NFL playoffs

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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Why Chargers drastically changed defenses for Ravens

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Philip Rivers, the only passer in the Class of 2004 left standing, jogged off the field in his grass-green Charger uniform late Sunday afternoon …

Whoa. Chargers wore white against Baltimore. “Grass-green?”

Grass-stained, from shoulder pads to nameplate to numbers, front and back. Equipment guys aren’t getting that baby pristine unless they wash it six times.

“YES! YES!” Rivers yelled, the fire still in his 37-year-old eyes, stopping to hug GM Tom Telesco and owner Dean Spanos outside the locker room after the 23-17 wild-card win over the Ravens.

Lots to unpack after this game. It starts with that defensive plan. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley threw the changeup of the NFL season at Baltimore, making a dominant run game feeble with a seven-defensive-back alignment from the first snap of the game to the last. When Bradley first discussed it with coach Anthony Lynn early in the week, Lynn said, “Are we insane, or what?” Nope. It worked. The Chargers (13-4) flummoxed Baltimore with 58 snaps (out of 59) of seven-DB defense.

The Chargers did this for health reasons—they’re beat-up at linebacker—but also for strategic ones. Instead of playing 240 pounds-250-251 across as their three ‘backers, Bradley wanted to go 195 (Jahleel Addae), 210 (Adrian Phillips), with rookie all-pro safety Derwin James (215) coming into the box at times—like the first defensive snap of the game. Lamar Jackson, the biggest running threat in the league at quarterback right now, broke for the right end on the first play from scrimmage in front of a jacked-up crowd.

Loss of one. James stoned him.

“The momentum of the defense rose from there,” James told me afterward. “When that play happened, we just got so jacked.”

Midway through the first quarter, an NFL GM acquaintance of mine texted me: “Chargers playing with 7 DBs. What’s this all about?” Speed. Quickness. Playing Lamar Jackson. That’s what it was about. “I wasn’t sure how this was gonna hold up,” Lynn said afterward. “They were running for 300 yards lots of games with Lamar playing. Gus felt like getting speed on the field could help contain Lamar. It could help in the passing game, dropping back and taking over routes that our linebackers usually cover. It worked. Our guys, they embraced it. It was risky, but it paid off. We’re talking about going up against a rushing attack that no one can stop right now. And we’re gonna do it with two 200-pound guys?

“What was cool,” said James, “is our DB room, we got seven or eight guys in there everyday. And today, every one of them started and played the whole way, basically.”

It’s infectious being around James, who will compete with Indianapolis linebacker and NFL tackles leader Darius Leonard for Defensive Rookie of the Year. You can tell he loves his space in life. He talked to every media member for as long as he could Sunday, punctuating it with talking on FaceTime to a slew of friends, at one point introducing one to Melvin Ingram. It’s cool to see someone who loves the game and wants to be great acting out his dreams.

“So you guys haven’t lost all year outside L.A.,” I told James. “Why are you so good away from home?”

“It’s fun being around guys who love being into football 24/7,” he said. “We love football. We love it, we love it, we love it. When we get on the road, we get to spend more time together talking football, being together.”

James, Desmond King, Ingram, Michael Davis … The Chargers have picked a bunch of players recently who love football the way Philip Rivers does. That showed up play after play Sunday. Did you notice Rivers acting out Sunday? He got whacked hard by Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon twice in the second half—and Rivers thought both hits came a little late, after he’d released the ball on a pass. So Rivers got fired up at Judon, and they jawed, and Judon at one point looked hurt and struggled to get up. “That’s what you get!” Rivers hollered at him.

And so on the Chargers’ last scoring drive of the game, early in the fourth quarter, Rivers, a plodder, escaped trouble and lumbered nine yards for a first down on third-and-eight. When he got up, Rivers looked like Steve Smith. He thrust his chest out for the 45 Ravens and 70,432 fans to see.

By his locker afterward, no longer grass-stained but still filthy (and deliriously happy), Rivers did his best to dissect how it happened. He did a terrific job of dumping off passes milliseconds before a cover-zero rush would get to him. “They brought cover-zero again on us some, and we took advantage when we got an opportunity for big plays. I told [friend and Baltimore safety Eric] Weddle and [defensive coordinator] Wink Martindale after the game they did a heckuva job. What did we have? A little over 200 yards of offense.”

Now the Rivers will head back to the East Coast late Friday after a full week of prep for the Patriots. And Rivers knows this could be his last shot at the elusive Super Bowl. One of the most annoying NFL storylines, to Rivers, is that his 2004 draft-mates Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning have a total of four Super Bowl wins. He has zero.

So, I asked him, will the trip to Foxboro be especially important, with the sands of time running out of the hourglass?

“I think … definitely, probably, maybe I’ll be even more excited. I think probably even a little bit more emotional. You know? So you’re going to Foxboro … That gets me a little bit. Last time we were there in the postseason was 2007, or January ’08, but 2007 season. That’s 11 years ago, you know. Now we’re going back in there … I went in there at 26 and go back in at 37. You know. With a totally different team.

“But because you’re going against a Bill Belichick defense, a Bill Belichick team, and Tom Brady-led team … you’re talking about arguably the greatest of all time. I’m not playing Tom. But it’s always special. Peyton Manning was always a favorite to play. It was special to look over and say, ‘Peyton Manning’s leading that team over there!’ That was special to me. Tom Brady’s gonna be the guy leading that team over there this week. That’s special. I’m not going against Tom, but it’s special.

“I think this team is just … I think we’re a little more weathered. You know? We just been through a lot. We’ve been all over the place. We’ve been to London. We’ve been everywhere on the road and won. We’ve won with defense. We’ve won with offense. We’ve won with kick returns. We’ve won with field goals. There’s no other way we can win. I don’t know that we can be put in a situation and go, ‘Oh gosh, how are our guys gonna respond?’ That doesn’t mean you always win. But I don’t know anything that can come our way that can make us go, ‘Help!’ “

Good vibe out of the Chargers’ cramped locker room Sunday. They’re one-third of the way down the Super Bowl road. That second trip, though. It’s a doozy.

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Predicting NFL playoff seeding ahead of Week 17

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Lots on the line next Sunday in Week 17. Nothing monumental, but there’s one win-and-you’re-in scenario and at least 22 teams have something to play for, as improbable as some of the scenarios are. The key games next Sunday as the league’s 99th regular season ends:

• For the sixth seed in the AFC: Indianapolis at Tennessee, 8:20 p.m. ET. The winner is the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs. The loser is eliminated. Two hot teams: Indy’s 7-1 in its last eight, Tennessee 6-2. A bit of irony: When Colts GM Chris Ballard was choosing his next coach, he was down to Mike Vrabel and Josh McDaniels in mid-January. I thought he was leaning Vrabel. But he chose the Patriots’ offensive coordinator, and Vrabel went to Tennessee, and Ballard got jilted by McDaniels, and Ballard chose Frank Reich as his head coach. And now Reich has the Colts, stunningly, one win from the playoffs after a 4-12 season. (Watch it on NBC on on the NBC Sports app)

• For the AFC North title: Cleveland at 9-6 Baltimore, and Cincinnati at Pittsburgh, both 1:05 p.m. The Steelers, as crushed as they must be after the weird and slightly unjust loss at New Orleans, will beat the woebegone Bengals. Since only one team from the North can make the playoffs—Ravens or Steelers—that means the Ravens would have to beat Cleveland to win the division. A Steeler win would leave the division in the hands of the revolutionized Ravens, who are running at a pace we haven’t seen in more that 50 years. But here comes Baker Mayfield, who doesn’t give a crap about anything but playing great and winning. The Browns are 5-2 since whacking Hue Jackson for Gregg Williams/Freddie Kitchens, and I think they have a chance to pull off a crazy win.

Now … about the Ravens running game. This is the craziest factoid of a crazy season—and it certainly is crazy when the Cleveland Browns are 7-7-1 with a game to play: Since Lamar Jackson has taken over the quarterback job in Week 11, the Ravens are 5-1, and they have run the ball 63.6 percent of the offensive plays. The 1964 Browns, with steamrolling MVP Jim Brown dominating the ground game, ran it 53.9 percent of the offensive snaps. The 1966 Packers, the first team to win the Super Bowl, ran 57.6 percent of the time. It’s Lamar Jackson’s world, and we’re just living in it.

• For the final two NFC seeds: Arizona at Seattle, Philadelphia at Washington, Chicago at Minnesota, 4:25 p.m. Seattle clinched a playoff spot Sunday night, and now has to beat the worst team in football, the Cardinals, at home, to clinch the fifth seed. The Vikings (8-6-1) and Eagles (8-7) will battle for one spot. If Minnesota beats the Bears, the Vikings make the playoffs; if they lose and Philadelphia beats Washington, the Eagles are in.

Will the Bears play all-out to win, with only a whisper of a chance to pass the Rams for the second seed? Good question. “We need some help,” Zach Ertz told me after the dramatic Philly win over Houston, “but we’ve had the kind of year where you just don’t know anything.”

The Eagles have had the strangest of seasons; they’ve gone 4-1 since being embarrassed 48-7 by the Saints last month. I asked Ertz what he’s learned in 2018 after the Eagles stormed to a Super Bowl win last year. “I’ll tell you,” he said. “The NFL is really hard. It’s really had to win football games, any game. I cannot believe the Miami Dolphins went undefeated all the way through the Super Bowl. I cannot believe the Patriots went undefeated [in the 2007 regular season]. That sounds a little simplistic, but it’s what I think.”

• For AFC seeding: The Chiefs host Oakland (4:25 p.m. ET), and if the Chiefs beat the 3-11 Raiders, they win first seed and will play at home throughout the playoffs … The Patriots host the Jets (1:05 p.m.), and if the Pats beat New York, they win second seed in the playoffs … Houston has a nightmare scenario: losing to Jacksonville (1:05 p.m.) and falling to the number six seed, with the Colts-Titans winner advancing to first place in AFC South. The 11-4 Chargers are locked at five, unless Oakland beats KC and LA wins at Denver (4:25 p.m.)

• For NFC seeding: New Orleans (13-2) has clinched the top seed … The 12-3 Rams must beat the Niners (4:25 p.m.) to clinch the other first-round bye and will be heavily favored to do so … The 11-4 Bears are likely locked into the three seed; they can only move up with a win over Minnesota and loss by the Rams to San Francisco … Dallas (9-6) is locked in at the four seed, with a Seattle-at-Dallas rematch likely in wild-card weekend. Very attractive TV matchup there.

So … my very imprecise crystal ball shows:

The AFC
1. Kansas City
2. New England
3. Houston
4. Baltimore
5. Chargers
6. Indianapolis

The NFC
1. New Orleans
2. Rams
3. Chicago
4. Dallas
5. Seattle
6. Minnesota

Under that scenario, all four wild-card games would be rematches of 2018 regular-season games, with three played at the same site, and all four games played in Eastern or Central time.

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