Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills
Saturday, 1.05pm ET/6.05pm GMT
What the Colts need to do to win: Any team whose main strength is their offensive line is hardly a must-see, but the Colts are a well-balanced unit – ranking in the top 10 in both offense and defense this season. If that offensive line helps rookie running back Jonathan Taylor play to his best on Saturday, the Bills will be in trouble. After a so-so start to his NFL career, Taylor has been ripping into opponents since December, when he averaged 5.9 yards per attempt. In his last game (admittedly against the risible Jaguars) he ran for 253 yards.
What the Bills need to do to win: Josh Allen has always been capable of greatness, the difference this season is that he has mostly eliminated the horrible turnovers that frequently punctuated that greatness. He has, of course, been helped the brilliance of Stefon Diggs and the sparkiness of Cole Beasley and it’s worrying for Bills fans that both receivers missed practice on Wednesday. If the Bills play somewhere close to their best though, they win this one easily.
Key player: Philip Rivers, QB, Colts. Rivers, at 39, isn’t going to win games single-handedly but still has the ability to lose them for his team (although, in fairness, he has committed far fewer turnovers this season than he has in the past). On Saturday he’ll be against one of the best cornerbacks in the league, Tre’Davious White, though. Oh, and a man used to playing in southern California or domes may not thrive in upstate New York in January.
Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks
Saturday, 4.40pm ET/9.30pm GMT
What the Rams need to do to win: Los Angeles will need a big game on the ground against a Seattle defense that’s been stout against the run, especially during the second half of the season. The Rams have managed to improve their rushing attack since dropping star running back Todd Gurley in the offseason, averaging 126.1 yards per game with a committee approach (up from 93.7 last year). But with Darrell Henderson out with an ankle sprain, Cam Akers and Malcolm Brown were held to a combined 54 yards in Sunday’s must-win game against Arizona to clinch a playoff spot.
What the Seahawks need to do to win: Star quarterback and MVP candidate Russell Wilson will need be at his efficient, improvisational best against a defense that ranked first in the NFL in points allowed and always seems to cause him problems. He was limited to one touchdown and two interceptions while completing 60.9% of his passes in the two regular-season meetings between the NFC West rivals and will need to be much better for the Seahawks to prevail in the rubber match.
Key players: Jared Goff, QB, Rams. LA’s first-choice quarterback suffered a fractured and dislocated thumb in a Week 16 loss to the Seahawks and underwent surgery on Monday after missing the regular-season finale. Back-up John Wolford was good enough in relief to help the Rams to an 18-9 win over Arizona that punched their postseason ticket, but the Seattle defense could be a bridge too far for the understudy’s second NFL start. Good news for LA fans: the two-time Pro Bowler is trending toward playing.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Washington Football Team
Saturday, 8.15 pm ET/1.15am GMT (Sunday)
What the Buccaneers need to do to win: Tampa Bay’s offensive line will need to keep Tom Brady clean against a Washington defense that carried them all season, ranking second in total defense and fourth in points allowed. They’ve done a good job of it this year, allowing the fourth-fewest sacks (22) and seventh-lowest pressure rate (16.2%) in the NFL. But all five of the Bucs’ losses came against teams who were able to harry, hit and harass Brady, typically bringing four defensive lineman.
What Washington need to do to win: After “winning” the NFC East title with a 7-9 record, the Football Team are eight-point underdogs on merit. Their chances of scoring the upset will depend on whether they can take advantage of a defense that’s been far more susceptible against the pass (21st in the NFL) than against the run (first, allowing only 80.6 rushing yards per game). Washington quarterback Alex Smith, who underwent 17 surgeries over nearly two years for one more shot in the NFL, is questionable with a calf strain. But the 36-year-old war horse gives Ron Rivera’s club its best chance after going 5-1 as a starter in the regular season.
Key player: Chase Young, DE, Washington. The No 2 pick in last year’s draft, who made headlines for calling out Brady after Sunday’s division-clinching win at Philadelphia, has shown glimmers of Hall of Fame talent in a sensational rookie campaign. He’s the biggest difference-maker on a defensive line that must get pressure on the Bucs’ quadragenarian superstar if Washington are to surprise.
Baltimore Ravens at Tennessee Titans
Sunday, 1.10pm ET/6.10pm GMT
What the Ravens need to do to win: Back in August, ESPN ran a podcast titled “How to Stop Lamar Jackson in 2020 (Hint: Pray)”. If any of those prayers involved his offensive line and tight ends getting mangled, they were answered because the 2019 MVP looked distinctly average around midseason. But the Ravens tweaked their tactics and Jackson – and the team’s run game – have thrived over the last few weeks. In fact, they’ve won five in a row (although four of those five games were against the Cowboys, Giants, Jaguars and Bengals). If those wins were down to head coach John Harbaugh’s genius and Jackson’s resurgence then they’ll be fine. If the run was due to running up the score against the likes of Brandon Allen things could get a little more tricky.
What the Titans need to do to win: The Titans’ run to the AFC championship game last season was mostly down to their excellent defense and Derrick Henry steamrolling everything in his path. Henry is still great – has there ever been less fanfare for someone rushing 2,000 yards in a season? – the defense less so. That defense will need to stop the Ravens’ rush, forcing Jackson to make big plays with his arm (which, contrary to the opinion of some, he he is more than capable of making).
Key player: Ryan Tannehill, QB, Titans. Presumably (caveat: I am not an NFL head coach) the Ravens’ first priority will be shutting down Henry. Which will leave the team relying on their quarterback more. Luckily for them, Tannehill has been excellent since freeing himself from the shackles of Adam Gase in Miami and is even better this season than he was in 2019.
Prediction: Ravens (just)
Chicago Bears at New Orleans Saints
Sunday, 4.40pm ET/9.40pm GMT
What the Bears need to do to win: Chicago must establish the run and use ball control to keep Drew Brees and the Saints’ high-octane offense off the field as much as possible. That means getting David Montgomery involved early and often. When the Bears nearly knocked off New Orleans in an overtime loss back in November amid their six-game losing streak, the second-year running back carried 21 times for 89 yards.
What Saints need to do to win: New Orleans finished 12-4 and captured a fourth straight NFC South championship despite an almost comical litany of injuries. But with ageless wonder Drew Brees under center and favorite weapons Alvin Kamara (reserve/Covid-19) and Michael Thomas (ankle) expected to play, it will simply be a matter of taking what Chicago’s defense is giving them.
Key player: Alvin Kamara, RB, Saints. After tying the NFL record with an eye-popping six touchdowns in a Christmas Day win over the Vikings, the 25-year-old running back was forced to miss New Orleans’ regular-season finale after testing positive for coronavirus. The NFL scheduling gods looked fondly on the Saints as Sunday is the first day Kamara is eligible to return from the reserve/Covid-19 list assuming he passes all of the league’s coronavirus protocols this week. His expected return is bad news, Bears.
Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers
Sunday, 8.15pm ET/1.15am GMT (Monday)
What the Browns need to do to win: Hope that some of the Steelers are ruled out with Covid-19 too? Obviously the virus has inflicted far more grievous misery on the world in the last 12 months, but the fact that Covid-19 has weakened the Browns – they will be without their head coach and a cornerstone of their offensive line on Sunday – for what would otherwise have been the highlight of the round is a real shame. Instead, Cleveland, who struggled to beat a Steelers team that rested a good portion of its starters last week, go into their first playoff game in 18 years without a clear path to victory. Baker Mayfield, despite his well-documented struggles to justify going No 1 overall in 2018, is still a good quarterback and better than the diminished Ben Roethlisberger. If Mayfield plays to his ceiling, the Browns have a chance. Or he could just let Jarvis Landry cook.
What the Steelers need to do to win: The first thing to avoid is complacency after the Browns’ Covid-19 outbreak and the surprisingly close contest in the last week of the regular season, when the Browns made Mason Rudolph look half-competent. The Steelers were never as good as their 11-0 start to the season suggested, and they have lost to the Bengals and Washington in recent weeks. But with the likes of Cameron Heyward and TJ Watt back in the team on Sunday, they should be able to handle the Browns.
Key player: Kevin Stefanski, head coach, Cleveland Browns. OK, Stefanski hasn’t been a player since he was at Penn but his intelligence and acumen have been a huge part of the Browns’ success this season, especially when compared with the team’s recent coaches. “I am going to try to do exactly what Kevin would want to have happen,” said special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, who will step in for Stefanski, absent due to a positive Covid-19 test. How well he can replace his boss could be decisive in a close game.