Jan. 18, 2019
NFL Playoffs Divisional Round Preview/Prediction
The road to the Super Bowl picks up the intensity as the league’s top seeds enter the fray. Eight teams will be cut to four after this weekend. Who’s advancing up the road and who is going on a nice island vacation?
Chiefs vs. Colts
The Curse of Arrowhead has been in effect since January 9, 1994. The day before that, the Chiefs celebrated their last home playoff win. Joe Montana led a drive down the field to tie the game. He then led another drive down the field to win it. Since then, the Chiefs have failed to win a playoff game in what is considered one of the NFL’s toughest places to play. Andy Reid has also had his fair share of playoff failures on his résumé. His Philadelphia Eagles teams only advanced to one Super Bowl despite going to numerous conference championship games. His Chiefs teams have only won one playoff game despite being favored in many of them. Last season, they watched as Marcus Mariota led a comeback for a Titans win at Arrowhead. But this season looks to be different. Led by MVP-favorite Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs have the most explosive offense in the league. Few teams can beat them in a shootout. But their defense has become a liability against tough teams. And from here on out, there are only tough teams to play.
Indianapolis is coming off of a dominant road playoff win against the Texans. Their defense held the Texans offense to seven points and their offense jumped on Houston’s defense early. Their hot streak continues. Since Week 7, the Colts have allowed the fewest points in the NFL. Their offense has been equally hot with numerous high scoring performances to match their defensive effort. If there was a team built to beat the Chiefs at Arrowhead, this is it. So what will be the pick here? Will Andrew Luck continues his career resurgence into championship weekend? Or will the Curse of Arrowhead finally come to an end as the Chiefs move forward?
Keys for Chiefs: The first thing for Kansas City is avoiding a slow start. With the state of their overall defense and the potency of the Colts offense, a slow start can quickly become an inescapable hole. Second (and most important), the Chiefs have to get something from their defense. If there was ever a time for them to get randomly hot, now is the time. More specifically, their pass rush needs to show up. Despite their defense being terrible as a unit, their front seven is still capable of getting pressure on the quarterback. They were tied atop the NFL in sacks with 52. Chris Jones had 15.5 sacks during the regular season. It won’t be easy since the Colts have allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL, but KC needs something if they hope to win.
Keys for Colts: Similar to the Chiefs, they’re going to need help from their defense. As previously stated, their defense has allowed the fewest points in the NFL since Week 7. But if you look deeper than that stat, the Colts didn’t play a single offense ranked above 15th in the league. So this will be a different experience for them. The second key is two-fold. They have to attack the Chiefs weak secondary with deep passes. That also means the Colts offensive line will have to maintain their excellent protection of Luck. They cannot allow the Chiefs pass rush to have a good game. Each sack would only feed into the crowd and the Chief's morale. Indy may also want to consider dominating the game through the time of possession. KC is terrible against the run. That would also keep Mahomes on the sidelines rather than on the field.
Prediction: The NFL a lot of times is just like boxing. Styles make fights in the case of boxing, and styles can make games in the NFL. Despite being the top seed in the AFC, the Chiefs style doesn’t favor them in this game. The Colts can score with them without having to worry about mostly inept defense to hold them back. The Colts can also play a ball control style to keep the Chiefs offense off the field. At the end of the day, the Colts are simply more balanced than the Chiefs. And if it comes down to one drive, I’ll take Luck throwing on the Chiefs defense over Mahomes. So I’m going with the Colts to win the game and advance. Colts win 38-35
Rams vs. Cowboys
The rise of the Los Angeles Rams began last season with a surprise NFC West crown and a home playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons. But the good times were short-lived after the Rams were sent home by the Falcons. During the offseason, the Rams decided to go all in on winning the Super Bowl as soon as possible. They went on an offseason spending spree that made league-wide headlines. Brandin Cooks, Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters, Ndamukong Sah, Sam Shields, and paying Aaron Donald. It was like watching someone go crazy on a video game. An 8-0 start to the season proved that their free-spending wasn’t in vain. Their offense played phenomenally. Their defense underachieved but was still capable of making things happen. But down the stretch of the season, the Rams machine began to slow down a bit. And now with the playoffs here, we’ll find out which Rams team was real. The one that sat towards the top of the NFC, or the one that can be pushed around by hungrier teams.
The Cowboys are coming off of their first playoff win of this new Dak/Zeke era. Their defense shut down the league’s best rushing attack, Ezekiel Elliot ran wild, and Dak Prescott made the plays when he needed to. In terms of momentum, the Cowboys can make the argument of being the hottest team in the NFC. Their old school style of play makes them a threat to every team remaining in the playoffs. Against the Rams, the game will be a battle of philosophy. Sean McVay is often seen as the vanguard to modern NFL offense. Meanwhile, the Cowboys rely on an old but reliable style of play. They run the ball, they play defense, and their quarterback plays a safe but effective style. So who will reign supreme in this one? The new guard or the old reliable style?
Also, expect a lot of Cowboys fans at this game.
Keys for Rams: Two names come to my mind for the Rams: Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters. They’re two of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, and they’ll have to play like it. I fully expect the Rams to go single coverage on the outside and sell out to stop the running game. Until Dak proves otherwise, this will always be seen as the way to neutralize the Cowboys offense. Talib and Peters should know Amari Cooper well from their days in the AFC West. And it will be this chess game that will make or break the game for the Rams. On offense, the Rams will need to show the full repertoire. They cannot expect to run Todd Gurley into the brick wall that is the Cowboys run defense. I expect to see a lot of Gurley in the passing game. And finally, Jared Goff needs to get back to how he was playing earlier in the season. Since the Bears game, he has looked shaky at best.
Keys for Cowboys: Everything starts with Zeke for the Cowboys. The Rams allow more than five yards per carry. Zeke could be in for another big gamier everything goes according to plan. This will also feed into the Cowboys winning the time of possession battle and keeping the Rams offense on the sidelines. Also, Dak will have to be very careful in this game. While the Rams aren’t the all-time dominant defense many expected, they still ranked third in the NFL in forcing turnovers and fourth in turnover margin (+11). Defensively, the Cowboys will have to keep an eye on Todd Gurley. As stated earlier, I believe he will be all over the field. Dallas has the speed at linebacker to cover him sideline to sideline. Containing Gurley is equal to cutting the head off of the Rams offense. Secondly, they should put Jared Goff on the ground as many times as possible. Goff can be intimidated in the pocket.
Prediction: Again, styles make games in the NFL. On the surface, the styles matchup favors the Cowboys. The problem is, the Rams have the coaching to change that. I don’t see Sean McVay running Gurley into a brick wall over and over again. With the injury to Allen Hurns, I could see the Rams playing single coverage on the outside and focusing everything else on Zeke. And if the ball falls into the hands of both young quarterbacks, I have to give the advantage to the team with the better turnover differential. So with that, the Rams will be the pick for this game. Rams win 28-20.
Patriots vs. Chargers
This is probably the most vulnerable and beatable Patriots team in recent history. Tom Brady has begun to show signs of aging. Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman have shown signs of aging. Bill Belichick’s patented ‘bend but don’t break’ defense has been broken plenty of times this season. And yet, you still cannot count these guys out. Consider recent in past history. The Patriots are 4-0 against 2018 playoff teams this season. Brady and Belichick have taken inferior Patriots teams deep into the playoffs before. And now, Brady and Belichick are going up against a quarterback that they’ve never lost to. And of course, it’s going to be cold out there at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots remind me a lot of the Spurs during their last few runs to the NBA Finals. Yes, they’re old, but they still know how to execute better than anyone. They’ve faced every scenario you could imagine. And that is why you shouldn’t be surprised if they wind up in the Super Bowl again. This will be their toughest road yet, but that doesn’t really mean anything to a team as battle-hardened as the Patriots.
The Los Angeles Chargers dominated the Ravens for three quarters, but almost went San Diego vintage towards the end. They managed to hold off Baltimore late, but they know they have to be better. I doubt Tom Brady will have 25 passing yards after three quarters. And the mistakes the Chargers made against the Ravens could get them beat against the Patriots. Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates should know that better than anyone. The last time the Chargers managed to beat New England with Brady under center, Drew Brees was the starting quarterback of the then San Diego Chargers. They’ve faced the Patriots twice in the postseason. Both times, Rivers didn’t play well and the Patriots escaped with the victory (Rivers did play with a torn ACL in 2007 though). New England has long been a phantom of pain for the Chargers organization. And if they hope to erase that pain of San Diego and move forward into glory in Los Angeles, they’ll have to confront that demon. So how will this end? Will the Patriots prove their grit and advance to an eighth straight AFC Championship Game? Or will the Chargers exercise old demons and move one step closer to the Super Bowl?
Keys for Patriots: Priority one for the Patriots will be to keep Tom Brady clean in the pocket. The Chargers have one of the best pass rushes in the league with Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and Derwin James lurking on the field. When the Patriots lose in the playoffs, it’s normally due to the fact that Brady is eating grass for most of the game. More time in the pocket means more time for Brady to go to work on the Chargers defense. Defensively, they’ll need to go back to the old ‘bend but don’t break’ style that has won the Super Bowl in the past. That will be difficult considering the array of weapons the Chargers have, but they need to find a way. I don’t think they want to get into a shootout with this team. The Patriots have beaten many teams by simply making fewer mistakes than them and winning the overall chess match. If they can force the Chargers into that vortex, they can win the game.
Keys for Chargers: Pressuring Brady and putting him on the ground as often as possible is the go-to strategy against the Patriots. It has always been that way. Look for the Chargers to blitz early and often. Given the lack of weapons on the Patriots offense and their skill on defense, the Chargers could easily man everyone and blitz the hell out of the Patriots. Expect plenty of safety blitzes from Derwin James as well. Also, they need to eliminate James White. The Patriots version of Big Game James is known for coming up huge in high-pressure situations. Offensively, they should use the full complement of their weapons. They should keep a good mix going and keep the Patriots guessing. They should keep the aggression high as well since it looks like their tendency to give up leads has returned. Philip Rivers will also need to do something he’s never done. He needs to outplay Tom Brady. And he cannot afford to make any mistakes either. Mistakes are basically the fuel that makes the Patriots machine even tougher to beat.
Prediction: This game is the toughest to pick out of the four. I could see the Patriots making fewer mistakes and simply out scheming the Chargers. I could see the Chargers blowing out the Patriots with their sheer talent. I could see the Patriots putting together one more vintage playoff performance and blowing out the Chargers. I could go on all day, but I’ll pick the Chargers to win on the road again. It’s time. The Patriots time is over. The Chargers are simply the better team and will play like it. The aging talent at the skill positions and the lack of a credible defense will bring the Patriots reign to an end. They won’t go quietly, but they will be going. Chargers win 31-27.
Saints vs. Eagles
The New Orleans Saints have been considered the class of the NFL for most of the season. Their explosive offense has weapons all over the place and is led by a Hall of Fame quarterback. Their defense is middle of the road statistically, but they’ve proven enough times that they can be enough of a compliment to their offense. The Saints also have all the motivation in the world. They believe they should’ve gone to the Super Bowl last season if not for the Minneapolis Miracle. They want to get Drew Brees another ring to add to his résumé. And the road to the Super Bowl will be in their favor. The last time the Saints had home field advantage throughout the playoffs, they won the Super Bowl.
The Eagles are coming off of a narrow victory in Chicago against the Bears. Nick Foles did it yet again, and his magic shows no signs of wearing off. As the weeks go on, the more this is beginning to look like the march of the underdogs last season. Ironically, this team picked against the Eagles in every playoff game over the last few seasons. Each pick came back wrong. So who am I to doubt the champs any longer? This will be their toughest test yet. The last time these teams faced off, the Saints ran the Eagles off the field. But Foles will be on the field this time instead of waiting on the sidelines. So which is stronger? The Saints home field voodoo or phenomenon of Big D*** Nick?
Keys for Saints: When the Saints blew out the Eagles back in Week 11, they found a way to nullify the Eagles tight ends. With the Eagles top receivers hobbled, they should go back to what worked. Eliminating Zach Ertz from the game will limit the Eagles offensive potential. Offensively, the Saints have the talent to attack the Eagles weaknesses on defense. So expect Sean Payton to open up the playbook on the Eagles. Nothing is going to be off the table form them to try.
Keys for Eagles: Two words probably popped up constantly in Eagles game prep. Those words are sustainable and drives. The Eagles have to sustain drives and win the time of possession battle with the Saints. Any extra time they can keep the Saints offense on the sidelines will help. They have to find a way to give themselves a chance to win late in the game. Also, the Eagles should find a way to get pressure up the middle. The Cowboys found success this way as the pressure threw off the Saints offense. Next, the Eagles have to protect against the big play. Given the state of their secondary, I think Brees will try to air it out on them. They have to find a way to defend that. Also, good tackling will be key. A missed tackle on Alvin Kamara could lead to six points on the board.
Prediction: As previously mentioned, this blog has picked against Nick Foles in the playoffs every time, and has failed every time. The Eagles are motivated to get back at the Saints for allegedly running up the score. They’re also a hot team with championship DNA. So it wouldn’t surprise me if they pulled off yet another upset. But I’m picking against them again. I don’t believe their defense will be able to get enough stops to win the game. But I do expect the Eagles to stick around until the bitter. Like the Patriots, the Eagles won’t go quietly. But they’re going one way or another. Saints win 34-30.