It’s the NFL’s Best Week, and Here’s What Will Happen [OPINION]
The Divisional round in the NFL is my favorite week on the schedule. You get a full weekend of NFL football for one. In addition to the appeal for me, the only ones left standing are ones who won a playoff game last week, and the ones who played well enough to earn a bye and wait for the outcomes of those games to face the winner.
The league of 32 teams is now down to the elite. These are the most deserving eight. I've looked at each game, and this is what I think will happen:
Saturday, January 12, 2019
Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs, Arrowhead Stadium, 4:35 p.m. EST
Full disclosure, I have a cousin on each of the Colts and Chiefs teams. Dave is a linebacker coach for the Colts and Mike is the Director of Football Operations for the Chiefs so am beaming with pride even though they probably couldn't pick me out of a crowd of two.
The Colts were the surprise team of the conference for me. While I thought the AFC South could potentially present three playoff teams, the Colts were not on that list.
Last week, they disposed of their divisional rival and the AFC South champions, the Houston Texans. The hottest team in the NFL went to the hostile Texans' NRG domed stadium and came away with a 21-7 victory. The Colts began the season as I expected, at 1-5, but then went on to win 10 of their last 11. Andrew Luck is likely to receive the Comeback Player of the Year award.
The Colts defense is solid. They possess a decent pass rush, a run-stopping linebacker corps, and a better-than-average secondary. Even the special teams show no particular weakness.
That said, the Colts (a dome team) will be walking into the iconic Arrowhead Stadium on a Saturday in mid-January. This is the loudest outdoor venue for sure and maybe the loudest venue in the league. The fans are a factor.
The Colts will also face an offense that has produced 50 passing touchdowns and over 5,300 yards through the air. First-year starter Patrick Mahomes has probably earned the league's MVP for the 2018 season.
Kansas City has earned the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. Much of that labor was accomplished before the disaster of losing outstanding running back Kareem Hunt to a disturbing behavioral issue. Their second-string back, Spencer Ware, is also facing injury issues. He is expected to suit up in the AFC playoffs at some point.
Since Hunt was suspended, the Chiefs are 3-2, with two wins against the lowly Raiders and the other an overtime win at home against the Ravens.
The juggernaut offense of the Chiefs will enjoy home-field advantage but has some psychological humps to get over.
One is a head coach with a black cloud over his head in the postseason. Andy Reid's playoff reputation is becoming a growing concern, the playoff loss at home last year to the Titans being the latest example. The young quarterback is going to be in his first NFL playoff game— or any post-season game at all since high school.
Tight end Travis Kelce and receiver Tyreek Hill are amazing weapons to contend with, but Mahomes will be facing pressures not just by the Colts but potentially from the lack of an effective running game, but also the scope of the game and the weather.
I typically don't trust teams that can't run the ball. By the game's start, the snow is supposed to have stopped but is expected to dump 2-4 inches through the morning. Game time temperatures are expected to be near the freezing mark.
Kansas City has two things that make them exceptional: a pass rush and a passing game. If the Colts can run over them (which has often happened to KC this year) and the conditions for catching Mahomes' fastballs aren't ideal, this could be a major problem for the Chiefs.
By the fourth quarter, good pass rushers are far more exhausted from chasing and tackling running backs, compared to trying to collapse the passing pocket.
It all comes down to the Colts' ability to run. I think they will put up at least 130 on the ground. I don't think Mahomes will enjoy a big enough statistical day of passing, either.
Colts 30, Chiefs 26.
Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams, Los Angeles Memorial Stadium, 8:15 p.m. EST
I see this as the toughest game to predict of the four this week. Dallas, at times, can look like a real contender and without notice, offers a bipolar performance that reminds us of the long, agonizing period of time that has passed since Dallas was a contender.
Since their terrible start, though, they are hot—winners of eight of their last nine since the thumping they took at the hands of the Titans on November 5. The only team to defeat them since is the only team that's hotter, the Indianapolis Colts, who shut them out 23-0 in Indy.
The Rams have earned the bye week rest and the right to host the Cowboys: 8-0 in the first half of the season and 5-3 in the second half. Against playoff teams, the Rams are 4-3. This is a very good team with few weaknesses and the league's premier running back (sorry Ezekial Elliott fans, but Todd Gurley is No. 1).
The Cowboys will have their hands full with this defensive line. They can rush the passer and stuff the run. The Cowboys are equipped with an excellent running back, yes, but also with a terrific offensive line. This is where this game will be decided.
If Dallas can move the ball through physicality, this could wear down the vaunted Rams D-line.
The young Rams coaching staff is doing a fine job but did face an upset loss at home to the Falcons last year and that will be in their heads.
Oddly, I feel that it is the home team that needs to build and maintain a lead, not the road team. If the Cowboys are right in this game until the end, I think they take it.
Really tough to say but I'm predicting a Cowboys road win.
Cowboys 27, Rams 24 in overtime.
Sunday, January 13, 2018
Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots, Gillette Stadium, 1:05 p.m. EST
The Patriots' just-shy-of-immortal quarterback Tom Brady is 41. He is starting to play like he's, well, 36. For most humans, it means post-peak, but Brady isn't most humans. Brady quietly compiled a decent season and in part by using people he'd just been introduced to for his targets.
What started as a less-than-promising season (by Patriots standards) ended with a No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs. Brady has been nursing a knee injury since he caught a pass in Week 10 against the Titans. I can think of no year in this dynasty's run since 2001, where the Pats needed the bye week rest more than this 2018 season.
Rob Gronkowski is obviously ailing and hasn't had his famed speed and movement since the season opener when he had a monster second half against the Chiefs. He is perceived to be stiff, slow and just not the greatest tight end in history, as he's been called.
While Brady added to his near-record career passing yardage in '18 with 4,355 yards, his TDs were down to 29 with 11 interceptions. While that concerns me a bit, I am also aware of some positives.
The Patriots rushed for 18 touchdowns. The four-headed monster of Sony Michele, James White, Rex Burkhead, and James Develin has been very effective and also produced many first downs and a balanced attack to keep defenses honest.
The team has become increasingly more physical in the second half of the year and despite two key losses, one in Miami and one in Pittsburgh, the defense has played much better.
Cornerback J.C. Jackson (an undrafted rookie out of Maryland) has made incredible strides as the most recent starting defensive back for the Patriots. He competes every play and has earned his position. Keep an eye on him, because Philip Rivers will be doing exactly that.
If you take away the Dolphins game, which was lost on the last play, you'd have to go back to Week 10—before New England's bye week—when any team scored 20 or more on them.
In typical fashion, Bill Belichick has coached this team to improve mid-season.
The Los Angeles Chargers enter Foxboro with some swagger, holders of a 13-4 record thanks to their road win in Baltimore for the Wild Card playoff week.
I actually predicted them to win the AFC West before the season and to be in the AFC Championship game. I was wrong on the former and hope to be on the latter as well.
It is no longer necessary for Rivers to put up big numbers for this team to win. They have a premier running back in Melvin Gordon (although he did not practice yesterday) and they also have a very good and balanced defense. Only three teams have scored 30 or more against the Chargers: the Chiefs, the Rams, and the Steelers.
I do trust the Patriots to win this game at home, where they have been undefeated this year. But the Chargers are also 7-1 on the road in the regular season and 1-0 on the road so far in the playoffs.
That said, the Chargers basically escaped with a win after facing Ravens QB Lamar Jackson, who put on a historically bad performance for the first 53 minutes of the game. But for Jackson's fumbling hands, the Ravens were in a position to win the game at the end.
It's not that I'm not worried (because I am), but Bill Belichick has prepared this rested team for two weeks. The Chargers have gone from L.A. to Baltimore to L.A. and now to Boston in just eight days.
Philip Rivers is 0-7 against Brady and 0-2 in the postseason against him.
The Patriots under Belichick average 39 points historically in the AFC Divisional week.
The game-time weather to welcome the southern Californian Chargers is expected to be subfreezing at 26 degrees, and with winds to provide a real feel temperature of 23 degrees.
Brady is 20-3 at home in New England in the playoffs. He has thrown 47 TDs and 18 picks at home in the postseason.
Rivers has a 5-5 playoff record with two road wins, at Cincinnati and last week at Baltimore. He has thrown nine touchdowns and four interceptions on the road in the postseason. Against Belichick defenses in playoff games, Rivers is 0-2 with no touchdowns and three picks.
These all seem like little things, but when it comes to playoff football, little things matter.
Patriots 30, Chargers 23.
Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints, Mercedes-Benz Superdome, 4:40 p.m. EST
I realize they are the defending world champions and that Nick Foles is starting to look like he is drinking the TB12 formula, making him unkillable in the playoffs. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sure.
It is over here for the Eagles. The Saints are going to dismantle this team and dismantle them early.
There's just way too much going for the Saints, including a Hall of Fame quarterback in Drew Brees, an effective running back tandem, top-five wide receiver, and a top-three defense. To me, it is unimaginable that Philadelphia even competes.
Saints 41, Eagles 17.
Ken Pittman is the host of The Ken Pittman Show on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @RadioKenPittman. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.