Shapiro's Saturday NFL Divisional Round picks
When the NFL decided to add an additional playoff team in each conference, I was concerned it might devalue the regular season.
Perhaps letting the Bears into the playoffs proved that point, but I loved the "Super Wild Card" format, with three games on Saturday and Sunday. The non-stop action started with a thriller in upstate New York and concluded with Cleveland’s first postseason victory this century. I definitely look forward to many more six-game weekends to get the playoffs started.
It is back to the more traditional four-game Divisional Round setup, starting Saturday afternoon in Wisconsin. Let’s get to it.
Los Angeles Rams vs. Green Bay Packers
Sat, January 16 2021, 9:35 PM
The Los Angeles defense was good during the first half of the regular season, but defensive coordinator Brandon Staley’s group took things to a new level in the second half.
Likely Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey have been key to prevent the opposition from making regular trips to the end zone, but the Rams are far deeper than just two players. This was on display in Seattle on Saturday, when they held Russell Wilson to just 174 yards passing in a 30-20 victory over the Seahawks.
As good as the Rams defense played in the Pacific Northwest, it will have to be even better this week, against MVP frontrunner Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field.
Rodgers and head coach Matt LaFleur struggled to find common ground during their first season together, but they have been tough to stop in 2020. They have not, however, encountered a defense like the Rams' unit over the last few months. It will be a major test for a Green Bay offense that posted a league-high 509 points this season.
Whether it is Jared Goff or John Walford at quarterback, it is unlikely Los Angeles will find regular success through the air. Look for Rams head coach Sean McVay to hand the ball to rookie running back Cam Akers early and often against a Green Bay defense that allowed 4.5 yards per carry in the regular season. This should shorten the game, and ideally — if you are a Rams fan — keep Rodgers on the sideline.
With Ramsey likely to shadow First Team All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams, with Donald and the defensive front probable to contain the Packers rushing attack, it looks like the first team to 24 points will survive and advance. That should be Green Bay, but I am not willing to lay nearly a touchdown against the red-hot Rams defense.
I will focus on the total, as points should be at a premium, assuming there are not multiple defensive or special-teams scores.
This is my best bet of the Divisional Round.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Buffalo Bills
Sun, January 17 2021, 1:15 AM
Buffalo may have been outplayed by the Colts in its Wild Card game, but quarterback Josh Allen made enough plays and the defense got a big stop on the final drive, which allowed the Bills to advance to the Divisional Round for the first time since 1995.
While the performance was underwhelming, it was against an Indianapolis team that won 11 games, so I do not want to be too hard on the Bills, considering it was their seventh consecutive win. That being said, they will need to bring their “A” game Saturday night, against the scorching-hot Ravens.
Baltimore’s offense was mostly responsible for the Ravens' late-season surge, but it was Don "Wink" Martindale’s defense that led the way in their 20-13 win over Tennessee last week. In their first road playoff victory since the 2014-2015 season, the Ravens defense held running back Derrick Henry to just 40 yards on 18 carries and intercepted quarterback Ryan Tannehill late to salt things away.
Now the Ravens must do what no one has been able to do in some time — stop Allen in his breakout season.
I loved Buffalo’s chances to win two games and get to the AFC Championship Game before the playoffs started, but Cleveland’s win against the Steelers made the Bills' road to the title game more difficult. A matchup against Pittsburgh was definitely more favorable than a visit from Baltimore, but I still trust Allen more Lamar Jackson to make big plays in a cold, tight game.
The Bills will find a way.