Sunday Playoff Games: NFL playoffs picks and predictions
Shifting from Saturday to Sunday, these four teams have electric offenses. In their last 28 games combined, they’re 23-5. How do the sportsbooks think these games will play out, which side are we taking, and which players will rise (or fall) to the occasion?
Los Angeles Rams at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-3)
If Tampa Bay were playing at relatively full strength, this game could have been a surprising disaster for the Rams. Matthew Stafford is coming off his first-ever playoff victory, and there’s not much “been-there, done-that” postseason experience among LA’s core playmakers.
Cooper Kupp missed their 2019 Super Bowl run. Meanwhile, Sony Michel has seen little playoff usage since his rookie-year breakout in 2018. Yet, these Rams have a fighting chance against a Bucs squad inflated partially by a puff end-of-season schedule consisting of the Panthers (twice) and Jets. Their victory against the completely overmatched Eagles doesn’t tell the whole story. Tampa Bay’s last signature win was back in Week 13 against Buffalo, led by Leonard Fournette and Chris Godwin’s combined 237 yards.
Rams are capable of keeping pace with Buccaneers
No doubt, the Rams have the firepower to keep pace if things break right. We have not yet seen the best Cam Akers has to offer. Combined with Michel, these two can take pressure off Stafford and the passing game while keeping their defense off the field. The Bucs’ defense was stout against the run to begin the season. These days, they’re merely decent. There’s an opening here, and it would be shocking if Akers or Michel fails to net 10+ points.
Through the air, Kupp is on another level. Tampa Bay’s pass defense is highly vulnerable (10th-most 20-plus-yard pass plays) despite boasting an impressive 85.6 opposing QB rating, thanks in part to a bend-not-break D. As with many QBs, sometimes Stafford tries to do too much. Their path to victory lies in a more conservative offensive scheme with occasional shots downfield. In other words, it’s doubtful that Stafford, Odell Beckham Jr., or Van Jefferson will help bettors. Tyler Higbee and Kupp are better bets based on value.
Will Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Giovani Bernard step up again?
In five of Tampa’s first eight games this season, Tom Brady had 4+ TDs. But as we’ve seen nearly every season for years, he’s regressed in the second half. This year, however, it’s hard to pin much of the blame on him.
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Losing Godwin and Fournette has hampered this offense. Guys like Tyler Johnson, Breshad Perriman, and Scotty Miller have not sufficiently closed the gap. Instead, Ke’Shawn Vaughn and, more recently, Giovani Bernard have been tasked with anchoring a depleted backfield. Bernard is a veteran and stable contributor, particularly when utilized in the passing game (as he should be). Vaughn is a 2020 third-round pick who would have earned a lot more run by now on several other teams.
Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski can be trusted
The Rams’ run and pass defenses are statistically a cut above those of the Bucs. It will be hard to trust Vaughn or Bernard, except in PPR formats, and assuming one or both continues to earn targets. Otherwise, much of the weight will fall on Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski.
Not much else needs to be said about those two. While Johnson, Perriman, and Miller are desperation flyers, we can trust that Evans and Gronk will likely lead all Tampa Bay receivers in targets, catches, and yards.
One more word on Brady — he’s 34-11 in the postseason, the highest winning percentage for any QB with 15+ playoff appearances. He’s seen and done everything. It will take more than a talented Rams squad to win this one. Brady and the Bucs should find a way to win by more than a field goal.
Rams vs. Buccaneers Prediction: Buccaneers 22, Rams 17
Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs (-1.5)
Sometimes it isn’t fair when two seemingly unstoppable teams have to face off well before the Super Bowl. Buffalo’s the winner of five straight, including two against the previously high-flying Patriots. Kansas City has won 10 of 11 after limping out of the gate. Who would have thought they’d do so well with Tyreek Hill struggling, Clyde Edwards-Helaire out, and Darrel Williams neutralized?
Great teams have the elite talent to prevail and the depth to persevere when sufficiently battle-tested. The Bills and Chiefs are loaded with elite talent and depth.
Can Josh Allen catapult the Bills into the Super Bowl?
For Buffalo, Josh Allen is playing at a championship level. Inexplicable hiccups against Atlanta and Jacksonville are in the rearview mirror. Allen, Stefon Diggs, and Dawson Knox are locked in. Devin Singletary is officially a high-functioning bell cow. The run defense is solid, and the pass defense is one of the best the NFL has seen in more than a decade.
The biggest question marks lie with Emmanuel Sanders, Cole Beasley, Gabriel Davis, and even Isaiah McKenzie. We might anticipate one of them breaking through on Sunday. But it would be hard to bet on two of them, given how infrequently they rise collectively. Allen, Diggs, Knox, and Singletary should produce. The rest are merely flyers.
The Chiefs’ wide-open offense
CEH could return from a shoulder injury while Williams could return from fumble purgatory. Derrick Gore could step up if this game somehow is decided by early in the fourth quarter. But the only “sure thing” — if there is one in this RB corps — is Jerick McKinnon.
McKinnon’s playing his best football since 2015. Season-ending injuries have marred his career. But years ago, he was one of the best pass-catching RBs in the game. If CEH sits, McKinnon is the best bet. If CEH starts, he and McKinnon (and maybe Williams) would battle for relevance in a touch matchup.
What to expect from the Chiefs’ passing game
The passing game is almost as difficult to predict. Hill isn’t finding room to operate, as defenses have adjusted. Travis Kelce remains elite, despite a concerning drop in receptions that could signal trouble heading into 2022. He has 5 or fewer catches in six of his last seven games and eight of his last 10. Bettors need more volume to feel confident, especially against this stingy Buffalo pass defense.
Byron Pringle has been a revelation and should continue to operate as a top-three receiver. Meanwhile, Mecole Hardman is a more boom-bust version of Pringle.
Through it all, Patrick Mahomes has found ways to elevate his game despite a mostly brutal six-game stretch from late October to early December. In five of those six contests, he threw a combined 2 TD passes. However, the ascending Pringle and Hardman have granted him much-needed weapons. Pound for pound, he has as much or more to work with than Allen does.
Furthermore, the Chiefs are a team laden with homers — with players who’ve worn only one uniform. In fact, their top 10 offensive producers this season have never played for another team. This fact doesn’t show up in box scores or betting lines. Nevertheless, it’s an intangible asset that helps elevate teams above adversity.
Bills vs. Chiefs Prediction: Chiefs 19, Bills 16