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Eight big questions for the divisional round of the NFL playoffs

Can Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers conquer the Rams’ shutdown defense? (Michael Conroy/AP)
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The age difference among quarterbacks in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs is remarkable. NFC quarterbacks average 36.8 years old. Tom Brady is 43. Drew Brees is 41. Aaron Rodgers is 37. Jared Goff is 26. They have been to a combined 12 Super Bowls. Their combined records in the playoffs are 53-30.

In the AFC, it’s a different story. Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield are 25. Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson are 24. Mayfield, Jackson and Allen earned their first playoff victories this past weekend. Even Mahomes, the reigning Super Bowl MVP, will be starting only his sixth playoff game this weekend.

Those eight quarterbacks are at the center of many of our key questions for the divisional round, which begins Saturday afternoon at Green Bay:

Can Jared Goff or John Wolford generate any offense at frigid Lambeau Field?

Wolford started over Goff in Saturday’s first-round win at Seattle because Goff was just 12 days removed from surgery on his throwing thumb. Then Wolford suffered a stinger in his neck and Goff had to enter the game, struggling to throw at first but improving as the game progressed.

It’s unclear whether Wolford can return for Saturday’s game at Green Bay. If not, whether the Rams can pull off the upset could depend on Goff’s ability to grip and throw the ball in cold weather. The Rams’ defense has been great, but they will almost certainly need the offense to play better than it has over the past few weeks to hang with the high-powered Packers.

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How will Aaron Rodgers fare against the best defense in football?

Rodgers’s first challenge will be getting the ball to Davante Adams, who is one of the NFL’s best wide receivers but is likely to see a lot of man-to-man coverage from Jalen Ramsey, the best cover cornerback in the sport. In one-on-one situations against Seattle star DK Metcalf on Saturday, Ramsey held him to four catches and no big plays.

Rodgers also will have to deal with a defensive line that produces a ton of pressure — especially now that it appears star tackle Aaron Donald (ribs) should be able to play. But the lesser-known players on the Los Angeles defense are great, too, and the unit has the speed at linebacker to stop outside running plays and is exceptional when shifting to a two-deep zone that limits deep throwing opportunities. Rodgers is the likely league MVP, but he won’t have it easy in this one.

Can the Bills contain the Ravens’ running attack?

Stopping the run isn’t a strength of the Bills. They ranked 17th in rushing yards allowed at 119.6 per game and 26th in yards per carry with 4.6. The Ravens are perhaps the best running team in the NFL, and they rushed for 236 yards in their 20-13 first-round victory over Tennessee.

Fueling the victory was Jackson, who led Baltimore back from a 10-point deficit to earn his first playoff win and did a lot of his damage on the ground. He had 16 carries, compared with 19 for his backs, finishing with 136 yards. The key play was his 48-yard touchdown run in the second quarter that tilted the momentum in the Ravens’ favor. The Bills have to find a way to contain Jackson, who was mostly efficient with his passing in Sunday’s win as well.

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Can Josh Allen afford any big mistakes against a good Ravens defense?

Allen, who was the NFL’s hottest quarterback entering the playoffs, earned his first playoff win Saturday as Buffalo held off the Indianapolis Colts. For the most part, he was excellent, throwing for 324 yards and two touchdowns against a good defense. But he nearly committed the type of huge mistake that he has often been guilty of in his young pro career: In the fourth quarter, he fumbled after trying to get out of a sack. The play resulted in a 23-yard loss after one of his linemen recovered the loose ball, but it came close to being a catastrophic turnover.

The Ravens’ defense will cause problems for Allen. It is good at stopping the run, which will put pressure on Allen to make challenging throws to get the Bills down the field. Their coverage is also good, and Marcus Peters has a knack for making key interceptions. Allen will need to rely heavily on wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who had six catches for 128 yards and a touchdown in Saturday’s victory.

Can Baker Mayfield keep this up?

Cleveland’s offense, for most of the season, was based on the ball-control, power-running attack led by backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. It took pressure off Mayfield, who was also able to benefit from lots of favorable play-action throws.

But for the past month, Mayfield has played like a Pro Bowl pick, including making several key plays to ice Sunday night’s win in Pittsburgh. The Browns will want to control the clock Sunday against Kansas City’s explosive offense, but any upset chances are tied to Mayfield keeping up his recent hot streak and making difficult throws to match the Chiefs’ scoring total.

Can the Browns’ defense withstand a Patrick Mahomes comeback?

Cleveland’s defense should get a boost with the expected returns of cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson for the divisional round. But the Browns will nonetheless have a hard time slowing Mahomes and the high-powered Chiefs attack.

Given the Browns’ formula as a run-first team, their chances of beating Kansas City are rooted in building a lead and draining the clock to limit Mahomes’s opportunities. That would require staving off any late-game comeback efforts by the Chiefs, who made up big deficits in both AFC playoff games last season before doing the same in their Super Bowl victory over the San Francisco 49ers. Mahomes’s poise after his team gets behind is remarkable, so Cleveland’s defense better be up to the task.

Do the Saints have the book on Tom Brady?

New Orleans and Tampa Bay will meet for the third time Sunday, and the Saints won both regular season meetings handily. But Brady has gotten more and more comfortable in Coach Bruce Arians’s offense as the season has gone on, particularly throwing the deep ball, and Antonio Brown has gotten more involved as the third wide receiver.

Still, the Bucs’ record against teams with winning records — 2-4 — is concerning. So is Brady’s stat line from the two games against the Saints: 23 for 36 for 239 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in a season-opening 34-20 loss; then 22 for 38 with no touchdowns and three picks in a 38-3 loss in November. The Saints’ defense is one of the best in the league, and Brady will have to do a much better job of attacking it in his third attempt.

Can Drew Brees and the Saints’ offense avoid another slow start?

The first half of the Saints’ first-round win over Chicago was ugly. After an opening-drive touchdown, the Saints’ next four possessions netted just 82 yards and five first downs, leading to only a 7-3 advantage against an overmatched Bears team.

This New Orleans team, in what is likely Brees’s final season, is built to win with defense and an efficient but less-than-explosive offense. The Saints have the edge on the Bucs, but they must get off to a good start to avoid having to play from behind.

Around the NFL

We knew Doug Pederson was on the hot seat, but things appeared okay after no change was made last week. Instead, owner Jeffrey Lurie announced Monday that Pederson was out, making him the seventh NFL coach fired this season.

Clearly, Pederson is the one taking the heat for Philadelphia’s disappointing 4-11-1 season, and it appears Lurie’s vision for the team next year didn’t match Pederson’s. Quarterback Carson Wentz, who struggled mightily before being benched for Jalen Hurts, also appeared to have problems with Pederson, and it’s unclear what role that played in the decision.

We’ll see what happens to some of the other coaching searches now that Pederson is on the market. He figures to be near the top of the list for several teams.

You can understand why Deshaun Watson wants out of Houston, but it’s going to be tough for a trade to come together. The star quarterback has a no-trade clause in his contract. The Texans would have to get more than two first-round draft picks (or maybe three) to get value for him, and his departure would add another year or two of rebuilding for the franchise. He’s one of the six best quarterbacks in the game; Houston won’t let him go easily.

It has to drive Jets fans crazy to see Mayfield, Allen and Jackson in the divisional round. Mayfield went No. 1 to Cleveland, but New York traded up three spots to take Sam Darnold third, passing up Allen and Jackson in the process. Three years later, the Jets went 2-14 while the Browns, Bills and Ravens are competing for a spot in the AFC title game.

Russell Wilson had his worst game of the season in the 30-20 playoff loss to the Rams. He completed 11 of 27 passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns, and he had a pick-six on a short pass to the sideline.

Coach Pete Carroll seemed to believe a lot of the problem was with the running game. He felt too many passes were called in the latter part of the season and in the playoff game, in contrast to his preferred formula of winning the turnover battle and using a balanced attack. Running back Chris Carson is a free agent, and it’s uncertain whether he’ll be back.

Mitchell Trubisky believes he will be back with the Bears, but there’s no guarantee. The Bears didn’t pick up their fifth-year option on him, so he’s a free agent. He’ll have to accept a smaller deal to return and acknowledge the Bears will seek more quarterback help to compete with or replace him.