We’re used to seeing the Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints at this round in the playoffs. Not so much with the Cleveland Browns or Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Buccaneers are in the divisional round for the first time since 2002 after winning their first playoff game since beating the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII. The Browns have never been this far, at least in the current version of the franchise that came into the NFL in 1999. Last week’s win over the Pittsburgh Steelers was the first playoff win ever for the new Browns.
There’s some new blood in the divisional round but some old faces too. The meeting between Tom Brady and Drew Brees will be the first for two 40-year-old quarterbacks in a playoff game. It should be a fun Sunday of football.
Browns (+10) over Chiefs
This might be blasphemy, but is it possible the Chiefs aren’t as dominant as we have been led to believe?
The Chiefs have been living off one-score wins for two months. Since beating the Jets 35-9 on Nov. 1, here are the margins of victory for the Chiefs through Week 16: 2, 4, 3, 6, 3, 3. The Chiefs did not cover the spread once in that stretch. For comparison, the Bills won seven of their last eight regular-season games and every win was by double digits. The Ravens won their last five regular-season games and four were by double digits.
Double-digit wins are not the only sign of a good team. But usually, dominant teams aren’t playing nothing but one-possession games. The Chiefs were only sixth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. We have heard practically all season that the Chiefs are great and perhaps unbeatable, but there are reasons to believe they’re a little more vulnerable than you’ve been hearing. Bettors know this already.
The Browns come into this game with some confidence. They just slayed a few dragons, winning a road playoff game without head coach Kevin Stefanski, who was back at home due to COVID-19. The Browns have flaws. They rank 18th in FO’s DVOA, mostly due to a bad defense and poor special teams. But they have won a lot of games and can score, and they seem to be playing their best football.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Chiefs flipped a switch in the playoffs and put a huge number up on a questionable Browns defense. It’s possible they’ve been on cruise control for the second half of the regular season. We all know they have the talent to look great for the next three games. But it has been a while since we’ve seen the Chiefs truly blow someone out, and the Browns are getting a lot of points.
Saints (-3) over Buccaneers
Let’s get this out of the way: The adage that it’s hard to beat a team three times in an NFL season is false. According to Football Perspective, since 1970 there have been 21 instances of a team sweeping another in the regular season and having a third meeting in the playoffs. The team that swept in the regular season is 14-7.
When a team beats the other twice in the regular season, there’s usually a good reason. And the Saints had two dominant wins over Tampa Bay.
In Week 1, the Saints went out to a 24-7 lead over the Bucs and ended up with a 34-23 win. The rematch in Week 9 was one of the most shocking games of the season. On “Sunday Night Football,” the Saints led 31-0 at halftime. New Orleans let up in the second half and won 38-7, but anyone who saw the first half knew how one-sided it was.
Has that much changed? Antonio Brown has come alive for the Buccaneers, and that is a factor. Drew Brees missed time with 11 broken ribs and it’s fair to wonder if he’s truly 100 percent, but after a bad first game back his numbers look similar to his production pre-injury. Michael Thomas is back for the Saints. Alvin Kamara is still great. The Saints defense is underrated and matches up well against the Buccaneers.
The third meeting could be different. Tom Brady is having a fantastic season, they have seemingly endless playmakers on offense and the defense can get a rush on Brees. The Bucs have won five in a row and the offense has been great.
But these teams aren’t fundamentally much different than they were the first two times they met. And each time, the Saints were too much for the Buccaneers. And as we know, it’s really not that hard to beat a team three times in a season.
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