Time to preview the 2021 NFL playoffs by running through my playoff bracket. I’ll pick winners for each of the six games we’re going to see this wild-card weekend, project who wins the games that will follow and make it all the way to Super Bowl LVI. In all, I’ll break down 13 different matchups and why I think they’ll favor one team or the other.
Of course, it goes without saying that this bracket will not be correct. Even if we were being generous and assuming that my pick had a 65% chance of winning each game, the chances of hitting 13 consecutive selections are just over 240-to-1. Injuries, COVID-19 absences and bad luck will pop up. Even with a 17-game season, we overestimate how much we actually know about each team and its true talent level. This makes the playoffs hard to predict and wildly entertaining to watch.
Regardless, here’s my bracket. I’ll start with wild-card weekend and work my way to the Super Bowl. Let’s begin with the AFC side, where the Steelers were given a new lease on life in the final seconds of the regular season. Can they keep Ben Roethlisberger’s career going with a miraculous playoff run?
Jump to a round:
Wild-card weekend: NFC | AFC
Divisional round: NFC | AFC
Conference title games: NFC | AFC
Super Bowl LVI
AFC wild-card weekend
These two teams met three weeks ago, and it wasn’t exactly pretty. The Chiefs won 36-10 in a game in which nothing went Pittsburgh’s way. There were five fumbles; guess how many the Steelers recovered? The answer is zero. Teams that have recovered zero of five fumbles in any game since 2000 are just 11-25, and even that seems high. As significant underdogs against the Chiefs in Kansas City with even neutral luck, the Steelers can’t afford to have the Chiefs recover five fumbles in any matchup.
I don’t suspect that will happen again, and if it doesn’t, the Steelers might be a tougher matchup for the Chiefs than it would seem on paper. T.J. Watt was able to play only 55% of the defensive snaps in the first game, and he should be in a full-time role against a Chiefs team struggling with injuries up front. Watt will line up against right tackle, which is the weakest spot on Kansas City’s line. Week 1 starter Lucas Niang lost his job and went down in December with a torn patella. Swing tackle Mike Remmers is on injured reserve with a back issue. Andrew Wylie, who started at right tackle in the Super Bowl loss to the Buccaneers, will be the starter against the likely Defensive Player of the Year.
Key players such as Orlando Brown Jr. and Tyreek Hill also appear to be less than 100% for the postseason, with Hill (heel) limited to 12 snaps in the Week 18 win over the Broncos. The star wideout hasn’t been his usual self since contracting COVID-19 before Week 16. Losing Hill allows opposing defenses to squeeze the field, creating more opportunities for the tipped interceptions that plagued Kansas City during the first half of the season. Few teams in the NFL are better at creating interceptions on a year-to-year basis on those sorts of plays than the Steelers.
The problem for the Steelers is that there isn’t much doing on the other side of the ball. It would be one thing if we could count on them to pick up a blocked punt for a score or a short field, as they did in the Week 1 win over the Bills, but the Chiefs have the league’s third-best special teams unit. The Steelers don’t have the offensive line to protect Ben Roethlisberger, the running game to control the clock or the consistent big-play ability to scare the Chiefs in coverage. This could be closer than expected, but I would expect Roethlisberger’s career to end here. Prediction: Chiefs 24, Steelers 20.
These two teams have played twice since the start of December, with the Patriots overcoming howling winds to win 14-10 in Buffalo before the Bills returned the favor with a 33-21 victory in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Western New York is expected to face sub-zero conditions Saturday night, but the wind gusts that rendered the passing game irrelevant in Week 13 aren’t expected to be in place.
Unfortunately for the Patriots, opening up the passing game reveals the biggest advantage between these two teams. Josh Allen played one of the best games of his career in the win over New England, threading immaculate passes through tight windows against one of the league’s best defenses. He has been inconsistent over the past month — he followed that Patriots game by going 11-of-26 for three picks in a win over the Falcons — but we know he typically has the sort of ceiling that rookie Mac Jones hasn’t really shown so far.
If the Patriots can get an early lead, as they did against the Bills in the first matchup, they won’t need to take the training wheels off Jones and the passing attack. Forced into a shootout, he has not often been able to keep up. (Even in the 35-29 overtime loss to the Cowboys, he threw just 21 pass attempts.) Jones was 14-of-32 for 145 yards with two picks against the Buffalo defense in Week 16. Since producing his best NFL game — 310 yards and two touchdowns against the Titans in Week 12 — he has turned the ball over six times in five games and posted a passer rating of 79.8. It’s difficult to imagine Jones suddenly turning things around against the league’s best pass defense by DVOA.
The other advantage the Bills have, as the wonderful Mike Reiss noted on Twitter, is health. The Patriots have a number of defensive starters who either aren’t 100% or might be out for Saturday’s game, notably breakout rookie tackle Christian Barmore, who left the Week 18 loss to the Dolphins with a knee injury. The Bills are relatively healthy outside of the long-term absence of star corner Tre’Davious White. I’d expect a low-scoring slog and a home win for Buffalo over its hated rival. Prediction: Bills 19, Patriots 10.
While the regular-season finale against the Chargers came down to a frantic conclusion, the Raiders got their just desserts when Daniel Carlson hit his winning field goal. They outplayed the Chargers throughout Sunday’s game, only for Justin Herbert to bail out the offense with a series of preposterous plays on fourth downs. The Raiders dominated the line of scrimmage, as the offensive line did an excellent job of protecting Derek Carr, while Maxx Crosby dominated Storm Norton and harassed Herbert throughout the contest.
To get to that point, though, the Raiders rode their luck against a series of compromised quarterbacks. After dropping to 6-7, they landed consecutive games against backup quarterbacks Nick Mullens (Browns) and Drew Lock (Broncos). In Week 17, they played Carson Wentz after the Colts’ starter spent the entire week on the COVID-19 list, only to be cleared hours before game time. Wentz averaged just 5.5 yards per attempt in the first of Indianapolis’ two upset losses to end the season. The Raiders won those games by a total of just nine points.
The Fantasy Focus crew debate whether Deebo Samuel or Joe Burrow deserves the comeback player of the year award.
Of course, you could make the same case that the Bengals might be overrated by their recent performance. Joe Burrow played like an MVP candidate in consecutive wins over the Ravens and Chiefs, throwing for a combined 971 yards and eight touchdowns. Those games matter, but they’re also way out of line with his performances from week to week. The 2021 No. 1 overall pick had thrown for 995 yards and five touchdowns over his prior four games up to that point while also mixing in four giveaways. Burrow and the Bengals are for real on offense, but expecting them to be the Greatest Show on Turf Rams is probably an exaggeration.
The problem for the Raiders is that I’m not sure another dominant game from Crosby would even be enough. When the Raiders played the Bengals earlier this season, the star end posted a 61.5% pass rush win rate, the best mark we’ve seen from an edge rusher in a single game all season. It slowed down the Cincinnati passing attack, with Burrow throwing for just 148 passing yards on 29 attempts, but Joe Mixon & Co. ran for 159 yards and two touchdowns. The Raiders were able to muster only 13 first downs, even with Darren Waller in the fold. Unless the knee injury Burrow rested in Week 18 is more significant than publicly reported, I don’t think the Raiders have enough to keep their win streak going. Prediction: Bengals 27, Raiders 17.
NFC wild-card weekend
Here’s a list of quarterbacks the Eagles have beaten this season: Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Darnold, Jake Fromm, Garrett Gilbert, Jared Goff, Taylor Heinicke, Matt Ryan, Trevor Siemian and Zach Wilson. We’re looking at four backups, a guy who was benched, two players who were salary dumped this offseason, a struggling top-three pick and Ryan. When Tom Brady faced this secondary in Week 6, he went 34-of-42 with 297 yards in a game the Bucs led 28-7 before two late Philly scores.
That game preceded Philadelphia’s midseason awakening to run the ball more with Jalen Hurts at quarterback, a shift it was able to pull off in part because its schedule got much easier. I don’t love the Eagles’ matchup against one of the league’s best run defenses, especially with Hurts possibly slowed by an ankle injury.
When the Bucs played the Saints’ quarterback run-heavy offense a few weeks back, they held Taysom Hill & Co. to 61 yards on 21 carries. New Orleans still won, but it needed to shut out the Bucs to do so. I don’t like Philly’s chances of repeating that feat. Prediction: Bucs 34, Eagles 10.
The 49ers have the sort of roster capable of giving any team fits, and they are one of the few organizations with the sort of star-laden core that can match the Cowboys. We just saw Jimmy Garoppolo produce one of the best drives of his career in marching the 49ers down the field for the winning score against the Rams, which helped push San Francisco back into the postseason.
As was the case for the No. 7 seed, though, I don’t like this matchup for the 49ers. Kyle Shanahan’s team struggles to stay afloat when it turns the ball over; the 49ers have gone 2-6 when they turn the ball over two or more times this year and 8-1 otherwise. They’re facing a Cowboys defense that has forced two or more takeaways 12 different times this season, a feat last accomplished by the 2019 Steelers and the 2013 Legion of Boom Seahawks.
With the 49ers bereft at cornerback against a team with multiple star receivers, they will need a heroic effort on the ground to stick with Dallas, and while that’s possible, I don’t trust an injured Garoppolo to protect the football, especially with star left tackle Trent Williams questionable to play. Prediction: Cowboys 27, 49ers 14.
I’m not sure there are many teams that have seemed less convincing while winning five of six than these Rams. Matthew Stafford has alternated white-hot stretches of passing with halves in which he has made inexplicable decisions with the football. In Los Angeles’ season-ending loss to the 49ers, he went 15-of-16 for 153 yards with two touchdowns in the first half, then threw two picks after halftime, including a game-ender to rookie Ambry Thomas.
The Cardinals weren’t able to take advantage in Week 18, as their 38-30 loss to the Seahawks handed the NFC West to Los Angeles. Facing an inconsistent Seattle offense, the Cardinals looked like they were still working out preseason mistakes. Blown coverages led to long touchdowns for Tyler Lockett and Freddie Swain, while the defense left a gap unfilled on the 62-yard Rashaad Penny touchdown. Arizona has the roster to overcome the occasional lapse or mental mistake, but the margins are tighter against the league’s best teams.
Perhaps more disconcertingly, the Arizona offense has undergone yet another second-half fade. During their 1-4 run to finish the season, the Cardinals ranked 17th in offensive EPA per play, below the Texans and Lions. That drop-off came when receiver DeAndre Hopkins, running back James Conner and center Rodney Hudson were each missing for stretches, but Hopkins will miss the wild-card game because a torn MCL. It’s hard to believe the Cardinals are suddenly going to turn things around without him. Prediction: Rams 27, Cardinals 20.
AFC divisional round
The reward for the Bengals would be a trip to Nashville to play the top-seeded Titans, who might be the most difficult team in the league to figure out. Advanced metrics don’t just see them as less impressive than their record; they see them as a pretender. DVOA ranks Tennessee as the league’s 20th-best team, below the likes of the Vikings and Broncos. Football Outsiders has data going back through the early 1980s and suggests that the Titans would be both the worst No. 1 or No. 2 seed ever. ESPN’s Football Power Index also has the Titans as the worst No. 1 seed going back through 2008.
Is there something the numbers are missing? One thing clearly comes to mind: health. The Titans were without A.J. Brown and Julio Jones for chunks of the season and didn’t have star back Derrick Henry in the lineup for the second half of the campaign. Their big three played just 120 snaps together this season, and they’re all expected to be present and accounted for when the Titans take the field in the divisional round..
As I mentioned on the ESPN Daily podcast a couple of weeks ago, though, I’m not sure that Henry will offer the sort of bump we would expect. He was absorbing the largest workload in league history before his foot injury, but his efficiency had cratered in 2021. His per-carry stats were significantly down across the board. Furthermore, replacement D’Onta Foreman has been a similar back to Henry since joining the team:
I’d rather have Henry in the lineup and Foreman available to spell the returning star — and Henry’s presence should help a slumping Tennessee play-action attack — but given his drop-off before the injury and the sharpness he might have lost while sitting out for two months, I’m not confident he’ll be the guy we saw in 2019 and 2020 upon returning to the lineup.
The last time these two teams played was back in 2020, and it was a vintage rushing performance from Tennessee. Henry and Co. ran the ball 29 times and racked up 218 yards and two touchdowns. And as teams often do when they rack up 200-plus yards of offense, the Titans … lost by 11 points? In a game in which they ran the ball at will, turned the ball over only once and posted impressive conversion rates on third down and in the red zone, the Titans were blown out by a 2-6 Bengals team.
The problem then is that the Titans weren’t able to get pressure on Joe Burrow, who cooked them for 249 yards and two touchdowns. During a 2020 season in which Burrow was under pressure constantly, the Titans didn’t sack him once. They struggled despite the fact that Cincinnati was without running back Joe Mixon and four of its starting offensive linemen. The Bengals went 10-of-15 on third down and 4-of-5 scoring touchdowns in the red zone. It was their best offensive performance of the season.
Pressure was a problem for the Titans in 2020, but with Harold Landry breaking out and the secondary taking a step forward in 2021, they rank 10th in pressure rate this season. Burrow ranks third in the league in QBR when he gets time to throw, but when he’s pressured, he drops to 20th. The week off should help refresh Landry and Bud Dupree, who spent the entire season trying to catch up from his torn ACL and a midseason core injury. I think the pass rush does just enough to get the Titans back to the AFC Championship Game. Prediction: Titans 27, Bengals 20.
How much stock are you willing to put into what we saw when these teams played in Week 5? In what was widely perceived at the time as a changing of the guard in the AFC, the Bills wiped the field with the two-time defending conference champs. Josh Allen & Co. averaged more than 12 yards per play in the first half while scoring 24 points. The Chiefs improved in the second half, but one long drive ended in a tipped interception, while a Micah Hyde pick-six helped seal a 38-20 victory for the Bills.
Since then, the Chiefs are 10-2, while the Bills have gone 7-5. The changing of the guard was a little premature. The Chiefs might also feel a little unlucky about some of the events in that game. They failed to recover either of the game’s two fumbles, which came when they fumbled a kickoff return and Patrick Mahomes dropped a shotgun snap. The pick-six went through Tyreek Hill’s hands, while the interception saw Greg Rousseau swat the ball in the air with one hand to himself for a spectacular play. In a game in which those breaks don’t all go to the Bills, this one might have been closer.
With that said, it’s hard to overstate just how dominant the Bills were on offense in that matchup. The first half from Buffalo was the sixth-best first two quarters of the season in a single game by expected points added (EPA) per play. If anything, Allen left plays on the field; the only reason Daniel Sorensen isn’t still chasing Stefon Diggs is because Allen underthrew a 61-yard completion to his star wideout and because the stadium has concrete walls. The Bills got the matchups they wanted when they wanted in their passing game.
The Chiefs have made some changes in the secondary — notably, less Sorensen — but their great equalizer has to be Chris Jones, who missed the loss to the Bills. The Chiefs have looked like a different pass rush with Jones in the fold at defensive tackle after the playoff hero spent an ill-fated stretch of September outside at defensive end. It’s virtually impossible to imagine a scenario in which the Chiefs win without Jones playing a significant role.
My concern in the big picture might be the player who turned this into a great rivalry. Allen’s first- and second-half splits over the course of 2021 are dramatic:
Averaging just under a 60% completion percentage and 6 yards per attempt over the course of two months is a problem, and two of Allen’s worst games of the season have come in consecutive weeks against the Falcons and Jets, of all teams. The Chiefs have their problems on offense — and they could be seriously compromised if Hill’s injury turns out to linger throughout the AFC playoffs — but their floor is high enough on offense to be a safer bet. Prediction: Chiefs 27, Bills 20.
NFC divisional round
We already saw this game once, and it wasn’t pretty. The Packers beat the Rams 36-28 in late November, but that required the Rams to score 11 points in the fourth quarter to make things look close. Scarily enough, the Packers are expected to have three of their best players who missed that game back in the fold for the postseason, as left tackle David Bakhtiari returned for Week 18, while cornerback Jaire Alexander and edge rusher Za’Darius Smith are projected to return in the divisional round.
Are there reasons to think the Rams might have played better than it seemed the first time around? I think so. The Los Angeles defense held Aaron Rodgers below 7 yards per attempt and limited the Green Bay running game to 92 yards on 32 carries. The Packers, normally an offensive juggernaut, were able to muster only 21 first downs on 12 meaningful possessions. They scored 36 points, but the offense was aided by a Rasul Douglas pick-six, and they recovered four of the five fumbles in the game. They started three possessions inside the Los Angeles 30-yard line, something that probably won’t happen again.
Keyshawn Johnson and Jeff Saturday go back and forth between Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady as far as who is more deserving of the MVP award.
It’s worth noting that advanced metrics are more optimistic on the Rams and pessimistic about the Packers than it might seem. DVOA ranks the Rams as the fifth-best team in the league, while the Packers rank ninth. ESPN’s FPI ranks the Rams sixth and the Packers seventh. The game-and-a-half backup quarterback Jordan Love played for Green Bay is part of the equation here, but when these two teams did play in November, it’s worth noting that the Rams were actually two-point favorites.
I think these teams are relatively close on both sides of the football, but there is one huge gap that might make up the difference: special teams. The Rams rank fourth in special teams DVOA, while it’s the one point of weakness for the Packers, who rank dead last in the category. When Rodgers is around, the Packers are usually good enough to overcome a disastrous special teams performance, like the one we saw against the Bears in Week 14. I think this game comes down to some element of special teams, like a missed field goal or a muffed punt, and the Rams are the team less likely to make that mistake. Prediction: Rams 24, Packers 23.
You might not remember it, but we’ve seen these two teams play this season, and it was one of the weirdest games of the entire campaign. In Week 1, the Bucs beat the Cowboys 31-29 in a game in which they posted a turnover margin of minus-4. Tom Brady threw two picks, the Cowboys recovered all three of the game’s fumbles, Dak Prescott threw for 403 yards and it just didn’t matter. The Cowboys kicked a field goal to go up 29-28 with 1:29 to go, but Brady drove the Bucs 57 yards in 10 plays to set up a winning field goal.
It’s fair to suggest those teams were slightly different. Tampa’s two 100-yard receivers then were Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, who are no longer on the active roster for very different reasons. Mike Evans is banged up, Cyril Grayson is injured, Leonard Fournette is coming off injured reserve, and Ronald Jones is out heading into the wild-card round. The Bucs’ skill players are nowhere near where they stood in Week 1, when Dallas’ Micah Parsons was making his NFL debut and spending virtually every first down playing as an off-ball linebacker.
Think back to the teams that have given Brady fits in postseasons past. What do the 2007 Giants, 2011 Giants and 2015 Broncos have in common? They all had multiple devastating pass-rushers capable of winning one-on-one. With Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, the Cowboys can threaten Brady without having to blitz. They also have a quarterback who excels against the blitz-heavy schemes Todd Bowles runs in Prescott, who ranks fourth in the NFL in QBR against the blitz and 16th when teams don’t send extra pressure.
All of that is true, and yet, I still can’t bring myself to pick the Cowboys. I can see them slowing down Brady — and they’re the best team in the league at forcing takeaways — but I don’t think they can count on generating four turnovers again. Dallas’ dream scenario would be a game that played out exactly the way the game in Week 1 did … and the Cowboys still managed to lose that one. I don’t think they’ll get as favorable a script here. Prediction: Buccaneers 20, Cowboys 17.
AFC Championship Game
As it turned out, the changing of the guard in the AFC might have come two weeks later, when the Chiefs were stomped 27-3 by the Titans in Nashville. Unlike the Bills game, this one came with Chris Jones on the field. With Patrick Mahomes fumbling twice and throwing an ill-advised interception toward Josh Gordon, this was the rare Kansas City blowout loss bad enough to get Chad Henne on the field in the garbage time.
Unlike the narrow Titans win over the Bills, which required a goal line stop of Josh Allen and a spectacular game from Derrick Henry, this victory also felt like a standard Titans performance. Henry and the rushing game weren’t even that effective, turning 35 carries into just 103 yards, but the Titans gouged Steve Spagnuolo’s defense through the air. Henry threw a 5-yard touchdown pass in the red zone, while Ryan Tannehill averaged 10 yards per pass attempt. This wasn’t even the product of a dominant play-action day; A.J. Brown had 80 receiving yards in the first quarter, beating L’Jarius Sneed and Mike Hughes for big gains on iso balls.
From that point forward, though, the Chiefs have been a better team on defense. Through the first seven weeks of the season, which culminated in that Titans game, Kansas City allowed 0.17 EPA per play, the worst mark in football. Since that game, the Chiefs have bounced back to the tune of minus-0.05 EPA per play, which is the sixth-best mark and just behind the Titans over that same time frame. Willie Gay and Charvarius Ward took over and returned as regulars, respectively, for the Titans game, and while they weren’t able to make a difference in that contest, the Chiefs have been much better since they became regulars. Juan Thornhill has also taken over as a starting safety, pushing Daniel Sorensen into a backup role.
Go back further and we’ve seen how each of these teams can win. When the Titans beat the Chiefs 35-32 in 2019, it was the product of a classic Henry game, as he ran for 188 yards and two touchdowns. Later that postseason, the Chiefs overcame an early 10-0 deficit, limited Henry to 69 yards on 19 carries and forced Tannehill to try to keep up with Mahomes in what became a shootout. Kansas City won 35-24. Both those formulas are plausible paths to victory for these teams this postseason.
In a way, the Chiefs and Titans are similar. We know they’re capable of being very good on both sides of the ball, but more often than not, they’ve won while mixing a great day on offense or defense with a messier performance on the other side. The Tennessee win over Kansas City, ironically, might represent one of the few cases in which the Titans were great all around.
There are two reasons I lean toward the Chiefs. One is special teams, which can be a deciding force in close games. Under the stewardship of legendary special teams coordinator Dave Toub, they rank third in the league in special teams DVOA. The Titans rank 22nd. The variance over a handful of special teams plays in a single game means anything is possible, but in most cases, we would favor the Chiefs to be the team to make a significant dent with their work on that underdiscussed facet of football.
The other is the formula we’ve seen to beat these teams: takeaways. When they’ve turned the ball over three or more times in 2021, the Chiefs and Titans are a combined 1-7. The rest of the time, they’ve gone 23-3. When I look at which of these defenses is more likely to generate those sorts of turnovers, I lean toward Kansas City, which has forced 29 takeaways to Tennessee’s 22.
If we believe the advanced metrics such as DVOA and ESPN’s FPI, the matchup between the Chiefs and Titans shouldn’t be close. I’m willing to believe that the Titans are better than the numbers indicate, but I still think the Chiefs head to Super Bowl LVI. Prediction: Chiefs 30, Titans 20.
NFC Championship Game
The Rams’ most impressive victory of the season came back in Week 3, when they went up 34-17 in the fourth quarter on the Bucs before a garbage-time touchdown by Gio Bernard. The Rams controlled the line of scrimmage, holding the Tampa running game to just 35 yards on 13 carries while sacking Tom Brady three times. If the mentions of Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin made the Bucs-Cowboys game seem like another era, though, consider that the leading receiver for the Rams in this game was DeSean Jackson, who had 40- and 75-yard catches. He finished the season with the Raiders.
Both teams look different than the units we saw back in September, but I’m more concerned about the injuries on the Tampa side of things. I mentioned its various absences and ailments on offense. The early-season injury stack at cornerback has healed up, but the Bucs just recalled star linebacker Lavonte David from injured reserve after the veteran went down with a foot injury against the Saints. David might be back as early as the Eagles game, but if he’s not 100%, it hurts the Bucs, especially against a team that works play-action as well as the Rams.
Los Angeles, on the other hand, is down two starters in wideout Robert Woods and safety Jordan Fuller, who just went down for the rest of the season in the loss to the 49ers. Both are big absences, admittedly, but their injury issues are not as pervasive as what we’re seeing in Tampa. The Bucs are also the league’s oldest team by a considerable margin in terms of snap-weighted age, so it’s entirely possible they’re more likely to develop new injuries over the next couple of weeks.
As much attention as Brady and the skill players get, the Bucs win a lot of games by dominating the line of scrimmage. Few teams can make a case for having the best offensive line and the best defensive line in football. The Rams aren’t quite there, but they also have the single most devastating defender in football in Aaron Donald, who has been on fire heading into the postseason.
I also think the Los Angeles offense matches up well against Tampa’s plans on defense. Dak Prescott is good against the blitz, but the league’s No. 1 quarterback against the blitz this season has been Matthew Stafford, whose 92.3 QBR against extra rushers has made it difficult to go after him. We know Stafford can get white hot when he’s on his game; it wouldn’t shock me if he had a career performance in the NFC Championship Game and helped propel the Rams to the Super Bowl. Prediction: Rams 34, Buccaneers 27.
Super Bowl LVI
In full disclosure, this was the pick I made before the season on SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt. Last year, my preseason pick was Buccaneers-Chiefs, so I looked pretty good when those two teams made it to the Super Bowl. Of course, I also picked the Chiefs to win before they were blown out by the Bucs, so I don’t deserve too many pats on the back there.
This is the long-awaited rematch of the legendary 54-51 Monday Night Football game from 2018, although the Rams’ leading passer (Jared Goff), rusher (Todd Gurley), receiver (Brandin Cooks) and scorers (Gerald Everett and defender Samson Ebukam) from that day are no longer on their roster. Kareem Hunt and Justin Houston are gone, but many of the key players for the Chiefs in that game are still around. The result might have been different if Kansas City had already had Tyrann Mathieu, who would join the team in free agency after the season.
There would be some fascinating tactical matchups here. Would Jalen Ramsey cover Travis Kelce or Tyreek Hill, who would have an extra week of rest for his heel injury? Could Kansas City’ star rookie duo of Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith neutralize Aaron Donald? Do the Chiefs have anyone who can move around and cover Cooper Kupp? Given Kansas City’s perennial issues stopping the run, would the Rams be able to march down the field with their rushing attack of Sony Michel and Cam Akers, who will be another month removed from his torn Achilles by February?
The first mismatch that stands out to me, though, is Chris Jones against the interior of the Rams’ offensive line. Los Angeles is stout at tackle with the ageless Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein, but we saw the Titans give them fits with interior rushers Denico Autry and Jeffery Simmons in Tennessee’s win earlier this season. Jones could have that sort of impact against what might be the weakest spot on the Rams’ roster.
Ryan Clark breaks down why he’s not buying into the Kansas City Chiefs, especially with their tough road to make it to Super Bowl LVI.
The other problem for the Rams is that they struggle to get off the field on third down, ranking 21st in third-down conversion rate. That mark unsurprisingly gets worse in their losses, where they allow opposing teams to convert 50% of the time, which ranks 27th when compared to other teams in their respective losses. The Chiefs have been the league’s best team at moving the chains, converting more than 52% of the time this season.
Of course, the Chiefs have their own problems to worry about. I don’t think they have a great answer for Kupp. They have the worst QBR in the league against play-action, and while the Rams aren’t as play-action intensive as they were in 2018, it’s something I’m sure the Rams would notice as they have two weeks to prepare for the Super Bowl. Los Angeles also is one of the few teams that has a cornerback like Ramsey, who can credibly match up one-on-one against Kelce on the backside of 3×1 sets or run with Hill as the No. 3 receiver on the frontside.
With that said, given two weeks to prepare for any game, I like Andy Reid’s chances. Patrick Mahomes might not have hit the heights we’ve seen in years past, but he has been more consistent and collected than Stafford, who has run hot and cold in the same game at times. I don’t think we would see another 54-51 classic, but if it comes down to Chiefs-Rams, I’ll stick with my preseason prediction for which team wins, too. Prediction: Chiefs 31, Rams 24.