Unfortunately, COVID-19 will continue to be a major factor, just as it has all season. This year has been almost as much about negotiating the pandemic as it has been playing good football.
It appears as though the Cleveland Browns will be without coach Kevin Stefanski and other members of his coaching staff for the game against their AFC North rivals the Pittsburgh Steelers after positive coronavirus tests. Browns special-teams coach Mike Priefer will serve in Stefanski’s stead.
We asked our experts not only to make their weekly upset picks but about which QB is under the gun this weekend, where Cam Newton will play in 2021, and what the Dolphins will do with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft.
There are six wild-card games for the first time. Which team is your pick to pull off an upset?
Mike Clay, fantasy writer: Titans (+3) over Ravens. Almost exactly one year ago, the 9-7 Titans went into Baltimore for the divisional round of the playoffs and easily handled the 14-2 Ravens by a score of 28-12. Earlier this season, Tennessee again traveled to Baltimore and beat the Ravens 30-24. This weekend, a Titans team that ended the regular season second in the NFL in offensive touchdowns is a home underdog against those very same Ravens. Baltimore leads the NFL in scoring differential and is peaking at the right time, but no one should be surprised if the Titans get the job done for the third time in a year.
Jeremy Fowler, national NFL writer: Rams (+4) over Seahawks. Sure, Russell Wilson is 5-0 in postseason home games, but this is the COVID-19 season. Home-field advantage is marginalized. The Rams should be able to keep this game low scoring like they did in the regular season, when they held Seattle to 36 total points in two games. Rams QB John Wolford will do just enough to update his LinkedIn profile with a playoff win.
Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: Washington (+8) over Buccaneers. I really wanted to go Browns over Steelers, but I’m worried Cleveland is too banged up on defense. Washington is incredible on defense and can create the kind of pressure on Tom Brady that could give him and Tampa Bay’s offense trouble. Five years ago, a 7-8-1 Carolina Panthers team coached by Ron Rivera beat an 11-5 Arizona Cardinals team coached by Bruce Arians in the first round of the playoffs. I’m just sayin’.
Mina Kimes, NFL analyst: Titans (+3) over Ravens. If Browns coach Kevin Stefanski and left guard Joel Bitonio were available this weekend, I’d pick Cleveland, but I think their absences will be too challenging to overcome. The Titans defense is the worst in the playoffs, but I think their offense is feisty enough to knock the Ravens — who have faced an easy slate as of late — off their game.
Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer: Browns (+6) over Steelers. I’ll probably kick myself for picking a franchise to win its first playoff game in 26 years during its first playoff appearance in 18 years, but I dunno. The Steelers haven’t looked right for more than a month and the Browns have been through the ringer over that period.
Seth Walder, sports analytics writer: Browns (+6) over Steelers. A couple of matchup factors have me leaning this way. Pittsburgh’s pass rush is scary, but Cleveland is well-equipped to counter it with its excellent pass-blocking tackles, plus a fairly high rate of play-action and designed rollouts. On the flip side: While Cleveland is hardly a dominant defense, it does run a high rate of zone coverage that has been a particular struggle for Ben Roethlisberger this season.
Field Yates, NFL analyst: Titans (+3) over Ravens. The Titans are one of two home underdogs, but it was no surprise to see the Buccaneers favored given Tom Brady and the NFC East. While home-field advantage has been mitigated this season, I’m still optimistic that Tennessee can repeat what it did a year ago in defeating the Ravens again on the back (or legs, I suppose) of Derrick Henry. Running back is a position where teams have been able to find reasonable replacement options when needed … Derrick Henry is irreplaceable.
Which quarterback is under the most pressure this weekend?
Clay: Mitchell Trubisky, Bears. Most of the quarterbacks playing this week won’t have trouble finding a starting gig in 2021, but Trubisky is certainly an exception. The former No. 2 overall pick is an impending free agent and is in the midst of an up-and-down season in which he was benched for a long stretch, but also one in which he showed well (albeit against a super-light slate of defenses) down the stretch. His performance against New Orleans this weekend could determine how Chicago approaches his future with the team.
Fowler: Josh Allen, Bills. Lamar Jackson is an obvious choice after back-to-back playoff duds, but Allen, Jackson’s draft mate from 2018, had some ugly moments in last year’s playoff loss to Houston. Allen followed Jackson’s MVP campaign with a monster season of his own, so let’s hold him to the same standards. Allen is out to prove he won’t crumble in a big moment.
Graziano: Lamar Jackson, Ravens. If he plays another poor playoff game and loses, this is all we’re going to hear about him for the next year. It’s unfair. He has proved too much for us to just discount him because of two (or three) bad games. But that’s the way it goes, and Jackson needs to deliver this weekend to start answering the biggest question people still have about him.
Kimes: Josh Allen, Bills. I imagine many people will point to Jackson, but expectations are higher for Allen — who also struggled in the playoffs last year — after he played at an MVP level down the stretch. The Bills can challenge Kansas City this season, but Mahomes won’t make it easy for him.
Seifert: Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers. Roethlisberger and the entire Steelers offense finished the regular season in a decidedly concerning way. His QBR ranked No. 21 in the NFL between Weeks 12-17, courtesy of a suddenly short passing game that saw him release the ball an average of 2.29 seconds after the snap — by far the quickest in the league over that period. Is that all the Steelers think he is capable of? If so, and if nothing changes in the playoffs, what should that say about his future as their 2021 starter?
Walder: Lamar Jackson, Ravens. In recent weeks Jackson has reminded the league that his upside is as high as anyone’s, even though Baltimore’s recent opponents — the Jaguars, Giants and Bengals — aren’t exactly stiff competition. Defensively neither are the Titans, who allowed the fifth-highest QBR to opposing signal-callers. So Jackson has a golden opportunity to put up a dominant performance in a chance to avenge last year’s playoff loss, but he has to seize it.
Yates: Lamar Jackson, Ravens. Jackson is going to have plenty of playoff success over the course of his career; he just hasn’t yet. As a result of that, he faces a unique pressure given his otherworldly accomplishments just three seasons into his career. The fact it comes against the opponent his Ravens team fell to last year only makes the storyline more compelling.
Give us a bold prediction for this weekend’s games that you feel strongly about.
Clay: DK Metcalf, who posted a dominant 83-1,303-10 receiving line during the regular season, will be a nonfactor against the Rams. As good as Metcalf has been in his breakout second season, the Rams’ defense has been better. They’ve allowed the fewest receiving yards (2,075) and touchdowns (seven), as well as the lowest yards per reception (10.6) to wide receivers this season. Shadowed by Jalen Ramsey during the better part of both meetings between these teams earlier this season, Metcalf posted receiving lines of 2-28-0 and 6-59-0, which includes a total line of 3-28-0 on 46 routes against Ramsey.
Fowler: Washington will give Tampa Bay all the smoke … and just might win. The NFC East is our favorite pinata, but Washington’s defense is a legitimate threat, allowing more than 20 points once since Week 6. Chase Young says he’s coming for Tom Brady and I believe him. If Washington can somehow stretch Tampa’s secondary vertically, that applies pressure on a Bucs team that might already be feeling some, due to Brady’s short championship window.
Graziano: The Ravens will beat the Titans by double digits. Tennessee plays basically no defense whatsoever. Baltimore is coming off a 400-yard rushing game. The Ravens feel good about where their offense is right now, and they should be able to get up on the porous Titans D early and run the game the way they want to run it. It doesn’t hurt that Baltimore’s secondary is as healthy as it has been in a while.
Kimes: Tampa Bay vs. Washington is the lowest scoring affair of the weekend. Sure, Tom Brady has been steamrolling opponents for a month now, but he has barely been bothered by opposing defenses. When Washington’s ferocious pass rush pressures quarterbacks, it hold them to the lowest yards per attempt of any team in the NFL. I’m not sure they can pull off the upset, but I think the Buccaneers offense struggles in this one.
Seifert: The outcome of a game (or games) will be heavily influenced, if not decided, by COVID-19 protocols. We saw infection rates tick up in Week 17, and not just from teams who were eliminated from the playoffs. Already we know that Buccaneers linebacker Devin White won’t be available for Saturday’s matchup against Washington. Contact tracing can also lead to players sitting out, via high-risk close contacts. After a season of last-minute roster shifts, it would be naive to think it would cease in the playoffs.
Walder: Tyler Lockett earns 150 receiving yards and at least one score. I’m piggybacking off Clay’s prediction with Ramsey shadowing Metcalf. In the midst of Metcalf’s breakout Lockett has been overshadowed, but I’m still of the belief he’s the best receiver on the Seahawks and one of the very best receivers in the league. Darious Williams is tough competition, but Lockett has a long history outperforming his expected catch rate and I think that will come through on a couple of deep throws.
Yates: Derrick Henry and Lamar Jackson will combine for 350 yards rushing. Henry is a locomotive and Jackson is a Ferrari, but while different stylistically, these might be the two most feared runners in the entire playoffs. Tackling Henry is a business decision, while being close enough to even reach Jackson to tackle him is a tall task; these two should dazzle this weekend.
Which team should sign Cam Newton in 2021?
Clay: Saints. Assuming Drew Brees moves on and with Jameis Winston headed to free agency, perhaps signing Newton to compete with Taysom Hill makes sense for New Orleans. At the very least, both rely heavily on their legs, which should make game-planning a bit easier in the event of a change under center.
Fowler: None. At least not as a priority at the top of free agency. Newton’s market spoke for him last year, in the form of a one-year, $1.75-million deal with incentives. He would have received way more than that if teams believed he was a high-level starter. But the injuries piled up, the play deteriorated and that showed in the Patriots’ 30th-ranked passing game. Maybe Newton waits this out and fills a need if a team has injuries at quarterback or seeks a stopgap option (the Saints could make some sense, playing behind Taysom Hill). But Newton’s days as a primary option might be over.
Graziano: Steelers. This assumes a lot of things, chief among them the fact Pittsburgh can’t bring Ben Roethlisberger back on his current contract. If Big Ben is gone, Newton could be a low-cost, high-upside option that allows the Steelers to hand out some of the big deals in store for their younger stars and also rebuild their running game with Newton as a major part of it. If Ben does find a way to return to Pittsburgh, he’ll be 39. He never has been a great bet to stay healthy all year, and Newton offers better insurance than do the Steelers’ backups of the past couple of years.
Kimes: Saints. I don’t think Newton will command very much, and New Orleans, which is as cap-strapped as ever, needs to bring in someone as competition for Taysom Hill. I could also see Newton as a backup in Pittsburgh, where he could build a case to compete for a starting job after Roethlisberger retires.
Seifert: TBA. I don’t say that to avoid an answer. I think the best option for Newton, in terms of getting on the field in 2021, is for it to work out the way it did in 2020. Let the quarterback market shake out in March and April, and then sign with a team that didn’t get what it needed or wanted. Maybe it’s a team whose starter gets hurt in the summer. But based on his performance this season, it’s doubtful anyone is going to jump in early.
Walder: Steelers. Working under the same assumptions Graziano mentioned above. Pittsburgh isn’t going to be in position to land one of the top quarterbacks in the draft, but also has a strong enough defense that it makes sense for it to bring in a quality veteran (and makes sense for Newton to join a team like that).
Yates: Washington. This would be a reunion with Ron Rivera and Scott Turner, who coached Cam in Carolina. While Washington does still have Alex Smith under contract for two more seasons, his salary is not guaranteed beyond this season. His return was one of the best stories in all of sports in 2020 and staying in Washington shouldn’t be ruled out, but likely it would come at a reduced cost. Newton isn’t in a position of leverage to command major money, but would represent a low-risk bridge option for Washington as it angles for its long-term option via the draft.
What position should the Dolphins address with the No. 3 draft pick?
Clay: Quarterback. You don’t have to agree with me on this, but I’ve always been in the camp of “if you’re not sure if you have a franchise quarterback, you don’t have a franchise quarterback.” From my perspective, we don’t know if Tua Tagovailoa is the answer, as he didn’t look the part and was benched multiple times as a rookie. Miami’s future looks bright after a 10-win season in Brian Flores’ second campaign, so it’s unlikely this franchise will be picking in the top five again anytime soon. If they aren’t convinced Tua is the franchise quarterback, they need to avoid sunk-cost fallacy and a trip to long-term quarterback purgatory.
Fowler: Quarterback. Key word is “address.” Miami needs to thoroughly evaluate the top quarterbacks in the draft, then weigh the pros and cons of not taking one and sticking with Tagovailoa as the unquestioned starter. Miami owes it to its fans and organization to at least do that. This is the one position where a surplus isn’t a bad thing. Keep drafting passers high if necessary. Tua might be the guy regardless. And if the Dolphins decide he’s better than Zach Wilson or Justin Fields or Trey Lance, then grab the offensive tackle or playmaking receiver Miami needs around him.
Graziano: Wide receiver. Miami is too smart and too circumspect to give up on Tagovailoa after nine starts. They always knew he’d need time, and there’s good reason to believe a real offseason program can help him make a big Year 2 jump. So could reuniting him with college teammate DeVonta Smith.
Kimes: Offensive tackle. If Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields is still available here, I’d consider drafting him, but I think Tua flashed enough in a difficult situation to try to build around him by bolstering the offensive line with Oregon’s Penei Sewell. I also think Miami should take a wide receiver early, and might be able to trade down a bit and grab Smith or Ja’Marr Chase from LSU.
Seifert: Offensive tackle. To be honest, you should never look to address a particular position at No. 3 unless it’s quarterback. There will be an elite-level player waiting for you as long as you’re not rigid on position. An argument could be made for taking one of the high-end receivers to give them more offensive explosiveness, but the likely availability of Sewell would allow them to elevate at a much more difficult position to fill with a really good player.
Walder: Quarterback. Tagovailoa still might pan out, but quarterback is too important for Miami to put all of its eggs in that basket, especially after he finished 26th in QBR and clearly did not earn complete trust from the coaching staff. Take a shot at whichever of the top three quarterbacks is left on the board while keeping Tagovailoa, at least for now. That way, Miami can maximize its chances of finding its franchise QB.
Yates: Wide receiver. I’m certain that there will be discussion in the media surrounding the idea of the Dolphins taking a quarterback and I’m certain the Dolphins will downplay any such possibility and thrust support behind Tagovailoa. A wide receiver would go a long way toward the evolution of this offense and there appear to be at least two — Chase and Sewell — who merit consideration.