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Keidel: NFL Divisional Round Preview

Jason Keidel
January 11, 2019 - 2:25 pm
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Too many football gamblers bet with their hearts, not their heads, often in love with home teams and their favorite teams. Which is why new glass temples are being built and rebuilt along the Las Vegas Strip. Casino cashiers are still counting the mountains of cash they won on Clemson this week.  

One thing fans have right - the divisional round of the playoffs is the best weekend on the NFL calendar every year. After chopping the playoff fat, you now get the eight best teams in the league, four delicious games over two delightful days. Let's see how this weekend works out. 

 

SATURDAY

4:40 p.m. ET

Indianapolis Colts (11-6) @ Kansas City Chiefs (12-4) 

Chiefs -5 1/2

By the eyes, this is not a match. The Chiefs steamrolled much of the league with a pyrotechnic offense, led by likely league MVP Patrick Mahomes, who turned the NFL into his personal playground, tossing MLB fastballs to NFL receivers, from Travis Kelce to Sammy Watkins to Tyreek Hill - the latter being the most versatile, explosive, and fastest player in football. No QB in his first season can match Mahomes's 50 passing TDs. 

By contrast, the Colts started the season 1-5 and are now scalding hot, going 10-1 since. Their defense is also improved and is led by rookie RB Darius Leonard, who made first-team All-Pro in his maiden NFL season, while leading the league in tackles during the regular season, with 163.

Two hurdles could derail the Chiefs. They have a horrible defense, and they have a biblical history of choking in January. The last time the Chiefs won a playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium, Joe Montana was the quarterback (1994). 

A bad defense is great news for Colts QB Andrew Luck, who is perhaps playing the best football of any quarterback still in the tournament. Luck is hot, never gets sacked, and is buoyed by the best rookie lineman in decades. See the replay of Quentin Nelson's pancake block on Jadeveon Clowney last weekend, driving the Pro Bowl lineman so hard into the ground it could have doubled as a grave. Colts head coach Frank Reich has said he's not afraid of the Chiefs' offense, and will endeavor to match KC score-for-score. It's a nice sentiment, if not a troubling task. 

The Colts are the team of tomorrow and the day after that. It just feels like the Chiefs are the team of today. Not to mention Andrew Luck has yet to win an outdoor playoff game in cold weather. 

Chiefs, 24-23

 

8:20 p.m. 

Dallas Cowboys (11-6) @ Los Angeles Rams (12-4)

Rams - 7

Sometimes Vegas tosses an absurdly large number at us. (If this isn't it then wait until Sunday's games.) The Cowboys are hot, playing with confidence and just beat the Seattle Seahawks despite the fact that coach Pete Carroll had never lost his first playoff game in any season.

The Rams have a better roster and a more explosive offense, with a revived QB Jared Goff, a gaggle of sublime wideouts, and arguably the best RB in the world, Todd Gurley. To combat these weapons, the Cowboys will unleash the man they feel is the best RB in the sport, Ezekiel Elliott, who led the NFL in rushing yards this season. Maybe Zeke doesn't run with the same beautiful form Gurley does, or catch passes with equal aplomb, but Elliott is the perfect runner for the playoffs. He is a tireless back who shredded a respectable Seattle defense last weekend, with old-school power runs that are reminiscent of the NFC East's glory days of smash-mouth football.  

On defense, the Cowboys might have the best front-seven in the sport, led by DE DeMarcus Lawrence, the best LB duo in the league (Tyler Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith), and a burgeoning star in CB Byron Jones. So, Dallas won’t be scared by the sight of the Rams' offense. But they may be shivering at the idea of DT Aaron Donald spinning, swimming and bulldozing past offensive lineman on his way to crush QB Dak Prescott. Donald is the no-doubt premier defensive lineman in the NFL. 

The Rams have played 44 playoff games, and nearly 20 percent of them have been against the Cowboys. Between 1973 and 1985, they went 4-4. Two of those games were at the Coliseum, both won by Dallas by a combined score of 65-7. Of course, all of these games were played long before most of the current players, including Rams head coach Sean McVay, were born. Perhaps more salient is the fact that McVay's record as Rams sideline guru is 24-8, while half of those losses have come to NFC East clubs. 

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, the ultimate Cowboy who happened to be born near Los Angeles and makes the area home base for the club's training camp, realizes that the L.A. Coliseum will be bubbling with Cowboys fans. Dallas is playing with house money, fast and loose, while the Rams could be tight after losing their first playoff game as heavy favorites at home last year. 

Cowboys, 30-28

MORE: Keidel: Dwayne Haskins Would Look Great In Giants Blue

 

SUNDAY

1:05 p.m. ET

Los Angeles Charges @ New England Patriots

Patriots - 4.5

It's not hyperbolic to say the Chargers (admit it, you still say San Diego) have the best roster in pro football. But we know the Patriots are just different when they play at home, even with the lack of customary talent. Perhaps this is a clash of streaks. The Patriots are 8-0 at home this season, but the Chargers are 8-1 on the road, including last week's domination of the Baltimore Ravens. 

It looks like the kind of game contoured for Brady and Belichick to make their eighth consecutive trip to the AFC title game. Gray skies, cold air and whispers of white breath puffing from players' mouths. There may even be a little snow. But if you look past team stats you may notice Brady, who is clearly not what he was just a year ago, has not played well in his two playoff games versus the San Diego (I said it!) Chargers. 

Indeed, in both contests, Brady has completed just 58.3 percent of his passes, for 489 total yards, with four touchdowns and six interceptions, and a paltry 61.1 passer rating. This year, Rivers has thoroughly outplayed the iconic Pats QB, besting Brady in yards per attempt, passer rating, passing TDs, and completion percentage. In fact, Brady isn't in the league's top 10 in any of those categories. 

The Chargers are loaded at RB, WR, and will be buoyed by the return of TE Hunter Henry, who has been injured since May. The Chargers also have the best pass-rushing tandem in the league, with Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa, who will be drooling at the site of the mummified Brady, who runs like he's up to his torso in quicksand. 

If you want a bright side for the Pats, consider the Chargers allowed the most receiving yards by running backs in the NFL (973) during the regular season. And the Patriots have the exact kind of RB rotation to tear into this weakness, with Sony Michel, James White, and Rex Burkhead. With the loss of gifted WR Josh Gordon, and TE Rob Gronkowski having the worst year of his career, New England will work their RB triumvirate harder than ever. 

Tom Brady is 7-0 against the Chargers, which means Philip Rivers is 0-7 against Brady. History aside, everything on paper points to the Chargers, who are better than the Pats at almost every position. Perhaps the Chargers' hobbled All-Pro RB Melvin Gordon is the best news for the home team. 

This feels like New England's last stand before the Chargers, Chiefs, and Colts grab the AFC crown and leave the Pats in the old folk’s home. Brady has at least one more win in his Hall of Fame frame. Barely. 

Patriots, 27-26

 

4:40 p.m. ET

Philadelphia Eagles (10-7) @ New Orleans Saints (13-3)

Saints -8

Another blowout on paper. But papers and numbers can't quantify whatever is happening to the Eagles, who - to paraphrase Robert DeNiro and Bradley Cooper - are playing with some surreal juju. The defending Super Bowl champs just knocked off the heavily favored Bears in Chicago, and are again led deep into the playoffs by Nick Foles, the fairytale backup whom no one supports until he gets into a big game, then turns it into a referendum on the underdogs, comebacks, and Rocky Balboa, the three-pronged cinematic story of the down-and-out Philadelphian. 

The Saints are the top seed for a reason. They had the league's best record, are well-rested and have an obscene offensive arsenal. Even if you somehow thwart Drew Brees and all-world wideout Michael Thomas, the Saints can just hand the ball to Mark Ingram and the absurdly versatile Alvin Kamara, perhaps the most naturally talented halfback on the planet.

On Nov 18, the Saints bludgeoned the Eagles at the Superdome, 48-7, and now are revisiting the Week 11 crime scene. New Orleans out-gained the Eagles 546 yards to 196 yards, averaging 7.9 yards per play to Philly's 4.1. Brees passed for 363 yards and three touchdowns. Carson Wentz threw for just 156 yards and three interceptions. 

But Wentz won't be on the field. For whatever reason, the Eagles play with special magic and mojo with Foles, who has won his last four playoff games as Eagles QB. In fact, the Eagles are not only improved but also better since that Big Easy beating they took in November. A slew of injured players (especially on defense) have returned, fueling Philadelphia to road wins over the No. 2 seed Rams and No. 3 seed Bears. 

The Saints may be a troubling 2-4 all-time in the divisional round of the playoffs, yet they are 2-0 against the Eagles, including a 2014 win at Philadelphia, 26-24. For this game, at least, Brees is the most dangerous player on the field, completing an NFL-record 74.4 percent of his passes. And the Saints are one of just three NFL clubs to average at least 30 points per game (31.5). 

So, Philadelphia's defense is crucial. They led the league in red zone defense, allowing a touchdown just 44.6 percent of the time. Meanwhile, the Saints scored a TD on 69.6 percent of their red zone trips. That's where the game will be won.

You won't find a more live underdog than the Eagles. They even have dog masks to prove it. It's just too hard to bet against the Saints in that domed crucible they call home. Eagles keep it close. 

Saints, 30-24

Twitter: @JasonKeidel