There are obvious narratives and storylines that emerge for every team still left in the 2021 NFL playoffs, and as we close in on the Divisional Round this weekend, it’s worth digging into what the biggest keys are for each club’s postseason success going forward.
Some of these subplots will be more obvious than others. Heck, you could just point to the quarterback situation for all eight teams and focus on that. While it’s unavoidable to do so in some cases, our breakdown of these fascinating storylines will also single out some unsung heroes and potentially fatal flaws for some of the teams still in pursuit of Super Bowl LV.
Biggest storylines in 2021 NFL playoffs Divisional Round: Rams vs. Packers
Los Angeles Rams: Brandon Staley is the new young genius in town
Instead of focusing on the either-way-underwhelming quarterback the Rams will trot out against the top-seeded Green Bay Packers on Saturday, how about focusing in on the biggest genius on Los Angeles’ coaching staff?
Sounds like a hot take or a serious stretch when the implication is Staley is superior to head coach Sean McVay. However, at least for now, Staley is a bigger reason for the Rams’ success than McVay, although the latter deserves a ton of credit identifying his first-year defensive coordinator’s talent.
Staley is the subject of head coaching buzz after LA’s masterful defensive effort against the Seattle Seahawks in a 30-20 win this past weekend. His unit carried over its elite form from the regular season to say the least, and closed much of the second half without superstar Aaron Donald, who’s dealing with torn rib cartilage.
It clearly isn’t just Donald or star cornerback Jalen Ramsey who’ve made the Rams a defensive juggernaut on their own. The collective effort has led previously unheralded players like Darious Williams to the spotlight.
For probable Packers league MVP Aaron Rodgers and his coach Matt LaFleur, they couldn’t have asked for a much greater challenge than going up against Staley and Los Angeles’ defense at Lambeau Field. While it remains to be seen how much the Rams offense can do, don’t be surprised to see Rodgers struggle as much as he has all season.
Green Bay Packers: Will the run defense show up?
Staley’s counterpart, Mike Pettine, has been scolded by the fanbase and outsiders in the past for the front seven’s lack of physicality. In last year’s NFC Championship Game, the San Francisco 49ers rolled Green Bay for 285 yards and four touchdowns on the ground en route to a 37-20 romp.
But thanks to Rodgers’ brilliance in 2020 and the fact that the Packers were playing from ahead so often to force opponents into obvious passing situations, this issue of run defense wasn’t as apparent. It’s a little alarming Pettine’s unit still yielded 4.5 yards per carry to opponents, and that the front office did little to address the problem in the offseason.
The good news is, there were some players in the pipeline who weren’t quite ready to contribute during the 2019 campaign who’ve stepped up this year. Rashan Gary is much more of a factor in Year 2, as is defensive tackle Kingsley Keke. The two combined for 11 tackles for loss and nine sacks, strengthening the front seven against the run and pass.
Plus, undrafted rookie Krys Barnes has emerged as a UDFA steal, ranking second on the team with 80 total tackles and 6.5 for loss.
Here’s where things get a little scary: In Pro Football Focus’ grades for run defense, none of those players between Gary (61.0), Keke (57.6) or Barnes (49.8) are particularly good at all. The splash, negative-yardage plays are there, yet the consistency is sorely lacking.
Considering Rams tailback Cam Akers just went for 131 yards on 28 carries versus Seattle, the Packers must consistently win at the point of attack. LA ranked 30th out of 32 teams in stuffed percentage on runs (19.3%), per Football Outsiders. That could bode well for Green Bay’s efforts to stop the run in the Divisional Round.
Biggest storylines in 2021 NFL playoffs Divisional Round: Ravens vs. Bills
Baltimore Ravens: Is Marquise Brown for real?
It’d be easy to dwell on Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson since he finally got the monkey off his back and won his first playoff game at age 24. All kidding aside, Jackson silenced the doubters who said he couldn’t come from behind or cut it in the postseason by rallying Baltimore from a 10-0 deficit to defeat Tennessee on Super Wild Card Weekend.
Lost in the electrifying play by Jackson, highlighted by his long touchdown run that completely changed the momentum, was how well “Hollywood” Brown played. The former first-round picked hauled in seven catches on nine targets for 101 yards, giving the Ravens a threat on the outside they haven’t really had during Jackson’s entire tenure.
Brown has game-changing speed and showed his ability to blow the top off the Titans defense. More than that, though, Brown took some short-area passes and racked up yards after catch for big gains. His prowess opened up Jackson to throw outside the numbers, and the signal-caller looked more comfortable throwing those patterns than in the past.
Baltimore offensive coordinator Greg Roman must keep coming up with crafty ways to get Brown the ball. He’s a threat to score any time he touches it, and is the type of weapon who could really make a difference in Saturday’s Divisional Round matchup.
As the Bills defense zeroes in on Jackson and his one-of-a-kind rushing ability, Brown has the skill set to really make life difficult for Buffalo. He must rise to the occasion, though, as he’ll be matched up with one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL in Tre’Davious White, and probably draw double coverage more than a few times.
Buffalo Bills: How far can Josh Allen carry the team?
Whereas Jackson has a stable of running backs who can eat up yardage on the ground to alleviate at least some burden on him in the ground game, Allen is the biggest rushing threat on the Bills, full stop.
Allen has made remarkable strides as a passer in Year 3, to the point where he’s considered a top-five quarterback at the minute. For all that progress, he’ll need to be just as effective as a runner against the Ravens in the Divisional Round if the Wild Card win over Indianapolis was any indication.
With Zack Moss out injured, the only proven running back on Buffalo’s depth chart is Devin Singletary, who’s seen his yards per carry dip from 5.1 as a rookie to 4.4 in 2020. It was Allen who led the Bills in rushing versus the Colts, racking up 54 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.
Granted, because Allen is so brilliant throwing the ball, there wasn’t much reason for Buffalo to establish the run. Indianapolis was also eating up the clock with long drives, somewhat forcing Allen to put the ball up, which he did with great efficacy in throwing for 324 yards and two scores.
Perhaps Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll will mix in some end around plays to Stefon Diggs to diversify the rushing attack. It’ll be key to start out strong, and the more Buffalo can keep Baltimore’s vaunted defense off balance, the easier it’ll be to build the early advantage at home and make Jackson play catch-up for the second straight week.
Given that the defense didn’t fare very well against an immobile Philip Rivers, though, the Bills’ fortunes are almost directly tied to how far Allen’s ascent goes. It may only be worth one playoff win at this point, but then again, Allen has surprised everyone at every turn in emerging as a true superstar.
Biggest storylines in 2021 NFL playoffs Divisional Round: Browns vs. Chiefs
Cleveland Browns: Numerous notables return from COVID-19
Who would’ve thought the Browns had it in them to go to Pittsburgh and go up 28-0 on the Steelers, with so many key players out due to COVID-19 protocols, along with several assistant coaches and head coach Kevin Stefanski?
It’s among the most shocking scenarios in recent NFL postseason history. Credit Cleveland for staying united, preparing as well as possible over Zoom and going into Heinz Field to absolutely stick it to a dominant AFC North rival in a 48-37 triumph for the ages.
Guess what? No one’s counting on the Browns to pull off another improbable win off that shocker in Pittsburgh. However, this Cleveland bunch has to feel much better about its chances with so many key pieces coming back for the Divisional Round.
In addition to Stefanski roaming the sidelines once more, starting cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson are due to be back. The same is true for three-time, second-team All-Pro guard Joel Bitonio, and the hope is right tackle Jack Conklin can go as he tries to rally back from a hamstring injury suffered versus the Steelers.
It’ll be far easier for the Browns to match up with Chiefs speedster Tyreek Hill now that Ward is coming back, and Johnson can help out Browns safeties and linebackers mark Travis Kelce when Kansas City’s legendary tight end splits out wide.
With the ability to actually practice this week and the chance to knock off the defending Super Bowl champions on the horizon, these Browns are truly dangerous. As long as quarterback Baker Mayfield doesn’t turn the ball over and Cleveland can establish the run with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt against Kansas City — Bitonio helps immensely there, too — there’s a chance Sunday’s showdown will be closer than many think.
Kansas City Chiefs: Will bye help Super Bowl hangover?
Let’s be clear: Usually, the narrative of a “Super Bowl hangover” comes from the team that loses, who usually takes a step back or several the following season. We saw it happen with the 49ers, more due to injuries than anything else, as they failed to make the postseason.
It’s not like the Chiefs had a bad 2020. They went 14-2 and rested their starters in a Week 17 loss. That said, they weren’t particularly sharp down the stretch. All six of Kansas City’s post-bye wins were by one possession, and Patrick Mahomes wasn’t playing up to the extraordinary standards we’ve come to expect from him.
This was all unusual, since Chiefs coach Andy Reid is famously great off bye weeks. Maybe KC just needed a break. Taking every team’s best shot as the reigning Super Bowl champions can’t be easy, and now, all of the Chiefs’ star players are plenty rested to begin their title defense in earnest.
No one is really expecting the Browns to come into Arrowhead Stadium and pull off an upset. Then again, Kansas City can’t take Cleveland lightly and expect to waltz to the AFC Championship Game. The Browns’ rushing attack and aforementioned returnees are going to make things more difficult.
Who has more talent than this Chiefs passing attack, though? Between Hill, Kelce and Mahomes, that’s enough to beat anyone. They’ve won a championship and nearly two with that trio before, so there’s little reason to believe Reid won’t have his guys ready to play the underdog Browns and advanced to the AFC title game.
Biggest storylines in 2021 NFL playoffs Divisional Round: Buccaneers vs. Saints
New Orleans Saints: Last game for Drew Brees?
Here’s where talking quarterbacks is inevitable. The Saints have been on the precipice of a new era at the most important position for a while now. By the time Sunday’s Divisional Round finale kicks off, Brees will have turned 42 years old, and if New Orleans comes up short, it’s very possible he’ll play his last NFL down.
Despite Tom Brady joining the NFC South in 2020, the Saints have had their way with Tampa Bay, crushing the Bucs in both prior meetings this season. Beating a divisional foe thrice, particularly one whose GOAT quarterback was adjusting to a new system on the fly after 20 years of the same scheme in New England, is tall a task as any for New Orleans.
Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles loves to blitz aggressively. There’s nothing he can throw at Brees that the Saints veteran hasn’t seen, so it’ll come down to execution, both in pass protection for blitz pickups and whether New Orleans’ pass-catchers can separate quickly enough on short routes.
Superstar receiver Michael Thomas is back in action and healthy for the first time almost all season for the Saints, so he’s an X-factor and a luxury Brees hasn’t been able to rely on as much of late. Thomas’ presence could be what helps the hosts push past the Buccaneers, as New Orleans’ perpetual continuity under Brees and head coach Sean Payton is rewarded with an NFC Championship Game appearance.
All that said, since Brady is almost definitely returning for Tampa Bay in 2021 and didn’t have the edge in terms of familiarity with his offense entering this season, all the pressure is on the Saints to deliver one final championship in the Brees era.
Does the aging passer have enough in the tank to get it done? Will Brees’ teammates hold up under such high expectations against such a quality, familiar opponent? You can see how easily Sunday’s game could swing drastically one way or the other under these circumstances.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Secondary will make or break playoff run
The Buccaneers’ front seven is excellent, even without starting nose tackle Vita Vea. Their problem has been the back end of the defense, which is strong on talent but short on experience. With so many green players roaming about, blown coverages and inconsistency have been prominent.
As mentioned before, Bowles likes to bring the heat, which puts a lot of pressure on his defensive backs. Rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. is an excellent run defender, and he and all the Tampa Bay cornerbacks are quite willing to step up in run support to make tackles. However, their execution against the pass leaves much to be desired.
Allowing an unheralded player with such limited offensive weaponry like Taylor Heinicke to sling it all over the yard during Super Wild Card Weekend was a huge red flag.
Heinicke hadn’t played in the NFL since 2018, and even the Bucs front seven, when they got pressure on him, couldn’t bring him down consistently and allowed Heinicke to run for 46 yards in addition to throwing for 306. If Tampa Bay can’t stop someone like Heinicke throwing to Terry McLaurin and few other viable targets, how does the team expect to do against Brees, Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Alvin Kamara and the Saints?
In two prior games against the Bucs, Brees has posted a 119.2 passer rating with six touchdown passes and zero interceptions, taking only two sacks. The good news for Tampa Bay is Brees averaged just 191 yards per game in that span.
Brady and the offense should be good to go, as they’ve been rolling since a late Week 13 bye. The big question is whether the Bucs’ back end on defense can hold up enough to keep Brady in striking distance.