We now have the final four set in the 2020-21 NFL season, as four teams had their season ended this past weekend. Though most of the games didn't come down to the wire like many people expected, there are plenty of things to talk about for each game that was played. I'll be discussing the highlights and results of each matchup, as well as the outlooks on both the winners and losers of the contests.
Los Angeles Rams 18, Green Bay Packers 32
This game stayed close for most of the first half, but once Green Bay went up two scores with less than four minutes left in the second quarter, it felt like it was basically over. Jared Goff, to his credit, did lead the Rams down to cut the deficit to six with 30 seconds left, but it only took two plays for Aaron Rodgers to get within Mason Crosby's field goal range, making the score 19-10 at halftime. The Packers notched another touchdown to start the third quarter, and the score remained 25-10 until just before the start of the fourth, when Cam Akers scampered into the end zone and then caught a 2-point conversion to make it a one score game. Rodgers threw a bomb to Allen Lazard from 58 yards out midway through the fourth quarter, and the 32-18 score held up until the end.
When you watch the Packers play, it's obvious how comfortable the players are with each other. They just look like they're having fun on the field, which is easy when you have a quarterback like Rodgers who consistently delivers missiles to seemingly everyone in the offensive unit. The Packers seem to take control of the game early and never let go, and their defense is clicking now too, allowing fewer than 20 points in five of their last six games. They'll get their first home NFC championship game of Rodgers' career next Sunday, and the road to the Super Bowl through Lambeau looks as treacherous as ever.
The Rams were able to secure a win in the first round against the Seahawks, but it's fair to question where they go from here. Jared Goff played pretty well statistically in this one, and no one expected them to win, but is he worth the $33.5 million per year they dished out after his first season with Sean McVay? I'm not sure, especially after losing a lot of his previous talent on the offensive end. Their defense is legit and they have probably the best defensive tackle and one of the best cornerbacks on the squad, but the defense can only do so much when the offense can't score the ball. I don't expect any crazy moves this offseason from the Rams, but Goff needs to have a really good year next year to receive an extension in LA.
Baltimore Ravens 3, Buffalo Bills 17
In a game with two young quarterbacks drafted in the same class and touted as part of the future of the NFL, this was a game of offensive futility on both sides. It was a cold, windy evening in Buffalo and the score was only 3-3 at halftime following three total missed field goals (two of which were from Baltimore's Justin Tucker, who doinked a 41- and 46-yarder off the uprights after starting 11/11 in his career from inside 50 yards in the playoffs). Josh Allen led his team down the field for the game's first touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter, and it appeared Lamar Jackson was going to answer before throwing a 101-yard pick six on third and goal from the 9-yard line. Jackson got concussed on the following drive, and that pretty much ended Baltimore's hopes of a comeback.
The Bills clearly struggled offensively for all but one drive, really, but that's not that bad of a performance when you take into account the strength of the Ravens' defense. A more important and optimistic takeaway for Bills fans is how good their defense played, nearly shutting out the electric Jackson and his corps of running backs. Allen will likely find more success against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship game, who could be without Patrick Mahomes. It's hard not to pull for Buffalo, and Bills Mafia became even more lovable after collectively donating almost $300,000 to a charity in Louisville, KY as a salute to Jackson.
Lamar Jackson is now 1-3 in his first four playoff games, which isn't a great sign about his potential postseason success going forward. I still believe that he's a player who's too good to move on from, at least this early, but it's starting to look like he's the type of guy who will be incredible in the regular season and then regress in the playoffs. I hope he figures it out, because there's almost no one in the NFL (outside of maybe Mahomes) that is more fun to watch than when Jackson is playing at his peak. The Ravens should bring back an elite defense next year, and they can maybe get another receiving weapon or two to open up some down field plays in the passing game.
Cleveland Browns 17, Kansas City Chiefs 22
This was the most exciting game from start to finish of the weekend. It looked like Kansas City was going to run away with it at halftime after amassing a 19-3 lead at the break. That was especially true after Cleveland Receiver Rashard Higgins fumbled through the end zone for a touchback when the Browns had a chance to cut it to 16-10 late in the second quarter. Their hopes were revitalized when Patrick Mahomes exited with a concussion after taking a hit on a designed QB run play in the third quarter. Cleveland began mounting a comeback and the two teams slugged it out which culminated into a fourth and 1 for the Chiefs from about midfield with just over a minute on the clock. With backup quarterback Chad Henne at the helm, Andy Reid called a gutsy hurry up play and Henne connected with Tyreek Hill to ice it.
The Chiefs won the battle, but they might have lost the war in the process depending on the health status of Mahomes in the AFC Championship game. There have been conflicting reports on what exactly is wrong with Mahomes, but it's very difficult to clear the concussion protocol in just a week. If he can't go, Chad Henne honestly appeared to be a suitable backup in what was without a doubt the biggest game of his NFL career. With the weapons they have on offense and a solid defense, they can certainly still win without Mahomes. But against a hot Bills team, I would be very nervous if my $500 million dollar quarterback is unavailable. Either way, I really think the AFC title game will be a close affair and a thrilling matchup that comes down to the last possession.
You have to label this season a success if you're a Browns fan. You not only made it to the playoffs for the first time in almost two decades, but you won a playoff game and knocked out your most hated rival in the process. I mean, back to back wins over the Steelers have to be like repeated Christmases for Browns fans. Not to mention, you did all this without your best offensive skill player for most of the season. It will be curious to see if O'Dell Beckham returns or if they ship him to another team to receive extra help in other areas. But it looks like the Browns now have their head coach, their quarterback, a strong offensive line, a two horse tandem in the backfield, and a centerpiece pass rusher. The future looks bright in Cleveland, which is something that hasn't been said since LeBron announced his decision to return to the Cavs in 2014.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30, New Orleans Saints 20
The Bucs became the only road team to win this weekend in the final game of the Divisional round. The game went back and forth for the first three quarters as neither team could pull ahead by more than one score, but Tampa Bay took control in the fourth and took advantage of some Drew Brees interceptions score the final 17 points of the ballgame and win by 10. Statistically, the two teams were almost dead even across the board except for one category: turnovers. New Orleans surrendered the ball four total times, while Tampa didn't commit a single one. That was obviously the difference in the game, as the Bucs got some short fields to work with and their offense was able to capitalize on them. Contrary to popular belief, this game was not in fact aired on the History Channel, but the ancient Tom Brady did best his old quarterback counterpart after losing twice to him in the regular season.
The Bucs' offense didn't look extremely impressive, but they didn't really need to. Brady threw for 199 yards and two touchdowns and added another one on a QB sneak to seal the game. The story was Tampa's defense, who forced four turnovers and held the Saints to under 300 total yards. They'll need to replicate that next week when the Florida boys head north to frigid Green Bay to play in the tundra at Lambeau field. We'll see how Brady's joints hold up in that cold weather, but he hasn't shown us anything that would signal any kind of regression in performance any time soon.
Drew Brees has likely played his final game in New Orleans and in the NFL, as reports have said he'll be retiring after an illustrious 20-year career. I hate to see a player of Brees' caliber go out on a performance like that, but I'm not sure if his body can tolerate another grueling NFL season. Still, he's had a remarkable career, establishing himself in the record books and locking himself in as a first ballot Hall of Famer. Assuming they bring back all of their offensive skill players, whoever suits up at quarterback next season (likely either Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston) will certainly be set up for success. I don't expect New Orleans to lose their competitiveness any time soon.
Written by Nick Swatson
Expert Nick Swatson discusses all the news, predictions, and outcomes surrounding the NFL.