N.F.L. Playoff Predictions: Our Picks for the Divisional Round Express News
It will be hard to match the excitement of the N.F.L.’s wild-card weekend, in which the Colts won with an upset on the road, the Cowboys barely survived against the Seahawks, the Chargers invented a new defense to stop the Ravens and the Eagles shocked the Bears with help from a tipped field-goal attempt.
Helping matters will be the playoff debut of the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and the return to action of quarterbacks Tom Brady and Drew Brees. The Rams would also like to remind everyone that it was only a few weeks ago that they were considered Super Bowl favorites.
Here are our predictions for how the divisional round will sort out, both in terms of who will win and who will win against the spread.
Record against the spread in the wild-card round: 2-1-1
Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs
4:35 p.m. Saturday, NBC
The Colts’ defense is not talked about that much. Individual players did not rack up a lot of big round numbers that could be pointed to as measures of success. Denico Autry led the team with nine sacks and Kenny Moore led it with three interceptions. The one player whose numbers stood out was the rookie linebacker Darius Leonard, who led the N.F.L. in tackles — not a statistic most people follow closely. Beyond him, the breakout star was the team’s defensive coordinator, Matt Eberflus.
Regardless, from Week 7 forward, Indianapolis allowed the fewest points in the N.F.L. And now, after nearly shutting out the Houston Texans in the wild-card round, the Colts will be asked to prove that their success is not a fluke against the Chiefs, who scored the third-most points in a single N.F.L. season.
The best offense the Colts faced this season was New England’s, and that was during their slow start. In truth, there does not appear to be a way to slow Kansas City. Led by the second-year star quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs scored fewer than 30 points only four times this season (and never scored fewer than 26), and were 3-1 in those games.
So the question becomes whether the Colts’ no-name defense and a chilly, possibly snowy day at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium can slow the Chiefs enough to let Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis offense make this a game.
There are paths to victory for both teams, but the most likely result is a win by the Chiefs. That’s hardly an insult to the Colts, a balanced team that has been fun to watch but that has the misfortune of being the first team to face Mahomes in the playoffs.
Pick to win: Chiefs
Pick against the spread: Chiefs -5.5
Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams
8:15 p.m. Saturday, Fox
When Los Angeles wrapped up a thrilling 54-51 win over the Chiefs in Week 11, the Rams appeared to have all but punched their ticket to the Super Bowl. They were 10-1, they had just defeated the only team considered a real threat to them and their defense was finally making big plays commensurate with the production of the team’s high-flying offense.
They went 3-2 the rest of the way, looking nowhere near as sharp on offense and losing the only two games they played against decent competition — wins against the Lions, the Cardinals and the 49ers were hardly something to hang your hat on this season. Along the way, Los Angeles lost the No. 1 seed in the N.F.C. to the New Orleans Saints.
That brings us to the divisional round. Coach Sean McVay, who has become the toast of the N.F.L., is hoping for a better effort from his team than last year’s upset loss in the same round, in which his offense managed 13 points against the Atlanta Falcons.
A big factor will be the health of Todd Gurley, the Rams’ do-everything running back. Gurley had 1,831 yards from scrimmage and 21 touchdowns this season, but as a result of a knee injury he has not carried the ball since Dec. 16 and is still described as limited in the team’s practice reports.
If Gurley’s knee is sound, or at least a reasonable approximation of sound, the Rams should be able to outpace the more grinding Cowboys’ offense fairly easily. But they will need to keep their foot on the gas because the worst-case scenario for Los Angeles would be keeping things close enough that Dallas can put the ball in the hands of Ezekiel Elliott. The N.F.L.’s leading rusher, Elliott would feast against a defense that allowed a horrendous 5.1 yards a carry this season.
Pick to win: Rams
Pick against the spread: Rams -7
Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots
1:05 p.m. Sunday, CBS
To hold Philip Rivers’s playoff losses to the Patriots against him is a little ridiculous when you consider the losses came in 2007 and 2008. To hold his regular-season record versus the Patriots against him might be fairer: He was 1-5 in those games, and the win came with Matt Cassel starting for New England.
This Chargers team, though, is far more than Rivers. It finished sixth in scoring offense and eighth in scoring defense this season, and if not for the unfortunate circumstance of having to share a division with the Chiefs, Los Angeles would be hosting this game rather than traveling to the harsh conditions of Foxborough’s Gillette Stadium.
Predicting playoff failures for Coach Bill Belichick and Tom Brady has been a fool’s errand, especially in the divisional round, where they are 12-2. But this game could come down to a pair of guys named Melvin.
On offense, the Chargers rely heavily on running back Melvin Gordon. He had 1,375 yards from scrimmage and 14 touchdowns despite missing four games and being limited by injuries in others. His production allowed Rivers to pick and choose when he would take a chance downfield to Keenan Allen or Mike Williams. The team had to work around his injuries in the regular season, which led to more playing time for Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson, which could come in handy this weekend, as Gordon is nursing injuries to both knees.
On defense, the Chargers can unleash Melvin Ingram on Brady. If the fleet-footed Lamar Jackson had trouble running away from the defensive end, just imagine how quickly Ingram can close the space between him and Brady.
Ingram had only seven sacks in the regular season, but he was a menace last weekend against Baltimore, with a pair of sacks and a seemingly endless stream of plays that ended up with him in the backfield. With Joey Bosa finally healthy, the Chargers have the ability to penetrate even the best offensive lines, and that could be a major disruption when one considers how thin New England is at wide receiver.
No one should be surprised if the Patriots find a way to win — that’s what they do — but the Chargers were a better team this season, and Rivers has a good chance of surprising everyone and finally beating Brady.
Pick to win: Chargers
Pick against the spread: Chargers +4
Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints
4:40 p.m. Sunday, Fox
If you subtract Week 17, when they were clearly making no effort to win, the Saints have lost just one game since Week 1, and that one was a freakish outlier in which Drew Brees and the offense simply never showed up against a motivated Cowboys’ defense.
Even in that defeat, New Orleans could take away some positives, as the defense allowed only 13 points. In was one of nine games this season in which the Saints allowed fewer than 20 points. Dennis Allen has turned the unit into something worth celebrating over the last two years.
Make no mistake, however, people come to the Saints to see the offense, and it more than delivered with the third-most points in the N.F.L. this season. Brees was brilliant, connecting with Michael Thomas for an N.F.L.-leading 125 catches, but the running game was just as vital, generating the sixth-most rushing yards in the league (2,025) and the most rushing touchdowns (26).
Philadelphia followed last year’s Super Bowl win by having the 23rd-ranked defense in the N.F.L. this season. The team has won four straight, including last weekend’s wild-card game, a stretch in which it has knocked off three playoff teams in the Rams, the Texans and the Bears. There has been no better story in the N.F.L. over the last two seasons than Nick Foles, Ace Reliever. But expecting the magic to continue is a step too far. The Saints are better at offense, better at defense and have a fairly fresh memory of being shockingly eliminated in last year’s playoffs to motivate them.
Pick to win: Saints
Pick against the spread: Saints -8.