Asking the N.F.L. Playoff Questions That Need Answers


To play football amid a pandemic, N.F.L. players worked from home a lot. They took coronavirus tests daily. And when they did report to team facilities, they were required to wear a mask.

It has been a weird season. And chances are it’s going to get weirder.

The playoffs begin Saturday, and even more than in years past, no one has even an inkling how they’re going to unfold. With an expanded 14-team field, consecutive triple-headers this weekend could compound the craziness and we’re still four-and-a-half weeks (hopefully) from the Super Bowl.

Below, we try to sift through the chaos and ask the questions that will define the upcoming postseason. We even try to answer them, too.

The Chiefs (14-2) have been the N.F.L.’s metronome in recent years — consistently scoring, winning, dazzling. But a recent disturbance in the force has stripped their sheen ever so slightly. Struggling to bury opponents as they did during last December’s surge, Kansas City — before its backups lost Sunday to the Chargers — won seven consecutive games by six points or fewer.

Alternately exciting and exasperating, overpowering and underwhelming, the Buccaneers (11-5) rolled into their first postseason in 13 years by winning their last four games, which just so happened to be Tom Brady’s best four-game stretch in Tampa Bay: He had 333.3 passing yards per game, 12 touchdowns, one interception and a 126.9 passer rating. That it all came against some of the league’s sadder defenses — Detroit, Minnesota and Atlanta twice — is irrelevant to the Buccaneers, who were just glad to see it. But now they must try to replicate that production against better competition.

And that is where Tampa Bay has struggled. Facing teams that made the playoffs, the Buccaneers went 1-5. In four of those losses Brady threw multiple interceptions, and in an otherwise impressive season — he threw for 4,633 yards and 40 touchdowns at age 43 — those were the only games in which he had more than one.

The Buccaneers’ roster — the linebacker trio of Shaquil Barrett, Lavonte David and Devin White hold down the defense while Brady has Antonio Brown, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Rob Gronkowski, to throw to — is loaded. So loaded that their performance shouldn’t be so volatile.

With the Bucs matched up with a 7-9 Washington team, not exactly better competition, maybe they won’t be. But speaking of Washington …

After the highest-scoring regular season in league history, teams’ playoff hopes hinge on how fast and in what volume they can put up points. The Rams, ranked 22nd in offense, matched the Bears in points, finishing ahead of only Washington among the playoff teams.

It’s ever more obvious that the Rams — after needing to beat Arizona in Week 17 just to secure a playoff spot — are as unbalanced as a weighted seesaw. A once-formidable offense has sputtered under Jared Goff’s command, placing the onus on the league’s stingiest defense — first in yards and points allowed — to drive Los Angeles’s playoff hopes.

Fortunately for the Rams, they face a familiar opponent in the division-rival Seahawks. Across their two regular-season meetings, they sacked Russell Wilson 11 times, and Ramsey — who allowed an absurdly low 20.6 yards per game in his coverage, according to Pro Football Focus — all but defused star receiver DK Metcalf, holding him to one reception for 11 yards on four passes thrown his way.

If the Rams beat the Seahawks and New Orleans defeats Chicago, Los Angeles would travel to play the Packers. Ramsey draping Adams, while Donald and his mates pester Rodgers — oh, what fun that could be.

Through nine games, a Seahawks team that once prided itself on its defense — that built its identity on it, that won a Super Bowl because of it — was winning even though that unit allowed an average of 30.1 points and 441.1 yards. A defensive turnabout began with a Week 11 victory against Arizona, and the Seahawks won six of their last seven games of the regular season by yielding the fewest points and third fewest yards per play over that stretch.

Was this simply regression? Or did Seattle fix what was broken?

Call it a patchwork fix. Carlos Dunlap, the defensive end Seattle added at the trade deadline from Cincinnati, had critical victory-sealing sacks against Arizona and Washington. Jamal Adams, a versatile safety picked up from the Jets in the off-season, helped too, by adding to the strong play from linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. Without question, the defensive improvement was real.

It just might not be permanent. With Adams and defensive tackle Jarran Reed injured, the defense’s overall strength will again be tested in the wild card game against the Rams. While the Seahawks would benefit if Rams quarterback Jared Goff can’t play, they could struggle to sustain pressure on opposing quarterbacks in the next round if they don’t get those key pieces back quickly.

From Leslie Frazier of Buffalo and Dennis Allen of New Orleans on defense to Eric Bieniemy of Kansas City and Arthur Smith of Tennessee on offense, numerous coordinators had an outsize impact on their team’s success. But none will be quite as vital these playoffs as Greg Roman of Baltimore, the mastermind behind the Ravens’ revived — and fearsome — offense.

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson called Roman’s offense “predictable” in mid-November, before the team lost three consecutive games. Roman recently said he hit “the reset button” after those losses, right before Baltimore thrashed Dallas in Week 13. Winning their last five games, a stretch that coincides with quarterback Jackson’s return from Covid-19, the Ravens lead the N.F.L. in rushing and rank second in points per game and yards per play.

A healthier and more stable offensive line has helped J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Jackson take advantage, especially on the outside, in a reconfigured run game.

Roman is familiar with resets. He was on Baltimore’s staff in 2018, when Jackson replaced the injured Joe Flacco and Baltimore reworked its offense on the fly. And as San Francisco’s offensive coordinator in 2012, when starting quarterbackAlex Smith got hurt midseason, Roman reimagined an offense that catered to Colin Kaepernick’s dynamism, helping the 49ers reach the Super Bowl.

The Ravens are peaking, but they are trailed by memories of what happened last postseason, when Jackson committed three turnovers in an upset loss to Tennessee — their opponent on Sunday. If Roman can help Jackson get the first playoff win of his career, the Ravens’ biggest win will have been changing the narrative on their ceiling.



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