NFL PLAYOFFS: For my money, this is the best football weekend of the year– the Divisional Round, when the rubber truly meets the road in the NFL playoffs.
Only the top seeds and Wildcard Weekend winners remain, and the matchups are tremendous: the red-hot Colts going to Arrowhead to face MVP frontrunner Patrick Mahomes in what will be his first turn in the postseason spotlight; the Rams trying to avoid back-to-back playoff flops when they host a Dallas team that is 8-1 in its last nine games; Tom Brady and the Pats attempting to deny Philip Rivers in what is likely Rivers’ last, best chance at a Super Bowl; and the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles, back in the familiar role of underdog, trying to pull out a win in the Superdome after losing there by 41 points a few weeks back.
I guess I’m most excited about the Chargers/Patriots game, as I think it has all the makings of a classic, but both Saturday games have upset potential and Saints/Eagles will add a sense of finality to the weekend, as it will mean the elimination of either the Super Bowl champs or the 1-seed and presumptive favorite, so there really is no excuse for family time or other such frivolity this weekend: football is the priority. (and if you’ve ever questioned whether my wife reads these articles, you can now probably deduce the answer)
Our postseason got off to a happy start, as we had three wins and a push in last week’s four games (and the push was terribly unlucky– I know my fellow DAL -2 bettors can sympathize). Only seven games remain this season… let’s see if we can do a little damage before they turn off the lights for a few months. Here’s what I’m thinking this week:
Indianapolis Colts @ Kansas City Chiefs (KC -5.5, 56.5)
Recommendation: Indianapolis +5.5 at 1.93
The Chiefs have been the AFC’s best team for most of the season, winning 12 games while leading the conference in point differential. If you’re just looking at the past 12 weeks, however, you can make a pretty strong argument that the best team in the AFC is actually Kansas City’s opponent this weekend, the Indianapolis Colts. Since losing 5 of their first 6 games, the Colts have been nearly unbeatable, going 10-1 over their last 11 contests and winning six of those games by double-digits. And it hasn’t just been Andrew Luck and the resurgent offense— the Indy defense has been impressive as well, limiting 5 of the team’s past 6 opponents to 21 points or fewer and surrendering just 14.0 points per game since Week 7.
Of course, that Colts D hasn’t seen an offense like they’ll see this week— the Chiefs led the NFL in both yards per game and points scored this season, putting up 26 points or more in all 16 of their games. However, it should be noted that the KC offense slowed down just a bit once the team was forced to part ways with running back Kareem Hunt, who was a dynamic threat for them as both a runner and receiver. The Chiefs were held below 30 points just four times all season, but three of those instances came in their final 7 games, and when the offense sputters even a little bit, this KC team has trouble pulling out wins— they’re just 3-3 over their past six games, dropping 2 of 3 to close out the regular season. There’s no sugar-coating how bad the defense has been: the Chiefs rank 31st (next-to-last) in both total yards allowed and pass yards allowed, and they surrender over 5 yards per rush. They just can’t stop anybody. Meanwhile, Andrew Luck has been playing at an All-Pro level, Marlon Mack is coming off a 148-yard game in last week’s win over Houston, and the Colts have only lost once in the past three months. Kansas City will be lucky to escape with a win here– gimme Indy +5.5.
Dallas Cowboys @ Los Angeles Rams (LA -7, 49)
Recommendation: Los Angeles -7 at 1.92
I’ve seen a lot of people picking Dallas to pull off the upset here: the Cowboys are 8-1 in their past nine games, their defense is excellent, especially in the front seven, and Zeke Elliott figures to have plenty of running room against an L.A. defense that had trouble stopping the run all season. It should be noted, however, that this game would’ve been viewed as a clear mismatch throughout most of the season, as the Rams were machine-like in 2018, putting up 30 points or more 12 times in 16 games and notching 7 double-digit victories. As good as the Dallas defense has been up front, they’ve struggled in the secondary at times, so Jared Goff will have some opportunities downfield in this one.
And that, to me, will be the difference in this game: when they’re clicking, Goff & Co. can be as effective as any unit in the league, and despite Todd Gurley’s lingering ailments, the Rams put up 30 points or more in 6 of their final 8 games. Head coach/play-caller Sean McVay is an absolute wizard, and with an extra week to prepare he’s surely figured out a smart way to attack a Dallas defense that surrendered 637 combined passing yards over the final two games of the regular season and was easily dissected by Russell Wilson in last week’s Wild Card game, with the pundits afterwards universally condemning the Seahawks for not throwing the ball more considering the success that Wilson was having. Rest assured, lack of aggressiveness and/or a run-first game plan will not be an issue for the Rams this week. Though I don’t think a Cowboys win here is entirely out of the question, I think the more likely scenario involves the Rams spreading out the Dallas defense and relentlessly attacking the back end, forcing the Cowboys into a shootout that they’re ill-equipped to win, considering their relative limitations in the passing game. Rams -7 is my play.
Los Angeles Chargers @ New England Patriots (NE -4, 47.5)
Recommendation: Los Angeles +4 at 1.95
This game has it all: two elite teams; Rivers vs. Brady; sub-freezing temps; Pro Bowlers all over the field… this is what playoff football should be. The Chargers come into this game as battle-hardened as any team in the league, with a perfect 8-0 road record across four time zones. Last week they went into Baltimore and pulled out a win against the NFL’s best defense thanks to some great defense of their own, as they held the Ravens to just 229 total yards and consistently flummoxed young Baltimore QB Lamar Jackson. They face a very different type of challenge this week, of course— nobody in the history of the league has played the quarterback position any better than Tom Brady, and though many have pointed out that Brady’s stats declined slightly this season and that age may finally be catching up with him, you can rest assured that he’ll be ready for whatever the Chargers throw at him. If the L.A. defense is to have any real success in this game, it will come via pressure from the defensive front, particularly elite pass-rushers Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa, two All-Pro caliber players.
Brady will have his hands full with the Chargers defense and vice-versa, but I believe this game will be decided on the other side of the ball, when Philip Rivers and the L.A. offense goes up against the New England defense. If the Chargers hope to pull off the upset, they’re going to need a big-time performance from Rivers, who struggled against Baltimore last week and has only topped 300 yards passing once in his last seven games. But don’t let those pedestrian numbers fool you: Rivers completed 68% of his passes this season, the 5th-best mark in the NFL, and his 8.4 yards per attempt ranked 3rd in the league, so he’s still an elite player by any measure. The Patriots defense, meanwhile, ranked 22nd in pass yards allowed in 2018, along with surrendering more yards per rush than all but four teams leaguewide. This just feels like one of those games where Brady is going to be up against it: the Chargers have the better defense, they’ve managed to scrape out wins on the road all season, and they’re as healthy on the offensive side of the ball as they’ve been in weeks. I’m simply not sure New England is the better team– certainly not 4 points better.
Philadelphia Eagles @ New Orleans Saints (NO -8, 51.5)
Recommendation: New Orleans -8 at 1.91
When these teams met back in Week 11, the result was an ugly, one-sided beatdown the likes of which is rarely seen in professional football. It was more like one of those college games where State U fattens up on Tumbleweed Tech: the home team put up 546 yards and 48 points, while the plucky visitors could manage just 7 points and 196 total yards. Even though these are professional athletes, I’m sure there was plenty of old-fashioned shame and embarrassment for the Eagles players after such a disgraceful performance, but they responded like champions, winning 5 of their final 6 regular season games to snag the NFC’s final Wild Card spot, and then going into Chicago and beating the heavily-favored Bears last week. They now have an opportunity to atone for the low point of the otherwise brilliant Doug Pederson era, and if they can somehow manage a 42-point reversal, they’ll be just one win away from yet another Super Bowl appearance.
But wait— reality’s calling. This isn’t a fairy tale, and when the Eagles take the field in the Superdome on Sunday, they’re going to have to deal with the same matchups that made them appear so utterly helpless a few weeks back. The secondary will still have major problems with Drew Brees and the hyper-efficient Saints attack; Brees sliced them up for 363 yards on only 30 attempts the first time around, and though the Philly secondary is a little healthier now than it was then, it’s still a unit that ranked 30th in the NFL in passing defense this season and was lit up for 339 yards by Houston’s Deshaun Watson as recently as Week 16. On the other side of the ball, the pressure will be on Nick Foles to keep pace with Brees and the Saints, because New Orleans has the league’s second-ranked rushing defense and has made opposing offenses one-dimensional all season. Frankly, I just don’t see where the Eagles have any edge at all here— the Saints are the superior team in just about every facet, and they’re playing at the Superdome, where Brees has been incredibly tough to beat throughout his career. I doubt the result will be quite as lopsided as the first time around, but New Orleans should cruise to an easy victory here. Lay the points.