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NFL picks for the divisional round

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One game that figures to be similarly high scoring in this weekend’s second round is the matchup between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints at the Superdome. The Sunday evening game has an over/under total of 52, the second highest on the slate after the Chiefs-Browns game (56½).

Since 2002, playoff games played indoors have gone over the total in 22 of 34 contests (.647), including 10 of 14 times (.714) in the divisional round. Playoff teams coached by Sean Payton or Bruce Arians have gone over the total 11 of 18 times (.611), and when the two men have coached against one another in the regular season, the over has hit five of seven times (.714).

Here is how we expect this week’s playoff teams to fare against the consensus point spreads (as of Wednesday morning) from multiple sports books in Las Vegas.

Saturday

Los Angeles Rams at Green Bay Packers (-6½)

Pick: Green Bay Packers -6½

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers finished the regular season as the league’s most valuable passer, per ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating, giving the Rams’ defense a tough challenge. Los Angeles finished second in the NFL with 53 sacks, but Green Bay’s offensive line was rated as the second-best pass-blocking unit in the NFL by Pro Football Focus, allowing Rodgers to be pressured on just 24 percent of his drop-backs, the third-lowest rate during the regular season. And when Rodgers was pressured, he managed to throw eight touchdowns with just one interception.

Plus, Rodgers is a good bet coming off a lengthy rest. Since 2008, his first year as Green Bay’s starting quarterback, the Packers are 9-3-1 against the spread coming off at least 12 days of rest in the regular season and playoffs, covering by almost five points per game on average. However, don’t expect this one to go over the total (45½). Rodgers and the Packers have gone under the total seven out of their last 10 times in that situation.

Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills (-2½)

These teams last met during the 2019 regular season, a 24-17 Ravens win in Buffalo, and you can expect Baltimore to go with a similar defensive game plan this time around. Baltimore’s defense blitzed Bills quarterback Josh Allen on 32 of his 46 drop-backs, sacking him six times in that game. The Ravens led the league in blitz rate in 2020, bringing an extra man to pursue the quarterback 44 percent of the time.

However, Allen has improved significantly against the blitz this season, completing 66 percent of his passes and averaging 7.8 yards per attempt. His sack rate when blitzed has also plummeted from 10 percent in 2019 to four percent in 2020, including last week’s playoff win over the Colts. His passer rating against the blitz, meanwhile, has jumped from 78.4 to 111.6 in one season.

Sunday

Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs (-10)

Pick: Cleveland Browns +10

If there is one way Cleveland can exploit Kansas City’s defensive weakness, it is via the running game. The Browns ran for the third most yards in the NFL this season (2,374), and their leading rusher, Nick Chubb, led the league with 4.1 yards per carry after contact. His teammate, Kareem Hunt, tied for the sixth most yards per carry after contact (3.2). Chubb also led the league in the share of yardage earned on rushes of 15 or more yards (429 out of 1,065 yards, 40 percent). Kansas City, meanwhile, had the second-worst run defense during the regular season after adjusting for strength of schedule, per Football Outsiders.

Will the success of Chubb and Hunt be enough for Cleveland to win the game outright? Probably not, but it should keep Browns closer than 10 points.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints (-3)

Pick: New Orleans Saints -3

The Saints will be looking for a three-game sweep of their division rival after they beat the Buccaneers 34-23 at home in Week 1 and throttled them 38-3 in Tampa Bay in Week 9. In those two games, New Orleans held quarterback Tom Brady to 45 of 74 passing for 410 yards, two touchdowns and five interceptions. Brady had three interceptions without a touchdown in the second meeting, which came just as the New Orleans defense started to hit its stride.

Including that game, the Saints’ defense saved nine points per contest in the second half of the season based on the down, distance and field position of each play against them, per data from TruMedia. That was quite the turnaround, considering its defense cost New Orleans eight points per game over the first eight weeks of the year, which ranked 23rd.



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