The 2018 NFL regular season has come and gone, as has the 2018 NFL wild card round. Now, there are just eight teams remaining in the quest to win the Lombardi Trophy. Today, I’ll be taking my shot at predicting the 2019 NFL Divisional Round playoffs. Considering I’m not a football analyst, this should be interesting.
Let’s dive into it, shall we?
Indianapolis Colts vs Kansas City Chiefs
Where: Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Missouri
When: Saturday, 01/12/2019, 1:35pm PST
It seems like every NFL pundit is taking the Chiefs in this game.
I get it. The Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce on the offensive side of the ball. Mahomes became just the second player in NFL History to throw for over 5,000 passing yards and 50 touchdowns in the regular season. Travis Kelce broke the single season reception yardage record for a Tight End. Of course, his record would only stand a few hours before 49ers breakout TE George Kittle broke his record.
Regardless, the Chiefs feature one of the most explosive offenses in the league, with a quarterback putting up numbers we haven’t seen since Dan Marino’s legendary 1984 season. They have the speed, the weaponry, and the coaching, thanks to probable future Hall of Fame coach Andy Reid, to take the win in this game.
But we shouldn’t sleep on the Indianapolis Colts.
While the Chiefs feature the league’s most explosive offense, the Colts are no slouches on that side of the ball. Andrew Luck has been amazing since coming back from injury, and the coaching of Frank Reich and his staff turned around a 1-5 start to the season to finish it 10-6. 9-1 over the final ten games of a season is astounding.
The Colts did this not only thanks to the league’s best offensive line (just 18 sacks allowed through 16 games), but also thanks to a relatively underrated defense that ranks 10th in DVOA, Football Outsider’s (awesome) weighted defensive ranking system.
Kansas City, on the other hand, ranks 26th by those same metrics. Really, it’s the Chief’s defense that gives me pause. Against Andrew Luck and the high-flying Colts, 26th in DVOA won’t cut it. Besides, while Andy Reid may be a great coach, Kansas City’s record in the playoffs is abysmal. However, Reid is 20-4 in his career coming off a bye, and the Chiefs are the #1 seed for the first time since 1997.
Couple this with the fact that the Colts’ have two safeties that are likely not playing in Malik Hooker (foot) and Mike Mitchell (calf), and you have a secondary that may not be able to stop Mahomes.
The bottom line
Really, I think what this game is going to come down to is who can get the first big stop. I feel like if the the Colts’ defense can make some big plays and force the Chiefs to punt a time or two, the Chiefs’ defense isn’t going to stop whatever Andrew Luck and co want to do. I expect the Colts to play smart football, eschewing flashy, big-yardage plays for chunk plays that control the clock and force the Chiefs to slow down.
Let’s face it: the Colts have the best offensive line in the NFL, both at stopping the rush and also opening holes for its backs. Marlon Mack rushed for a team record 148 yards against the Houston Texans in the Wild Card round. And Kansas City’s run defense has been as abysmal as their pass defense. I see Indy running all over Kansas City, which will help to open up Luck and the passing game.
Dallas Cowboys vs Los Angeles Rams
Where: LA Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles, California
When: Saturday, 01/12/2019, 5:35pm PST
Like the Indy-KC game, most pundits are picking the Rams. It’s hard not to; with Sean McVay at the helm, the Rams have only boasted one of the best offenses over the past two years. With a solid QB in Jared Goff, a transcendent RB in Todd Gurley, and amazing wideouts such as Robert Woods, the Rams have a stellar offense.
But at the same time, they’ve been exposed in recent weeks. Their three losses in the regular season all came to playoff teams – the Eagles, the Bears, and the Saints. That’s not something that bodes well once you’re actually in the playoffs.
Dallas, however, has been somewhat streaky. Though they started the season slow, the Cowboys’ defense has solidified themselves as a top-ten unit by DVOA. All the Rams’ losses have come to teams with a defense that ranks in the top-15 by DVOA.
It also doesn’t help that Todd Gurley has been playing hurt the back quarter of the season. Though he’s supposedly good to go for Saturday, how he’s feeling is going to dictate what the Rams can do. Gurley is a sensational back and easily the cornerstone of the Rams’ offense. If Gurley can find the space for some big gains, it’s going to help Goff and the Rams’ receiving corps get open more often.
This strategy is how they went 13-3 this year. Couple that with a defense featuring the league leader in sacks, Aaron Donald (20.5), and the question comes down to who is going to score first and who is going to make a big stop first.
This game reminds me a lot of the Indy-KC game – a high-flying offense with a less-than-stellar defense going against a more well-rounded team. The Rams are the former, the Cowboys the latter.
But the Cowboys are 0-7 in road playoff games over the past 26 years and are just 3-5 on the road this season. Their coaching staff is also somewhat suspect; Jason Garrett has been consistently mediocre since taking over the team. Sean McVay, on the other hand, is the new hot thing in the NFL.
At the same time, the Rams have sputtered since their Week 12 bye, in part because of the loss of Cooper Kupp to a torn ACL. Since week 12, the Rams saw their offensive numbers drop drastically, with Goff looking less like Aaron Rodgers and more like Alex Smith in recent weeks.
The bottom line
Like with Indy-KC, I think it’s going to depend on who can get the momentum going first. It’s going to come down to who can get a stop early and who can score early. The Rams have struggled against top defenses, but Dallas only ranks 24th in Offensive DVOA, whereas the Rams rank #1. Basically, the Rams have the better offense, and the Cowboys have the better defense. The question now is which one shows up better.
If Dallas can take away Todd Gurley’s running lanes and force Goff to be patient, it could be a long day for Los Angeles. This is certainly something that Dallas has the ability to do. Much will ride on how well Sean McVay can gameplan against a sneaky strong Dallas defense. However, I think that the Rams’ defense can stop a streaky Dak Prescott. The question now is if they can bottle up Ezekiel Elliott, which has proven challenging for a defense that has surrendered over 5.0 YPC.
This is going to be a fun game to watch.
Los Angeles Chargers vs New England Patriots
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachussets
When: Sunday, 01/13/2019, 10:05am PST
When was the last time the San Diego – sorry, Los Angeles – Chargers were this good?
It seems like the Chargers have long been the runt of the AFC West. If it wasn’t Peyton Manning and the Broncos, it was Derek Carr and the Raiders. Now, it’s Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.
But this year it seems that the Chargers have put it all together. They have been marred by injuries in years past, but seem to have largely avoided the devastating injuries that plagued them in prior seasons. The Chargers feature a stellar offense that ranks third in offensive DVOA, behind Kansas City and the L.A. Rams. They also feature a top-ten defense by DVOA as well, coming in at #8.
A top five offense and a top ten defense are going to be hard to beat no matter who you are.
That is, unless you’re the New England Patriots, who have seen an historic run of success since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady took over. But the dominance of the Patriots has been brought into question this season. Brady has looked decidedly more human as of late, as has his safety valve tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The Chargers are 9-0 outside of Los Angeles this season. The Patriots are perfect at home – which is where this game is taking place. Also, Tom Brady is 7-0 vs Phillip Rivers in his career.
But this is not the same Chargers team as in years past. Head Coach Anthony Lynn has shown his smarts on both sides of the ball, and has his players playing lights out right now. Meanwhile, New England ranks 16th in defensive DVOA, and 5th in offensive DVOA.
This is going to be yet another close game, just like the last two we picked.
It’s really not surprising. The Chargers have been one of the league’s top teams since the season started. New England started off slow (like they always do) and then rebounded – especially on defense – after their blowout loss to Kansas City early in the season.
Does that sound familiar? It’s almost like it was a few years ago, when the exact same thing happened. And then New England went ahead and went to the Super Bowl that year. And then you factor in that the Patriots are 18-3 at home in the playoffs with Brady and Belichick all-time, and the Chargers…well, they’re not.
The bottom line
This game has to come down to whose offense is going to do more. Rivers has more than enough weapons, and TE Hunter Henry and RB Melvin Gordon are both going to be active for the game. The Patriots have nobody slated to miss the game, though. However, WR Cordarelle Patterson and DB Devin McCourty have been limited in practice.
These two teams are, by and large, healthy, especially for this late in the season. It’s going to be a hard-fought battle. But it’s been a trend that offense-based teams tend to lose against teams with great defenses. What’s that saying? Defense wins championships?
I think the same thing is going to happen here.
Philadelphia Eagles vs New Orleans Saints
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, Louisiana
When: Sunday, 01/13/2019, 1:40pm PST
This is probably the easiest game to pick.
Yes, Nick Foles is something of an enigma. The reigning Super Bowl MVP, Foles has had a weird career, losing the starting role to Carson Wentz to start the 2018 season only to come back and lead the Eagles to yet another playoff berth. Though the Eagles come into the event at 9-7, they’re coming off a big win over the Chicago Bears – a sloppy win, sure, but a win nonetheless.
That momentum is important.
But on the other hand, you have the New Orleans Saints, a 13-3 team who trounced the Eagles when they played in week 11. New Orleans is perhaps one of the more well-rounded teams in the NFC, ranking 11th in defensive DVOA and 4th in offensive DVOA. The Saints’ defense has been sturdy, and though their offense was high-flying during the first three-quarters of the season, they seemed to slow down over the last four games.
But neither of those factors should play a role in this matchup. The Eagles needed to win three-straight to even make the playoffs, and then, in the Wild Card round, only won because of a last-second tipped Cody Parkey field goal.
Neither of those things bode well for the Eagles.
Factor in injuries to WR Golden Tate and Alshon Jeffery, DE Michael Bennett, and OT Jason Peters. All are expected to play, though, which helps the cause. But the fact that they’re not at 100% could make things harder for the Eagles.
The Eagles have to stop Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, and Michael Thomas. They also have to get past Cameron Jordan, Eli Apple, and Marcus Williams. I just don’t see them getting it done.
At the same time, the Eagles rank 15th in defensive DVOA and 16th in offensive DVOA, which are both lower than New Orleans. Doug Pederson has been able to coach this team to a second consecutive playoff berth despite being somewhat middle of the pack. Then again, he’s going up against a Super Bowl winner in Sean Payton and his offensive juggernaut.
The bottom line
The Eagles limped into the playoffs. Yes, they came in strong, but a limp is still a limp, even if it results in wins on the field. The Saints, while they slowed down in the last four games, also locked up a playoff berth early, and were able to coast to a first-round bye despite not playing up to snuff. They didn’t even start Drew Brees in the season finale.
I think it’s going to be an uphill battle for the Eagles. Could they surprise me and upset the Saints? Anything’s possible. But they’d have to start hot, score early, and keep the pressure on a New Orleans squad that, frankly, should be able to handle Philadelphia’s defense.
This should be a good game. But I don’t see Philadelphia overcoming a hot New Orleans team, especially at the Superdome.
Published January 11th – 2019
By: Dave Armstrong