Here are some predictions for Sunday’s NFL playoff games:
Browns (+10) over CHIEFS; Over 57.5
The dangerous oversimplification too many will likely apply to this game goes like this: The Browns shot the moon and expended a considerable amount of physical and emotional energy getting the best of their long-term tormentors, the hated Steelers … and what they may have left in the tank for what many still believe is the scariest team in the league is problematic. Could be right on, no doubt about it, but though it’s hardly impossible, it could be a shade too pat, especially at the asking price.
With isolated exceptions, the Steelers and Ravens have enjoyed the best of it in the AFC North in modern times, but it’s clear the worm’s begun to turn. The Chiefs have consistently done everything but exceed expectations during the second half of the regular season, and must be considered at least potentially vulnerable given the schedule dealt to conference championships. The Chiefs handled the Chargers with extreme casualness in Week 17 then drew their available benefits from their bye week. That’s three weeks between sustained action and anger — which could be dangerous against a hot, improved side with points to prove and beneficiaries of a generous head start.
Though an upset is not impossible, it’s a stretch to expect Cleveland to actually win this game, but Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb and the boys figure to take plenty of beating. Mayfield’s minimal turnover rate has been a heartening surprise — a good thing, since for much of this season, the best defensive weight on several of this past season’s weeks was adverse weather that kept a few of Cleveland’s foes from doing more damage than might have been expected.
Any need to reiterate the Chiefs’ obvious offensive attributes would be redundant … as would the (wildly positive) history of Chiefs coach Andy Reid off seasonal byes, but the question lingers here about whether close to three full weeks without exposure to intense action might well prove a negative, regarding optimal Kansas City cohesiveness.
SAINTS (-3) over Buccaneers; Under 53.5
The battle of the venerable warriors — with 43-year-old Tom Brady leading the Bucs against the Saints and Drew Brees, who turned 42 years young Friday. Divisional rivals within the testing NFC South, the Saints swept the regular season hostilities, even paralyzing the Bucs, 38-3, at Tampa Bay in early November. The Bucs hung up wins in their final four games, but the best sides they conquered during that stretch were the Falcons (twice) and the Vikings, neither of whom made the postseason.
Cutting to the chase: The Saints are the most statistically impressive talent collection of any side still remaining in the hunt for the title. With a running game highlighted by (though by no means solely reliant upon) the remarkable Alvin Kamara, New Orleans also fields one of the two best ground defenses still in action. With rare exceptions, Tom Brady has put up a spectacular passing show virtually all season, but Tampa Bay must resist the temptation to overtly rely upon it. The Bucs’ stalwart ground defense essentially serves to persuade opponents to test the secondary through the air, but that pass defense isn’t bulletproof, and we’d expect that a clear-cut Tampa Bay loss would likely be due to air-game defensive breakdowns.
Since we sincerely doubt Brady had been playing possum in his two previous meetings with the Saints, we deem it unlikely he will suddenly be able to engineer an 180-degree turnaround of the Bucs’ offense, which might somehow facilitate a Tampa Bay win, especially in New Orleans. Those franchises that have fielded defenses ranking among the league’s upper crust have frustrated the Bucs throughout this season. We anticipate more of the same, with Brees engineering sufficient offensive success to reach the NFC championship.
Wild-card round: 5-1 sides; 4-2 Over/Unders.