NFL Divisional Round Weekend picks and previews
Everything you need to know about all 4 playoff games and why the Chargers and Colts can pull off the upset
The 2019 NFL playoffs are off and running, and already things have gotten crazy. All four road teams covered in Wild Card Weekend, and the NFC East probably shouldn’t have had any playoff teams but somehow has two of the final eight. Three quarterbacks made playoff debuts and lost, while the magic continued for Nick Foles with a double doink win.
That was fun and all, but now we get to the real games. The Saints, Chiefs, and Rams have been the consensus top three most of the season, and all three of them are at home and rested. The Divisional Round is a different animal than Wild Card Weekend. Home teams win around 75% of the time in the Divisional Round. Essentially one of the four teams coming off a bye loses. The other three win, and a couple usually coast.
The NFC may have given us a couple snoozers, but the AFC features two intriguing matchups that could go either way with a pair of dangerous road opponents in the Chargers and Colts. We went 3–1 against the spread last week and have been hot three weeks running. Let’s consider every angle and make some winning picks.
New Orleans -8 vs Philadelphia
These were arguably the two most talented teams in the NFL entering the season, but things didn’t start out so well. The Saints gave up 48 to the Bucs in a season-opening loss and couldn’t get their defense going until the season’s midpoint. The defending champion Eagles never won two in a row until December, playing 13 of 17 games within one score. They got Carson Wentz back then lost him, lost most of their offensive line then got them back, and signed dudes off the street to play corner with everyone hurt.
These teams met November 18, and New Orleans absolutely murdered Philly. The Saints won their ninth straight with a massive 48–7 margin. The Saints scored on eight of their first nine drives. The Eagles gained 20 yards or fewer on eight of their 11 drives with three interceptions and three turnovers on downs. They couldn’t move the ball and couldn’t stop New Orleans. The Saints looked like the best team in the NFL and the Eagles looked done.
But here we are in the Divisional Round, and anything is apparently possible with Nick Foles and the luck of the gods. The Eagles were one of the most average teams in history by regular season DVOA but hit their stride over the last month. They’ve won four in a row, three against the Rams, Texans, and Bears. I left these Eagles for dead a month ago but they’re a better team than they were at Thanksgiving. The offensive line has quietly gotten healthy and played very well, and the secondary is starting to come together. Still, this just isn’t a great team. There are no dynamic playmakers on offense, and the secondary hasn’t faced a top-10 QB since Brees.
The Saints are just healthier and better, especially at home. In addition to the 48 against Philly, New Orleans scored 37+ six times this year. They haven’t played their starters since before Christmas so they’re rested and ready, and they have all the wrong matchups for the Eagles. New Orleans is one of the league’s best defending the tight end, so they should neutralize Zach Ertz, and Philadelphia is one of the league’s worst defending receiving backs so Alvin Kamara should be a nightmare.
The Saints are vulnerable against the pass but Philly will need more than just Nick Foles magic in this one. They can’t hope for a few key penalties and an over-conservative offense plus a double doink this week. Drew Brees will attack this secondary. Brees is 1–4 on the road in the playoffs but basically invincible in the Superdome, 5–0 with 12 TDs and just one interception.
There’s no bigger mismatch this weekend, and this game should be over by halftime. Of course, I said that about the Eagles last weekend, too.
Prediction: New Orleans 33, Philadelphia 16
Los Angeles Rams -7 vs Dallas
There’s a lot of history to this game, especially at the Coliseum. The Rams last home playoff game in Los Angeles was against these Cowboys in 1985. That was the eighth time the Rams and Cowboys met in the playoffs in an 11-season stretch, splitting games from ‘73, ‘75, ‘76, ‘78, ‘79, ‘80, ‘83, and ‘85.
This atmosphere should be incredible. Expect a Super Bowl feel to the game. The Rams hosted some of the most fun games of the year against the Chiefs, Vikings, Packers, and Seahawks, and in each case, the visiting team was extremely well-represented in the stands. The Cowboys may not be America’s Team anymore but you better believe they’ll have plenty of fans at the game. Rams home games have seen a ton of points. Outside of the historically bad Cardinals offense, the other games have seen 55, 56, 68, 67, 69, 80, and 105 points. The over/under Saturday is 49.5, in case you’d like some January cash.
The Rams score in bunches, especially at home. They’ve scored 29 at home every game this season, averaging a robust 38 ppg in L.A. The Cowboys topped 31 only twice this season. If this game turns into a shootout, Dallas does not have the horses to keep up. They need to hope for something similar to their win against the Saints. Dallas has a top five run defense while the Rams allow a league-high 5.1 yards per carry. They need to control the clock by running the ball, keep the Rams offense off the field, shut down Todd Gurley, and force Jared Goff to beat them over the top. Goff did that time and again early in the season but hasn’t been the same since Cooper Kupp went out for the season.
There’s a blueprint for a Cowboys win here. It looks something like the Rams playoff loss last year: a couple unlucky bounces, a few stalled drives in scoring position, and just enough from an inferior opponent.
Still, Dallas just isn’t very good. I refuse to be thrown off by a two-point home victory against a prehistoric offense. Dallas is the worst team in the playoffs. They should’ve won 8.4 games by point differential and 7.0 games using estimated wins. The Cowboys went 3–5 on the road. Their secondary can be beat, and they don’t have the weapons to play in a shootout or from behind. Dallas lost its last seven road playoff games by an average of over 13 points.
If the Rams make mistakes and Bad Goff shows up, the Cowboys can hang close. If they roar out to an early lead, this could be over quickly.
Prediction: Los Angeles 38, Dallas 24
Indianapolis +6 at Kansas City
These were supposed to be two of the worst defenses in the NFL. ESPN’s Mike Clay ranked Indianapolis’s linebackers and cornerbacks dead last in the NFL, along with the Colts defense as a whole. Kansas City’s corners were third worst and the defense fourth worst overall. Indy was supposed to rank among the league’s worst running backs, receivers, and offensive line, too.
Some of that has come to fruition. The Chiefs struggled on defense all year, especially against the run, relying on shootouts to beat opponents. The Colts were spotty against the pass and struggled to find healthy receivers. But a lot has changed in Indy thanks to a ridiculously strong rookie class. Top pick guard Quenton Nelson transformed the entire offensive line, as the Colts allowed the league’s fewest sacks. Second-round LB Darius Leonard is the heart of a vastly improved defense, leading the team in tackles as the likely Defensive Rookie of the Year. Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines have been dynamic playmakers at RB. Thanks to those four and others, the Colts have a balanced offensive attack with Luck’s best ever run game, and the defense is one of the best in the playoffs. After starting 1–5, Indianapolis won 10 of 11 games. The Colts are very good, and they’re set up for a long run.
The Chiefs are better. They’ve had the best offense in the NFL all year, with presumed MVP Patrick Mahomes making a couple OMG plays every game this season. The Chiefs run game hasn’t missed a step without Kareem Hunt, and the passing attack spreads things deep and wide with Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins, then picks you apart with Travis Kelce over the middle. The Chiefs scored 26 points every game. They scored 35 an incredible ten times.
The Chiefs are an offensive juggernaut, far better than any offense the Colts have faced. Indy’s best wins have come against the Texans and Cowboys. They faced only one top-ten QB all season, Tom Brady, and he hung 38 on them in the Colts’ one blowout loss. That was the only top-12 DVOA offense Indy faced all season. This defense is about to get a totally different sort of test. The Colts were among the league’s worst against tight ends and pass-catching backs, so expect a lot of Travis Kelce and Damien Williams. Andy Reid is always at his best with an extra week to prepare.
The Chiefs are built to win shootouts — or lose them. Andrew Luck has always been great keeping his team hanging around. Of course, you don’t have to tell Chiefs fans that. They remember Luck throwing four second-half TDs in a miraculous 45–44 playoff comeback over the Chiefs a few years ago. Kansas City is 1–11 in their last 12 playoff games, and the one win was against Brian Hoyer. They’re 0–6 at home during that stretch with losses by 1, 2, 3, 4, and 7, two of those to the Colts. Chiefs fans know that, and that’s why the fans could turn this into a home field disadvantage if things don’t go KC’s way early. If Luck gets hot early or Mahomes tries to do too much and gets an early turnover, these fans are going to get real quiet real fast.
Patrick Mahomes has been awesome. But he’s also struggled early in the Chiefs’ biggest games. He’s played like a rookie, needing to shake off early jitters to recover against the Pats, Rams, Chargers, and Seahawks. He’s always recovered, but the playoffs are a different animal and the Colts are a real opponent. The Chiefs went 7–1 at home but didn’t cover the spread against their two playoff opponents, the Ravens and Chargers. Kansas City went just 1–4 against playoff teams from October forward, with losses by 1, 3, 3, and 7 and an overtime win. They never get blown out with the offensive weapons they have, but they rarely win comfortably with that defense either.
The Colts run game may be the key. The Chiefs allowed 5.0 yards per carry, second worst in the NFL, and Marlon Mack just lit up a historically good Texans run defense. If the Colts can run the ball, it’ll keep the Chiefs offense off the field and take the crowd out of the game. But there’s one huge reason for optimism if you’re a Chiefs fan: Eric Berry. Berry came back from injury late in the season, and with another few weeks off, he should be able to play most of the game. Berry can single-handedly change this run defense. He can be the reason the Chiefs win this game.
The Colts are the more balanced team and they’re playing with house money. Andrew Luck has been as good as Mahomes since October. This looks like a shootout, and at some point, the Chiefs are going to have to make a defensive stop and Andy Reid is going to have to make a big decision. *gulp* Whoever wins won’t feel comfortable until the clock reads 0:00.
I’m picking the Colts to cover because I can see avenues to them winning or to the Chiefs losing and because I can see plenty of hope for a backdoor Luck cover even if the Chiefs play well. But I think the Colts might be a tad overrated thanks to a weak schedule, and I just think this Chiefs offense is incredible and will find a way to get the points it needs.
Prediction: Kansas City 38, Indianapolis 34
Los Angeles Chargers +4 at New England
This game has baffled me all week. The Chargers are better than the Patriots. They are better at almost everything. Their defense is better. Their run game is better. Their receivers are better. They seem to be the more modern team. They’re younger. They’re hungrier. I even think they have the better QB.
But … it’s the Patriots. Bill Belichick. Tom Brady. At home.
Brady is 19–3 at home in the playoffs. That’s insane. He’s thrown 45 touchdowns at home in the playoffs. Even more incredible? The Pats have played only two road playoff games since 2006, both in Denver.
That’s not relevant this week but it did make me wonder if the Pats either roll as the 1-seed or duck out early if not. New England as a Belichick 1-seed has made the Super Bowl six of seven times. In nine Brady playoffs as any other seed, they’ve won 12 games but made only one Super Bowl — and that was in 2004 when they went 14–2. The last three times the Patriots were the 2-seed, they won once, then lost on the road in the AFC Championship. The Pats as a 1-seed are invincible. As a 2-seed, they find a way at home before bowing out.
The easy narrative is that Philip Rivers has never done the job in the playoffs. I even insinuated as much just last week. But Rivers is 5–5 in the playoffs, with six of those on the road. He’s basically performed as expected. Of course that wasn’t against Brady. Rivers is 0–7 lifetime against Brady with 10 INTs, at least one every game. Two of those matchups were in the playoffs. Rivers had three picks and no TDs with a 48% completion rate, though Brady had six picks in those two games, too. Rivers has disappointed in the playoffs, but mostly it’s because his teammates haven’t shown up.
These teammates are better. They’re really, really good. The Chargers lost four times all season and already avenged two of those losses. The Chargers are the third best team in the league by DVOA and could easily be the AFC 1-seed. Their pass rush is ferocious behind Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa, and the secondary is modern and dynamic, led by rookie Derwin James.
The Patriots look … old. They haven’t impressed all season. The run game hasn’t been the same since Sony Michel’s injury. Rob Gronkowski looks done, and no one else on the Pats can stretch the field. The defense has been fine. They’ve faced only one great offense since Week 6, so it’s hard to tell much. This is not a dynamic Patriots roster. This is a team that will try to protect its 41-year-old QB, run the ball, dink and dunk in the pass game, and let the other team beat itself.
There’s just one problem. It’s New England in the playoffs, and it’s the Chargers. That boring formula I just spelled out? That’s exactly how you win in the playoffs. The Chargers allowed the most receiving yards to opposing RBs and were even worse down the stretch. You know the best way to neutralize a huge pass rush and talented secondary? Run the ball right at them and dink and dunk all game with James White and Julian Edelman.
The Patriots were the league’s only unbeaten team at home at 8–0. They were 3–5 on the road with losses to the Dolphins, Titans, Lions, and Jags, but at home they averaged an extra 11 ppg and took care of business. They’re home Sunday because they took care of business in the regular season, and they’re home against a team that just played a tough Ravens defense and flew across the country for what will feel like a 10 a.m. kickoff. No sir, I do not like it.
I firmly believe the Chargers are the better team. They’re the far better defense and the far more dynamic and modern team. I think they have the better quarterback. Heck, I think Tom Brady is the worst QB left in the AFC. I think these Patriots are on their last rodeo. I just can’t escape feeling like the Pats have just enough of the right matchups in this one for one last ride.