When Andrew Luck hit Dontrelle Inman for an 18-yard touchdown pass to put the Colts up 21-0 in Houston, the game felt over. Dak Prescott’s touchdown run that gave Dallas a 24-14 lead over Seattle ended up icing the game, and a 23-3 deficit was too much for the Ravens to overcome against the Chargers.
During Wild Card Weekend, the first team to reach 20 points went 3-0, with neither team in the Eagles-Bears game making it there.
Of the 37 playoff games since the start of the 2016 playoffs (including this past weekend), teams who hit the 20-point mark first went 28-3, with six games seeing neither team get to 20.
The three teams who scored 20 points first and didn’t win were the Falcons in Super Bowl LI against the Patriots, the Jaguars in last season’s AFC Championship Game in New England, and the Chiefs who blew a 21-3 lead in last season’s Wild Card Round.
And without every member of the Atlanta Falcons forgetting how to play football at the same time, a controversial call with Myles Jack’s knee, and Marcus Mariota throwing a touchdown pass to himself on one of the flukiest plays you’ll ever see, that 28-3 would be 31-0.
20 really is the magic number. In a league where offense ruled the league throughout the season, the weather has gotten colder and the defenses have gotten tougher as the season has progressed. Nobody on Wild Card Weekend even scored more than 24 last weekend, but will that hold up on divisional weekend?
There’s snow in the forecast at Arrowhead Stadium for the Chiefs and Colts Saturday afternoon. That means offenses are going to have a harder time moving the ball, and points will be at a little bit more of a premium than they normally are in Kansas City games.
To give these teams credit, the Colts managed to win three times this year when losing the race to 20 (3-4 overall), and Kansas City did twice (2-3 overall). This isn’t as stark a contrast as the game in New Orleans, where the Saints are basically a lock when they win the race at home and are dead when they lose it.
But the odds look much better for both when they do. Indianapolis had a 23-13 lead on Cincinnati in the season opener and lost the game, but won their next eight games hitting 20 first. The Chiefs went 10-1 when winning the race this season, and the only loss came with a touchdown and two-point conversion by the Chargers with four seconds remaining.
In terms of winning the actual race, it all comes down to the unstoppable force vs. the immovable object up front when the Colts have the ball. The Colts allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL this season with just 18, but Kansas City led the league in sacks with 52. If Andrew Luck gets time he’ll pick apart Kansas City’s 31st ranked pass defense, but that’s a big if.
The first second round playoff football in Los Angeles since 1990 will go down on Saturday night as the Dallas Cowboys take on the Rams. Sean McVay’s team is 12-0 when they win the race to 20 this season, 1-2 when they don’t, and had one game where neither team made it. Once their offense gets rolling it has been very tough to slow down, giving Dallas their best chance if they can turn the game into a rock fight.
Fortanutely for the Cowboys, their best win this season came in a game like that where they beat the Saints 13-10. They were 10-0 when they hit 20 first, and have a defense capable of teeing off on Jared Goff if they’re working with a lead and can eliminate the rushing attack Los Angeles builds their offense off of.
The Patriots and Chargers are a combined 22-1 when they score 20 first this season, and the one loss came on arguably the craziest play of the 2018 NFL Season in the Miami Miracle. It’s even more daunting for opponents who let the Pats get to 20 at Gillette Stadium.
The last 19 times the Patriots won the race to 20 in Foxboro, they are 19-0. Over the last seven seasons, the Patriots are 49-1 at home when they win the race to 20, with the one loss coming to Seattle in November of 2016. And in the Tom Brady era, they’re 19-1 in playoff games where they win the race, the outlier coming in the 2006 AFC Championship Game.
The recipe for the Chargers to break through the mystique will be similar to what they did in Baltimore last week. Their front four got enough pressure on Lamar Jackson to allow Gus Bradley to roll with seven cornerbacks and lock up the passing lanes. Their 23-3 lead was almost breached, but that 20+ number proved too much for the Ravens to overcome with a fourth quarter comeback.
And finally, the elephant in the room when it comes to the 20-point argument The only team who didn’t score 20 last weekend but still found a way to win is the Eagles, and they’ll be facing the high-flying Saints.
Can Nick Foles get to 20 points at all? And taking it a step further, can he beat Drew Brees to the mark?
You have to go back to week 1 of the 2016 season to find a game in the Superdome where the Saints scored 20 points first and fell. They’ve played 23 home games since then, hit the 20-point plateau first in 16 of them, and went 16-0 in such games. On the other hand, they went just 1-6 when failing to score 20 first in that time period.
Philadelphia’s defense is the strength of their team, but in their last three indoor games they’ve allowed an average of 36.7 points per game, including the 48-7 walloping they took in New Orleans earlier this season.
The type of football they want to play—whether that’s beating Chicago 16-15 or Atlanta 15-10 last year or shutting out Washington to get into the playoffs—probably can’t be played on Sunday against Brees in the dome. They went 0-7 this year when losing the race to 20, and 10-0 when either winning the race or the game finished in the teens. Their offense isn’t built for the type of comeback required when the other team hits 20, and hasn’t been all season.
In total, the eight teams remaining in these playoffs went a staggering 81-3 this year when they won the race to 20, 9-29 when they didn’t, and languished at 4-6 when neither team scored 20.
This weekend features four very different games in terms of styles, from a passing shootout between Luck and Mahomes to a ground and pound game with Gurley and Elliot, but one common denominator remains everywhere.
Score 20 points first, or you almost certainly won’t be playing again this season.