NFL Divisional Playoffs preview – Can Cowboys keep pace with Rams?

If Dallas are to win in Los Angeles, Ezekiel Elliott will have to have a big game
If Dallas are to win in Los Angeles, Ezekiel Elliott will have to have a big game

We are down to the last eight on the road to Atlanta and Super Bowl LIII is less than a month away. This weekend, four of those teams will advance to the Conference Championships, while four will be eliminated. We take a look at the four NFL Divisional Playoff games, offering trends, odds and analysis. The odds are kindly supplied by our friends at GentingBet.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS @ KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

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Indianapolis knocked off the regular-season AFC South champion Houston Texans 21-7 on the road last week and looked comfortable in doing so.

In a 1-5 hole at the start of the season, as QB Andrew Luck was still progressing after multiple shoulder surgeries that kept him out for two years, he soon found his rhythm and chemistry with his receivers, and the Colts went 9-1 the rest of the way. While their run to the playoffs seemed improbable, they are now playing with house money.

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Kansas City Chiefs took the AFC West title with a 12-4 record and are considered the top seed in the AFC. The Colts are the lowest ranked sixth seed. Yet the Chiefs will not relish facing an Indy team that has won seven of the last eight meetings at Arrowhead and has won all four previous meetings in the post-season, including a remarkable comeback in the Wild Card round in 2014, winning 45-44 after being 31-10 down at half-time.

The Chiefs have the top-ranked offense in the NFL (425.6 yards per game), and are the only team in NFL history to score at least 26 points in every game of a 16-game season.

Patrick Mahomes has all the tools to become an elite NFL quarterback
Patrick Mahomes has all the tools to become an elite NFL quarterback

Chiefs’ second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes has been surgical in his accuracy and has thrown for 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns – tied for second-most in a single season. He also ran for 272 yards and two scores, and that fleet-footedness has meant the Texas Tech passer, who was drafted 10th overall in 2017, has been sacked the fifth-fewest times (26).

The Chiefs, who are asked to concede 6.0 points on the GentingBet NFL handicap at odds of 17/20, may find the Colts more than a match. As good as electric wide receiver Tyreek Hill and sure-handed tight end Travis Kelce are – and they are First-Team All-Pros, along with Mahomes – the Colts have conceded the second-fewest pass plays of 40-plus yards (four). This offsets the Chiefs’ ability to take the deep shots downfield, which they thrive upon.

Many felt that the Chiefs would not be as dynamic after running back Kareem Hunt was released following their Week 12 bye. Hunt had been placed on the Commissioner’s Exempt List after a video surfaced appearing to show him pushing and kicking a woman.

In truth, back-ups Spencer Ware and Damien Williams have done a decent job since, although the Chiefs are 2-2 since Hunt’s departure, However, it is worth noting they are 7-1 at home this season, while the Colts have lost half of their road games.

Andy Reid’s team do, of course, play after a week’s rest, which is hugely beneficial at this stage of the campaign and it has given Ware’s hamstring – which has kept him out since Week 15 – time to heal.

Colts placed veteran safety Mike Mitchell on Injured Reserve on Wednesday, following the calf injury he sustained against the Texans, which underscores the benefit of teams having a second bye week.

It is worth noting that the Colts have not allowed a 100-yard rusher all season, so the onus is likely to be on Mahomes to do the damage in his first NFL playoff game. Unlike most wet-behind-the-ears quarterbacks, he seemingly has all the talent required to overcome any nerves.

While the Colts’ defense has looked stout, they have not faced many elite quarterbacks. Consider the following: Derek Anderson (Bills), Derek Carr (Raiders), Blake Bortles (Jaguars), Marcus Mariota/Blaine Gabbert (Titans), Ryan Tannehill (Dolphins), Cody Kessler (Jaguars), Deshawn Watson (Texans, twice), Dak Prescott (Cowboys), Eli Manning (Giants), and Gabbert again (Texans). Aside from Carr and a down-trending Manning, the others are far from elite passers.

Mahomes may be in his first full season, but he is projected to be one of the best NFL QBs for years to come and many have compared him to the legendary Dan Marino.

His offense ranks first in points per game scored (35.3) and yards per contest (425.6).

Chiefs head coach Reid has not had huge success in the playoffs, yet his record off a bye week is exemplary, and the extra time to prepare for the Wild Card winner means the Colts will likely have to try and withstand early pressure.

Andrew Luck has been helped by solid Colts’ defensive displays on their run to the playoffs
Andrew Luck has been helped by solid Colts’ defensive displays on their run to the playoffs

Luck and the Colts may have success against a less prestigious defense, however. The Chiefs rank 27th against the run, conceding 132.1ypg, and are second-worst in yards per carry (5.0). They are also gave up 19 rushing touchdowns and only two teams were worse.

Usually in such a case, the stats would be skewed in favour of the pass defense, but this is not the case with the Chiefs, who officially rank 31st against the pass (273.4ypg) and are tied for 22nd in passing touchdowns conceded (30). It seems they can be dissected at will, so they will have to out-score the visitors, who boast a middle-of-the-road pass defense (ranking 16th at 237.8ypg).

But what the Colts have is a balanced attack and their tight ends, in particular, could thrive against a KC defense that has been among the worst at defending the middle of the field.

Luck has benefited from a clean pocket for the most part and has tossed 39 touchdown passes. Although the Chiefs have generated the most sacks this season, the Colts have surrendered the fewest sacks (18).

Much depends on how effective the Colts’ running game will be. Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins will bid to keep the chains moving on the ground in a bid to keep the KC offense off the field.

The portents look favourable, as since Week 13, the Chiefs have given up 164.2 yards rushing per game and six touchdowns on the ground.

Colts can be backed at 4/6 in receipt of 7.5 points on the handicap, and they are 15/8 to win on the GentingBet moneyline.

These teams tallied 63, 79, 80, 43 and 30 total points in their last five meetings at Arrowhead and the points total is set at 57.0 points this time. The odds are 17/20 that this game will produce over or under that total.

Overcast skies and a temperature of 1C are forecast, with little wind – perfect for playoff football. You can find more odds for this game by clicking here.

Todd Gurley has been rested with a knee injury but is set to play against the Cowboys
Todd Gurley has been rested with a knee injury but is set to play against the Cowboys

DALLAS COWBOYS @ LOS ANGELES RAMS

In contrast to the likely chilly conditions at Arrowhead, Saturday night’s game between the Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Rams will be played in almost balmy temperatures of 17C the LA Memorial Coliseum.

The Rams are 1/4 GentingBet moneyline favourites, while the Cowboys, who advanced from the Wild Card round after holding off Seattle, are 13/5 underdogs.

Possibly the biggest question mark for the Rams, who lost to Atlanta at home in the playoffs last season, is how to stop Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott. He played 15 games and racked up 1,434 yards from 304 carries, at an average of 4.7ypc. He tallied six touchdowns, caught 77 passes in adding another 567 receiving yards, and had three receiving touchdowns.

Plus, the Rams’ run defense is not great. In fact, they are ranked 23rd in rushing yards per game allowed at 122.3 yards, and 32nd (of the 32 NFL teams) in rushing yards per attempt allowed at 5.1 yards-per-carry. A strong running game and solid defense travels well, especially at this time of year.

Furthermore, the Rams have allowed a 100+ yard rusher 11 times in 16 regular-season games and have conceded 140+ yards on five occasions.

Dallas, who are in receipt of 7.5 points on the GentingBet handicap at odds of 17/20, are not the best team for the Rams to face. The Cowboys invariably run the ball to set up their short and intermediate passing game, using plenty of timing routes and slants.

However, the Rams have won eight of 11 games where they have allowed a 100+ yard rusher, and their 13-3 record is an NFL best, along with that of the New Orleans Saints, who hold the top seed in the NFC.

It must also be remembered that while the Bears and Ravens both had two of the top three run defences, both were knocked out in the Wild Card round, so not everything revolves around stopping the run.

The Rams’ high-powered attack has scored an average of 32.9 points per game. Running back Todd Gurley finished with 1,251 rushing yards, despite sitting out the final two games because of knee inflammation and soreness. Gurley, who the led NFL with a league-best 21 touchdowns, is expected to play on Saturday, with veteran back-up C.J. Anderson providing a nice one-two punch.

Jaylon Smith has the length and range to disrupt the Rams’ passing game
Jaylon Smith has the length and range to disrupt the Rams’ passing game

While the NFL’s top two running backs go head to head, as a side note, the most yards the Cowboys have allowed to a running back is 248 by the Rams’ Eric Dickerson (playoff game 1985) and the most the Rams have allowed is 253 by Cowboys’ DeMarco Murray (2011).

Games are won and lost in the trenches and while the Dallas defensive line is stout, Rams’ defensive end Aaron Donald will fancy his chances of adding to a 20.5 sacks tally against a shaky offensive line that allowed an NFC-high 56 sacks in the regular season.

Dallas has been flimsy on the interior of the line and Prescott has been sacked 21 times from interior rushers this season, so he will likely have to do more with his legs in a bid to counteract the intimidating interior rush that Donald and Ndamukong Suh provide.

Rams are asked to successfully concede 7.5 points at odds of 10/11 on the handicap, but can also be backed at 8/15 to win by more than 3.5 points.

The over/under points total line is 50.0 points at odds of 17/20.

The big question is whether the Rams’ running game can penetrate the Cowboys’ defensive wall. If not, QB Jared Goff will have to keep the chains moving. That is easier said than done against the Cowboys, with rangy linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch likely to disrupt Goff’s crossing routes.

Still, whether the Cowboys will generate enough offense to keep pace with the Rams is open to question. Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Josh Reynolds have taken up the slack well since Copper Kupp was sidelined, and the Rams’ reliable receivers are far better than those Dallas possess.

It is perhaps worth noting that former Oakland receiver Amari Cooper, who has been a revelation for Dallas since joining in a trade, has managed just one catch against Rams and former Denver Broncos’ cornerback Aqib Talib since 2015. For all the odds on this clash, click here.

Philip Rivers has never beaten a Tom Brady-led Patriots team
Philip Rivers has never beaten a Tom Brady-led Patriots team

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS @ NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

The Los Angeles Chargers booked their ticket to the Divisional round with a hard-earned 23-17 win at Baltimore to earn an eighth road win in nine this season. Their sole loss on the road was by one-point at AFC West division rival Denver, so they are 9-0 this season when they travel to the game via airplane, if you take their London victory over the Tennessee Titans as an extra ‘road’ game.

However, a couple of Chargers players have intimated that the NFL does not want them to host a playoff game in their 27,000 capacity Dignity Health Sports Park soccer stadium, citing a couple of dubious holding calls against them when attempting to close out the game against Baltimore.

Most feel the Chargers are playing in a market that did not seek to have them and in a city that’s too busy embracing the Rams. In fact, the only place that wants the Chargers is the one place that can’t have them, San Diego. The plan is to share a purpose-built stadium with the Rams in Inglewood, on the site of the old Hollywood Park racetrack, three miles from Los Angeles International airport. It is due to open in 2020 and will host Super Bowl LVI in February 2022.

However, should the Chargers upset the Patriots this weekend and Indianapolis wins at Kansas City, the Chargers will host the AFC Conference Championship in their matchbox stadium.

The Patriots won the AFC East division with an 11-5 record and they have not lost at home all season. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has never beaten a Tom Brady-led Patriots team since he became starter in 2006 (going 0-7) and the only time he has beaten a Bill Belichick-coached team was when Matt Cassel was leading the Patriots’ offense.

And this Patriots offense has not hit the heights of previous seasons. Brady completed 65.8 percent of his passes for 4,355 yards, 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions this season. Yet when you consider he has done so with tight end Rob Gronkowski struggling with back and ankle injuries, and having lost top receivers Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola in the off-season, those are solid numbers. Last year’s Super Bowl runners-up are still the team to beat in the AFC and the Patriots are 4.0 favourites at odds of 17/20 on the GentingBet NFL handicap.

The Chargers’ defense presents a stiff test for Brady. LA’s physical defense, with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram leading the way, will ensure pressure will be put upon the 41-year-old passer, who has missed Josh Gordon’s ability to take the top off a defense since he was suspended.

In years past, they could rely on Gronkowski, but he has been slowed by injuries and he appears to have lost his initial burst. Even if fit, the Chargers have done an excellent job of defending tight ends all season, allowing just 71 catches in 17 games this season, for 738 yards and three touchdowns – two of which coming on 60+ yard breakdown plays.

James White will be one of Brady’s favourite outlets as the Patriots bid to reach the AFC Championship
James White will be one of Brady’s favourite outlets as the Patriots bid to reach the AFC Championship

Brady will more likely look to target running backs James White and Rex Burkhead in zone coverage, so expect plenty of screens and short-to-intermediate crossing routes as Brady attempts to move the chains.

The Patriots have a fully healthy 53-man squad, while the Chargers left running back Melvin Gordon (knee) and center Mike Pouncy (thumb) on the sidelines at practice on Wednesday. They will both likely play, but should either fail to start, it will be a major blow to their chances.

The hosts’ run defense has been bad all season and the Chargers’ ability to control the clock may be crucial.

Yet another factor to consider is the weather conditions. Sunday’s forecast in Foxborough could be as low as -4C, and the Chargers haven’t played in an atmosphere like this all season.

However, head coach Anthony Lynn has a balanced attack and can therefore adjust a gameplan to suit conditions. Running backs Gordon and Austin Ekeler can take it out of the backfield at any time. Rivers, playing his best season ever at the age of 37, can dink and dunk, and throw it deep. He has been much more careful with the ball this season, harnessing the gun-slinging tendencies, and the Chargers have benefited accordingly.

The Chargers know they need to get pressure on Brady, who has been a master of delivering winning drives with little time on the clock. Patriots have won 11 of the last 12 at home to the Chargers, who have got within four points of the hosts just twice in that span.

The Patriots are 4/9 to win, while the Chargers can be supported at 8/13 in receipt of 6.5 points on the handicap. For all the odds on this Divisional playoff game, click here.

Terron Armstead is vital to New Orleans’ chances of making the NFC Championship
Terron Armstead is vital to New Orleans’ chances of making the NFC Championship

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES @ NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

The Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles have trodden a tough road to get this far. Hampered by injuries, particularly to their secondary, Doug Pederson’s men are finally expected to surrender their crown in New Orleans – at least that’s what the odds say.

For the Eagles are 14/5 to win in the Superdome. The Saints are 1/4 shots and are 5/6 to successfully concede 7.5-points on the GentingBet NFL handicap.

Unlike the three other NFL Divisional Playoff games, there is recent history between these two, with the Saints crushing the Eagles 48-7 on November 18. It was the Eagles’ fourth loss in their last five trips to New Orleans and the worst loss ever suffered by a defending Super Bowl champion.

Homefield advantage in the Playoffs is underlined in N’awlins. The Saints rode their only other top seeding to the Super Bowl during the 2009 playoffs and have won six consecutive postseason games at the Superdome overall.

Philadelphia owns the third-worst pass defense in the league and allowed Chicago Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky to throw for 303 yards last weekend. While the Eagles boast a deep and talented defensive line, which masks deficiencies on the back end, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees has a quick release and is the most accurate passer in history, with a 74.4 per cent completion rate this season. He has been sacked just 17 times this season and he put up 363 yards in their Week 11 meeting with the Eagles.

This time is may be a little different, as the Saints’ offensive line has a few injury concerns. Starting left tackle Terron Armstead (chest), right tackle Ryan Ramczyk (shoulder) and RG Larry Warford (knee) were held out of their 33-14 home loss to the Carolina Panthers in Week 17, as was rotational lineman Jermon Bushrod (hamstring).

Eagles QB Nick Foles has been struggling with a rib injury, but he should be fit to start – and he may also have Mike Wallace at his disposal, since the receiver has recovered from a broken leg. Foles has won nine of 10 starts in December/January/February, the only loss was a meaningless Week 17 contest in 2017.

He did not play in the first meeting and he will pose a threat with heavily disguised run-pass-option plays, looking for former Saints running back Darren Sproles, impressive rookie tight end Dallas Goedert and receiver Alshon Jeffrey, who should figure more.

Nick Foles will bid to maintain his great record as a starter for the Super Bowl champion Eagles
Nick Foles will bid to maintain his great record as a starter for the Super Bowl champion Eagles

It is worth noting that the Saints’ pass defense is statistically similar to that of Philadelphia’s, so Foles should have more joy than injured QB Carson Wentz enjoyed in the first clash.

Saints’ defense has conceded an average of 289 yards per game through the air, second-worst in the NFL. As a result, they rank No.2 against the run, but have generated 49 sacks, three off the league lead.

New Orleans has failed to cover the handicap in the last three games but they are 8/15 to beat a 4.5-point spread. See all the odds for this clash by clicking here.

Those seeking educated picks against the handicap spread may wish to take a look at Lindyssports.com, America’s leading football authority.

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