Instant Analysis from the first day of the NFL’s Divisional Round playoffs:
▪ It certainly wasn’t pretty, but the Bills made a big statement on Saturday night in their 17-3 win over the Ravens. The Bills absolutely are for real, and have a legitimate shot not only to make the Super Bowl, but win the whole thing.
Saturday’s game marked the second straight week that the Bills didn’t play their best, but still found a way to win. Last week, it was Josh Allen outdueling the Colts’ Philip Rivers. Saturday, it was the Bills’ unheralded defense shutting down Lamar Jackson and sealing the win with a 101-yard pick-six in the third quarter.
I’m not saying the Bills will win next week in the AFC Championship game, but they have all the pieces: An unbelievable quarterback in Allen, a smart, aggressive defense, and a fantastic coaching staff led by Sean McDermott and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.
The Bills improved to 15-3, won their eighth straight game, and snapped the Ravens’ six-game win streak. They are no fluke this year, and deserve to be one step away from the Super Bowl.
▪ Tom Brady and Drew Brees may have something to say about this, but the Packers have the look of a champion, as well. Saturday’s 32-18 dismantling of a solid Rams team was the Packers’ seventh win in a row and ninth in 10 games.
The Packers did everything on Saturday that championship teams need to do — moved the ball efficiently, finished in the red zone, avoided bad penalties and mistakes, and put the game away with a big touchdown in the fourth quarter. They shredded the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense, and looked smart and sound on both sides. They clearly used their bye week productively.
The Packers were well rested thanks to a first-round bye, and they will have the home-field advantage for one more week, against the Saints or Bucs in the NFC Championship game. They have a great quarterback, a solid run game, and a defense that is good enough.
At this point, it would be a major upset if the Packers aren’t playing in Super Bowl LV in three weeks.
▪ Aaron Rodgers is simply incredible. At 37, he’s still physically gifted enough to make awesome throws on the run, as he did to Robert Tonyan at the end of the first half. He’s still athletic enough to scramble for a touchdown, as he did in the second quarter, thanks to a great pump fake on Leonard Floyd.
And he’s an absolute maestro at the line of scrimmage. Rodgers once again used the quick-snap to catch a defense with 12 men on the field and hit a big passing play. He moved Davante Adams back and forth across the formation until he came open quickly enough to catch a 1-yard touchdown. Rodgers mixed the tempo to keep the Rams off balance, and checked the Packers into the right play all game long. Rodgers stole 3 points at the end of the first half with a great, last-second field goal drive, then led the Packers for a touchdown to start the third quarter.
Rodgers is probably going to win his third MVP award next month. He may be playing the best ball of his career.
▪ We may take the conference championship game for granted here in New England, but you’ve got to feel happy for Bills fans.
The last time the Bills reached the AFC Championship game was January 1994 against the Chiefs. The quarterback matchup that day was Jim Kelly vs. Joe Montana, who eventually gave way to Dave Krieg. Twenty-seven Bills players on the field Saturday night weren’t born yet, including Allen. The Bills won that game, 30-13, then lost their fourth and final Super Bowl to the Cowboys.
The Bills will play either the Chiefs or Browns next Sunday — a road game if it’s Kansas City, and a home game if it’s Cleveland. Suffice to say this will be the biggest game in Bills franchise history in 27 years.
▪ Saturday’s two games featured an interesting study in offense vs. defense, and offense scored a decisive victory. The Packers-Rams game featured the No. 1 scoring offense vs. the No. 1 scoring defense, and Bills-Ravens featured No. 2 vs. No. 2. Rodgers and the Packers shredded a wounded Rams defense, scoring points on their first five possessions and sealing the game with a 58-yard touchdown pass. The Bills gained just 220 yards against the Ravens’ stingy defense and the windy weather conditions, but still came away with a decisive win.
▪ No question, the Rams were in a tough spot on Saturday night, with quarterback Jared Goff dealing with a thumb injury, receiver Cooper Kupp out with a knee injury, and defensive tackle Aaron Donald (39 of 72 snaps, one tackle, one pressure) limited with a rib injury. They kept it competitive into the fourth quarter, but clearly didn’t have enough firepower on either side of the ball.
▪ The Rams had a good defensive strategy — they played back to prevent the deep ball, and begged Rodgers to hand off, taking it out of his hands. Rodgers was patient and took what he was given, and midway through the third quarter the Packers had 23 runs against 22 passes.
But the Rams didn’t get off their blocks up front, and the Packers methodically moved the ball down the field time after time. After the Packers’ third drive of the game, they had more first downs (14) than the Rams had offensive plays (13). The Packers combined for 188 rushing yards and two touchdowns on a 5.2 average, and Rodgers had an efficient day throwing the ball, finishing with 296 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions on 23-of-36 passing.
▪ Considering he was playing with a broken thumb and without his favorite receiver, Goff showed impressive toughness on Saturday night and acquitted himself well. Goff stood strong in the pocket and ripped several nice throws over the middle, hitting 18 of his first 20 passes, and finishing 21 of 27 for 174 yards and a touchdown. And he did it behind a shaky offensive line that allowed four sacks against a Packers’ defense that only blitzed eight times on 30 dropbacks.
The game had the making of a blowout, but Goff kept the Rams competitive by twice leading long touchdowns drives.
▪ Saturday night is not going to be good for Jackson’s reputation. Bills-Ravens was a tight one until Jackson threw a 101-yard pick-six late in the third quarter and then suffered a concussion on the next series, giving way to backup Tyler Huntley to finish the game.
The Bills did a good job of containing Jackson. They sacked him three times, held him to nine carries for 34 yards, and limited Jackson 14-of-24 passing for 162 yards and the interception, which was his second-career pick-six. The Ravens drove 66 yards in 15 plays over 8:48 on that drive, only for the Bills to come away with 6 points.
Jackson suffered bad playoff losses the past two years against the Chargers and Titans, and had another one Saturday to the Bills. Winning last week’s game against the Titans probably won’t quiet the chatter that Jackson comes up small in the postseason.
▪ Who needs to run the ball? Facing a stout Ravens run defense, the Bills only called one handoff on 26 plays in the first half, with Allen throwing 22 times, taking a sack and scrambling twice. The Bills finished the game with just nine carries by the running backs for 29 yards. Of course, the Bills only gained 220 yards and scored 10 points on offense, so maybe they should have had more balance on offense. But Allen is such a good scrambler, and so dangerous with his big arm, that it makes sense to put the ball in his hands as much as possible.
▪ The wind gusts in Buffalo wreaked havoc on the passing games and special teams. Neither Allen nor Jackson could push the ball downfield with accuracy. Ravens kicker Justin Tucker missed multiple field goals for just the fifth time in 154 career games (including postseason). Bills kicker Tyler Bass also missed two field goals, and the Ravens’ Sam Koch shanked a 23-yard punt.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.