NFL Recap has a busy week reacting and prognosticating the 2020-2021 NFL Playoffs, looking at the eliminated teams from Wild Card Weekend, and we’ll also take a look at Hall of Fame voting and Studs ‘n’ Duds (with awards).
(Editor’s note — please check back frequently this evening and throughout Monday morning for the full NFL Recap.)
Here’s NFL Recap’s first-look preview of the NFC Divisional Round contest, Los Angeles Rams vs. Green Bay Packers, scheduled for Saturday, January 16th, at 4:35 p.m. ET (FOX/FOX Deportes).
The backdrop to the Rams vs. Packers matchup
Wild Card Weekend could not have worked out much better for the Green Bay Packers. Not only do the Packers face a beatable opponent vs. the Los Angeles Rams in the Divisional Round, but it’s a banged-up Rams team as well.
All-Pro defender Aaron Donald suffered a rib injury. Quarterback Jared Goff was forced to play through a thumb injury in the Los Angeles Rams’ 30-20 victory over the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday. Even with Goff and Donald healthy, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are the far superior team on paper.
That means in order for the Rams to win, the Packers will have to suffer through one of those playoff games where everything that can go wrong for them does go wrong.
You know, like their loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game last year. Or their loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the 2017 NFL Playoffs. Or their loss to the Arizona Cardinals in 2015, Seattle Seahawks in 2014, or the time Colin Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards … er, you get the picture.
Los Angeles Rams vs. Green Bay Packers Divisional Round Preview
Let’s dive deeper into the Rams vs. Packers tilt.
How the Green Bay Packers got here
It was a Packers season like any other, only more so. Aaron Rodgers played at a Hall of Fame level. This despite the fact that Davante Adams was his only reliable wide receiver. Tight end Robert Tonyan did emerge as a dangerous complementary weapon as well.
Za’Darius Smith spearheaded a nasty pass rush, with Preston Smith rejoining him after a prolonged early-season slump.
The Packers dominated the NFC North but scattered just enough breadcrumbs of doubt — a run defense vulnerable to getting wheelbarrowed, a beating at the hands of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the late-season loss of left tackle David Bakhtiari — to worry fans that this season might end the way most Packers seasons end.
How the Los Angeles Rams got here
Rookie running back Cam Akers gained 176 scrimmage yards and scored a touchdown against Seattle. Donald spent so much time in the Seattle Seahawks backfield that he injured his ribs dragging down Russell Wilson so often. Goff came off the bench to throw just enough split-fingered fastballs to keep the Rams’ passing game viable.
It was shaky. It was costly. But it was just enough for a win over a Seahawks team that looked like it has been photocopying the same offensive game plan since 2018.
Green Bay Packers’ greatest strength
Let’s see. Which Rodgers-to-Adams stat split is most impressive? How about this one? Adams led the NFL with 405 yards on third-down receptions and finished second to Keenan Allen with 24 receptions for first downs.
Or, if you prefer red zone stats, Adams leads all receivers with 23 catches inside the 20-yard line and 14 red zone touchdowns.
You get the idea. In high leverage situations where teams want to stop Rodgers and Adams, they cannot stop Rodgers and Adams.
Green Bay Packers’ greatest weakness
The Packers inside linebacker tandem of Christian Kirksey and Krys Barnes may be the worst in the NFL. One result was that the Packers finished 28th in the NFL at covering opposing running backs in the passing game, per Football Outsiders.
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine doesn’t do Kirksey, Barnes, or anyone else any favors when he rushes only three defenders. Asking Preston Smith to drop into coverage doesn’t help matters either.
What we learned about the Rams this week
Their secondary is truly elite. Setting aside D.K. Metcalf’s 51-yard touchdown when he slipped behind the coverage during a Wilson scramble, Seattle’s receivers combined for just eight catches for 117 yards on Saturday night. That’s even with the Seahawks playing from behind for most of the game.
Darious Williams has become the Larry Brown to Jalen Ramsey’s Deion Sanders. Williams jumps routes and produces pick-sixes when opponents play keep-away from Ramsey. Safeties Jordan Fuller and John Johnson are effective all-purpose defenders. Troy Hill does a fine job shutting down slot receivers. The Rams’ secondary matches up well against Davante Adams and the Perennial Disappointments.
Los Angeles Rams’ player to watch
The Chicago Bears allowed Leonard Floyd, the eighth overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, to walk as a free agent after four disappointing seasons. The Rams picked him up and were quietly rewarded with 10.5 sacks in the regular season.
Floyd notched two more sacks on Saturday night. He demonstrated that he had the athleticism to both chase Wilson down from behind and not get juked out by Wilson’s pump fakes. Look for Floyd to cause trouble for Billy Turner, David Bakhtiari’s replacement at left tackle.
Rams vs. Packers bottom line
Goff and Donald will almost certainly play against the Packers in this Divisional Round matchup. If Goff turns into Commander Numb Thumbs in what will probably be icy conditions and/or Donald is limited, the Packers will romp.
If Goff and Donald are close to 100%, the mismatch to watch is Sean McVay vs. Mike Pettine. If McVay finds and exploits the many leaks in the Packers’ defense while the Rams’ secondary contains Adams and shuts down everyone else, the Packers will be in for one of those games where the opponent rushes for 200 yards while Rodgers scowls at the sideline and daydreams about premium tequila.
It’s unlikely, but the fact that we have all seen examples of several such games means that it’s possible.
Early NFL Recap prediction: Green Bay Packers
Here’s NFL Recap’s first-look preview of the NFC Divisional Round contest between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. the New Orleans Saints, scheduled for 6:40 p.m. ET on Sunday, January 17th (FOX/FOX Deportes).
The backdrop to the Buccaneers vs. Saints matchup
It’s very difficult to defeat the same opponent three times in one season. It’s very difficult to defeat Tom Brady in the playoffs. So it will be very, very, VERY difficult for the New Orleans Saints to defeat Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the third time this season next week in the divisional round.
For the Saints to complete their hat trick vs. the Buccaneers, they’ll need another outstanding game from their defense. They’ll need another step-up performance from Alvin Kamara (like his 116 total yard effort in Sunday’s 21-9 win over the Chicago Bears, only better). In addition, they’ll need some flawless game management from Drew Brees in what’s shaping up to be the final postseason of his career.
It sounds like a tall order, but the Saints swept the season series by a combined 72-26 score. The Buccaneers, on the other hand, hardly looked unbeatable in Saturday’s 31-23 victory over the Washington Football team.
How the New Orleans Saints got here
Zzzzzzzzzzzz. [Yawn] Oops, sorry — NFL Recap fell asleep with the Saints leading 7-3 at halftime. Yep, it was that kind of game. The Chicago Bears couldn’t move the ball at all, but the Saints kept them in the game thanks to a missed Will Lutz field goal and a Taysom Hill strip-sack.
The Saints slowly pulled away with 12 and 15-play touchdown drives against a gassed defense as Mitch Trubisky and the Bears offense flatlined. A meaningless late goal-line stand and a 99-yard drive by the Bears in garbage time made the final score closer than the game itself. It also made a game that already felt like it was 45 minutes too long even longer.
Nevertheless, the Saints moved on to the NFC Divisional Round as expected.
How the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got here
Saturday night’s 31-23 victory over the Washington Football Team was tougher than it had to be. The Buccaneers settled for field goals a little too often, failed on an extra point and a two-point conversion, and fumbled at the end of a drive. Most importantly, they were caught off-guard by fourth-string Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke’s ability to move around the pocket without crutches and throw more than five yards downfield.
But in the end, Tom Brady just had too many weapons. Players showed up like wide receivers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown, tight end Cameron Brate, and running back [double checking notes] Leonard Fournette? Really?
What we learned about the Buccaneers this week
Brady and the offense command so much attention that it is easy to overlook the Buccaneers pass rush. They ranked second to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the regular season with a 27.0% pressure rate against opposing quarterbacks (per Pro Football Reference).
Coordinator Todd Bowles doesn’t just rely upon Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, and the defensive line. Bowles turns up the heat by blitzing on 39.0% of pass plays, the fifth-highest rate in the NFL. Look for Bowles to dial up some blitzes against a rickety Brees and a Saints’ offense with no consistent receiving threats besides Michael Thomas.
What we learned about the Saints this week
The Bears were 0-9 on third-down conversions until their meaningless final drive. But for the Saints (and for most successful defenses), great third-down defense begins on first and second downs.
Football Outsiders ranked the Saints fifth in first-down defense, fourth on second downs, and seventh on third downs during the regular season. Mitch Trubisky seemed to be facing 3rd-and-8 all afternoon on Sunday. Brady doesn’t scoff at unfavorable down-and-distance situations the way he did 10-15 years ago. A defense that forces him into 3rd and long can force him to make a mistake.
New Orleans Saints’ player to watch
Slot cornerback Chauncey Gardner-Johnson goaded Anthony Miller into throwing a punch (and getting ejected) on Sunday. Previously, Gardner-Johnson got Miller’s teammate Javon Wims to take a swing at him in Week 8. And, let us not forget that he was involved in the practice altercation that got Michael Thomas suspended by the Saints earlier in the season.
Setting aside the possibility that he could get Antonio Brown so worked up that Brown dumps Joker toxin into Gotham River, Gardner-Johnson is a boom-or-bust defender who could generate a sack when blitzing or break up a critical pass. Yet, he could also get flagged for pass interference or whiff on a tackle at the worst possible moment.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ player to watch
Fournette is the running back that the cool kids on the internet love to hate. He’s a bruiser whom the Jacksonville Jaguars drafted too high and relied upon too much before unceremoniously cutting after three years.
Fournette had a mostly forgettable season in the Buccaneers’ running back rotation. On the season, he had 357 yards, just 3.8 yards per carry — lots of three-catch, 16-yard-type afternoons as a receiver (with several dropped passes).
But with LeSean McCoy out due to illness and Ronald Jones suffering a quad injury on the opening drive on Saturday, Fournette stepped up with 93 rushing yards and one touchdown. He also added four receptions for 39 yards and some spin-cycling, tackler-dragging highlights.
Tom Brady has counted on backs like LeGarrette Blount and Sony Michel to serve as his playoff battering rams in years past. Don’t be shocked if Fournette plays a similar role down in the NFC Divisional Round.
Buccaneers vs. Saints bottom line
Here’s the problem with the NFC playoff field. We’ve all seen Brees’ playoff loss heartbreakers on bad calls or late-game blunders. Additionally, we’ve seen Aaron Rodgers get sabotaged in the playoffs by the Green Bay Packers’ run defense. We’ve seen Jared Goff and the Los Angeles Rams’ offense dissected in the Super Bowl.
It’s true we’ve seen Brady lose a few playoff games, but that’s not exactly what he’s known for. Brees and Rodgers have Super Bowl rings, but Brady is the only quarterback in the conference who doesn’t have a reputation for playoff disappointments. He was cleaning up in the AFC while Brees, Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan, Goff, and others took turns handing each other disappointments.
Look beyond Brady’s reputation and his marquee supporting cast. The Saints have a better defense, better offensive line, and a better track record in 2020 against quality opponents.
Yet, “looking past” Brady, Evans, Rob Gronkowski, and the rest seems like a bad idea. Especially when Brees looks so banged up that he might be ready for his second career as a sandwich mogul. Then again, Brady is the one who looks washed up every time he faces the Saints.
No matter what happens next weekend in this NFC Divisional Round matchup, this may be the last Brady-Brees meeting. There were too few of them over the last two decades. Let’s make sure to enjoy this one. This Buccaneers vs. Saints matchup should be memorable.
Early Prediction: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Peyton Manning’s 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame “debate” will consist of his name getting called and everyone saying “Aye.” Calvin Johnson and Charles Woodson are also likely first-ballot inductees. But what about John Lynch, who has been a Hall of Fame finalist for years? Or Torry Holt and Reggie Wayne, a pair of great wide receivers who are so similar that they force voters to take sides? Or linebackers Clay Matthews and the late Sam Mills, who may not get another chance if they are not enshrined this year?
The important context of Hall of Fame voting
I’ve been writing about the Pro Football Hall of Fame for years. I’ve often picked the ears of many selection committee members in the past. It gives me as good a chance as just about anyone about how this year’s balloting will go. Let me share some of the backdrop to the Hall of Fame voting process.
You may notice that there’s not much in this article about how much “greater” or “more worthy” one Hall of Fame candidate might be than another. That’s because for non-Peyton level legends, reaching the Hall of Fame is more about navigating through backlogs and logjams at various positions — and getting off-the-record endorsements from teammates, coaches, and opponents — than racking up stats or Pro Bowl berths.
All 15 of this year’s finalists have strong Hall of Fame credentials. Who gets in will probably come down to who has been waiting the longest and who is stuck on a ballot next to a similar player, resulting in a split ticket.
Oh, and stick around until the end, where I suggest a solution to the 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame’s logjam of overqualified candidates.
2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame Ballot | Who is on the list this year?
Jared Allen, Defensive End
Allen is an excellent 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame candidate but not a high-priority one. As a first-time finalist not in the Peyton-Megatron category, voters will quickly shunt him to the back of the line. Voters will work on players who have been on the docket for years.
Ronde Barber, Cornerback
Another 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame first-time finalist whose candidacy stalled at the semifinalist stage for a few years. Barber will also be overshadowed by Charles Woodson and prioritized behind former teammate John Lynch on the selection committee’s list.
Tony Boselli and Alan Faneca, Offensive Line
Hall of Fame voters have been telling me the same things about Boselli for years. They know he’s great, but his short career has shunted him behind fellow offensive linemen Kevin Mawae (Hall of Fame Class of 2019), Steve Hutchinson (Class of 2020), and Faneca. You may not love that logic. Hall of Fame voters have little choice but to try to prioritize players from similar positions and eras.
Mawae was an All-Pro at age 37. Faneca and Hutchinson were high-impact starters in their mid-30s. Boselli’s career was over at 29. It’s hard to pretend that his career length shouldn’t be a factor. Especially true at a position with no statistical record to fall back upon.
Faneca is a sixth-year finalist because of the offensive line backlog; Boselli is a fifth-year finalist. Voters have tacitly been clearing this logjam one lineman at a time. This will be Faneca’s year. Boselli will have to wait beyond the 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame voting.
LeRoy Butler and John Lynch, Safety
There’s an old football adage — the further you are from the ball, the less impact you have. That’s silly in the modern pass-happy NFL, but it made sense in the old slobber knocker days. Frankly, it still impacts the decision making of Hall of Fame voters trying to differentiate among defensive backs.
Lynch played his signature seasons in Tony Dungy’s Tampa-2 defense, often tasked with covering deep zones. Lynch got shunted behind Steve Atwater, Brian Dawkins, Ed Reed, and Troy Polamalu in recent votes and could get stuck behind Butler as well, not really because Butler has better stats (safety stats are often misleading, anyway), but because Butler was perceived (rightly) as more of a versatile box safety and enforcer than Lynch, and therefore someone who impacted far more plays.
Working in Lynch’s favor is his presence as a high-profile NFL figure as the 49ers general manager (it’s easier to vote for a guy you may need as a source) and the fact that he is an eight-time finalist.
So Packers fans, if Butler is “snubbed” this year, it will probably be because the voters were clearing Lynch through to make room for Butler next year.
One last note, Ronde Barber’s candidacy might also stall because of the perception that he was a Tampa-2 “system guy” who only worked the short sidelines.
Torry Holt and Reggie Wayne, Wide Receiver
Holt and Wayne are both second-time finalists who will probably share the ballot for a while. Both achieved fame as the #2 receivers for historic offenses (the “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams and Peyton Manning’s mid-2000s Indianapolis Colts) whose careers took off as their teams’ fortunes began to decline. That makes them Sammy Hagar candidates — great for a long time, but not quite at the same level as the guys who came before them.
The similarities between Holt and Wayne will end up in a split ticket for at least another year. At the very least, both will have to wait until there is no better wide receiver candidate on the ballot.
Calvin Johnson, Wide Receiver
The only arguments against Johnson for the 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame voting, if there are any, will be: a) short career, and b) he should wait until the committee processes Holt and/or Wayne.
Johnson’s career is not Boselli-short. He left on his own terms (as opposed to fading or succumbing to injuries at an early age), so the short career argument likely won’t sway anyone. And most voters surely place Megatron in a separate category from Holt and Wayne. Plus, voters may like the idea of shooing Johnson in and leaving the Detroit Lions alone for a few decades.
Peyton Manning, Quarterback
Clay Matthews Jr., Linebacker
Matthews is a first-time finalist in his 20th year of eligibility after years and years in semifinalist purgatory. In other words, his case is being sent to the “Supreme Court” for a final ruling before he is (most likely) shipped over to the senior’s committee.
Matthews’ Hall of Fame case is a grab-bag. An ultra-long career, some seasons with fondly-remembered (if not historically great) Dawg Pound defenses, interesting-but-not-overwhelming statistical accomplishments (leading the league in tackles is not the sort of thing that impresses most voters), some famous offspring to keep him fresh in the minds of fans/voters, and a few very high-profile former coaches known to stan for (and sometimes against) their favorite players and opponents behind the scenes.
My gut tells me that the 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame committee will pass on Matthews, knowing that he will be a top-of-the-list guy at the senior’s level. It may all come down to what one of those high-profile former coaches thinks.
Sam Mills, Linebacker
A favorite of mine, Mills (who passed away in 2005) is in his 19th year of eligibility and will also soon be likely sent over to the senior’s committee. His portfolio is better than Matthews’, but even odder. He was the leader of the Dome Patrol Saints defenses of the early 1990s, a key contributor to the early seasons of the Carolina Panthers, and the greatest player on the greatest team in USFL history (Mills started his career with the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars, who won two USFL titles).
Mills’ candidacy has suffered from the same issue that has held Matthews back. It could befall many others on this list (including the next guy). If it takes a few sentences to explain why a player was an all-time great, he’ll inevitably get stuck behind the guys who can be summed up in a few words.
Richard Seymour, Defensive Line
Seymour is likely to end up the sixth or seventh player on many ballots (among the final cuts, in other words) for a few more years until he’s in a Faneca-Lynch situation where there is more urgency to make a final decision. His candidacy might take off now that the Patriots dynasty appears to be over. The time is coming to put the franchise’s accomplishments into a historical perspective. Just not sure it will take place for the 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame balloting.
Zach Thomas, Linebacker
Despite Thomas’ many All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections, he suffers from a variation of the Lynch problem. There’s a perception that he was a “system guy” protected by space-eating defensive linemen who funneled plays into his lap. Keep in mind that these “perceptions” typically come from conversations with coaches, players, and opponents of the time, not from sportswriters who hate your favorite team or something.
Thomas’ candidacy also lost momentum when he shared the ballot with teammate Jason Taylor (Class of 2017) for several years. This year, his chances come down to whether the receivers, offensive linemen, and safeties box each other out in just the right combination. He will likely be prioritized ahead of the old-timer linebackers. Kevin Mawae sung Thomas’ praises in his Hall of Fame enshrinement.
Charles Woodson, Defensive Back
The only argument against Woodson will be about the queue, not his accomplishments. Some voters may push for Lynch to get in before Woodson, and there’s a slim chance of some Woodson-Butler split Green Bay Packers’ ticket confusion. Most likely, he’s in on the first ballot.
My early 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame prediction
Alan Faneca, John Lynch, Calvin Johnson, Peyton Manning, Charles Woodson. I hope to revisit this prediction after speaking to some voters over the next week or two.
My Hall of Fame preferences
Alan Faneca, Calvin Johnson, Peyton Manning, Sam Mills, Charles Woodson. I prioritize Sam Mills over John Lynch, but the committee may see otherwise.
My suggestion for “fixing” the Hall of Fame voting
Any fifth-time finalist should be subjected to a separate “yes or no” vote by the committee. If the fifth-time finalist wins a simple majority, he’s enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Most importantly, his selection does not count against the five players in that year’s class. If he does not get a majority, his case is sent to the senior’s committee.
This year, Boselli, Faneca, and Lynch would each be voted upon separately. All three would almost certainly pass and reach the Hall of Fame by a simple majority. The committee could then discuss other players without prioritizing guys who have been stuck in various positional logjams for many years.
This plan would result in a few years where 6-8 players are inducted into the Hall of Fame. This would not be counting seniors, coaches and contributors. After that, the docket would simmer down to the point where someone like Jared Allen doesn’t get the “we don’t have time for you yet” treatment for several years. It would not swell the ranks of the Hall of Fame too much or make it less of an honor; it would just be a way of handling air traffic control.
And it would allow us to talk more about the accomplishments of these players and less time on balloting logistics.