By Trent Balley and Ryan Collins
The 2018-19 NFL season is getting down to the nitty-gritty, as the Lombardi Trophy lurks closer and closer to the last locker room standing. Eight teams remain following last weekend’s Wild Card action, which means we get four equally intriguing matchups this weekend. Here’s our best insight on how they’ll each shake out.
(6) Indianapolis Colts at (1) Kansas City Chiefs
WHEN: Saturday at 4:35 p.m.
Trent: We’re all well aware by now of the offensive juggernaut that is the Kansas City Chiefs. Coach Andy Reid’s decision to move on from five-year franchise starting quarterback Alex Smith was a gutsy move. What better way to validate such a move than for young gun replacement Patrick Mahomes to throw for 5,000-plus passing yards and 50 touchdowns?
Likewise, containing Mahomes will be atop the Colts’ agenda. The bad news for the Colts is he’s got quite the assortment of weapons, including 2019 Pro Bowl selections Travis Kelce at tight end (1,336 yards, 10 touchdowns) and Tyreek Hill at wideout (1,479 yards, 12 touchdowns). The star-studded offense put the Chiefs at No. 1 in both total yards of offense and scoring.
Indianapolis’ defense finished the regular season as a top 10 defense in points allowed, and barely missed the top 10 in yards allowed, giving up only 5,431 total yards (No. 11 in total defense). In an impressive Wild Card win over division rival Houston, the Colts held DeShaun Watson and company to just seven points, after the Texans averaged about 25 points per game in 2018. That’s an impressive defensive feat.
In the event that this Colts defense does indeed stand tall once more, it’ll be up to quarterback Andrew Luck, who finished in the top 5 in passing yards (4,593), to put up points against the Chiefs’ dismal defense. Luck will be looking for T.Y. Hilton and tight end Eric Ebron in the passing game, who combined for 19 touchdown grabs in 2018. On the ground, the Colts will try to keep Marlon Mack hot, as the back took 24 carries for 148 yards and a touchdown in the Texans matchup.
Collins: Quarterbacks making their playoff debut struggled last weekend as Mitch Trubisky, Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson all lost. Thing is, Patrick Mahomes isn’t like those other newcomers. The hype surrounding the Colts after embarrassing Bill O’Brien’s Texans has media around the country calling them the most dangerous team in the AFC. I don’t subscribe to that, while Andrew Luck has been in Indianapolis the Colts are 1-3 against the spread in outdoor playoff games, and it’s expected to be a snowy day in Kansas City. Take the Chiefs at -5, I just think the Colts are overhyped.
(4) Dallas Cowboys at (2) Los Angeles Rams
WHEN: Saturday at 8:15 p.m. EST
Trent: Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott and Los Angeles’ Todd Gurley took turns taking the crown in nearly every rushing category across the board. Elliott led the league in rushing with 1,434 yards, while Gurley led the league with a whopping 17 rushing touchdowns (not to mention his four receiving touchdowns).
Both backs are undoubtedly on an elite level and are each perhaps the biggest reason for their teams’ success this season. The difference? The Cowboys’ run defense is No. 5 in the league, and the Rams are all the way down at No. 23. However, the Rams undoubtedly have the best defensive player on the field in tackle Aaron Donald who notched a league-leading 20.5 sacks.
The Rams’ offense fell just behind the Chiefs’ for No. 2 in both total offense and scoring, so who knows if this Dallas defense can contain one of the league’s best offenses? If Goff’s line can protect him against the blitz and give him time to throw downfield to the likes of Robert Woods (six touchdowns) and Brandin Cooks (five), or even Gurley in a check-down situation, there’s no telling how many points the Rams can put up on any given defense.
Ryan: Dallas last week completely fleeced my Bovada account, as they capitalized on maybe the worst offensive game plan of the season by Brian Schottenheimer and the Seahawks. The Cowboys’ defense is nasty but their strength lies in their front seven with Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch stopping the run, which is going to be nearly impossible against LA’s talented offensive line and the versatility of Todd Gurley. Even with the success the Rams had this year they’re 7-8-1 ATS, while the Cowboys are 9-7-1. Empty the account on the Rams -7 I think they win big.
(5) Los Angeles Chargers at (2) New England Patriots
WHEN: Sunday at 1:05 p.m.
Trent: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s longevity has been a hot topic of discussion for the last few seasons now. Countless football fans are convinced that the 41-year-old’s cliff dive is coming sooner rather than later. Brady finished the 2018 regular season with his lowest passer rating (97.7) in four seasons. Still, his play was just enough to squeak the Patriots into the AFC’s two-seed and earn a first-round bye.
Standing opposite Brady is Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who had an MVP-caliber season of his own. Leading the Chargers to a 12-4 record, the veteran posted 4,308 passing yards (eighth-best in the league) and 32 touchdowns (No. 6). His leading receiver, Keenan Allen, proved a very tough cover this season, finishing with 1,196 yards and six touchdowns.
The health status of star Chargers running back Melvin Gordon is unclear, as he’s been dealing with some knee troubles. If Gordon is limited, backup Austin Ekeler is far from inexperienced coming off the bench, as he amassed 554 rushing yards and 404 receiving yards this season.
The Chargers also recently just activated tight end Hunter Henry to most likely make his return this weekend. Henry caught 45 passes for an average of 12.9 yards per reception in 2017 before tearing his ACL, sidelining him for the entirety of the 2018 regular season. Rivers will be relieved to have one of his favorite targets rejoining the attack, even though Henry will surely be on a snap count.
One thing is for sure: the Chargers can’t beat the Patriots at Gillette Stadium by settling for field goals. The ball needs to find the end zone. Especially with Brady coming off the week of rest, and countless hours of film, the Chargers would benefit tremendously from striking early. Brady’s 7-0 all-time record against Rivers would suggest that a close game in the fourth quarter favors New England.
Ryan: The Chargers are road warriors, as they’ve won seven games on the road this season, which is a distinction only super bowl winning teams have held. About 60 percent of the public bets have came in on the Chargers which scares me since Tom Brady is a killer and is 7-0 against Phillip Rivers in the playoffs. The Chargers’ defense is the main reason why they’ll cover, the talent they have on the pass rush and in their secondary will make it tougher for the Patriots to blow out the super Chargers. I like the Chargers to cover +4 but the under is the best bet out of this matchup as the Chargers will look to slow the game down and New England games have gone under 11 out of 16 games this season.
(6) Philadelphia Eagles at (1) New Orleans Saints
WHEN: Sunday at 4:40 p.m.
No matter how much analysis we give on this matchup, there’s no telling what could go down between the defending Super Bowl champions and the scary home team led by legendary quarterback Drew Brees. How about the other quarterback? Philadelphia’s Nick Foles is now 4-0 in the playoffs for the Eagles, dating back to last season’s Super Bowl-winning run; and he’s been the backup-turned-starter in all four games.
Your answer is as good as ours.
In last week’s matchup with the Chicago Bears, Foles led the game-winning drive and scored with less than a minute to play. The touchdown pass to Tate even came on fourth down. So, it’s safe to say that Foles is battle-tested, unlike your typical backup. We can expect him to take the turf with his normal laid-back demeanor, and probably throw two or three touchdowns. The question should be, will the Eagles defense (No. 23 in total defense) have any answer for Brees and company?
The Saints ranked No. 8 in total offense and top three in scoring in 2018. If New Orleans is able to control the time of possession and pace of play, the margin for Philly’s errors will be little to none. Foles’ two interceptions against the Bears would be worlds costlier against the Saints this weekend.
Collins: So, this game pick and preview has no logic except that Nick Foles has made a deal with the devil. The Eagles are 5-1 against the spread in the games Foles has started for the Eagles. The Saints absolutely manhandled the Eagles in November, handing down the worst-ever loss to a defending Super Bowl champion. The Eagles thrived on the underdog mentality last year and getting embarrassed in the season’s first meeting is a huge motivation factor. I also would be scared since the Saints kind of come in limping, going 1-4 ATS in their last five. Take the Birds and the under.