The game-changing move that helped each NFL playoff team get here


If an NFL workforce has made it this far within the 2020 NFL playoffs, then it is secure to say the group has made extra good choices than dangerous. But for every of the remaining eight groups on this weekend’s video games, there’s one change that performed a a lot greater position in its success than some other.

From restoring a future Hall of Fame quarterback to an MVP degree to including a game-breaking receiver to a once-conservative offense to reworking a workforce and tradition with the signing of the GOAT, these eight groups’ choices have paid off.

NFL Nation reporters recognized probably the most influential change every workforce made that put it within the combine for Super Bowl LV in Tampa, the way it performed out through the season and what it means going into its matchup this weekend.

4:35 p.m. ET Saturday on Fox

Rams

Offseason precedence: Improve the protection. With two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey, the Rams’ protection was good in 2019, rating ninth in defensive effectivity. But Rams coach Sean McVay needed the unit to be nice and play to its potential. He made a gutsy choice to maneuver on from legendary coordinator Wade Phillips after three seasons and rent Brandon Staley, a first-time NFL coordinator who spent his earlier three NFL seasons as an assistant underneath defensive guru Vic Fangio.

How it performed out: The comparatively unknown Staley is nameless now not after he produced the NFL’s top-ranked protection in his first season. The Rams completed the common season No. 1 in yards allowed per recreation and factors allowed per recreation, and the unit scored 4 defensive touchdowns, tied for first within the NFL. Staley discovered a solution to maximize the expertise of Donald, who had 13.5 regular-season sacks, and Ramsey, who shut down Stefon Diggs, DK Metcalf and DeAndre Hopkins. And he introduced one of the best out of every participant on the protection, together with a number of undrafted free brokers who earned beginning roles and produced large numbers.

What it means vs. Packers: The exterior linebackers coach for the Chicago Bears for 2 seasons, Staley isn’t any stranger to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Staley stated this week that Rodgers’ expertise as a thrower and mover are apparent, however what makes him particular is his skill to beat you along with his thoughts. Watch for Staley to place collectively an revolutionary recreation plan, one thing he did all through the season with a entrance that may persistently create strain and a secondary that not solely performs lockdown protection however has the ball abilities to attain. Few might have guessed that the id of a McVay workforce can be its protection, however Staley’s unit will probably be trusted to energy a win within the divisional spherical. — Lindsey Thiry


Packers

Offseason precedence: Get Rodgers again to an MVP degree. The Packers had a humorous means of doing it, by not solely ignoring the receiver place within the draft but additionally buying and selling as much as draft Rodgers’ potential eventual substitute, Jordan Love, within the first spherical. At occasions final yr, the Packers’ protection carried the workforce till it collapsed within the NFC title recreation, when the 49ers ran throughout it. But the offense needed to catch up and seemingly wanted extra weapons to enrich receiver Davante Adams and working again Aaron Jones. Those within the soccer places of work at Lambeau Field hoped a second season in coach Matt LaFleur’s system would do the trick.

How it performed out: Whatever the rationale, the 37-year-old Rodgers confirmed everybody he is not accomplished but — and much from it. Despite a digital offseason and a shortened coaching camp, he and the Packers’ offense began scorching and by no means cooled off. Rodgers threw a franchise-record 48 landing passes towards solely 5 interceptions. Adams turned an All-Pro. Jones produced a second straight 1,000-yard season. The Packers discovered one other authentic weapon in-house in tight finish Robert Tonyan. And then there have been sufficient large performs from others — Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard, Marcedes Lewis, Jamaal Williams and AJ Dillon — so as to add the range that was lacking final season. Packers normal supervisor Brian Gutekunst guess on Rodgers and LaFleur quite than an inflow of latest expertise, and his gamble paid off.

What it means vs. Rams: That it is going to be the Packers’ No. 1 scoring offense (30.8 factors per recreation) towards the Rams’ No. 1 scoring protection (18.1). The largest concern for the Packers in that regard is up entrance, the place they not solely will not have All-Pro left deal with David Bakhtiari (ACL) but additionally should determine how one can neutralize Donald. But it isn’t simply Donald who dominates up entrance. Leonard Floyd, who tormented the Packers throughout 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 precedence: Revamp the defensive entrance seven. The Ravens’ historically sturdy run protection started to indicate cracks in 2019, particularly after the Titans’ Derrick Henry ran for 195 yards towards Baltimore in final yr’s playoffs. So the Ravens added extra expertise and tenacity to the line of defense and put a jolt of velocity within the heart of the protection. Baltimore traded for defensive finish Calais Campbell, signed defensive finish Derek Wolfe in free company and used its first-round decide on center linebacker Patrick Queen.

How it performed out: It took a while, however these offseason strikes have been validated — in a giant means. In the common season, the Ravens allowed 15 extra yards speeding per recreation, dropping from the NFL’s No. 5 run protection to No. 8. This was the results of Campbell coping with accidents and Queen experiencing some rising pains. But the entrance seven shined when it mattered probably the most. Facing the Titans as soon as once more within the postseason, the Ravens held Henry to a season-worst 40 yards speeding. Baltimore hit Henry on the line of scrimmage or behind it on 11 of his 18 carries. The entrance seven was constructed to cease Henry, and it definitely did.

What it means vs. Bills: The Ravens transfer their sights from the 2020 speeding champion to an NFL MVP contender. Instead of making an attempt to deliver down Henry, Baltimore has to determine a solution to get Bills quarterback Josh Allen to the bottom and cease him from extending performs. “I instructed the protection earlier: ‘We have to deal with him such as you deal with Henry as a result of that is the way in which he runs,'” Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale stated. Allen thrives towards the blitz, throwing an NFL-high 19 landing passes when groups ship an additional defender. That means the strain is on Campbell, Wolfe and the remainder of the defensive entrance to break down the pocket and never drive Baltimore to blitz. — Jamison Hensley


Bills

Offseason precedence: Simple: rating extra factors. The Bills managed a paltry 19.6 factors per recreation final season, principally as a result of NFL’s Twenty sixth-ranked passing offense at 201.8 yards per recreation. General supervisor Brandon Beane insisted on getting his workforce extra weapons round Allen because the Bills continued to judge their potential franchise quarterback.

How it performed out: Beane pulled the set off on one of many offseason’s largest strikes on March 16, buying and selling for Diggs. The Bills additionally chosen Gabriel Davis within the fourth spherical of the 2020 draft, however Diggs was a right away game-changer. The former Viking spent many of the season at or close to the highest of the league’s leaderboard for receptions and receiving yards, and completed the season because the NFL’s chief in each classes. Diggs’ arrival revitalized Buffalo’s passing recreation, which leapt from Twenty sixth to 3rd in 2020. As a consequence, the Bills’ owned the league’s second-best scoring offense at 31.3 factors per recreation.

What it means vs. Ravens: When these groups met final season, Baltimore’s aggressive protection stymied an already-stagnant Bills offense, which mustered simply 209 yards in a 24-17 loss. But Buffalo’s protection held the Ravens to simply 257 yards, which was a extremely spectacular efficiency towards the league’s second-ranked offense. With a high-powered offense of their very own, the Bills are extra geared up to counter Baltimore’s aggression, and Diggs’ presence ought to alleviate a few of the strain Allen is more likely to face. — Marcel Louis-Jacques

3:05 p.m. ET Sunday on CBS

Browns

Offseason precedence: Revamp the offensive line. The Browns had one of many worst offensive traces within the league final season, which plagued quarterback Baker Mayfield and Cleveland’s working recreation. Mayfield was sacked extra typically per passing try than any AFC quarterback after the Texans’ Deshaun Watson. And as prolific as working again Nick Chubb was in 2019, a lot of his manufacturing got here on yards after contact.

How it performed out: New normal supervisor Andrew Berry signed Pro Bowl proper deal with Jack Conklin after which drafted left deal with Jedrick Wills Jr. with the tenth general decide. Wyatt Teller, who gained the appropriate guard job halfway via final season, emerged right into a mauler this yr. Conklin is an All-Pro. Left guard Joel Bitonio made a 3rd straight Pro Bowl. Center JC Tretter did not miss a recreation. And Wills proved to be one of many high rookie performers within the class. As a consequence, the Browns ranked within the high 10 in each run block and move block win price all season.

What it means vs. Chiefs: When scorching, the Browns have proven they’ll rating with anybody within the NFL, thanks largely to an offensive line that may defend Mayfield and pave lanes for Chubb and Kareem Hunt. If the Browns have to air it out to maintain tempo with Kansas City, they’ll depend on their move safety. If they should pound the ball with Chubb and Hunt, both to maintain Patrick Mahomes off the sphere or maintain a lead, they’ll do this, as properly. — Jake Trotter


Chiefs

Offseason precedence: The Chiefs’ objective for 2020 was to, of their phrases, “run it again,” which means to repeat as champions with largely the identical roster that gained Super Bowl LIV final yr. The Chiefs introduced again 20 of their 22 Super Bowl starters, with two additionally opting out shortly earlier than the beginning of coaching camp. Defensive deal with Chris Jones was an important participant retained. Jones, who led the Chiefs in sacks in 2018 and 2019, was initially protected because the franchise participant earlier than signing over the summer season a four-year contract value $80 million.

How it performed out: The Chiefs completed the common season with an NFL-best 14-2 file and because the AFC’s high playoff seed. They ran off 10 straight wins, a streak that was snapped within the ultimate regular-season recreation after they rested lots of their regulars in a loss to the Chargers. The Chiefs’ level differential, although, was 111, which is 74 factors decrease than in 2019, after they have been 12-4. Jones once more led the Chiefs in sacks, with 7.5, and was named as second-team All-Pro, a first-time honor for him.

What it means vs. Browns: The Chiefs seem like exhibiting some fatigue from being the defending champions and taking each opponent’s finest shot every week. The seven video games earlier than the loss to the Chargers have been determined by six factors or much less, although the Chiefs gained all of them. Perhaps buying some veterans with a unique perspective may need helped the Chiefs retain numerous the starvation that fueled their postseason run in 2019. — Adam Teicher

6:40 p.m. ET Sunday on Fox

Buccaneers

Offseason precedence: Solidify the quarterback place and lower down on turnovers. In his first and solely yr in Bruce Arians’ offense, Jameis Winston threw for a league-high 5,109 passing yards and a franchise-record 33 touchdowns. But he additionally threw 30 interceptions. During his 5 years in Tampa, Winston threw 88 interceptions and had 111 turnovers general, each probably the most within the NFL from 2015 via 2019. It wasn’t sustainable. The Bucs made a full-court press to land six-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady.

How it performed out: Brady broke Winston’s franchise file with 40 landing passes, second most within the league behind Rodgers. His 4,633 passing yards have been third within the league behind Watson and Mahomes. He’s additionally utterly modified their tradition (which wasn’t dangerous earlier than), taking it to one other degree. Brady has reworked them from a workforce that wilted as soon as it obtained behind in video games to a resilient one, orchestrating three fourth-quarter comebacks. “I believe numerous it’s his monitor file [with] the idea he form of evokes in all of us,” tight finish Cam Brate stated after the Bucs overcame a 17-0 halftime deficit to defeat the Atlanta Falcons in Week 15. “We’ve seen him do it, and we simply have a ton of confidence in him, and he places that confidence in us as properly.” Brady led the Bucs to simply their fourth 11-win season ever.

What it means vs. Saints: The Bucs are 0-2 towards the Saints this season, with the latest loss a 38-3 blowout in Week 9. But since then, Brady and Arians, together with offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, have been capable of merge their offenses extra. They’re utilizing extra play-action and pre-snap movement. Brady is eliminating the ball faster. Receiver Antonio Brown has turn into a focus of the offense (the final time these two groups confronted, Brown had practiced for lower than every week after being out of soccer for over a yr). They’ve additionally recommitted to the run recreation and are defending Brady higher. The query will probably be their protection, which continues to be vulnerable to giving up chunk performs and hasn’t persistently pressured the quarterback. — Jenna Laine


Saints

Offseason precedence: The Saints did not require any drastic modifications after going 13-3 in 2018 and 2019. But their most obtrusive want was to seek out one other dependable receiver to complement Michael Thomas after he caught a staggering 119 extra passes than some other Saints wideout in 2019. That want turned much more important after Thomas suffered an ankle damage in Week 1 that sidelined him for 9 video games.

How it performed out: The Saints signed veteran free agent Emmanuel Sanders, who appeared like an ideal match due to his expertise, versatility and savvy route working. And Sanders has proved to be an excellent addition, catching 61 passes for 726 yards and 5 touchdowns in 14 regular-season video games. In hindsight, the Saints most likely ought to have dipped into this yr’s large rookie class for much more receiver assist (with the twenty fourth decide, they have been simply two spots away from breakout star Justin Jefferson, who went to the Vikings). However, they most likely obtained a reduction on Sanders in free company as a result of so many groups have been waiting for the receiver depth within the draft.

What it means vs. Bucs: The Saints’ offense is as deep and wholesome because it has been because the 2017 playoffs. Thomas and receiver Deonte Harris returned from injured reserve in time for final Sunday’s wild-card playoff win over the Bears, and working again Alvin Kamara was again from the reserve/COVID-19 listing. Now they could get large receiver Tre’Quan Smith again from his personal ankle damage. The Saints do not want Sanders to be a go-to man, however he could make the Bucs pay in the event that they focus an excessive amount of on Thomas and Kamara. — Mike Triplett



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