Shapiro's Sunday NFL Divisional Round picks
The second day of Divisional Round action features a matchup between all-time great quarterbacks looking to get one last crack at the Super Bowl, and the other pits a pair of former Big 12 QBs for the second time in their professional careers.
It should be a lot of fun. Let's break down the games and make a couple picks.
Cleveland Browns vs. Kansas City Chiefs
Sun, January 17 2021, 8:05 PM
Sunday's game against the Steelers on Sunday could not have started much better for the Browns. They scored a defensive touchdown on the game’s first play and held a 28-0 lead after the first quarter.
Cleveland did enough from there to earn its first playoff victory since 1994, but outscoring the Chiefs will be a much more difficult task.
The good news for the Browns is that they will have head coach Kevin Stefanski back on the sideline, after a positive COVID-19 test forced him to miss the Pittsburgh game a week ago. They also get back their best cornerback, Denzel Ward, as well as fellow corner Kevin Johnson.
The bad news is they will encounter the defending Super Bowl champion.
Kansas City has not played a meaningful game since Week 16, when it defeated the Falcons, 17-14, to earn the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Head coach Andy Reid opted to rest his starters in Week 17, and his team had one of just two byes a week ago. Perhaps Kansas City's high-powered attack will be a bit rusty out of the gate Sunday afternoon, but once the Chiefs get things going, they will be almost impossible for the Browns to stop.
Coming up with a plan to stop wide receiver Tyreek Hill from making explosive plays down the field can be done. However, that often leads to openings for All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce to feast over the middle, and quarterback Patrick Mahomes can break contain to make dynamic plays with his legs or his arm.
This Browns defense, which ranked toward the bottom of the NFL in points per drive allowed, is not equipped to slow the Kansas City offense. Look for the Chiefs to score on most — if not all — of their possessions once they shake off the rust.
If Stefanski’s group is to hang with the top seed, it will need to do so with its offense. The key will be to stick with a running game that averaged 4.8 yards per carry behind one of the league’s best offensive lines.
If the Browns can find a way to create a turnover or two and avoid falling too far behind, they should have plenty of success on the ground against a Kansas City unit that ranked 31st in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) run defense during the regular season. Combine that with the play calling of Stefanski and play-action passing from quarterback Baker Mayfield, and you have a recipe for success.
Teams that rested their starters in the final game and then had a bye in the Wild Card Round have not fared well against the spread, so I am not eager to lay double digits with KC. My lack of confidence in Cleveland’s defense has me less than willing to endorse the Browns, even with the points.
Instead, I will bank on a shootout at Arrowhead Stadium.
Pick: Over 57
Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. New Orleans Saints
Sun, January 17 2021, 11:40 PM
It is supposedly difficult to defeat a team three times in one season, but a closer look tells a different story.
The truth is, the team that holds a 2-0 edge heading into a third meeting has won 14 of 22 games in NFL history. This will again be put to the test in the final game of the weekend, when Tom Brady and the Buccaneers head west to take on the NFC South champion Saints.
Tampa definitely struggled in its two games against New Orleans during the regular season, but that was a long time ago. Since an embarrassing 38-3 defeat to the Saints on Nov. 8, when Brady was pressured regularly by the Saints front four, the Bucs have won five straight and six of eight, with their only losses by three points to the Rams and Chiefs.
The Bucs have been at their best since a Week 13 bye, but they also have not faced the highest quality competition down the stretch.
The Saints did not play their “A” game on offense Sunday in the Superdome, but that was not needed against the Bears.
The New Orleans attack has been good but not great in 2020, but that is understandable, since their three most important weapons — Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, and Michael Thomas — hardly were on the field at the same time. They only played ten quarters together during the regular season, but were reunited Sunday and will all be in the huddle again for the Divisional Round.
Kamara has struggled against a Tampa defense that has linebackers fast enough to stick with him in the passing game and is one of the best run-stopping groups in the league, but the presence of Thomas cannot be overstated.
The Saints just match up well against Tampa Bay. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore has had Mike Evans' number, despite an up-and-down season, and New Orleans' ability to get pressure up the middle on Brady with its front four is a major factor.
The return of guard Ali Marpet, who missed the second meeting with New Orleans, will help, but I still think the Saints defense will do enough to advance to the NFC Championship Game.