The Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs is my favorite weekend in sports. And while Saturday was a little lighter on watchability this time around, Sunday certainly delivered the goods.
What did we learn from this two-day football feast? Who won the weekend? Which narratives blew up? Where do we go from here?
Let’s break it all down with a little fact or fiction, Schein Nine style:
1) Aaron Rodgers is the most talented quarterback ever.
It’s a fact. This guy’s absolutely surgical. He makes incredible, dreamy, “can’t believe he just did that” throws on a regular basis. He maximizes surrounding talent. And this is the best season of Rodgers’ iconic career, a take the 37-year-old QB agreed with when he joined me a few weeks ago on The Adam Schein Podcast.
This coming Sunday, for the first time ever, Rodgers will start a conference championship game in the friendly confines of Lambeau Field. Pretty wild, given everything he’s accomplished in a first-ballot Hall of Fame career, but flawed rosters have hurt his ability to get higher seeds (and thus, make more Super Bowls). Let’s concentrate on the here and now, though. Rodgers is in the midst of a jaw-droppingly special season, one that will earn him a third MVP award at next month’s NFL Honors. During the regular season, he led the NFL in completion percentage (70.7), touchdown passes (48, against a miniscule five picks) and passer rating (121.5). With another pair of touchdown passes in Saturday’s 32-18 Divisional Round win over the Rams, Rodgers has now thrown at least two TD strikes in his last eight playoff games, tying the NFL record. Rodgers’ connection with Davante Adams has been so electric this season that the receiver’s productive line this past Saturday (nine catches for 66 yards and a touchdown) feels underwhelming. And Matt LaFleur, who owns a 28-7 record (including the playoffs) in his first two seasons as an NFL head coach, clearly puts his players in positions to succeed.
Tom Brady is the greatest of all time. The dude has six rings, with a 14th(!) championship game appearance on tap. His numbers in the regular season and postseason are legendary. The fourth-quarter comebacks are special. He’s the G.O.A.T.
But the most talented quarterback ever is Rodgers, factoring in the stats and the eyeball test. He’s a magician with the football. And when Rodgers plays in Super Bowl LV, one day after nabbing the biggest individual prize at NFL Honors, there will be no debating his supreme talent. Shoot, there shouldn’t be any debate right now.
2) The Chiefs can beat the Bills with Chad Henne at quarterback.
I still cannot get over Henne’s late heroics in Sunday’s 22-17 win over the plucky Browns. With two minutes left and the Chiefs facing a third-and-14 while clinging to a five-point lead, the 35-year-old journeyman took off and ran for 13 yards like he was Patrick Mahomes. I still cannot get over Andy Reid having the guts to not only go for it on fourth-and-1 with the ball on his team’s side of the field, but to have Henne line up in the shotgun and throw a pass! The toss, of course, was completed to the impossibly quick Tyreek Hill, icing the game and sending the defending champs back to Championship Sunday.
All that said, though, this is fiction. The Josh Allen-led Bills are loaded, riding an eight-game winning streak that dates back to mid-November. Leslie Frazier and Sean McDermott’s defense was sensational Saturday night against Baltimore, holding Lamar Jackson and the Ravens to just three points. Mahomes is currently in the concussion protocol. No Mahomes on Sunday evening would equal no chance for the Chiefs. Honestly, with the way the Bills are playing dominant complementary football, I expect them to win no matter who’s under center for Kansas City.
3) The Ravens will be back in the Divisional Round next year.
This is a fact. Head coach John Harbaugh and general manager Eric Decosta run an excellent franchise. The players and culture are in place. COVID-19 hit the Ravens hard during the regular season before they got healthy and went on a dominant six-game run. On Saturday night, they just ran into an even hotter Buffalo team.
Going forward, Baltimore needs to get Lamar Jackson a true stud receiver. Free agent-to-be Allen Robinson would look great in a Ravens uniform …
4) The Browns finally have their franchise quarterback.
This is a pure, unadulterated fact. Baker Mayfield was great down the stretch of the season and tough on Sunday following a sensational wild-card performance against the Steelers. Mayfield’s third-quarter interception wasn’t good, but it was just his second pick in the past 11 games. Including the playoffs, Mayfield threw 30 touchdown passes against nine picks. And he’s set up to enjoy even more success going forward.
Mayfield now has his QB whisperer in head coach/play-caller Kevin Stefanski. Cleveland has a strong roster and a new identity. Baker is a big part of it. Keep the band together and let’s rock in eight months!
5) The Saints’ 2021 Week 1 starting QB is on their current roster.
I’m going to call this a fact, even if I don’t personally agree with some of the rationale. It sure seems like we just saw the last of Drew Brees, who has a nice NBC Sports gig awaiting his retirement. Sean Payton spent a lot of this season scheming around Brees’ obvious arm limitations, and it all came crashing down in Sunday night’s loss to Tampa Bay, as the freshly minted 42-year-old hurled three picks while managing just 134 passing yards. So, assuming Brees is done, what’s next for NOLA at the game’s most important position?
I think Jameis Winston should get a shot. And I thought that even before his trick-play touchdown pass on Sunday. Under Payton’s watchful eye, I think Mr. 30/30 can throw the ball to the right team and thrive. However, Winston’s contract is expiring, and Payton might think Taysom Hill’s the guy to take the reins. I don’t see it with the gadgety uber athlete. He’s a jack of all trades, not a starting NFL quarterback.
6) Cam Akers is the Rams’ best offensive player.
What a stud! No more committee backfield in Los Angeles. Rams GM Les Snead pilfered this cat in the second round last April, and the Florida State product spent the second half of his rookie season showcasing a fantastic blend of power and speed. Akers was an animal in his first postseason, too, racking up 221 rushing yards, 51 receiving yards and two touchdowns over the past two weeks.
Yet still, that statement is fiction. I would rank Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp (the latter of whom was clearly missed in Saturday’s loss to Green Bay) ahead of Akers in the Rams’ offensive pecking order.
L.A.’s season is over, but there is plenty of reason for optimism around this team going forward. With the best defense in the league and an offense featuring a bevy of prime playmakers, Sean McVay has a lot to work with. Does he have a quarterback, though? It most certainly raised an eyebrow on Sunday when McVay refused to fully endorse Jared Goff as the Rams’ guy for next season. And NFL Network’s Steve Wyche says the current state of the Goff-McVay relationship is “not great,” with a potential need for some “marriage counseling.” The plot thickens in Hollywood …
7) The end zone fumble resulting in a touchback is the worst rule in football.
I want to be clear that the rule is the rule, and the referees correctly applied it on a pivotal second-quarter play Sunday in Kansas City. Browns receiver Rashard Higgins did indeed fumble the ball before crossing the goal line, and once the ball went out the side of the end zone, the Chiefs possession at their own 20-yard line. That’s the rule. But it’s the worst rule in football — if not all of sports. So, yes, that declaration above is a fact.
The penalty doesn’t fit the crime. The fact that you lose possession and it’s a touchback on a fumble out of the end zone is beyond absurd. The Browns were en route to points — likely a touchdown — at the end of the half. The rule crushed them. It’s nonsensical and MUST be changed.
8) Buccaneers linebacker Devin White is a certified star.
Oh, you better believe it. It’s an undeniable fact. And this is why I had him as a first-team All-Pro on my AP ballot. It was beyond absurd that White didn’t make the Pro Bowl after stuffing the regular-season stat sheet with 140 tackles, 16 QB hits, 15 tackles for loss, nine sacks, four passes defensed and a forced fumble. And then, he was the best player on the field in Sunday Night’s 30-20 Divisional Round win at New Orleans. The guy was everywhere.
White missed the Bucs’ wild-card round win over Washington after testing positive for COVID-19. And yes, there was a tangible difference in how the defense looked in that playoff game vs. the most recent one. White and fellow inside linebacker Lavonte David are the heartbeat of this unit.
9) We’re getting the most exciting Championship Sunday possible.
FACT. Is it Sunday yet??!
Buccaneers at Packers. Bills at Chiefs. Tom Brady vs. Aaron Rodgers is an all-timer, as the first playoff meeting between these two iconic signal-callers. Josh Allen vs. (we hope) Patrick Mahomes is a battle between a couple of thrilling young quarterbacks with extraordinary skill sets, two of my top four candidates for both MVP and Offensive Player of the Year this season. This is a quarterback league, and at this moment in time, you couldn’t ask for more enticing QB matchups on a Championship Sunday. I can’t wait!
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