NFL divisional round preview

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NFL divisional round preview

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Optimist Sports Department

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After a crazy wild card weekend in one of the most exciting seasons in recent history, the eight surviving teams will fight for the Lombardi trophy in the NFL divisional round of the playoffs. JT, Brock, Logan and Colin give their input on this weekend’s games.

Indianapolis Colts (11-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)

Saturday, Jan. 12 at 4:35 p.m.

The red hot Colts come into Arrowhead Stadium after winning 10 of their last 11 games, but they face one of the most electric offenses the NFL has ever seen. The Chiefs, led by a strong sophomore campaign by Patrick Mahomes, have the number one scoring offense in the NFL, scoring 35.3 points per game. This can easily be attributed to Mahomes throwing for 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns this season. Though the Chiefs have such a dynamic offense, the kryptonite of this team has been the defenses lack of ability to get the opposing offense off the field.

For the Colts, it has been a storybook season as they somehow reached the playoffs after starting 1-5, an accomplishment that has only been achieved by two other teams in NFL history. The Colts historic success can be attributed to many things but none more than general manager Chris Ballard. Ballard has completely rebuilt the parts of the Colts that have struggled since the Manning era: the offensive line and defense. The offensive line, led by rookie All-Pro guard Quenten Nelson, has done a phenomenal job of protecting Andrew Luck, allowing the least sacks in the NFL, a complete overhaul from last season in which they allowed the most. The defense, led by rookie All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard and cornerback Kenny Moore II, have completely dominated the second half of the season as they are statistically number one since week eight.

Many fans and analysts have called this game “the battle of MVP’s” as Mahomes continues to put up video game numbers and Luck keeps leading his team to victory.

Colts’ keys to victory

  • Put pressure on Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes has shown to be the best young talent in the NFL; however, he has been erratic at times when the pocket collapses, making poor throws.
  • Establish a run game early. The Colts are undefeated when Marlon Mack rushes for over 100 yards in a game. Tiring the Chiefs defense early should set up big plays later in the game.
  • Prevent the deep ball. The Chiefs have burned secondaries all year with long passes. If the Colts secondary can stop receivers Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins from getting separation, it would shut down the key component of their offense.

Chiefs keys to victory:

  • Stop the running game. When Mack and the Colts offensive line is healthy, the Colts offense is unstoppable. If the Chiefs front seven contain the run, it will make it much harder for the Colts to move the ball.
  • Utilize Travis Kelce. The Colts have struggled this season in defending top tier tight ends, and Kelce is as good as they come.
  • Don’t overlook the six seeded Colts. Although the Colts came into the postseason with a 10-6 record, they finished the season winning 9 of their last 10.

Prediction: Indianapolis Colts 24, Kansas City Chiefs 17


Dallas Cowboys (11-6) at Los Angeles Rams (13-3)

Saturday, Jan. 12 at 8:15 p.m.

The star-studded Los Angeles Rams will host the Dallas Cowboys who will try to keep their good fortune going as they’ve won their last three games by one score or less. Although the Rams have a good record and the most talented roster in the NFL, they have struggled late in the season and the defense has been subpar to say the least. Veteran players like CB Aqib Talib and DT Ndamukong Suh have showed signs of aging, taking significant drop offs from previous seasons. One advantage for the Rams in this game is running back Todd Gurley who is healthy again after missing the last two games of the season due to injury. The Rams are led by their great young quarterback, Jared Goff, who has thrown for 4688 yards and 32 touchdowns. Goff’s throwing capability is very hard to stop, especially when he has great receivers like Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks. The Rams, who had a bye this past week, could be a good or bad depending on how they took advantage of it.

The Cowboys, who barely made it by the Seahawks last week, have a challenge ahead of them this week against the Rams. The Cowboys haven’t shown much dominance themselves this season, finishing with a 10-6 record, but they do have some play makers that could help them out if things go their way. Dak Prescott (3,855 yds. 22 TD) showed that he can be the Cowboys franchise quarterback earning his first playoff victory last week against Seattle. Ezekiel Elliott has a large workload this season, but hasn’t been the threat he normally is. If his offensive line can create some running space for him, he could do some damage to the Ram’s defense. The Cowboys need to take advantage of the Ram’s aging players and get the ball to Amari Cooper and shut down the 2018 NFL sack leader Aaron Donald. The Cowboys need some things to go their way to come out with another victory and advance to the NFC Championship.

Cowboys keys to victory:

Stop Gurley. Todd Gurley is coming off nearly a full month of rest after missing the final two weeks of the regular season and receiving a BYE in the first round of the playoffs.

Shut down the Rams pass rush. The Rams d-line is led by big names like Donald and Suh, but they also have other playmakers in Michael Brockers and outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr, who was a mid-season trade acquisition from the Jaguars.

Use Amari Cooper. The Cowboys are 8-2 since the trade in which Dallas sent a first round pick in exchange for the playmaking wide out.

Rams keys to victory:

Contain Prescott. Against the Seahawks, Prescott did well in scrambling which led them to a key touchdown. The Rams need to make sure he doesn’t do the same to them.

Give Goff time to throw and room for Gurley to run. If Goff has time to throw he can get the deep ball off, which can be very dangerous. Also, if Gurley has room to run he can make some big plays. If the o-line opens some holes, it will be hard to stop Gurley.

Shut down Elliot and Cooper. Elliott and Cooper have shown they can be playmakers, but without them the Cowboys are left with not a whole lot to work with. If the Rams can find ways to not get these guys the ball, the Cowboys will struggle to score.

Prediction: Dallas Cowboys 14, Los Angeles Rams 31.


Los Angeles Chargers (13-4) at New England Patriots (11-5)

Sunday, Jan. 13 at 1:05 p.m.

The Chargers and Patriots will meet on Sunday afternoon in a battle between star veteran quarterbacks Philip Rivers (LAC) and Tom Brady (NE).

Los Angeles is coming off a dominant defensive effort where they defeated the Baltimore Ravens 23-17. For the Chargers, they bring into the game a balanced offensive attack that features star wideout Keenan Allen (1,233 yards, 6 tds) and running back Melvin Gordon (925 rushing yards, 10 tds). Gordon, who missed four regular season games, is also a threat in the passing game; he has 490 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns. The team didn’t display much effectiveness moving the ball last week, although that was against the second best defense in the NFL, the Ravens. Look for Los Angeles to attack the Patriots (22nd in passing yards allowed) through the air. Both Allen and second year receiver Mike Williams should see plenty of targets, and Gordon could see expanded usage in the passing game.

New England, who went 11-5 and secured the No. 2 seed in the playoffs, should be well rested after last week’s bye. Quarterback Tom Brady is still thriving at the age of 41; he threw for 4,355 yards and 29 touchdowns this season. Familiar receiving targets Julian Edelman (WR, 850 yds), James White (RB, 751 yds) and Rob Gronkowski (TE, 682 yds) will be looked to by Brady through the air. Rookie running back Sony Michel will lead the rushing attack, as he heads into the playoffs with an impressive 4.5 yards per carry this season (total of 931 rushing yards).

Chargers keys to victory:

  • Attack the Patriots through the air. New England’s weakest link is their secondary. The Chargers have a veteran quarterback in Philip Rivers capable of lighting up the game with passes to speedy wideouts Keenan Allen and Mike Williams.
  • Prepare for postseason Tom Brady. Brady is an excellent regular season quarterback, but he’s a different animal in the postseason. The Chargers’ top flight secondary will be tested throughout the game. They have to shut Brady down early or, like he’s done countless times, he’ll come out of nowhere to lead the Patriots on a game winning drive.

Patriots keys to victory:

  • Knock the Chargers off balance, early. When compared to other playoff teams, the Patriots’ defense has struggled this season. In this one they won’t want to just play straight up. Look for New England to use a combination of blitzes and unconventional defensive looks to throw Philip Rivers and the Chargers off their game. Forcing a few early turnovers, especially with the game being played at home, could allow Brady to put things away before halftime.
  • Keep the rushing attack alive. New England has thrived this season when able to couple Sony Michel’s ground game with Tom Brady and his potent passing attack. They have to avoid becoming one dimensional early on, especially with sub-freezing temperatures expected.
  • Deflate the footballs. Then destroy the evidence.

Prediction: Los Angeles Chargers 27, New England Patriots 21


Philadelphia Eagles (10-7) at New Orleans Saints (13-3)

Sunday, Jan. 13 at 4:40 P.M.

Nick Foles is looking to lead the Eagles to another victory over Drew Brees and the Saints. The Eagles finished the regular season at 9-7, 2nd in the NFC East, and they are the No. 6 seed in the Playoffs. They scored on average 22.9 points per game, and let up 21.8 points per game. Foles took over as the Eagles starter after Carson Wentz went down with a stress fracture in his back. Foles is 4-1 in games he has started this year, including a 16-15 victory in Chicago during the Wild Card round of the playoffs. Injuries have plagued the Eagles offense this season including running backs Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement along with Wentz.

The Saints have been arguably the best team in the NFL this year, let by MVP candidate Drew Brees. Brees led the Saints to a 13-3 record, and the No. 1 overall seed in the NFC. The Saints offense this season averaged an impressive 31.5 points per game, while only allowing 22.1 per game on average. Brees had the league’s second highest QBR at 115.7, and a 94.7 grade by Pro Football Focus. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram provide a one two punch at running back, and Michael Thomas will be a downfield presence.

Eagles keys to victory:

  • Nick Foles: the 29 year old is 9-1 in his last 10 starts, including 4-0 in his last four games.  If Foles can keep making magic, the Eagles will have a chance to pull off the upset.
  • Running the ball: the Eagles only ran the ball for 42 yards last week against the Bears, and in order to pull off the upset, they need to establish the run early against the Saints 5th ranked run defense.
  • Covering the deep ball: last week the Eagles got burned by Allen Robinson who caught 10 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown. Michael Thomas, who is a more complete receiver, could have a field day against the Eagles if they don’t figure out how to cover the deep ball.

Saints keys to victory:

  • Feed the running backs: Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram can win the game for the saints if they get enough volume. Kamara’s presence as a pass catcher should force the Eagles to drop their linebackers which will open lanes for Ingram.
  • Protect Brees: Fletcher Cox is an NFL All-Pro defensive tackle who has proven his ability to rush the passer this season with 10.5 sacks and 34 quarterback hits. If the Saints hope to make a super bowl run, then their first priority should be to protect Brees.
  • Pressure Foles: the Bears only recorded one sack on Foles last week which showed how much time he had in the pocket. Cameron Jordan needs to pressure Foles to make him force poor throws downfield to a banged up Eagles receiver corps so the Saints can contain Foles.

Prediction: Philadelphia Eagles 17, New Orleans Saints 31

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