I think the biggest reason why I don’t think the Ezekiel Elliott holdout will last into the season is that Jerry Jones won’t allow it to happen. He’s too excited about the Cowboys normally. But this year, with a young, play-making defense and a stacked offense, he’s got to feel like this is his best chance to go deep into the playoffs for a long time. And he knows he’s not going deep into the playoffs without Ezekiel Elliott. I can’t see this holdout lasting. Zeke’s supposed to make $3.8 million this year and $9.1 million in 2020. What seems fair to me: Elliott just turned 24. He already has 5,247 scrimmage yards in his young NFL career (even with suspensions), and he is the force that makes the Cowboys’ offense go. Take the $12.9 million he’s due over the next two seasons, add two years at, say, $8 million and $10 million, and give him a $21-million signing bonus. That’s not enough, you say? Well, it’s $52 million for the next four years, and it allows him to hit the market for one last contract at age 27 (his birthday is in July). Seems equitable for all.
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.
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.
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.
The law of averages would suggest one betting favorite covers during the first set of NFL wild card playoff games this weekend, but it won’t be easy.
The Dallas Cowboys are 1.5-point favorites against the Seattle Seahawks on the NFL odds for Saturday with a 43-point total at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. While host teams are 11-3 straight-up in the last 14 wild card games, last season the favored team went 0-4 against the spread while the road team was 4-0 ATS.
The Seahawks, who are 10-6 SU and 9-5-2 ATS, are 11-2 ATS in their last 13 prime-time games as an underdog, as well as 22-5-1 SU in prime-time games with Russell Wilson as their quarterback. The Seahawks’ league-leading rushing attack will face a Dallas defense that allows the fifth-least yards per carry (3.8) in the NFL, but it shapes up as a more favorable matchup in the passing phase for Seattle with Wilson working behind a healthy offensive line that has guards DJ Fluker and JR Sweezy back.
The Cowboys are 10-6 SU and 9-6-1 ATS, including a record of 7-1 SU and 6-1-1 ATS over the second half of the regular season. Dallas will need a pass-run balance, through quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott, in order to move the ball consistently against Seattle’s defense, especially since Dallas allowed the second-most sacks (56) in the NFL.
The total has gone OVER in seven of the Seahawks’ last eight games, according to the OddsShark NFL Database, with an average combined score of 53.88 points. The total has gone OVER in five of the Cowboys’ last seven games at home, with an average combined score of 45.0 points.
Meanwhile, the Houston Texans are 1-point betting favorites against the Indianapolis Colts with a 48.5-point total in the earlier Wild Card Weekend matchup on Saturday.
The Colts, 10-6 SU and 8-7-1 ATS this season, have some contrasting trends – 3-1 ATS in their last four games against Houston, but 1-4 SU and ATS in their last five playoff games on the road.
Andrew Luck was sacked a league-fewest 18 times and maintaining that protection will be critical against the Texans, who count on pass rushers Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt to make up for middling coverage. Indianapolis enters the playoffs near the bottom of the Super Bowl odds at sportsbooks.
Houston allowed the fewest yards per carry (3.4) in the league so Luck might face a lot of long-yardage situations that push the game toward the UNDER.
The Texans, who went 11-5 SU and 7-7-2 ATS to win the AFC South, will be trying to shed the baggage that is being 1-3 SU and ATS in their last four playoff games. What might give bettors pause with the Texans is the 62 sacks and 126 quarterback hits, both league worsts, that quarterback Deshaun Watson took in the regular season.
If Houston can patch the protection issues in a matchup that is not shaping up to be an offensive shootout, then Watson and star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins should have success against a Colts defense that, like the Texans, is more generous against the pass (7.4 yards per pass, 15th) than the run (3.9 yards per carry, eighth).
The total has gone UNDER in four of the Colts’ last five games against the Texans, with an average combined score of 44.8 points. The total has gone UNDER in five of the Colts’ last seven games, with an average combined score of 39.71 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.