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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Brady, Patriots underdogs at Chiefs on AFC Championship Game odds

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The Arctic blast expected at Arrowhead Stadium might seem like Tom Brady weather, but there are also some cold, hard facts with home and away trends at this stage of the game.

The Kansas City Chiefs, with NFL MVP candidate Patrick Mahomes behind center, are 3-point favorites on the NFL betting lines against the Patriots with a 56-point total in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

While the Chiefs are trying to advance to their first Super Bowl in 49 seasons, they are 8-1 straight-up in their last nine games as home favorites. The Patriots, who are underdogs with Brady as a starter for the first time since September 2015, are 2-7 against the spread in their last nine games in the championship round, and 3-5 SU and ATS on the road this season.

While the Patriots should never be counted out as long as Bill Belichick is scheming and Brady is slinging passes, away teams are 1-11 SU in the last 12 AFC Championship Game matchups and 1-4 ATS in the last five at betting sites.

The Patriots, 12-5 SU and 10-7 ATS, have a history that needs no ballyhooing at this point. In the present, New England had a negative net yards per play and point differential during the regular season, and were markedly worse at finishing off offensive drives with touchdowns and making third-down stops on defense.

Of course, a good team can overcome that for one afternoon, and Belichick and Brady will try to confuse the Chiefs by spreading the ball around multi-talented running backs Sony Michel and James White, slippery wide receiver Julian Edelman, and tight end Rob Gronkowski. At peak form, the Patriots seldom let pass rushers get near Brady, but the Chiefs had three sacks in their divisional-round game against the Indianapolis Colts, who allowed the fewest sacks in the regular season.

The reality that the best defense for the Patriots is a clock-consuming controlled offense, combined with the conditions, could limit scoring.

The Chiefs, 13-4 SU and 10-6-1 ATS, do offer some historically based hunches. Mahomes, whose regular-season passing rating was the best in NFL history by a 23-year-old quarterback, also had just the second 5,000-yard/50-touchdown season in league annals, joining Peyton Manning in 2013 when he beat the Patriots at home in the AFC Championship Game.

The Chiefs are also 3-1 ATS in their last four games against New England, according to the OddsShark NFL Database.

Matchups-wise, New England loves to take away an opponent’s fanciest toy – otherwise known as wide receiver Tyreek Hill in this game – but Mahomes’ other preferred targets, Sammy Watkins and tight end Travis Kelce, could take advantage of the added focus on their teammate. The X-factor will be running back Damien Williams, who will try to take advantage of the vulnerability New England has shown, at least to this point, at containing runs up the middle and passes to the backs.

The temperature is expected to be in the 20s, but neither passer needed a glove on his throwing hand while playing in frigid weather during the divisional round. The total has gone UNDER in eight of the Patriots’ last 10 games, with an average combined score of 43.7 points. The total has gone UNDER in 11 of the Chiefs’ last 14 home games, with an average combined score of 45.86 points.

For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.

Saints field-goal favorites on NFC Championship Game odds

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The idea of a Superdome mystique boosting the New Orleans Saints is not supported by their record against the spread when hosting postseason games.

The Saints, led by quarterback Drew Brees, are 3-point favorites  on the NFL odds against the Los Angeles Rams with a 56.5-point total for their NFC Championship Game matchup on Sunday at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

The Saints are 9-0 straight-up in their last nine home games against teams with winning records, but are just 2-7 against the spread in their last nine games in the playoffs as home favorites at the Superdome. The Rams are also 9-2 SU in their last 11 road games.

Home teams are 10-0 SU in conference championship games over the last five years and favorites are 8-2 SU.

The Rams, who are 14-3 SU and 8-7-2 ATS this season, come into this matchup that decides a Super Bowl berth as perhaps the hotter team. Since Week 15, the Rams’ Jared Goff-led offense is averaging 33.0 points per game and 5.92 yards per play, compared to the Saints’ averages of 21.0 and 5.65 with Brees behind center in that same span.

Since losing to the Saints 45-35 in Week 9, the Rams have fortified their ground game, with Todd Gurley being spelled by C.J. Anderson. The Rams have a much stronger running game than the Philadelphia Eagles team the Saints edged in the divisional round, and New Orleans also lost run-stuffing defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (Achilles) for the year during that game.

The Saints are 14-3 SU and 10-7 on the point spread, and between future Hall of Fame passer Brees and his supporting cast that includes wide receiver Michael Thomas and running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, they often prove tough to contain at home.

Bettors who put stock in the conference-championship home-team trend likely also know that the Saints are 15-2 SU in their last 17 home games. Thomas, who had 12 receptions for 171 yards against the Eagles, was even more productive against the Rams in the regular season with 12 catches for 211 yards.

With that said, matchups and health are also paramount and Saints left tackle Terron Armstead (pectoral) will be playing hurt while lining up across from a defensive front that includes fearsome Aaron Donald, along with Ndamukong Suh and Michael Brockers.

The last four NFC title games has all gone OVER the closing total at sports betting sites.

The total has gone OVER in five of the Rams’ last six games on the road against the Saints. The total has gone OVER in eight of the Saints’ last nine home games where they were favored by 4.0 or fewer points.

For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.