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NFL Divisional Round: Five things to watch in each game

The NFL's two conferences feel so different entering the Divisional Round.

In one corner, the AFC's young guns have taken over. Three members of the vaunted quarterback class of 2018 (Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen and Baker Mayfield) are joined by the NFL's defending champion, Patrick Mahomes, Class of 2017.

In the other corner, three of the greatest quarterbacks of all time (Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers) are joined by a defense-first Rams team that doesn't neatly fit with article-topping introductions.

Three of the longest playoff-win droughts were ended during the inaugural Super Wild Card Weekend, with the Browns, Bills and Bucs ending 67 combined years of frustration. They are joined by teams like the Packers, Saints and Chiefs, for whom playoff wins are the starting point in negotiations for so much more.

Let's start the best week on the NFL calendar with a first look at five things to watch in each Divisional Round matchup:

Los Angeles Rams
NFC No. 6 seed · 11-6-0
Green Bay Packers
NFC No. 1 seed · 13-3-0

Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET (FOX, FOX Deportes) | Lambeau Field

1) There are a lot of questions about the health of Rams, especially at quarterback. Sean McVay wouldn't declare a starting quarterback for the Divisional Round when talking to the media Sunday, which indicates there's a chance that John Wolford, if healthy, could start over Jared Goff. Wolford left during his second drive in the Rams' win over Seattle on Saturday with a stinger. Goff, who'd been dealing with a thumb injury, was clearly healthy enough to compete and threw the ball fairly well, but McVay believed Wolford gave him a better shot entering the playoffs. Goff was often slow to make decisions against the Seahawks, completing less than half his passes while being sacked twice. Goff revealed after the game that McVay made the decision early last week and made it clear it wasn't a benching. But would Aaron RodgersTom Brady or Brett Favre ever have been watching on the sideline in a similar scenario? 

2) The Rams also saw defensive tackle Aaron DonaldCooper Kupp (knee) and starting guard David Edwards (ankle) leave their win with injuries. McVay sounded optimistic that both Kupp and Donald will play this week, which is crucial. FOX's Troy Aikman said Saturday that Donald is the best defensive player he's ever seen, even ahead of Lawrence Taylor and Reggie White. We learned from NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport on Monday that Donald is expected to play through torn rib cartilage. When healthy, Donald has been playing at the absolute peak of his powers, and his presence makes everyone around him better.

3) To put it another way: We will be watching the soon-to-be 2020 MVP Aaron Rodgers against the best defensive player and the best defensive team in the league. Pretty sweet!

4) Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey successfully slowed down D.K. Metcalf for a third straight time on Saturday. If Ramsey does anything similar to a trickier opponent next week in Davante Adams, the Rams will have a chance to win.

5) Packers head coach Matt LaFleur got his first opportunity calling plays in Tennessee in 2018 because of his association with Sean McVay, having been the Rams' offensive coordinator in 2017. It's hard to call LaFleur the pupil here when he's seven years older than McVay, but it's safe to say these teams share similar offensive philosophies. The Packers have the superior offensive personnel, and that should be enough in an offense-first league.

Baltimore Ravens
AFC No. 5 seed · 12-5-0
Buffalo Bills
AFC No. 2 seed · 14-3-0

Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET (NBC, Universo) | Bills Stadium

1) It sounds strange, but Josh Allen may have a bigger burden than Lamar Jackson in this game. The Bills have all but given up running the ball, with Zack Moss (who suffered an ankle injury) and Devin Singletary combining for 10 carries for 42 yards on Saturday, and they are unlikely to try against this stout Baltimore front. 

2) Hopefully, Buffalo receiver Cole Beasley, who's been dealing with a knee injury, is closer to full health this week, because he wasn't moving at full speed against the Colts on Saturday. If Beasley is right, the Bills can threaten the Ravens' secondary depth with four quality wideouts. No one can cover Stefon Diggs one-on-one, while Gabriel Davis and John Brown can also get deep. That's dangerous against a Ravens team that blitzes plenty and leaves its cornerbacks vulnerable.  

3) The Bills defense made just enough plays against the Colts, but it was concerning to see the unit give up 472 yards. Head coach Sean McDermott's group is often about bending but not breaking while making key plays in the red zone. Combine that approach with the Ravens' tendency for long drives, and the Bills defense could be on the field a lot in this game. 

4) If McDermott's defense tends toward playing it safe, coordinator Wink Martindale's Ravens group is more boom-or-bust. Baltimore mixed coverages and blitzes beautifully against Tennessee. That said, Sunday's game marked the Ravens' third time facing the Titans in one calendar year. There is less familiarity in this upcoming matchup -- and greater risk sending so much pressure against a pass-first team like the Bills.

5) All of the Divisional Round matchups are compelling, but this one is my favorite. I have no clue what will happen, and I could see either team winning the Super Bowl.

Cleveland Browns
AFC No. 6 seed · 12-5-0
Kansas City Chiefs
AFC No. 1 seed · 14-2-0

Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET (CBS, CBS All Access, ESPN Deportes) | Arrowhead Stadium

1) Seemingly every team tries to shorten the game against the Chiefs. Shortening games is what the Browns do naturally because of their run-first offense and a forgiving defense that gives up long drives. I wouldn't expect a lot of possessions when the Chiefs and Browns play, and I wouldn't expect many defensive stops. 


2) Beating the Chiefs is not for the timid. The Browns showed against Pittsburgh that they are willing to stay aggressive with a lead, which is necessary against Kansas City. Cleveland's coaching staff has also been incredibly flexible, adapting each week and within games as well as any staff in football. 


3) The last time the Chiefs won a game by two scores was in Week 8 against the Jets. The last game that Patrick Mahomes played in was a 17-14 nailbiter over the Falcons at Arrowhead in Week 16, which was sneakily one of the best games of the year. The Chiefs' pass protection and pass rush have been lackluster down the stretch. Mahomes was sacked 12 times in his last six games, while 11 of the 15 sacks Kansas City managed in the second half of the year came in three games. The tape shows the Chiefs' lines routinely losing on both sides of the ball. In theory, this team is dominant. In reality, the Chiefs are beatable, just like the rest of the top of the NFL. 


4) The Browns could use some good news on the injury front. Two of their best players, guard Joel Bitonio and cornerback Denzel Ward, should come off the COVID-19 list in time for the game. Coach Kevin Stefanski should be back, but the offensive line is still a concern. Tackle Jack Conklin left Sunday night with a hamstring injury.


5) I'm not worried about the Browns' offense staying efficient. They should be able to move the ball, but they don't have a lot of options in coverage against Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. Then again, who does?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC No. 5 seed · 12-5-0
New Orleans Saints
NFC No. 2 seed · 13-4-0

Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET (FOX, FOX Deportes) | Mercedes-Benz Superdome

1) The focus will rightly be on Tom Brady and Drew Brees, but Brady carries such a heavier weight. He is the key to the entire Bucs operation. On Saturday night against Washington, the Bucs used two-tight-end sets and heavy play-action more often. That was another sign they are playing more like Brady's offenses in New England and are ready to change approaches dramatically each week, based on their opponents.

2) The Saints are not built around their quarterback anymore. Brees has as much support as he's ever had in New Orleans, with a strong defense (ranked fourth overall in the regular season), running game (ranked sixth overall) and offensive line (tied for 11th-fewest sacks allowed).

3) Brees has had to work hard for yards since returning from the rib and lung injuries that forced him to miss four games. He's topped 7 yards per attempt once in his last seven starts overall, and big plays have been hard to come by. Facing the Bucs may change that, however. Tampa is struggling to rush the passer (three sacks over the last two games) and is prone to giving up chunk plays; the pass defense numbers (such as EPA and DVOA) have declined after a strong first half of the season. The matchup was a brutal one for Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles during a 38-3 loss in Week 9. 

4) The return of Michael Thomas and Deonte Harris was huge for Brees, with the two receivers combining for 12 catches and 156 yards in the Wild Card Round. This Saints offense has so rarely played together all season that it's fair to expect some growth along the way if they can keep winning. The Bucs' secondary slumped down the stretch.

5) This game may be won in the trenches when Brady drops back to pass. He needs time to go through his progressions and find receivers deep. The Bucs' offensive line is elite, but they will be without starting guard Alex Cappa, who suffered a fractured ankle on Saturday. The Saints' pass rush, which will hope to get sack leader Trey Hendrickson back from a neck injury that kept him out Sunday, needs to win more battles against the Bucs than Washington's group did on Saturday night.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter.

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