Here’s what you need to know as Sunday’s action draws near:
BALTIMORE RAVENS AU TENNESSEE TITANS
Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET
What Vegas says: Titans +3 | O / U 54,5
Ravens: DE Yannick Ngakoue (questionable, thigh), CB Jimmy Smith (questionable, ribs / shoulder), WR Willie Snead IV (questionable, ankle), C Patrick Mekari (questionable, rear), RT DJ Fluker (questionable, knee), CB Marlon Humphrey (doubtful, shoulder)
Titans: Tennessee’s injury report did not include any designation for the game.
How they got here:
Ravens: A five-game winning streak to close the season and qualify in Week 17 made up for a botched November that cast doubt on the Ravens’ playoff hopes.
Titans: NFL leader Derrick Henry didn’t let a few mid-season stumbles stop him from running to the top of the AFC South (they also got a little help from their friends in Buffalo) .
Facing a familiar foe, Lamar Jackson seeks to rewrite his playoff history
Since Lamar Jackson took over the starting quarterback, Baltimore has been almost unstoppable in the regular season at 30-7. However, return-to-game playoff losses are starting to write a story Jackson is eager to change.
While his playoff record (0-2) and stats (5.5 sacks won, three giveaways, and just 14.5 points per game on average in those two games) aren’t exactly inspiring, it’s still about of a remarkably small sample. As far as storytelling goes, there’s no better team to claim your first postseason victory than Tennessee – the same team that ousted them in a surprise last January.
The racing game takes center stage
For the second season in a row, Derrick Henry is the king of the racing game in the NFL. He’s led the league in just about every category of running this season: carries (378), yards (2027), touchdowns (17), and runs over 20 and 40 yards. His 195 rushing yards against Baltimore in the surprise last January is the reason the Ravens tried to get stronger last offseason.
And yet, for the second season in a row, it’s not Tennessee at the top of the ranks, but Baltimore.
Jackson, the NFL’s fastest quarterback, ranks ahead of most teams’ RB1 in rushing yards and makes Baltimore a constant threat on the field. Bigmouth football fans will be in for a treat.
CHICAGO BEARS TO THE SAINTS OF NEW ORLEANS
Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET
What Vegas says: Saints -10 | O / U 47,5
Ours: ILB Roquan Smith (outside, elbow), WR Darnell Mooney (outside, ankle), CB Jaylon Johnson (questionable, shoulder), LB Josh Woods (questionable, toe and buttock), CB Buster Skrine (outside, concussion)
Saints: DE Trey Hendrickson (exterior, neck), G Nick Easton (exterior, concussion).
– Saints of New Orleans (@Saints) January 9, 2021
How they got here:
Ours: Boasting a widely open NFC, the Bears won Week 17 thanks to a loss to the Arizona Cardinals – a lucky break, as Chicago lost to the Packers.
Saints: The first team to secure their ticket to the playoffs in Week 13, New Orleans could also have remained in contention for the NFC No.1 seed if they hadn’t lost a botched game against the NFC. Eagles a week later.
The pressure is there for Trubisky, in more ways than one
Mitch Trubisky is no stranger to high-pressure gaming – the genre that comes with fighting for your job against a backdrop of fans ready to kick you out of town. But he’ll face a different kind of pressure in New Orleans this weekend, where he’ll be the target of an elite defense with 45 combined sacks and 18 league-leading interceptions this season. However, this defense will miss a key element because Trey Hendrickson, whose 13.5 sacks place him second in the league this year, has a neck injury. If Trubisky can play under pressure from the Saints, he might just – dare we say it? – do enough to keep his job.
Brees’ last chance?
The playoffs haven’t been kind to the Saints lately. An eternal best contender, Drew Brees & Co. has endured heartbreak after heartbreak on the big stage – the Minnesota Miracle, a blown appeal against the Rams – and after each we all wonder aloud if this was the last. Brees best shot to reach a second Super Bowl. With the strength of his arm a shadow of what it once was, the fate of this team rests on the healthy stars around him: Running back Alvin Kamara, whose COVID test positive last week has him put in doubt but should be allowed to play, and wide receiver Michael Thomas, who has spent the past three weeks in IR healing an ankle injury.
CLEVELAND BROWNS CHEZ PITTSBURGH STEELERS
Sunday, 8:15 p.m. ET
What Vegas says: Steelers -6 | O / U 47,5
Chestnuts: T Jack Conklin (questionable, knee and disease), DE Myles Garrett (questionable, shoulder), WR Donovan Peoples-Jones (questionable, concussion), DT Sheldon Richardson (questionable, neck), CB MJ Stewart Jr. (questionable, calf) ), G Wyatt Teller (questionable, ankle), CB Terrance Mitchell (questionable, not related to injury), CB Denzel Ward (questionable, COVID-19 / reserve), LG Joel Bitonio (outside, COVID-19), trainer- Chef Kevin Stefanksi (Out, COVID-19), DE Olivier Vernon (Out, Achilles)
How they got here:
Chestnuts: Well, it all started 18 years ago… But seriously: a nail against Pittsburgh in Week 17 saw them right off the ship for Cleveland’s first playoff spot since 2002.
Steelers: A loss for the Dolphins secured them a post-season spot even before hitting the pitch in Week 14, and the division title was theirs with a Week 16 victory over Indianapolis.
Rest could be the Steelers’ best defense weapon
The Steelers had the luxury of creating their own week off to close the season, resting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and defensive stars TJ Watt, league leader in sacks (15) and quarterback kicks (41 ), and the always dangerous Cam Heyward. Pittsburgh knows how to put the pressure on, leading the NFL in sacks (56) and steals (18) and holding their opponents to a low 56.7 completion percentage. The big question will be whether Big Ben’s resting arm can make the kind of big plays this attack needs. With an irrelevant running game – Pittsburgh’s 1,351 rushing yards and 3.6 yards per rushing this season ranks them last in the league in both categories – it will be up to him to take the victory through the air.
Browns will be browns attitude no longer applies
Earlier this week, Steelers wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster kindly provided the Browns with scoreboard material:
But here’s the thing: When you’ve had so many losing seasons and faced as many obstacles as the Brown, that scoreboard is already pretty full.
Obstacles are in full force this year – as they face the kings of AFC North, hated rival and toughest defense in the league – is a tough way to get into the playoffs for the first time since. 2002. What they need to do So without the head coach who guided them there and with just one in-person training after COVID-19 ravaged their roster and shut down their facilities, it looks like a hit cruel. But their strengths – a young team, a mobile QB, a racing game that ranks third in the championship – are too. Win or lose, let’s be clear: these are not the same old Browns.