nfl divisional round sunday: four things to keep an eye on

By Tayyib Abu

Some say it is the best weekend of football. The divisional round serves up four big games for fans to enjoy. Two came and went on Saturday, and they delivered a lot of drama and two seismic shocks.

Sunday sees the other four combatants enter the fray. It is now or never for the Buccaneers, Rams, Chiefs, and Bills. A place in the Super Bowl is now just two wins away, but they may be the two biggest games some of these players will ever play.

Here are four things to consider on Divisional Round Sunday..

It Only Gets Tougher For Matthew Stafford

Matthew Stafford
Credit: LA Times

Matthew Stafford cooked the Arizona Cardinals last Monday night as he led the Rams to a dominant win over their NFC West rivals. Finally, Stafford got his playoff win, and in the process, the Rams announced themselves as major contenders in the NFC. The Rams’ reward for that victory is a trip to Florida to take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

All eyes will once again be transfixed on the Rams and their maverick signal-caller. Stafford excelled against the Cardinals as he threw for over 200 yards and two touchdowns. Stafford was in total sync in Sean McVay’s efficient offense. The Bucs’ defense will provide a sterner examination. Todd Bowles’ unit finished ninth in total defensive DVOA, and they’ll test McVay and Stafford.

One of the critical components of the Buccaneers’ defense is blitzing. Bowles’ defenses have placed in the top six for six consecutive seasons for blitz rate. The former New York Jets coach loves sending pressure, and the dynamic athletes within the Bucs’ defense allow him to cause chaos for opposing quarterbacks. That tactic worked during the regular season as the Bucs defense forced opposing quarterbacks to post a -44 EPA. The Bucs are an outstanding blitz defense.

Fortunately, Stafford shone against the blitz in 2021. Per Next Gen Stats, Stafford led the league in passer rating when blitzed. One of the driving forces behind that success was triple crown winner Cooper Kupp. Kupp led the NFL in target percentage on plays where the defense sent pressure.

Stafford and Kupp share a legendary relationship. The duo is arguably the best QB-WR tandem in the NFL. The blitz hasn’t affected him when Stafford finds a wideout he trusts. The Bucs must ensure that their blitz packages are disguised; otherwise, Stafford will change the play at the line of scrimmage. Look out for Stafford tapping his helmet, clasp his hands, or yell turbo and ivy. A veteran quarterback with moxie should diagnose pre-snap looks, and Stafford will do that.

The bonus for the former Lion is the potential of two hot-reads; Kupp is Stafford’s go-to, but he won’t hesitate to throw to Odell Beckham Jr. The Bucs’ pass defense is aggressive; however, they can be attacked. LA’s two wideouts are not atypical X and Z receivers; their versatility allows McVay to line them up all over the formation. Moving the likes of Carlton Davis inside the numbers could open up opportunities for Stafford to attack the field.

Finally, the return of Cam Akers adds a livewire element to the Rams’ offense. Akers is critical because he presents a threat as a runner and receiver. McVay loves to diversify the offensive formations and play calls to keep a defense guessing. He does that best when there is a legitimate running option. The tools are there for Stafford to enjoy another big game.

One factor that could negatively impact Stafford is the absence of future Hall of Famer Andrew Whitworth. The veteran left tackle is out due to an injury. If the Rams’ offense gets itself into third-and-long, Whitworth’s absence may force McVay to change the play slightly. LA could bring in an extra blocker or use a back to stop a blitzing Bucs defense, limiting Stafford’s passing options. In this instance, the gunslinging quarterback would need to limit mistakes and make intelligent decisions.

Matthew Stafford is capable of making every throw. That is his most significant flaw. Stafford doesn’t need to make every throw in a massive playoff game like this against the reigning champions. He just needs to keep calm and make the right ones.

Jalen Ramsey vs. Mike Evans

Credit: USA Today Sports

Matchups within matchups often define NFL playoff games. Jalen Ramsey vs. Mike Evans promises to do that in this game. Evans is one of the most underrated receivers in the NFL. His consistency, competitiveness, and superb catching skills make him an ideal WR1. Even with the absences of Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, Tom Brady’s offense possesses a world-class player in Evans.

The kicker is this; the Rams arguably boast the best cornerback in the NFL to defend Evans. Jalen Ramsey is a consistent, competitive corner with superb tracking skills and brilliant instincts. In previous meetings, Ramsey has held Evans in check. In their last two matchups, Evans notched five receptions for 54 yards. Ramsey and the Rams defense has neutralized Evans in the past, and they need to do so again.

Ramsey spoke in the week that he expects to shadow Mike Evans almost exclusively. A four-quarter battle between two cerebral, fiery players could steal the show. Evans must create quick separation off the line of scrimmage, especially on in-breaking routes, to let Brady amass the short completions. Brady is a master at keeping the offense ticking over, and to do that, he must get the ball in and out quickly.

Ramsey’s great strength is his ability to track wideouts step for step and make plays on the ball. He will aim to stick to Evans like an annoying piece of gum and make throwing windows as tight as possible. The All-Pro corner possesses all the requisite tools to shut his opponent down. On the other hand, Evans holds several weapons in his toolbox, and this battle could get spicy.

Can The Buffalo Bills Repeat Perfection?

Buffalo Bills
Credit: ESPN

Perfection is seldom achieved in sport, especially in the NFL. Last Saturday night, the Buffalo Bills played a perfect offensive game. No offensive drive ended in a punt or field goal; it was the equivalent of a pitcher throwing a perfect game. The Bills humiliated the Patriots’ defense as Josh Allen’s offense fired on all cylinders. The reward for that crushing victory? A trip to Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.

Lest anyone forgets, the Patriots were one of the best defenses in the NFL. And the Bills dominated them. The challenge now for Sean McDermott’s team is to back that performance up on the road. The Chiefs pass defense ranked 23rd in overall DVOA. The Bills should get opportunities to move the ball. Importantly, Buffalo must come away with points; despite the Chiefs’ weaknesses, they did finish 11th in scoring defense.

One of the keys for the Bills is a varied running attack coupled with an attacking passing game. The Chiefs finished in the top ten in blitzing rates, and Steve Spagnuola will send extra rushers in an attempt to keep Allen quiet. Buffalo finally found a running game in the last six weeks of the season, and it certainly helped them in last week’s defeat of the Patriots.

The AFC East champions racked up 174 yards on the ground as offensive coordinator Brian Daboll used Devin Singletary, Isaiah McKenzie, and Josh Allen in the run game. Allen’s running ability could prove pivotal. The mountainous former Wyoming man is a heavy runner, and if the Bills get him loose, it could halt the Chiefs’ blitzes. Which, in turn, could hand Allen more time in the pocket to fire the ball to his catchers.

The opening drives will provide various clues regarding the Bills’ plan. Expect Daboll to use a bevy of formations, shifts, and different running/passing concepts to let Allen settle into the game and keep Kansas City guessing. The Chiefs’ defense provides opportunities in their zone formations as their linebacker corps isn’t as strong in pass defense.

It could also open up big-play opportunities later in the game if Buffalo establishes the run. Kansas City could feel forced to rotate a safety into the box, and Buffalo will destroy single-high safety formations. The Bills have already seen it a lot by playing the Patriots three times, and they’ll want to force the Chiefs defense into a different game plan.

The Buffalo Bills played the perfect game last week. That won’t happen again. However, they are more than capable of causing extensive damage in Kansas City. A road game at the reigning AFC Champions is about as challenging an assignment there is. Nevertheless, the Buffalo Bills won’t cower, they’ve already won there this season, and they boast the firepower to do it again.

The Morning After

Credit: Aaron Gash (Associated Press)

For a third consecutive season, the Green Bay Packers are ending the season with the taste of defeat in their mouths. Last night, the NFC’s number one seed crumbled as they succumbed to the San Francisco 49ers in the snowy confines of Lambeau Field.

It was a heartbreaking loss for the Packers, despite not allowing the opposing offense a touchdown. Immediately, questions swirled amongst the bowels of Green Bay’s historic stadium as their faithful fans trudged home, wondering if that was the end of Aaron Rodgers’ career as a Packer. Jordan Love can’t sit on the bench forever.

Moreover, the Packers are projected to be nearly $50 million over the salary cap. With several key players coming to the end of their contracts, change may loom in the air over Lambeau. For today, only disappointment and heartbreak hang over those who represent the storied franchise from Wisconsin.

That was the second upset of the day as the early game saw the Cincinnati Bengals outlast the Titans thanks to Joe Burrow and Evan McPherson’s walk-off field goal. Burrow withstood pressure from a rampant Titans’ defensive front to lead his team to another victory. Burrow’s poise, composure, and mistake-free football astounded everyone watching. It was a remarkable display from a second-year player in his first road game in the playoffs.

The Bengals will now visit the Bills or Chiefs in the AFC Championship game. An incredible turnaround for a downtrodden franchise, and they’ll travel to their opponents riding a tidal wave of confidence and emotion.



Tayyib is an avid NFL fan and, as a follower of the detroit lions, is a permanent resident in the honolulu blue heartbreak hotel. writing football articles since 2019, tayyib loves everything about the sport except that wins are not a qb stat. follow him on twitter @TayyibABU1