The NFL will be hard-pressed to top one of the greatest opening playoff weekends in history.
The result was a compelling weekend of close matchups — save for the Colts’s 21-7 win over the Texans — capped by the crazy final two minutes of the Eagles’ win over Chicago, which featured a miss by Bears kicker Cody Parkey that clanked off the upright and then the crossbar before falling no good.
Vegas oddsmakers forecast a close weekend, but in looking ahead to the divisional round, they see greater separation in the opponents, with betting lines ranging from 4.5 to 9 points. Let’s take a look at the biggest questions entering those matchups.
1. Are the Chargers the best team in the AFC?
They reminded why they are the most complete team in the AFC during Sunday’s 23-17 win over Baltimore: They have a defense that can up to the level of their offense.
That’s not to say they’re without issues on that side of the ball, as injuries at linebacker have forced them to use seven defensive backs. But the system worked perfectly against the Ravens and quarterback Lamar Jackson — in part because of the stellar play of rookie all-pro safety Derwin James. They are vulnerable to teams that specialize in power running, but that’s not the Patriots, next week’s opponent.
Also in the Chargers’ favor: Quarterback Philip Rivers is healthy and playing his best football. He is four-deep in quality receivers and has a top running back in Melvin Gordon.
Sure, the Patriots have the edge in Sunday’s matchup. They are 8-0 at home this season and simply don’t lose home playoff games. On the road this year, however, the Chargers are 7-1 and have a plus-63 point differential. Their only “road” loss came in L.A. to the Rams. Even though they have to board a plane and fly to a road game, and the Patriots get the support of a home crowd, the Chargers have a decent chance of winning and advancing to the AFC championship game.
2. Which of the young quarterbacks will step up?
While the old guard quarterbacks bested the millennials in the wild-card round, the young quarterbacks weren’t overwhelmed. Mitchell Trubisky played like a veteran in bringing back Chicago from deficits and nearly pulled off the game-winning drive. Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson was awful for three quarters but rallied to nearly pull off a comeback win. Houston’s Deshaun Watson took a pounding, but he’ll improve next year once a better offensive line is put in front of him.
As for the quarterbacks who are still in it, Dak Prescott showed in Dallas’s win Saturday just how much he has grown since his last playoff appearance. From the start of the win over Seattle, he connected on passes he missed in his first playoff game in 2016. He was 7 for 12 in the first quarter for 66 yards. Part of the reason for his success is Amari Cooper, who is the No. 1 receiver Prescott thought he used to have in Dez Bryant. But Bryant couldn’t get much separation after his foot injuries, and Cooper is not only a great outside target, but perhaps the NFL’s best receiver on double moves.
The Cowboys will face another young gun in the Rams’ Jared Goff on Saturday night, and it will be tough for Prescott to keep pace. On the road this year, Dallas is 3-5 and has averaged only 17.3 points per game. That’s 8.7 points less than the Cowboys average at home. One of these two passers from the 2016 draft class will earn a berth in the NFC championship game.
The Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes is the likely MVP this year, after throwing for 50 touchdown passes in leading his team to the No. 1 seed. But his game Saturday against the Colts’ Andrew Luck won’t be easy, in one of the best QB matchups we’ve seen in the last few years. The Colts are the NFL’s hottest team and Luck is back to the level he was at his first three seasons in the league.
The key for Mahomes will be making sure he doesn’t press too much. The Colts do a great job in pass protection, and they ran the ball well in the win over the Texans, so the ingredients are there for them to again have a balanced, efficient offensive attack. If Mahomes makes any early mistakes, it could put them in the difficult position of having to come back.
3. What can the Eagles do to avoid another blowout versus the Saints?
This won’t be easy. On Nov. 18, the Eagles went to New Orleans and lost, 48-7. The Saints are rested, healthy and have a huge home-field advantage, going 7-1 in the Superdome this season with a league-high 22 touchdown passes (tied with the Rams). Even though this one should be closer than last time, it’s going to be difficult for the Eagles to pull the upset.
The Eagles went 4-4 on the road in the regular season, and outscored opponents by only two points. They have had to patch together their secondary because of injuries, and Trubisky threw for 303 yards against them Sunday. That’s where Drew Brees can take advantage.
Oddsmakers are giving the Saints a 9-point advantage, the highest of any divisional-round game. The Eagles showed in the Chicago game that they are lacking a big, physical back, as Darren Sproles can’t be asked to run for scores in the red zone.
Still, it’s amazing what Nick Foles has been able to do in getting the Eagles this far. Perhaps he can summon more magic Sunday.
4. Will the Chiefs’ defense cost them a championship?
I think it will, and so do many people around the NFL I’ve spoken to. They believe in Mahomes. They believe in Andy Reid. But the defense can’t stop the run, and it has major problems in pass coverage. You have to wonder if they wish they had kept Marcus Peters, who is now with the Rams, given the team’s issues at cornerback.
The Chiefs allow 26.3 points per game. Normally, that translates to seven to nine losses over the course of the season. Mahomes and the offense have overcome it to go 12-4, but it’s been tougher down the stretch, in part due to the release of star running back Kareem Hunt following video surfacing of him pushing and kicking a woman in a February incident. The Chiefs barely escaped with a win over Baltimore and lost to the Chargers and Seahawks down the stretch. Against playoff-caliber teams, it’s much harder to win shootouts.
Saturday’s matchup with the Colts could be exactly that. Luck is playing so well, along with wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, that it’s easy to see them putting up 25-plus points, and their resurgent young defense could test Mahomes. The best part about the Chiefs’ defense is its pass rush, with three productive rushers in Justin Houston, Chris Jones and Dee Ford. They’ll need them to make plays against a Colts team that has been very good in pass protection this season.
Mahomes has Super Bowl rings in his future, based on his ability alone. But the defense will have to step up for him to get there this year.
Rumors and buzz
— It was evident during the weekend that changes in the kickoff coverage have made it almost impossible to get an onside kick. The Seahawks tried it with a drop kick and it wasn’t even close, as punter Michael Dickson looked like he hit a 6-iron when he needed a 9-iron. The Ravens couldn’t do anything on onside kicks.
During the regular season, there were only five onside kicks recovered. The kickoff rules have been good for safety issues, but it hasn’t helped teams at the end of games trying to get a chance at a comeback.
— Ravens Coach John Harbaugh sure acted like a guy who is planning to stay in Baltimore with his coaching decisions Sunday. Instead of benching Lamar Jackson when fans called for Joe Flacco, he stuck with the 2018 first-round pick.
The Ravens said they are keeping Harbaugh and are working on an extension. Harbaugh probably wants more authority in personnel and might not get it in Baltimore, but he stood by his quarterback of the present and the future instead of going to Flacco. Expect Harbaugh to stay and try to build around Jackson’s unique skill set.
— It is starting to look as though coaches with previous head coaching experience are going to get the edge in this year’s round of hires. Mike Munchak has a decent chance of getting the Denver Broncos job. Jim Caldwell has a good shot at landing somewhere. After the failed Steve Wilks hiring, the Arizona Cardinals are likely to hire someone with head-coaching experience.
Offensive-minded head coaches remain what owners want, but the pool of top assistants is thin.
— The wild-card weekend showed the value of certain trade deadline acquisitions. The Cooper trade played big in the Cowboys’ victory. Golden Tate made a great game-winning touchdown grab in the Eagles’ win.
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