behind a strong offensive line, should be able to land blows and keep in range.
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The Saints should be at near full strength offensively – gadget x-factor Taysom Hill the major worry – and for an offense that to the most part has thrived without Michael Thomas for much of the season, they move into the post season with Thomas back, and as such are elevated to one of the very best. They’ll be challenged by this Bucs Defense, that misses Vita Vea, but has quality across the unit, though the Brees/Sean Payton simpatico may well dial up too much for Tampa Bay to ultimately handle. That said, I like the Bucs chances to keep in it, and I’ll tease the line to + 7 and double that with the Rams teased to + 9.5 against the Packers.
The Rams are the best Defense in the NFL – the Packers the highest scoring offense, with Aaron Rodgers a lock for MVP, and demonstrably on the same page with Head Coach Matt Lafleur – unlike last season and the latter Mike McCarthy years. He’s got the most in form receiver in the NFL in Davante Adams, a solid ground game led by Aaron Jones and a defense that’s solid, with Jaire Alexander and Za’Darius Smith two elite players that underpin the unit. But the Rams are a different level defensively, can have success in stifling Jones and the ground game, and keep Adams relatively quiet by deploying Jalen Ramsay, the best shutdown corner in the business. The concern for Sean McVay is at QB. Jared Goff, the erstwhile starter, is banged up, a thumb injury clearly limiting his capabilities, but with back up John Wolford out, McVay will have to roll the dice with Goff. He’ll lead with RB Cam Akers and the ground game, and quite probably dial up some imaginative, motion-based trickery that’s become his forte as an innovator, and whilst the Packers are strong favourites for understandable reasons, tease the line up to over two scores, because I don’t see Green Bay running away with this.
Bills v Ravens
The Bills Ravens game looks like it’ll be played in very cold conditions up in Buffalo, which suggests that may suit the Ravens, who will lean on their dynamic, in-form ground game – the often-lethal combination of RB’s JK Dobbins & Gus Edwards offset by the brilliance of Lamar Jackson, who demonstrated his game changing edge in the Wild Card round with his sensational 48-yard TD. Ahead of that game, I picked the Ravens on the basis that each side could neutralise the key opposition threat (Henry for the Titans, Dobbins and Edwards for the Ravens) the plan B upside was greater with Jackson than the excellent, but less versatile Ryan Tannehill. The match up here is not as clear-cut, with the Bills Josh Allen one of the most productive QB’s of the season, and crucially a dual threat playmaker, who can extend drives and keep things rolling in the same way Jackson does. The Ravens D will most likely look to take out leading receiver Stefon Diggs – and force Allen to beat them another way, and this capable Ravens D has a viable chance of executing that – but whilst Allen is in this form, and with his significant improvement in the range of passes he’s making, and with Brian Daboll dialling up a smart game plan, I suspect the Bills will have just enough to edge this.
Chiefs v Browns
The total is big in Kansas City, and the Chiefs heavy favourites, predicated on the principle that Andy Reid & Patrick Mahomes, with 2 weeks rest, and a fit, raring to go offensive roster, are a terrifying proposition.
The Browns though come into this game with real momentum and energy, will revel in the underdog role, and possess a ground game courtesy of Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb capable of going toe-to-toe with the best of them – and this Chiefs Run D is by no means that. Baker Mayfield has improved dramatically this season – partly because he’s not been forcing the issue, and in a shoot-out, he can step up, but also unravel wildly, so this will be a must watch match up. I like the Chiefs to win, but think the Browns land enough blows to take this one into the high 50’s.