For decades, frothing football fans have branded this the best weekend of the NFL season, with only true contenders left to play. It's really hard to beat these games in terms of talent or temerity, especially when you add the two top seeds (the Packers and Chiefs) to the mix.
With some serendipity, the Chiefs and Packers could play a replay of Super Bowl I, a game won by Lombardi and his legendary Packers 35-10. But first, some fun games for us to enjoy. We went 4-2 last week, so let’s see how many of the final four we get right!
Los Angeles Rams (11-6) at Green Bay Packers (13-3)
Saturday, 4:35 p.m. EST
Line: Packers - 6.5
Despite recent surgery on his right thumb, Rams QB Jared Goff stepped in and did just enough to lead the Rams past the favored Seahawks in Seattle. Goff gets the start this time on place of injured John Wolford, but it's the Rams’ defense that truly got them here by stifling Seahawks QB Russell Wilson (11-of-27, 174 yards, five sacks), blanketing his receivers, and clamping down on Seattle's running game
The Rams have the daunting task of playing within the haunted walls of Lambeau Field, against a smoking hot Packers team, led by the immortal Aaron Rodgers.
After Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson exploded on the scene over the last two years, many felt the new breed of QB would bump the old guard off the stage.
Yet Rodgers is having perhaps his best year as a pro at age 37, tossing 48 touchdowns with a microscopic five interceptions. Green Bay is posting 31.8 points per game, are playing at home with a week's rest, and are much improved on defense. Unless Aaron Donald morphs into the Hulk and Jalen Ramsey silences Davante Adams, and they somehow thwart the Packers running game, there are just too many weapons on the field, too many spirits in the stands, and too much frost in the air.
Prediction: Packers, 27-24
Baltimore Ravens (11-6) at Buffalo Bills (14-3)
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. EST
Line: Bills -2.5
The monkey has leaped off Lamar Jackson's back after finally winning a playoff game last week, in his third try. He no longer has to answer questions about his January record, and can focus on a Bills team that has been fabulous all season, but may be just the kind of team Baltimore can beat. Buffalo is led by hulking QB Josh Allen, who has finally reached and passed his potential, and is clearly in the NFL MVP voting, with 15 TD passes and two picks over his last six games. The Bills beat a feisty Philip Rivers and the Colts to get here, one win from the AFC title game.
The Bills look prettier, more polished, and perhaps more complete, but the Ravens are on fire right now. Ever since they stumbled to a 6-5 record, they've reeled off five straight wins, basically playing as if they're in the playoffs since Thanksgiving.
And Baltimore is doing it with their rushing attack, which is by far the best in football; the Ravens are only the third team in NFL history to flaunt three runners - JK Dobbins (805), Gus Edwards (723), and Lamar Jackson (1,005) - who ran for over 700 yards for the year. The Bills can run well, but their best RB, Zack Moss, is on the shelf for the game, leaving it to Devin Singletary. The Ravens routinely rush for over 300 yards as a team, and unlike precision passing games or elaborate defenses, a simple, sizzling rushing attack travels well. It will be easier for the Ravens to figure out the Bills than for the Bills to silence the Ravens' three-headed running machine.
Prediction: Ravens: 23-21
Cleveland Browns (12-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (14-2)
Sunday, 3:05 p.m.
Line: Chiefs - 10
If you thought Cleveland's win last week ended their worst losing streak - 26 years since their last playoff win, in 1994 - then consider their next streak: the Browns haven't won more than one playoff game in the same season since 1950, back in the days of Otto Graham. Then consider whom the Browns must beat in order to duplicate that feat - the world champion Kansas City Chiefs. The Browns beat the freefalling Steelers to get here, and Baker Mayfield has been playing his best football under new head coach Kevin Stefanski. The Browns also have a savage dual-threat running game, with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, and running games travel well, even in the playoffs.
So it might be tempting to take the 10 points and the Browns, one of the feel-good stories of the league, but Kansas City won't show such largesse. Patrick Mahomes is still the most productive QB of the most pyrotechnic offense in the NFL. It's funny how the Browns, like the Giants, found so much more harmony, if not victory, after losing Odell Beckham Jr., so they’re not a live underdog – against just about anyone else they'd have a serious shot at winning – but the Chiefs have a Cold War arsenal. Between Mahomes' bionic arm, the best tight end in the game in Travis Kelce, and the man they aptly brand "The Cheetah" in Tyreek Hill, it’s tough to stop anyone, let alone all of them.
Prediction: Chiefs, 34-19
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-5) at New Orleans Saints (14-3)
Sunday, 6:40 p.m.
Line: Saints - 3
It takes volumes to list the all-time deeds of the two starting quarterbacks, Tom Brady and Drew Brees, who are the only QBs over 40 to start a playoff game against each other. Combined, the pair has passed for nearly 160,000 yards – that’s over 90 miles – and 1,152 career touchdowns.
Every time two teams from the same division play each other a third time in the playoffs, we sternly assert what an advantage the team with the two losses has entering this third game. But in reality, in the 21 instances since the AFL-NFL merger in which one team beat a division rival twice and then faced them again in the postseason, those teams are 14-7. This year, the Saints won the first two games by a combined 72-26, and this time, they will have Alvin Kamara, who led the NFL with 21 total TD in 2020, and Michael Thomas, who led the NFL in catches in 2019, both active.
There's not only a sense of royalty when Brees and Brady are on the same field, but also a sense of finality. It's pretty clear that Brady has more big-time throws left in his quiver of passes. Plus, with two more wins, Tampa Bay becomes the first NFL team ever to play the Super Bowl on their home field. But Brees has the slightly better defense behind him, and more ways to win on offense, especially with Kamara, who recently scored six rushing TDs in a single game, joining Gale Sayers with the most ever. It's just enough to give New Orleans the edge.
Prediction: Saints, 28-27
Follow Jason Keidel on Twitter: @JasonKeidel