Previewing NFL’s divisional round playoff games

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I’ve always hated “the divisional round,” as a name for the second weekend of NFL playoffs. Doesn’t come much more boring than that. I christen this weekend the Conference Semis. The most compelling game, from my chair, looks like the first one.

Saturday

Indianapolis (11-6, AFC 6th seed) at Kansas City (12-4, AFC 1st seed), Arrowhead Stadium, 4:35 p.m. ET, NBC.

I don’t recall the last time a respected football voice (Steve Young, in this case) said of a sixth seed: “Nobody wants to play the Colts right now.” But he did, and there’s evidence for that. Indy’s 10-1 since Week 7, and it’s not just The Andrew Luck Story. The Colts’ D suffocated Houston till garbage time, using more secondary blitzes than I’ve seen in a while. Unknown corner/slot corner Kenny Moore blitzed 11 times, per Pro Football Focus, and extra men were swarming around Deshaun Watson all night. The wild-card win is exhibit A of why defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus is on the radar of several teams looking for a head coach this month.

With the Chiefs likely to get speed receiver threat Sammy Watkins back from a nagging foot injury that never goes away, that means it’s going to be an interesting race: Can the Colts’ rush get to Patrick Mahomes before he can find an answer in his five-across receiver sets? I can’t wait to see how the Chiefs try to block this Indianapolis front, and whether Andy Reid will just keep his aggressive downfield spread ethos and trust Mahomes to get the ball out quick. This game would be great strategic fun on that alone. Now add in the Luck factor, and coach Frank Reich’s ability to free up a variety of receivers weekly, and the fact that someone named Marlon Mack rushed for 148 yards, most in Indy team history, and the Chiefs have allowed 164 rushing yards a game over the last five games.

This looks nothing like a 6 versus 1 playoff game. This looks like a pretty even ballgame with great storylines.

Dallas (11-6, NFC 4th seed) at Los Angeles Rams (13-3, NFC 2nd seed), L.A. Coliseum, 8:15 p.m. ET, FOX.

Let’s step back for a minute and think how interesting it is that two years ago, the two teams now in southern California, the Rams and Chargers, were a woebegone 9-23, and league owners were rolling their eyes at the possibility of the combo platter of two lousy teams owning this valuable piece of NFL property known as Los Angeles. Now they’re 26-7, and they’re legit members of the NFL’s elite eight. Nothing is forever in the NFL.

Other than Jerry Jones getting to take his entourage to Nobu in Malibu, the best thing for Dallas about this weekend is this matchup. In 2018, the Rams gave up 5.1 yards per rush, which is beyond an Achilles heel. It’s preposterous, and it’s the biggest reason why the Rams could be endangered species when Ezekiel Elliott rolls into the Coliseum on Saturday evening. Elsewhere in this column I write about how impressive a football player (not just a great back; I mean a complete player) Elliott is. And the more the Cowboys are able to ride Elliott, the less of a factor Aaron Donald will be in making Dak Prescott’s life miserable.

The tale of two backs in this game—which will be the ratings bonanza of the postseason—has one big mystery: How healthy is Todd Gurley, and how productive can he be? Gurley hasn’t been himself since he saved the Rams with a 155-yard performance (rushing and receiving) at Detroit, and regardless whether he practices this week or is listed on the injury report, I won’t trust him till I see if he can dominate a game the way he did in the first half of this season. This game’s going to be closer than it looks.

Sunday

Los Angeles Chargers (13-4, AFC 5th seed) at New England (11-5, AFC 2nd seed), Gillette Stadium, 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS.

For the NFL-record 10th straight year, the Patriots open the AFC playoffs at home. New England’s edges entering this game: 13 days between games … Rob Gronkowski can always use the rest … Bill Belichick is pretty smart, and smarter when he’s got two weeks to prepare … The Chargers could be weary, with L.A.-to-Baltimore, Baltimore-to-L.A, and Baltimore-to-Providence flights, 17 hours in the air in all, in a nine-day span prior to the game.

Now to the football: The Chargers have multiple pass-rush threats that bedeviled a mobile quarterback, Lamar Jackson, in a seven-sack whipping of the Ravens. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are the major threats, but Justin Jones and Isaac Rochell are big and quick too, and they both got to Jackson in Baltimore. So it’s a big, athletic defense that will be the challenge for Tom Brady, with the Chargers’ weakness their injuries at linebacker. This is not a game the Chargers will want to play seven defensive backs. New England’s strength will be the ability to play an unpredictable offensive game, as coordinator Josh McDaniels has designed run-heavy, swing-pass-heavy, pass-heavy, and Gronk-light plans during the course of a malleable season—so the Chargers won’t have much of an idea what they’ll see until a little after 1 p.m. Sunday.

The Chargers won’t be cowed by much of anything. They’ve won in four times zones this year, including Greenwich Mean Time. That’s London. “We love the road,” Derwin James told me. “Maybe a lot of teams don’t, but we’re young, we’re all good with each other, and we love spending time together. The road’s good for that.” Well, whatever works. The Chargers are 8-0 outside of Los Angeles this year. Then again, New England is 8-0 at Gillette this year. Something’s got to give.

Philadelphia (10-7, NFC 6th seed) at New Orleans (13-3, NFC 1st seed), Superdome, 4:40 p.m. ET, FOX.

I was in New Orleans the weekend the Saints hosted the Eagles in November. “Hosted” is a collegial, misleading word. “Pillaged” would be better. Saints’ best six drives that afternoon in the Dome, against a team that looked dead for the year: 57, 86, 89, 89, 70, 87. Eagles’ best six drives: 75, 31, 19, 17, 16, 14. This was as brutal a mismatch as either team had all season … and now the Eagles travel to New Orleans again.

So why should it be different? Maybe it won’t be. Except for Miracle Nick Foles replacing Carson Wentz, there’s not much different about the Eagles eight weeks later. But the Saints are looking less invincible since then. After putting up 45, 51 and 48 in three straight November weeks, they’ve averaged a quite strange 21 points per game in the last six weeks (including a meaningless Week 17 game). The real Saints need to stand up here, if they’re going to win the second Super Bowl of the Payton/Brees Era. The offensive mortality has to give Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz hope.

On the other side, Foles is 4-0 in playoff games as an Eagle the past two seasons, and there’s something strange and almost eerie about the Eagles when Foles plays. They find a way to win. Fletcher Cox told me the Eagles players “just flushed” that November game—didn’t watch or study it; it got out of control against a secondary ravaged by injury, and Philly just moved on without allowing that game to defeat the players. We’ll see if that approach works.

The one thing you do notice about the Eagles on the defensive side now is they’re not held hostage by awful pass coverage. They’ve allowed 30 points just once since the Saints game. I think this game comes down to Drew Brees finding completions, short and intermediate, and not giving Foles more than eight or nine possession to make his magic.

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NFL fans apparently don’t want an 18-game regular season

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In the news this week, as the league gets back to business for the 100th season of American professional football:

• The owners and players meet Wednesday in another formal bargaining session for a new CBA. A three-day meeting is scheduled between the NFL’s Management Council and the NFLPA’s Executive Committee (a 10-player unit including president Eric Winston and VPs Richard ShermanBenjamin Watsonand Adam Vinatieri). This will be the fourth bargaining session between owners and players this spring/summer, with the hope being the two sides can reach an agreement on a new bargaining agreement in 2019. (The CBA has two more seasons to run, and expires in the spring of 2021.)

Commissioner Roger Goodell recently told CNBC that it is “certainly our intent” to try to get a new CBA before the start of the season. In a round of calls Saturday, I got some optimism from a team source who felt the chance of making a deal on a new CBA was 50-50 this year if the union would stick with the current economic formula of the game; currently players get about 47 percent of the game’s gross revenue.

But I talked to a source on the player side who wasn’t nearly as hopeful, in part because he felt the players need a bigger cut of the pie to agree to a new deal two seasons out from the end of the current CBA. This person called the first three meetings positive, but baby steps toward a deal. I do know that there have not been any significant discussions on a change in the revenue split yet. Those talks will have to progress for anything to get done.

• The 18-game schedule is nowhere near a reality. I heard that one or two teams are interested in what the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday the NFL has proposed discussing with the players as part of the CBA talks: an 18-game regular-season schedule, with each player eligible to play a maximum of 16 games. This is not a new idea—it’s been thrown around at league meetings as one idea to expand the inventory and enrich the league’s TV deals for years.

“I can’t see it,” one plugged-in club official told me. “Imagine you pay to see Tom Brady and the Patriots, and the Patriots announce that week it’s one of the two games he’ll sitting out this year. Now you’re seeing Brian Hoyer throw to some practice-squad guy. I don’t see any way we could ever do that.”

I’ve always thought in an era when the reduction of head trauma is job one in everything the league does, the only way the NFL could even consider 18 games is with teams playing players a maximum of 16 weeks. But the details make it too hard. How would a team divvy up the starts, say, for the starting offensive line? Would they figure the starting tackles should play every week with the starting quarterback, and thus doom the backup in his two games to a run-for-your-life offensive scheme?

The continued pursuit—or the continuing broaching—of an 18-game schedule is such a short-sighted and greedy thing. The NFL paid each team $275 million out of the league share of total revenue in 2018, and teams paid about $215 million annually in player costs (cap plus benefits). After that, teams can reap major raw profits over what they did in local team revenue.

Someone in the NFL seems determined to kill the most golden of geese by pursuing, even in a passing way, this stupid idea. Greed, in this case, is not good.

• Fans don’t want 18 games either. I put out a Twitter poll Saturday and Sunday, asking if readers preferred a 16 or 18-game schedule. Of 13,533 voters, 79 percent said 16. Great comment from a Vikings fan, Jason Altland: “If I pay out the nose for decent tickets in Baltimore or New York to see my Vikings, I want to see all the healthy stars play. I don’t want to pay and end up with a [Stefon] Diggs or {Adam] Thielen bye game.”

Pro Football Talk also polled its readers over the weekend about the 16/18-game idea, with more options than I offered … and 62 percent said they favored 16 games—with 8 percent saying they favored 18 with a maximum of 16 games per player per season.

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Why Melvin Gordon’s holdout with the Chargers could get ugly

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I think this Melvin Gordon-Chargers impasse could get ugly. The Chargers running back, entering his fifth season, could hold out from training camp into the season if he doesn’t get either a new contract or a significant raise from his $5.6-million salary in 2019. There’s a few reasons the holdout could last a while, starting with the fact that Chargers GM Tom Telesco, who grew up in the Bill Polian front office of the Colts, is not afraid to take a hard line. But mostly, it’s about what happens in recent years when teams have either paid runners or drawn a hard line with them. Examples:

• Le’Veon Bell balked at the Steelers’ offer of $14.5 million on the franchise tag last year. James Conner wasn’t quite as productive as vintage Bell—270 touches, 1,470 yards, 13 touchdowns—but he was close. And Conner, who made $754,572 last year, cost 1/19th of what Bell would have commended. No one in Pittsburgh is bemoaning the loss of Bell, though he’s a great player.

• Todd Gurley is a great back too, and the Rams paid a guaranteed $45 million last year. They’ll say they aren’t regretting what they paid Gurley, but an odd and persistent knee problem last year limited him to 88 carries in the Rams’ last nine games—including a 35-yard rushing performance in the Super Bowl. The Rams picked up C.J. Anderson off the street in December, and in five games, he rushed for 488 yards.

• David Johnson of the Cardinals responded to his new $13-million-a-year deal on the eve of the 2018 season by rushing for 940 yards (3.6 yards per carry).

• Devonta Freeman signed with Atlanta for $22 million guaranteed in 2017. He’s missed 16 of the Falcons’ last 32 regular-season games and averaged 58 yards per game in the 16 he’s played.

In 30 games over his two NFL seasons, Charger understudy Austin Ekeler has proven elusive and reliable, averaging 5.3 yards per rush and 10.3 yards per catch, with just two lost fumbles. I don’t think Telesco will be afraid to take the slings and arrows of a holdout. So if you’re drafting your fantasy team very early, I’d give a long look at Ekeler.

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