Folks, we have made it to perhaps the best week of the entire football schedule.
Sadly, there are only seven games left on the NFL docket, but we’re not going to harp on the negatives. Instead, we’re ready to embrace this weekend’s divisional round with four highly intriguing matchups.
As you’re looking to handicap, keep this wild stat in mind: Since the start of the playoffs last season, underdogs are a ridiculous 14-1 against the spread and have covered 62 percent of the time over the last five years.
Basically, what we’re saying is be ready for a wild weekend.
And before you dive into the upcoming slate, make sure to dive into our against-the-spread picks from the NESN.com trio of Mike Cole, Ricky Doyle and Andre Khatchaturian.
Here’s how they fared last week:
Mike Cole: 2-2 (128-123-5 overall)
Ricky Doyle: 3-1 (131-119-5)
Andre Khatchaturian: 2-2 (135-116-5)
Here are their divisional-round picks with lines courtesy of OddsShark.com.
SATURDAY, JAN. 12
Indianapolis Colts at (-5.5) Kansas City Chiefs, 4:35 p.m. ET
Mike: Chiefs. I opened on the Colts because I think they do some things that will give the Chiefs trouble. That being said, Indy quite literally hasn’t seen a team like the Chiefs all season. The Colts haven’t faced a single top-10 offense, and now they take on arguably the league’s most explosive unit. There’s also this from The Action Network: Dome teams playing outdoor playoff games since 1990 are 12-44 straight-up and just 18-36-2 against the spread. That has even kind of been the case for the Colts this season, with four of their six losses coming outdoors. The Colts have injuries in the secondary with safety Mike Mitchell going to injured reserve. That could be especially costly for a defense that’s struggled to stop tight ends all season and now has to find a way to stop an All-Pro in Travis Kelce.
Ricky: Colts. Can you ever really trust Kansas City come playoff time? The Chiefs have been on a whole different level offensively this season, but their defense will be their fatal flaw this week. Kansas City has the 31st-ranked run defense, according to Pro Football Focus, and now must face an Indianapolis offense that’s coming off a tremendous ground showing against the Houston Texans’ stout front seven. The Colts’ offensive line, which ranks third in run blocking, per PFF, will control the line of scrimmage, ultimately opening up shots down the field for Andrew Luck. The Colts also rank first in third-down conversion percentage and fifth in red-zone scoring percentage, whereas the Chiefs rank 25th in opponent third-down conversion percentage and dead-last in opponent red-zone scoring percentage. Look for Indianapolis to extend and finish drives, resulting in an upset.
Andre: Colts. Marlon Mack — not Andrew Luck or Patrick Mahomes — will be the difference in this game. Mack has been unreal since Week 15, averaging five yards per carry against elite rush defenses like the Dallas Cowboys and Houston. The Chiefs have the league’s second-worst rush defense, allowing more than five yards per carry. Mack’s success will alleviate Luck’s workload. The Colts are 9-0 this season when Luck throws fewer than 40 times in a game. Meanwhile, the Chiefs have to go up against Indy’s elite rush defense, which allowed fewer than four yards per carry this season. Luck also gets protection. The Colts allowed 18 sacks in the regular season, and they’ll be ready for the Chiefs’ strong pass rush.
Dallas Cowboys at (-7) Los Angeles Rams, 8:15 p.m.
Mike: Cowboys. The Rams just haven’t been the same team since losing Cooper Kupp to a knee injury. LA was 9-1 before losing him for the season and is just 4-2 since. Jared Goff really has struggled, with his passer rating being 30 points lower in games without Kupp while completing just 60 percent of his passes compared to the 68.4 percent mark he was completing before the injury. We also don’t know how healthy Todd Gurley is, and even if he’s healthy, Dallas apparently has the sort of defense that has given the Rams fits this season. And I haven’t even mentioned the Rams’ leaky run defense trying to stop Ezekiel Elliott.
Ricky: Rams. Make no mistake, there will be plenty of Cowboys fans in Los Angeles this Saturday. But it’s still a road game, and Dallas has been a much different team away from AT&T Stadium. The Cowboys ranked 23rd in yards per play on the road (5.2) during the regular season, while the Rams ranked second in yards per play at home (6.5). Gurley is an unknown coming off a knee injury, but not playing since Dec. 16 could be a blessing in disguise. The Cowboys ranked 26th at defending running backs in the passing game, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA, and the Rams should lean heavily on their well-rested, duel-threat All-Pro, particularly in the screen game.
Andre: Cowboys. This will be another game decided by the running attack. The Rams have the worst rush defense in the league, allowing 5.1 yards per carry. This is an appetizing stat for Elliott, who likely will have a huge game on the ground. When Elliott rushes for more than 100 yards, the Cowboys are 7-1 SU this season. Dallas’ strong rush defense also will be able to limit Gurley. The unit limited Seattle’s elite rushing attack to just 73 yards during the wild-card round. If Gurley can’t get it going and Dallas jumps ahead of LA early, expect a high-volume game for Goff. When Goff throws the ball 40-plus times this season, the Rams are 1-3 SU and two of those losses were against elite run defenses (Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints).
SUNDAY, JAN. 13
Los Angeles Chargers (-4) New England Patriots, 1:05 p.m.
Mike: Patriots. A lot of people think the Patriots are as vulnerable as they’ve ever been, especially for a home game in the divisional round. The Chargers are that good. If Los Angeles has one glaring weakness, however, it’s covering running backs out of the backfield. No team allowed more receiving yards to running backs this season, and few, if any, backs are better pass-catchers than James White, who led the team in receptions. Just go back to last season, when the Patriots beat the Bolts 31-23 behind 12 catches and 153 yards combined from White and Rex Burkhead. And if you go back to the games the Chargers lost this season, two trends stick out in all of them: turnovers and penalties. Those are two areas in which the Patriots rarely come up short.
Ricky: Patriots. There’s been a lot of talk this week — and this season — about the Chargers’ pass-rushing tandem of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, and understandably so. They’re sick. But don’t you think head coach Bill Belichick knows that and will do everything possible to minimize arguably the Chargers’ biggest strength? Don’t be surprised if the Patriots’ offense is extremely run-heavy and reliant on more screen plays than shots downfield. The Chargers had the 26th-ranked run defense this season, per Pro Football Focus, and the Patriots have a talented array of ball-carriers — White, Burkhead, Sony Michel, Cordarrelle Patterson and even Julian Edelman — capable of gashing the Bolts.
Andre: Chargers. Los Angeles is the best road team in the NFL as evidenced by its 8-0 record away from LA county this season. Anthony Lynn’s squad had the best yards per play differential on the road this season and allowed just 5.27 yards per play away from StubHub Center against some quality offenses, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Chiefs, Rams and Seahawks. Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler should have effective games against a rush defense that’s allowed nearly five yards per carry. The only way I see the Patriots winning is if they use their short-pass game to exploit the Chargers’ weakness against pass-catching running backs. LA allowed the most receiving yards to running backs this season. That said, LA is the more complete team in all three phases of the game and should be able to keep the score within the number.
Philadelphia Eagles at (-8) New Orleans Saints, 4:40 p.m.
Mike: Saints. At some point, a team is really going to expose Philly’s secondary. The Eagles have done a nice job of getting to this point despite the injuries in their secondary, but this feels like the week it really catches up with them. Drew Brees is not Mitchell Trubisky, and the latter still was able to move the ball with relative ease on Philly last week, at least in the second half. Saints wideout Michael Thomas must be feeling pretty good watching the tape of Bears receiver Allen Robinson going off for 10 catches and 143 yards.
Ricky: Saints. The Eagles will do whatever they can to turn this game into a rock fight, with the trenches being instrumental in who emerges victorious. But the Saints are more than capable of handling that type of battle — on top of boasting a prolific offense. The Bears went 0-for-3 in the red zone against the Eagles last week, but the Saints, who rank fourth in red-zone scoring percentage, won’t leave those points on the board. Also, who can forget the Saints’ 48-7 beatdown of the Eagles in Week 11? Here’s an interesting nugget pointed out by CBS Sports’ John Breech: Since 2012, there have been 14 teams that got a playoff rematch after losing to a team by 20 or more points during the regular season. Those teams have gone 1-13 SU in the rematch.
Andre: Saints. The Eagles are the only remaining playoff team with a negative yards per play differential. The Saints have put up at least 30 points in every home game with Brees as the starting quarterback since Week 2. The Saints’ rush defense is one of the best in the league, allowing 3.6 yards per carry in the regular season. Philly won’t be able to get the run going and Nick Foles will be forced to throw the ball a ton. His story is cute, but keep in mind he’s thrown five interceptions in his last four games.
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images