Asking the NFL Playoff questions that need answers
By Ben Shpigel and Benjamin Hoffman
To play football amid a pandemic, NFL players worked from home a lot. They took coronavirus tests daily. And when they did report to team facilities, they were required to wear a mask.
It has been a weird season. And chances are it’s going to get weirder.
The playoffs begin Saturday, and even more than in years past, no one has even an inkling how they’re going to unfold. With an expanded 14-team field, consecutive triple-headers this weekend could compound the craziness, and we’re still 4 1/2 weeks (hopefully) from the Super Bowl.
Below, we try to sift through the chaos and ask the questions that will define the upcoming postseason. We even try to answer them, too.
Is there a better quarterback-receiver tandem than Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams?
Oh, should we keep going?
On a tequila-streaked vindication tour after Green Bay drafted his potential successor in the first round, Rodgers reached the precipice of his third MVP Award by throwing again and again to Adams, who finished with 115 receptions for 1,374 yards and 18 touchdowns and grabbed almost every ball in his radius: 115 of 116 passes deemed catchable by Pro Football Focus, tied for the best rate in the NFL.
Overall, Rodgers’ outstanding ball placement and aptitude for leading receivers helped Adams gain 592 yards after the catch, the most at his position. But their partnership truly thrived in the red zone, that chaotic space inside the opposition’s 20-yard line where passing lanes shrink and trust between quarterbacks and receivers is most critical. There, Adams, despite missing two games with an injury, caught 23 passes and scored 14 touchdowns, both most in the NFL in that area.
So, all love for Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs, whose mind meld transformed Buffalo’s offense, and Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill, who wrecked defenses downfield as they generally have with Kansas City. But the telepathy between Rodgers and Adams, cultivated across seven years together, powered their season to remember — and, they hope, a playoff run they won’t ever forget.
Which AFC team has the best chance of beating the Chiefs?
The Kansas City Chiefs (14-2) have been the NFL’s metronome in recent years — consistently scoring, winning, dazzling. But a recent disturbance in the force has stripped their sheen ever so slightly. Struggling to bury opponents as they did during last December’s surge, Kansas City — before its backups lost Sunday to the Los Angeles Chargers — won seven consecutive games by six points or fewer.
Underestimate coach Andy Reid, Mahomes and the crew at your own peril. Still, the AFC is rife with teams positioned to scare Kansas City, and that group is fronted by a contender that hasn’t won a playoff game since the 1995 season, a little over four months before its current quarterback was born: the Buffalo Bills.
Reining in his carpe diem approach, Allen, 24, became the first player with at least 4,500 passing yards, 35 touchdown passes and five rushing touchdowns in a single season. The league’s most improved player, Allen guided the Bills to nine victories in their final 10 games — their only loss in that span came via a Hail Murray flung into triple coverage in Arizona.
The Bills, the No. 2 seed in the AFC, rank among the league leaders in takeaways. During their six-game winning streak to end the regular season, no team scored more points or had a greater point differential, winning by an average of 19.8 points, according to Pro Football Reference.
The Chiefs did beat Buffalo earlier in the season. But could they do it again? The Bills would love to get a chance to answer that question in the AFC championship game.
Can Tom Brady and the Buccaneers beat good teams?
Alternately exciting and exasperating, overpowering and underwhelming, the Buccaneers (11-5) rolled into their first postseason in 13 years by winning their last four games, which just so happened to be Tom Brady’s best four-game stretch in Tampa Bay: He had 333.3 passing yards per game, 12 touchdowns, one interception and a 126.9 passer rating. That it all came against some of the league’s sadder defenses — Detroit, Minnesota and Atlanta twice — is irrelevant to the Buccaneers, who were just glad to see it. But now they must try to replicate that production against better competition.
And that is where Tampa Bay has struggled. Facing teams that made the playoffs, the Buccaneers went 1-5. In four of those losses Brady threw multiple interceptions, and in an otherwise impressive season — he threw for 4,633 yards and 40 touchdowns at age 43 — those were the only games in which he had more than one.
The Buccaneers’ roster — the linebacker trio of Shaquil Barrett, Lavonte David and Devin White hold down the defense while Brady has Antonio Brown, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Rob Gronkowski to throw to — is loaded. So loaded that their performance shouldn’t be so volatile.
With the Bucs matched up with a 7-9 Washington team, not exactly better competition, maybe they won’t be. But speaking of Washington …
Can the winner of the historically dreadful NFC East actually win a playoff game?
In offering up the Footballers in the wild card round, the division is putting forth the team best suited to upset Tampa Bay and here’s why: pressure.
No quarterback likes it. But some are better at handling it than others. This season, though Brady’s offensive line largely did well at keeping him upright, he had the third-lowest adjusted completion percentage when pressured, according to Pro Football Focus, and had a 54.5 passer rating — lower than that of Daniel Jones and Sam Darnold in that situation.
Washington bedeviled quarterbacks with its superb defensive front, led by first-round picks Jonathan Allen (2017), Daron Payne (2018), Montez Sweat (2019) and Chase Young (2020), likely the league’s top defensive rookie, who skipped into the tunnel following the team’s division-clinching victory over Philadelphia yelling, “Tom Brady, I’m coming. I want Tom.” Young has been saying as much since the NFL scouting combine.
The Footballers ranked sixth in pressure rate and in sacks, and tied for second in yards allowed per play. If they, too, can unnerve Brady, then Washington, only the third team ever to qualify for the playoffs with a losing record, perhaps (maybe, possibly) could join the other two — the 2010 Seattle Seahawks and the 2014 Carolina Panthers — in winning its playoff opener, as well.
How far can Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey take the Los Angeles Rams?
After the highest-scoring regular season in league history, teams’ playoff hopes hinge on how fast and in what volume they can put up points. The Rams, ranked 22nd in offense, matched the Bears in points, finishing ahead of only Washington among the playoff teams.
It’s ever more obvious that the Rams — after needing to beat Arizona in Week 17 just to secure a playoff spot — are as unbalanced as a weighted seesaw. A once-formidable offense has sputtered under Jared Goff’s command, placing the onus on the league’s stingiest defense — first in yards and points allowed — to drive Los Angeles’ playoff hopes.
Fortunately for the Rams, they face a familiar opponent in the division-rival Seahawks. Across their two regular-season meetings, they sacked Russell Wilson 11 times, and Ramsey — who allowed an absurdly low 20.6 yards per game in his coverage, according to Pro Football Focus — all but defused star receiver DK Metcalf, holding him to one reception for 11 yards on four passes thrown his way.
If the Rams beat the Seahawks and New Orleans defeats Chicago, Los Angeles would travel to play the Packers. Ramsey draping Adams, while Donald and his mates pester Rodgers — oh, what fun that could be.
How dangerous does Baker Mayfield have to wake up feeling for the Browns to win?
In his rookie season, Mayfield famously told reporters ahead of a late-season win, “when I woke up this morning, I was feeling pretty dangerous,” which spawned a downtown Cleveland mural, ignited the fan base — and became a punchline in losing seasons hence.
Now in the team’s first playoff game in 17 seasons, where it will face the Steelers (12-4), Mayfield will be credited with helping lead Cleveland (11-5) to its best record since the franchise was resurrected in 1999, and the success should help his on-field reputation catch up some to his off-field notoriety.
Yes, Mayfield helped get them there by throwing more touchdowns than in 2019, his fewest interceptions and finishing with a modest (by 2021 standards) 3,563 yards passing in an offense that demanded he play safely — which he did, at least compared with previous seasons. But the Browns’ run hasn’t solely hinged on their quarterback.
Cleveland is fueled by an exceptional running-back tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt and an exceptional offensive line. At their best, the Browns rampage across the field on the ground. They’re 8-2 when Mayfield attempts 30 or fewer passes and 6-0 when they rush for more than 150 yards.
Mayfield is still prone to bouts of inconsistency but, within a balanced offense, is better positioned than ever to stress a defense: With his turnovers down and a steady running back duo, Mayfield excelled on play-action passes, ranking among the top five in passer rating and yards per attempt on those plays, according to Pro Football Focus. So long as the Browns can move the ball steadily and consistently, Mayfield’s daring is still an effective surprise attack.
Is Seattle’s defense repaired?
Through nine games, a Seahawks team that once prided itself on its defense — that built its identity on it, that won a Super Bowl because of it — was winning even though that unit allowed an average of 30.1 points and 441.1 yards. A defensive turnabout began with a Week 11 victory against Arizona, and the Seahawks won six of their last seven games of the regular season by yielding the fewest points and third fewest yards per play over that stretch.
Was this simply regression? Or did Seattle fix what was broken?
Call it a patchwork fix. Carlos Dunlap, the defensive end Seattle added at the trade deadline from Cincinnati, had critical victory-sealing sacks against Arizona and Washington. Jamal Adams, a versatile safety picked up from the New York Jets in the offseason, helped too, by adding to the strong play from linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. Without question, the defensive improvement was real.
It just might not be permanent. With Adams and defensive tackle Jarran Reed injured, the defense’s overall strength will again be tested in the wild card game against the Rams. While the Seahawks would benefit if Rams quarterback Jared Goff can’t play, they could struggle to sustain pressure on opposing quarterbacks in the next round if they don’t get those key pieces back quickly.
Which coordinator is most important to their team?
From Leslie Frazier of Buffalo and Dennis Allen of New Orleans on defense to Eric Bieniemy of Kansas City and Arthur Smith of Tennessee on offense, numerous coordinators had an outsize impact on their team’s success. But none will be quite as vital these playoffs as Greg Roman of Baltimore, the mastermind behind the Ravens’ revived — and fearsome — offense.
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson called Roman’s offense “predictable” in mid-November, before the team lost three consecutive games. Roman recently said he hit “the reset button” after those losses, right before Baltimore thrashed Dallas in Week 13. Winning their last five games, a stretch that coincides with quarterback Jackson’s return from COVID-19, the Ravens lead the NFL in rushing and rank second in points per game and yards per play.
A healthier and more stable offensive line has helped J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Jackson take advantage, especially on the outside, in a reconfigured run game.
Roman is familiar with resets. He was on Baltimore’s staff in 2018, when Jackson replaced the injured Joe Flacco and Baltimore reworked its offense on the fly. And as San Francisco’s offensive coordinator in 2012, when starting quarterback Alex Smith got hurt midseason, Roman reimagined an offense that catered to Colin Kaepernick’s dynamism, helping the 49ers reach the Super Bowl.
The Ravens are peaking, but they are trailed by memories of what happened last postseason, when Jackson committed three turnovers in an upset loss to Tennessee — their opponent Sunday. If Roman can help Jackson get the first playoff win of his career, the Ravens’ biggest win will have been changing the narrative on their ceiling.