NFL Recap has a busy week reacting and prognosticating the 2020-2021 NFL Playoffs, looking at the eliminated teams from Wild Card Weekend, and we’ll also take a look at Hall of Fame voting and Studs ‘n’ Duds (with awards).
Here’s NFL Recap’s first-look preview of the NFC Divisional Round contest, Los Angeles Rams vs. Green Bay Packers, scheduled for Saturday, January 16th, at 4:35 PM ET (FOX/FOX Deportes).
The backdrop to the Rams vs. Packers matchup
Wild Card Weekend could not have worked out much better for the Green Bay Packers. Not only do the Packers face a beatable opponent vs. the Los Angeles Rams in the Divisional Round, but it’s a banged-up Rams team as well.
All-Pro defender Aaron Donald suffered a rib injury. Quarterback Jared Goff was forced to play through a thumb injury in the Los Angeles Rams’ 30-20 victory over the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday. Even with Goff and Donald healthy, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are the far superior team on paper.
That means in order for the Rams to win, the Packers will have to suffer through one of those playoff games where everything that can go wrong for them does go wrong.
You know, like their loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game last year. Or their loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the 2017 NFL Playoffs. Or their loss to the Arizona Cardinals in 2015, Seattle Seahawks in 2014, or the time Colin Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards … er, you get the picture.
Los Angeles Rams vs. Green Bay Packers Divisional Round Preview
Let’s dive deeper into the Rams vs. Packers tilt.
How the Green Bay Packers got here
It was a Packers season like any other, only more so. Aaron Rodgers played at a Hall of Fame level. This despite the fact that Davante Adams was his only reliable wide receiver. Tight end Robert Tonyan did emerge as a dangerous complementary weapon as well.
Za’Darius Smith spearheaded a nasty pass rush, with Preston Smith rejoining him after a prolonged early-season slump.
The Packers dominated the NFC North but scattered just enough breadcrumbs of doubt — a run defense vulnerable to getting wheelbarrowed, a beating at the hands of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the late-season loss of left tackle David Bakhtiari — to worry fans that this season might end the way most Packers seasons end.
How the Los Angeles Rams got here
Rookie running back Cam Akers gained 176 scrimmage yards and scored a touchdown against Seattle. Donald spent so much time in the Seattle Seahawks backfield that he injured his ribs dragging down Russell Wilson so often. Goff came off the bench to throw just enough split-fingered fastballs to keep the Rams’ passing game viable.
It was shaky. It was costly. But it was just enough for a win over a Seahawks team that looked like it has been photocopying the same offensive game plan since 2018.
Green Bay Packers’ greatest strength
Let’s see. Which Rodgers-to-Adams stat split is most impressive? How about this one? Adams led the NFL with 405 yards on third-down receptions and finished second to Keenan Allen with 24 receptions for first downs.
Or, if you prefer red zone stats, Adams leads all receivers with 23 catches inside the 20-yard line and 14 red zone touchdowns.
You get the idea. In high leverage situations where teams want to stop Rodgers and Adams, they cannot stop Rodgers and Adams.
Green Bay Packers’ greatest weakness
The Packers inside linebacker tandem of Christian Kirksey and Krys Barnes may be the worst in the NFL. One result was that the Packers finished 28th in the NFL at covering opposing running backs in the passing game, per Football Outsiders.
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine doesn’t do Kirksey, Barnes, or anyone else any favors when he rushes only three defenders. Asking Preston Smith to drop into coverage doesn’t help matters either.
What we learned about the Rams this week
Their secondary is truly elite. Setting aside D.K. Metcalf’s 51-yard touchdown when he slipped behind the coverage during a Wilson scramble, Seattle’s receivers combined for just eight catches for 117 yards on Saturday night. That’s even with the Seahawks playing from behind for most of the game.
Darious Williams has become the Larry Brown to Jalen Ramsey’s Deion Sanders. Williams jumps routes and produces pick-sixes when opponents play keep-away from Ramsey. Safeties Jordan Fuller and John Johnson are effective all-purpose defenders. Troy Hill does a fine job shutting down slot receivers. The Rams’ secondary matches up well against Davante Adams and the Perennial Disappointments.
Los Angeles Rams’ player to watch
The Chicago Bears allowed Leonard Floyd, the eighth overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, to walk as a free agent after four disappointing seasons. The Rams picked him up and were quietly rewarded with 10.5 sacks in the regular season.
Floyd notched two more sacks on Saturday night. He demonstrated that he had the athleticism to both chase Wilson down from behind and not get juked out by Wilson’s pump fakes. Look for Floyd to cause trouble for Billy Turner, David Bakhtiari’s replacement at left tackle.
Rams vs. Packers bottom line
Goff and Donald will almost certainly play against the Packers in this Divisional Round matchup. If Goff turns into Commander Numb Thumbs in what will probably be icy conditions and/or Donald is limited, the Packers will romp.
If Goff and Donald are close to 100%, the mismatch to watch is Sean McVay vs. Mike Pettine. If McVay finds and exploits the many leaks in the Packers’ defense while the Rams’ secondary contains Adams and shuts down everyone else, the Packers will be in for one of those games where the opponent rushes for 200 yards while Rodgers scowls at the sideline and daydreams about premium tequila.
It’s unlikely, but the fact that we have all seen examples of several such games means that it’s possible.
Early NFL Recap prediction: Green Bay Packers
Here’s NFL Recap’s first-look preview of the AFC Divisional Round contest between the Baltimore Ravens vs. Buffalo Bills, scheduled for 8:15 PM ET on Saturday, January 16th (NBC).
The backdrop to the Ravens vs. Bills matchup
Lamar Jackson finally won a playoff game, folks! It’s about time, gosh-darn it. Heck, he turned 24 years old just last Thursday – it’s about time the slacker accomplished something. Josh Allen won his first career playoff game as well on Saturday. However, nobody spent last week acting like he needed a win to prove his worthiness as a quarterback/leader/citizen/human or anything.
While NFL Recap readers typically are not among the JaCkSon cAn’T wiN bIg gAmEz demographic (none of your Twitter accounts have been suspended in the last five days), that lazy narrative was surely on many of our minds in Sunday’s narrow win over the Tennessee Titans. And now, Jackson and the Ravens must prove that they can win an even bigger game.
The Bills are one of the NFL’s best teams. There are also one of the most balanced. They may be the only team in the league that was hotter than the Ravens over the last month of the season.
Here’s NFL Recap’s first-look preview of the Divisional Round matchup with the Ravens vs. Bills.
How the Baltimore Ravens got here
Sunday started like a typical Ravens vs.Tennessee Titans game. The Titans looked like a New England Patriots All-21st Century Pro Bowl team in the first quarter, while Lamar Jackson looked the way your father-in-law thinks Jackson always looks.
Then Jackson raced through Titans defense for a 48-yard touchdown run. Next, he manufactured a second touchdown drive out of short passes and got a huge boost from a defense that held Derrick Henry to just 40 rushing yards to wrap up a 20-13 Ravens victory.
How the Buffalo Bills got here
The Bills took a 24-10 lead over the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday thanks to a Josh Allen playground drive-and-dish touchdown to Dawson Knox, a goal-line stand on defense, and some tightrope-walking sideline catches by Stefon Diggs and Gabriel Davis.
Then, it appeared that a gas leak beneath Bills Stadium caused everyone — Allen, Philip Rivers, coaches, the officials — to make decisions and play the fourth quarter as if they were still loopy after major dental surgery, resulting in terrible clock management, goofy fumbles, and hallucinogenic replay reviews. Once the air cleared, the Bills escaped with a 27-24 victory.
What we learned about the Bills this week
Allen and his receivers force opponents to cover the entire field, particularly the sidelines. Per Sports Info Solutions, the Bills led the NFL in completions (190) and yards (2,303) to the left and right sidelines in the regular season. Allen’s arm allows him to reach receivers 25 yards downfield and along the sideline on a wire.
Receivers like Diggs and Davis proved on Saturday that they can do some acrobatic stuff to get both feet in bounds.
What we learned about the Ravens this week
The Ravens’ run defense is better than advertised, thanks to elite run stoppers like Brandon Williams and Derek Wolfe and quality all-purpose defenders like Calais Campbell and Matt Judon. Per Football Outsiders, the Ravens also have the second-best defense in the league at stopping runs in short-yardage situations. Maybe that’s why Mike Vrabel kept punting on 4th-and-short near midfield.
Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale deserves credit for Sunday’s Henry-stuffing game plan. He and Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll may be auditioning against each other for head coaching offers.
Baltimore Ravens’ player to watch
Marquise Brown caught seven passes for 109 yards, including a 28-year old teardrop up the sideline, which appeared to settle Jackson down after his shaky start, and added two rushes for 19 yards. Brown is critical to the Ravens’ success not just for his value as a deep threat, but also because his speed sets up opportunities for the type of easy completions along the short sidelines that Jackson struggled earlier in the season.
Buffalo Bills’ player to watch
Safety Micah Hyde broke up three passes against the Colts on Saturday. This included the game-ending Hail Mary in addition to seven combined tackles. Hyde has been an important multi-purpose safety and slot cornerback for the Bills for years. He’s likely to play an important role in containing Jackson and the Ravens option game.
Ravens vs. Bills bottom line
Tom Brady versus Drew Brees may have the nostalgia factor, but Jackson versus Allen is where the action will be in the Divisional round. Jackson and Allen are a pair of thrilling young dual-threat playmakers who could spend the next decade squaring off against each other (sometimes for the right to face Patrick Mahomes).
The Bills and Ravens are surprisingly similar, right down to their excellent kicking games, and they are almost evenly matched. Allen’s deep passing ability and the athleticism of the Bills secondary appear to give them a minor edge.
At least we won’t have to hear about Jackson’s shortcomings as a quarterback/leader/whatever if the Ravens lose. Or, if some knuckleheads keeping bringing it up (because you know they will), at least we won’t be obligated to pay attention to it.
Early Prediction: Buffalo Bills
Here’s the NFL Recap first-look preview of the AFC Divisional Round contest between the Cleveland Browns vs. Kansas City Chiefs, scheduled for Sunday, January 17th at 3:05 PM.
Editor’s Note: For the rest of Mike Tanier’s individual NFL Divisional Round playoff previews, make sure to check out his full NFL Wild Card Recap. Not only does he give in-depth breakdowns of each game, but he also provides you with his Studs’ n’ Duds.
The backdrop to the Browns vs. Chiefs matchup
It’s been fun, Cleveland Browns. The regular season was a blast. Sunday night’s 48-37 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers — your first playoff win in 25 years! — was like riding the roller coaster in a haunted amusement park.
But a well-rested Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and the Kansas City Chiefs are here to set fire to your secondary, and there’s nothing Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, and your station-to-station offense can do about it. The only way to defeat the Chiefs is to hope they beat themselves with penalties and turnovers while outsmarting themselves with an over-ambitious game plan. You know, kinda like the Steelers did on Sunday. Come to think of it, maybe the Browns really do have an ever-so-slim chance.
Here’s NFL Recap’s first-look preview of the Divisional Round matchup of the Browns vs. Chiefs.
How the Kansas City Chiefs got here
Back at the turn of the century, when Tiger Woods won two or three majors per year, he did not always take lesser tournaments all that seriously: he would barely make the cut at some warmup for the Masters because he was trying out new approaches or putting left-handed or whatever. (NFL Recap is exaggerating, but you get the idea).
Mahomes and the Chiefs treated this entire season the way Tiger treated the East Nan Madol Country Club Invitational, winning their final seven games by a total of 26 points but always making it clear that they could pull away at any moment as soon as they decided to stop fiddling with triple-reverse options and start playing real football.
How the Cleveland Browns got here
Safety Karl Joseph pounced on a wild pitch of a shotgun snap in the end zone for a Browns’ touchdown on the opening play of the game. Then things got weird. The Browns took a 35-10 halftime lead with the help of three Ben Roethlisberger interceptions and 103 rushing yards from Chubb and Kareem Hunt. However, Roethlisberger discovered the Fountain of Youth at halftime and began picking apart a secondary missing starter Denzel Ward and nickel defender Kevin Johnson (Reserve list).
The Steelers were poised to come back and restore the natural order to the universe by defeating the Browns when head coach Mike Tomlin opted to punt on 4th-and-1 from the Steelers’ 46-yard line at the start of the fourth quarter. The Browns appeared to breathe a sigh of relief the moment Tomlin took his foot off the accelerator. They quickly marched 80 yards, capped by a Chubb screen-and-go touchdown, then kept the Steelers at arm’s length in an NBA shootout the rest of the way.
Oh, and the Browns did all of this with almost no practice this week and head coach Kevin Stefanski in quarantine. Maybe the Browns’ problem for the last 25 years was that they worked too hard and were coached too much. Nah … that can’t be it.
What we learned about the Browns this week
For one thing, we learned they could overcome adversity and win in unusual circumstances. However, they have done a lot of that this season.
The Browns also reminded us that Chubb and Hunt can both generate big plays and keep the chains moving. Browns running backs ranked first in the NFL in second-level yards, per Football Outsiders. In other words, once Chubb and Hunt break through the line of scrimmage (which happens a lot, thanks to the outstanding Browns offensive line), they are the best backs in the NFL, Derrick Henry included, at generating 5-to-8 yard gains.
Kansas City Chiefs greatest strength
Mahomes and the Chiefs produced 69 passing plays of 20-plus yards in the regular season, second in the NFL behind the Houston Texans, with 70. Speaking of which, please keep Deshaun Watson in your thoughts as he copes with the fact that the organization has been taken over by this guy.
Kansas City Chiefs biggest weakness
The Chiefs committed 105 penalties in the regular season, the fourth-highest total in the NFL. They finished second in the league with 21 offensive holds and had 310 yards of offense negated by penalties. The Chiefs won several close games in which the opponent’s defensive MVP was a yellow flag.
Cleveland Browns player to watch
Ward and Johnson should be off the reserve list by Sunday. The Browns desperately need both of them, but especially Ward, who is the only defender in their secondary who can even stay in the same television frame as Tyreek Hill.
Browns vs. Chiefs Bottom Line
The Chiefs are going to tear the Browns secondary to shreds like pulled pork. Mayfield won’t be able to keep up by handing off and throwing short boot passes. The Browns and their fans should be proud of the 2020 season and can look forward to trying to take the next step in 2021. But Sunday night was the Browns Super Bowl. This game will be their reality check.
Early Prediction: Kansas City Chiefs.
Here’s NFL Recap’s first-look preview of the NFC Divisional Round contest between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. the New Orleans Saints, scheduled for 6:40 PM ET on Sunday, January 17th (FOX/FOX Deportes).
The backdrop to the Buccaneers vs. Saints matchup
It’s very difficult to defeat the same opponent three times in one season. It’s very difficult to defeat Tom Brady in the playoffs. So it will be very, very, VERY difficult for the New Orleans Saints to defeat Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the third time this season next week in the divisional round.
For the Saints to complete their hat trick vs. the Buccaneers, they’ll need another outstanding game from their defense. They’ll need another step-up performance from Alvin Kamara (like his 116 total yard effort in Sunday’s 21-9 win over the Chicago Bears, only better). In addition, they’ll need some flawless game management from Drew Brees in what’s shaping up to be the final postseason of his career.
It sounds like a tall order, but the Saints swept the season series by a combined 72-26 score. The Buccaneers, on the other hand, hardly looked unbeatable in Saturday’s 31-23 victory over the Washington Football team.
How the New Orleans Saints got here
Zzzzzzzzzzzz. [Yawn] Oops, sorry — NFL Recap fell asleep with the Saints leading 7-3 at halftime. Yep, it was that kind of game. The Chicago Bears couldn’t move the ball at all, but the Saints kept them in the game thanks to a missed Will Lutz field goal and a Taysom Hill strip-sack.
The Saints slowly pulled away with 12 and 15-play touchdown drives against a gassed defense as Mitch Trubisky and the Bears offense flatlined. A meaningless late goal-line stand and a 99-yard drive by the Bears in garbage time made the final score closer than the game itself. It also made a game that already felt like it was 45 minutes too long even longer.
Nevertheless, the Saints moved on to the NFC Divisional Round as expected.
How the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got here
Saturday night’s 31-23 victory over the Washington Football Team was tougher than it had to be. The Buccaneers settled for field goals a little too often, failed on an extra point and a two-point conversion, and fumbled at the end of a drive. Most importantly, they were caught off-guard by fourth-string Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke’s ability to move around the pocket without crutches and throw more than five yards downfield.
But in the end, Tom Brady just had too many weapons. Players showed up like wide receivers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown, tight end Cameron Brate, and running back [double checking notes] Leonard Fournette? Really?
What we learned about the Buccaneers this week
Brady and the offense command so much attention that it is easy to overlook the Buccaneers pass rush. They ranked second to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the regular season with a 27.0% pressure rate against opposing quarterbacks (per Pro Football Reference).
Coordinator Todd Bowles doesn’t just rely upon Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, and the defensive line. Bowles turns up the heat by blitzing on 39.0% of pass plays, the fifth-highest rate in the NFL. Look for Bowles to dial up some blitzes against a rickety Brees and a Saints’ offense with no consistent receiving threats besides Michael Thomas.
What we learned about the Saints this week
The Bears were 0-9 on third-down conversions until their meaningless final drive. But for the Saints (and for most successful defenses), great third-down defense begins on first and second downs.
Football Outsiders ranked the Saints fifth in first-down defense, fourth on second downs, and seventh on third downs during the regular season. Mitch Trubisky seemed to be facing 3rd-and-8 all afternoon on Sunday. Brady doesn’t scoff at unfavorable down-and-distance situations the way he did 10-15 years ago. A defense that forces him into 3rd and long can force him to make a mistake.
New Orleans Saints’ player to watch
Slot cornerback Chauncey Gardner-Johnson goaded Anthony Miller into throwing a punch (and getting ejected) on Sunday. Previously, Gardner-Johnson got Miller’s teammate Javon Wims to take a swing at him in Week 8. And, let us not forget that he was involved in the practice altercation that got Michael Thomas suspended by the Saints earlier in the season.
Setting aside the possibility that he could get Antonio Brown so worked up that Brown dumps Joker toxin into Gotham River, Gardner-Johnson is a boom-or-bust defender who could generate a sack when blitzing or break up a critical pass. Yet, he could also get flagged for pass interference or whiff on a tackle at the worst possible moment.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ player to watch
Fournette is the running back that the cool kids on the internet love to hate. He’s a bruiser whom the Jacksonville Jaguars drafted too high and relied upon too much before unceremoniously cutting after three years.
Fournette had a mostly forgettable season in the Buccaneers’ running back rotation. On the season, he had 357 yards, just 3.8 yards per carry — lots of three-catch, 16-yard-type afternoons as a receiver (with several dropped passes).
But with LeSean McCoy out due to illness and Ronald Jones suffering a quad injury on the opening drive on Saturday, Fournette stepped up with 93 rushing yards and one touchdown. He also added four receptions for 39 yards and some spin-cycling, tackler-dragging highlights.
Tom Brady has counted on backs like LeGarrette Blount and Sony Michel to serve as his playoff battering rams in years past. Don’t be shocked if Fournette plays a similar role down in the NFC Divisional Round.
Buccaneers vs. Saints bottom line
Here’s the problem with the NFC playoff field. We’ve all seen Brees’ playoff loss heartbreakers on bad calls or late-game blunders. Additionally, we’ve seen Aaron Rodgers get sabotaged in the playoffs by the Green Bay Packers’ run defense. We’ve seen Jared Goff and the Los Angeles Rams’ offense dissected in the Super Bowl.
It’s true we’ve seen Brady lose a few playoff games, but that’s not exactly what he’s known for. Brees and Rodgers have Super Bowl rings, but Brady is the only quarterback in the conference who doesn’t have a reputation for playoff disappointments. He was cleaning up in the AFC while Brees, Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan, Goff, and others took turns handing each other disappointments.
Look beyond Brady’s reputation and his marquee supporting cast. The Saints have a better defense, better offensive line, and a better track record in 2020 against quality opponents.
Yet, “looking past” Brady, Evans, Rob Gronkowski, and the rest seems like a bad idea. Especially when Brees looks so banged up that he might be ready for his second career as a sandwich mogul. Then again, Brady is the one who looks washed up every time he faces the Saints.
No matter what happens next weekend in this NFC Divisional Round matchup, this may be the last Brady-Brees meeting. There were too few of them over the last two decades. Let’s make sure to enjoy this one. This Buccaneers vs. Saints matchup should be memorable.
Early Prediction: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The teams that got eliminated in the Wild Card round of the 2020 NFL playoffs face some serious questions moving forward. The Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Washington Football Team must seek new solutions at quarterback.
The Seattle Seahawks will be looking for upgrades at just about every position except quarterback. The Tennessee Titans must realize that their greatest strength could quickly become their biggest weakness. Here’s an NFL Recap look ahead at what’s next for Russell Wilson, Derrick Henry, Philip Rivers, Mitch Trubisky, and others.
Which NFC teams were eliminated from the Wild Card round, and what comes next?
What’s next for the Chicago Bears?
If you seriously thought the Bears were going to extend Mitch Trubisky’s contract after his late-season lukewarm streak, Matt Nagy’s decision to hand off and run out the final 1:49 before halftime while trailing 7-3 on Sunday was your wakeup call. The Bears will be in the quarterback market this offseason.
They may also enter the general manager market in the next few days. It will be hard to justify giving Ryan Pace another chance to find a quarterback of the future after all of the time and resources the organization sunk into Trubisky.
The Bears are scraping the 2021 salary cap ceiling. Wide Receiver Allen Robinson will probably depart via free agency, further weakening a feeble offense. The Bears payroll is full of very good veteran defenders (Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Kyle Fuller, etc.) who are likely to be on the downsides of their careers by the time the offense gets repaired. The Bears are a rebuilding team that doesn’t know it yet. The quicker they get serious about starting over, the better.
What’s next for the Seattle Seahawks?
After the Seahawks were eliminated in the Wild Card round, NFL Recaps asks that they please start over. Keep Russell Wilson, Jamal Adams, Tyler Lockett, DK Metcalf, and maybe a half-dozen others. Ditch everyone else. Send Bobby Wagner to the Hall of Fame (he can still play, but his presence fools the Seahawks into thinking their defense is better than it really is).
Blast offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer into the furthest reaches of the galaxy. Let general manager John Schneider explore opportunities with some other organization offering more power. Order Pete Carroll to hire the hottest young coordinators on the job market. Then, limit his authority to making rah-rah speeches. Rebuild and rethink everything.
The Seahawks have reached a dead-end with their annual playoff-berths-due-to-narrow-wins routine. Few 12-4 teams have been less impressive than the Seahawks were this year. They’re due for a season where they go 6-10 just because their luck runs out. If they launch a soft reboot now, the Seahawks can at least steer into the skid and control it.
What’s next for the Washington Football Team?
It’s not as simple as finding a quarterback and immediately becoming a Super Bowl contender. Washington needs to find most of an offense — receivers to supplement Terry McLaurin, running backs to rotate with Antonio Gibson, depth and reinforcements along the offensive line — while also searching for a quarterback without a high draft pick at their disposal.
The greatest risk for Washington moving forward may be the assumption that their defense will continue to play at its 2020 level next year. Defensive performances fluctuate wildly from year to year, and a slight dip (caused by opponents no longer being caught off guard by Chase Young and Montez Sweat, for instance, or a better slate of opposing quarterbacks) could send Washington tumbling back to 5-11.
Head coach and showrunner Ron Rivera may opt for a one-year bridge quarterback (Cam Newton?) while he continues to build on both sides of the ball in 2021. That might frustrate Washington fans hungry for a big leap forward, but it could be what’s best for the franchise in the long run.
Which AFC teams were eliminated in the Wild Card round, and what comes next?
What’s next for the Indianapolis Colts?
The Colts were one of three AFC teams eliminated in the Wild Card round and now enter the offseason with some questions, especially at the quarterback position. So, who should be the Colts quarterback in 2021? Here are some choices.
Philip Rivers: He reportedly wants to return, and his wily knuckleballer routine was effective for most of 2020. But he’s only going to keep declining and yielding diminishing returns. The Colts would be tempting fate to pay him another $25 million for what might be his Y.A.Tittle season.
Carson Wentz: Eagles fans love this idea much more than Colts fans do, which should give you a pretty good idea of what Colts management must think of trading for a $34-million restoration project.
Jacoby Brissett: Brissett is great for getting a team through a gap year. That would make 2021 the third gap year in five years.
A top rookie prospect: The Colts have too many needs at too many positions to trade bouquets of draft picks so they can move up into, say, Zach Wilson territory.
Sam Darnold, Jameis Winston, etc.: Once we reach the second-chance reclamation project list, it’s a pretty good sign that the Colts left themselves without a plan if Rivers played just well enough to get them knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. Which, unfortunately, was the most likely scenario from the very day the Colts signed him.
While finding a solution at quarterback, the Colts also need to make decisions about 2021 free agents like wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, edge rusher Justin Houston, cornerback Xavier Rhodes, and others. The Colts have the cap space to keep younger, higher-priority players like Rhodes while letting some older players and role players. That’s a great way to level off as a Wild Card team, but it’s a terrible way to get any better.
What’s next for the Pittsburgh Steelers?
The Steelers are the Colts with better pass rushers and a softer schedule. As Sunday night’s Wreck of the S.S. Roethlisberger demonstrated, the Steelers are overdue for the quarterback change they chose to put off this season. Like the Colts — and Bears and Washington, for that matter — they may find themselves sifting through suboptimal solutions and playing mix-and-match musical chairs with guys like Darnold, Trubisky, and others.
The good news for the Steelers is that they possess a Super Bowl-caliber pass rush and receiving corps, making it much easier for them to fill in blanks. But the Steelers are right up against the roof of the salary cap, even if Roethlisberger’s salary is wiped off the ledger. Not only can they not entertain any Wentz-priced potential quarterback solutions, but they won’t be able to do much more in free agency except re-sign incumbents like wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
What’s next for the Tennessee Titans?
The Titans face two major offseason problems, one obvious and one cleverly concealed among the team’s strengths.
The obvious problem is the Titans’ pass rush, and it should be easy to solve. Despite a lack of cap space on paper, the Titans should be able to clear enough room for a veteran free agent pass rusher like Ryan Kerrigan, who is eager to play for Mike Vrabel and a playoff team.
Help should also be available when the Titans pick in the first round of April’s draft. The Titans should aggressively seek all the upgrades to their pass rush they can find.
The concealed problem is the fact that Derrick Henry has been overused for two years — he crossed the dreaded 370 carry threshold during the regular season — and is now due for his steep Todd Gurley-like decline. We may even have witnessed the start of that decline on Sunday.
The Titans need to add a running back or two on the second day of the draft and turn their backfield into a Henry-chaired committee. Otherwise, they will risk more 18-carry, 40-yard rushing performances and 20-13 losses to quality opponents next year.
Who plays in the Divisional Round?
Now that the Wild Card Weekend is over, we know which teams will be playing in the Divisional Round next week.
AFC Divisional Round Matchups
- (5) Baltimore Ravens vs. (2) Buffalo Bills | Saturday, January 16th, 8:15 PM ET on NBC
- (6) Cleveland Browns vs. (1) Kansas City Chiefs | Sunday, January 17th, 3:05 PM ET on CBS
NFC Divisional Round Matchups
- (6) Los Angeles Rams vs. (1) Green Bay Packers | Saturday, January 16th, 4:35 PM ET on FOX
- (5) Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. (2) New Orleans Saints | Sunday, January 17th, 6:40 PM ET on FOX
Peyton Manning’s 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame “debate” will consist of his name getting called and everyone saying “Aye.” Calvin Johnson and Charles Woodson are also likely first-ballot inductees. But what about John Lynch, who has been a Hall of Fame finalist for years? Or Torry Holt and Reggie Wayne, a pair of great wide receivers who are so similar that they force voters to take sides? Or linebackers Clay Matthews and the late Sam Mills, who may not get another chance if they are not enshrined this year?
The important context of Hall of Fame voting
I’ve been writing about the Pro Football Hall of Fame for years. I’ve often picked the ears of many selection committee members in the past. It gives me as good a chance as just about anyone about how this year’s balloting will go. Let me share some of the backdrop to the Hall of Fame voting process.
You may notice that there’s not much in this article about how much “greater” or “more worthy” one Hall of Fame candidate might be than another. That’s because for non-Peyton level legends, reaching the Hall of Fame is more about navigating through backlogs and logjams at various positions — and getting off-the-record endorsements from teammates, coaches, and opponents — than racking up stats or Pro Bowl berths.
All 15 of this year’s finalists have strong Hall of Fame credentials. Who gets in will probably come down to who has been waiting the longest and who is stuck on a ballot next to a similar player, resulting in a split ticket.
Oh, and stick around until the end, where I suggest a solution to the 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame’s logjam of overqualified candidates.
2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame Ballot | Who is on the list this year?
Jared Allen, Defensive End
Allen is an excellent 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame candidate but not a high-priority one. As a first-time finalist not in the Peyton-Megatron category, voters will quickly shunt him to the back of the line. Voters will work on players who have been on the docket for years.
Ronde Barber, Cornerback
Another 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame first-time finalist whose candidacy stalled at the semifinalist stage for a few years. Barber will also be overshadowed by Charles Woodson and prioritized behind former teammate John Lynch on the selection committee’s list.
Tony Boselli and Alan Faneca, Offensive Line
Hall of Fame voters have been telling me the same things about Boselli for years. They know he’s great, but his short career has shunted him behind fellow offensive linemen Kevin Mawae (Hall of Fame Class of 2019), Steve Hutchinson (Class of 2020), and Faneca. You may not love that logic. Hall of Fame voters have little choice but to try to prioritize players from similar positions and eras.
Mawae was an All-Pro at age 37. Faneca and Hutchinson were high-impact starters in their mid-30s. Boselli’s career was over at 29. It’s hard to pretend that his career length shouldn’t be a factor. Especially true at a position with no statistical record to fall back upon.
Faneca is a sixth-year finalist because of the offensive line backlog; Boselli is a fifth-year finalist. Voters have tacitly been clearing this logjam one lineman at a time. This will be Faneca’s year. Boselli will have to wait beyond the 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame voting.
LeRoy Butler and John Lynch, Safety
There’s an old football adage — the further you are from the ball, the less impact you have. That’s silly in the modern pass-happy NFL, but it made sense in the old slobber knocker days. Frankly, it still impacts the decision making of Hall of Fame voters trying to differentiate among defensive backs.
Lynch played his signature seasons in Tony Dungy’s Tampa-2 defense, often tasked with covering deep zones. Lynch got shunted behind Steve Atwater, Brian Dawkins, Ed Reed, and Troy Polamalu in recent votes and could get stuck behind Butler as well, not really because Butler has better stats (safety stats are often misleading, anyway), but because Butler was perceived (rightly) as more of a versatile box safety and enforcer than Lynch, and therefore someone who impacted far more plays.
Working in Lynch’s favor is his presence as a high-profile NFL figure as the 49ers general manager (it’s easier to vote for a guy you may need as a source) and the fact that he is an eight-time finalist.
So Packers fans, if Butler is “snubbed” this year, it will probably be because the voters were clearing Lynch through to make room for Butler next year.
One last note, Ronde Barber’s candidacy might also stall because of the perception that he was a Tampa-2 “system guy” who only worked the short sidelines.
Torry Holt and Reggie Wayne, Wide Receiver
Holt and Wayne are both second-time finalists who will probably share the ballot for a while. Both achieved fame as the #2 receivers for historic offenses (the “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams and Peyton Manning’s mid-2000s Indianapolis Colts) whose careers took off as their teams’ fortunes began to decline. That makes them Sammy Hagar candidates — great for a long time, but not quite at the same level as the guys who came before them.
The similarities between Holt and Wayne will end up in a split ticket for at least another year. At the very least, both will have to wait until there is no better wide receiver candidate on the ballot.
Calvin Johnson, Wide Receiver
The only arguments against Johnson for the 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame voting, if there are any, will be: a) short career, and b) he should wait until the committee processes Holt and/or Wayne.
Johnson’s career is not Boselli-short. He left on his own terms (as opposed to fading or succumbing to injuries at an early age), so the short career argument likely won’t sway anyone. And most voters surely place Megatron in a separate category from Holt and Wayne. Plus, voters may like the idea of shooing Johnson in and leaving the Detroit Lions alone for a few decades.
Peyton Manning, Quarterback
Clay Matthews Jr., Linebacker
Matthews is a first-time finalist in his 20th year of eligibility after years and years in semifinalist purgatory. In other words, his case is being sent to the “Supreme Court” for a final ruling before he is (most likely) shipped over to the senior’s committee.
Matthews’ Hall of Fame case is a grab-bag. An ultra-long career, some seasons with fondly-remembered (if not historically great) Dawg Pound defenses, interesting-but-not-overwhelming statistical accomplishments (leading the league in tackles is not the sort of thing that impresses most voters), some famous offspring to keep him fresh in the minds of fans/voters, and a few very high-profile former coaches known to stan for (and sometimes against) their favorite players and opponents behind the scenes.
My gut tells me that the 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame committee will pass on Matthews, knowing that he will be a top-of-the-list guy at the senior’s level. It may all come down to what one of those high-profile former coaches thinks.
Sam Mills, Linebacker
A favorite of mine, Mills (who passed away in 2005) is in his 19th year of eligibility and will also soon be likely sent over to the senior’s committee. His portfolio is better than Matthews’, but even odder. He was the leader of the Dome Patrol Saints defenses of the early 1990s, a key contributor to the early seasons of the Carolina Panthers, and the greatest player on the greatest team in USFL history (Mills started his career with the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars, who won two USFL titles).
Mills’ candidacy has suffered from the same issue that has held Matthews back. It could befall many others on this list (including the next guy). If it takes a few sentences to explain why a player was an all-time great, he’ll inevitably get stuck behind the guys who can be summed up in a few words.
Richard Seymour, Defensive Line
Seymour is likely to end up the sixth or seventh player on many ballots (among the final cuts, in other words) for a few more years until he’s in a Faneca-Lynch situation where there is more urgency to make a final decision. His candidacy might take off now that the Patriots dynasty appears to be over. The time is coming to put the franchise’s accomplishments into a historical perspective. Just not sure it will take place for the 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame balloting.
Zach Thomas, Linebacker
Despite Thomas’ many All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections, he suffers from a variation of the Lynch problem. There’s a perception that he was a “system guy” protected by space-eating defensive linemen who funneled plays into his lap. Keep in mind that these “perceptions” typically come from conversations with coaches, players, and opponents of the time, not from sportswriters who hate your favorite team or something.
Thomas’ candidacy also lost momentum when he shared the ballot with teammate Jason Taylor (Class of 2017) for several years. This year, his chances come down to whether the receivers, offensive linemen, and safeties box each other out in just the right combination. He will likely be prioritized ahead of the old-timer linebackers. Kevin Mawae sung Thomas’ praises in his Hall of Fame enshrinement.
Charles Woodson, Defensive Back
The only argument against Woodson will be about the queue, not his accomplishments. Some voters may push for Lynch to get in before Woodson, and there’s a slim chance of some Woodson-Butler split Green Bay Packers’ ticket confusion. Most likely, he’s in on the first ballot.
My early 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame prediction
Alan Faneca, John Lynch, Calvin Johnson, Peyton Manning, Charles Woodson. I hope to revisit this prediction after speaking to some voters over the next week or two.
My Hall of Fame preferences
Alan Faneca, Calvin Johnson, Peyton Manning, Sam Mills, Charles Woodson. I prioritize Sam Mills over John Lynch, but the committee may see otherwise.
My suggestion for “fixing” the Hall of Fame voting
Any fifth-time finalist should be subjected to a separate “yes or no” vote by the committee. If the fifth-time finalist wins a simple majority, he’s enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Most importantly, his selection does not count against the five players in that year’s class. If he does not get a majority, his case is sent to the senior’s committee.
This year, Boselli, Faneca, and Lynch would each be voted upon separately. All three would almost certainly pass and reach the Hall of Fame by a simple majority. The committee could then discuss other players without prioritizing guys who have been stuck in various positional logjams for many years.
This plan would result in a few years where 6-8 players are inducted into the Hall of Fame. This would not be counting seniors, coaches and contributors. After that, the docket would simmer down to the point where someone like Jared Allen doesn’t get the “we don’t have time for you yet” treatment for several years. It would not swell the ranks of the Hall of Fame too much or make it less of an honor; it would just be a way of handling air traffic control.
And it would allow us to talk more about the accomplishments of these players and less time on balloting logistics.
On Wild Card Weekend, Jared Goff proved that you don’t need working thumbs to have a good time in the playoffs. Mike Vrabel and Mike Tomlin made some inexcusable punting decisions. And the Baltimore Ravens made fullbacks cool again. All this, plus slime in the end zone and obscenities on a children’s television network in the Wild Card edition of NFL Recap’s Studs ‘n’ Duds!
NFL Wild Card Weekend Studs ‘n’ Duds
Stud: Patrick Ricard, Fullback, Baltimore Ravens
Hooray for fullbacks! They’re the ultimate #Relatable wish-fulfillment surrogates for chonk dads! So while Lamar Jackson silenced doubters and Marcus Peters sealed Sunday’s Ravens victory over the Tennessee Titans with a clutch fourth-quarter interception, NFL Recap was celebrating Ricard’s three receptions for 26 yards, all of which came on the touchdown drive which gave the Ravens the lead at the start of the third quarter.
That’s because while the more athletic kids in the neighborhood dreamed of growing into Joe Montana or Eric Dickerson, Recap wanted to be just like Leroy Harris or Dan Doornink. So go get ‘em, Ricard! Those flat passes are not going to catch themselves!
NFL Duds: Mike Vrabel, HC, Tennessee Titans; Mike Tomlin, HC, Pittsburgh Steelers
Vrabel punted on 4th-and-2 from the Titans’ 44-yard line while trailing early in the third quarter, then ordered a second punt on 4th-and-2 from the Ravens 40-yard line while trailing early in the fourth quarter. Vrabel revels in his tough-guy persona, but that’s what playing scared looks like.
Tomlin must have seen Vrabel lose to the Ravens because of ultra-conservative punting and said, “Oh yeah, let me get in on THAT action.” Tomlin punted on 4th-and-1 from the Steelers’ 46-yard line while trailing 35-23 but moving the ball easily against the depleted Cleveland Browns secondary.
(The Steelers actually punted from the 46-yard line after a delay of game penalty, but you get the idea). The Browns got the ball back with renewed confidence and quickly drove 80 yards to derail the Steelers’ comeback effort.
Quarantined Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski probably did a little dance around his home office when Tomlin ordered the punt. Old-school defensive coaches love to hate analytics. On Sunday night, Tomlin lost to a team coached by a literal nerd in his basement.
Stud: Jared Goff, QB, Los Angeles Rams
Goff takes a lot of flack for being a midsized economy quarterback with a luxury sedan price tag. But it took guts to come off the bench less than two weeks after thumb surgery and find a way to manufacture some passing offense against the Seahawks.
Goff’s deepest pass on Saturday was a Taysom Hill Special — Cooper Kupp essentially had to turn around to come back to retrieve it — but Goff put mustard on a few throws when he absolutely had to, and he even improvised and made a few plays on the run.
Goff may never be a truly great quarterback, but he proved on Saturday that there is more to his game than waiting around for Sean McVay to tell him where to throw the ball.
Dud: Brian Schottenheimer, Offensive Coordinator, Seattle Seahawks
Schottenheimer remains the only coach in the NFL who can consistently slow Russell Wilson down, making him eligible for an NFL Studs ‘n’ Duds lifetime achievement award.
Schottenheimer’s entire game plan on Saturday was one huge mistake, so NFL Recap will point out that Schottenheimer called running plays on both 2nd-and-34 and 1st-and-25 at various points in the Seahawks’ loss to the Rams. It takes a truly unique coach to call plays on purpose to set up 3rd-and-24.
NFL Studs: The Nickelodeon broadcast
NFL studs Noah Eagle, Nate Burleson, Gabrielle Nevaeh Green, and Lex Lumpkin explained the rules of football in a lively way while Saints and Bears players were virtually “slimed” after (rare) touchdowns and SpongeBob SquarePants’ enormous head filled the rectangular region between the uprights on field goal attempts during the innovative NFL-Nickelodeon simulcast.
The broadcast team was burdened with a game that was too long and low-scoring to be kid-friendly, and the frequent asides about Nickelodeon’s 40-year history seem to have been aimed at the wrong audience (NFL Recap’s past love of Rugrats won’t get us to tune in to Ollie’s Pack).
But the youth-friendly discussions of NFL strategy and personalities were just as informative — and far less pompous and bombastic — than the typical telecast bibble-babble.
Dud: The Nickelodeon broadcast sound editors
Whoops. Welp, kids are going to be exposed to this sort of language, anyway. Especially when watching Mitch Trubisky.
NFL Duds: The officials
Brad Allen’s crew blew a replay call that almost cost the Buffalo Bills a victory late in the fourth quarter. Zach Pascal clearly fumbled after getting up from the ground after a fourth-down reception on the Colts final drive, but the officials (who didn’t even stop the clock to review the play until Sean McDermott called a Bills timeout) inexplicably ruled that Pascal was down when the ball came loose.
Jerome Boger’s crew made an even worse call late in the Ravens-Titans game, flagging Willie Snead for offensive pass interference for a pick play on what appeared to be a Ravens fourth-down conversion. The Snead call was defensible — he did get in a defender’s way — but officials let A.J. Brown toss cornerback Marlon Humphrey to the end zone turf on a touchdown catch. Letting the fellas trade paint all afternoon, then suddenly calling a ticky-tack foul on a late fourth down, is just bad officiating.
Alex Kemp’s crew in the Bears-Saints game flagged Bears’ tight end Cole Kmet for unsportsmanlike conduct for tossing the football to the ref after jawing with safety Malcolm Jenkins after a tackle. The dubious foul nearly knocked the Bears out of field goal range. But maybe Kemp realized the game was on Nickelodeon and thought Pop Warner’s 70-pound division rules of sportsmanship applied.
None of these calls impacted the final results. But the NFL narrowly avoided a Wild Card Weekend in which officiating overshadowed the games.
And now moving on from NFL Studs ‘n’ Duds to hand out NFL Recap’s Wild Card Weekend awards.
NFL Recap’s Wild Card Weekend Awards
Offensive Line of the Week
The Cleveland Browns offensive line of rookie Jedrick Wills, Mike Dunn (subbing for Joel Bitonio), J.C. Tretter, Wyatt Teller, Jack Conklin, and Kendall Lamm (who filled in when Conklin suffered a hamstring injury) helped Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt rush for 124 yards, kept Baker Mayfield upright against the most fearsome pass rush in the NFL, and delivered a few blocks like this one.
Defender of the Week
Aaron Donald played just 30 snaps before suffering a rib injury against the Seahawks, but he sacked Russell Wilson twice and knocked him down a third time in that span. He then spent the second half huffing and puffing along the sidelines with a don’t make me get back in there expression on his face that may have motivated his teammates to not let the Seahawks stage a comeback.
Special Teamer of the Week
This was not a big weekend for noteworthy special teams play, so let’s give the award to Ryan Succop for four short field goals in the Buccaneers’ 31-23 victory over Washington.
Best Supporting Actor in Someone Else’s Highlight
This week’s entry comes via the Twitter feed of USA Today editor and friend of the Recap Doug Farrar. Tom Brady delivered a vintage dime to Mike Evans along the deep left sideline early in the Buccaneers victory over Washington. But check out center Ryan Jensen as he basically tosses defender Tim Settle to the ground directly in front of Brady. Holding? It ain’t holding when you are guarding a national treasure, pal.