Wild Card Weekend featured some thrillers last week, with three of the four games being decided by one score. However, in recent years, home teams have stampeded through the divisional round, crushing many underdog dreams. This time around, it feels like some of the underdogs have a real shot, while for others the magic is likely to run out.
Saturday, 4:35 pm EST: Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs
The Colts come into Arrowhead as the league's hottest team, winning 10 of 11 just to be here. Andrew Luck is clicking behind the dominant offensive line, and the defense has done enough in key spots, but facing Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs will be a test this unit has not faced, and Kansas City has their best chance to make a playoff run in the Andy Reid era.
KEY FOR COLTS
Control the tempo.
Who ever thought the best gameplay for Indianapolis might be for Andrew Luck to be a glorified game manager. Now, I'm not advocating for a gameplan that completely wastes a Hall of Fame quarterback like Seattle did last week. However, this team has an imposing offensive line and they should use it, particularly against one of the few offenses that can actually beat them in a shootout. Let Luck do his thing, but don't be afraid to go a little slower and mix in running plays to keep the Kansas City pass rush at bay.
KEY FOR CHIEFS
There are a number of reasons the Chiefs should look to jump on Indy early. For starters, they have a quarterback making his first career playoff start, and it would nice to get him going early. Also, the Colts are feeling really confident, and they believe they can win, particularly given the narrative around these teams playoff history, if they are allowed to stick around, their belief will only grow, and who knows, maybe Andy Reid still struggles with clock management. Finally, from a matchup standpoint, the Chiefs want to make the Colts one dimensional. Andrew Luck is more than capable of playing catch up against most teams, but the Chiefs offense has been historically great and they will not be easy to hang with, particularly if they build a quick lead.
SCORE PREDICTION: Colts 21, Chiefs 28
Saturday, 8:15 pm EST: Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams
The media is buzzing about the Cowboys following their admittedly impressive win over Seattle on Saturday, while the 13-3 Rams come into this one with virtually no buzz. Dallas might be 8-1 in Jerry's World, but they will have to leave the confines of their dome for this one, and at just 3-5 on the road, they will need to find takeaways and big plays to make the upset happen.
KEY FOR COWBOYS
Bring the heat.
With Todd Gurley still banged up and Jared Goff fizzling without a strong ground game, Los Angeles looks vulnerable at the wrong time. Dallas want this game to be a war of attrition with few points, and getting to Goff is going to be critical. Goff has struggled when under pressure this season and the Rams play action concepts can be disrupted by it. Dallas have no shot in a shootout, but if they can force Goff into mistakes, they have a puncher's chance.
KEY FOR RAMS
Get back to business.
Sean McVay's team have not been themselves since a 15-6 dismantling at Soldier Field revealed some of their weak spots. And while this group may have liked a revenge game against the Bears, they should have been breathing a sigh of relief when Cody Parkey's kick bounced out. This matchup is much more manageable and provides a great bounce back spot coming out of the bye. Given two weeks to make adjustments, expect this team to return to form in primetime, and go from the team nobody is talking about, to the team nobody wants to play.
SCORE PREDICTION: Cowboys 13, Rams 27
Sunday, 1:05 pm EST: Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots
The Chargers will come back to the east coast for another early kickoff against the Patriots who are 8-0 in Gillette Stadium this year and have never lost to Philip Rivers. That said, Los Angeles comes in as the better team on paper and have somehow gone 8-1 away from home this season. This game should be truly great and should come down to the wire.
KEY FOR CHARGERS
Take advantage of your strengths.
On paper, Los Angeles have three massive matchup advantages. Their corners against the Patriots receivers, their pass rushers against the Patriots tackles, and their quick game against the Patriots linebackers. Desmond King has become one of the league's premiere corners, and he can play the slot, where he should see a lot Julian Edelman, if he can control Edelman, the Patriots will need someone else to jumpstart their offense. Getting pressure on Brady would be the cliche key for the Chargers, and it is important, and Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram look to be rounding into form at just the right time. Finally, New England's linebackers have had issues all year. Whether the Chargers try to exploit this with the rushing attack, Keenan Allen over the middle in the quick game, or getting Hunter Henry involved early are all options at their disposal.
KEY FOR PATRIOTS
Yes, the Patriots have Tom Brady. But to be blunt, he will have to settle for only being very good at this point in his career, a minor step down from his legendary heights. And with the Chargers strengths theoretically being an optimal neutralizer for an offense like New England's, they may want to mix it up and get Sony Michel involved. Los Angeles is somewhat vulnerable up the middle, and their linebackers are also a weakness. Use Michel to open up the other pieces and force Bosa and Ingram to respect the run.
SCORE PREDICTION: Chargers 21, Patriots 24
Sunday, 4:40 pm EST: Philadelphia Eagles @ New Orleans Saints
Nick Foles just keeps winning. Despite being outplayed last week in Chicago, the Eagles somehow slipped by to face the buzzsaw that is the 13-3 Saints. For New Orleans, they will want this game to look every bit like their 48-7 thrashing of the Eagles less than two months ago. Then again, Carson Wentz started that day, and the Eagles defense was a shell of itself due to injuries.
KEY FOR EAGLES
Keep Michael Thomas in front of you.
Last week, Allen Robinson had a field day against Eagles rookie corner Avonte Maddox, and the Eagles still have almost no corner depth with Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby on IR, so Maddox will surely be out there again on Sunday, and he makes a living on being a spectacular route runner, and Maddox will look silly if he does not learn from his mistakes, and allows Thomas to burn him with double moves and fades like Robinson did.
KEY FOR SAINTS
Do not let the Eagles hang around.
Similar to the Colts, the Eagles are burgeoning with confidence at just the right time, and they will believe in Nick Foles to get the job done if he has a chance to win it late. The Saints need to crush this hope early and get the Eagles thinking about their 48-7 debacle, rather than their recent playoff heroics, it's the only way to be sure the Eagles luck runs out, and the Saints don't get stunned in the playoffs again.
SCORE PREDICTION: Eagles 17, Saints 28
The Divisional Round has everything a fan could want. Upstart underdogs, battles between all time greats, and the playoff debut of the likely MVP. It should lead to another thrilling weekend of football, one that will set up storyline ridden and exciting conference championships.