Somehow, some way, the NFL has converted one fourth-and-long after another across a treacherous 100-yard pandemic minefield. Now the pandemic playoffs begin on Saturday as 14 masked-up teams as desperate to stay socially distanced from a diabolical virus for the ages as they are to march toward Tampa and Super Bowl LV steel themselves for the ultimate game of “Survivor.”
Already the Browns, who haven’t experienced the playoffs since 2002, were punched in the solar plexus when coach/play-caller Kevin Stefanski and left guard Joel Bitonio were placed on the COVID-19 list and declared out for their wild-card showdown against the Steelers.
Here’s what the Serby Crystal Ball sees:
WILD CARD ROUND
Indianapolis Colts (7) at Buffalo Bills (2):
The pain from blowing a 16-point lead in an overtime loss to the Texans in last year’s wild-card round has driven coach Sean McDermott’s streaking division champions, and the 6,772 members of the Bills Mafia who will be allowed to attend.
Talented Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus has a fast unit that is adept at takeaways and stuffs running attacks, but his 18th-ranked pass defense will have its hands full with MVP-caliber dual-threat quarterback Josh Allen. He’ll need studs Darius Leonard and DeForest Buckner to make an impact.
Bills wide receivers Isaiah McKenzie and rookie Gabriel Davis will have to play a larger role for offensive coordinator Brian Daboll if WR Cole Beasley (knee) is limited or sidelined. Stefon Diggs and Xavier Rhodes feuded as Vikings teammates, and they might get reacquainted quickly.
This is Philip Rivers’ last desperate attempt to win that elusive first Super Bowl championship. He’ll need another 253-yard rushing day from rookie running back Jonathan Taylor behind bone-crunching guard Quenton Nelson, with Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White blanketing WR T.Y. Hilton.
Prediction: Bills 27, Colts 21. Buffalo’s first playoff win since the 1995 season.
Los Angeles Rams (6) at Seattle Seahawks (3):
If Jared Goff (thumb surgery) can’t go, Sean McVay will turn to John Wolford, who couldn’t even beat out Sam Darnold as an undrafted free agent in 2018 training camp. Either way, WRs Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp become devalued, and the Seahawks field the No. 5 run defense.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll’s defense needs safety Jamal Adams (shoulder) and defensive tackle Jarran Reed (oblique), who recorded two sacks in a 20-9 Week 16 win. When in doubt, let Russell Wilson cook against the No. 3 run defense, but if he again avoids throwing to DK Metcalf against Jalen Ramsey, he’ll need to hook up with Tyler Lockett. The Seahawks offensive line is back together for the first time since Week 14 to confront Aaron Donald.
Prediction: Seahawks 24, Rams 17. Russell Wilson finds a way.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4) at Washington Football Team (7):
Just don’t be expecting Bruce Arians to doug-pederson Tom Brady in the fourth quarter of a close game for Blaine Gabbert. Washington rookie defensive end Chase Young wanted the surging Brady, now he’s got him. WFT coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio boast a defensive line that might give Brady flashbacks of Super Bowl 42 against the Giants. And their secondary isn’t chopped liver.
Brady will be intent on getting the ball out quickly to Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown and old friend Rob Gronkowski. Even without rookie linebacker Devin White, Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles fields a No. 1 run defense that will slow RB Antonio Gibson and force Alex Smith to operate a one-dimensional offense under duress. Smith will need to get the ball to WR Terry McLaurin and tight end Logan Thomas. Rivera might rotate Smith and Taylor Heinicke? A Heineken or three is recommended for the WFT fan.
Prediction: Buccaneers 28, Washington 17. Brady will hope Bill Belichick is watching.
Baltimore Ravens (5) at Tennessee Titans (4):
Hide the women and children. A rematch of last year’s divisional round upset by the Titans in Baltimore, when Derrick Henry tumbled for 195 yards and they forced Lamar Jackson to play catch-up. Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams need to stand up to the bully. But it could be a case of picking your poison, with Ryan Tannehill targeting WRs A.J. Brown and Corey Davis — which is where outside linebacker Yannick Ngakoue, and CBs Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters need to make a difference.
The emergence of rookie RB J.K. Dobbins gives Jackson a partner in crime. Jackson is driven to win his first playoff game in three tries. His 46 touchdowns without an interception in the red zone speaks for itself, so beware TE Mark Andrews and WR Marquise “Hollywood” Brown. Placekicker Justin Tucker is a weapon.
Prediction: Ravens 30, Titans 24. A bloodbath to the end.
Chicago Bears (7) at New Orleans Saints (2):
The pass rush of Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano has slumped lately, and Drew Brees was sacked only once (Khalil Mack) in 41 passing attempts in the Saints’ 26-23 OT win in November in Chicago.
Nick Foles won’t be the opposing quarterback this time. That would be Mitch Trubisky, the one GM Ryan Pace favored over Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. Trubisky and WR Allen Robinson won’t have it easy against an elite secondary headed by CB Marshon Lattimore and S Marcus Williams.
Chicago RB David Montgomery faces the No. 4 run defense. Saints WR Michael Thomas (ankle) will be back following a three-week absence, and RB Alvin Kamara (COVID-19 list) is expected to be cleared. What Taysom Hill tricks might Sean Payton have up his sleeve?
Prediction: Saints 27, Bears 13. Brees (24 touchdowns, six interceptions), recovered from his 11 broken ribs and a punctured lung, begins a last Super Bowl run.
Cleveland Browns (6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (3):
The visitors have lost 17 consecutive times in Pittsburgh, not that Baker Mayfield cares about that. But he will care that Stefanski and Bitonio won’t be on the sidelines. Is Jim Brown available to call plays? Johnny Manziel, maybe? Good luck, Mike Priefer!
Myles Garrett keeps his helmet on but won’t have bookend Olivier Vernon (torn ACL) to hound Ben Roethlisberger. Beware Diontae Johnson, if he wipes the butter off his fingers, and Chase Claypool. When Mayfield isn’t trying to keep Big Ben on the sideline with a healthy dose of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, he’ll likely be targeting Steeler CB Cam Sutton, a likely replacement for Joe Haden (COVID-19 list). T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick are playmakers.
Prediction: Steelers 31, Browns 24. Big Ben and Mike Tomlin know how to win these games.
Baltimore Ravens (5) at Kansas City Chiefs (1)
The Chiefs own the No. 21 rush defense, which could spell trouble against Jackson if he can keep Patrick Mahomes on the sidelines. But the defending champs will be rested following the bye while the Ravens could be worn to a frazzle from the wild-card game. Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale couldn’t stop Mahomes (385 yards and four TDs) from outdueling Jackson (97 yards passing, 83 yards rushing) in a 34-20 Chiefs victory in September.
Prediction: Chiefs 30, Ravens 24: Kansas City coach Andy Reid is 5-2 after bye weeks in the playoffs and 18-3 in the regular season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4) at Green Bay Packers (1)
A rubber match between Brady and Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay RB Aaron Jones will have tough sledding running against this bunch, and the loss of elite left tackle David Bakhtiari (knee) could make Davante Adams less dangerous. A resurgent Packers pass rush, an arctic Lambeau Field and the brilliance of A-Rod make the difference.
Prediction: Packers 27, Buccaneers 24. Belichick exhales.
Pittsburgh Steelers (3) at Buffalo Bills (2)
Doubt that Juju Smith-Schuster will be dancing on the Bills logo this time. Leslie Frazier’s Buffalo defense stuffed James Conner (10-18 rushing) and intercepted Big Ben twice, one a pick-six by slot corner Taron Johnson, in a 26-15 home win last month. Tomlin would need Haden because Stefon Diggs (10-130 receiving) dominated last time.
Prediction: Bills 26, Steelers 24. Allen has his guys believing.
Seattle Seahawks (3) at New Orleans Saints (2):
Wilson threw for 406 yards and two TDs and rushed for 51 yards and two TDs in a 33-27 home loss early last season to the Teddy Bridgewater-led Saints. Adams gives the Hawks a growing Legion of Boom mindset and a swagger on defense. Rookie LB Jordyn Brooks could stalk Kamara. Trey Hendrickson and Cam Jordan bring the heat, but Wilson can still be Houdini.
Prediction: Seahawks 27, Saints 24. The last time Brees, Thomas and Kamara played a full game together came in Week 9. I see an upset.
Buffalo Bills (2) at Kansas City Chiefs (1)
Dream quarterback matchup. Last one with the ball wins. There goes Tyreek Hill. There goes Diggs. A no-look Mahomes pass to Travis Kelce. Anyone seen John Brown?
Prediction: Bills 35, Chiefs 33. Allen has the ball last.
Seattle Seahawks (3) at Green Bay Packers (1):
Eight years after the Fail Mary. A rematch of last year’s 28-23 Packers victory in the divisional round at Lambeau in which Davante Adams and Lockett were unstoppable. Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon give Rodgers the balance Wilson will not have. Adams better beware of Packers tight end Robert Tonyan.
Prediction: Packers 28, Seahawks 23. If it snows, advantage Rodgers. If it doesn’t, advantage Rodgers.
SUPER BOWL 55
Buffalo Bills vs. Green Bay Packers:
Jim Kelly shares a suite with Marv Levy and to the right sits Scott Norwood and his socially distanced wife. Rodgers quickly throws TD passes to Allen Lazard and Marques Valdes-Scantling, and Kelly and Levy are wearing that here-we-go-again look. But these Bills refuse to be haunted by their tortured Super Bowl history.
Allen responds with TD passes to John Brown and Dawson Knox before Rodgers finds Adams in the end zone. Allen yawns, and answers with a TD bomb to Diggs. Jones catches a TD pass. Allen ties it with a TD run. Mason Crosby boots a field goal. Last one with the ball wins. And it’s Allen — with a last-second, tackle-eligible TD toss to Dion Dawkins. Kelly is sobbing tears of joy.
Prediction: Bills 35, Packers 31. Wings for the Bills Mafia and a lifelong prayer answered.