NFL playoffs – The game-changing move for every team chasing Super Bowl LV

NFL


If an NFL team has made it this far in the 2020 NFL playoffs, then it’s safe to say the organization has made more good decisions than bad. But for each of the remaining eight teams in this weekend’s games, there’s one change that played a much bigger role in its success than any other.

From restoring a future Hall of Fame quarterback to an MVP level to adding a game-breaking receiver to a once-conservative offense to transforming a team and culture with the signing of the GOAT, these eight teams’ decisions have paid off.

NFL Nation reporters identified the most influential change each team made that put it in the mix for Super Bowl LV in Tampa, how it played out during the season and what it means going into its matchup this weekend.

4:35 p.m. ET Saturday on FOX

Rams

Offseason priority: Improve the defense. With two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey, the Rams’ defense was good in 2019, ranking ninth in defensive efficiency. But Rams coach Sean McVay wanted the unit to be great and play to its potential. He made a gutsy decision to move on from legendary coordinator Wade Phillips after three seasons and hire Brandon Staley, a first-time NFL coordinator who spent his previous three NFL seasons as an assistant under defensive guru Vic Fangio.

How it played out: The relatively unknown Staley is anonymous no longer after he produced the NFL’s top-ranked defense in his first season. The Rams finished the regular season No. 1 in yards allowed per game and points allowed per game, and the unit scored four defensive touchdowns, tied for first in the NFL. Staley found a way to maximize the talent of Donald, who had 13.5 regular-season sacks, and Ramsey, who shut down Stefon Diggs, DK Metcalf and DeAndre Hopkins. And he brought the best out of each player on the defense, including several undrafted free agents who earned starting roles and produced big numbers.

What it means vs. Packers: The outside linebackers coach for the Chicago Bears for two seasons, Staley is no stranger to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Staley said this week that Rodgers’ talent as a thrower and mover are obvious, but what makes him special is his ability to beat you with his mind. Watch for Staley to put together an innovative game plan, which he proved to do throughout the season with a front that can consistently create pressure and a secondary that not only plays lockdown defense but has the ball skills to score. Few could have guessed that the identity of a McVay team would be its defense, but Staley’s unit will be depended on to power a win in the divisional round. — Lindsey Thiry


Packers

Offseason priority: Get Rodgers back to an MVP level. The Packers had a funny way of doing it, by not only ignoring the receiver position in the draft but also trading up to draft Rodgers’ eventual possible replacement, Jordan Love, in the first round. At times last year, the Packers’ defense carried the team until it collapsed in the NFC title game, when the 49ers ran all over it. But the offense had to catch up and seemingly needed more weapons to complement receiver Davante Adams and running back Aaron Jones. Those in the football offices at Lambeau Field hoped a second season in coach Matt LaFleur’s system would do the trick.

How it played out: Whatever the reason, the 37-year-old Rodgers showed everyone he’s not done yet — and far from it. Despite a virtual offseason and a shortened training camp, he and the Packers’ offense started hot and never cooled off. Rodgers threw a franchise record 48 touchdown passes against only five interceptions. Adams became an All-Pro. Jones produced a second straight 1,000-yard season. The Packers found another legitimate weapon in-house in tight end Robert Tonyan. And then there were enough big plays from others — Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard, Marcedes Lewis, Jamaal Williams and AJ Dillon — to add the variety that was missing last season. Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst bet on Rodgers and LaFleur rather than an influx of new talent, and his gamble paid off.

What it means vs. Rams: That it will be the Packers’ No. 1 scoring offense (30.8 points per game) against the Rams’ No. 1 scoring defense (18.1). The biggest fear for the Packers in that regard is up front, where they not only won’t have All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari (ACL) but also will have to figure out how to neutralize Donald. But it’s not just Donald who dominates up front. Leonard Floyd, who tormented the Packers during his days with the Bears, joined Donald with double-digit sacks for the Rams this season. — Rob Demovsky

8:15 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC

Ravens

Offseason priority: Revamp the defensive front seven. The Ravens’ traditionally strong run defense began to show cracks in 2019, especially after the Titans’ Derrick Henry ran for 195 yards against Baltimore in last year’s playoffs. So, the Ravens added more experience and tenacity to the defensive line and put a jolt of speed in the center of the defense. Baltimore traded for defensive end Calais Campbell, signed defensive end Derek Wolfe in free agency and used its first-round pick on middle linebacker Patrick Queen.

How it played out: It took some time, but these offseason moves were validated — in a big way. In the regular season, the Ravens allowed 15 more yards rushing per game, dropping from the NFL’s No. 5 run defense to No. 8. This was the result of Campbell dealing with injuries and Queen experiencing some growing pains. But the front seven shined when it mattered the most. Facing the Titans once again in the postseason, the Ravens held Henry to a season-worst 40 yards rushing. Baltimore hit Henry at the line of scrimmage or behind it on 11 of his 18 carries. The front seven was built to stop Henry, and it certainly did.

What it means vs. Bills: The Ravens move their sights from the 2020 rushing champion to an NFL MVP contender. Instead of trying to bring down Henry, Baltimore has to figure out a way to get Bills quarterback Josh Allen to the ground and stop him from extending plays. “I told the defense earlier: ‘We need to tackle him like you tackle Henry because that’s the way he runs,'” Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said. Allen thrives against the blitz, throwing an NFL-high 19 touchdown passes when teams send an extra defender. That means the pressure is on Campbell, Wolfe and the rest of the defensive front to collapse the pocket and not force Baltimore to blitz. — Jamison Hensley


Bills

Offseason priority: Simple: score more points. The Bills managed a paltry 19.6 points per game last season, mostly due to the NFL’s 26th-ranked passing offense at 201.8 yards per game. General manager Brandon Beane insisted on getting his team more weapons around Allen as the Bills continued to evaluate their potential franchise quarterback.

How it played out: Beane pulled the trigger on one of the offseason’s biggest moves on March 16, trading for Diggs. The Bills also selected Gabriel Davis in the fourth round of the 2020 draft, but Diggs was an immediate game-changer. The former Viking spent most of the season at or near the top of the league’s leaderboard for receptions and receiving yards, and finished the season as the NFL’s leader in both categories. Diggs’ arrival revitalized Buffalo’s passing game, which leapt from 26th to third in 2020. As a result, the Bills’ owned the league’s second-best scoring offense at 31.3 points per game.

What it means vs. Ravens: When these teams met last season, Baltimore’s aggressive defense stymied an already-stagnant Bills offense, which mustered just 209 yards in a 24-17 loss. But Buffalo’s defense held the Ravens to just 257 yards, which was a highly impressive performance against the league’s second-ranked offense. With a high-powered offense of their own, the Bills are more equipped to counter Baltimore’s aggression, and Diggs’ presence should alleviate some of the pressure Allen is likely to face. — Marcel Louis-Jacques

3:05 p.m. ET Sunday on CBS

Browns

Offseason priority: Revamp the offensive line. The Browns had one of the worst offensive lines in the league last season, which plagued quarterback Baker Mayfield and Cleveland’s running game. Mayfield was sacked more often per passing attempt than any AFC quarterback after the Texans’ Deshaun Watson. And as prolific as running back Nick Chubb was in 2019, much of his production came on yards after contact.

How it played out: New general manager Andrew Berry signed Pro Bowl right tackle Jack Conklin and then drafted left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. with the 10th overall pick. Wyatt Teller, who won the right guard job midway through last season, emerged into a mauler this year. Conklin is an All-Pro. Left guard Joel Bitonio made a third straight Pro Bowl. Center JC Tretter didn’t miss a game. And Wills proved to be one of the top rookie performers in the class. As a result, the Browns ranked in the top 10 in both run block and pass block win rate all season.

What it means vs. Chiefs: When hot, the Browns have shown they can score with anyone in the NFL, thanks in large part to an offensive line that can protect Mayfield and pave lanes for Chubb and Kareem Hunt. If the Browns need to air it out to keep pace with Kansas City, they can rely on their pass protection. If they need to pound the ball with Chubb and Hunt, either to keep Patrick Mahomes off the field or hold a lead, they can do that, as well. — Jake Trotter


Chiefs

Offseason priority: The Chiefs’ goal for 2020 was to, in their words, “run it back,” meaning to repeat as champions with largely the same roster that won Super Bowl LIV last year. The Chiefs brought back 20 of their 22 Super Bowl starters, with two also opting out shortly before the start of training camp. Defensive tackle Chris Jones was the most important player retained. Jones, who led the Chiefs in sacks in 2018 and 2019, was initially protected as the franchise player before signing over the summer a four-year contract worth $80 million.

How it played out: The Chiefs finished the regular season with an NFL-best 14-2 record and as the AFC’s top playoff seed. They ran off 10 straight wins, a streak that was snapped in the final regular-season game when they rested many of their regulars in a loss to the Chargers. The Chiefs’ point differential, though, was 111, which is 74 points lower than in 2019, when they were 12-4. Jones again led the Chiefs in sacks, with 7.5, and was named as a second-team All-Pro, a first-time honor for him.

What it means vs. Browns: The Chiefs appear to be showing some fatigue from being the defending champions and taking every opponent’s best shot each week. The seven games before the loss to the Chargers were decided by six points or less, though the Chiefs won all of them. Perhaps acquiring some veterans with a different perspective might have helped the Chiefs retain a lot of the hunger that fueled their postseason run in 2019. — Adam Teicher

6:40 p.m. ET Sunday on FOX

Buccaneers

Offseason priority: Solidify the quarterback position and cut down on turnovers. In his first and only year in Bruce Arians’ offense, Jameis Winston threw for a league-high 5,109 passing yards and a franchise-record 33 touchdowns. But he also threw 30 interceptions. During his five years in Tampa, Winston threw 88 interceptions and had 111 turnovers overall, both the most in the NFL from 2015 through 2019. It wasn’t sustainable. The Bucs made a full-court press to land six-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady.

How it played out: Brady broke Winston’s franchise record with 40 touchdown passes, second-most in the league behind only Rodgers. His 4,633 passing yards were third-most in the league behind Watson and Mahomes. He’s also completely changed their culture (which wasn’t bad before), taking it to another level. Brady has transformed them from a team that wilted once it got behind in games to a resilient one, orchestrating three fourth-quarter comebacks. “I think a lot of it is his track record [with] the belief he kind of inspires in all of us,” tight end Cam Brate said after they overcame a 17-0 halftime deficit to defeat the Atlanta Falcons in Week 15. “We’ve seen him do it and we just have a ton of confidence in him and he puts that confidence in us, as well.” Brady led the Bucs to just their fourth 11-win season ever.

What it means vs. Saints: The Bucs are 0-2 against the Saints this season, with the most recent loss a 38-3 blowout in Week 9. But since then, Brady and Arians, along with offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, have been able to merge their offenses more. They’re using more play-action and pre-snap motion. Brady is getting rid of the ball quicker. Receiver Antonio Brown has become a focal point of the offense (the last time these two teams faced, Brown had practiced for less than a week after being out of football for over a year). They’ve also recommitted to the run game and are better protecting Brady. The question will be their defense, which is still prone to giving up chunk plays and hasn’t consistently pressured the quarterback. — Jenna Laine


Saints

Offseason priority: The Saints didn’t require any drastic changes after going 13-3 in 2018 and 2019. But their most glaring need was to find another reliable receiver to supplement Michael Thomas after he caught a staggering 119 more passes than any other Saints wideout in 2019. That need became even more critical after Thomas suffered an ankle injury in Week 1 that sidelined him for nine games.

How it played out: The Saints signed veteran free agent Emmanuel Sanders, who seemed like a perfect fit because of his experience, versatility and savvy route running. And Sanders has proven to be a very good addition, catching 61 passes for 726 yards and five touchdowns in 14 regular-season games. In hindsight, the Saints probably should have dipped into this year’s tremendous rookie class for even more receiver help (with the 24th pick, they were just two spots away from breakout star Justin Jefferson, who went to the Vikings). However, they probably got a discount on Sanders in free agency because so many teams were looking ahead to the receiver depth in the draft.

What it means vs. Bucs: The Saints’ offense is deeper and healthier now than it has been since the 2017 playoffs. Thomas and receiver Deonte Harris returned from injured reserve in time for last Sunday’s wild-card playoff win over the Bears, and running back Alvin Kamara was back from the reserve/COVID-19 list. Now they might get wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith back from his own ankle injury, as well. The Saints don’t need Sanders to be a go-to guy, but he can make the Bucs pay if they focus too much on Thomas and Kamara. — Mike Triplett



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