2020 NFL Divisional Round Preview

The National Football League’s Elite 8 will take center stage in the 2020-21 NFL Playoffs Divisional Round.  Probably the most anticipated match-up will be the  Baltimore Ravens vs. Buffalo Bills on Sunday Afternoon as two of the NFL’s rising dual-threat quarterbacks, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen, square-off with a trip to the AFC Championship Game on the line

(Philadelphia, Pa) — The “Elite Eight” round better known as the NFL Playoffs Divisional Round starts the “real” games as far as I am concerned.  Most fans and media love the hype of the National Football League’s Conference Championships and Super Bowl.  But you can put my wholehearted vote in for the NFL Divisional Playoffs as the most exciting portion of the league’s now year-round calendar.  The splendor of the divisional playoff round is that the two best teams from the regular season, after a well-deserved bye week, finally get to enter the fracas to take on pumped-up Super Wildcard Round upstarts.  The NFL Playoffs’ Wildcard round usually does a pretty good job of removing some of the teams that I like to call “Frauds” from the playoff picture. 

However if some frauds are still leftover, surely the divisional round will sniff them out.  The final eight usually brings out the best in teams leading to highly competitive games before the suffocating hype, pressure, and “big stage” mentality of getting to the Super Bowl sets in.The great thing about divisional round games are that now teams that excelled in the regular season have to “Prove It” when it matters most. Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay said in 2018 about playing in the playoffs, “We talk about seizing the moment all the time.

We don’t shy away from what a big game this is.”  For a long time teams coming off byes seemed to automatically advance to the Conference Championship round of the playoffs.  Since the league went to 12 playoff teams in 1990, — gave the top two seeds in each conference first-round byes — only 12 times has a team won the Super Bowl without having a bye, with the last unit accomplishing this feat were the 2012 Baltimore Ravens.  Additionally, teams with a first-round bye have reached the big game 48 times during this period, including the respective teams from Super Bowl LIV (Kansas City Chiefs and SF 49ers). However it is always “Any Given Sunday” in the NFL and the non-predictability of the divisional round playoffs has clearly been shown in seasons like 2010. Both No. 1 seeds (New England Patriots – AFC and Atlanta Falcons – NFC) came off byes and lost in the divisional playoffs. After the dust had settled for Super Bowl XLV in Dallas, the AFC’s No. 2 seeded Steelers and the NFC’s No. 6 seeded Green Bay Packers were left. 

Remember there are no longer the dynasty bully teams of the past — think of Paul Brown’s Cleveland Browns of the ‘50s, Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers of the ‘60s, Chuck Knoll’s Pittsburgh Steelers of the ‘70s, Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers of the ‘80s, Jerry Jones’ Dallas Cowboys of the ‘90s, and Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots of the ‘00s and ‘10s – with “Parity” still the driving factor in the NFL.  To show the parity around the NFL in the regulars season there were 13 teams with winning records, 16 teams with losing records, and only 3 teams stuck right in the middle (.500) at 8-8.  So all 8 remaining teams have a legitimate chance, matter what all the talking heads around the league are saying.

To the surprise of many, after home teams went a combined 3-3 in the Super Wildcard Round, Vegas is favoring all of the hosts (Chiefs -10, Packers -6.5, Saints -3, and Bills -2.5) in the divisional round.  However the hosts definitely should proceed with some trepidation as road teams have won at least 1 division round game in the past 9 out of 10 NFL playoffs with the 2018 playoffs being an anomaly as hosts KC, NO, LAR, and NE all won.  So nothing is guaranteed, even if fans are hoping for a Super Match-up of the two No. 1 seeds, Green Bay Packers (13-3) and Kansas City Chiefs (14-2).  Yes, in recent history the 2017 NFL Season’s Super Bowl match-up of the Eagles-Patriots was a No. 1 seed showdown, but I am not sure if the “Chalk” will fall into place this season. 

Somewhere former NFL Commissioner Bert Bell is smiling as the phrase he coined, “On Any Given Sunday” still is reigning true. Bell’s dream theory of equitability where any team, whether top or bottom, could beat each other on a weekly basis, was majorly driven home last week in the Wildcard round.  Four of the six Wild Card games were decided by ten points or fewer.  Definitely keep an eye on the winners from the Wild Card round as former Super Bowl Champions (Steelers ‘05, Colts ‘06, Giants ‘07, Steelers ‘08, Packers ’10, Giants ’11, and Ravens ’12) won on Wildcard weekend.  Hopefully Reid, Mahomes, Kelce, and the rest of the Chiefs were paying attention, as should every other favored team coming off of a bye.  Preparation and execution will be the keys to beating the opponent in front of them.  The other alternative from non-preparation will be joining the Washington, Steelers, Seahawks, Bears, Titans, and Colts and the 18 other non-playoff teams on the sidelines.  Patriots head coach Bill Belichick once said of playing in the divisional playoffs, “Now the team is 0-0”.

Of course having played and beaten a team twice in the regular season may bring a partial psychological edge in game planning, and dissecting tendencies –Saints have already beaten the Bucs in Weeks 1 & 9. But tried-and-true playoff tenants of Strong Quarterback Play (i.e. Taking Care of the Football), Good Attacking Defense, a Balanced Offensive Attack based first in the Run, Sound Special Teams Play, Getting off the Field on 3rd Downs Defensively, Scoring Touchdowns rather field goals in the Redzone, Limiting Penalties/Turnovers, and just plain “Want-to” will be the deciding factors as to which teams move on to the Conference Championship round on the long treacherous road to Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay, FL.

Other than the playoff tenants that we discussed earlier, “Great” playoff teams that usually advance far in the postseason win the battle in Adjustments and Turnovers.  The NFL is a copycat league where teams can catch-up quickly and adjustments are the only way to stay ahead of the pack and combat falling behind.  With the Super Wildcard Round behind us, it is time for the “great” coaches to make the adjustments necessary to get their teams to the next round of the playoffs – think Saints head coach Sean Payton calling a surprise successful onside kick after halftime of Super Bowl XLIV.  However we all know that nothing goes as “planned” in the NFL. It is all well and good to look at old tape and previous games against your opponent to prepare a dossier.  But during the course of a game, plans can quickly go out the window.

Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson used to always say before a fight in his classic lisp voice, “Everybody has a plan, until they get hit.”  That quote is so very true in the NFL too as former Super Bowl winning coaches in this year’s playoffs (Andy Reid, Sean Payton, and John Harbaugh) have been known to make in-game adjustments to their original game plans that have led to playoff victories.  As important as adjustments are, plain and simple nothing is an important factor in wining playoff games than “turnovers”. 

Nothing can put a dagger in a team’s playoff hopes quicker than giving away the ball, especially turnovers that go to the house for points.  Who could ever forget on of the worst turnover games in memory, where the highly favored Carolina Panthers lost at home 33-13 in a whitewash to the underdog Arizona Cardinals in the 2008 NFL Playoffs Divisional round.  Panthers QB Jake Delhomme (17-34, 205 yards, 1 TD, 5 INTs and 1 fumble) accounted for six turnovers by himself and the Cardinals scored 23 of their 33 points off of those takeaways.

I usually also like to look at the hottest teams going into playoff games as favorites and no team is hotter than the Buffalo Bills (7 straight wins including their Wildcard win over the Colts).  The operative phrase for all the teams remaining in the single-elimination NFL Playoffs is “Moving On”. Because winning the battle on the stat sheet means nothing as getting “W’s” are all that matter.  Style points are out the window as an “ugly” win is just as good as an offensive highlight reel win – Just ask the 2007 and 2011 Super Bowl Champion New York Giants who continued to win “ugly” throughout most of their playoff run. 

Sadly the 2020 season will soon be over, so definitely enjoy this weekend’s slate of four quality match-ups.

2020-21 NFL Playoffs Divisional Round Games

Saturday, January 16

NFC:    Los Angeles Rams (12-6) at Green Bay Packers (13-3) 4:35 PM (ET) (FOX, FOX Deportes) 

LV’s Pick:  Packers over LA Rams, 24-17

AFC:    Baltimore Ravens (12-5) at Buffalo Bills (14-3) 8:15 PM (ET) (NBC, Universo) 

LV’s Pick:  Bills over Ravens, 27-23

Sunday, January 17

AFC:    Cleveland Browns (12-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (14-2) 3:05 PM (ET) (CBS, ESPN Deportes)

LV’s Pick:  Chiefs over Browns, 31-23

NFC:    Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-5) at New Orleans Saints (13-4) 6:40 PM (ET) (FOX, FOX Deportes)

LV’s Pick:  Bucs over Saints, 30-27

Lloyd Vance is the Editor for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA). Lloyd can be reached on Twitter (@lloydvance)

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