I’m finally on the plus side of .500. Thanks to a couple of savvy last-minute changes to my picks in the Sunday AFC games, 2-4 became 4-2. The AFC divisional round is here and brings the only fresh blood remaining in the playoffs. Sure, the Bucs haven’t been to the playoffs since 2007, but they’re basically just a collection of veteran ex-Patriots stars, so how good of a story is that, really? All four NFC quarterbacks have played in a conference championship game in the last two seasons, while only one remaining AFC quarterback has played in a conference title game in his entire career. The Browns and Bills, though, are looking to join the elites for the first time in the 21st century. Can they advance by taking down two of the AFC blue bloods? Let’s take a closer look:
Regular season: 23-23
Wild Card round: 4-2
Overall Record: 27-25 (51.9%)
Los Angeles Rams at Green Bay (-7)
The Rams defense proved that it should be considered one of, if not the, game’s very best. In shutting down Seattle, the Rams didn’t need much from Jared Goff. The problem is, this week, they will. Aaron Donald is also dealing with a rib injury, and you wonder how effective he, Goff, and Cooper Kupp (knee) will actually be. The Packers at Lambeau in January are usually a safe bet, and with Aaron Rodgers playing at his vintage best, the time is truly now for Green Bay. Here’s thinking they will return to the NFC Championship Game for the fourth time in the last seven years behind a balanced offensive attack and an underrated defense. Pick: Packers.
Baltimore (buying to +3 at -135) at Buffalo
Last year when these teams played, they didn’t even combine for 500 total yards, which is blasphemous in this day and age. The Ravens are red-hot, winning six straight after dropping to 6-5 after that ridiculous, half-rostered loss to the Steelers on a Wednesday afternoon. Then again, they entered the playoffs having won 12 straight last year, so who knows what “hot” really means? If not for a Hail Murray, the Bills would have been 14-2, losing only to the Chiefs and Titans in October. This one is going to be close, especially with the weather being a factor. The only potential deciding factor for me was the fact that the Bills looked sluggish and were probably more lucky than good against Indy. The Ravens finally had a comeback win, trailing 10-0 before clamping down on Derrick Henry and the Titans, and now the burden of an 0-fer in his playoff career is off Lamar Jackson’s shoulders. For that reason, I’ll take the Ravens, who are much better in the playoffs on the road and/or as an underdog, in a very tight battle. Pick: Ravens.
Cleveland at Kansas City (-9)
Ladies and gentleman, meet your new “Path de Least Resistance” Kansas City Chiefs! If there is a lower-seeded, easier matchup that can be had, the Chiefs will have it. Patrick Mahomes is 4-1 in his playoff career, and assuming he doesn’t fall flat against the Browns, he’ll be 5-1 — and four of those five wins will be over teams seeded 4th or lower. Granted, the Ravens are a No. 5 seed, but last year, the Chiefs avoided the two toughest teams in their path — the Ravens and Patriots — and could be poised to have another Steelers-like series of events break in their favor in 2020, especially if Buffalo takes out Baltimore. Much like how Pittsburgh only reached three Super Bowls by avoiding New England, it appears the Chiefs have finally waited long enough to take over top banana in the AFC — as in, waited for Tom Brady to leave the conference. This does not bode well for the Browns, who barely had to sweat in a shockingly-easy, 48-37 win over Pittsburgh (FYI, the first-ever 48-37 final in NFL history). Cleveland has been a nice story, and will probably hang around for a little while here, but the rested Chiefs — who are also lucky enough to have the most fans in attendance of the four remaining teams — should wake up in time for a win. Still, with Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Sammy Watkins out, I’ll take Cleveland for a gentlemanly cover in a losing effort. Pick: Browns.
Tampa Bay at New Orleans (-3)
Easily the toughest game to pick of the four, this is the Tom Brady-Drew Brees matchup that was supposed to happen two years ago before fate — namely in the form of the officials — got in the way. Brady has never lost thrice to a team in a season, but then again, he’d never been swept in a regular-season series in his career until the Saints annihilated the Bucs, 38-3, back in Week 9. Brady has also never won two road games in a single postseason, so something’s gotta give here. The Saints, who never used to lose playoff games in the Superdome under Sean Payton, have now lost at home the last two postseasons. Like the Browns, the Saints barely had to sweat in the opening round, but perhaps it was even better than having the traditional bye because it gave Brees another week to get back into rhythm. The Saints are a little more under the radar than in years past, which I think bodes well for them. They clearly match up well with the Bucs, who, although they’ve won five straight, haven’t beaten a team with a winning record since their lone victory in such games in Week 6 when they destroyed Green Bay. Of course, the Saints’ only wins over such teams were both against the Bucs. But alas, it is very hard to beat any team three times — let alone a Tom Brady-led team. But the Saints are already 2/3 of the way there, so… Pick: Saints.