Get ready to see some high-flying, high-scoring offenses in the Divisional Round, as this weekend’s schedule features six of the seven top-scoring offenses from the regular season. This group also includes the four top seeds — the Green Bay Packers (No. 1 seed in the NFC), who ranked first in scoring, the Buffalo Bills (No. 2 seed in the AFC), who ranked second, the New Orleans Saints (No. 2 seed in the NFC), who ranked fifth and the Kansas City Chiefs (No. 1 seed in the AFC), who ranked sixth.
But just because these teams performed extremely well throughout the regular season doesn’t mean they can’t be stopped. Today, I’m looking at the eight offenses playing in the Divisional Round and providing the best way for opposing defenses to exploit them.
How to exploit the Rams: Force an ailing Jared Goff to consistently throw downfield. Having been an NFL quarterback for more than a decade, I know how hard it is to throw the ball when your grip isn’t right, whether you’re dealing with a jammed finger or you’ve hit your hand on someone’s helmet. Imagine playing in a playoff game with three pins in your thumb that were placed just 13 days prior. No thanks! But that’s what Goff did on Saturday when he came off the bench to replace John Wolford, who was filling in as the starter for the post-surgery Goff (you still following?). In a 30-20 win over Seattle in the Wild Card Round, Goff was 9-of-19 for 155 yards, one TD and a 93.1 passer rating (the highest in a playoff game of his career). I’ve seen worse stat lines, to be sure, but Goff’s performance didn’t exactly instill confidence, laced as it was with inaccurate throws throughout.
Cam Akers was a bright spot with his 100-yard rushing performance, setting up play action and helping give Goff time in the pocket in the pass game. The Seahawks couldn’t limit the run game. But if Goff starts again and the Packers can — by playing a lot of single-high safety — Mike Pettine’s defense can really challenge Goff to execute from the pocket (with that newly repaired thumb) and force the Rams’ banged-up receiving corps (see: Cooper Kupp, who is dealing with a knee injury) to win one-on-one against the young secondary. This scenario would be tough for the Rams to overcome, especially on a frigid January day at Lambeau Field.
How to exploit the Packers: Make Aaron Rodgers drop back 50 times. Led by the MVP candidate, the Packers’ offense has been able to pick and choose how to attack any opponent over the second half of the season. The team suffered a major blow when Pro Bowl left tackle David Bakhtiari was lost to a season-ending injury ahead of the regular-season finale. His injury leaves a massive void along the offensive line that could potentially be filled by newly signed Jared Veldheer, but the unit no doubt won’t be as strong without Rodgers’ consistent blindside blocker. The best way to limit the Packers is to win at the line of scrimmage, stop the run and constantly pressure Rodgers.
The Buccaneers, one of just three teams to get the best of Green Bay this season, stymied the Packers’ offense in Week 6 by pressuring Rodgers. They hit him 13 times (tied for the second most in Rodgers’ career), sacked him four times and forced two turnovers, including a pick-six, and limited the passer to just 160 passing yards, a 45.7 completion percentage and zero TDs. The Rams’ defense must follow this blueprint and get to the quarterback. Believe it or not, the Packers are much more beatable with Rodgers dropping back 50 times than they are when Aaron Jones is running free to set up big plays in play-action. Plus, Matt LaFleur doesn’t have a lot of great dropback concepts, as his big plays are predicated off play-action schemes.
KICKOFF: 8:15 p.m. ET on Saturday (NBC)
How to exploit the Ravens: Stack the box and force the NFL’s worst passing offense to win the game. This one feels obvious compared to the rest of the playoff field, as the Ravens had the worst passing offense in the league during the regular season. The Tennessee Titans had a good game plan and kept Lamar Jackson from running for big gains Sunday, until he put on his cape and dazzled the football world with a 48-yard touchdown run at the end of the first half. It’s hard to account for Jackson’s superhuman powers — which we’ve all seen him use to win games — but bringing a safety down in the box to stop the run and forcing the Ravens to throw the ball is the formula to beating them.
There’s a reason the Ravens have been one-and-done in the postseason the last two seasons, and it’s not all on Jackson. Rather, it’s the collective unit’s inability to routinely move the ball effectively through the air (this includes Greg Roman’s play-calling). If the Ravens are forced to become one-dimensional, it will be extremely tough for Jackson to accurately throw the ball, and we have to assume it will be difficult for his pass-catchers to consistently win their matchups against the remaining teams, simply because we haven’t seen them do it.
How to exploit the Bills: Let Josh Allen try to do too much. The Bills’ offensive weakness is also their strength: third-year quarterback Josh Allen. I’ve known Allen since he was 12 years old, and I’m a huge fan of his. He’s improved every aspect of his game over the last year and has been a huge part of why the Bills are in this position. He’s even a deserving MVP candidate. But I see a lot of Brett Favre in Allen. It’s a blessing and a curse.
Allen has the ability to make every dynamic play in the book (and he’s made a lot of them), but sometimes his tendency to do too much bites him in the butt. Let’s look at one play from Buffalo’s wild-card win over Indy. The Bills had the ball at their own 43-yard line and a three-point lead with just under four minutes to play — and with Allen fighting off a sack for a major loss, the ball ended up lying on the ground, deep in Bills territory. Fortunately, Daryl Williams recovered it, but this type of thing happens often when relying on Allen to make plays outside the X’s and O’s. Allen’s dynamic playmaking ability has made the run game into an afterthought, especially now that they won’t have rookie running back Zack Moss (ankle) for the rest of the postseason. This puts more stress on Allen’s ability, which again could either be a great thing or extremely detrimental. Is Allen going to make a play that costs the Bills the game? I hope the Bills’ season doesn’t end that way, but it’s certainly possible.
KICKOFF: 3:05 p.m. ET on Sunday (CBS)
How to exploit the Browns: Stall the run game on the first two series. Similar to the Rams and Packers, the Browns’ offensive success derives from a powerful run game that sets up a dynamic passing attack. Their rushing attack, featuring Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, is one of the league’s best, behind an offensive line that’s suddenly quite beat up. I mean, Baker Mayfield introduced himself to lineman Blake Hance, who played 14 snaps in place of Joel Bitonio (COVID-19 list), in the locker room before the game. That’s unheard of. OK, almost unheard of. During my rookie season in Houston, we signed a lineman who had never played in an NFL game on a Tuesday, and he was my starting left tackle the ensuing Sunday. (It wasn’t great.) The Browns could get Bitonio back, but Jack Conklin (hamstring) is day-to-day. The revolving lineup up front is an area that the Chiefs’ D-line must take advantage of, especially in the run game.
Limiting the run game, which in turn will keep Mayfield in the pocket and force the Browns to be a dropback passing team, is a recipe for success. The first two series will be extremely important for the Chiefs’ defense. If the Browns get the run game going, move the pocket and get Mayfield to the perimeter, it’ll be a good day for the Browns’ offense. That’s why K.C. must keep Chubb and Hunt at bay in the early going and force Mayfield to make big throws from the pocket. The other thing the Chiefs have going for them is they’re often playing with a lead, which will also pressure Mayfield into trying to do too much in an effort to go toe-to-toe with Patrick Mahomes.
How to exploit the Chiefs: Limit big plays. I did this same exercise last year at this time, and with the Chiefs’ offense becoming even more dynamic with the addition of Clyde Edwards-Helaire (whose status is still up in the air for Sunday’s game) and Le’Veon Bell in the backfield, I have to stick with the same formula — stop the big play. With Patrick Mahomes under center, this unit is nearly unstoppable in every aspect of the passing game, from short gains to deep shots downfield, with Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman roaming the gridiron. Limiting big plays is absolutely essential to the Browns’ success in this game, and the defense must stay disciplined throughout. The Browns have the best chance to stay competitive by taking away explosive plays downfield, which could help keep K.C. from pulling away early and allow Cleveland to control the clock with its own run game.
KICKOFF: 6:40 p.m. ET on Sunday (FOX)
How to exploit the Bucs: Win the physical battle in the trenches. Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and Tom Brady have been a dangerous tandem for opposing defenses to stop this season, especially down the stretch. This unit can attack and gain big plays from anywhere on the field, but the biggest weakness I see is the offensive line. Brady and his quick release cover up a lot of issues, with his talented receivers able to get separation right off the line. However, the Bucs will be without starting right guard Alex Cappa (ankle), who played 99.7 percent of offensive snaps during the regular season, against the Saints, and Aaron Stinnie will make his first NFL start (regular season or postseason) in his place. The Saints’ Cameron Jordan-led defense must win in the trenches to constantly make Brady uncomfortable, and the back end can’t allow the veteran quarterback to make easy throws to wide open receivers. By winning the physical battle, making Brady hold onto the ball and getting their hands up in an effort to deflect passes, the Saints have a good chance to help force turnovers, just like they’ve done all season. That’ll be key in this matchup.
How to exploit the Saints: Take away the dink-and-dunk game. I see too many defenses play zone coverage against Drew Brees in an effort to keep everything in front of them, but at this point in his career, the 41-year-old (who turns 42 on Friday) can dice them up and march right down the field. Dinking-and-dunking to receivers on short crossers or on the perimeter to Alvin Kamara is second nature, and it’s been extremely effective. What I’m not sure Brees can do right now is consistently throw the ball 20-30 yards downfield with velocity. His arm strength isn’t what it used to be, so applying pressure on the veteran quarterback and making him throw over the top of the defense gives the opponent a much better chance to make a play. Brees has attempted just 19 deep passes this season and has completed nine of them, including a 38-yarder to Michael Thomas in the Wild Card Round (Brees’ only deep pass attempt of the game). While he’s been fairly effective downfield, it’s worth questioning how he’ll perform if he’s forced to do it more than once or twice per game.