Things are going swimmingly for me lately, with a 3-1 week boosting yet another successful season record to 19 games over .500. It was a weekend for road warriors, with only the Seahawks (they of their last-second cover to keep me from a 4-0 mark) falling victim to the home team.
Now we get what Chris Berman used to call the best weekend in professional sports. We welcome back the four big guns who had time for some R&R last weekend as the Chiefs, Rams, Patriots, and Saints return to action. Home teams in the divisional round are generally a safe bet; in the last 20 years, home teams are 55-25 (68.8%), the highest percentage for home teams in any of the three rounds preceding the Super Bowl.
But does that mean it’s lights out for the Colts, Cowboys, Chargers, and Eagles? Absolutely not. We know about the Chiefs’ porous home playoff history. The Rams have big-time concerns about the health of their star running back. For only the second time in their dynastic run, the Patriots will play at home against a team with a better record than them. And the Saints have been anything but dominant since Thanksgiving, while the Eagles are finding their 2017 magic touch.
A closer look now at the four matchups this weekend:
Wild Card Round: 3-1
Regular/Postseason: 47-28 (62.7%)
Indianapolis at Kansas City (-5)
Boy is this not the draw Andy Reid and Co. wanted in this round. Then again, who would be a good draw for a Chiefs franchise that has lost six straight home playoff games, including two against Indianapolis (they’re 0-4 overall against Indy)? At long last it seems that everyone is finally on to the Chiefs being playoff frauds, but for some reason that makes me like them a little more in this spot. The Colts are on fire, winners of 10 of 11 and coming off a relatively sweat-free win in Houston.
So how can the Chiefs overcome that feeling of doom again? Well, how about Patrick Mahomes? For the first time maybe ever, the Chiefs have what appears to be an elite, MVP-level quarterback. Previous Chiefs playoff losses have come with the likes of Alex Smith, Trent Green, Matt Cassel, Elvis Grbac, and Steve Bono under center.
As great as the Colts have been lately, beware: they have not faced an elite offense during this run. Since surrendering 42 points to the Jets in Week 6, the Colts defense has transformed, but has done so without facing the likes of the Chiefs, Rams, Saints, Chargers, and Steelers. I believe the Colts will need to score more than 21 points to hang around in this one.
And that’s where Eric Berry steps in. There is a slight sense of deja vu for me when I look at Berry and what his return could mean; after all, in 2006, these same Colts were in a very similar position entering January with major defensive questions before return of All-Pro safety Bob Sanders seemed to change everything.
I don’t think Berry’s return will have quite the same impact, but I do believe we’ll see a better effort from this Chiefs defense. And frankly, they don’t have to be great as long as Mahomes is on his game. Yes, the loss of Kareem Hunt hurts, but I don’t see Marlon Mack duplicating his massive effort from last week either. And for those people bemoaning the Chiefs’ 0-4 record in prime-time games this year? Good news: kickoff is at 4:35 p.m. EST in this one.
At the end of the day, I can’t lay the points with the Chiefs, but I do believe they’ll find a way to win, and I’m not super confident about this pick. I think enough is enough with these playoff failures, but you also can’t bet against Frank Reich’s team because like Reich was during his career, these Colts are the comeback kids, and they won’t go down without a fight. Pick: Colts.
Dallas at Los Angeles Rams (-7)
How ’bout them Cowboys? They were the only home team to survive wild card weekend, and now they head back out on the road, where they were only 3-5 during the regular year. But so what? This Dallas team has plenty of confidence and I believe a giant weight has been lifted off the shoulders of Dak Prescott.
Speaking of weight, just how much will Todd Gurley’s knee weigh down his performance? In a matchup of elite running backs, Gurley’s health has to worry Rams fans. But what worries me even more is Jared Goff. I have yet to develop any true confidence that Goff can deliver on the big stage, as he looked very shaky in his playoff debut last year against the Falcons.
I think Dallas has the swagger and the defense to slow down a potentially explosive Rams team, and I don’t think that the fickle L.A. fanbase is going to provide much of a homefield advantage in this one. Pulling the upset might be asking a lot, but I fully expect the Cowboys’ defense to keep them in this one, and a big day from Prescott would go a long way towards getting Dallas to its first NFC championship game since 1995. Pick: Cowboys.
L.A. Chargers at New England (-4)
For as long as I’ve been sick and tired of the Patriots, I’ve been picking them because, frankly, I’m afraid to pick against them. They have been the gold standard in the NFL since they truly hit dynasty status in 2003, and the numbers are staggering. Nine straight bye weeks. Seven straight AFC championship game appearances. Five Super Bowls and three more AFC titles. Tom Brady has 233 wins including playoffs. I could go on all day.
But what does all of this mean to the Chargers? Absolutely nothing. L.A. is 8-0 outside of their home city this year, and New England is 8-0 in Foxborough, so something has to give. This Chargers team has a swagger I haven’t seen before, even more so I believe than the 2006-2007 squads with all that star power that lost to the Patriots in the playoffs.
If L.A. is going to hand New England its first home playoff loss since 2010, it is going to have to be as fundamentally sound as humanly possible. The Chargers are the more talented team, but that has never stopped New England before. Philip Rivers needs to put up bigger numbers, and the defense needs to not lose its head as it did in the dreaded Marlon McCree game back in 2006.
So can the Chargers do it? And can I finally have the guts to pick against the Patriots? The answer to both is: yes. Rivers’ window is closing quickly, and frankly there seems to be something special about this Bolts team. Signature, come-from-behind wins in December showed me that these aren’t your father’s or older brother’s Chargers. And let me point out that New England has not beaten a team with a winning record since special teams led it to a win in Chicago in Week 7. This Patriots team has not really had a signature win (although you could make a case about their Week 6 win over the then-undefeated Chiefs).
For once, I’m going against conventional wisdom. And so what if I’m wrong? What’s one more AFC championship game appearance for the Patriots and possibly one more ring for Tom Brady? At this point, most of America has become immune to it. But remember this: I picked the Chargers and Cowboys to play in Super Bowl LIII, and with the dream suddenly a lot closer to reality, I have to stick to my guns a little bit, don’t I? Pick: Chargers.
Philadelphia at New Orleans (-8)
St. Nick has done it again. Another miracle for Foles and the Eagles, and now a date with the Saints. However, keep in mind about who the “1” is in Foles’ 4-1 career playoff record. That would be none other than Drew Brees and the Saints in 2013.
To this point, I’ve picked three dogs to cover (although I could go either way with Colts-Chiefs, really). It looks very obvious that the Eagles will cover, because they can’t lose, Foles is on fire, the Saints haven’t been dominant lately, and so on and so forth.
Which is exactly why I’m flipping the script here.
I really do not believe this Eagles team has improved all that much since losing 48-7 to the Saints in Week 11. No, in no way will this be another blowout. But I also don’t think it’s going to be as close as last week, when the Bears could not finish off the Eagles and Philly somehow survived. I believe this Saints team, as it did in 2009, will turn it on with the extra rest and notion that it really can be a dominant force.
Back in aught-nine, the Saints entered January with major question marks. They finished that season with three straight losses, and prior to that no team had ever won the Super Bowl after a season-ending three-game skid. After falling behind 7-0 against the defending NFC champion Cardinals, the Saints destroyed Arizona, 45-14, to advance to the NFC title game and silence any doubts about whether it had lost its mojo. I don’t think New Orleans will win by 31, but I do feel like they’ll win by more than eight. Pick: Saints.