NFL 2018 Divisional Round Predictions

Derick E. Hingle / USA TODAY Sports

One round down, two more to go until our Super Bowl match-up is decided.

These playoffs shaped up to be the most exciting in recent memory. After all, there’s tremendous balance; no team clearly stands out ahead of the rest. Any of the twelve teams could have been contenders and it wouldn’t have been a huge surprise.

After the Indianapolis Colts dominated the Houston Texans on Saturday, it looked like the highly anticipated 2018-19 postseason was going to disappoint. Fortunately, our luck quickly changed. Fans were treated with three exciting games after the snoozer in Houston. The Cowboys edged out the Seahawks on Saturday night in a classic game headlined by the Cowboys’ stout rush defense. The next day, Ravens rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson nearly delivered a legendary comeback against the Chargers but fell short. To wrap up the weekend, the Eagles traveled to Chicago and escaped the low-scoring affair with a win thanks to the heroics of Treyvon Hester.

Most of us were convinced the Eagles had the worst chances at raising the Lombardi Trophy next month and they ended up upsetting the Bears. That game is a perfect embodiment of how remarkably tight all the teams are this season. Over the past five Super Bowls, nine of the playing teams finished with the best record in their conference. That means four of the last five championship match-ups were between two one-seeds. The only exception (2016 Atlanta Falcons) was still the two-seed. In the twenty years before the 2013 season, two top-seeds faced off in the big game just once (Super Bowl XLIV). The past five years have been an anomalous stretch of high predictability in the postseason that appears to have run its course.

In any case, we’re set for a great upcoming weekend of football. The Divisional Round is typically the most exciting because the pretender Wild Card teams are taken out of the picture and the true contenders face off and treat us with four high-stakes games. This stage of the postseason has brought us some of the sport’s greatest moments. In 2001, the Raiders and Patriots faced off in the Tuck Rule Game, where Adam Vinatieri kicked a 23-yard game-winning field goal to kick start the greatest dynasty in professional sports history. In 2011, Alex Smith led an 85-yard drive while down by three which encapsulated in a improbable touchdown strike to Vernon Davis, known today as “The Catch III.” And just last year, the Vikings erased a 17-point Saints comeback when Case Keenum threw a 61-yard touchdown to Stefon Diggs as time expired, a play accurately referred to as “The Minneapolis Miracle.” Let’s hope the Divisional Round continues to deliver.

Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs

After starting the season with a 1-5 win-loss record, the Colts won 9 of their last 10 games to sneak into the playoffs. Last week, the Colts shocked the AFC South champions, setting themselves up for a tough outing in Kansas City.

Many fans will use the fact that the Chiefs haven’t won a home playoff game since 1994 as a sign of their impending failure. While so-called “curses” are fun to joke about, it’s not like this is a legitimate indicator for future results. None of those past losses were with Pat Mahomes at quarterback. None of those teams scored over 35 points per game. This is a new and improved Chiefs team — past seasons are irrelevant.

The true reason that the Chiefs are set up for failure is the deficiencies of their defense. Their rush defense ranks dead last in the NFL, allowing 132.1 rushing yards per game and 5.0 yards per carry. The Colts have a 7-1 record this season in games where they rush for over 100 yards. They’re coming off of a playoff game in which they rushed for 200 yards on 35 attempts (5.7 yards per carry) against the Houston Texans — a team allowing a league-low 3.4 yards per carry. Imagine what they’ll do in Arrowhead Stadium.

The only way that the Chiefs’ defense can do anything to stop the Andrew Luck-led Colts’ offense is if their pass rush delivers. The Chiefs have recorded 52 sacks, the highest total in the NFL this year. If Luck doesn’t have time to throw, he won’t be able to keep up with the inevitable productivity of Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense. Fortunately for Luck, he’ll be standing behind the second-best pass-protection offensive line in the league according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA. If they maintain their current level of play, the Chiefs’ mediocre defense won’t stand a chance.

There’s no stopping Pat Mahomes, but you can outscore him. The Rams did it. The Patriots did it. Add the Indianapolis Colts to that list.

Colts 38 – 35 Chiefs

Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams

Like the Colts, the Cowboys have been nearly perfect in the second half of the season after a very lackluster start. Dallas has won 7 of their last 8 games after starting the season with a mediocre 3-5 record. The heavily criticized trade for Amari Cooper has transformed this team into a legitimate contender. They’ll need more than Cooper to advance to the NFC Championship Game, though.

The Rams boast an offense scoring 32.9 points per game, the second-highest mark in the league. On defense, they have not been great. However, with their scoring ability, they don’t need to hold teams to under 20 points. They simply need timely turnovers. Fortunately for the Rams, Aaron Donald is enjoying the greatest season we’ve ever witnessed from a defensive tackle. In a shootout against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Rams gave up 51 points. Yet, Donald’s two forced fumbles ended up being the difference maker in a close win.

At one point, the Rams were 11-1 and looked like possibly the best team in the league. After a poor stretch of games that included losses to the Bears and Eagles, doubt has been cast on Sean McVay’s squad. Everybody is focused on the Saints and Chiefs. However, one small slump shouldn’t make people forget how good the Rams can be. Jared Goff and Todd Gurley were both in the discussion for the MVP award at one point in the season. Their offensive line has been the best in the league this year. If the team can get out of their slump, there’s a great chance for them to win the big game in February.

Cowboys 21 – 34 Rams

Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints

Jason Peters is right. The Eagles won’t lose by 41 like last time these two teams faced off. That won’t be much consolation for them when they still end up losing.

The fact that the Eagles won past playoff games as underdogs (versus the Falcons, Vikings, Patriots, and Eagles) isn’t particularly relevant. After all, the 2018 New Orleans Saints are better than any of those teams were. The Saints are currently scoring 3.21 points per drive (including a game where most starters didn’t play), the second-highest rate since the legendary 2007 Patriots. Their offensive dominance is scary enough. Add on a defense allowing just 16.5 points per game in the second half of the season and you have the most balanced team in the NFL.

The Eagles have been hot, but they’ll still need to be even hotter to stand a chance against New Orleans. Nick Foles played well enough to escape with a win against Chicago, but the same performance won’t cut it when Drew Brees is on the other team. In Brees’ worst home game this year by passer rating, he still completed 69% of his passes en route to a 300-yard game with no turnovers. He’s 8-1 this year in a dome and the sole loss is a Week 1 game where the offense still scored 40 points. If the Saints’ offensive line is healthy and can return to their elite mid-season form, no team will be able to stop this offense. All of Brees’ “bad” games this season occurred when the line was dominated from the interior. That’s no coincidence.

The Saints have one of the league’s best rushing defenses. The Eagles have one of the league’s worst rushing offenses. It will be extremely tough for Nick Foles to get anything going if the Eagles are forced to convert long third downs due to deficiencies in the ground game. I know people want to mention that Nick Foles was able to defeat Tom Brady in a Super Bowl duel. Don’t forget that the Eagles averaged 6.1 yards per carry in that game. That’s not happening again. The Bears were allowing teams to rush for an average of 3.8 yards per carry before their Wild Card game against the Eagles. In that game, Philadelphia ran the ball 23 times for just 42 yards. On the other hand, the Saints are allowing teams to rush for an average of just 3.6 yards per carry. That’s bad news for the Eagles.

Eagles 24 – 31 Saints

Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots

Unfortunately, it’s now unlikely that we’ll get a classic snow game between two aging greats at quarterback. Regardless, this should still be an excellent game. It’s certainly difficult to predict.

The Chargers and Patriots are both great. Los Angeles is probably a bit better.

 Los Angeles ChargersNew England Patriots
Pass Offense Rank24
Rush Offense Rank69
Pass Defense Rank1014
Rush Defense Rank1019

According to Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric, the Chargers have been better in every facet of the game in 2018. The margin isn’t particularly wide, though. The game will also be in Foxborough. The last time the Patriots lost at Gillette Stadium was 476 days ago. They haven’t lost a home playoff game since the 2012 playoffs. Beating the Patriots is extremely tough; traveling to New England to beat them is nigh impossible.

Still, if any team can beat them in the AFC, it’s the Los Angeles Chargers.

Tom Brady hasn’t been a top-5 quarterback this season, which hasn’t happened since … well, a long time. Whether or not Patriots fans are willing to accept it, he’s still on the decline. However, he’s more than capable of playing at a high level. If he has too much time to throw, it might be too difficult for Phillip Rivers and the Chargers’ offense to keep up. Their pass rush will be key. Forcing Tom Brady to make mistakes under pressure is how the Steelers were able to escape with a win in the regular season.

On the other side, Phillip Rivers is playing as well as he ever has. The crazy thing is that he’s doing this with one of the worst pass protecting offensive lines in the league. Pro Football Focus ranked the Chargers’ offensive line as the 30th best this season. The Patriots rank 4th. That makes it even more impressive that Rivers has outperformed Brady this year. Unfortunately, it won’t matter if he’s not able to maintain this improbable success on Sunday.

The game could easily go either way. If this was any Patriots team of the past 3 years and I’d have to give the win to them. It comes down to the fact that Tom Brady isn’t likely to be able to carry his team to a win at this stage of his career against a team like the Chargers.

Chargers 21 – 17 Patriots