January 05, 2021

Jon Ralph’s 2021 NFL Playoff Preview

JON RALPH

JANUARY 5, 2021

BAKER Mayfield’s technique is impeccable.

When the Cleveland quarterback shotguns a can of beer – as he did last year at an Indians baseball game in a scene that went viral – he barely spills a drop.

Those kind of madcap antics from the former No.1 overall draft pick could not be more contrasting to the fastidious, obsessive professionalism of the winningest quarterback in history.

And yet there was the swaggering Mayfield on Sunday, leading his Browns into the same playoffs as Tom Brady, as Cleveland snapped the NFL’s longest active playoff drought.

A team that went 0-16 three years ago might have needed rival Pittsburgh to rest QB Ben Roethlisberger but after squandering a 10-0 lead it was Mayfield’s critical third-down rush that finally sealed the deal.

The Browns survived an unsuccessful two-point conversion only moments before Mayfield’s run, only a week after losing their entire wide receiving corps through COVID issues.

In an insane season where those kind of setbacks have become a weekly event, the Browns are finally back in the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

Yet in a week 17 where seven of the 14 playoffs spots were up for grabs, Mayfield’s victory to set up a reprise contest against Pittsburgh might not even have been the most drama-packed contest.

In the final NFL home-and-away contest of 265 games for the season, tank-watch was alive and well.

Earlier in the day the New York Giants had taken care of business against Dallas in the abysmal NFC East and only needed a Philadelphia victory over Washington to seal the most unlikely of play-off berths.

Yet a Giants team that rebounded from a 1-7 start to the season watched on in horror as the Eagles, seemingly cruising to victory, instead attempted to preserve a No.6 overall draft pick instead of push for victory.

Head coach Doug Peterson benched quarterback Jalen Hurts when victory was within reach for the Eagles.

His replacement, third-stringer Nate Sudfield, stunk it up just enough to hand Washington (7-9) the division with a 20-14 victory that had Giants players enraged on social media.

Fair enough, although when you can only amass a 6-10 win-loss record like the Giants, your play-off hopes are a lottery.

A lottery is a perfect way to describe this season’s Super Bowl winner as the challengers are massing their forces after some crushing performances in the last week of the home-and-away season.

Green Bay sealed the NFC’s No.1 seed and pushed Aaron Rogers’ claims for a third MVP title with a 35-16 victory over Chicago that ensures their home-field advantage at Lambeau Field.

Rogers four-TD afternoon (giving him 48 for the season) wasn’t quite eclipsed by Buffalo’s Josh Allen.

Yet the Bills ended Miami’s playoff hopes and captured the AFC’s No.2 seed in a 56-26 canter where Allen notched the franchise’s passing record before being replaced in the second half with the victory in no doubt.

Tampa Bay did some tuning up of their own by capturing the fifth seed in the NFC with a 44-27 victory over Atlanta which saw Brady notching a franchise-record 40 touchdowns and 4633 yards for the year.

The Buccaneers can certainly reach the Super Bowl – especially as they start their playoffs campaign against a below-500 Washington, but a Mike Evans’ knee injury that saw him in a brace will be the injury every Tampa fan will be sweating over.

On a day that also saw the New York Jets fire coach Adam Gase – football’s most inevitable sacking in many seasons – the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens also secured wildcard berths with routine victories over Jacksonville and Cincinnati respectively.

So where does all of that leave us?

With Green Bay and Kansas City resting atop their conferences ahead of six playoff match-ups that mix the magnificent with the mediocre.

Sunday 5.05am (Australian time)

Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills

The trash-talking, hooting, hollering Phil Rivers has injected plenty of life in this Colts side after his previous life as a Chargers quarterback, yet the Bills are not only on a tear, they have been given permission for more than 7000 fans to attend the clash in Orchard Park, New York.

Allen, Diggs, Singletary, Beasley – the Bills just have too many weapons.

Sunday 8.40am (Australian time)

Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks

Without stud quarterback Jared Goff (out after thumb surgery), the Rams still won their way in against Arizona as stand-in quarterback John Wolford stepped up, but if Goff can’t return in time away from home the Seahawks will only strengthen their claims.

Sunday 12.15pm (Australian time)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Washington Football Team

Alex Smith might be the season’s best story after overcoming a flesh-eating bug and 17 surgeries after a badly broken leg, eventually leading Washington to a division victory despite only seven wins.

None of the feel-good vibes that come from that storyline will help overcome Tampa Bay, which might not be able to play wide receiver Mike Evans but has Antonio Brown finally developing synergy with Tom Brady after his mid-season signing.

Again, too many weapons and stout defence that will get it done even if Brady doesn’t.

Monday 5.05am (Australian time)

Baltimore Ravens at Tennessee Titans

Talk about a ground game feast.

In the victory that clinched their playoff berth, Lamar Jackson ran for 97 yards (and topped 1000 rushing yards for the season) as the Ravens pounded Cincinnati with 404 rushing yards.

Simply astonishing.

They take on a Titans side that had Derrick Henry top 2000 yards on the season in his final regular-season clash.

Both sides boast 11-5 records and the Ravens are the early favourites but if you have watched Henry in recent playoff games you know he can carry this Titans side on his shoulders.

Monday 8.40am (Australian time)

Chicago Bears at New Orleans Saints

Chicago couldn’t carry off the win-and-in scenario this weekend but still stumbled into the playoffs with an 8-8 record as results went their way.

Yet despite some ring rust Drew Brees has still shown enough glimpses on his return from a chest full of cracked ribs to have you confident he will still take care of business for a New Orleans side set to have Alvin Kamara available after COVID issues and Michael Thomas returning after a three-week break to rest his ankle.

Monday 12.15pm (Australian time)

Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh went 10-0, slumped, then found their range with a 12-4 record that would have been better had stars Roethlisberger, TJ Watt, Cam Heyward and Maurkice Pouncey suited up this weekend.

So it is hard to make a case that a Cleveland side that only won 24-22 this weekend with so many Pittsburgh stars resting can find a way home.

Yet Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt continue rumbling as a one-two running back combo and Baker Mayfield would have you believing he was born for these kinds of moments.

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