NFL divisional round pressing questions: Is it disrespectful to compare Tom Brady to this version of Drew Brees?

1 – Is it disrespectful to compare Tom Brady to this version of Drew Brees?

You’ll see plenty of comparisons between Tom Brady and Drew Brees this weekend because both are 40-plus-year-old quarterbacks. They share space in that small, select group. However, that’s about where the comparisons should end.

One old quarterback is along for one last ride with the team he has captained for years. But Drew Brees isn’t driving that bus anymore.

On the other hand, Tom Brady is in optimal form and fully at the controls of the Buccaneers’ offense.

Whenever he gives up the ghost and we must do the career retrospective for Brady, folks will be shocked to see this was one of his best statistical seasons. Brady’s 6.6 percent touchdown rate is the highest it has been since he led the NFL with 7.3 in 2010. Despite not playing in an offense that features all the trappings of play-action, motion and all that other window dressing, Brady ranks fifth in EPA per play this season. He leads the NFL among starting quarterbacks with 9.3 air yards per attempt.

If you think Brady is a dead-armed old man living off the back of an elite supporting cast, you haven’t been watching the games. His arm is as alive as ever.

Brady’s first season with Tampa Bay reminds me of Brett Favre’s first season with the Minnesota Vikings. When you look back at Favre’s Hall of Fame career, his Year 1 in Minnesota stands out as one of his most efficient passing seasons. They’re different quarterbacks and it might have taken some time for Brady to get there, but just like Favre, the former New England Patriots quarterback looks as good as ever. He’s in complete control of an offense that boasts an embarrassment of riches in the wide receivers room and the group is just finding its footing. That’s terrifying.

Quarterback Tom Brady #12 and wide receiver Antonio Brown #81 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tom Brady and Antonio Brown are firing on all cylinders. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Favre’s journey in a new city didn’t end in a Super Bowl win. The Vikings eventually fell to the Saints in the NFC championship game. I’m not sure Brady lifts a Lombardi for Tampa Bay but I’m quite sure he makes it to the conference championship round, just like Favre.

For all the talk about how the Saints have beaten the Bucs twice already, we fail to realize just how different this Tampa Bay team is now. In Week 9, when the Saints roughed up their division rival to an embarrassing degree, you had Brady explaining to a newly acquired Antonio Brown which route to run before the play. Now, you have Brown looking like the always-open vertical threat of his Pittsburgh prime with five touchdowns in his past four games.

Brown is just one piece but his transformation from a potential offensive speed bump to the best third receiver in football is the story of this team. Everything finally clicked for Tampa Bay in the final two chapters of the regular season. The Bucs got hot offensively at the right time. If New Orleans can’t throw cold water on that blaze defensively, it’s hard to imagine its scoring unit keeping pace. And speaking of New Orleans ...

2 – What does this Saints team look like in 2021 — if they lose?

If the Saints indeed lose to the Buccaneers on Sunday evening, once again falling short of their Super Bowl glory, they could finally be staring down the wilderness. All the years of kicking the salary cap can down the road could at long last bring the chickens home to roost.

By all accounts, Drew Brees is hanging it up at the end of this playoff run. When it ends doesn’t seem to be of consequence. He has a job lined up after his playing days already and given how he has played this season, it makes no sense for him to play in 2021. Statistically, Brees’ numbers are solid but he has led a limited downfield passing offense and taken punishment in his 20th season.

According to Next Gen Stats, he’s outside the top-15 metrics in completion percentage over expectation, a metric he normally shines in. It sure looks like the end. It sure feels like the end.

Without Brees, the Saints may finally be forced to usher in a new era of New Orleans football. The problem is, the Saints are currently $95.1 million over the projected salary cap, per Over the Cap. That’s absurd. New Orleans is almost in double the financial hole as the second-place Philadelphia Eagles, who are at $51.7 million.

No team has massaged the cap like the Saints over the years. They’re always finding their way out of the mineshaft. This situation doesn’t need a massage, it needs full reconstructive surgery.

New Orleans has 45 players under contract for 2021. Brees’ retirement can give it relief. After that, everything is fair game. Perusing the Saints’ salaries, players like Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Demario Davis and a few offensive linemen look like they have contracts that are not cuttable. The Saints could theoretically open everything else up for discussion.

We’re talking about franchise greats like Cameron Jordan and Terron Armstead being looked at. Solid role players like Jared Cook or Marcus Davenport sent packing. It all seems extreme but this is the type of reaper set to haunt them at the end of this season. We’re talking about a $95 million hole, remember? Creativity and drastic thoughts will demand entertaining.

Fantasy managers and football fans alike have long sought the Drew Brees offense as a garden growing productive fruit (and countless entertaining shootouts). Come March 2021, we might not just be without Brees to tend the plants, we might see several roots ripped out around stars like Thomas and Kamara, ones who will make this once glorious greenhouse look more like an abandoned manor.

3 – Are Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen unguardable at their peaks?

It felt like we’d get more offensive action out of the Baltimore Ravens’ game last weekend given Tennessee’s defensive deficiencies. It was more of a slugfest than expected. Nevertheless, it looks like Baltimore could be headed into a shootout Saturday night against Buffalo.

It all comes down to the quarterbacks. Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen are completely unguardable at their peaks. They’re the nightmare fuel for defenses. These are the kind of players that even when the defense has the right answer to the question of “How do you stop them?” they can still end up being wrong.

For Jackson, it’s his rushing ability. Tennessee had a solid defensive gameplan against him. They did their best to keep Jackson in the pocket and dropped him for several crucial sacks. Yet, when Jackson gets free, it takes only two or three runs (like his 48-yard touchdown scramble) to break the dam open. No one flips a game on its head like Jackson. He’s fully unique.

With Allen, he’s now honed all of his skills to become a similarly uncontainable force. It was on perfect display against the Indianapolis Colts in the wild-card round. Allen’s scrambling ability is still lethal but he has more in his armory now. When a defense has his receiver locked up in the first few seconds of a play, Allen is now looking to ditch the pocket and get to the perimeter. For most passers, this is reckless because they’re bailing on half the field and making their own windows smaller. Allen isn’t “most passers.”

As you saw on his two pinpoint sideline throws to Gabriel Davis last weekend, Allen’s absurd arm strength isn’t about how far he can rifle the ball downfield. It’s about how he can laser a pass into the tiniest window with a razor-thin margin for error along with the final blades of grass at the sideline. Few, if any, other non-Mahomes quarterbacks can make those plays. Allen is now in that discussion because he has honed the cannon.

Two unguardable quarterbacks. Two athletes who open undiscovered territories for their teams. That’s the type of matchup we’re getting.

4 – Can the Rams’ elite defense stop the Packers’ elite offense?

The outcome of Saturday’s matchup between the Rams and Packers will be billed as a referendum on whether a great defense can beat a great offense in today’s NFL. And even if using a single game as a referendum on anything is short-sighted, at best, it’s easy to see why.

The Rams have the best defense in the NFL. The Packers have the best offense in the NFL. The story writes itself.

Make no mistake, these two units are indeed the cream of the crop. Los Angeles finished the season ranked No. 1 in Football Outsiders’ Weighted DVOA (accounts for recent performance) and just completely humiliated Seattle’s offense in the wild-card round.

It’s not a stretch to assert that the NFL’s best two defensive players reside on the Rams’ roster in Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. Coordinator Brandon Staley is on a career rocket ship after breathing new life into this stop unit one year after his hiring was met with a resounding “Who?” So many defensive coaches are recycled retreads, despite organizations turning over every stone to find innovation on the other side of the ball. Staley has been a reminder that we can breathe fresh air on defense as well. You just have to put some effort in.

On the other side of the ball, the Packers sport the NFL’s most efficient scoring unit. Green Bay ranks first in points per drive, first in drive success rate and second in offensive yards per drive. Aaron Rodgers is on his way to another MVP title. None of this information is surprising.

You can’t out-scheme Rodgers in this offense. It presents him too many options and his still-raging individual talent unlocks more answers from the Kyle Shanahan-style of attack than anyone else operating it in the NFL today.

The key for the Rams will be for a fully healthy (according to him) Donald to wreck shop up front and for Ramsey to neutralize the top receiving threat. That first thing is likely.

The second? Not so much.

The long list of players erased by Ramsey this season is impressive. But a player of Adams’ caliber isn’t on that list because Adams has been the best receiver in football this season.

As good as Ramsey is, he can be beaten. Every elite corner can lose a matchup to an elite receiver because offense dictates the action. No one dictates to a corner like Adams. As USA Today’s Doug Farrar points out, 101 of the 342 yards Ramsey has allowed in coverage in 2020 have come on curls and comebacks. That’s not ideal against a route technician at the mastery level of Adams.

Offense usually beats defense in this NFL era. If Adams can’t be contained Saturday, the Rams will lose the war before the first whistle.

5 – What is the Browns’ path to victory in Kansas City?

Cleveland has already outkicked even the most optimistic expectations for their 2020 season. There were some bold enough to proclaim them a possible playoff team with Kevin Stefanski running the show instead of the walking disaster of Freddie Kitchens. Almost no one projected them to take down one of the gold-standard AFC franchises once they arrived in the postseason.

Yet here the Browns stand, holding a ticket to the divisional round of the AFC playoffs. Cleveland can already proclaim this season as a win. But this group doesn’t strike one as ready to accept moral victories. It’ll want to move on to yet another round.

With each step of advancement in the playoffs, the rewards become less inviting. No one would be thrilled to draw a date with Kansas City as its compensation for its massive upset of the Steelers, but such is the nature of the playoffs. The Browns will take it.

The Browns (+10.5) are the biggest underdog on the slate. That’s what you’d expect. The Chiefs are a juggernaut and present a daunting matchup for a Browns team that has severe issues on the back end. Even if Denzel Ward returns from the COVID-19 list, Cleveland has problems.

The Chiefs lining up Tyreek Hill in the slot (where he has taken 58 percent of his snaps) should terrify this defense. Not only would he find coverage against the generous M.J. Stewart inside (76 percent catch rate allowed) but Hill would easily rip apart a slow pair of safeties. Hill could easily go nuts in this matchup, for those who are interested in paying up in playoff DFS.

The easiest way for the Browns to deal with this concern is, what’s typically the worst way to deal with a problem: Avoid it. Cleveland’s most realistic path to victory is by controlling the action and dictating the terms of the game to Kansas City. That’s exactly what it did in Pittsburgh last week. The offense must be hyper-efficient. Luckily, the elite running back duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt will operate against a Chiefs run defense that ranks 31st in DVOA, per Football Outsiders.

The Chiefs have largely been content to let teams run against them because they know there’s little chance you can out-duel Patrick Mahomes with a ground-first attack. That’s generally a good bet. However, the Browns are good enough as a rushing team that the Chiefs would be playing with fire in this approach. It’s a lot to ask Cleveland to take down the AFC’s newest boogeyman in Kansas City but if the Browns are to slay the dragon, it’ll be with Chubb and Hunt.

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