AFC: #5 Chargers vs #2 Patriots, 1:05 PM ET, CBS
This game is featuring two of the most complete teams in the league. There’s been a notion that the Patriots haven’t been as good as usual, but when you look at the numbers it really doesn’t pan out like that. Although the argument could be made that the reason their numbers pan out the way they do is because of the division they play in. While on the other side the Chargers have been one of the more complete teams in the league and they actually finished the regular season with a better record than the Patriots and despite being the five seed, they nearly had home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.
Even though the Patriots have good defensive numbers, they do have spotty numbers trying to defend the pass, which is something that could prove to be very tough going against this really balanced passing attack the Chargers have.
Los Angeles has a number of different guys that can be big-time threats in the passing game, lead by Keenan Allen, but they also have guys like Mike Williams, Tyrell Williams, Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler. On top of all those guys they are also getting tight end Hunter Henry back for this game and he showed a lot of talent in his first two seasons, putting up over 1,00 yards and 12 touchdowns between the two seasons. And, as Stephen A. Smith would gladly tell you, Hunter Henry is a difference-maker.
I don’t see the Patriots giving up a ton on the ground in this game because they did rank 11th in the league in defending the run. Even with Melvin Gordon being one of the top running backs in the league, the Chargers are still more of a passing team, so I don’t anticipate them trying to run too much on that New England front. Just enough to keep them honest and be able to utilize play action.
When New England has the ball this will be a really fun matchup. For years the Chargers have been able to put up points, but now they have a defense to match that offense. They ranked 8th in the league in scoring defense this season, but now they will have the ultimate test, trying to go on the road and beat Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in the playoffs when they’ve had a week to prepare.
The thing about New England this season compared to previous seasons is that they have a really good running game. Behind Sony Michel, they ranked 5th in the league in running the ball this season. They have been really tough to stop this season because of how much of a threat the New England passing game is, and for the Chargers, nose tackle Brandon Mebane won’t be playing, which will make stopping this run game even more difficult.
Last week the Chargers had no problems stopping the Baltimore offense for most of the game, but trying to stop this New England offense is a whole new animal because Lamar Jackson is no Tom Brady, plus, as I mentioned, the Patriots can also run the ball.
To me, this kind of resembles when the Jaguars went into New England last year in the AFC Title Game. They came in with a very good defense and as a team that could run the ball, but the Chargers are coming in with a much better quarterback than Blake Bortles and the Chargers also have a better group of receivers.
Overall I see this being a really tight game that comes down to the wire and could very well come down to a very last possession and whoever has the ball last. The Chargers have all of the makings of a team that is capable of going into New England and pulling off a win that not many teams have been able to do over the years. A huge part for the Chargers is going to be winning on first and second down to make sure that they are facing manageable third downs. The Patriots don’t have a very strong pass rush, but having to face a road crowd in the playoffs on third and long is very difficult no matter what defense or pass rush you are facing.
Part of me wants to go with the Chargers in this game because I believe they are the more well-rounded team, but ultimately I can’t pick against the Patriots in a home playoff game where they’ve had an extra week to prepare.
Pick: Patriots win 27-24
NFC: #6 Eagles vs #1 Saints, 4:40 PM ET, FOX
After going on the road to Chicago, the Nick Foles-lead Eagles will have to go on the road to face the number one seed in the NFC New Orleans Saints. This is a rematch of a game played earlier this season in which the Saints won 48-7. I’m not expecting that type of score to happen again because at that point in the season the Saints were playing as good as they did all season and the Eagles were in a free fall, but are much more dialed in now.
The New Orleans defense isn’t the best in the league, but they are a good unit that is able to come up with timely stops and they do a pretty good job of forcing turnovers, which usually leads to quick strikes by their offense and then it turns into a snowball effect on the opposing team.
It’s going to be critical for Nick Foles to be able to take care of the ball, playing on the road in a tough place to play. What definitely helps the Eagles is that the Saints secondary has been inconsistent this season, ranking 29th in the league in pass yards allowed.
With the way the Eagles have been passing the ball since Nick Foles took over and really with the way they played during last seasons Super Bowl run, this is something that can be an advantage for Foles and that passing game. On top of that, Doug Pederson is good at drawing up offense, specifically a passing game. If Philadelphia is going to win this game, Nick Foles is going to need to come up huge.
What New Orleans is able to do to counteract their struggles in the secondary, is they have a very good pass rush. They are lead by Cameron Jordan, who finished the regular season with 12 sacks, but they also have a number of other guys who have contributed so offenses can’t focus too much attention on trying to just keep Jordan away from their quarterback.
The Saints also defend the run extremely well. So well that they finished 2nd in the league in rush yards allowed per game. This, combined with the pass-rush, does a lot to cancel out the struggles the Saints have with pass defense.
Over the past two weeks, closing out the regular season against the Redskins and then beating the Bears last week, the Eagles defense has been playing better, but up until then they weren’t playing nearly as good as they did last season.
That goes both ways though, because over the last couple of games of the regular season, the New Orleans offense, which had been as good as anyone in football this season, really struggled with consistency. They were really getting behind the chains on first and second down and were becoming predictable. A lot of that can seem to be attributed to the injury issues that left tackle Terron Armstead was having. He will be back and as healthy as he’s been in a number of weeks for this one, as are some of the other Saints linemen that were dealing with injuries.
Having the offensive line in tack is huge for the Saints, because when they are healthy and getting a push up front they can run the ball all the way down the field and not make Drew Brees have to do anything but then they can also hit teams with play action and create big plays in the passing game.
The Saints will also need to get Alvin Kamara re-involved in the passing game, because he’s such a dangerous weapon when he is being involved in both the running and passing game and then they can get to splitting him out wide and running Mark Ingram between the tackles. All of that makes things easier on the outside for Michael Thomas.
Philadelphia has a lot of the same problems in the secondary that New Orleans does. A lot of that is because of injuries, but the facts remain that they have struggled to defend the passing game of opposing offenses, especially teams with a good-to-great quarterback and a go-to receiver. The Saints happen to have a great quarterback and one of the best go-to receivers in football in Michael Thomas.
Overall I think the Eagles will compete a lot better in this game than they did in these two teams meeting back in November. Their defense hasn’t been playing great, but it has been better and their offense has been moving the ball a lot more consistently since Nick Foles took over. But I think the Saints having an extra week to prepare will be huge and with them playing at home it’ll be equally as big and they will be able to move the ball closer to what they were able to do earlier in the season and the defense should force some turnovers with them being at home in the dome.
Pick: Saints win 34-21