L.A. Times’ Sam Farmer predicts winners in 2021 NFL wild-card games

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen scrambles against the New England Patriots in December.
The Colts need to keep Josh Allen from scrambling out of the pocket, one of the Buffalo Bills quarterback’s fortés.
(Charles Krupa / Associated Press)

L.A. Times’ Sam Farmer examines the wild-card matchups this weekend in the NFL playoffs. Last week 14-2 (.875) to finish the regular season 174-81-1 (.682). Using point spreads with the scores Farmer predicted, the record against the spread would have been 9-7 (.563) to finish the regular season at 131-119-6 (524). Lines according to

AFC: Indianapolis at Buffalo

Saturday, 10:05 a.m. PT, Ch. 2
Line: Bills by 6.5

Colts keys: Even if they don’t stockpile sacks, they can’t let quarterback Josh Allen beat them with his legs. … Try to control the clock and keep Buffalo’s offense off the field by running Jonathan Taylor. … Philip Rivers is the quarterback, but incorporate a package that takes advantage of Jacoby Brissett’s running ability.

Bills keys: Keep doing what they’ve done. Since their week off, the Bills have won by 10, 10, 11, 29, 29 and 30 points. … Force Rivers to beat you with his arm, instead of Indianapolis mounting long, clock-consuming drives. … If the Colts successfully contain Stefon Diggs, get the ball to John Brown and Cole Beasley (if he’s available). … Avoid turnovers and Buffalo wins.


Farmer’s pick: Whereas Indianapolis was up and down at the end of the season, Buffalo was a “Hail Murray” away from winning its last 10 games. The Bills are highly motivated, and their defense is playing better. Allen is the best player on the field. BILLS 27, COLTS 23

Rams Aaron Donald forces Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson into an incomplete pass during their game in December.
Aaron Donald (99) and the Rams defense need to be the difference makers in their playoff game against Russell Wilson and the Seahawks.
(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

NFC: Rams at Seattle

Saturday, 1:40 p.m. PT, Ch. 11
Line: Seahawks by 5

Rams keys: They have to be able to run the ball. Pete Carroll’s defense is going to sell out to stop the run, paving the way to cut loose the pass rushers as the game progresses. … Unless Jared Goff is 100% unhindered by his thumb, they have to be leery about playing him over John Wolford, because of Wolford’s ability to make plays with his legs. … Win the game with defense.

If Rams quarterback Jared Goff can take the field without unreasonably jeopardizing his future, he must play against the Seahawks in the wild-card game.

Jan. 6, 2021

Seahawks keys: No more worrying about risking Russell Wilson. Do whatever’s necessary to manufacture a time-of-possession and field-position advantage. … Wilson’s legs are more important in this game than most. … With Jalen Ramsey blanketing D.K. Metcalf, get the ball to Tyler Lockett.

Farmer’s pick: Seattle’s offense has cooled in the second half of the season, and injuries to Jamal Adams and Jarran Reed are troubling. The return of Andrew Whitworth and Cooper Kupp are key to Rams’ offense. RAMS 24, SEAHAWKS 20.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady walks off the field.
Washington’s defense will be tough on Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady (12), but the home team struggles to put points on the board.
(Mark LoMoglio / Associated Press)

NFC: Tampa Bay at Washington

Saturday, 5:15 p.m. PT, Ch. 4
Line: Buccaneers by 7

Buccaneers keys: They have to have a running game that keeps Washington’s pass rush at bay, and protect Tom Brady. … With Mike Evans hobbled, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown need to pick up the receiving slack. … Can’t do the three-and-out tango they’ve done against really good defenses. … Stay in third-and-manageable.

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Nov. 23, 2020

Washington keys: Win with defense. … They can’t put Alex Smith into situations in which he’s under duress. … Smith needs quick throws, perimeter screens, running backs catching balls out of the backfield and in the flat that are essentially runs.

Farmer’s pick: This is isn’t a great matchup for Brady, even with as well has he’s been playing the past eight quarters. Washington’s defensive front is ferocious. But Washington is going to struggle to move the ball against Tampa’s defense. BUCCANEERS 27, WASHINGTON 17

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson runs out of the pocket.
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson needs to throw less in rematch with Titans in the AFC playoffs.
(Patrick Smith / Getty Image)

AFC: Baltimore at Tennessee

Sunday, 10:05 a.m. PT, Ch. 7, ESPN
Line: Ravens by 4.5

Ravens keys: In last season’s playoff loss to Tennessee, Lamar Jackson threw 59 times. He needs to cut that total in half. … Ravens need to establish the run against a vulnerable Tennessee defense. … On defense, make the Titans earn it on the ground. Don’t give up big pass plays.

Titans keys: They need to protect their defense with their offense. … Shoot for 38 minutes of possession. … In last year’s first-round win against New England, Ryan Tannehill threw 15 passes and Derrick Henry ran for 182 yards. That’s how you protect your defense, by keeping it on the sideline.

Farmer’s pick: As well as Henry and Tannehill have played this season, that defense is a problem. Baltimore will play keep-away by grinding it out on the ground, and the Ravens exact revenge for last season’s playoff loss. RAVENS 31, TITANS 24

Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky scrambles against the Lions.
Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky needs to move to the edges to be effective.
(Duane Burleson / Associated Press)

NFC: Chicago at New Orleans

Sunday, 1:40 p.m. PT, Ch. 2, Nickelodeon, Amazon Prime
Line: Saints by 8

Bears keys: Get Mitch Trubisky outside the pocket and let him make some of the plays he’s made toward the end of the season. … Let David Montgomery run. … Don’t give Drew Brees a short field. Don’t let him throw 10-yard darts. Make him beat you throwing balls that travel 20-plus yards.

Saints keys: Keep Trubisky from getting to the edges. Keep him in the pocket. … Clamp down and play one-on-one on Chicago’s receivers. … Take away the running game and get Trubisky into as many third downs as possible. … If Saintsstruggle running the ball, weave in a Taysom Hill package to get an extra number in offensive arsenal.

Farmer’s pick: The Saints are 10 points better. Brees is far better and far more seasoned than Trubisky, and New Orleans is getting a ton of offensive weapons back. If the Saints play their game, they win going away. SAINTS 34, BEARS 21

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sets to throw.
If Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can complete some downfield passes, the Cleveland Browns will be in trouble.
(Jeffrey T. Barnes / Associated Press)

AFC: Cleveland at Pittsburgh

Sunday, 5:15 a.m. PT, Ch. 4, Telemundo, Peacock
Line: Steelers by 4

Browns keys: Put the game on the shoulders of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Two tight ends. Run like crazy. … Leave Baker Mayfield 20 passes, 15 of them out of play-action. … Like the Bears with Brees, Browns have to make Ben Roethlisberger beat them with passes over the top. Have to do that with an older quarterback who isn’t very mobile.

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Jan. 3, 2021

Steelers keys: They have to run the ball too. Having Roethlisberger throw 50 passes in that kind of weather, asking for every ball to be caught, is not a plan. … They need at least four explosive plays down the field (and Cleveland turnovers count as explosives).

Farmer’s pick: It’s tempting to take the Browns, but COVID has stripped them of players and their head coach. The excitement of getting into the playoffs could be an emotional drain too. Pittsburgh is more seasoned and hangs on. STEELERS 21, BROWNS 17