The big takeaway? The New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams were big winners on wild-card weekend without even taking the field.
The Eagles will travel to New Orleans to face the Saints, the top seed in the NFC, which also features one of this year’s top quarterbacks in Drew Brees. Brees led the league in completion rate (74 percent) and threw for 3,992 yards, 32 touchdowns and five interceptions, making him the second-most valuable passer this season per the game charters at Pro Football Focus. Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, by comparison, ended the regular season ranked 30th out of 32 qualified passers. That’s quite a difference for an Eagles pass coverage unit who has seen opponents score almost three points more per game than expected based on the down, distance and field position of each throw against them, per data from TruMedia.
The challenge for the Cowboys when they face the Rams is keeping quarterback Dak Prescott upright in the pocket. The Cowboys offensive line allowed 56 sacks in 2018, the second-most in the league, and the Rams defensive line was the second-best pass-rushing unit during the regular season. Aaron Donald (league high 20.5 sacks) and Ndamukong Suh (48 total pressures) figure to harass Prescott all game long.
As a result, both the Rams and Saints see their Super Bowl odds improve due to a perceptively weaker set of opponents. The Rams' chances go from 14 to 23 percent while the Saints see their chances rise from 22 to 27 percent.
The Los Angeles Chargers also get a bump (8 to 12 percent) despite having to head to Foxboro to face the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. And like the Colts they face the same hurdles to the AFC championship game, only with much better chances to win despite being 0-7 against Tom Brady and the Patriots, including playoffs, since Philip Rivers became the starter in 2006.
In 2018, Rivers and Brady saw little separation between them in ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating (70.2 and 70.7, respectively) indicating each is capable of delivering a win. The game charters at Pro Football Focus, on the other hand, were more impressed by what they saw out of Rivers (third-best passer in 2018) than Brady (seventh-best). Same for Football Outsiders, who also had Rivers as the third-best quarterback this season and Brady as the eighth-best passer.
In addition, one of the Patriots strength’s, their offensive line, will be taxed by the Chargers' ferocious pass rush. Melvin Ingram tallied seven solo tackles, two sacks, three hurries and a forced fumble, plus the recovery, against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, showing just how disruptive he can be. And while Baltimore’s offensive line doesn’t grade as highly as New England’s — the former ranked No. 8 in Football Outsiders adjusted sack rate metric and the latter ranked No. 1 — it was no slouch, either. Plus, Ingram (No. 23) and his teammate Joey Bosa (No. 19) give the Chargers two players among Pro Football Focus’s Top 25 edge rushers of 2018. Maybe that duo isn’t good enough to get Los Angeles a win but they sure are good enough to make it interesting.
The Indianapolis Colts pummeled the Houston Texans 21-7 in the wild-card round. Coach Frank Reich rode his running back Marlon Mack to a single-game postseason franchise record 148 yards on the ground and a team single-game postseason franchise record 200 rushing yards in a game, production that will serve them well in Saturday’s divisional round matchup, the first such appearance for the franchise since 2013. With the playoff victory, the Colts have won 10 of their last 11 games and five straight.
Despite the dominant performance of late, this Colts squad is still a No. 6 seed in the AFC, which tilts the Super Bowl odds in favor of their next opponent, the No. 1 seed Kansas City Chiefs. Based on the point margin of each team heading into the playoffs, we would expect the Chiefs to beat the Colts 67 percent of the time at home, a slightly better win rate than if the Chiefs had to face the Chargers (55 percent) at Arrowhead Stadium. Maybe this appears unfair considering the latest win by Indianapolis. But since 2002, the year the NFL expanded to 32 teams, the road team is 21-43 (.328 win rate) in the divisional round; the win rates are slightly worse (13-30, .302) for teams that are at least five-point underdogs, like Indianapolis is heading into this matchup. Plus, over the past 16 postseasons, just nine teams participating in the wild-card round have won back-to-back road games. None have done it since the 2013 San Francisco 49ers.
And let’s not forget this Chiefs team is better, at least on paper, than the one the Colts put on the field. Kansas City led the league in points scored, total yards, passing touchdowns, yards per drive and points per drive in 2018. After adjusting its offensive figures for strength of schedule it was the most efficient offense in the NFL, per Football Outsiders. The Chiefs scored 13.1 points per game more than expected in 2018 after accounting for the down, distance and field position of each play. The New Orleans Saints were second-best, scoring 9.4 points per game more than expected, and the Colts finished the regular season at No. 10 (plus-3.5).
The Chiefs defense was not great (26th after adjusting for opponents) but even after taking that into account Kansas City was still ranked No. 1 in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, Football Outsiders' measurement of a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent. Indianapolis, by comparison, finished the regular season ranked No. 8 overall.
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