Although it’s another 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 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 Sunday.
Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots (1:05 EST, CBS)
L.A.: If the Chargers were in any other Division, including the one with the Patriots, they would have had a bye last week instead of having to travel to Baltimore to face the formidable Ravens as a wild card. And though winning that game doesn’t erase a decade plus of inconsistency from the organization, it was a big step forward, as was their season in general. Instead of vacillating between winning and losing streaks like they often do, they were consistently strong all year and ended up with both their Offence and Defense ranked in the top three statistically. 37 year old Philip Rivers has lost nothing and his fifteenth season has been another strong one, and his very deep group of receivers, led by Keenan Allen (just shy of 100 catches and 1,200 yards) makes it tough on any opposing team’s secondary. On the down side, their most important runner, Melvin Gordon – who also catches a lot of balls – is banged up. However, the defense seems to have peaked at the right time and is not too banged up, and the team has won five of its last six after winning seven of eight before that, though they seldom blew anyone out.
N.E.: So, let me make this one easy. I could go on blah blah blah about their stats (down from last year) and about their record (good but uninspiring, especially considering their division), about how their running game is just OK (again) or mention their roller coaster season, but why? It’s The Patriots, stupid (don’t worry – I’m saying that to myself). Any year they have a productive Brady, are still coached by the scowling guy in the Hoodie and have at least one or two other names, or nicknames, you can recognize, like Edelman and Gronk, that’s pretty much all you need to know. It doesn’t mean they will always win, but it does mean not that much has really changed, a (seemingly) Never Ending Story that has been bad news for the rest of the league for well over a decade now. So trying to precisely time this dynasty’s eventual demise – which WILL happen one day (if there’s a God) – is futile.
Guess what? I’m picking the Patriot’s demise. I feel they will lose this game, and it will become the symbolic reverse for them of the Tuck Rule game from 2001 that started their run of dominance. And I only say that partly because I live in L.A. and also dislike and am tired of, The Patriots. I also say it because of the big difference in consistency I saw from these two teams throughout the season (despite some ultimately very comparable metrics), plus how strongly it feels like the Football Gods are trying to give Philip Rivers one final chance to shine this year.
Final Score: L.A. 23 N.E. 20
Philladelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints (4:40 EST, Fox)
Philladelphia: Behind Super Sub Nick Foles, the Eagles were surprise Super Bowl Winners last year. They have a similar roster and are “forced” to rely on Foles to rescue them again this year thanks to another season ending injury to Carson Wentz. So far, so good. Foles won all his games as a starter at the end of the year, as well as rallying the Eagles against the Bears, in Chicago, in last week’s Wild Card game, though his numbers were average at best. But, whether it was the alleged “Super Bowl Hangover” or just that they weren’t that great to begin with, it’s otherwise been a down year for Philly, who finished barely over .500 in a very mediocre division. They got little this season from injured Hall of Fame bound multi-purpose “third down” Running Back Darren Sproles, and even less on the ground on first or second down from the players who were healthy, forcing them to pass more than they wanted to. And right now, their talented and deep group of Wide Receivers is hurt, putting even more pressure, and subsequent defensive focus, on All Star Tight End Zach Ertz (116 receptions, 1,163 yards receiving). Their Defensive Line is standout and had an especially great season, and for the Eagles to win will need to dominate, shutting down Alvin Kamara and continually pressuring Drew Brees.
N.O.: As usual for the 13-3 Saints, the Home/Road “splits” were highly disproportionate, though not in their traditional sense, as they had a slightly better road record than home record this year. What changed was how they won. Their Offense was good on the road, but much better inside the Superdome, while their Defense, excellent on the road this year, was much worse at home. Veteran and perennial All Pro Quarter Back Drew Brees had another outstanding year as his career continues in many ways to parallel that of Chargers QB Phillip Rivers, the player he was swapped for over a decade ago. He threw for 32 Touch Downs, had only 5 interceptions all year and was seldom sacked. The running game is led by Kamara, who was also the #2 receiver on the team in both yards and catches behind highly underrated Wide Receiver Michael Thomas. And Kamara is backed up by the very productive Mark Ingram, who had nearly 850 combined yards himself this year, giving the Saints Offense multiple options on style of play. Their Defense peaked mid-season and stayed strong till the last two games of the year, but they were hurt and New Orleans was already a lock for the Division title by then, so that seems more of a blip than a trend.
Yes, Super Sub Nick Foles is in position to join, Bart Starr, Bob Griese, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, John Elway and Tom Brady as the Only QB’s to win back to back Super Bowls. But there’s a reason the Saints are the biggest playoff favorite this weekend. Brees and Co. are much better at home and their nicked up offensive line has had two weeks to rest and recover, while Phil needed a tipped Chicago Field Goal attempt to squeak by last week, and is much more banged up, specifically in a thin Secondary, the last thing you’d want going against Brees in the Superdome. And the revenge factor – for a seemingly piled on 48-7 Saint’s blow out in week 10 – only goes so far against superior talent. Key stat: In the Post Season during the Sean Payton/Drew Brees Era, the Saints are 5-0 at home and 1-5 on the road. So, the sometimes overrated – but not here – home field advantage seals this one for me.
Final Score: N.O. 33 Philly 16