Eight NFL teams will battle Saturday and Sunday for a spot in the conference championship games. Historically, home teams have a significant advantage in the divisional round: Since 2002, they are 43-21 (.672 win rate). However, they aren’t nearly as good against the spread, especially if favored by four or more points, as is the case for all of this week’s home teams. In these situations, the home favorite has a 19-30 record against the spread in divisional-round postseason matchups, indicating we can expect one or two upsets this weekend.
In addition, underdogs have been on a postseason hot streak. Since last season, underdogs are 14-1 against the spread in the playoffs.
Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs (-5.5)
Saturday, 4:35 p.m. Eastern
Pick: Kansas City Chiefs -5.5
The Colts closed out the regular season in spectacular fashion, winning 9 of 10 and four straight games to finish the year. However, those opponents weren’t exactly a murderers' row of football talent. Three of the four wins at the end of the season came against average or below-average teams per Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric, which measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent. The Houston Texans, the outlier, finished at No. 11. The lone loss by the Colts in that final 10-game stretch was a 6-0 defeat at the hands of the 5-11 Jacksonville Jaguars.
And don’t be too impressed with the Colts' rushing performance against the Texans in the first round. Running back Marlon Mack set a single-game postseason franchise record with 148 yards on the ground and helped the team set a single-game postseason franchise record with 200 rushing yards in a game, yet Indianapolis went into the half leading 21-0, the perfect game script to keep the ball on the ground. The Colts, like most NFL teams with at least that big of a lead, rushed the ball two-thirds of the time in 2018. As 5.5-point underdogs, you can expect Indianapolis to be trailing much more often Saturday against a high-powered Chiefs offense.
Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams (-7)
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. Eastern
Pick: Los Angeles Rams -7
Knee issues plagued right guard Zack Martin, dropping him from the fourth-best pass blocker at the position in 2017 to ninth in 2018, while the loss of all-pro Travis Frederick put Joe Looney a center, downgrading Dallas from the second-best center to one that ranked 22nd out of 26 qualified players. Rookie Connor Williams finished the regular season ranked 30th out of 53 guards.
Now this unit will have to face likely 2018 defensive player of year Aaron Donald, a defensive wrecking ball who was credited with 20 1/2 sacks, the most ever by an interior lineman. And let’s not forget about Ndamukong Suh, a 6-foot-4, 305-pound defensive tackle who has no problem taking advantage of single coverage: He produced 4 1/2 sacks, 11 hits and 32 hurries in 2018. He also batted down four passes and recovered two fumbles.
If you are still buying into a Cowboys upset you might want to also consider Dallas hasn’t won a playoff game on the road since the 1992 NFC championship game and is 0-7 since then.
Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots (-4)
Sunday, 1:05 p.m. Eastern
Pick: Los Angeles Chargers +4
Let’s not overcomplicate this: The Patriots need to protect Tom Brady to move on to the AFC championship game. His completion rate dropped from 72 to 45 percent when under pressure this year, and he had a corresponding drop in passer rating, going from 105.3 in a clean pocket to 71.2 when facing pressure, roughly the difference between how well Philip Rivers and Blaine Gabbert passed the ball in 2018. That means left tackle Trent Brown and right tackle Marcus Cannon must play well against Los Angeles edge rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram.
All but one of Bosa’s 5 1/2 sacks in 2018 came against the opponent’s right tackle, yet he had an even split of pressures from the left (13) and right side (13) this season. Ingram was more productive from the left side (38 pressures out of 282 pass-rush snaps, 13 percent) but he was no slouch from the right, either (26 pressures out of 218 pass-rush snaps, 12 percent).
Plus, Cannon was pushed around by T.J. Watt and the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 15, allowing Watt to register a sack, two hits and two hurries in the New England loss. Brown had trouble with Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes the next week, surrendering a hit and four hurries over 27 passing snaps. Bosa and Ingram present a much more significant challenge for the Pats' offensive line.
Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints (-8)
Sunday, 4:40 p.m. Eastern
Pick: Philadelphia Eagles +8
New Orleans embarrassed Philadelphia, 48-7, in Week 11, the worst loss ever suffered by a defending Super Bowl champion. Drew Brees threw for 363 yards and four touchdowns while the Eagles mustered just 196 yards of total offense. But that was with Carson Wentz under center; this week they have lucky charm Nick Foles, the reigning Super Bowl MVP, as their quarterback.
Conventional wisdom would suggest the Eagles would be better off with Wentz, the anointed starter before an injury sidelined him. But Foles has already proved he can help win games (since last season, the team has won 10 of his 12 starts), and it can be argued he is better at distributing the ball than Wentz. For example, Wentz targeted tight end Zach Ertz (23 percent of targets) and Alshon Jeffery (21 percent) most of the time, with only three others seeing at least 13 percent of the targets. Only Ertz got more than 20 percent of the looks with Foles throwing the ball, and six other players got 10 percent or more of the targets. Foles’s chemistry with Jeffery is especially notable: He completed 40 of 61 (66 percent) passes for 669 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions to Jeffery over the past two seasons for a 116.1 passer rating; 32 of those 40 completions resulted in a first down.
Foles’s ability to spread the ball around will help the Eagles take advantage of the Saints' poor pass defense. According to Football Outsiders, New Orleans had the third-worst performance against No. 1 receivers and the second-worst performance against a team’s second-most-targeted wideout. The Saints were also the fourth worst at defending running backs from catching passes out of the backfield.
Plus, the New Orleans offense just hasn’t been the same in recent weeks. Through the first 11 games, the Saints led the league with 3.5 points scored per drive. Over their past five contests that has dropped to just 1.8 points per drive; in 2018 the league average was 2.0 points per drive.
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