AFC: #6 Colts vs #1 Chiefs, 4:35 PM ET, NBC
Divisional weekend of the playoffs in the NFL will get started with what should be a very interesting game between the team that had the number one offense in the NFL this season in the Chiefs and a Colts team that won 9 out of 10 games to end the regular season after starting 1-5 and then dominated the Texans on the road last week and might be playing the best football in the league right now.
Other than seeming to be a good matchup on paper, this game has some other interesting story-lines. First off, Andrew Luck is back in the playoffs and he was able to lead his team to a win last weekend after missing all of last season. The other major storyline is the Chiefs in the playoffs. Last season they had a home playoff game during Wild Card weekend and built a good lead against the Titans, but they let that slip away and ended up losing the game. The Chiefs do not have a good history in the postseason, and neither does Andy Reid, despite how good of a coach he’s been over the course of his NFL career.
Kansas City is going into this game hoping that star quarterback Patrick Mahomes can be the one to get them a playoff win and put them one game away from the Super Bowl. The MVP candidate put up 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns during the regular season. We have seen quarterbacks put up big-time numbers under Andy Reid before, but a lot of people think Patrick Mahomes is different because of his arm strength, accuracy and the weapons that he has to work with.
Now of course they did deal with some drama later on in the season when they released star running back Kareem Hunt after a video surfaced of him getting into a physical altercation with a woman in a Cleveland hotel. The good news for the Chiefs is that the running game didn’t really suffer after that. Spencer Ware and Damien Williams have done a really nice job stepping up in the running game, and Patrick Mahomes is a threat to run the ball as well.
Now on the other side, The Colts defense has been stellar over the last couple of weeks, including a dominant performance last week when they shut out the Texans all the way into the fourth quarter.
The key to the Colts’ success on defense has been their ability to stop the run. Over the past 11 games, including last weeks win in Houston, their defense is allowing just under 100 yards per game. Stopping the run will again be key for the Colts, because if the Chiefs can start running the ball, they become unstoppable on offense because it opens up the play action passing game for Mahomes and that’s when he hits his guys like Tyreek Hill way down field for big plays.
As a team the Colts also racked up 38 sacks, which is something that will also be critical for them. Mahomes is so good at improvising and if he’s given extra time with his mobility, it only increases the chances for a big play by the Kansas City offense.
When it comes to the Colts offense, they’ve been great, and more importantly they’ve been able to be balanced, which is something that wasn’t happening earlier in the Andrew Luck Era.
They’ve been able to do that behind a revamped offensive line, lead by star rookie left guard Quenton Nelson. They also have three very effective running backs in Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins. Wilkins and Mack have been the better runners, while Hines has been better at making big plays happen in the passing game.
It’s also no secret that this Chiefs defense is not good. They did improve slightly as the year went on, but overall it’s still not a good unit, and with the running game the Colts have, combined with the weapons that Andrew Luck has and with the way their offensive line has given him time to throw this season, I don’t see Indianapolis having too many problems moving the ball.
Kansas City did sack opposing quarterbacks 52 times, including two guys with double-digit sack totals in Chris Jones and Dee Ford and then another 9 from Justin Houston, this team can get after the quarterback, but the Colts have only allowed Andrew Luck to be sacked 18 times, making this a very critical battle.
The way these two teams matchup, should lead to a pretty high-scoring game, but it’s also supposed to be pretty cold in Kansas City on Saturday, which could make this game a little bit uglier and take some of the steam out of the passing games, and ultimately I think the cold weather with the Chiefs history in the playoffs has me picking a Colts upset.
I think Mahomes will still get his numbers and he will put up a good game, but the Colts are the more well-rounded team and they have a ton of momentum coming into this game, which is something that could be scary when the team facing them is coming off of a bye because you never know how teams will react to a bye week at this point in the season. I predict the Colts offensive line does a great job protecting Andrew Luck and that they use that run game to control the clock, leading to the Chiefs forcing things when they get their chances with the ball.
Pick: Colts win 31-27
NFC: #4 Cowboys vs #2 Rams, 8:15 PM ET, FOX
This game is a direct contrast of strengths. The Cowboys have been pretty much as good as anyone in the NFL this season on the defensive side of the ball, but their offense has had some consistency issues, especially in games where they’ve struggled to get Ezekiel Elliott going. One the other side, the Rams have been about as elite as anyone on the offensive side of things. They can run the ball with Todd Gurley, and Jared Goff has had his second very good season in a row in the offense designed by Sean McVay, while on the defensive side of things, they’ve definitely had their down moments this season despite some of the names they have on their defense.
For Dallas, them being able to win this game is likely going to come from the production of their offense. Despite the Rams having one of the top offenses in football, the Cowboys defense has only allowed 30 points or more in one game and that was the teams week 17 win over the Giants when they weren’t playing for anything.
What will hurt the Dallas offense is that they rely so much on running the ball and their star offensive lineman, Tyron Smith and Zack Martin are dealing with injuries. It’s up in the air right now if either of them will play, but I doubt with the magnitude of this game that they both won’t do anything they have to to try and make it on the field, but even if they are out there, they are still banged up and trying to block the Rams front is hard enough as it is when healthy.
On the flip side of that same argument, the good thing for the Cowboys is that despite the talent the Rams have up front, lead by Aaron Donald, they haven’t been as good at stopping the run as someone just looking at the roster would think.
The Rams’ inconsistency stopping the run this season is something that could be huge because the Cowboys need to be able to run the ball, because that’s when they’re at their best on offense because Ezekiel Elliott is so good, and because it takes so much pressure off of Dak Prescott.
Amari Cooper has also been huge for the Cowboys since being traded to the team, but he did see a drop-off at the end of the regular season, before putting up another 100-yard game last week in the teams win over Seattle. They will need Amari Cooper to be big in this one because if he isn’t they’re likely looking at a pretty long game on offense. It’ll also be paramount that the Cowboys offensive line protects Dak Prescott, because he’s been sacked a ton this season and the Rams are great at getting after the quarterback (mostly Aaron Donald).
For the Rams offense, it’ll also be key that they keep the Cowboys off of Jared Goff. The Cowboys have a nice pass-rush, lead by Demarcus Lawrence, but they also have a real wild card in Randy Gregory. Gregory doesn’t always play smart or with his head screwed on straight, but when he is dialed in, he completes a very nice pass-rushing duo with Lawrence.
Los Angeles doesn’t rely as much on balance, because they have a better receiving core than the Cowboys do and because Jared Goff is a better dropback passer than Dak Prescott.
With that being said, the Rams do move the ball best when their running game is clicking, because Todd Gurley might be the best running back in the league. This game features probably the top two, so either team being able to get a push up front is huge.
For the Cowboys, they’ll want to do what they can to try and make the Rams as one-dimensional as possible. Jared Goff has had some bad moments this season when they have struggled to run the ball, most notably the game in Chicago against the Bears. Unfortunately for Dallas there also isn’t going to be cold weather in this game, but the best bet for the Dallas defense is to make Jared Goff beat them rather than trying to prevent big plays in the passing game and letting Todd Gurley dice them up on the ground.
Jaylon Smith and Leigthon Vander Esch have been really good for the Cowboys this season at the linebacker position and they will probably need to play their best games of the year in this one. Sean McVay does such a good job of using motion and a lot of misdirection to get guys in his offense a lot of space, and that puts a lot of pressure on the linebackers. These two guys are both very talented, but they are also really young and I could see them coming out too fired up and aggressive and the Rams being able to use that against them.
Overall I think the Cowboys defense can keep them in the game. The Rams are likely going to put up some yards, but Dallas has done a good job this season of keeping teams out of the endzone when they reach the redzone. I think that will keep the Cowboys in the game, but the Rams will have too much firepower and the end of the day and will end up winning a close one.
Pick: Rams win 26-20