If an NFL team made it this far in the 2020 NFL playoffs, it’s safe to say that the organization made more good decisions than bad ones. But for any of the remaining eight teams in this weekend’s games, one change has played a far bigger role in success than any other.
From restoring a future MVP-level Hall of Fame quarterback to adding a groundbreaking receiver to a once conservative offense to transforming a team and culture with the signing of the GOAT, the choices made by these eight teams have paid off.
The NFL Nation reporters identified the most influential change each team has made to improve the mix for Super Bowl LV in Tampa, how it played out during the season, and what it means to go into the matchup this weekend.
4:35 p.m. ET Saturday on Fox
Priority out of season: Upgrade the defense. With two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and all-pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey, the 2019 Rams defense was good, finishing ninth on the defensive. But Ram’s trainer, Sean McVay, wanted the unit to be great and reach its full potential. He made the bold decision to move after three seasons from legendary coordinator Wade Phillips to hire Brandon Staley, a first-time NFL coordinator who had spent his last three NFL seasons as an assistant to defensive guru Vic Fangio.
How it went: The relatively unknown Staley is no longer anonymous after producing the best defense in the NFL in his first season. The Rams finished the No. 1 regular season in yards per game and points per game, and the unit scored four defensive touchdowns, the first to be equated in the NFL. Staley found a way to maximize the talent of Donald, who had 13.5 sacks in the regular season, and Ramsey, who joined Stefon Diggs, DK Metcalf, and DeAndre Hopkins. And he got the most out of every player on the defense, including several undriven freelance agents who earned starting roles and produced big numbers.
What it means against packers: Staley has coached the Chicago Bears’ backline players for two seasons and is no stranger to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Staley said this week that Rodger’s talent as a thrower and mover is evident, but what makes him special is his ability to hit you with his mind. Be sure to have Staley put together an innovative game plan that he has been creating throughout the season with a front that can generate constant pressure and a secondary that not only plays lockdown defense but also has the ball skills to get a To score goal. Few could have suspected that a McVay team’s identity would be its defense, but Staley’s unit will depend on it to score a division round victory. – Lindsey Thiry
Priority out of season: Bring Rodgers back to an MVP level. The Packers had a fun way of doing this by not only ignoring the receiver position in the draft, but also acting against Rodger’s possible replacement, Jordan Love, in the first round. At times for the last year, the Packers’ defense carried the team until it collapsed in the NFC title game when the 49ers ran over it. But the offense had to catch up and apparently needed more guns to complement recipient Davante Adams and run back Aaron Jones. Those at Lambeau Field football offices were hoping a second season in manager Matt LaFleur’s system would do the trick.
How it went: Whatever the reason, 37-year-old Rodgers has shown everyone that he’s not done yet – and far from it. Despite a virtual off-season and a shortened training camp, he and the Packers’ offensive started hot and never cooled off. Rodgers set a franchise record of 48 touchdown passes against just five interceptions. Adams became an all-pro. Jones produced 1,000 yards for a second straight season. The Packers found another legitimate weapon in their own home in Robert Tonyan. And then there were big enough pieces from others – Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard, Marcedes Lewis, Jamaal Williams, and AJ Dillon – to add the variety that was missing last season. Brian Gutekunst, general manager of Packers, relied on Rodgers and LaFleur rather than an influx of talent, and his gambling paid off.
What it means against Rams: That it is the number 1 of the Packers (30.8 points per game) against the number 1 of the Rams (18.1). The main fear for the Packers in this regard is in the foreground, where All-Pro not only has to attack David Bakhtiari (ACL) but also has to figure out how to neutralize Donald. But it’s not just Donald who dominates the front. Leonard Floyd, who tormented the Packers during his time with the Bears, joined Donald this season with double digit sacks for the Rams. – Rob Demovsky
8:15 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC
Priority out of season: Revise Defense Front Seven. The Ravens’ traditionally strong run defense cracked in 2019, especially after Derrick Henry of the Titans ran 195 yards against Baltimore in last year’s playoffs. So, the Ravens added experience and tenacity to the line of defense and put a speed boost in the middle of the defense. Baltimore traded for the defensive end Calais Campbell, signed the defensive end Derek Wolfe in the free agency and used his first round pick for middle linebacker Patrick Queen.
How it went: It has taken some time, but these off-season moves have been confirmed – by and large. In the regular season, the Ravens allowed an additional 15 yards per game, dropping from the NFL’s No. 5 running defense to No. 8. This was the result of Campbell’s handling of injuries and Queen suffering from mounting pain. But the front seven shone when it came down to it. In the postseason, the Ravens faced the Titans again, keeping Henry on the worst 40 meters of the season. Baltimore encountered Henry at or beyond the border on 11 of his 18 trages. Front 7 was built to stop Henry, and it did.
What it means vs. bills: The Ravens have shifted their focus from the 2020 Rushing Champion to an NFL MVP contender. Instead of trying to bring Henry down, Baltimore must find a way to bring Bill quarterback Josh Allen to the ground and stop him from extending the games. “I told the defense earlier, ‘We have to attack him like you attack Henry, because that’s how he goes,'” said Don “Wink” Martindale, Ravens Defense Coordinator. Allen lives against lightning and throws an NFL high 19 touchdown pass when teams send an additional defender. That means Campbell, Wolfe, and the rest of the defense front are under pressure to collapse the bag and not force Baltimore to lightning. – Jamison Hensley
Priority out of season: Simple: get more points. The Bills averaged a meager 19.6 points per game last season, largely due to the NFL’s 26th offense at 201.8 yards per game. General Manager Brandon Beane insisted on getting his team more guns out of Allen while the Bills continued to evaluate their potential franchise quarterback.
How it went: Beane took one of the biggest moves of the off-season on March 16 and acted for Diggs. The Bills also selected Gabriel Davis in the fourth round of the 2020 draft, but Diggs was an instant trailblazer. The former Viking spent most of the season at or near the top of the league’s rankings for receptions and receptions, finishing the season as the NFL leader in both categories. Diggs’ arrival enlivened Buffalo’s passing game, which jumped from 26th to third in 2020. As a result, the Bills owned the second best goal in the league with 31.3 points per game.
What it means against ravens: When these teams met last season, Baltimore’s aggressive defense prevented an already stagnant Bills offensive, which was only 209 meters in a defeat of 24-17. But Buffalo’s defense kept the Ravens to just 257 yards, which was a very impressive performance against the league’s secondary offense. With an offense of their own, the Bills are better equipped to counter Baltimore’s aggression, and Diggs’ presence should ease some of the pressures everyone is likely to face. – Marcel Louis-Jacques
3:05 p.m. ET Sunday on CBS
Priority out of season: Revise the line of scrimmage. The Browns had one of the worst offensive lines in the league last season, plaguing quarterback Baker Mayfield and Cleveland’s running game. Mayfield was fired more often per pass attempt than any other AFC quarterback after Deshaun Watson by the Texans. And as productive as Nick Chubb was in 2019, so much of his production came after contacting the shipyards.
How it went: New general manager Andrew Berry signed Pro Bowl right-back Jack Conklin and then drafted left winger Jedrick Wills Jr. with the 10th overall win. Wyatt Teller, who won the proper guard job mid-season, became Mauler that year. Conklin is an all-pro. Left security guard Joel Bitonio made a third straight Pro Bowl. Center JC Tretter never missed a game. And Wills turned out to be one of the best rookie performers in the class. As a result, the Browns ranked in the top 10 in both runblock and passblock wins all season.
What it means against Chiefs: When it’s 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 the way for Chubb and Kareem Hunt. When the Browns need to air it out to keep up with Kansas City, they can count on their passport protection. If they have to hit the ball with Chubb and Hunt to keep Patrick Mahomes off the field or to keep a lead, so can they. – Jake Trotter
Priority out of season: The Chiefs’ goal for 2020 was to “run back” in their words, which means repeating themselves 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 knocking out just before training camp started. Defensive tackle Chris Jones was the main player retained. Jones, who led the Chiefs in sacks in 2018 and 2019, was initially protected as a franchisee before signing a four-year deal worth $ 80 million that summer.
How it went: The Chiefs ended the regular season with an NFL best 14-2 record and as the AFC’s best playoff seed. They’ve got 10 straight wins, a streak that was abandoned in the final regular season game when they rested many of their regulars after losing to the Chargers. The Chiefs’ point difference, however, was 111, which is 74 points less than in 2019 when they were 12-4. Jones again led the Chiefs at 7.5 in sacks and was named a second team all-pro, a first honor for him.
What it means against Browns: The Chiefs seem a little tired because they are defending champions and every week they take every opponent’s best shot. The seven games before the loss to the Chargers were decided by six points or less, even though the Chiefs had won all of them. Perhaps the acquisition of a few veterans with a different perspective helped the Chiefs save much of the hunger that fueled their 2019 postseason run. – Adam Teicher
6:40 p.m. ET Sunday on Fox
Priority out of season: Solidify the quarterback position and reduce sales. In his first and only year on the Bruce Arians offensive, Jameis threw Winston for a league high of 5,109 yards and a franchise record of 33 touchdowns. But he also threw 30 interceptions. During his five years in Tampa, Winston threw 88 interceptions and had a total of 111 sales, both the most in the NFL from 2015 to 2019. It was unsustainable. The Bucs made a press in court to land six-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady.
How it went: Brady broke Winston’s franchise record with 40 touchdown passes, the second highest in the league behind Rodgers. His 4,633 yards were third in the league behind Watson and Mahomes. He also completely changed their culture (which wasn’t bad before) and took them to another level. Brady took them from a team that withered from falling behind in the Games into a resilient team that staged three comebacks in the fourth quarter. “I think a lot of that is his track record [with] The belief he inspires us all, “said Cam Brate after the Bucs hit a 17-0 halftime deficit in Week 15 to beat the Atlanta Falcons.” We saw him do it and we just have a lot of faith in him, and he puts that trust in us too. “Brady led the Bucs to their fourth season with eleven wins.
What it means against saints: The Bucs are 2-2 against the Saints this season, with their last loss in Week 9 being a 38-3 win. Since then, Brady and Arians, along with offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, have been able to bring their crimes closer together. They use more game action and pre-snap movement. Brady gets rid of the ball faster. Receiver Antonio Brown has become a focus of offense (the last time these two teams faced each other, Brown had trained for less than a week after not being in football for over a year). They also re-engaged in the running game and are better protecting Brady. The question will be their defense, which still has a tendency to give up chunk games and not consistently pressured the quarterback. – Jenna Laine
Priority out of season: The Saints did not need drastic changes after the 13: 3 in 2018 and 2019. However, her main need was to find another reliable recipient to complement Michael Thomas after catching an astonishing 119 more passports than any other Saint in 2019. That need became even more critical after Thomas sustained an ankle injury in Week 1 that sidelined him for nine games.
How it went: The Saints have signed veteran free agent Emmanuel Sanders, who was a perfect fit for him because of his experience, versatility and ingenious track running. And Sanders has proven to be a very good addition with 61 passes for 726 yards and five touchdowns in 14 regular season games. In hindsight, the Saints should have probably dipped into this year’s massive rookie class for even more recipient aid (with the 24th election, they were just two points away from breakout star Justin Jefferson, who went to the Vikings). However, they likely got a discount on Sanders in the free agency because so many teams looked at the receiver depth in the draft.
What it means against Bucs: The Saints’ offense is as deep and healthy as it has been since the 2017 playoffs. Thomas and recipient Deonte Harris returned from the injured reserve in time for last Sunday’s wildcard playoff win against the Bears, and Alvin Kamara was from reserve / COVID -19 list returned. Now they could get recipient Tre’Quan Smith back from his own ankle injury. The Saints don’t need Sanders to be a point of contact, but he can make the bucs pay if they focus too much on Thomas and Kamara. – Mike Triplet