Wild Card wrap-up
Colts defeat Texans 21–7
The Colts went into Houston and beat the Texans for the second time on Houston’s home turf. They outgained the Texans by 100 yards, were +1.6 in yards per play, and had 57 fewer penalty yards.
Last week, I predicted the Colts would win because I thought their offense had a significant edge in 3rd down and red zone situations, compared to the Texans. Indy ranked 1st in 3rd down offense and 5th in red zone execution, while Houston was 20th on 3rd down and 28th in red zone execution.
Sure enough, the Colts were 9/14 on third while the Texans were 3/13. Indy scored 3 touchdowns on 4 red zone trips, while Houston was just 1 for 2, which is perfectly in line with their year-long rate of 50%.
While I nailed this game, I don’t want to pay myself on the back too much, because I was a bit off on the other games.
Cowboys defeat Seahawks 24–22
I thought Seattle would be able to establish the run and take down Dallas. The Seahawks had a superior quarterback and coach and had never been “one-and-done” in the playoffs under Pete Carroll in 6 seasons. I was clearly proven wrong, as Seattle’s #1 ranked rushing offense was shut down by Dallas’s strong front 7. The Seahawks gained just 73 rushing yards on 3 yards per carry, one of their worst performances of the year.
What impressed me is that Dallas played strong “complementary football.” Complementary football is a strategy where teams deliberately tie in all three phases of the game in an attempt to control the game.
For example, Dallas’s identity is in tough defense and a conservative offense featuring a strong running game and timely throws from quarterback Dak Prescott. This allows the Cowboys to play their way and control time of possession, limit turnovers and mistakes, and limit the number of drives for opponents, making each one more important.
Against the Seahawks, the Cowboys played complementary football by possessing the ball for nearly 10 minutes more than Seattle, turning the ball over just once with just 36 yards in penalties, and taking away the running game for Seattle on defense.
Dallas forced Seattle to play left-handed. They took away their greatest strength and forced Russell Wilson to beat them singlehandedly — and he almost did. Wilson was amazing and made several incredible throws, but in the end, it wasn’t enough.
The loss of Seattle’s kicker at the end of the half certainly hurt them and was possibly a difference in the game, but Dallas deserves credit for knocking out a talented team, even if they did have a lot more talent on paper.
Chargers defeat Ravens 23–17
After Baltimore went into Los Angeles and pushed around the Chargers just three weeks ago, I couldn’t picture Philip Rivers and company doing the same thing to a Baltimore team that’s especially tough at home. But that’s exactly what happened.
The Chargers shut out the Ravens at the half, held Lamar Jackson to negative passing yards well into the third quarter, and got consistent pressure throughout the game.
Much like the Cowboys, the Chargers played complementary football by controlling the clock (33:40 to 26:20), winning the turnover battle by forcing 3 Baltimore errors by turning it over just once and sacking Jackson 7 times. Like the Cowboys, they complemented an aggressive, blitz-happy defense by limiting risk on the offensive side of the ball. L.A. rushed more than it passed, as Rivers threw for just 160 yards on the day.
Baltimore’s defense gave the Chargers issues, as I predicted. L.A. benefitted from the turnovers their defense forced, as they scored 23 points despite gaining 242 yards. The Chargers’ offense has looked very shaky in the past few weeks, but I still think they can go into New England with a great chance to pull off the upset.
Eagles defeat Bears 16–15
In the most entertaining game of the weekend by far, the Eagles topped the Bears after a heartbreaking last-second field goal missed. In my spirit of aiming to avoid the “non-obvious” storylines and talking points, I won’t talk about the missed field goal at all. In fact, that miss wasn’t the reason the Bears lost.
Through 55 minutes, the Eagles had scored just 10 points and had just 240 yards. Up 15–10, the Bears needed one stop to win the game and instead gave up a 12-play, 60-yard drive. They got three stops inside the 10, but couldn’t get a fourth, and Philly went up 16–15. On the drive, the Bears had multiple chances on third down to get a stop, but the league’s fourth-best third down defense on the year didn’t get a stop at home.
Before all this happened, the Bears could’ve executed on a two-point play to all but ensure the game would go to overtime at worst. Chicago’s offense couldn’t pick up two yards and left the opportunity for the Eagles to get back in the game.
The reason I was off in this game — missed field goal or not — is because I relied too much on season-long stats — where Chicago was clearly the better team — and didn’t look enough at situational stats, which is why I nailed the Colts-Texans game. It’s obvious that while the Bears had a much better regular season and were the more talented team, the Eagles were worlds better in situational execution. They got stops when they needed to, scored when it mattered most and made defensive plays — including tipping the fateful final field goal — when they needed to.
Philadelphia beat Chicago on third-down execution, had half the penalty yards, and had a slight edge in time of possession despite losing the turnover battle 2–0. That’s very hard to do. Most importantly, Philly got 2 touchdowns in 3 red zone trips. Chicago was 0-for-3, and that’s the difference in the game.
NFL Divisional preview
In a weekend with several big point spreads, I think the underdogs have the chance to cover several games and maybe steal a win or two.
Colts vs Chiefs
- TOP: Indy 18th, KC 27th
- Red zone scoring: Indy 5th, KC 2nd
- Opponent red zone scoring: Indy 11th, KC 31st
- 3rd down conversion rate: Indy 1st, KC 2nd
- Opponent 3rd down conversion rate: Indy 23rd, KC 25th
Kansas City will be a tough out at home, but I have reason to believe the flashy Chiefs are overvalued. They had 12 wins, but just 2 are over playoff teams. They beat the Chargers before they were good in Week 1, and squeaked out a home overtime win against the Ravens in a game they trailed for much of the game.
The Chiefs have no bad losses, but few quality wins. They fell to the Patriots, Rams, Chargers, and Seahawks — allowing an average of 41 points in those games. Every time they’ve played a good team (teams with a winning record), they’ve given up at least three touchdowns and an average of 30.3 points.
The Chiefs try to play another form of complementary football. They have an explosive offense that ranked first in yards per game and points per game, and they can literally score on any play. As a result, their efficient offense doesn’t have the ball much — they rank 27th in time of possession. But this isn’t necessarily a problem.
The Chiefs could complement their offense with a defense that bends but doesn’t break. Kansas City is 31st in yards allowed and passing yards allowed, but is slightly better in points per game allowed at 24th. Unfortunately, the Chiefs “break” too much, especially against good teams. K.C. ranks 31st in red zone defense, which will make stopping a Colts team ranked 5th in the league in offensive red zone execution a huge problem.
After rewatching tape from the Chiefs/Chargers Week 15 matchup, I noted that Kansas City’s linebackers are slow and their secondary isn’t physical and doesn’t tackle in space or cover well. That’s a huge problem against Luck and the Colts.
I don’t believe the Chiefs can stop or slow down Andrew Luck and the Colts, even at home. Since Luck got healthy and the Colts started rolling (10 wins in their past 11 games), only an inexplicable slip-up to a talented Jaguars defense has stopped them. In that stretch, the Colts have given up 15.5 points per game after giving up exactly 30 per game in their 1–5 start.
Take away the seeds and the records. In the last 10 games, the Colts are 9–1 and the Chiefs are 7–3. Indy has a much better defense that ranks in the top half of the league in yards per game allowed, passing yards allowed, rushing yards allowed, and points allowed. The Chiefs are in the bottom 9 in the league in all those categories and are second-to-last in yards allowed and passing yards allowed.
The Colts have a much more experienced quarterback who’s peaking at the right time. Mahomes has been stellar this season, but this is his first playoff game. I think he’ll play well, but the Chiefs rely too much on him making incredible plays out of nothing, similar to Aaron Rodgers. The Colts have shown they can go into tough environments and get a win, and I think they’ll shock the Chiefs in a high scoring game.
Cowboys vs Rams
- TOP: Dallas 7th, LA 11th
- Red zone scoring: Dallas 27th, LA 18th
- Opponent red zone scoring: Dallas 9th, LA 14th
- 3rd down conversion rate: Dallas 11th, LA 5th
- Opponent 3rd down conversion rate: Dallas 27th, LA 12th
- Yards per point: Dallas 23th, LA 3rd
Last year, the Rams disappointed in their home playoff game against the Falcons. The Rams are back and better this year, and I like them to advance. Sean McVay has had two weeks to prepare and get his team rested and ready to go.
The real question in this game is if Dallas can play its brand of complementary football I talked about earlier in the show and control against the Rams. The Cowboys were successful because Seattle couldn’t control the game and run the ball. The Cowboys dominated time of possession, but it’s important to remember they were at home, where they had a 7–1 regular season record. On the road, they had a 3–5 record, while the Rams are 7–1 at home so far. This home-road split could be a significant factor, even though the Cowboys will likely have a sizable following in Los Angeles.
The Rams are far better in all categories on offense and have an edge in situational categories like 3rd down conversion rate and red zone execution rate. L.A. is 2nd in yards and points per game, and while they weren’t quite as sharp in their final three games (6.4 YPP dropped to 5.9), they were still the league’s sixth-best mark in that span. The Cowboys are the league’s 5th-best rushing defense but will be impacted by the home-road split in this area. At home, Dallas has the league’s second-best rush defense behind Chicago, but that ranking drops to 16th on the road. The Rams are second in the league in YPP at home and I believe quarterback Jared Goff will be comfortable and in control at home.
The Cowboys rank 12th in passer rating under quarterback Dak Prescott, but that number drops like a rock from 95.9 to 21st and 85.6 on the road. Dallas is also less effective running the ball on the road this year, as their mark of 8th and 125.1 per game falls to 17th and 112.1 on the road.
I expect the rested Rams to take out Dallas and win their first playoff game since 2004 thanks to a strong day from Goff and Gurley.
Chargers vs Patriots
- Red zone scoring: LA 5th, NE 15th
- Opponent red zone scoring: LA 4th, NE 16th
- 3rd down conversion rate: LA 16th, NE 12th
- Opponent 3rd down conversion rate: LA 18th, NE 16th
- Opponent Yards per point: LA 17th, NE 1st
I’m more torn about this game than any other this weekend. The Patriots are undefeated (8–0) at home this year, but the Chargers are an astounding 8–1 on the road. I believe the winner of this game has a great chance to make the Super Bowl, so I’m going to dig deep into the numbers to see which team that is.
Neither team has a clear edge in time of possession, as both are in the top 9, and both are very comparable on third down offense and defense. L.A. has a clear edge in red zone offense (5th-15th) and red zone defense (4th-16th).
New England’s defense is first in yards per point, meaning they give up lots of yards relative to the number of points they give up. Here’s what that means: the Patriots surrender many long drives, but are usually good at forcing turnovers or getting stops at the right time. Sure enough, the Pats are 5th in the league in both takeaways and turnover margin.
The Patriots are 21st in yards allowed, but just sixth in points allowed. In the last two years, they made the Super Bowl with a defense in the top 2 in yards allowed per point, which is an excellent example of their complementary football — they have a great offense that can match any team score for score and a defense that bends, but doesn’t break.
The question is if the Chargers can break that defense, on the road. This year, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has a passer rating of 105 on the road — a mark that would’ve been the NFL’s best overall last year. They’re a far better rushing offense on the road and have toppled the Seahawks, Steelers, Chiefs, and Ravens — all excellent home teams — this year. In fact, L.A. is undefeated outside of California.
I’m very confident the Chargers’ offense will travel well, even to the cold in New England. While they aren’t a great third down team, they are very good at converting potential field goals into touchdowns by finishing off red zone drives. However, one thing that is very concerning to me is that the Chargers are gaining just 4.0 yards per play in their last few games. They’re winning ugly, but they’re still winning, though this could be a point of concern.
My main question in this game is if L.A. can get enough stops against Tom Brady and the Patriots. New England is 5th in rushing and 8th in passing offense, though Brady’s passer rating is 10th — far lower than last season’s top-rated mark.
New England’s notable home wins are against Houston (in Week 1, before they started rolling), Indianapolis in Week 5 (same situation as Houston), and Kansas City in a 43–40 shootout. Of the three home wins against playoff teams (the other home wins were against the disappointing Packers and Vikings, and weak Dolphins, Jets, and Bills), only the win over Kansas City looks impressive.
The Patriots had the sixth-easiest schedule and still managed to go 3–5 on the road, where teams are truly tested. I know they’re at home in this spot, but I can’t help but feel like New England simply isn’t as good this season. Head coach Bill Belichick has extra time to prepare, but not all that extra time went to preparing against the Chargers.
I think the Chargers have better personnel on both sides of the ball and a proven track record of winning on the road. This game could certainly go either way, as it’s difficult to bet against Brady and Belichick at home with rest and time to prepare, but I simply don’t think the Patriots are as good and deep this year.
Eagles vs Saints
- TOP: Philly 1st, NO 4th
- Red zone scoring: Philly 17th, NO 4th
- Opponent red zone scoring: Philly 1st, NO 24th
- 3rd down conversion rate: Philly 10th, NO 6th
- Opponent 3rd down conversion rate: Philly 6th, NO 24th
New Orleans is a significant favorite here, and for good reason: the Saints are 6–2 at home. To me, their home-field advantage is even more significant and their home record just as impressive as New England’s. Their two losses are to the Buccaneers in the first game of the year, which is forgivable, and the final game of the year against the Panthers in a meaningless game without Drew Brees. The Saints have home wins over the Rams (45–35), Eagles (48–7), and Steelers (31–28).
Make no mistake — New Orleans won’t blow out this red-hot Philadelphia team again, the Eagles have won six of seven after their embarrassing loss to the Saints. Still, the Saints were the toughest team the Eagles faced in the regular season and will be equally as tough to stop on Sunday.
New Orleans has a league-leading 6.6 yards per play at home while Philadelphia is 25th in yards per play allowed on the road. The Saints are 26th in that mark, which can be attributed to the yards surrendered in what are often high-scoring games in the Super Dome. Like New England, New Orleans’ high-powered offense means its defense doesn’t have to be a lockdown unit like Chicago’s; it can surrender yards as long as it doesn’t allow opponents to match its offense score-for-score.
Much is made of Philadelphia’s defense led by defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, but the Eagles have actually given up more yards per play (5.8) than the Saints this year (5.7). The difference is even more drastic when comparing yards allowed per game — Philly is 23rd while New Orleans is 14th. The Eagles’ glaring weakness is its 30th-ranked pass defense, a weakness that is exponentially worse to have against Brees and the Saints than Chicago’s conservative offense.
I have no doubt Brees will have a field day at home against a porous Eagles secondary. His passer rating (112.3) is second in the league, and his passer rating at home is an absolutely absurd 125.6. That’s the highest mark since Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers posted 126.9 in 2014, a year in which the Packers made the NFC Championship.
It’s hard to see the Eagles preventing the Saints from achieving the same feat as Rodgers’ Packers four years ago, even with how well Nick Foles is playing. The Saints have scored 40 at home four times this year and have posted as many 31-point games (2) as games under 30. The Saints should score at least 35, and I don’t see Philadelphia — scoring less than 23 points per game with just three games of 30 or more — keeping pace.
Considering the Eagles are 29th in rushing yards — both on the year (94.8) and on the road (91.4) — and the Saints are the league’s second-best rushing defense, Foles likely won’t have much support on the ground. The Eagles’ only chance is through the air, and if star corner Marshon Lattimore can lock down wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey, it will put enormous pressure on Foles.
This Philadelphia team apparently won’t die, and if they can survive the Saints, they should be considered the favorite to win the Super Bowl for the second-straight season. While I think the game will be competitive, I can’t see the Eagles slowing Brees. As of now, the Saints are the team I expect to win the Super Bowl, and with a pair of wins in the Super Dome, they’ll be well on their way.