This article is part of our Exploiting the Matchups series.
This may involve some bias as a Ravens fan, but I can't remember a more compelling slate of games in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. Presumed MVP Aaron Rodgers will face arguably the best defense in the league Saturday afternoon, followed by Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson squaring off in a night game between two well-rounded teams that haven't lost for a while.
The Browns-Chiefs matchup Sunday afternoon has a 10-point spread, but it also has the Mahomes factor for entertainment, and Cleveland is down to just one player on the reserve/COVID-19 list (Friday update: LG Joel Bitonio was removed from the list).
Last but not least, Tom Brady and the Bucs are out for revenge Sunday night, after playing two awful games against New Orleans in the regular season. The NFC South rivals are loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, creating a slew of matchups that are strength vs. strength.
While those 'iron sharpens iron' type battles may be the most interesting aspect of a game from the standpoint of a casual fan, it's often the mismatches that carry more intrigue for fantasy purposes. Now let's take a look at some of those exploitable situations...
Green Bay Packers at LA Rams — Saturday, 4:35 ET
Betting Odds: Packers -6.5, O/U 45.5
Weather Forecast at Kickoff: 33° F. 7% chance of precipitation. Wind around 10 mph.
Kingsley, who recorded 21 tackles and four sacks in the regular season, hasn't played since Week 16 and was the only Packer absent from practice at the beginning of the week. The bigger issue is at left tackle, after three-time Pro Bowler David Bakhtiari tore his ACL in a Week 17 practice. Billy Turner is an experienced backup, but the Packers also brought in 32-year-old Jared Veldheer, only to see him land on the reserve/COVID-19 list. In other words, Turner likely will get another start on the blindside.... he's no Bakhtiari, but he's at least competent.
The Rams, on the other hand, had a few guys missing from practice Tuesday and Wednesday, though Edwards is the only starter who appears to be in real danger of missing the game. Aaron Donald (ribs) was removed from the injury report, and Kupp is expected to play again after he got 63 snaps and nine targets while playing through the same knee issue last week.
Mismatch #1: Packers DBs >>> Jared Goff
Earlier in the week, Sean McVay suggested he was undecided between Wolford and Jared Goff, with the latter still playing through a right thumb injury that required surgery at the end of December. It turns out there's no decision to make, as Wolford was ruled out Thursday.
The less-than-100-percent version of Goff gets a tough assignment, playing in the cold against a Green Bay defense that hasn't allowed 250 passing yards in a game since Week 11. The Packers' pass rush hasn't been quite as good as it was last season, but their secondary has taken a step forward, with CB Jaire Alexander, S Adrian Amos and S Darnell Savage all earning top-10 PFF grades at their positions.
The trio combined for 34 pass defenses and seven interceptions this year, each allowing less than 350 yards as the primary defender in coverage (per PFF). Cornerbacks Kevin King and Chandon Sullivan haven't been nearly as impressive, but this is still one of the better secondaries in the league, overall.
Green Bay could be in trouble if Jalen Ramsey gets the best of Davante Adams, as the other WR-CB matchups favor Los Angeles. Williams led the team in pass defenses (14) and interceptions (four), and CB Troy Hill led the NFL in defensive TDs (three). Each of the three cornerbacks received a top-20 PFF grade, while Lazard and MVS both finished outside the Top 50 at wide receiver.
Lazard did play well at the beginning of the season, but he's been a limited practice participant ever since he returned from core muscle surgery, averaging only 28.1 yards over the past seven games. Valdes-Scantling offers the occasional home-run play and little else, drawing a target on only 14.4 percent of his routes this year. MVS might sneak behind the Rams defense for a big play, but he won't get consistent separation against Hill and Williams.
Of course, the Packers still have Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, and they led the league in scoring (31.8 ppg) despite the less-than-stellar production from their non-Adams wideouts. The matchup this Saturday should push more targets toward their pass catchers at other positions, namely Aaron Jones, Robert Tonyan and Jamaal Williams.
The Prediction: Packers 20 - Rams 17
Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills — Saturday, 8:15 ET
Betting Odds: Bills -2.5, O/U 50.0
Weather Forecast at Kickoff: 34° F. 7% chance of precipitation. Wind around 10-15 mph
Peters missed practice Tuesday and Wednesday, but he played every defensive snap in the wild-card win over Tennessee, and there hasn't been any report suggesting his back injury is serious. Apart from players on IR, it appears the Ravens and Bills will have all their starters available. (Moss was placed on IR at the beginning of the week, shortly before Devonta Freeman joined the Buffalo practice squad.)
Mismatch #1: Ravens rushing attack >>> Bills front seven
After limiting Jonathan Taylor to 3.7 YPC last week, the Bills will face an even bigger challenge in the second round of the playoffs, taking on a Baltimore offense that's led the league in rushing yards and YPC in back-to-back years. The Buffalo defense has really come together after a poor start to the season, but there's still some vulnerability up front if you can keep the game close enough (re: Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs) to stick with the run.
The Bills finished the regular season ranked 17th in run-defense DVOA (-8.2%), 23rd in opponent YPC (4.6) and 17th in rushing yards allowed (119.6). Seven of the 21 rushing TDs they gave up were scored by quarterbacks, including Kyler Murray running for 11-61-2 in the Hail Murray game and Cam Newton going for 9-54-1 and 4-24-1 in two matchups.
The Bills did hold Jackson to 40 rushing yards and no TD in Week 14 of his MVP season, with the Ravens managing only 257 total yards while relying on their defense to pull out a 24-17 victory. The running backs didn't fare any better than Jackson, as Mark Ingram managed only 50 yards on 15 carries. The rematch this Saturday should be higher scoring, as the Bills have transitioned from a defense-first team into an offensive juggernaut.
Mismatch #2: Bills DBs >>> Ravens WRs
The Ravens still get next to nothing from their secondary receivers, relying on Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews for 48 percent of the targets and 50 percent of the yards. The Bills typically haven't shadowed with top cornerback Tre'Davious White, but it would make sense this week against a team that goes only one-deep at wide receiver.
The Bills also have an excellent safety duo in Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, so they might be able to get away with stacking the box and selling out to stop the run. That was their strategy in the December 2019 matchup with Baltimore, which was a defensive slugfest apart from a 61-yard TD pass to Hayden Hurst. The Bills don't have a dominant front seven that can overwhelm Baltimore's blockers, but a talented secondary creates more wiggle room for run blitzes and other aggressive tactics.
The Prediction: Ravens 24 - Bills 20
Cleveland Browns at KC Chiefs — Sunday, 3:05 ET
Betting Odds: Chiefs- 10.0, O/U 57.0
Weather Forecast at Kickoff: 35° F. 9% chance of precipitation. Wind around 10-15 mph.
Goodson led the Browns with 91 tackles this year, despite missing Weeks 16 and 17 on the COVID-19 list. He returned for the wild-card win over Pittsburgh, but then left with a shoulder injury after recording 10 tackles. His 69.1 coverage grade from PFF placed 16th out of 79 qualified linebackers, while his backup (Jacob Phillips) received a 41.8 grade over 136 cover snaps.
Conklin would be an even bigger loss, as he's one of the top right tackles in the NFL, earning every dollar (and then some) of his big contract. Njoku is the least important of the three Browns who appear questionable, as there shouldn't be too much of a drop off if his usual 20-30 snaps go to Harrison Bryant and the third wideout (KhaDarel Hodge / Donovan Peoples-Jones) instead.
On the Kansas City side, each of Watkins, Fenton and Gay was absent from practice to start the week, while Edwards-Helaire returned as a limited participant after missing the final two games of the season. CEH was then held out of practice Thursday, despite some encouraging words from Andy Reid the day before. Verdict: TBD.
As for the KC defense, Fenton's role as the No. 4 CB is far from crucial, while Gay's role as a run-stopping, two-down 'backer takes on some added importance in a matchup with Cleveland's excellent rushing attack. An absence for Gay could exacerbate the Chiefs' preexisting weakness defending the run.
Mismatch #1: Patrick Mahomes >>> Browns secondary
Even with Ward and Johnson cleared to return, the Browns are at a massive disadvantage here. Mahomes is Mahomes, while the Browns finished the regular season ranked 25th in pass-defense DVOA (16.4%). Safeties Andrew Sendejo and Karl Joseph have been a big part of the problem, combining for just one INT and six pass defenses while allowing 12 touchdowns. Last week, both guys got far more work than Ronnie Harrison, who played 12 percent of defensive snaps.
Mismatch #2: Browns O-Line >>> Chiefs front seven
This is almost as big of a mismatch as Mahomes vs. the Cleveland defense, though it doesn't feel nearly as insurmountable. The Browns finished third in rushing yards, fifth in YPC and seventh in run-offense DVOA, while the Chiefs defense was 21st, 17th and 31st in the corresponding defensive stats.
It's no secret the Chiefs have prioritized their pass rush and coverage over run defense in recent years, as Mahomes and the gang often put up an early flurry of points that pressures opponents into abandoning the run. However, Cleveland won't be an easy team to bully out of its gameplan, having finished the regular season No. 4 in run-play rate (48.4 percent).
Four of the Browns' five O-line starters earned top-10 PFF grades this year, and no team had a better cumulative grade (81.9) for run blocking. Football Outsiders has Cleveland at No. 6 in adjusted line yards (4.79) and No. 4 in open-field yards (1.10), with Nick Chubb finishing second among running backs in YPC (5.6), sixth in average yards after contact (2.7) and sixth in broken tackles per carry (0.11). Any way you break it down, the Browns are excellent at running the ball.
While the Chiefs haven't been too bad in terms of missed tackles this year, their front seven can still be pushed around by good O-lines, as DT Derrick Nnadi is the only true run stuffer on the team. Chris Jones is second to Aaron Donald among interior pass rushers, but without a similar level of dominance against the run.
The Prediction: Chiefs 31 - Browns 27
Buccaneers at Saints — Sunday, 6:40 ET
Betting Odds: Saints - 3.0, O/U 52.0
Cappa played all but three snaps in the regular season, before fracturing his ankle in the wild-card win over Washington. 33-year-old Ted Larsen replaced Cappa in the second half, but Joe Haeg and Aaron Stinnie are also options to play right guard this weekend.
Jones is the only real question mark, after he was active but didn't actually play last week. He was held out of practice Wednesday and returned as a limited participant Thursday, seemingly headed for a 'questionable' designation on the final injury report. Jones took 20 carries for 75 yards against the Saints this season, while Leonard Fournette had six totes go for just five yards.
On the New Orleans side, Murray and Hill both got banged up in the wild-card win over Chicago. Neither would be a devastating loss, but it's certainly a situation to monitor for fantasy football, as any absence would give Alvin Kamara less competition for carries. A Hill absence would also be good news for the TD outlooks for Drew Brees and his favorite pass catchers.
Robinson is merely the No. 4 corner at this point, so his status shouldn't have much impact on the defensive gameplan, even against an offense with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown at wide receiver. Robinson strictly played special teams last week, while Chauncey Gardner-Johnson logged 98 percent of snaps as the No. 3 corner and P.J. Williams took 40 percent as the dimeback.
The Mismatch: Saints HC Sean Payton >>> Buccaneers HC Bruce Arians
It's hard to find a mismatch when you look at these two rosters, and yet the Saints went 2-0 with a plus-46 point differential against the Bucs this season. The first game, back in Week 1, was a defensive battle masked by a 34-23 final score on account of three Tampa Bay turnovers. The second game, in Week 9, was simply a beatdown, with Brees tossing four TD passes while Brady was picked off three times.
These NFC South rivals had similar schedules and put up similar tallies for points scored and points allowed, but the Bucs often collapsed in big games, while the Saints were more consistent. Tampa's best coach is probably DC Todd Bowles, who spent part of this week interviewing for head coach jobs with other teams. Advantage: Payton.
The Prediction: Saints 31 - Bucs 24