Tyler Haslam also contributed to this column.
After a crazy, up-and-down year in the NFL — between all the gridiron action, the cancelations and star players sitting out due to positive tests for COVID-19 — we’ve finally arrived at the playoffs. There’s just nothing else in sports like it, and two weeks are already in the books! We’ve broken down the games into our five biggest biggest takeaways so far, from the most exciting part of the pro football season.
1. Aaron Rodgers and the Pack are rolling and seem completely unstoppable.
M: Even though Green Bay appeared in the NFC Championship game last year against the 49ers, this season felt different from the get-go. I’m a Vikings fan, so I’ve seen more than I’d like of Aaron Rodgers since he took over for the old gunslinger in 2008. Also, his insane season started against my team! When he tore out of the gates to open the season, dropping dimes all over Minnesota on the way to four touchdowns, everybody watching could tell it had at least a little bit to do with the Packers neglecting to find him more weapons in this past draft and instead picked Utah State’s quarterback Jordan Love. However, the way Davante Adams has been playing shows maybe Green Bay doesn’t need anybody else.
T: Well, I’m a Packers fan, and I also found the off-season the Packers put together a little puzzling. After making the NFC title game last year and getting throttled by the 49ers, it was obvious changes needed to be made. They were still just one win away from a Super Bowl appearance, so I didn’t think a total rebuild was needed. But now it looks like all the Pack needed to take the next step was a little continuity and time together. The fact that Aaron Rodgers and offense played the way they did this past weekend against the best defense in the league should make Tampa Bay and maybe even the eventual AFC champion a bit concerned.
M: For sure, but while the Rams’ defense is by the numbers the best, they clearly showed the victory lap they took in Seattle to be more because of Seattle having a disastrous performance than the Rams just giving it to them, although the Wilson’s pick 6 was as ugly as it gets. But the Pack running them out of Lambeau maybe isn’t as impressive as, say, the cheeseheads beating down a fully right-minded Seattle squad. Next week with the Buccaneers, it’ll be a whole different story. Also, the snow in Green Bay is usually to its benefit, and although they have a Florida team coming to town, Tom Brady’s the quarterback, and he’s no stranger to freezing temperatures and snowstorms — just ask Jon Gruden and Raider Nation.
T: Yeah, I think weather is an overrated advantage — especially when you’re playing someone like Brady. Like most playoff games, I think this game will be won by who wins the turnover battle, and Rodgers has been elite this year at avoiding turnovers. So we’ll see if the Buccaneers’ defense can challenge Rodgers in that way.
2. The Buffalo Bills duo of Josh Alllen and Stefon Diggs continues to make history, along with the team’s playmaking defense.
M: Bills vs. Ravens was probably the most interesting game of this weekend. But we wouldn’t be Weber State Wildcats if we didn’t start with Taron Johnson’s 101-yard pick 6, which tied the record for the longest interception return in NFL playoff history.
T: Yeah, that play was amazing. Not only was it impressive on its own, but in the scope of the whole match, it arguably won the game for the Bills. Especially considering it was such a low-scoring game. But to have a play that big be made by a former Wildcat makes it that much more awesome.
M: No doubt, and while Damian Lillard put Weber State on the map by burying game-winners on the hardwood, Johnson’s doing the same on the gridiron. But awesome play aside, I do feel bad for Lamar Jackson, who’s had a rough go of it in the playoffs. Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s coaching is downright mind-blowing sometimes. Jackson has a great throwing arm, and it seems like he never drops back to pass, and when he did, the Bills immediately were all over him. He only threw for 162 yards, which is not going to win a playoff game. I would think Jackson and his offense would be happy with some coaching changes. Baltimore! Hire former Raven and future Hall of Fame receiver Steve Smith!
T: Yeah, Jackson is a guy who’s very easy to root for. I think this was just a bad and unlucky game for the Ravens. If the normally-automatic Justin Tucker hit those two manageable field goals and Jackson avoided that Taron Johnson interception, the Ravens could’ve easily been the team that advanced. Plus, they were without all-pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley for the last half of the season and he obviously would have helped protect Jackson in this game. So I’m not ready to hit the reset button on the Ravens’ offense. Jackson is still young, and they’ve got a lot of good pieces. They could certainly benefit from drafting a possession receiver who could help him move the chains in obvious passing situations.
M: Sure, but the Ravens’ offense needs more weapons in total. Other than Marquise Brown and J.K. Dobbins, the offense needs some players who can make plays without Jackson having to make miracles happen just to make a catch.
T: They certainly need more pass-catching options. I’m not sold that Marquise Brown can be a number one receiver. He seems more like a complementary guy who specializes in stretching a defense deep. I don’t think the Ravens have much in the form of cap space, so they’ll likely have to use the draft to get those new weapons.
M: That being said, let’s not take away from the Bills. They’ve been on a tear this whole year, and it’s in large part because of ex-Viking Stefon Diggs, who put a receiving clinic on the entire league this season on his way to leading the league with 1,535 receiving yards. Josh Allen’s always had a cannon for an arm and been able to throw it all over the gridiron, but in his first two years, he had nobody to throw to! That’s certainly changed, and Diggs just makes their offense so much more dangerous. They don’t even run the ball all that much!
T: Everybody seems to be rooting for the Bills because seeing the Bills advance this far in the playoffs is something we haven’t experienced for many, many years. Josh Allen is the real deal and fun to watch, but I agree with you — the Bills do not run the ball that much, and when they do, it’s not very effective. If they want to win in the AFC championship and the Super Bowl after that, they’ll need to have some semblance of a run game in order to keep opposing defenses on their heels. It doesn’t help that they lost former Utah running back Zack Moss to a season-ending ankle injury. Maybe they’ll prove me wrong, though.
M: If Buffalo gets a running back in this year’s draft, they’ll be scary next year. Not to say Zack Moss isn’t the running back of the future for them, but the Chiefs got Clyde Edwards-Helaire at the bottom of this past draft, so we’ll see how that shakes out in the spring.
3. Patrick Mahomes is next-level, and the Chiefs seem prepared to torch any opponent they face, but if he doesn’t play next week, do the Chiefs even stand a chance against Buffalo?
T: If Mahomes doesn’t play, I’m not sure I like the Chiefs’ chances. Playing Buffalo — with the exception of this past weekend — usually means you’re going to have to score 30-plus points if you want a chance at winning. I think the Chiefs can keep it close with Chad Henne under center, but the offense obviously wouldn’t be as dynamic as it would be with Mahomes. However, if Mahomes does play, I definitely think the Chiefs win. Last Sunday against the Browns, if not for a missed 33-yard field goal, the Chiefs would have scored on every drive led by Mahomes. Credit to the Browns for making it close, but if Mahomes stays in that game, I think we may have been looking at a comfortable double digit win for the Chiefs.
M: Definitely, Mahomes is the Chiefs. But they can keep it close, especially with its defense not getting run over like it has at times in the past, like in Mahomes’ first year, when it got torched by Brady and the Patriots. Tyrann Mathieu’s one of the greatest to lace up a pair of cleats on the defensive side of the ball. He had a career-making year this past season, snagging six interceptions in the regular season and a big one on Baker Mayfield this past weekend. He’s ranked by Pro Football Focus as the sixth best safety of 2020, but I’ll throw numbers away on this one and just say he’s the best in the NFL, and the LSU Tigers will make it tough for the Bills’ offense, but I’m thinking it’ll be a shootout for the ages, especially if Mahomes is behind center at 100%. But Diggs is going to get what he wants in this game, so Chiefs fans better be praying Mahomes plays so he can be bombing it out to Tyreek Hill and checking it down to Travis Kelce.
T: So I think if Mahomes plays, I like the Chiefs in a shootout, but if he doesn’t play, I like Allen, Diggs and the Bills to pull away.
M: I’m feeling like Buffalo’s going to its fifth Super Bowl, so I’m taking Buffalo to win in a shootout or by at least a touchdown if Mahomes isn’t able to play.
4. Father Time finally beats Drew Brees, but Tom Brady continues to elude him.
M: What a game this was! After the Saints pounded the Bucs when they played in the two regular season matchups, Brady got his revenge in the SuperDome, where he’s no stranger, having won his first Super Bowl there. I was rooting for the Buccaneers in this one because it’s been cool to see Brady showing he’s still got the arm this season and that he can be successful with Darth Belichick breathing down his back and giving him nothing to work with. Also, this season cemented that outside of Cam Newton leaping over the pile at the goal line, nobody does quarterback sneaks quite like Tom Brady.
T: Yeah, this was an awesome game. I was torn with the final result, though. While I think the NFL postseason is a better place with Tom Brady in it, I was sad to see Drew Brees go out the way he did. With reports saying he will retire after this season, I was bummed to see his career come to an end in a loss that he probably found very disappointing. But the Bucs were the better team and deserved the win. If you would’ve told me before this game that Mike Evans, Antonio Brown, Chris Godwin and Rob Gronkowski combined for seven catches, I would’ve thought that the Saints would be the winners going away. That just goes to show there’s more to Tampa Bay than just Tom Brady and his weapons and that should be a concern for the Packers.
M: Seeing Brees go is sad for Saints fans, but again, as a Vikings fan, seeing Sean Payton sent home in the playoffs is a great feeling even with it being Brees’s final hurrah in the bayou. And even though the Buccaneers’ receiving corps wasn’t lighting it up in New Orleans — Godwin’s drop in the back of the end zone eye-poppingly displayed — Mike Evans has been one of the best receivers in the NFL since his rookie year, and it’s awesome to see him doing damage in the playoffs after the start he’s had to his career. This was his seventh straight 1,000-yard season, breaking the one-and-only Randy Moss’s record. He’s also the most underrated receiver in the league and has been for his whole career. It’ll be fun to see what he can do against the Packers’ secondary.
5. The Lombardi Trophy found its way to Kansas City last season, but will another be on its way? Or instead, will it head to the frozen tundra full of cheeseheads, or will the Buccaneers carry the loot right out of the stadium and into their hometown?
T: It’s so hard to say, because I could see any of these teams hoisting the trophy at the end. The Bills seem like the least likely to win, but they still have a generous chance. As a Packers fan, given the way the Packers have played the last couple of postseasons, I fear that a total collapse is on the horizon for them. They suffered their worst loss of the season against Brady and the Bucs back in week five, but the Packers feel like a different team now. So as of right now, I’m going to cross my fingers and say the Packers are my favorite to win it all. That being said, I wouldn’t be shocked in the slightest if the Chiefs repeat or if Brady gets his seventh ring.
M: That loss to Tampa in week five was ugly. But that was so early in the season, it might not matter too much. Also, considering the Saints’ 38-3 drubbing of Tampa in week nine and the Buccaneers handling them yesterday shows anything’s possible in the playoffs.
T: Assuming that Mahomes and Edwards-Helaire play, my Super Bowl matchup is the Chiefs and the Packers. The Packers fan in me is choosing them to win the big game 34-27 over the Chiefs. Aaron Rodgers will cap off his likely MVP season by getting his second ring. I just hope if I put it out there, I’ll make it happen, but in all reality I’m probably jinxing them by doing this.
M: I’m going with the Buccaneers, led by by Brady to secure the Lombardi Trophy over the high-flying Bills in a shootout of a Super Bowl, 38-35. A Super Bowl title returns to the Pirates’ Cove for the second time since Jon Gruden’s squad defeated the Oakland Raiders in 2003, and Brady gets a Super Bowl without the famed “Patriot Way,” which I’m sure all of us fans know is something he would like to desperately have.