And Then There Were Eight: Divisional Round Offers Intrigue
With the divisional roundup and all four matchups so different in nature, there should be no shortage of excitement. There are plenty of storylines, as usual, but it is as open a field as it has been in some time. No team left is close to infallible and those weaknesses will need to be exploited.
Not Horsing Around
Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs try to reverse a lot of history against Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts. For starters, Indianapolis is 4-0 all-time against the Chiefs in the playoffs. Then, the typical home field advantage has not applied to Kansas City for 25 years.
Mahomes – the likely MVP – is also the youngest remaining starting quarterback in the playoffs. It is also his first career playoff start. Neither bode well for the league leader in touchdown passes. It also does not help facing an Indy defense that held Deshaun Watson to 235 yards on 49 attempts indoors.
Expected snow showers shift the focus from Tyreek Hill and the passing game to Damien Williams and the ground attack; although Hill and especially Travis Kelce will obviously still be heavily involved. Indy has not generated a lot of pressure, but the lack of explosiveness is a concern. Kansas City was last in the NFL in time of possession the past three weeks of the regular season.
Snow would also hurt Indy’s passing game, though again, T.Y. Hilton and Eric Ebron should still be able to make their mark. Luck will probably be the NFL’s comeback player of the year; coming back from shoulder issues that cost him the entire 2017 season. He has the second most touchdown passes in the league and the line protection to withstand K.C.’s pass-rush.
Marlon Mack has been a revelation in his second year and just gashed a much better run defense for 148 yards week ago. Kansas City also gives up more rushing yards at home than on the road. The Colts were third in time of possession the final three weeks of the regular season.
History says the Chiefs bow out. Their defense plays better at home, but Frank Reich has the Colts playing the best football in the AFC at the moment. Andy Reid will have to get his sophomore quarterback and the team over the hump and past the divisional round. Both teams are mostly healthy, though Eric Berry is listed as a game-time decision.
It will be cooler than usual in southern California as the Los Angeles Rams face off against the Dallas Cowboys. Arguably the top-two running backs faceoff with Todd Gurley returning from injury – though C.J. Anderson has filled in admirably – to take on the NFL’s leading rusher in Ezekiel Elliott.
The quarterbacks in this game will be under the microscope. Jared Goff has improved upon all of his passing stats for the third year, except for interceptions. Against a Cowboys team that does not allow many plays against, he will need to be efficient and take care of the football. Dallas is 20th in takeaways easing some concern.
Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods face a tall task in the Cowboys’ plus-sized cornerbacks. It will be interesting seeing the second-ranked scoring offense take on the defense that tied for seventh-best in preventing points. Woods has assumed Cooper Kupp’s role in the slot and that should be where Goff attacks Dallas the most.
Dak Prescott makes his third playoff start looking to continue building momentum. He will have to do so on the road where he has performed considerably worse. Perhaps the likely pro-Cowboy crowd helps. One of Dak’s best qualities is he has not turned the ball over a lot this year; Dallas is top-five in interception percentage on the season.
If this game turns into a shoot-out, Amari Cooper could be in for another big day against a Ram defense that can be had through the air. Still, the key is the Cowboys biggest strength – Zeke — against the Rams’ biggest weakness. Opponents don’t average a lot of carries against Los Angeles, but Dallas is clearly a different animal in that regard.
Los Angeles coach Sean McVay inadvertently got a lot of people hired the last couple of years, while his team still needs to win a playoff game. Another one-and-done situations and the next hiring cycle might look different. Jason Garrett is even more in need of a postseason victory; sitting at 1-2 and never advancing past the divisional round.
Sunday starts with a meeting of two Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots host Philip Rivers and the Los Angeles Chargers. New England was 8-0 at home while L.A. went 8-1 (including last week) on the road.
New England got some much-needed rest and recovery time. Brady is having a down year but this the healthiest they have been all year, and they are still the fourth-highest scoring offense. If they can keep up their third-ranked sack percentage allowed – L.A. is top-10 in sack percentage – Brady will be fine.
Rob Gronkowski is a shell of his former self, but that is still better than most at his position. Otherwise, Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan will do most of the damage against the Chargers. L.A. ranks in the top-10 in allowed passing yards, completion percentage, and scoring. James White and Sony Michel will be needed to keep the Chargers offense off the field.
Rivers comes into the divisional round off of a ho-hum game. He did get the win and continues his mission to make – and win – his first Super Bowl. He will have to take out a team that he is 1-7 against all-time. If it all rests on his arm, he’ll need chunk plays as the Patriots allow the second-lowest red zone scoring percentage in the league the last several weeks.
Slot-receivers are key in this one and Los Angeles’ Keenan Allen is a good one. Since we know how New England eliminates the opponent’s top-two weapons, Tyrell and Mike Williams will both be called upon. As will Antonio Gates, though Hunter Henry‘s return will curtail that some. Melvin Gordon was not much of a factor last week and will likely be schemed out by the Patriots this week.
L.A. has to hope their own trends are stronger than the Patriots’ in the divisional round. A fine season will come undone if the Chargers are unable to keep the ball from Brady and the New England offense. Meanwhile, the Patriots will look to get the ball out quick and utilize the backs to keep Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram at bay.
Foles de lis
Finally, the weekend wraps up with a rematch of week 11 when the New Orleans Saints blew out the Philadelphia Eagles 48-7. That game, many Eagles players felt, the Saints ran up the score. Philly is never lacking a chip on their shoulders and is playing inspired football over the past month. Will they be able to keep New Orleans from doing what they do in the Super Dome?
The Saints earned the one-seed down the stretch and now get to play in the divisional round in their friendly confines all the way to the Super Bowl, also played in a dome. That has to be music to Drew Brees as he performs better indoors. At home with his top-rated completion percentage against the team facing the highest rate of passes, Brees will not be a bystander to his team advancing.
Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara will be the main beneficiaries to the Eagles playing stout run defense – tops the last three weeks of the regular season. That leaves Mark Ingram as the lone man out of the three-pronged attack. Taysom Hill will also sprinkle in to make plays but the big three, as usual, are the guys to watch. The fast indoor track sets them up to deliver on the fireworks.
Nick Foles has clearly made a deal with some sort of mystical entity. Not only does he have them leading the league in passing yards to end the year but he has a 6-2 record as a starter in Philadelphia the last two years. They have also taken out the Rams and Texans in the regular season and eliminated the Bears last week.
Alshon Jeffery and Zach Ertz will go up against the Saints’ defense that ranks 29th in passing yards allowed per game. They also rank 29th in yards per completion allowed. Do not expect much from the run game against the Saints’ defense that gave up the fewest yards per carry this season
Philly has something special. The group has rallied around Foles yet again and look to continue their run of unlikely dominance in the divisional round. Doug Pederson always has his guys prepared. Sean Payton took extra measures to ensure his team is locked in following the bye. This should be the highest-scoring game of the divisional round.
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