Divisional Round Picks: Hot Chargers End Patriots’ AFC Reign
Last week’s stab at this picking thing didn’t go so well. I was two-for-four (picking the Chargers and Colts) but I triple-doinked on my assertion that the Bears would easily extinguish the always ignited flame that is Nick Foles. This week’s matchups are even more intriguing than round one, largely because the teams are one step closer to the Promised Land in Atlanta.
But we also have those hopeful teams that had byes, the regular season stalwarts, trying to avoid the ultimate disappointment. More often than not at least one of the top two seeds gets knocked off in the divisional round. Last season it was Pittsburgh, a 2 seed losing to the 3 seed Jacksonville. The year before the Packers knocked off top-seeded Dallas while the Chiefs, who had the 2 seed, narrowly fell to the Steelers at Arrowhead.
For as much as Patrick Mahomes dazzled us during the regular season, a Chiefs loss would leave Andy Reid 1-5 in the playoffs with Kansas City. Reid’s “can’t get it done in the playoffs” narrative would be compounded and much of the season’s magic would be erased in an instant. Over in Los Angeles imagine the fervor if Sean McVay goes one-and-done for a second straight year. Four of the seven head coaches hired thus far were required to present evidence that they have spent at least :30 seconds in the same room as McVay and vow to pray to each facility’s McVay statue at least once a day. A Rams loss could make these teams suddenly feel as if they errantly chased the next Marvin Lewis, not some utopian wunderkind.
So how will these narratives turn out, and which teams will comprise our final four? Here is my best attempt at a guess…
Indianapolis at Kansas City, 4:35 ET NBC
Before I get to the prediction, let’s pause for a moment and give thanks for this quarterback matchup. Not only is Patrick Mahomes vs. Andrew Luck manna from heaven from a talent and entertainment standpoint, it illustrates that the younger generation of quarterbacks may be even more historic than the current crop entering the end of their primes.
This game is one of the tougher to project. The Chiefs have the most explosive, speediest and jaw-dropping passing attack in football with Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Even with regressed running game since Kareem Hunt was waived for assaulting a woman, the Chiefs are still averaging 32.2 points per game in the post-Hunt era. And yes, the defense is mostly a liability with the pass rush being a strong exception. That blitz-happy unit had 52 sacks in the regular season, tied with the Steelers for tops in the NFL.
But the Colts offensive line is as well positioned as anyone to mitigate the impact of the Chiefs’ blitz – they allowed the least amount of sacks this season. If need be, Luck can get the ball out quickly and extend play and should have a field day picking apart the Chiefs ‘secondary, it’s biggest liability.
The Colts defense as a whole has also improved, anchored by dangerous tackle machine Darius Leonard. The Colts up front are sneaky good, and also savvy. Here former NFL QB Dan Orlovsky explains how the Colts schematically fooled Deshaun Watson last week and could do the same to Mahomes.
If anyone could do what @danorlovsky does with a telestrator, we’d see it all the time. But we don’t see it all the time. Because this guy has rare communication skills. He makes nuanced complexities pop out on the screen.
Nice work, Dan. https://t.co/2egnQS9wai
— Sam Farmer (@LATimesfarmer) January 10, 2019
Mahomes is a better quarterback than Watson and has the ability to make magic, but what is learned is learned. Mahomes and his historic regular season make the Chiefs a very tempting pick, as does their home field (Only the Chargers won in Arrowhead this year). But I’m picking the Colts because the momentum on both sides is impossible to ignore.
The Colts have been red hot, winning five-in-a-row. One of those wins is a shootout of the Dallas Cowboys. This is a team that is loose and confident and can win in many ways, not just through Luck, though they’ll need him at his best. The Chiefs have lost three of their last six, and just aren’t as balanced. And yes, while I adore regular season Andy Reid, there’s a slight lack of confidence in playoff Andy Reid.
Colts 42 Chiefs 35
Dallas at Los Angeles Rams, 8:15 ET FOX
The Cowboys are America’s Hottest Team, winning seven out of their eight regular season games, including wins over the Saints and twice over the Eagles. A huge part of that success has been what Kris Richard has done to improve the Cowboys secondary. It’s difficult to completely evaluate the Cowboys defense based on last week, because the Seahawks called such a shockingly conservative run-run-pass offense. But Jared Goff is going to have his work cut out, and McVay will have to call a top notch game and infuse Brandin Cooks far more into the plans. Whether Todd Gurley is closer to 100% or 60% upon his return could also go a long way in determining LA’s success. McVay has said Gurley looks like his explosive self this week, which he’ll need to be a against a Cowboys run defense that was fourth best this season.
The other key matchup is Ezekiel Elliott against the Rams front. Aaron Donald led the league in sacks with 20.5 but the Rams run defense has been poor at best, allowing 5.1 yards per carry. Meanwhile, the Cowboys have become a lot smarter with incorporating Elliott into the pass game.
Despite all the Cowboys adulation, I’m sheepishly picking the Rams because between Donald, Gurley and McVay’s play-calling wizardry, I believe they have a slightly better chance to take over the game. Also it’s the Cowboys in the postseason – something has to go awry. But this should be a close one and I’m not the least bit confident in my pick.
Rams 27 Cowboys 24
Los Angeles Chargers at New England. 1:05 ET CBS
Ah, its the best road team vs. the best home team. The Chargers are a fearless 8-1 on the road, including wins in Kansas City, Seattle and, of course, Baltimore last week. The Patriots are undefeated at home this season, and for much of their playoff history.
As Tom Brady said, Philip Rivers is a lot like him. This is true in terms of age and Hall of Fame futures, but their styles are completely different. Rivers should get a chance to showcase a bit more of that reckless abandon that was largely stripped last week by the ferocious Ravens. Like last week, Los Angeles is going to need to win the turnover battle. Brady is a different beast in the playoffs but he does have three interceptions over his last three games and more interceptions this year than any since 2013. A large part of that is injuries and the loss of Josh Gordon, leading to a consistent lack of reliable weapons. Everyone is healthy now but this passing game isn’t the same, largely because Rob Gronkowski isn’t the same. Gronk is still a big body who can make plays by sheer force but he can often be covered by one defender now, which was never the case win the past.
The Patriots win now with Sony Michel and James White and a top five running attack that averages 127 yards per game. Los Angeles stymied the Ravens top notch run game last week but their scheming will shift given that Brady’s style couldn’t be more polar opposite from Lamar Jackson’s. For the Chargers to win, they’ll need Melvin Ingram and company to apply pressure on Brady, where he’s been much less effective this season. But the big x factor is superstar safety Derwin James and how much he can disrupt all across the field, including on some blitz packages. I project James makes a major impact.
Because the Chargers are fearless, match up extremely well against the Pats, and the expected weather has shifted from snow storm to just frigid, I believe Los Angeles pulls off the upset.
Chargers 31 Patriots 30
Philadelphia at New Orleans, 4:40 PM ET FOX
Why is everyone looking for the next Sean McVay as opposed to the next Doug Pederson? Pederson’s Eagles have only won a Super Bowl, beat the Rams on the road this season and defeated the Bears in a feisty Soldier Field. Imagine if they beat the Saints in New Orleans! Of course anything is possible when you have magical, mystical Nick Foles under center. The Eagles offensive line, and particularly Jason Peters, was tremendous last week holding off Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and company. Even with pressure, Foles is so adept at extending plays and releasing the ball. The Saints secondary is one of its few weak spots, and I expect Foles to put up good numbers, especially with an emergent Golden Tate in the picture.
But this game will likely be determined by how much Drew Brees can torch an Eagles secondary filled with unfamiliar names after being ravished by injury. The unit has performed better than expected but are not a group that elevates your chances of winning. Mitchell Trubisky burned this group once the Bears decided to have an aerial attack. I expect Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram to pound the rock enough early (Ingram out up 103 yards and two scores), open up the play action for Brees and get the Saints up early to keep the home crowd providing that huge advantage.
Saints 38 Eagles 24