NFL playoffs divisional round preview: It's Luck v Mahomes in all-star shootout, and why the Cowboys can upset the Rams

Alex Finnis
The Telegraph
Rams quarterback Jared Goff and Cowboys signal caller Dak Prescott go head-to-head on Saturday night - AP
Rams quarterback Jared Goff and Cowboys signal caller Dak Prescott go head-to-head on Saturday night - AP

Are you all ready for the best weekend of the season? The eight best teams in the league going head-to-head over one weekend with everything on the line - the divisional round of the NFL playoffs is one of the highlights of the sporting calendar, and this year's slate is the strongest in recent memory.

There are no duds here. Every team left has a very believable path to Super Bowl glory, and there's not one possible outcome this weekend that could shock me.

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Whether you're out at a bar with mates or turning yourself into a recluse in your own living room, if you're not spending the entire weekend sat in front of the TV watching sport then you're doing it wrong. It's January, no one needs to be outside in January. 

Here's what to look out for, what each team needs to do to win, and my predictions for the NFL's final four.

Indianapolis Colts @ Kansas City Chiefs

How can the Colts win?

<span>The Colts will look to get the ground game going with Marlon Mack</span> <span>Credit: AP </span>
The Colts will look to get the ground game going with Marlon Mack Credit: AP

Once again, the offensive line is going to be key to the Colts' success. The longer Indy's offense can stay on the field, the less time Patrick Mahomes will get to throw touchdown passes backwards through his legs with his eyes closed, which means they'll want to get the running game rolling early and effectively.

It worked well against the Texans' elite run defense last week - Marlon Mack rushed for 148 yards and a touchdown from 24 carries - so they should be able to punish a Chiefs defensive front which Football Outsiders' DVOA (their rating of efficiency) ranks worst in the NFL.

That's not to say the Colts will want to take the ball out of Andrew Luck's hands. Their season lives and dies with him, and he will absolutely fancy his chances of dicing up Kansas City's dire secondary with the red hot TY Hilton. Luck was the least-sacked and least-pressured quarterback in the league during the regular season thanks to outstanding offensive line play and his change in passing approach - Luck is getting the ball out quicker than he ever has in his career. If Quenton Nelson, Anthony Castonzo and the rest of the O-line can keep Chris Jones (15.5 sacks) and Dee Ford (13 sacks) quiet they have a real chance at playing for the AFC Championship next week.

How can the Chiefs win?

<span>Patrick Mahomes is ready for his first shot at the playoffs</span> <span>Credit: AP </span>
Patrick Mahomes is ready for his first shot at the playoffs Credit: AP

The Colts' secondary has been really impressive, especially in the second half of the season, but do you think Patrick Mahomes cares about that? Mahomes' incredible arm strength coupled with Tyreek Hill's ability to stretch the field like Armstrong makes it impossible - on all the evidence we've seen - to shut down Kansas City's passing attack.

If Hill is covered then Travis Kelce probably won't be. If they're both covered there's still Sammy Watkins, Chris Conley, Demarcus Robinson, Damien Williams and Spencer Ware. Andy Reid is famously unstoppable coming off a bye - he's 17-3 after a week off throughout his brilliant career, and you know he will have schemed a number of specially tailored plays to bamboozle Indianapolis' defense this Saturday. The Chiefs have more yards after the catch then any other team in the NFL, which shows that not only will Mahomes hurt you with his deep bombs, he can also hit receivers on shorter, closer routes specifically designed to catch defenses flat-footed and move the chains for chunk gains.

The big question is how Mahomes will fare in his first ever playoff appearance. Will nerves make him crumble as they did to Lamar Jackson last weekend. My instinct says he'll be as outstanding as ever, but this is uncharted territory for the young gunslinger.

Prediction

This one feels like it has shootout written all over it, which is why I favour the Chiefs by a score. Whatever happens, I think we could be in for an absolute classic.

Confidence level: 4/10

Dallas Cowboys @ Los Angeles Rams

How can the Cowboys win?

<span>Cowboys linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch will be key in stopping Todd Gurley on Saturday</span> <span>Credit: USA TODAY&nbsp; </span>
Cowboys linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch will be key in stopping Todd Gurley on Saturday Credit: USA TODAY 

The Cowboys are talked about so much they have the air of one of those perennially successful franchises, but they've not reached the NFC Championship game since 1995. I have a theory that's that Dallas are the Leeds United of the NFL, and both teams are currently soaring back to success on the exact same timeline. If they're to break this long drought it will be on their defense, which has been outstanding all year and deserves to earn Rob Marinelli a heap of Defensive Coordinator of the Year votes.

After that stunning Rams win over the Chiefs back in week 11 Jared Goff was firmly in the MVP conversation, but since then he's regressed to the middle-of-the-road quarterback susceptible to cracking under pressure that his detractors always claimed he would be. Goff could struggle under pressure from the Cowboys' pass rush, and their excellent corps of linebackers is better set-up than anyone to take out Todd Gurley and the running game. Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and Damien Wilson are like a pack of dogs. They will hunt you down, rip you to pieces and leave your worthless bones scattered all over the yard. You saw how well the defense took out Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara in the win over the Saints, Dallas should follow a similar blueprint on Saturday night.

On offense the game plan should be simple: let Zeke eat. The Rams allowed more yards per carry than anyone in the NFL over the regular season, and Elliott should be able to hammer the ball down their throats time and time again. Dak Prescott will also look to his legs often, and will look to Amari Cooper as the deep threat to test LA's often shaky secondary.

How can the Rams win?

<span>The Rams are going to need Goff at his best</span> <span>Credit: AP </span>
The Rams are going to need Goff at his best Credit: AP

Jared Goff needs to capture that early season form, and Sean McVay needs to draw up plays which can throw Dallas' menacing defense off their game. The key to both may be in the Rams' use of the two-tight end sets with which they found success against the Cardinals and 49ers (I know) in the last two weeks of the season. If Goff can use Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett to pick up short gains and keep the offense moving the Dallas defense will have to adapt to cover them, and that should leave opportunities for Brandin Cooks on deep play action options.

The Rams also need to find a way of limiting Elliott as much as possible. I don't think they can stop him altogether. We all know how destructive Aaron Donald is as a pass rusher, but is this the game we see his chops as a world-beating run blocker too? Donald will be vital to the turnover battle, which I think Los Angeles will need to win if they're to progress to next week's Championship game. Shorten the field as much as possible to give Goff the best chance against this top-level defense.

Prediction

I'm going to go against the grain here and pick the Cowboys for a narrow upset. They have the better quarterback, the better defense and I think they match-up to the Rams well.

Confidence level: 3/10

Los Angeles Chargers @ New England Patriots

How can the Chargers win?

<span>Melvin Ingram celebrates sacking Lamar Jackson in the Chargers' win over the Ravens last week</span> <span>Credit: AP </span>
Melvin Ingram celebrates sacking Lamar Jackson in the Chargers' win over the Ravens last week Credit: AP

The Chargers were the most impressive team in last week's wild card games. That was mostly down to the fantastic coaching work of Anthony Lynn and Gus Bradley to halt the Ravens' runaway train rushing attack, and the world class display of Melvin Ingram, who put on a masterclass in how to play defensive end. 

By all accounts the Chargers are a better team than the Patriots. Philip Rivers has been better than Tom Brady this season, they have better running backs, a more talented receiving corps and every level of their defense in streets ahead of what's going on in New England. Is that enough to make them favourites? Not in the bookies' eyes, and that's because Bill Belichick is one of the greatest coaches in NFL history. He's won the Super Bowl with inferior teams before, and he can do it again.

What do the Chargers need to do? Simply play and coach to their potential. If they can use Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler to chew up yardage and dominate time of possession that would be a good start, and on defense Ingram and Joey Bosa need to get in Brady's face fast and often. He's really struggled under pressure this season, and it's tough to find a better duo in the league than LA's twin wrecking balls.

How can the Patriots win?

<span>Can Tom Brady pull off one of his classic playoff performances on Sunday?</span> <span>Credit: USA TODAY </span>
Can Tom Brady pull off one of his classic playoff performances on Sunday? Credit: USA TODAY

New England found an unlikely offensive weapon through December in the form of fullback James Develin. Develin is not only a very useful goal line threat, but an excellent blocker, and has allowed Josh McDaniels to get the most out of his varied, multi-faceted backfield. Brady will look to feature James White heavily in the passing game, and will hope Develin's presence can create holes for Sony Michel to hit on the ground.

On defense Stephon Gilmore is the jewel in the crown. He was the best cover corner in football this season, and will be tasked with keeping Keenan Allen quiet on Sunday. If Gilmore can mark Allen out of the game Rivers will be forced to look for Mike and Tyrell Williams through the air, and possibly force plays that will lead to invaluable turnover opportunities.

I think the Patriots will look to keep the score low and the game boring. Like a Jose Mourinho team before he turned into a sad old man who spent longer living in a hotel than Alan Partridge. The Pats are the experts in winning in January, and if they're down by a score or less late in the fourth quarter you'd bet on even this slightly restricted version of Brady marching downfield and into the AFC Championship game. That's just what he does.

Prediction

This is such a tough game to predict. Every fibre in my being is crying for me not to pick against the Pats in the playoffs, but this Chargers team is just flat out better. I'm going to back Rivers to finally get the better of Brady, but damn I feel nervous about it.

Confidence level: 1/10

Philadelphia Eagles @ New Orleans Saints

How can the Eagles win?

<span>Nick Foles and Dallas Goedert celebrate their touchdown against the Bears last week</span> <span>Credit: AP </span>
Nick Foles and Dallas Goedert celebrate their touchdown against the Bears last week Credit: AP

All the talk will be around Nick Foles - this is his story, after all - but Philadelphia's success starts with its front seven, which is the only part of this team which has lived up to last season's incredibly high standards. The Saints have one of the best offensive lines in the league, and Drew Brees has just recorded the highest completion percentage over a single season of any quarterback in NFL history - it's imperative the Eagles do not give Brees the time and space to pick them apart on Sunday night. Put him under pressure and they have a chance.

Foles has had one of the strangest careers on any NFL player ever. Historically inconsistent, he becomes Mr Reliable as soon as he can't afford to lose. You could say he has... Big Nick Energy. Foles is 8-0 for the Eagles in must-win games, and while there should be no question about Carson Wentz being the man going forward, Foles is the one they need right now.

Foles throws a more potent deep ball than Wentz, which suits Alshon Jeffery, Golden Tate and Nelson Ahgolor against this suspect pass defense, but more importantly he just has that intangible winning mentality when everything is on the line. He's so calm, so full of quiet self belief, and you can tell his team mates trust him implicitly.

How can the Saints win?

<span>Drew Brees recorded another record-breaking season in New Orleans</span> <span>Credit: AP </span>
Drew Brees recorded another record-breaking season in New Orleans Credit: AP

By continuing to be the best team in the National Football League. Brees will really like this match-up against Philadelphia's injury-ravaged secondary, which has been burned time and time again this season, and gave up a number of big plays to Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears last week. Michael Thomas recorded an 85 per cent catch rate this year - the best in NFL history - you'd fancy him to devastate the like of poor Avante Maddox and Cre'Von LeBlanc, who have done a respectable job in a tough situation, but will still be horribly overmatched.

Remember, it was less than two months ago that the Saints blew out the Eagles 48-7 in the heaviest defeat for a Super Bowl champion of all time. Not only did Thomas go for 92 yards and a touchdown that day, but rookie Tre'Quan Smith had 157 yards and a score, Mark Ingram rushed for 103 yards and two scores, Kamara ran for 71, and Brees threw four touchdown passes.  Have the Eagles improved enough on defense down the stretch to stop all of these guys? I just can't see it.

The other huge factor that day was Wentz throwing three interceptions, all of which New Orleans converted into points. Foles got away with a couple last week, but that was against the Bears' offense. The Saints won't allow him that margin for error.

Prediction

As much as I love the Nick Foles narrative, I picked the Saints for the Super Bowl this season and I'm sticking with them. I think Brees plays a worldie and gets the job done.

Confidence level: 6/10

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