As good as the wild-card round was around the NFL, the divisional playoffs this coming weekend are expected to be even better. Given what we saw last weekend, that’s hard to believe.
Even then, all four games offer a tremendous amount of intrigue. Over in the AFC, Indianapolis heads into Kansas City to take on the No. 1 seed Chiefs having won 10 of its past 11 games. Meanwhile, Philip Rivers will look for a career-defining win against Tom Brady and the Patriots in New England.
The NFC doesn’t lack storylines, either. We're intrigued to see what Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys can do in Los Angeles against a quarterback in Jared Goff who must prove naysayers wrong. And in New Orleans, the defending champion Eagles will look to continue riding the magic that is Nick Foles.
These are among the top storylines for the NFL Divisional Playoffs.
Protecting home field in Gillette
New England was the only NFL team to finish the regular season with a perfect 8-0 mark at home. Tom Brady and Co. outscored their opponents by an average of 16.3 points per game in those eight outings. This included wins over eventual playoff teams in that of the Texans, Colts and Chiefs. It’s also important to note that all eight of New England’s Super Bowl appearances under Bill Belichick came after the team hosted a divisional round matchup.
Though, Philip Rivers and Co. are not your normal opponent. By virtue of its win over Baltimore on Sunday, Los Angeles is a perfect 8-0 when playing outside of Southern California. Rivers is a grizzled veteran. He proved that in the wild-card round against an elite Ravens defense in conditions that suggested the Chargers would get blown out. Don’t put it past the future Hall of Famer to go into Gillette and come away with a rare win.
Saints set up well at home
The Eagles might have come out on top against Chicago in the wild-card round, but there’s still a whole lot of questions this team needs to answer heading into next week’s game against the NFC’s No. 1 seed. We’re wondering whether Philadelphia’s greenish secondary can hold up against the onslaught of Drew Brees and Michael Thomas at the Superdome. Remember, Mitchell Trubisky ate this unit apart at times in the second half this past Sunday night. That’s no small thing.
If New Orleans’ 48-7 win over the Eagles back in November is any indication, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and Co. will be in for a rude awakening. The Saints put up 546 total yards and 28 first downs in the blowout win. They also won by an average of 18-plus points at home during the regular season. Common logic suggests New Orleans will roll into the NFC Championship Game with a win over Philly this coming weekend.
Jared Goff must prove naysayers wrong
For as good as Goff has been in two seasons under Sean McVay, there’s still a question about his ability to perform well in big games. Prior to a get-right outing against a bad 49ers team in Week 17, Goff had thrown two touchdowns compared to six interceptions in his previous four games. Remember, he also completed just over half of his passes in a playoff loss to the Atlanta Falcons last year. That came with the Rams hosting Atlanta at Los Angeles Coliseum.
To say that Saturday night’s game is going to be no walk in the park would be an understatement. Fresh off a brilliant performance against Seattle last week, the Cowboys’ defense has proven itself to be among the best in the game. We’re highly intrigued to see how well Goff plays under these circumstances, especially with Cowboys fans prepared to take over his home stadium on prime-time television.
Chiefs have a major problem against Indianapolis
The Colts’ win over Houston in the wild-card round was eye-opening as the team relied on a dominant rushing attack and a stingy defense to take out the division champions on the road. These are two areas that have been foreign to the Colts during Andrew Luck’s tenure. Heck, issues on the ground date all the way back to Peyton Manning. In taking out Houston by the score of 21-7, Indy went for 200 rushing yards on 35 attempts.
This could be a huge issue for a lackluster Chiefs defense that was eaten alive on the ground during the regular year. Kansas City gave up 100-plus rushing yards in all but four of its games and ranked 27th overall in that category. If Marlon Mack and Co. can get it going, that will take Patrick Mahomes off the field and help Indianapolis control the flow of the game. This could be huge.
Philip Rivers looking for that career-defining win
Rivers has shown over the past several seasons that he’s a borderline Hall of Fame quarterback. But the Chargers’ veteran simply doesn’t have that career-defining victory. Los Angeles has never made it past the divisional round since Rivers took over for Drew Brees as the starter some 13 years ago. That’s a big chip on the veteran’s shoulder — one that he would like to overcome against the game’s best ever in that of Tom Brady.
The good news for Rivers is two-fold. His Chargers have played exceptionally well since a slow start to Anthony Lynn’s career as head coach back in 2017. In fact, Los Angeles has won 22 of 29 games since an 0-4 start to last season. It was also 8-1 on the road during the regular year. That should give Rivers and Co. some hope that they can defeat a Patriots team that did not lose in eight home tries this past regular season.
It’s all about St. Nick in New Orleans
On the surface, Philadelphia has no real shot against the Saints this coming weekend. New Orleans absolutely blew out the Eagles during the regular season and can be as dominating as any team at home. These Eagles don’t boast the experience and talent in the secondary to keep up with the Saints’ vaunted offense. Michael Thomas should eat. MVP candidate Drew Brees should dominate.
That’s all fine and dandy. But the Eagles have the magic of Nick Foles working for them. After leading the team on a game-winning touchdown drive against an elite Bears defense in the wild-card round, Foles is now 9-2 since his return to the Eagles last season. That includes a perfect 4-0 mark in the playoffs. Foles has been nothing short of extraordinary in the crunch time. He has the trust and confidence of his team. Sure the Saints should come out on top here. In no way does that mean it will happen.
Mahomes out to prove expectations are justified
The wild-card round saw young quarterbacks Mitchell Trubisky, Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson lose their first-ever playoff start. It was the same story with Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff in last year’s playoffs. This is a story that’s not kind to Mahomes’ chances of coming out on top against a seasoned signal caller in Andrew Luck and the Colts during the divisional round.
That’s until we realize just how darn good Mahomes was as a first-year starter during the 2018 campaign. We already know about the single-season records he broke. We also know Mahomes led one of the most-prolific offenses in NFL history. But it’s what he did against top-end competition that should have Chiefs fans excited. Mahomes accounted for 27 touchdowns and six interceptions in seven games against teams that finished the regular season with a winning record. He’s more than capable of going tit-for-tat with Luck and Co. here.
Keep feeding Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys
The Cowboys’ formula for success is rather simple. Get Ezekiel Elliott the ball 20-plus times and come away with a win. The NFL’s leading rusher from the regular season put up 169 yards on 30 touches in Dallas’ wild-card win over Seattle last week. Since entering the league back in 2016, the Cowboys are 23-7 when Elliott attempts 20-plus runs. When he fails to reach that plateau, Dallas is just 6-6.
It goes without saying that teams will win more games when they run the ball at a high clip. Under those circumstances, said teams are usually playing with a lead. Even then, the splits referenced above are too obvious to ignore. Dallas needs to feed Zeke, especially given that the Rams finished this past regular season in the bottom 10 of the NFL stopping the run and gave up north of five yards per attempt.
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