2021 NFL Playoff Bracket Projection: First-round byes pay off as Chiefs defeat Packers in Super Bowl LV – CBS Sports


The NFL regular season is over, the playoff bracket has been established and we can now spend our time breaking down some matchups. While Super Wild Card Weekend is what’s on everyone’s minds right now, that won’t stop us from looking ahead and projecting how this bracket will play out. That’s what CBS Sports has charged me with, since they apparently want to see my name on the Old Takes Exposed Twitter account. 

There is plenty to examine when it comes to the playoffs this year, as just one team from each conference received a first-round bye due to the added postseason slots. Is that something that guarantees the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers a spot in the conference championship game, or will it even matter? Let’s go ahead and dive into this juicy bracket.  

All NFL odds are via William Hill Sportsbook.  

Super Wild Card Weekend

(7) Colts at (2) Bills: Sat. Jan. 9, 1:05 p.m. ET (CBS)

Latest Odds: Buffalo Bills -6.5

The Bills are seeking their first playoff victory since the 1995 season, as they have lost their last six postseason games. Last year’s was especially brutal, as they blew a 16-0 lead to the Houston Texans in the second half. This team is different, however, and a big reason for that has been the evolution of star quarterback Josh Allen. The Bills are the fourth team over the last 40 seasons to enter the playoffs on an eight-game cover streak. The three teams before them all covered the spread in their first playoff game and won by at least 12 points. Additionally, Indy has failed to cover in each of its last three games, which is the longest active streak by a playoff team. I’m going to go ahead and take the Bills to advance here. 

Projected score: Bills 31-24
The pick: Bills -6.5

(6) Rams at (3) Seahawks: Sat. Jan. 9, 4:40 p.m. ET (Fox)

Latest Odds: Seattle Seahawks -3

The Rams had a horrible showing against the Seahawks in Week 16 despite beating this team earlier in the year. Seattle is on a four-game win streak and also has a much-improved defense that has allowed just an average of 16 points per game over the last eight contests. That mark ranks best in the league. With Jared Goff’s status up in the air, I’m going to pick the Seahawks to win and cover. 

Projected score: Seahawks 24-10
The pick: Seahawks -3.5

(5) Buccaneers at (4) Washington: Sat. Jan. 9, 8:15 p.m. ET (NBC)

Latest Odds: Tampa Bay Buccaneers -8

Chase Young wanted Tom Brady, and he’s going to get him this weekend. The Bucs’ new quarterback is going to have his work cut out for him against this formidable defensive front, but can Young and Co. apply enough pressure to pull off the upset? Probably not, especially when you consider the fact that Washington will likely use two quarterbacks against Tampa Bay due to Alex Smith’s injury. While I have the Buccaneers winning this game, the spread is a different question. Brady has played horribly in prime time this year, so I’m leaning towards Washington covering.  

Projected score: Buccaneers 27-21
The pick: Washington +8

(5) Ravens at (4) Titans: Sun. Jan. 10, 1:05 p.m. ET (ABC)

Latest Odds: Baltimore Ravens -3

Since Lamar Jackson has recovered from COVID-19, the Ravens are 5-0 straight up and against the spread. During this streak, they have rushed for 1,337 yards — which is the most in any five-game span in the Super Bowl era. Last year in the divisional round, Tennessee upset Baltimore, 28-12, as a 10-point road underdog. The Ravens got a chance to exact revenge this year in Week 11, but instead fell 30-24 in overtime. The third time’s the charm, right? Here’s where I can see the first «upset» happening in the postseason.

Projected score: Ravens 34-27
The pick: Ravens -3.5

(7) Bears at (2) Saints: Sun. Jan. 10, 4:40 p.m. ET (CBS)

Latest Odds: New Orleans Saints -10

The Saints have had horrible luck in the playoffs, as they are 0-3 against the spread in the postseason over the past two years. Another thing they do not have going for them is that the Bears are .500. Since 2000, teams to make the playoffs at .500 or worse are a perfect 7-0 against the spread in their first playoff game. Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara will do enough to get out of Super Wild Card Weekend this year, but covering this big of a spread could be too much. Maybe we will see the Bears secure a backdoor cover. 

Projected score: Saints 30-24
The pick: Bears +10

(6) Browns at (3) Steelers: Sun. Jan. 10, 8:15 p.m. ET (NBC)

Latest Odds: Pittsburgh Steelers -6

The Browns lost to the Steelers by 31 points in Week 6 earlier this season, and then defeated Pittsburgh’s backups this past weekend by just two points despite being 10-point favorites. Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers may not appear to be the Super Bowl favorites we once thought they were, but they can handle Baker Mayfield and the Browns. Another reason I’m leaning towards Pittsburgh is because Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski, two other coaches and offensive guard Joel Bitonio and wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday. It’s wild, even when the Browns make the playoffs, they have to undergo a coaching change.*

*Joke courtesy of Ken Carman, CBS Sports Radio*

Projected score: Steelers 35-25
The pick: Steelers -6

Divisional round (Sat. Jan. 16 and Sun. Jan 17) 

(3) Steelers at (2) Bills

If the Steelers and Bills are not upset in Super Wild Card Weekend, then we will get the rematch head coach Mike Tomlin was probably hoping for. In December, Allen and the Bills handled the Steelers without a problem in prime time 26-15. Roethlisberger threw for just 187 yards while Stefon Diggs exploded for 130 yards and a touchdown on 10 catches. If you had to pick one team that posed the greatest threat to the Chiefs in the AFC, it would probably be the Bills. Everyone wants to see those two teams face off in the conference championship game, but I’m going against the grain on this one. I think that the Steelers exorcised some demons with their comeback win over the Colts in Week 15, and then giving Roethlisberger some rest right before the playoffs will surely help this team as well. Another AFC upset here in the divisional round. 

Projected score: Steelers 28-27

(3) Seahawks at (2) Saints

With Seattle’s improved defense and then the return of Michael Thomas for New Orleans, I think this divisional matchup is going to be much closer than people are expecting. I say this game comes down to the wire, but Brees leads a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter to advance to the conference championship game. 

Projected score: Saints 31-24

(5) Ravens at (1) Chiefs

Before I really dove into this project, I was looking at the matchups for Super Wild Card Weekend and found the Baltimore vs. Tennessee matchup very interesting. I struggled to pick a winner, but felt like the eventual victor could be a candidate to make a run at the AFC Championship. Then, I realized if there are no other upsets on the AFC side of the bracket, that the Titans or Ravens would be the highest seed, and would have to play the Chiefs in the divisional round! That’s a tragedy. 

These two teams faced off in Week 3, and despite the fact that the Ravens were favored, they were dominated, 34-20. Patrick Mahomes threw for 385 yards and four touchdowns, but it was the defense that really won the game for Kansas City. The Chiefs secondary held Jackson to just 97 passing yards and one touchdown, as they put the burden on him to throw accurately downfield, and he could not do so effectively. Expect the Chiefs to replicate that defensive game plan if these two teams face off during the course of the postseason. While I love this Ravens team and think that they have the potential to make a deep run, having to play the Chiefs in the divisional round is a nightmare scenario. 

Projected score: Chiefs 35-28

(5) Buccaneers at (1) Packers

This season, the Buccaneers went 1-5 vs. eventual playoff teams and 10-0 vs. non-playoff teams. The only eventual playoff team they defeated this year was actually the Packers back in October. It was a weird game, as the Packers jumped out to a 10-0 lead before the Bucs put together a 38-0 run in the second and third quarters to walk away with a win. Brady threw two touchdowns, but it was Ronald Jones who was the star, as he rushed for 113 yards and two scores as well. This could become a trendy upset pick in the divisional round, but the Packers will be fresh coming off of their first-round bye and will have thoughts of avenging that regular-season loss to Brady, while Tampa Bay’s offensive line will still be nursing some of the bumps and bruises they received from Washington’s defensive front. 

Projected score: Packers 24-21

Championship round

(2) Saints at (1) Packers: Sun. Jan. 24, 3:05 p.m. ET (Fox)

So my bracket in the NFC was pretty chalk, which is probably something I will come to regret. But the Saints and the Packers are the two best teams in the NFC in my opinion, and I’ll go ahead and predict they meet in the NFC Championship Game. These two teams actually met on «Sunday Night Football» back in September, and the Packers escaped the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with a 37-30 win. Aaron Rodgers didn’t even need Davante Adams, as Allen Lazard led all receivers with 146 yards and a touchdown, while Rodgers threw three scores. Brees also threw three scores but it was Kamara who kept New Orleans in the game, as he accounted for 197 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. Will the return of Thomas be enough for the Saints to change the outcome this time around, or are the Packers destined to go to the Super Bowl after coming so close last year? Unfortunately, I have Brees retiring without winning another Super Bowl, as the Packers get back to the big game. 

Projected score: Packers 30-23

(3) Steelers at (1) Chiefs: Sun. Jan. 24, 6:40 p.m. ET (CBS)

Pittsburgh finished the regular season with the fewest sacks allowed (14) and the most defensive sacks recorded (56), so this should be an interesting matchup when it comes to examining both sides of the ball. But with how inconsistent this Steelers secondary has been and with all of the weapons the Chiefs have on offense, it’s going to be hard not to choose Kansas City to repeat as AFC champions. The Chiefs enter the postseason as the favorites to win Super Bowl LV, and I have them at the very least repeating as owners of the conference.

Projected score: Chiefs 31-21 

Super Bowl LV

(1) Packers vs. (1) Chiefs: Sun. Feb. 7, 6:30 p.m. ET (CBS)

Articles will be written about the importance of securing the first-round bye in this new playoff structure heading into Super Bowl weekend, as I predict both teams that did not play in Super Wild Card Weekend will be playing in the final game of the 2020 NFL season. Both the Chiefs and Packers feature explosive offenses, which means it could come down to which defense finds the most success on Super Bowl Sunday. Matt LaFleur is on his way to a very, very successful NFL coaching career, but Andy Reid and Mahomes appear ready to repeat as NFL champs. 

Projected score: Chiefs 30-28 

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