I’m continuing the Vantage Points column — in which I examine press conferences and excellent articles from talented beat writers who cover their teams every day — through the 2020-21 NFL Playoffs. The idea is to potentially come up with some actionable fantasy info that might not be obvious at first glance.
I will publish this column each Friday during the playoffs.
All times are Eastern.
LA Rams at Green Bay (Sat, 4:35 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Rams…
The story for the Rams in the divisional round, for sure, is injuries. QB Jared Goff (thumb) will start with John Wolford (neck) out. WR Cooper Kupp (knee) avoided serious injury last week against Seattle, but is being listed as questionable for this game. LT Andrew Whitworth made it through last week’s game in his return from a knee injury, but is sore.
Then there’s the problem of the weather — it’s always notable when a warm-weather club has to travel to the Frozen Tundra for a playoff game. Goff, who obviously isn’t 100%, told reporters on Thursday that he is “considering” wearing gloves for the game. He described the ball as “harder” and tougher to get a grip on when the weather is cold, and that’s obviously a concern given he’s still sore on his throwing hand. Goff also mentioned that the screws inserted into his thumb will stay there “until [he’s] six feet under.” So they’re permanent!
Look, I don’t expect Packer fans to be worrying much about Goff. Even before his thumb injury, Goff has struggled this year. Instead, the Packer fans are probably having nightmares about last year’s postseason, when they lost the NFC Championship Game against a 49er team that completed just 6 passes but ran for 285 yards. And they’re going up against a rookie RB in Cam Akers who is red-hot right now — he’s received 20 or more carries in four of his last five games.
Packer DC Mike Pettine loves subpackages. Per The Athletic, he played 49.8% dime in 2020, by far the most of the NFL. Pettine did use a ton of base defense against Derrick Henry in Week 16, limiting him to 23/98 rushing, so that’s a potential blueprint for him, but Henry is a different kind of back.
Coach Sean McVay is well aware that the Packer defense is peaking right now.
“You look at the way they've played against some really good offenses later on in the year — Chicago was really rolling, they really stopped them in their last game,” McVay said. “Tennessee was one of the better offenses in the league and they did an excellent job really slowing them down, at their place, in a big Sunday night win.”
What They’re Saying About the Packers…
This is a playoff matchup of the NFL’s #1 defense (Rams) against the #1 offense (Packers), the 13th such matchup in the Super Bowl era. The top defense is 8-4 in the previous 12 matchups.
The Davante Adams/Jalen Ramsey matchup is going to be the most talked-about matchup in the entire Divisional Round, but it would be surprising if the Rams actually move Ramsey around to match up on Adams exclusively in this game. They haven’t done that all year. Sure, they do it on occasion (see: occasionally with DK Metcalf), but the Rams doing that in this game would be a change in tactics for DC Brandon Staley. And the Rams have the NFL’s #1 defense without doing so.
As our Greg Cosell broke down on our Matchup Points livestream, Ramsey almost always aligns over the boundary “X” receiver — which Metcalf typically plays for Seattle. The Packers will obviously use Adams as a boundary X, but not exclusively. When Ramsey does line up over a bigtime receiver at boundary X, he does play pure man, but that’s not an exclusive matchup.
Rams coach Sean McVay confirmed as much in comments with reporters on Thursday.
“Just because Jalen is lined up across from Davante, doesn't mean that it's ‘all right, those two are on a one-on-one matchup.’ There's a lot of different things,” McVay said. “That's what makes this game so fun is with the 22 moving parts on every single snap: are you in a zone, are you in a man, what are the types of principles that the offense is activate that elicit a certain response from the defense? I think what I appreciate is greatness, these are two great players.”
Instead, take a look at this breakdown from Sheil Kapadia and Ted Nguyen of the matchup to see how the Rams and Packers chess match could go down. It’s fascinating that the Rams typically line up in a two-deep safety look but often rotate to Cover 3, Cover 1, or Cover 4. And as Cosell pointed out yet again, the Rams play more snaps of Cover 4 than any team in the NFL, and that’s also a foundation of the Panthers’ defense — a defense Rodgers struggled against in Week 15 (20/29, 143 yards, 1 TD, 5 sacks taken).
The other issue, of course, is the pass rush. The Packers are down LT David Bakhtiari (ACL), but the Rams could have a limited DT Aaron Donald (ribs). Donald doesn’t have a gameday designation, so he will play, but almost certainly at less than 100%. DE Leonard Floyd is playing great, and this still will be a tough defensive front to scheme against.
Baltimore at Buffalo (Sat, 8:15 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Ravens…
The fascinating thing about this game, as always, is how the defense will choose to match up with QB Lamar Jackson and this Baltimore run game, which is absolutely humming right now.
In 2019, these two teams matched up and the Bills did an overall great job on Jackson at the end of his MVP campaign. Coach Sean McDermott and DC Leslie Frazier held Jackson to 145 yards on 16/25 passing, though he did throw for 3 TD and a pick in a 24-17 win. Most notably, they contained him to just 40 yards rushing on 11 attempts. It was Jackson’s second-lowest rushing total of the entire season. The Ravens as a whole rushed for 118 yards last year against Buffalo, a season low. (By contrast, the Bills average giving up 119.6 rush YPG this year.)
As our Greg Cosell pointed out on our Matchup Points livestream, the way they matched up to Jackson was actually extremely different from the way the Bills have played defense in 2020. Last year, they played an old-school style run-stopping defense — a 4-3 base stack with their two safeties split and close to the line of scrimmage. But this year, Cosell said, the Bills have played from a subpackage on over 90% of their defensive snaps (mostly out of nickel).
But don’t expect the Bills to revert to what they did a season ago: nickel CB Taron Johnson is actually graded better against the run than in coverage, per PFF. And the speed a run-defending CB gives against Jackson could be invaluable in this matchup. The concepts, then, could be similar, but the personnel will be different.
It is notable, however, that the Bills’ inconsistent run defense has allowed mobile QBs Kyler Murray, Cam Newton, and Patrick Mahomes to have big games against them.
Anyway, another factor worth watching is the weather — current forecasts have a steady wind and potential for snow accumulation Saturday night. Jackson has never played a game in the snow, and the Ravens have prepared by using wet balls in practice this week, per Jeff Zrebiec of The Athletic. But Jackson has also had some issues with footing in some games this year, so don’t expect the Bills to be too worked up if it’s snowing. He’s also wearing a glove on his non-throwing hand — he jammed a thumb last week against the Titans.
As Zrebiec points out, the biggest concern for the Bills in the passing game is almost certainly TE Mark Andrews. The Bills gave up the most receptions in the NFL to TEs this year, and the Colts’ TEs combined for 14/136/1 against Buffalo last week.
What They’re Saying About the Bills…
I think it’s kind of interesting that Bill WR Stefon Diggs kind of views this as a Revenge Game of sorts. As this SI piece from a couple years back points out, Diggs’ mother actually confronted (I don’t think maliciously) former Raven GM Ozzie Newsome and suggested that not drafting Diggs — who is from Maryland and went to school at the University of Maryland — should have cost Newsome his job. And coach John Harbaugh expressed regret this week that Diggs isn’t a Raven. Not that Diggs needs extra motivation, but I would anticipate he’s excited to show up against the team he rooted for as a kid.
Anyway, how are the Ravens going to play Buffalo in this game?
“They’re going to blitz,” our Greg Cosell said on our Matchup Points livestream this week. That’s DC Wink Martindale’s M.O., and we don’t expect it to change.
Last year, that flustered QB Josh Allen, who went 17/39 for 146 yards with a TD but 6 sacks taken and 2 fumbles against Baltimore. He was 9/26 when Baltimore blitzed. But this year, Allen is a completely different QB in many ways, but especially against the blitz.
The Athletic’s Jeff Zrebiec notes that Allen has 19 TD passes (the most in the NFL) and a 104.5 QB rating against blitz this year. And the Bills have been blitzed more than any team in the league! This is not the 2019 Allen.
The Ravens are a single-high defense with a lot of man coverage, and the Bills receivers — Diggs, Cole Beasley, John Brown, Gabriel Davis — can get open against man. The Ravens also have CB Marcus Peters (back) questionable for this game, though he’s expected to play.
In the backfield, the Bills will lean on Devin Singletary. Zack Moss (ankle) is on IR, and coach Sean McDermott said this week that veteran TJ Yeldon will fill in for Moss. But Buffalo isn’t going to run the ball this week, as it hasn’t all year.
Anyway, Bills OC Brian Daboll is one of the hottest head coaching candidates in the NFL, and for good reason. The Athletic’s Robert Mays took a deep dive into Daboll’s journey.
Cleveland at Kansas City (Sun, 3:05 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Browns…
We know the Browns will run the ball — that’s what they do best, and in addition to that, they’re getting LG Joel Bitonio back from the COVID-19 list this week. The Chiefs have the NFL’s second-worst run defense by FootballOutsiders DVOA, so the matchup should dictate that will work — the Browns have the NFL’s 7th-best run game by that metric. It’s a big Nick Chubb game, for sure.
But as our Greg Cosell pointed out this week, the Chiefs don’t really dedicate too many resources to the run game because they anticipate they’re going to score so many points that eventually the opposing team will have to abandon the run. So don’t be shocked if the Browns come out throwing the ball this week. The problem for the Browns is they don’t have a real vertical dimension in their offense, so those plays are schemed, and the Browns just can’t miss on those plays against Kansas City. Fortunately, QB Baker Mayfield is playing good football, and they’ll have HC Kevin Stefanski back from the COVID list as well.
The Athletic’s Seth Keysor, in December, found very little evidence that “controlling the clock” by running the ball was an actual blueprint to beating the Chiefs. Yes, the Browns will run — they’re good at it! But they won’t run exclusively, or even more, if they truly want to win this game.
Unfortunately for Cleveland, the return of Bitonio could be offset by the loss of RT Jack Conklin, who looks unlikely to play through hamstring and knee problems. Conklin and RG Wyatt Teller are one of the NFL’s best run-blocking duos, so that’s a blow to the Browns’ run game.
Hooper isn’t a sensational athlete, but he has good movement skills and is more than capable of winning routes on his own against certain safeties. The Chiefs have given up several big plays and crucial first downs this season by allowing opponents to scheme them into leaving Sorensen on an island in coverage against a tight end. If the Browns have done their homework on how to drag Sorensen into those matchups, they’ll have a chance to earn some cheap yardage and perhaps even a few big plays.
Meanwhile, it’s a homecoming of sorts for Browns RB Kareem Hunt, who was released by Kansas City in 2018 following video of Hunt shoving and kicking a woman became public. Hunt had lied to the team about the incident, and the video proved it. But the Browns — Hunt’s actual hometown team — gave him a chance. Hunt acknowledges that the Chiefs’ decision to release him helped him turn his life around.
And his presence in the passing game, Keysor writes, is a fascinating one this week. He writes:
For several years now, the Chiefs have had less than ideal speed at the linebacker position covering running backs out of the backfield in man or trying to get to the perimeter in zone coverage, and it has been exploited on multiple occasions. While defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has done a good job of hiding these limitations this year, it’s still a concern. Both Chubb and Hunt are exceptional at picking up yards after the catch and possess a rare combination of strength and acceleration. Hunt in particular is a gifted receiver.
The Chiefs’ fastest LB, by the way, is rookie LB Willie Gay, and he’s missed multiple practices this week with an ankle injury.
What They’re Saying About the Chiefs…
The Chiefs are kind of a “boring” fantasy team to write about, as I’ve noted in this space multiple times this year. Yes, they’re an exciting football team, but you know what they’re going to do each and every week on offense. Patrick Mahomes is going to sling it around. Good luck to their opponents.
And this is a great week for it. The Browns, despite the huge addition of getting CB Denzel Ward back from the COVID list, have one of the NFL’s most exploitable secondaries (8th-worst pass defense DVOA). While much of it was in garbage time, they did give up 501 yards to Ben Roethlisberger through the air last week. And Ben threw 4 INT in that game, one of five turnovers for Pittsburgh. Kansas City has turned the ball over just 16 times all season.
The Browns are especially weak at safety and in the middle of the field, which bodes well for TE Travis Kelce.
The Chiefs don’t run the ball as is, but RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire (hip/ankle) is questionable for this game. If the Chiefs do build a lead and CEH is out or limited, how will they treat their backfield? The last time the Chiefs played to win, CEH was out and, with the Chiefs playing from behind all game against Atlanta, passing back Darrel Williams played over Le’Veon Bell at a 70/30 clip. Would it be different with the Chiefs a double-digit favorite here, and maybe even after Darwin Thompson looked good in his Week 17 spot start? That’s a tough question to answer.
The Chiefs will be without WR Sammy Watkins (calf).
Tampa Bay at New Orleans (Sun, 6:40 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Buccaneers…
The Buccaneers had a major bummer in the backfield for DFS players last week when RB Ronald Jones (calf) was injured in pregame warmups and didn’t play. Jones was able to get some practice time in this week, but he’s officially being called a game-time decision, per Bruce Arians. Even if Jones can play, Arians said, Leonard Fournette will start against the Saints following his strong game against the Team last week.
Anyway, the Buccaneers are trying to avoid a first for QB Tom Brady — he’s never lost to the same team three times in one season. Heck, he’s barely ever lost twice to the same team in one season given how much his Patriots dominated the AFC East in Brady’s time there.
But the Bucs have simply played poorly against the Saints in two games this year, neither of which was particularly close. They’ve struggled in two key areas, per our Greg Cosell — they haven’t protected against the Saints’ rush, and the Buccaneers’ elite WR group has struggled to get open in man coverage. We know WR Mike Evans and CB Marshon Lattimore have had their battles — Evans has just 9 catches on 21 targets in his last four games against the Saints. Slot CB CJ Gardner-Johnson — the league’s premier agitator — will have his hands full with Chris Godwin, though Godwin had 4 drops last week. Meanwhile, Brady will have the inexperienced Aaron Stinnie in front of him at RG with Alex Cappa (ankle) going on IR.
Since Week 14, Brady is PFF’s #1 graded QB, and he leads the NFL in several other passing categories. These two teams haven’t played since Week 9, and Brady has played his best football since then. And WR Antonio Brown is a bigger factor as well. The Saints have the Bucs’ number this year, but they’re catching them at the wrong time. This is a Buccaneer OL that, noted, is down Cappa, but it protected very well against the Team’s strong front last week.
The Saints will get a key defender back this week however — DE Trey Hendrickson (neck) will play after not being in the lineup against Chicago last week.
One player our Greg Cosell thought could be interesting, and one who had a solid game last week, is TE Cameron Brate. Brate’s the athletic kind of TE who has given S Malcolm Jenkins problems this year, when Jenkins matches up to the TE in two-high.
What They’re Saying About the Saints…
The Saints aren’t exactly coming off an inspiring performance against the Bears, having needed very little offense to beat Chicago, but the question this week will be if New Orleans can beat the Bucs for the third time this year and score against what has been a disappointing defense.
One big problem for the Bucs has been corner play over the last half of the season, especially Sean Murphy-Bunting. That’s not great against a team that had Michael Thomas back last week and back in the end zone, and he’s not even on the injury report. One player who has also made an impact is shifty WR Deonte Harris. He just gives them a ton of juice when he’s on the field. In fact, because of injury, his game against the Bears was his first since Week 9 — against the Bucs. Our Greg Cosell writes about Harris:
“Harris is a multi-dimensional weapon for the Saints. He lined up in multiple positions including behind Brees in a pistol look with a back offset. Harris was a factor both versus zone and man coverage.”
Harris is the type of player who excels on the quick game stuff QB Drew Brees thrives with. WR Tre’Quan Smith is also eligible to return off of IR, which gives the Saints much more juice than they’ve had in recent weeks.
The Bucs will get speedy LB Devin White back from the COVID-19 list, which will help against RB Alvin Kamara. The Saints have RB Latavius Murray (quad) and QB Taysom Hill (knee) listed as questionable.