As expected, wild-card weekend was full of defensive games, with the highest scoring output being 24 points by the Cowboys. Even in the Colts-Texans game expected to be relatively high scoring, both teams combined for a meager 28 points. Even with the defensive output, there were a few thrillers this weekend. Three of the four games came down to the game’s final drive. But now, it’s time to move on to next week’s slates, the divisional round. Here are the rankings for the remaining playoff teams:
1. New Orleans Saints
The Saints were the best team in the NFL all season long and will have had three weeks of rest before their next game. Drew Brees and Sean Payton have never lost a playoff game at home in the Superdome.
The Saints have arguably the best quarterback (Brees), running attack (Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram), and single receiver (Michael Thomas) left in the playoffs. In addition, speed threat Ted Ginn Jr. is back after having played only one game since week five. Pro Football Focus had New Orleans’ offensive line ranked number eight overall in the regular season.
Defensively, over the second half of the season, outside of a meaningless week 17 game where they rested most starters, the Saints allowed 14.1 points per game. Right now, this is the only team that truly looks like it does not have a weak spot.
2. Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers are the most complete team in the AFC, with both a top ten offense and defense in terms of points allowed. The defensive line, especially Melvin Ingram, absolutely demolished the Ravens offensive line last week. The secondary’s coverage was great for most of the game, except for a breakdown for about five minutes of the fourth quarter (which certainly cannot happen against New England).
On the offensive side, their offensive line is actually pretty bad, rated third worst in football by Pro Football Focus. However, Philip Rivers is getting the ball out of his hand quickly and making plays when he has to. The offense couldn’t do much in the red zone against Baltimore, but that was against a top two defense in the NFL. Melvin Gordon should be able to have more chances for big runs moving forward.
Lastly, the Chargers have yet to lose outside of LA this year (their only road loss was to the Rams). They have certainly shown that they are capable of winning on the road.
3. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs, with likely MVP winner Patrick Mahomes in his first season as starting quarterback, have had a tremendous season. Their offense is truly unstoppable, with weapons like Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins for Mahomes to throw to. Even after they released Kareem Hunt and after Spencer Ware suffered an injury, third-string running back Damien Williams is providing great production out of the backfield. Williams is averaging over five yards per carry and has six total touchdowns in the last five games.
The problem though is that as amazing as their offense has been, the Chiefs defense has almost been as bad. They have the eighth-worst defense in football in terms of points per game, which was actually fourth worst before holding the lowly Raiders to three points in week 17. On the bright side, linebacker Justin Houston and safety Eric Berry have returned recently. They, along with defensive end Chris Jones and linebacker Dee Ford are playmakers who could potentially create game-breaking turnovers.
4. New England Patriots
For the first time in a long time (a very, very long time), New England feels somewhat vulnerable. Tom Brady, although still a top quarterback, hasn’t looked like the normal Tom Brady. He’s making some inaccurate passes that are atypical of him. In addition, Rob Gronkowski looks slower, having finally succumbed to injuries, and isn’t making many spectacular catches. Even the other side of the ball is suffering, with New England only 21st in total defense.
But yet, in a sport based on facts and tape, the Patriots (like one other team below) are running on mystique. They are somehow top ten in points allowed, even with all those yards allowed. They found a way to squeak out an unlikely first-round bye and earned an extra week of rest once again. Until they actually lose, they cannot be counted out. Until Brady and Belichick’s team has a bad performance in the playoffs, this is still their dynasty. All the facts point toward the Patriots not winning, but it’s the Patriots so who knows?
5. Los Angeles Rams
The Rams received a much needed week of rest after earning their first-round bye. Todd Gurley was ailing, having missed the past two games, and should be ready to go come Saturday. LA was also looking vulnerable in their last few games. They had losses to Chicago and Philadelphia, albeit playoff teams, a sloppy win over Detroit and wins over two bottom-feeders in the Niners and Cardinals. Jared Goff, who looked like an MVP candidate earlier in the season, hasn’t looked nearly as sharp for the past month and a half.
In addition, the defense is boom or bust. They have studs who make plays, but also give up a ton of points. While they have a bottom half defense, the Rams are third in the NFL with thirty takeaways. LA’s problem this week is that they allow over 120 rush yards per game and over five yards per carry; they play probably the best straight line runner in football next week in Ezekiel Elliott.
That said, the Rams are still a great team. Todd Gurley, arguably the best running back in the league, is rested and expected to play. Jared Goff had time to clear his mind; with an extra week, Sean McVay certainly is coming up with a game plan to help Goff get back on track. Defensive lineman Aaron Donald is nearly impossible to stop and the defense has other playmakers like Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters too. While the Rams aren’t as great as they seemed earlier in the season, they’re still a really good football team.
6. Indianapolis Colts
After starting their season 1-5, Indianapolis made a tremendous turnaround and won eight of its last nine games. Last week, they clobbered the Texans and wrote themselves a ticket to Kansas City. This team is not a typical six seed; they have a chance to pull off another upset or two (or three). Andrew Luck is playing at an extremely high level. He finally has time in the pocket thanks to a terrific offensive line that shut down JJ Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus.
The defense is flying under the radar but actually playing well. Darius Leonard is always around the ball and in position to make a tackle. Even the defensive line and secondary, without big names, are simply doing their job; the pass rush gets pressure when it needs to and the secondary is usually in position to contest catches. The Colts were actually the number 10 defense in points and 11 in yards this season.
Indianapolis faces the Chiefs in a game that should be a shootout. No matter how solid the defense is, they, or anyone else, cannot stop KC’s offense. However, Luck should have a field day as well, meaning this game could come down to the very end.
7. Dallas Cowboys
Dallas is this low because of their lack of a lethal passing attack. They have studs all over the place, but rely on one-dimensional football. The front seven, secondary, offensive line, and running back are playing at an extremely high level. The only problem is that if they fall behind, which is very possible against any of the remaining teams, the Cowboys will find it very tough to come back. Amari Cooper is having a huge impact, but now teams are doubling him and forcing other receivers to beat them. In a league that is becoming more and more about passing the Cowboys have an average-at-best passer and only one dangerous receiving threat.
On the other side, though, Dallas should NOT be counted out. The points about all their talent at positions other than quarterback still stand. Their front four consistently gets to the passer. Linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith consistently get to the ball on time to make tackles and limit YAC. The Cowboys have the second best pass defense and second-best run defense of teams still in the playoffs. Dallas’ defense is lockdown and has been all season. If they can get out to a lead by rushing the ball with Zeke, this team will not look back; they will play physically and grind the game out by running the ball and chewing clock. The biggest dilemma is that for a team who depends so much on playing from ahead, they had the sixth worst red-zone TD percentage in the league.
8. Philadelphia Eagles
The Patriots’ mystique comes from being in the midst of a 17-year dynasty. The Eagles mystique, on the other hand, comes in the form of Nick Foles, the backup quarterback turned current starter who helped this team win Super Bowl LII last year. Somehow, Foles entering the lineup once again after Carson Wentz’s back injury helped the team click and play much better. The offensive line is blocking better. The defensive line is getting to the quarterback more. Even the secondary, which was ravaged by injuries and getting torched on a weekly basis, is now sticking to receivers and breaking up passes. They were 6-7 with little life; suddenly after Foles entered, they beat the Rams, Texans, Redskins, and now Bears on a last-second triple doink (tipped, hit upright, hit the crossbar) 43-yard field-goal MISS.
But at some point, this magical run has to stop. Right? The secondary made up ono-nameme players like Avonte Maddox and Cre’Von Leblanc is going to fall apart when it faces star quarterbacks (like Drew Brees this week). Foles has to get rattled by the pressure eventually – the man can only take so many hits. Right?
Philadelphia’s only way of beating the Saints this week is by dominating the trenches. This is a task they are certainly capable of because the talent is there. It is still a tall task because the Saints line play is also very good. If they can open up rushing lanes and give Foles time in the pocket, the Eagles may be able to score enough points to stay in the game. If the defensive line can get to Brees as well as stop the run, they’ll be able to protect their secondary. Brees and the Saints offense will get their points – that is for sure; the question is whether Philly can hold them to a reasonable number and let the offense produce some more Saint Nick magic.
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