The playoffs begin for four home teams, and continue for four intrepid visitors, as the Divisional Round brings another four-game feast of football.
Raucous home crowds will be rooting on the Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Rams, New England Patriots, and New Orleans Saints to advance to Championship Sunday. Their defenses might need all the help they can get from crowd noise, as all four have been heavily reliant on their offensive play to get them their coveted first-round byes, and all four of their opponents can counter with defensive quality. Plus, nobody’s coming in on short rest, as a quirk of the TV scheduling means all four winners from Wild Card weekend are playing in the exact same timeslots this weekend as they did last.
It could be a very interesting set of games. David Howell asks the questions, and his answers are accompanied by those from Alan Cole, Tyler Arthur, and Ste Hoare.
The Colts may be on a hot streak, but they've not faced an offensive force even comparable to the Chiefs in any of their recent wins. How will their defense cope with this test?
David: I’m not convinced it will handle that offense, but I’m also not entirely convinced it needs to. If the Colts can keep Mahomes and company off the field with clock-killing drives – and Quenton Nelson alone gives them a real shot at doing just that – the pressure will well and truly be on the presumptive MVP.
Alan: I think it’s fair to expect the Indianapolis defense to look the worst it has in a while, but that’s more about Mahomes and the Chiefs than anything the Colts have done. Indianapolis has only allowed 15.5 points per game during this 10-1 stretch, and obviously that’s getting blown out of the water at Arrowhead. I think their defense can make enough plays to give Andrew Luck a chance to steal the game, but they’ll give up way more yards and points than usual.
Tyler: I think the Colts are going to lose, but put up a real fight. That Chiefs defense isn’t good enough to stop Andrew Luck, especially when he’s in form. The Colts run game has also really impressed me, and in terms of fantasy I’d happily start anyone from the Colts except their defense. The key thing though isn’t for the Kansas City D to put an end to the Colts – it’s going to be MVPat and his merry men on offense who will have to defeat them, but I think they’ll be able to do it. The only way that the Colts win this game, in my opinion, is if Andy Reid was the opposing hea… oh.
Ste: It’ll be tough, no question. The Colts don’t really have a pass rush and that could be an issue as the last thing they want is Mahomes holding the ball whilst his stars get open. I think the Colts can stop the run and the secondary has played well but this is a tough matchup.
The Cowboys-Rams game matches up arguably the two best running backs in the NFL. How much should the teams lean on those backs in this matchup?
David: The Cowboys definitely need to, if only because the Aaron Donald/Ndamukong Suh cheat-code combo on the defensive interior aren’t the huge run-stuffing nose tackle types and do their best work as penetrating pass-rushers. Actually, because of that, Zeke might be extensively used on quick passes; do not be surprised if he leads the team in receptions. As for the Rams, Gurley may not be 100% and the Cowboys are loaded at linebacker, so it could be best for McVay to air it out. The ground game will still be crucial, but much of its value will be opening up play action and getting those linebackers out of position.
Alan: The Cowboys should be leaning on Ezekiel Elliot more than the Rams should be relying on Todd Gurley based on how well Dallas defended against Seattle’s running game and the fact that Gurley still might not be at 100%. Andrew Whitworth might also not be at full strength after having a week 17 knee injury. I think Goff is going to have to make more throws for the Rams to win this game than Prescott will for Dallas to win it.
Tyler: The Cowboys need to lean on their run game, the Rams don’t. This is one thing which will be interesting to watch; will the Rams embrace the pound-the-rock mentality and butt heads with the ‘boys all game, or will they mix it up and be aggressive through the air? In my opinion I would look to get Gurley hot early, and then use an awful lot of play action. The Dallas defense lives by strong and fast run defense, so I would draw them in and challenge their secondary with the terrifying duo of Robert Woods and a man absolutely set on returning to the Super Bowl, Brandin Cooks. I would be as bold as saying that if Zeke doesn’t score multiple touchdowns and rush for 100 yards they can’t win, but that almost seems obvious – instead I’ll say that the key for the Rams is to not solely rely on Gurley, and to instead give Goff some freedom to let it loose, which will naturally open it up for #30 as well.
Ste: The Cowboys have to saddle Zeke up and get him running as often as possible. The Rams’ run D isn’t great, and chewing up clock – keeping the explosive LA offense on the sidelines – sounds like a good plan. The Rams will use Gurley, but they’ll be doing it more to set up play action, which Jared Goff will need against a very good D.
The Patriots haven't fallen at this stage in eight years. How much of an advantage does that history of success help them out against a Chargers team lacking in it?
David: As a Chargers fan, I’m convinced it does. But it’s hard not to be pessimistic when you’re talking about playing against the Patriots in January. They’ve won their last nine home playoff games. The last head coach to beat them at this stage of the playoffs was Rex Ryan. But these are new Chargers, so who knows?
Alan: None. The Chargers are 8-1 on the road this season, and 8-0 in games outside of Los Angeles. Brady and Rivers haven’t met in the playoffs in 11 years. The fact that the Chargers haven’t won in the divisional round in past years won’t hurt them on Sunday, it’ll be their play that defines the game.
Tyler: I want it so bad. I want to see it, I want to rewind back to the start, and I want to see it again. I want to see the Patriots lose. I don’t think that they will, but if I put my money on them winning I think I can do it. Seriously though, I don’t think that the sole reason for the Patriots success is that they’re used to it, but I think that the subsequent confidence is definitely a boost when they get in a tough spot. When you’re down by a couple of scores and you’re used to winning in January, it’s easier to believe in the comeback. If the Chargers get out in front, New England won’t panic, and that is an important trait for a team in the postseason. Oh, I forgot, Mike Badgley plays for the Chargers, I change my mind, Chargers by 3 points.
Ste: I think the main benefit is that New England will never know when they’re beaten as they’ve pulled off plenty of escapes in the past. Once the game starts, I’m not sure how much playoff experience really matters though.
The Eagles were blown out in New Orleans in the regular season. Does that mean anything for the rematch in January?
David: I think it will bring confidence to the Saints, so it does mean something, but I think the Eagles will have shrugged it off well because they wouldn’t be in this position otherwise. Apparently they didn’t even watch the tape of the first game, such was their desire to draw a line under it.
Alan: Philadelphia lost 48-7 in the Superdome in November, and I absolutely think that matters. The Saints know they can obliterate this team, and New Orleans is also just head and shoulders above everyone else in this tournament. I’ll be honest, outside of the “anything can happen in sports” quotient, I give Philly no shot. I think the Eagles are going to get their heads ripped off here and they’ll be leaving New Orleans in a body bag.
Tyler: No. Nick is back! They’re still going to lose though. If you put the Eagles in the AFC right now I’d legitimately back Saint Nick to beat anyone. The playoff magic is real, whether it comes to an end or not, he is somewhat of a miracle worker. However, this weekend I think that a miracle is going to be needed… Sorry Saints fans, surely not in back-to-back years? I think that New Orleans will take this win with a bit of comfort, but I’m absolutely not ruling them out yet.
Ste: It absolutely does because the Saints touched the Eagles secondary, which does look like a weakness for the reigning champions.
A theme of this weekend's matchups is offense vs defense, as the league's offensive juggernauts earned byes whilst the defensive powerhouses fought out a low-scoring Wild Card weekend. Are we in line for some shootouts at this stage?
David: I was going to say that the Chiefs are almost a guarantee of one every time they take the field, but Mother Nature obviously had a bet on the under, as Kansas City is under a winter storm warning and it won’t end until after kickoff. I do think there’s one shootout somewhere, but probably only one. Don’t be surprised if there’s a big-scoring game where the defense gets in on the action, like the Rams D did against the Chiefs.
Alan: I think we’ll see an uptick in points just because I don’t think it’s realistic to expect the highest scoring game of the weekend to have 46 total points again and the average game to have 36.3 total points. I’m not expecting any Rams-Chiefs type of shootout because defenses do travel in January, but there will be higher scoring games.
Tyler: I bloody hope so. I don’t want to see any more field goals. PATs are acceptable but discouraged. I want to see offenses wake up now. Please give me more touchdowns! Legit though, I actually really did enjoy the first round of games, but I would love to see the action which many of these teams usually promise, particularly the star-studded Saints, Rams and Chiefs offenses in particular.
Ste: I think Colts & Chiefs could be a shootout as the Chiefs have a poor D but an excellent O. I’m not sure any of the other games will go that way though.
Finally, your predictions...
David: Colts 30-27 Chiefs (OT), Vinatieri with another iconic snowy FG in January and Reid with another January disaster… Cowboys 17-31 Rams, Aaron Donald doing Aaron Donald things to make this the most lopsided game of the weekend… Chargers 20-23 Patriots, I’ll believe the dynasty is dead when I see the body… Eagles 23-27 Saints, the Eagles threatening the upset for 58 minutes before Drew Brees delivers in the clutch.
Alan: The Colts go to Kansas City and keep the momentum going with a 31-27 win, the Rams outlast the Cowboys 24-20, the Patriots will get it done against the Chargers 27-24, and the Saints will obliterate the Eagles 28-3 because the football gods hate me and want me to suffer as much as possible.
Tyler: Ah, this part. Chiefs, Rams, Patriots, Saints.
Ste: This is tough! I’ll play safe and take the Chiefs, Rams, Patriots, and Saints.