It’s brutal to lose in the Divisional Round of the 2020-2021 NFL Playoffs — it leaves most of the teams that get eliminated with pressing questions. Questions ranging from easy ones (“How do we take the next step”) to difficult ones (“How do we keep the salary cap from tearing us apart next year?”) to downright existential ones (“Is everything we are trying to accomplish doomed to failure?”). The Baltimore Ravens, Los Angeles Rams, Cleveland Browns, and New Orleans Saints are grappling with those questions now that their 2020 seasons have come to a close.
Here’s an NFL Recap look at what lies ahead for the four eliminated teams from Divisional Round action that came so close to the Super Bowl, and yet are still so far away.
Editor’s note — bookmark the main page on Pro Football Network for all of Mike’s thoughts in the full NFL Recap beyond this Conference Championship preview!
The first eliminated team of the NFL Divisional Round: Los Angeles Rams
The Rams enter the offseason $22 million over the salary cap. Their in-house free agent list is led by top defensive backs Troy Hill and Darious Williams, both of whom will be expensive to keep. And the Rams lack a first-round pick because of the Jalen Ramsey trade (which feels like it happened two days after the Herschel Walker trade). Other than that, everything is peachy-keen.
The Rams will have trouble retaining second-tier in-house free agents like center Austin Blythe, receiver Josh Reynolds, or tight end Gerald Everett, let alone someone like Williams unless they perform some serious credit repair. Look for an offseason of restructured contracts, free agent departures, and very little good news as the Rams try to keep their playoff window from slamming shut.
The second eliminated team of the NFL Divisional Round: Baltimore Ravens
Lamar Jackson needs to become a more consistent passer outside the numbers. The Ravens’ offense needs a legitimate Plan B when they fall behind by more than a touchdown or when their option running game is bottled up.
And the whole team needs to find ways to avoid the type of catastrophic big-game failures that get them eliminated in NFL Playoff games. Red zone collapses, silly mistakes, and sudden reversals in which a long drive turns into seven points for the opponent have destroyed them.
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The Ravens must also keep daring to be different. They must avoid the trap of thinking that Jackson or their offense has some special deficiency that will doom them to playoff also-ran status. Jackson and the Ravens are easy targets for lazy skepticism because they are so unique. If Jackson were a pocket passer in a conventional offense, he could go 8-8 for years while facing only moderate criticism while earning dump trucks full of money to almost win Wild Card games.
The Ravens have quantitative problems, not qualitative ones. They are a few tweaks, not an overhaul, away from the Super Bowl. Fortunately, they are also one of the best organizations in the league when it comes to sticking to their long-range plan.
Sights set on next year: Cleveland Browns
Going from 0-16 to 11-5 is easy, especially when it takes three years to do it. Going from 11-5 to the Super Bowl is much harder because the Browns will be swimming against the tides of the salary cap, draft order, and a harder 2021 schedule.
Self-scouting is crucial for an NFL team at the Browns’ stage of development and eliminated in the Divisional Round. They cannot fool themselves into thinking that they are “one player away” or that further improvements will just happen automatically.
The Browns’ salary cap situation is pretty good. It’s about $24 million in on-paper space, much of which will likely be spent on extensions, even if the team takes another year to wait-and-see on Baker Mayfield (guard Wyatt Teller, for example, is in the final year of his rookie contract).
Extra third and fourth-round picks from past trades will help spackle some holes. And Odell Beckham returns next year, which is almost certainly a good thing. The Browns sorely need a receiver who can stretch the field, and Beckham is only about 15-20% as much of a loopy distraction as your father-in-law insists he is.
The Browns should be at least as good in 2021 as they were in 2020. That’s fine, so long as an organization with zero history of sustaining success realizes that any team that doesn’t get ahead in the NFL ends up falling behind.
Sights set on next year: New Orleans Saints
The Saints are an eliminated team, and will be up Schitt’s Creek the moment Drew Brees retires from the NFL. They’re so deep in cap debt ($95 million entering the 2021 offseason) that the whole team will have to live in a motel room in a Canadian countryside town full of quirky characters just to make ends meet.
The Saints face the greatest cap crisis in NFL history, and Recap doesn’t have the bandwidth or word count to dig into the macroeconomics of what they will have to do to field a roster next year. Let’s just say that we will get to see what the Taysom Hill/Alvin Kamara option package looks like when half of the remaining roster is earning the league minimum.