Although it’s a year without the Bills, last week’s opening round of the NFL Playoffs has left local viewers with a strong set of highly compelling teams and games – including one with a couple of local angles – to watch this weekend. With the decline, but not yet fall, of the Patriots, along with the rise of the Rams, Chiefs, Saints and hard luck (seeding wise) Chargers, plus the under the radar streaking Colts and the defending champion Philadelphia (“Hey, we’re not dead yet”) Eagles, a solid case could be made for (almost) anyone left eventually being crowned champ (sorry, Cowboy fans, but I think you’re in trouble). Here is my breakdown of the match ups for this Saturday.
Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs (4:35 EST, NBC)
INDY: Despite a decent but not spectacular 10-6 regular season record, the Colts entered the playoffs as hot as or hotter than any other team. They won nine of their last ten games and then dominated, especially on defense, the Houston Texan team that won their division in their 21-7 first round win last week. QB Andrew Luck is clearly fully healthy and, in no coincidence, is having possibly his best season yet, and he has a deep receiving corps led by Wide Receiver T.Y. Hilton and Tight End Eric Ebron. Marlon Mack anchors an uninspiring but decent and very balanced group of Running Backs, none of whom even got to 1,000 yards this year, but all of whom have at least respectable Yards Per Rush averages, with the least productive of the top three leading them all in receptions. The Offensive Line has been a huge key to all this success. And their seemingly ageless (and future Hall of Fame) Kicker Adam Vinatieri just adds to the overall sense of stability on offense. The Defense has two Rookie All Pro’s – the first time a team had two Rookie All Pros at any position since the Bears did it in 1965(!) with future Hall of Famers Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers, – the Secondary is high quality though a little thin after an injury last week, and the D Line is as good as the O line. And very popular head coach and Ex-Bills QB Frank Reich – he of the famed NFL Playoff record second half comeback against Warren Moon’s Houston Oilers in the 1993 (very) Wild Card game – has done a fantastic job, keeping everyone cool after the Colts started very slow, and all reports are that the locker room is a very happy one.
KC: The Chiefs are coming off a bye week, and after looking as unstoppable for most of the year, at least on offense, as any team since the Greatest Show on Turf Rams of almost twenty years ago, they lost two of their last three games in the regular season, and are 1-11 in their last 12 post-season games. But none of those playoff teams had QB Patrick Mahomes, who, in just his second year, is having a season few QB’s have ever had. His numbers – 5,097 yards passing with 50(!!) TD’s and just 12 interceptions – are like something out of a video game. And his team’s needed all of it, not just to fend off the L.A. Chargers in their Division, but just to win at all, since the Chiefs running game is even less productive yardage wise than the Colt’s (top back Kareem Hunt ran for less than 900 yards, and is followed by Mahomes), and their defense is poor. In fairness, the Chiefs didn’t run much, and their Average Yards Per Rush was decent, but still, it’s mostly Pass or Die for them on offense, and with Mahomes healthy and his top two receivers combining for almost 200 catches, plus the late season addition of ex-Bills standout Sammy Watkins, there’s no reason to expect that to change just because it’s Playoff Time. The team’s obvious weakness has been their Defense. How far can one realistically expect any team to go in the NFL Playoffs with a D that yields an average of over 26 points a game, which is near the bottom of the whole league? Sometimes, high scoring teams give up points because their opposition is always behind and throwing the ball, plus the Chiefs score quickly, so that means more possessions during the game for the other team than with ball control offenses. But here, that’s not why the numbers are what they are. They’re just not a good Defensive squad, and either Saturday, or somewhere down the line, that will trip them up.
This one is a real Pick ‘Em for me. If betting, I’d take Indy and the 5+, but as for who wins, that’s a lot tougher. Right now, Indy looks as good as or better than KC, and obviously has the stronger momentum, a huge factor in NFL Playoffs especially, since they are just one game and not an extended series. The Colts also have the more experienced QB, which, when looking at their upset win over Houston and Philly’s even more surprising victory in Chicago last weekend, may be a factor even more important than momentum. And they will be able to put points up on the board for sure. But KC’s at home, not in a dome, and Indy isn’t a ball control offense, so an early lead wouldn’t have the impact it might in another game, and the crowd at Arrowhead can make it very tough for opposing QB’s if the Chiefs get out to a lead. Everything I saw the first three months of the season tells me to pick the favored Chiefs, but everything I’ve seen the last three weeks screams “Clear Upset”. No way Indy shuts down the Mahomes aerial attack this week like they did to Deshaun Watson last week, but…they don’t have to, they just need to slow it a bit. I think they might. If they do, the difference is a late Vinatieri Field Goal.
Final Score: Indy 27 KC 26
Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams (8:15 EST, Fox)
Dallas: Though the NFC East wasn’t quite the worst division in football this year, it easily was the most mediocre. Despite that, Dallas mostly struggled to win it. They did so by winning seven of their last eight games, normally a great sign, but considering that the only quality victory was a 3 point win at home against New Orleans, the loss was a 23-0 thumping by Indianapolis and the other wins were mostly close games against terrible teams like Washington, Atlanta Tampa Bay and the N.Y. Giants, – with Last week’s 2 point win at home against underachieving wild card Seattle only slightly more impressive – Cowboy’s fans can’t really claim the same kind of season ending surge Colt’s fans can. Obviously, Ezekiel Elliot had a great year at Running Back with over 1,400 rushing yards along with leading the team in receptions with 77; however, the next closest receiver had only 65, and that says as much about the Dallas passing game as it does about Elliot. QB Dak Prescott threw only 22 touchdowns all year, and though his rushing numbers were second on the team, that also says as much about the depth at the RB position as anything else. And his receivers are somewhat banged up right now on top of all that. They are strong most everywhere on defense with an especially strong O line, but they will go up against the toughest player they will have faced all year in Rams LB Aaron Donald, who the Cowboys will have to double team most all of the game to hope to have any success moving the ball.
L.A.: Much like the Chiefs, L.A. cruised in the regular season until the last few weeks. Injuries were as much a factor as anything in their slowdown, with star Running Back Todd Gurley’s the most important. But he’s healthy now, and while the Rams might not be back at peak form, playoff inexperience seems to be the biggest factor going against them right now. But that is about as true for the Cowboys as well. Gurley and QB Jared Goff had monster seasons and the Defense is anchored by Defensive Tackle (and human sack machine) Aaron Donald, who is not only a lock for NFC Defensive Player of the Year, but will finish high in MVP voting as well. Donald, who is often double teamed, is supported by the team’s Line Backers, a group that features leading tackler Cory Littleton and controversial but effective bruiser Ndamukong Suh. Goff did struggle a bit late in the season, but seemed to right himself the last two games, and has a lot of options to throw to at WR and TE along with Gurley. And the coaching staff is fantastic; highly respected and accomplished Wade Phillips runs the Defense, and teams all around the league are trying to hire the next version of Ram’s young and innovative head coach Sean McVay.
Well, I already telegraphed this in my opening; I think the Rams will win this game. Certainly, Dallas is solid, with a good Defense and strong running game. And that’s exactly the kind of ball control team that can beat a high powered offense, even on the road since Dallas fans “travel well” and the Rams have only been back in L.A. for a year after a two decade absence where they weren’t really all that missed. But the Rams just have too much fire power in the passing game for Dallas to match while also having a just as solid defense and ground game. Key stats: The Rams scored almost 200 more points than Dallas this year but only gave up 60 more, and the Cowboys ranked 28th against play – action passes, the Rams most efficient weapon. Yeah, if Gurley isn’t close to 100% and the bright lights and crowd get to Goff the Cowboys could win, but don’t bank on it; superior coaching and talent should win out here.
Final Score: L.A. 26 Dallas 16