AJ Brown, Alvin Kamara, Baltimore Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger, Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, Covid-19, Derek Henry, Drew Brees, JK Dobbins, Joel Bitonio, Kevin Stefanski, Lamar Jackson, Mark Andrews, Michael Thomas, Mike Vrabel, Mitchell Trubisky, New Orleans Saints, NFL, Nick Foles, Pittsburgh Steelers, Playoffs, Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans
Here are my thoughts about the second wave of games this Wildcard weekend.
Baltimore Ravens (5th) @ Tennessee Titans (4th)
The Sunday games start with what will be a bruising encounter that pits Derrek Henry and the Titan’s fourth ranked offence by DVOA against the Ravens’ ninth ranked defence, with the Titans hoping to have enough success to offset their twenty-ninth ranked by DVOA defence and twenty-eighth ranked special teams.
The Tennessee offence is clearly impressive, with Derrek Henry rushing for two thousand yards and Ryan Tannehill throwing for well over three and a half thousand passing yards. They might be a bit conservative in terms of rushing on early downs, but the throwback run/pass ratio works because of Henry and sets up their play-action passing game. I think there could well be more efficiency for the Titans in throwing more on first and second down, but in the Ravens they face a team that have their own run-based offence. After a stretch of season where the Ravens looked out of sync following the Covid-19 outbreak and were still adjusting to personnel changes over the off-season the Ravens started to look dangerous again and finished the season with five straight wins. Their running game starts with the option running game where Lamar Jackson is so dangerous and he ran for one thousand yards from the quarterback position at an average of over six yards per carry for the second straight season. The running back by committee is also working with rookie JK Dobbin looking speedy and particularly dangerous in recent weeks. The Ravens might not have a standout receiver of the quality of the Titans’ AJ Brown but Mark Andrews is one of only five tight-ends to have over seven hundred receiving yards this season and interestingly is only joined by Travis Kelce of the Chiefs in the playoffs. When you couple this offensive production with a Ravens’ defence that may not be as fierce as in recent years but is still top ten by DVOA and effective special teams then I think you have a recipe for success. There will be real concerns in Baltimore if Jackson fails to win a play-off game for a third season in a row, but with the Titans defensive worries I think the Ravens stand a good chance of winning. That said, I’m impressed with how Titans’ head coach Mike Vrabel game management so they definitely should not be written off, but I think the Titans will find it hard to match their play-off run from last season.
Chicago Bears (7th) @ New Orleans Saints (2nd)
The Bears have had an odd season where they started 5-1 without really impressing and eventually Mitchell Trubisky got pulled as the starting quarterback for Nick Foles based on performance, and then injured a shoulder running the ball as an option play while Foles continued to get the start. As the losses continued to mount Trubisky got back the starter job and just about managed to get the Bears into the playoffs, albeit with a loss against the Packers that meant they were reliant on the Rams beating the Cardinals in week seventeen. All this is to say that whilst the Bears are not the worst ranked team by DVOA to make the playoffs, it is hard to see them competing with the Saints in New Orleans. Without their vosiferous fans there won’t be the same kind of home advantage as normal for the Saints, but with all three phases of the game ranked in the top ten by DVOA it looks like the Saints are as well placed as they can be to make a deep run in the playoffs for what could be Drew Brees’ last time. It has been a difficult season for the Saints in that Drew Brees at one point had eleven broken ribs and has had real problems throwing the ball deep, whilst Michael Thomasm, their lead receiver from last season, has only played seven games and has been ineffective for longs stretches of those. Still, the Saints have a way to win, even when their entire running room was held out of their week seventeen game due to close contacts with Alvin Kamara who tested positive for Covid-19. The good news for the Saints is that Kamara and Thomas have both been cleared to play and I think they should have no problems in beating a Bears team who will have to decide if their sneaking into the play-offs is enough to keep faith with the current setup or things need changing. Of course, the Bears could win and that will make for a different decision even if it might be covering some crack from regular season but I really do think this situation is unlikely and that the Saints will go through to the divisional game for the third time in four seasons.
Cleveland Browns (6th) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (3rd)
The final game of the playoff should have been full of drama as the Browns make the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season, but continued Covid-19 positives have disrupted the last couple of weeks and prevent head coach Kevin Stefanski from coaching in this game as well as Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio from taking part in this playoff game. It is particularly rough for Bitonio, who is the longest tenured Browns player on the roster and has been through all the recent rough seasons including the one win and winless seasons. The Browns were not even able to practice until late this week and so to win on the road against the Steelers is going to be a difficult task, although not an impossible one. For much of the seasons the Steelers just kept on winning, going 11-0 despite losing their bye week to the Titans’ Covid-19 outbreak and then losing a mini-bye when their Thanksgiving game against the Ravens was also moved, this time due to the Ravens’ Covid-19 outbreak. However, the Steelers were only able to win one more game during the last five weeks of the regular season as the injuries on defence, particularly amongst the linebackers hindered that side of the ball whilst opposing defences seemed to work out the Steelers short passing game that had been so effective for the majority of the season. The Steelers’ running game has been absent for most of the season and they have not looked to push the ball down field as you might have expected given the talent they have at receiver. However, with the Steelers resting Ben Roethlisberger and other starters in their final game of the season, a game the Browns had to win to ensure they made the playoffs, the Steelers only lost by two points.
I suspect with a rested Roethlisberger and all the disruption in Cleveland that the Browns’ wait for a playoff win will go on another year, but you can’t rule out that they find a way to win somehow. It would certainly cap a remarkable turnaround under Stefanski in his first season as head coach and mean that he does get to coach a playoff game, but I think it is likely that he will have to wait another year before he can lead his team in the playoffs.
DVOA is Football Outsiders statistic for measuring a team’s success on every play versus the league average and you can read more about it and other football topics at https://footballoutsiders.com.