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Our Guide To The NFL’s Divisional Round

With one weekend of the 2020-21 NFL playoffs in the books, we’re excited to see what kind of football treats the divisional round will bring. For each matchup, we’re breaking things down using our Elo ratings — which track how well each team is currently playing, with adjustments for the quality of each starting quarterback — and also identifying the facets of the game in which each team was best (and worst) according to ESPN’s expected points added (EPA)1 this season. So here is our guide to the good, the bad and the must-see for each matchup in next weekend’s slate of games:

Tale of the tape: No. 1 Green Bay vs. No. 6 L.A. Rams

4:35 p.m. ET Saturday

Green Bay Category Los Angeles
13-3 Record 11-6
29th Schedule strength 20th
1703 Elo rating 1638
4th League rank 7th
Aaron Rodgers Starting QB Jared Goff✚
3rd QB Elo rank 20th
5th QB’s supporting cast 2nd
15th Avg. QB Elo defense 1st
Pass offense Biggest EPA strength Pass defense
Special teams Biggest EPA weakness Special teams
78.0% 538 forecast 22.0%

✚ Starter is currently injured and may not play.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

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A week ago, we wondered if the Rams were doomed with obscure backup QB John Wolford starting a playoff game. And start Wolford did … but he was quickly knocked out of the game, forcing regular starter Jared Goff to play through a broken thumb the rest of the way. The results were passable:2 enough to beat the Seahawks when coupled with Cam Akers’s running and an outstanding performance bottling up Russell Wilson by arguably the league’s best defense. Can they do it again versus the Packers, with Goff’s status still up in the air? If DT Aaron Donald is healthy, L.A.’s defense (No. 1 in EPA) could pose problems for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ top-ranked offense, in what is just the fifth meeting between the No. 1 EPA offense and defense in a playoff game since 2006.3 The Rams are an intriguing matchup for Green Bay because their strengths line up to potentially exploit the Packers’ weaknesses (like Akers against the 22nd-ranked EPA run D) or neutralize their strengths (like All-Pro CB Jalen Ramsey against Rodgers’s favorite target, Davante Adams).4 But the biggest question is whether Goff/Wolford and the Rams can move the ball well enough for it to matter. Green Bay’s pass D is significantly better than Seattle’s, making an upset much more difficult to pull off this time around. In fact, our model gives the Packers a sizable edge here — particularly if Goff can’t make the start. Elo’s spread: Green Bay -9

[Why Did NFL Teams Score So Much This Season?]

Tale of the tape: No. 2 Buffalo vs. No. 5 Baltimore

8:15 p.m. ET Saturday

Buffalo Category Baltimore
14-3 Record 12-5
3rd Schedule strength 28th
1735 Elo rating 1678
2nd League rank 5th
Josh Allen Starting QB Lamar Jackson
1st QB Elo rank 5th
4th QB’s supporting cast 6th
18th Avg. QB Elo defense 19th
Pass offense Biggest EPA strength Run offense
Run offense Biggest EPA weakness Pass offense
65.3% 538 forecast 34.7%

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

The best game of the divisional round will feature Lamar Jackson’s Ravens paying a visit to fellow 2018 draftee Josh Allen and the Bills. Baltimore eked out a 24-17 win at Buffalo when last they met, in 2019 — but the Bills have gotten significantly better since then, while the Ravens were diminished somewhat in 2020 (though they have looked like their old selves of late). What’s left is a balanced matchup in which Buffalo holds the all-important advantage in the passing game but Baltimore has an edge running the ball and on defense. Based on those two strengths, the Ravens’ path to the upset is not dissimilar to the one Indianapolis nearly executed against Buffalo last Saturday, nor is it even much different from the formula Baltimore used in Sunday’s signature win over the rival Tennessee Titans. Look for Jackson to try to exploit Buffalo’s soft rush defense (No. 20 in EPA) as a runner but for Allen to throw the ball early and often, as the Bills had the league’s pass-happiest offense in “normal” game situations5 all year long. Although Baltimore is a very dangerous team, our model gives Buffalo a 65 percent chance to grab the win at home and advance to its first AFC title game since January 1994. Elo’s spread: Buffalo -4½

Tale of the tape: No. 1 Kansas City vs. No. 6 Cleveland

3:05 p.m. ET Sunday

Kansas City Category Cleveland
14-2 Record 12-5
10th Schedule strength 31st
1722 Elo rating 1591
3rd League rank 9th
Patrick Mahomes Starting QB Baker Mayfield
2nd QB Elo rank 15th
3rd QB’s supporting cast 9th
25th Avg. QB Elo defense 26th
Pass offense Biggest EPA strength Pass offense
Run defense Biggest EPA weakness Pass defense
79.0% 538 forecast 21.0%

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

After a week off, the defending champion Chiefs will begin their postseason journey against the Cleveland Browns — engineers of the wild-card round’s biggest upset. Against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland relied on its defense to generate a flurry of turnovers and never took its foot off the offensive gas pedal all game long, with QB Baker Mayfield putting in one of the best performances of his NFL career at the best possible time. History will have to repeat in order for the Browns to have a real shot at knocking off Kansas City. It’s true that the Chiefs (No. 18 in defensive EPA) might struggle to slow down Cleveland’s offense, particularly when it comes to Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt and the Browns rushing attack. But it will be more difficult to force so many mistakes from Patrick Mahomes, who is literally the best QB in NFL history at avoiding interceptions (among many other things). Barring that, the matchup between the explosive Chiefs offense and Cleveland’s suspect defense could get ugly fast. And remember, although Mahomes has never surmounted a 28-point deficit like the one the Browns opened up early against Pittsburgh, he did overcome a pretty similar one (24 points) against the Texans in last year’s playoffs. So even if Cleveland gets off to another fast start, no lead is safe against K.C. — one of many reasons that Elo gives the Chiefs a 79 percent probability of getting the W here. Elo’s spread: Kansas City -9

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Tale of the tape: No. 2 New Orleans vs. No. 5 Tampa Bay

6:40 p.m. ET Sunday

New Orleans Category Tampa Bay
13-4 Record 12-5
15th Schedule strength 17th
1739 Elo rating 1647
1st League rank 6th
Drew Brees Starting QB Tom Brady
7th QB Elo rank 8th
1st QB’s supporting cast 7th
4th Avg. QB Elo defense 16th
Run offense Biggest EPA strength Pass offense
Special teams Biggest EPA weakness Special teams
70.6% 538 forecast 29.4%

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

If Bills-Ravens is the best matchup of the weekend, Saints-Bucs is a very close second. Yes, these two teams have faced off twice already this season, with New Orleans winning both by double digits — including a 38-3 romp in November.6 That was easily the worst QB Elo game of the season for Tom Brady and the second-worst of his long NFL career. But Brady rallied to post above-average numbers in seven of his next eight starts, saving his best play for late in the season (including a rock-solid performance in the wild-card game against the Washington Football Team). And despite the many parallels to be drawn between ancient QBs Brady and Drew Brees in their first-ever playoff meeting, this contest might come down to the supporting casts. New Orleans has the ever-so-slight edge on defense (No. 3 in EPA, versus No. 5 for Tampa), the superior rushing support (No. 2, versus No. 23 for Tampa) spearheaded by Pro Bowl RB Alvin Kamara, and the better special teams unit (No. 20 versus No. 28 for Tampa). If the Saints’ defense can generate big pressure on Brady again — he was pressured on a season-high 46 percent of dropbacks in Week 9, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group — and get their usual mix of contributions from up and down the roster,7 New Orleans should deliver on the 71 percent win probability Elo is currently giving them. But at the same time, this game may be much closer than the season series would have you believe. Elo’s spread: New Orleans -6

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

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  1. Adjusted for strength of schedule by comparing an opponent’s EPA performance against the team in question with how it played against every other team on its schedule.

  2. No pun intended!

  3. For what it’s worth, the top offense won three of those previous four contests.

  4. Rodgers directed a league-high 37 percent of all his regular-season passes to Adams when the receiver was on the field.

  5. I.e., first or second down with 5 to 10 yards to go, in a one-score game, outside the final two minutes of a half.

  6. The Saints’ +46 total point differential against the Bucs is the highest ever for a team that swept a future playoff opponent in the regular season. (But before Saints fans get too excited, Nos. 2 through 4 on that list lost the third matchup.)

  7. Eight different Saints had at least two catches in their wild-card win over the Bears, same as in the 38-3 win over Tampa Bay earlier in the season.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.