Bleacher Report's Expert NFL Divisional Round Picks and Predictions
A Wild Card Weekend winner hasn't gone on to play in the Super Bowl since the Baltimore Ravens did so in 2012, and only five teams that played in the Wild Card Round have defeated teams that enjoyed bye weeks in the last five divisional playoffs.
That explains why the point spreads are much higher this weekend (the four favorites are laying a combined 24.5 points) than they were last weekend (the four favorites laid a combined 14 points).
It's fair to wonder if the road underdogs might be running out of gas, especially considering three of them were already traveling when they won outright last week.
This marked the second consecutive year that all four underdogs covered the spread in the Wild Card Round, but faves rebounded by going 3-1 straight up and 2-2 against the spread in last year's divisional round.
Here's how that trio fared last weekend:
1. Brent Sobleski: 2-1-1 ATS (2-2 straight up)
2. Gary Davenport: 2-1-1 ATS (1-3 straight up)
3. Brad Gagnon: 1-2-1 ATS (2-2 straight up)
Consensus picks: 1-2-1 ATS (1-3 straight up)
And here's what they're thinking as the field is reduced from eight to four.
Lines based on consensuses at OddsShark as of Thursday.
No. 6 Indianapolis Colts (11-6) at No. 1 Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)
When: Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET
Where: Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Missouri
Referee: John Hussey
Line: Kansas City -5.5
In a nutshell: Are the Chiefs once again running into the wrong team at the wrong time? The AFC's top seed cooled off late in the regular season and is as vulnerable as ever on defense. Now it has to overcome a team that has always had its number and is much hotter. The Colts have Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton and one of the league's best offensive lines, but they also have the league's top-rated scoring defense dating back to Week 7.
Injuries to watch: Earlier this week, the Colts put safety Mike Mitchell on injured reserve after he hurt his calf against the Texans, while safety Malik Hooker (foot) also hasn't been practicing. Star safety Eric Berry (heel) has been out of practice for the Chiefs and probably shouldn't be counted on at this point, but Kansas City looks as though it'll get wide receiver Sammy Watkins back from a foot injury.
Random tidbit: The Chiefs are battling history—specifically, a 1-4 playoff record under Andy Reid, a six-game home playoff losing streak and leftover nightmares from a 28-point collapse against these Colts in the 2013 postseason—but they're a No. 1 seed for the first time since 1997, and Reid is 20-4 in his career coming off bye weeks (regular season and playoffs).
The Pick: Colts +5.5
All three of our experts are convinced that Indianapolis won't just cover—it'll win outright and punch a ticket to Foxborough or Los Angeles for the AFC Championship Game.
"Indy is as hot as any team in the NFL and going up against a Chiefs defense that would need to improve considerably to be terrible," Davenport said. "The Colts led the NFL in sacks allowed in the regular season (18), and while the Chiefs tied for the NFL lead with 52 sacks, I expect Luck to have time to find the open man against a bad Chiefs secondary. Kansas City will get theirs on offense, but a sneaky-good Colts defense will get just enough stops to set up yet another early exit for the Chiefs at Arrowhead in the postseason."
And as Sobleski notes, there's one particular matchup advantage for the Colts that could be a difference-maker.
"In the playoffs, matchups make the games," he said. "A look at the Colts and Chiefs rosters shows one glaring matchup in the Colts' favor. The Chiefs ranked next-to-last by allowing 5.0 yards per carry during the regular season. Indianapolis is coming off a game where the offense set a franchise playoff record with 200 rushing yards and Marlon Mack broke the team's individual record with 148 yards. The Colts can control this game through their offensive line and ground attack."
Indeed, the Indy running game dominated a Houston run defense that ranked No. 1 in the NFL at Football Outsiders in terms of DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average). And now, Mack and Co. get to tee off on the league's worst run defense in that category.
Meanwhile, Gagnon notes that this could be a whole new ballgame for MVP favorite Patrick Mahomes.
"Let's not forget that Luck has been here, done this," he said. "But Mahomes is still a sometimes-mistake-prone quarterback, and he's making his first-ever playoff start against a damn good defense. Considering how poorly Lamar Jackson, Mitchell Trubisky and Deshaun Watson performed in their first postseason starts last week, and how much Jared Goff struggled in his maiden playoff voyage last January, I wonder if Matt Eberflus' better-than-the-sum-of-its-parts defense could cause the 23-year-old to slip up."
For what it's worth, the Chiefs lost each of their last three regular-season games that were played on national television. And while the offense didn't struggle to score points in those outings, Mahomes did turn the ball over five times in the first one, a loss to the Rams in the highest-profile game of Kansas City's season.
Davenport: Colts 33, Chiefs 31
Gagnon: Colts 31, Chiefs 30
Sobleski: Colts 28, Chiefs 27
Consensus: Indianapolis (+5.5)
No. 4 Dallas Cowboys (11-6) at No. 2 Los Angeles Rams (13-3)
When: Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET
Where: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
Referee: John Parry
Line: Los Angeles -7
In a nutshell: It's a rare January matchup between two teams whose star offensive players are running backs. In fact, you could make an argument that Ezekiel Elliott of the Cowboys and Todd Gurley of the Rams are the best two backs in the NFL. Beyond that, the comparison is a seesaw: Los Angeles has a better passing game, Dallas has a better offensive line; Los Angeles has the bigger defensive standout in Aaron Donald, Dallas has a better all-around defense; Los Angeles has "home-field advantage," Dallas has "momentum."
Injuries to watch: Dallas wide receiver Cole Beasley's status is up in the air after the veteran suffered an ankle injury against the Seahawks, which isn't ideal considering the team already lost Allen Hurns to a broken fibula. More critically, quarterback Dak Prescott has been practicing fully despite an injured knee. On the other side, Gurley continues to be limited by a knee injury of his own, but he's also fully expected to play Saturday night.
Random tidbit: The Cowboys haven't won a true road playoff game in nearly 26 years, going 0-7 during that span, and they're just 3-5 outside of Arlington this year. But will this even feel like much of a road game for Dallas? America's Team holds part of its training camp in Southern California and considers that region to be somewhat of a second home. Per Cameron DaSilva of The Rams Wire, Vivid Seats projects that nearly one-third of the crowd at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum will be supporting Dallas on Saturday night.
The Pick: Cowboys +7
Our analysts once again have a unanimous agreement that the underdog will at least cover, and maybe even win outright in L.A.
"It's time to give Dallas its due," Sobleski said. "The Cowboys won eight of their last nine contests. They've done so by employing a ball-control offense complemented by big plays from Amari Cooper and a fundamentally sound defense. Dallas is going to make Jared Goff be patient and beat its defense. Goff wasn't the same quarterback after the team's Week 12 bye, averaging just 228.2 passing yards during the final five games. The Rams' high-flying offense will likely stay grounded."
Goff will of course continue to be without safety-valve wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who tore his ACL in November. The Rams lit up a bad Kansas City defense sans Kupp in Week 11, but the offense averaged fewer than 20 points per game over the course of L.A.'s next three games.
And while the Rams rebounded with blowout victories over the soft Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers to close out the season, that dynamic actually scares Gagnon.
"In seven games against opponents that won six or fewer games this season," Gagnon noted, "the Rams went 7-0 with an average margin of victory of 19.7 points. But in nine games against the rest of the league, they were 6-3 with an average margin of victory of just 0.5 points per outing. They loaded up on weak opponents, but against NFC playoff teams, they were just 2-3, with their only victories coming by a combined seven points over Seattle. There's no doubt this'll be a close game, and I think matchup advantages could put the Cowboys over the top."
The key matchup advantage: The Rams surrendered a league-worst 5.1 yards per rush, and now they're going up against the NFL's leading rusher. That could make it hard for Defensive Player of the Year front-runner Aaron Donald to establish opportunities to pin his ears back against a strong Cowboys offensive line. On the flip side, the Dallas run defense just smothered Seattle's top-ranked running game. If they can do that to Gurley, it'll put a lot of literal and proverbial pressure on Goff.
Davenport believes that could be a factor, but he still has the Rams squeaking out a victory—at least partly due to Donald's presence.
"The Rams have a well-rounded offense that should have more success moving the ball consistently than the Seahawks had last week in Dallas," he said. "But the Cowboys are a different team away from the monument to excess that is AT&T Stadium. There's also the matter of Donald teeing off on a suspect Dallas line. However, while I expect the Rams to get the win here, I also believe that a combination of Elliott against a Rams defense that allowed over five yards a carry and a stout Dallas defense will keep this one close throughout."
Davenport: Rams 28, Cowboys 24
Gagnon: Cowboys 30, Rams 27
Sobleski: Cowboys 24, Rams 17
Consensus: Dallas (+7)
No. 5 Los Angeles Chargers (13-4) at No. 2 New England Patriots (11-5)
When: Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts
Referee: Ron Torbert
Line: New England -4
In a nutshell: The Chargers are 9-0 in games played outside of Los Angeles, but the Patriots are the only NFL team with a perfect home record, and Tom Brady is 7-0 in his career against Philip Rivers. It's a cliche, but something truly has to give.
Injuries to watch: It looks like the Chargers are going to get tight end Hunter Henry back less than eight months after he suffered a torn ACL; he has been practicing without limitations. Running back Melvin Gordon should also play for Los Angeles, but he's far from 100 percent with two banged-up knees. Nobody is missing practice right now for the healthy Patriots, but wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson (knee) and cornerback Devin McCourty (concussion) are worth monitoring Sunday.
Random tidbit: This is only the second time in the last 14 years the Patriots have been favored by four or fewer points for a home playoff game. The other one turned out to be a 33-14 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
The Pick: Chargers +4
Once again, the unanimous feeling among our panelists is that this will be a close game. And that's enough for us to push the Chargers with four points in their back pocket.
"The Chargers are a better all-around team than the Patriots," Gagnon said, "and Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski have not brought their respective A-games. It's hard to see New England pulling away from a Bolts team that is 7-2 on road trips to or beyond the Eastern time zone under second-year head coach Anthony Lynn, with the only losses coming by one score each in Jacksonville and Foxborough in 2017. So while I'm admittedly terrified that the Chargers—who have been sloppy on offense lately—will finally Charger all over the field in a meltdown, all of the evidence I have suggests this comes down to the wire."
A potential difference in New England's favor could actually be its oft-maligned defense, which Gagnon notes has been superb at Gillette Stadium ever since surrendering 40 points to the Chiefs in mid-October. Since then, a unit led by Trey Flowers, Kyle Van Noy, Dont'a Hightower, Deatrich Wise Jr., Stephon Gilmore and the McCourty brothers has given up just 10.5 points per game at home. That might explain why defensive coordinator Brian Flores got plenty of buzz for head coaching jobs the last couple weeks, and why the Pats are favored despite their uninspiring offensive production down the stretch.
But Sobleski's lack of trust for that offense has him taking Los Angeles to win outright.
"Maybe the most impressive aspect of last weekend's play came with the Chargers' adaptive philosophy by employing defensive backs to play linebacker against the athletic Lamar Jackson," he said. "Obviously, the approach won't be the same against Brady, yet the Chargers coaching staff's flexibility is promising when facing the mastermind Bill Belichick. Even without an exotic approach, the Chargers have the edge-rushers in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram to make the 41-year-old quarterback uncomfortable."
And hasn't that always been the key to beating Brady? Pressure him with a four-man rush and you've got a chance. The Chargers blitzed the Ravens just three times but got plenty of pressure on the edge and up the middle, and Ingram is a one-man wrecking crew right now.
But while Davenport agrees L.A. will cover, he isn't buying a Chargers win.
"Simply put, the Patriots just don't lose football games at Gillette Stadium—especially in the postseason," he said. "New England ran the table at home in the regular season, and in 21 postseason appearances at Gillette, the Patriots have come out on the short end just three times. This isn't the best team Brady's taken into the playoffs by any stretch. In fact, you can make a pretty good argument that the Chargers are the better team. But the Patriots are beyond battle-tested, and all that experience will serve the team well in a close win. I'll take the four points, though."
So they're (sort of) on the same page.
Davenport: Patriots 27, Chargers 24
Gagnon: Patriots 24, Chargers 23
Sobleski: Chargers 31, Patriots 30
Consensus: Los Angeles (+4)
No. 6 Philadelphia Eagles (10-7) at No. 2 New Orleans Saints (13-3)
When: Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans
Referee: Carl Cheffers
Line: New Orleans -8
In a nutshell: Nick Foles is the highest-rated playoff passer in NFL history, but Drew Brees ranks fifth on that list. The Eagles seem to have some mysticism following them right now, but beating the league's No. 1-ranked team inside the Superdome could be the greatest challenge yet for the Foles-led Eagles.
Injuries to watch: Wide receivers Golden Tate (knee) and Alshon Jeffery (ribs) as well as defensive end Michael Bennett (foot) and left tackle Jason Peters (quadriceps) are all hurting for the Eagles, but expect them all to play. Meanwhile, basically the entire New Orleans offensive line is banged up, but the only real question mark is left tackle Terron Armstead, who has been battling a shoulder injury for a couple of months now but is practicing in limited fashion.
Random tidbit: The regular-season matchup between these teams (48-7 Saints win) was the second-most-lopsided game of the 2018 season. That and a 47-3 Ravens victory over the Buffalo Bills are the only games this season that have been decided by 40-plus points.
The Pick: Saints -8
Andddd the upset party is over.
Considering that the football gods seem to be on their side and that they may be inspired by the notion that the Saints ran up the score during their regular-season meeting, the Eagles are hard to pick against right now. But in yet another unanimous decision, our panelists are doing exactly that.
"Yes, this Eagles team is different than the one that traveled to the Superdome in Week 11," Davenport said. "Since that game, Philly's won six of seven games—including three of four on the road. And of course there's the presence of the walking, talking rabbit's foot that is Foles at quarterback.
"But the reality is that Foles didn't play well in a game the Eagles should have lost last week in Chicago, and in that Week 11 meeting in the Big Easy, Brees laid waste to a porous Eagles secondary in a 48-7 evisceration disguised as a football game. The Saints have had a week off to rest banged-up players, and it's an absolute lock that the Superdome will be off the chain Sunday. The Eagles just don't have the firepower on either side of the ball to hang with the NFC's No. 1 seed. The clock's striking midnight for Cinderella—Eagles lose by 17."
Sobleski just figures it's about time for Philly's luck to run out.
"The Eagles needed to win three straight games to get into the playoffs," he said. "A tipped field goal kept them alive in the postseason. Foles continues to do what he does—which is help Philadelphia find ways to win when the games matter. With all that said, the Saints are the superior team with an extra week of preparation and rest. The Eagles may be the reigning Super Bowl champions, but they're about to be dethroned."
But Gagnon doesn't believe we'll have another blowout on our hands.
"The Eagles scare me, and they certainly won't lose by 41 points this time," he said. "After averaging a league-best 37.2 points per game during the first 12 weeks of the season, New Orleans averaged just 19.0 points per game down the stretch. Foles is fantastic under pressure (both literally and figuratively), Philly's line has completely shut down Aaron Donald, J.J. Watt and Khalil Mack in recent weeks, and Jim Schwartz's defensive front can change games.
"But this is a different environment for the Eagles, and it should be noted that the Saints' late-season offensive struggles generally came on the road. Excluding a Week 17 home game in which they rested most of their offensive starters, they still averaged a ridiculous 39.6 points per game in their last five games at the Superdome. They're just too powerful for the depleted Eagles and their inferior quarterback, regardless of Philly's playoff pedigree with Foles under center."
Davenport: Saints 37, Eagles 20
Gagnon: Saints 31, Eagles 20
Sobleski: Saints 30, Eagles 17
Consensus: Saints (-8)