NFL Playoffs Debrief: Previewing the Divisional Round matchups

Print

It's Nick Foles' league until somebody beats him. Those are the rules and it's up to the Saints to change them, less than two months after the Saints appeared to end Philadelphia's season with a 48-7 blowout back in Week 11.

Wild Card Weekend was full of winners, like Foles, who got there the hard way. The Colts have been in playoff mode for months, with one loss since mid-October. The Chargers are 8-1 on the road, although it feels like they've played all 17 games on the road. The Cowboys have won eight of nine games since talk of Jason Garrett's job security hit its nadir at midseason, with all eight wins coming in one-score games. Who is to say these teams can't continue to beat the odds?

More than any season in recent memory, all eight remaining teams have a legitimate chance to win the Super Bowl. That should make the Divisional Round delicious, so let's look at three things to watch in each matchup before breaking down what we know and what we don't after the first weekend of playoff football.

Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs, 4:35 p.m. ET on Saturday, Jan. 12 (NBC)

1) There will be a lot of talk about the last time the AFC Andys, Reid and Luck, faced off in the playoffs. While these Colts and Chiefs teams bear little resemblance to the ones that met in the Wild Card Round five years ago -- when Indy overcame a 28-point third quarter deficit -- the weight of Chiefs playoff history looms over Arrowhead Stadium.

That loss to the Colts ended Reid's first season in Kansas City, and the Chiefs have lost three more painfully close playoff games in the four seasons since. The Chiefs have improbably lost six straight home playoff games dating back to 1995, including each of the last two seasons. This Chiefs squad is unquestionably the best one yet with a historically good offense led by its 23-year-old MVP-to-be Patrick Mahomes. But the surface parallels between this team and Reid's 2013 and 2017 groups -- defined by scorching hot starts and sluggish finishes -- will be hard for worrying Chiefs fans to ignore. The Colts are 10-1 over their last 11 games and the Chiefs are 7-4, so this isn't your average No. 6 seed vs. No. 1 seed matchup.

2) Chiefs safety Eric Berry is an X-factor on a defense that has struggled to find the right mix in the secondary. Berry, who missed the first 13 games of the season, gave the team a moderate boost after taking 99 snaps in Weeks 15-16, but missed the season finale after a recurrence of his foot injury. Reid was still scrambling to settle on a rotation at cornerback late in the season, inserting undrafted rookie Charvarius Ward into a starting role over Orlando Scandrick in Week 16, where Ward figures to stay. The Colts' creative scheme can test the depth of any secondary, as Houston learned in the Wild Card Round. No one schemes receivers open right now like Colts coach Frank Reich.

3) Indianapolis' defense has been greater than the sum of its parts all season. The Colts don't have a natural pass rusher, so they need to blitz often to create pressure and play excellent fundamental team defense. They also haven't faced any team remotely like the Chiefs. The Colts' defense faced the easiest opposing slate of offenses according to Football Outsiders, with the Giants being the toughest matchup they've faced since they started winning in Week 7. To put it another way: The Colts will need to score more than 21 points in Kansas City.

Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams, 8:15 p.m. ET on Saturday, Jan. 12 (FOX)

1) Late during Dallas' impressive slugfest against the Seahawks on Saturday, FOX analyst Troy Aikman noted that the Cowboys were ready to go into their "four-minute offense" to drain the clock. It could be argued that's their only offense.

This is a matchup between two of the league's premier running backs, who are utilized in very different ways. The Cowboys are happy to run Ezekiel Elliott to slow the pace of the game and limit possessions, while the Rams love to use tempo and will go away from Todd Gurley entirely if they don't like the matchup. Gurley hasn't played since Week 15 because of a knee injury and the matchup on Saturday night might dictate lower usage early in the game. The Seahawks repeatedly ran into the brick wall of Dallas' Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, something that Rams coach Sean McVay will try to avoid.

2) Jared Goff and the Rams' offensive line bounced back in the final two weeks of the season after a mini-slump in the first half of December. While the team misses slot receiver Cooper Kupp, Goff's accuracy is the most obvious edge for the Rams in this game when compared with his 2016 draft classmate, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott. The Rams will want to force Prescott to beat them with his arm, while Los Angeles should enter the game expecting to lean on Goff.

3) I'm curious to see how many Cowboys fans fill the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday. The Rams have done a terrific job in a short time rebuilding their fanbase in Los Angeles, but the Cowboys should have plenty of support not far from where they pack crowds during training camp in Oxnard, California. I also wonder if field conditions will be a problem. Evening Rams games, including last year's playoff loss to the Falcons, have been marred by players slipping like crazy on dewy Los Angeles nights. With all that being said, a game of this magnitude being played in Los Angeles was exactly what the NFL was hoping for when the Rams announced their move west three years ago.

Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots, 1:05 p.m. ET on Sunday, Jan. 13 (CBS)

1) A lot has changed since Philip Rivers and LaDainian Tomlinson brought a feisty, banged-up Chargers squad to Foxborough for the AFC Championship Game in 2008. This Chargers team has a much better chance at winning. There are a lot of ways to analyze the matchup, but the best way to beat the Patriots figures to be with vertical passing and a strong pass rush. The Chargers have assets that can dominate in both areas, even if Rivers hasn't been at his best over the last three weeks. Los Angeles got incredible penetration on Sunday against a strong Baltimore offensive line without having to blitz, largely because Melvin Ingram dominated. Ingram and Joey Bosa will be difficult for the Patriots' tackles, especially left tackle Trent Brown, to handle.

2) While the Chargers have been road warriors all season -- beating the Seahawks, Steelers, Chiefs and Ravens at their place -- the Patriots were the NFL's only undefeated home team. It's where all the Patriots' best performances came, especially on the ground, where they excel running behind their interior linemen. The game plan figures to revolve more around the Patriots' running backs and occasional trick plays than usual, a sign that Tom Brady and his receivers aren't playing at the same level.

3) If the "Around the NFL Podcast" and basically anyone I meet is any indication, America is over the Patriots. It's hard to imagine many fans outside of New England rooting for an eighth straight AFC Championship Game appearance, especially when Rivers has been to only one. Rivers provides a perfect sentimental bandwagon to jump on. He shouldn't need a win like this for people to recognize he's an all-time great, but it sure wouldn't hurt.

Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints, 4:40 p.m. ET on Sunday, Jan. 13 (FOX)

1) Neither team has been the same since they faced off in Week 11, when the Saints flexed a little extra in a 48-7 victory. New Orleans hasn't topped 370 yards in the six games since, getting out-gained in four of them, relying far more on its defense and situational football to close out the season. The Eagles have transformed since that game, too, and it's not just about the quarterback. The Eagles' defensive line closed out the season playing as well as any unit and the offensive line has done a terrific job protecting Nick Foles.

2) If the Eagles' defense has a weakness on paper, it's secondary depth. Rasul Douglas, Avonte Maddox, Cre'Von LeBlanc and Tre Sullivan have all stepped up, but a team with a surplus of receiving options should be able to create mismatches against Philadelphia. The larger question is whether the Saints are that team. The return of Ted Ginn helps, but receiving production outside of Michael Thomas dried up late in the year.

3) Drew Brees turns 40 years old before the NFC Championship Game. After spending too much of this decade mired in 7-9 mediocrity, no one needs to tell Brees and coach Sean Payton that opportunities like having home-field advantage may never come around again. The Saints have the best backfield combination of the Payton era and the best defense of the Payton era. If not this season, then when?

What we know after Wild Card Weekend

1) The Bears have the right head coach: Matt Nagy's ability to coax terrific production from Mitchell Trubisky was highlighted even in the Bears' loss. I was particularly impressed by the Bears staying true to their principles and aggressive in their play-calling in the fourth quarter, when Trubisky led them to nine points that should have been 13 points. I also loved the mature way Nagy spoke about the loss after the game, showing the kind of leadership that should earn him loyalty in the Bears' locker room.

2) The Texans have more offseason questions than any playoff team: With cornerback Kareem Jackson and safety Tyrann Mathieu headed for free agency, they have to rebuild their entire, faulty secondary. Jackson enjoyed a great season but he's turning 31 years old this offseason. Longtime mainstay Johnathan Joseph, who struggled Saturday, turns 35. Jadeveon Clowney is due to hit the market (more on that later). The Texans gave up on the running game late in the first quarter against the Colts and also need to fix their offensive line, an issue that has plagued the Bill O'Brien administration. The franchise is in good hands with Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt, but this was the most top-heavy team to make the tournament.

3) Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is not going to get rid of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer: No amount of angry Seahawks fans' tweets is going to change this. The Seahawks' approach of run-run-Russell against the Cowboys was hardly out of step with the rest of the season. It didn't work because Seattle incurred too many negative runs and Schottenheimer didn't adjust, calling run after run on first down even in the second half.

This is the brand of football that Carroll appears to enjoy best, even if it fails to take advantage of the offense's best players: Russell Wilson, Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett.

4) The Seahawks' front office will be busy: Schottenheimer should stay, but this will be another offseason of transition in Seattle. I count at least seven starters slated for free agency: safety Earl Thomas, linebacker K.J. Wright, defensive end Frank Clark, defensive tackle Shamar Stephen, cornerback Justin Coleman and starting guards D.J. Fluker and J.R. Sweezy.

Things we don't know after Wild Card Weekend

1) How John Harbaugh's next week plays out: Harbaugh's future should be in Baltimore. There is no other conclusion to draw when the team itself announces he'll be there in 2019 and that the two sides are working on a contract extension. ProFootballTalk's report of interest in Harbaugh from the Broncos and Dolphins, however, reminds me of how Saints coach Sean Payton parlayed similar interest into a contract extension. Following the Ravens' defeat Sunday, Harbaugh was asked if he expected to stay.

"There's a Bible verse that basically says, 'Make no oath.' No one can say what tomorrow is going to bring, other than God-willing," Harbaugh said. "... We'll see what God has in store but I have every expectation, every plan to be here as long as the Ravens want me here, and I believe they want me here."

So you're saying there's a chance?

2) How Jadeveon Clowney will react if he receives the franchise tag: Most players don't like being hit with the franchise tag and that's probably Clowney's fate this offseason. It's hard to imagine Houston coming up with the requisite long-term contract to satisfy Clowney by early March, but the team would be foolish to pass on one more year of Clowney and Watt together. Saturday's no-show by the entire Texans squad would be too much of an anticlimax to say goodbye on, right?

3) Whether Bruce Arians and Jameis Winston are the right match: All signs point to Arians becoming the next head coach of the Bucs, largely based on his relationship with Bucs GM Jason Licht dating back to their days together in Arizona. Arians "retired" from the Cardinals last year before spending a season in a CBS broadcast booth with Greg Gumbel and Trent Green.

From one angle, this looks like a desperate quick-fix effort by Licht to save his job. With Winston on a one-year contract and Arians possibly a short-term fit because of previous health issues, this is a regime that could be on the hot seat from Day 1. From another angle, Arians' track record with quarterbacks that can push the ball down the field is proven. After completing his third season in the top 10 of yards per attempt and interceptions, it's not like Winston needs to be told "No risk it, no biscuit."

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

Print

Headlines

The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop