In the villainous CGI lair of a superhero blockbuster filled with special effects and spoilers...
MAXWELL LORD: Muahahahaha! I, 1980s businessman stereotype and comic book B-lister Maxwell Lord, have transformed myself into a human wish-casting monkey's paw and granted wishes with ironic consequences to everyone from my fellow greedy suspender-modelling masters of the universe to Ronald Reagan! In fact, I don't think there's anyone else on earth who is gluttonously self-absorbed and obsessed with personal glory enough to…
TOM BRADY: Hey man, I have a wish. I want my road to the 2020 Super Bowl to be as easy as possible.
LORD: Excellent! In exchange, I will take away most of the football world's enthusiasm for watching you play! You will excel, but some will resent you while others grow bored with you!
TOM BRADY: That's the story of my last decade. Make with the wish.
LORD: Very well! Observe on my Television Monitors of Supervillainy!
MATTHEW STAFFORD: Oh no! All of my coaches have contracted COVID!
DANIEL JONES: You know what? I'm gonna start throwing to Sterling Shepard instead of Evan Engram!
MIKE McCARTHY: Looks like that receiver trapped the ball against the ground on third-and-long. Eh, throwing a challenge flag takes a lot of effort.
JALEN HURTS: Watch out, Washington! An upset win will guarantee that I am the Eagles Quarterback of the Future!
MATT RYAN: Nope, nothing has changed here in Atlanta.
TOM BRADY: Ah, the wish is working. Not only will I get to coast to the playoffs against three terrible teams, but it looks like I might face the worst playoff team in history if the Giants squeak in at 6-10! Now if Drew Brees somehow gets the Tyrod Taylor treatment, I … say, what is this rope doing around my ankle?
HARLEY QUINN: Renounce your wish, pretty boy!
BRADY: Wait, aren't you supposed to be Wonder Woman?
HARLEY: Nah, my comic books actually sell. Now do what I say before I rollerskate over there and clock both you and Mando on the head with my baseball bat. Don't you see what havoc your wish is causing?
BRADY: I … I see it now. The Giants making the playoffs would be an absolute travesty. And I've gone a little too far down the "win at all costs" road already. If I still have a point to prove, I need to prove it on my terms: by beating quality competition. Or at least competition with a quality defense. I renounce my wish!
(On the monitors)
DOUG PEDERSON: F**k winning. F**k everything.
CHASE YOUNG: Bring on Tom Brady!
MATT RYAN. Nope, still no changes here.
BRADY: That's better. It may be harder to reach the Super Bowl now, but that will only make it sweeter if I can do it. How can I thank you?
HARLEY: You can watch my Birds of Prey movie and my cartoon series. They're both funny, and they are much more thematically and emotionally mature than you might think.
BRADY: I will do that. Say … what's that noise?
UNNAMED PROTAGONIST FROM TENET: I, the guy from Tenet, am firing bullets backwards through time to stop Tom Brady from…
BRADY: Ugh, let's get out of here before this gets any more confusing.
UNNAMED PROTAGONIST FROM TENET: Fine. I'll just try to take out Pederson. It makes more sense than the actual plot of my movie.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Washington Football Team, Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
The best way to defeat Tom Brady is to pressure him without blitzing much. His next opponent is capable of doing just that. But pressuring Brady is easier said than done because of his supporting cast and pocket presence.
Those three sentences could well have been written in a 2007 Walkthrough.
The template for defeating Brady's Buccaneers without a functional offense was established by the Bears in their 20-19 victory in Week 5. It involved lots of pass pressure, of course. The Buccaneers also committed 11 penalties for 109 yards, many of them false starts and holds: if you can't get to Brady, you can at least rattle the guys who must do everything in their power to make sure you can't get to Brady. Creating negative plays on early downs, which flows naturally from forcing sacks and penalties, is also key: Brady got stuck in lots of third-and-forever situations in the Bears loss.
It's easy to forget after the last few games how much of a workout the Brady Excuse-o-Matic got here in Walkthrough for the first three-fourths of the season: make life hard on Brady, and the Bucs are beatable. The last few Buccaneers opponents weren't built to make life hard on Brady, or anyone else, really.
The template for the Washington Football Team defeating a quality opponent was established when Washington beat the Steelers 23-17 in Week 13. Washington's defense ranks second in the NFL in fewest plays per opponent's drive with 5.59 (the Steelers actually rank first with 5.48) and third with 1.74 points per drive. So even if Chase Young, Montez Sweat, and company don't get to the quarterback -- Ben Roethlisberger was not sacked in Week 13 -- Washington forces lots of short drives, field goals, punts, and fourth-down stops: Washington opponents were just 9-of-24 on fourth-down conversions this season. Washington stopped the Steelers at the goal line once and forced several three-and-outs, keeping the game close enough for Alex Smith to spark a comeback simply by floating a few short passes over the heads of pass-rushers.
So it's not hard to imagine a Washington path to victory. Unfortunately, Washington is not as good as even the Nick Foles Bears, Brady is not remotely as creaky as December's version of Roethlisberger, and Alex Smith is the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and may have to rotate with Taylor Heinicke on Saturday night.
When looking at a pair of upsets to analyze a playoff game, it's important to remember that you are looking at a pair of upsets: games where lots of things went wrong for the favorite and right for the underdog which are unlikely to happen again.
Prediction: Buccaneers 29, Washington 13
Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks, Saturday, 4:40 p.m.
Frick versus Frack.
Look out everyone, here comes Sean McVay's zeitgeist-changing offense full of constricted formations, jet sweeps, play-action concepts, and varying tempos. Remember how it blew your mind in 2017 and 2018? Remember how Bill Belichick vivisected it in the Super Bowl? Well, it's the same offense two years later, with luxury-sedan game manager Jared Goff still throwing to most of the same guys. And yeah, they still have Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, plus the nine best defenders that salary cap sofa-cushion change can buy. It's stale, it's increasingly unsustainable, but it's good enough to beat NFC East opponents and quarterbacks named Chris Streveler. That's all that matters in the NFC in 2020!
Look out everyone, the Seahawks let Russ cook this year! And guess what happened? Russell Wilson played like an MVP for a few weeks, then discovered that Jon Schneider has spent years stocking the pantry with canned sauerkraut and dehydrated oyster, while Brian Schottenheimer's cookbook is a reprint of Doctor Bowelseptic's Recipes for the Terminally Irregular (1954 edition). Once opponents figured out that the Seahawks still don't have a No. 3 receiver and that Greg Olsen is now 35 years old, they could adjust to DK Metcalf's emergence and force Wilson to start improvising again, leading to a loss to the Giants and scares from Washington and the 49ers down the stretch. Oh, and their defense is now a smeared eighth-generation mimeograph of the Legion of Boom. This formula didn't work in 2017, 2018, or 2019, but perhaps the fourth time's a charm!
The "been there/done that" element of this game may be why it looks like an important rivalry between legit Super Bowl contenders on paper but feels like the late-afternoon kickoff that no one on the East Coast watches because FOX is showing Cowboys-versus-whoever.
Writing these teams off because of their familiarity is also a little unfair. The Seahawks have improved by one win per year since 2017 and have gone from 15th to 12th to eighth to fifth in DVOA over the last four years. It's not easy for a strong team to sustain improvement in the NFL, and additions like Metcalf and Jamal Adams (and improvement on the offensive line) have made a legitimate difference. McVay's offense has evolved -- they run more empty-backfield packages now than in year's past, to cite one easy-to-spot difference -- and low-cost additions such as Darious Williams have made a real difference on defense.
The Rams have still not announced their starting quarterback, but it will likely be Goff, since John Wolford looked like every other scrambling rando spot starter last week. McVay probably just wants the Seahawks to waste practice reps on spy and containment tactics, and perhaps he'll install a Wildcat wrinkle, but there is a slim chance that the no-longer-a-boy not-quite-a-genius is in the process of outsmarting himself. My New Year's Resolution is to get football fans to stop overreacting when some mobile backup runs for a few first downs and surprises the defense with one or two deep shots in a narrow victory full of defensive touchdowns and field goals, but I cannot do that if coaches keep overreacting to the same thing.
Ramsey and Williams should once again shut down Tyler Lockett and Metcalf, and a healthy Goff should pick apart the Seahawks pass defense. If the Rams avoid having one of those games where their mistakes snowball early, they should win. Of course, they average about one snowball game per month, so this is a very tentative prediction.
As for this game feeling like an undercard, well, the entire NFC schedule feels a lot like an undercard this year.
Prediction: Rams 24, Seahawks 22
Baltimore Ravens at Tennessee Titans, Sunday, 1:05 p.m.
Lamar Jackson needs to win this playoff game to silence his doubters.
Josh Allen moved the Bills offense ineffectively, fumbled twice, and played the fourth quarter and overtime like he was on bath salts in last year's 22-20 playoff loss to the Texans, but no one is worried about Allen having a bad game this weekend. He has improved, after all.
Philip Rivers was coming up short in playoff games when Jackson was in elementary school. The playoff victories he has led in this decade -- over the Ravens in Jackson's eighth career start and one of those early-2010s Bengals teams I don't have the patience to look up -- weren't events to write Norse sagas about. But it's fine: he's a savvy veteran and a (maybe) Hall of Famer. Even if he throws three interceptions against the Bills this weekend, it will be cast as a gutsy final charge into the breach.
Baker Mayfield can get his butt kicked this weekend with few ramifications, of course: he led the Browns to their first playoff berth since the days of the dial-up modem, he "matured," the Browns are on the right track, COVID got 'em in the end, etc. Minimal early success means reduced expectations.
Most NFL quarterbacks not named Joe Montana or Tom Brady have spotty playoff records, because every team but one that reaches the playoffs each year ends up losing a big game. Of course, Jackson is different. Another playoff loss will be interpreted as a referendum on him personally, as well as on the option-heavy offense designed for him.
I'm openly rooting for Jackson this week. I don't want to spend Monday fielding questions from radio hosts framed as "What does Sunday's loss mean for Lamar Jackson moving forward?" the sociopolitical undercurrent of the conversation filling me with the urge to swim for my life. I don't want the Ravens offense tossed into history's dumpster next to the run 'n' shoot as a tactic best scrapped for parts but never embraced. I want to see Jackson winning playoff games five years from now, with a half-dozen copycats succeeding or failing to varying degrees, while other teams try to impersonate the Chiefs, others do McVay-Shanahan-Stefanski stuff, and still others tinker with some other new innovation (with not an Adam Gase for miles and miles.)
For anything like that to happen, the Ravens must play better in high-leverage situations than they have in their last two meetings with the Titans. Last year's playoff loss pivoted on a pair of fourth-and-1 stops, followed quickly by Titans big-play touchdowns. Jackson did unravel in last year's playoffs, but it was only after he trailed 14-0 due to a pair of sudden touchdowns. The Titans' 30-24 comeback overtime victory in Week 11 of this year was a strange game that also came down to sudden reversals: Jackson appearing to scramble for a late first down but coming up short, A.J. Brown turning into Jim Brown on third-and-long in the red zone one play after Ryan Tannehill nearly fumbled away a botched snap, and so forth. The Titans outplayed the Ravens to a degree in both games, but just about everything that could go wrong for the Ravens went wrong at the worst possible times.
I think the Ravens roll in this meeting, not just because I want it to happen but because the Titans defense is collapsing just as Jackson and the Ravens have spent a month fixing some of their offensive problems in tutorial mode against the Jaguars and Bengals. Of course, Jackson will then just have to prove that he can win "big games" next week against a tougher opponent. But let's take things one game at a time.
Prediction: Ravens 37, Titans 31
Chicago Bears at New Orleans Saints, Sunday, 4:40 p.m.
The Bears have a reputation as a defense-first team which, at their best, generates just enough offense to not actively lose games. The Saints have a reputation as a Drew Brees team that sometimes downshifts into a Drew Brees is Injured team or a Drew Brees is Fading team whose fate is decided by someone such as Alvin Kamara, Teddy Bridgewater (last year), or Taysom Hill.
The Saints have the second-best defense in the NFL per DVOA in 2020, the Bears eighth. The Saints defense ranks 32nd in variance, which is interesting, because it speaks to potential inconsistency. But part of that variance stems from the letting the Panthers and Eagles offenses look competent against them (the Eagles in Jalen Hurts' first start, when the Saints couldn't be sure what to expect). The fact that their defense varies from "pretty good" to "OMG they just made a fool out of Tom Brady" is also a factor.
The Saints narrowly beat the Nick Foles Bears in overtime without Michael Thomas in Week 8. Thomas is expected to be available on Sunday, as is Kamara, who will be exactly one day past his COVID quarantine (as someone whose quarantine ended on Christmas Eve, I can relate).
The Saints with Brees at his creakiest are a better overall team than the Bears with Mitchell Trubisky at his best: better offensive line, better defense, better coaching, better special teams despite Cordarrelle Patterson's excellence as a kickoff returner. Those simple facts can be easy to overlook when we focus on who has or has not gone on a tepid hot streak over the last few months.
Prediction: Saints 27, Bears 17
Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills, Saturday, 1:05 p.m.
Daniel Jones was really terrible this year. But fear not: he'll be awesome once he makes the leap that Josh Allen made from his second season to his third.
Drew Lock is basically Weak Tea Trubisky, but don't worry: he'll be awesome once he makes the leap that Josh Allen made from his second season to his third.
Kyler Murray was great at times but far too erratic in 2020: just imagine how good he will be once he makes the Josh Allen leap.
Dwayne Haskins … nah. But if he could stay out of the cough brothels, we would be having this conversation about Haskins in the offseason, too.
Allen's final gift to us as he finishes his ascent from Source of Incendiary Takes to Actual Franchise Quarterback is that he will serve for years as a wishcasting exemplar for every faltering prospect whom local fans/bloggers/optimists hope will magically blossom into an MVP candidate in his third season.
Among the many details that will be conveniently overlooked when it's time for Eagles fans to explain why Jalen Hurts will be awesome in 2022 despite his disappointing 15-interception, 12-fumble, 45-sack 2021 season (yep, I'm already there) is that Allen improved significantly during his second season; he threw six of his nine interceptions in 2019 in September, for example. Allen only cut down his foolish plays and increased his excellent plays by about 10% or 15% this year from the level he was playing at in the second half of 2019. Murray could become a Pro Bowler with similar improvements. Jones and Lock need to accentuate the positive and eradicate the negative at a precipitously, unrealistically higher rate.
Allen has continued to play well down the stretch, and the Bills defense has improved drastically, particularly against the run. Allen's improvement continues to look like real development, while the Bills defensive improvement appears to be a course correction after a sloppy start. Weighted DVOA ranks the Bills as the best team in the NFL in 2020, and while I'm not ready to go there, I am comfortable nestling them in the No. 2 slot behind the Chiefs.
The Colts, meanwhile, are just an extension of Andrew Luck's flawed wild-card Colts teams of the 2010s, seasoned with Philip Rivers' flawed just-above-.500 Chargers teams of the last decade. The Colts were built from AFC playoff fodder to be AFC playoff fodder. But that's OK, because all of their problems will be solved when Carson Wentz is their quarterback next year.
Yes, that was sarcasm.
Prediction: Bills 34, Colts 20
Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, 8:15 p.m.
The Browns proved last week that, given a must-win situation and a roster at nearly full strength, they are barely good enough to beat the Steelers backups.
OK, that's a little too snarky and somewhat inaccurate: the Steelers only rested a handful of starters, and the game was not quite as close as the score. But the Browns still need everything to break right to beat a top contender, and everything is definitely not breaking right this week.
Interim coach Mike Priefer, who is expected to fill in for quarantined Kevin Stefanski, sure sounds like a piece of work. The Browns will replace one of the best playcallers of 2020 and a coach who kept a high-strung locker room on an even keel with someone who sounds like the Freddie Kitchens of special teams. It's hard to quantify the absence of a head coach in a big game, because it so rarely happens, but Priefer doesn't need to demoralize the troops with a Westboro Baptist sermon on the sideline to screw things up: little things like substitution errors or formation penalties could be all the advantage the Steelers need to steamroll the Browns.
Matt Schaub and Gary Kubiak's retirements this week got me thinking about Baker Mayfield's late-season run. Schaub earned two Pro Bowl berths, threw for 4,770 yards one season, and contributed to two Texans playoff seasons at his peak. He did it all in a Kubiak system that's the great-uncle to Stefanski's scheme, loaded with play-action rollout concepts that can look unstoppable when the line is playing well and the offense remains on schedule.
Mayfield entered the NFL as a much, much better prospect than Schaub (who started his career with several seasons on the Falcons bench), but he was never an overwhelming physical talent and spent his first two-and-a-half seasons proving he was a spotty decision-maker. I would not be surprised if Mayfield ends up having a Schaub-like career within Stefanski's structure, given the talent the Browns have to work with on the offensive line and at the skill positions.
Kubiak-influenced offenses with caretaker quarterbacks typically find themselves helpless against top contenders in the playoffs.
Prediction: Steelers 33, Browns 21