Saturday, January 5th
(6) Indianapolis Colts at (3) Houston Texans
The AFC South has been dominated by these two teams. Since 2002, Indianapolis has won nine division titles. Houston has won five. After slow starts this season, both teams come into the playoffs red hot. Since week eight, the Colts and Texans are a combined 15-3.
With all the attention focused on Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield, and the other young quarterbacks, Deshaun Watson has gotten lost in the mix. His 4,165 yards passing and 26 TD passes are the second highest in team history. In the last four games of the year, he’s rushed for 176 yards and three touchdowns. DeAndre Hopkins had 115 receptions for 1,572 yards and 11 TD’s and should be named to his second consecutive All-Pro team. J.J.Watt and Jadevon Clowney lead a defense with 43 sacks on the season.
The Colts became the second team since the 2002 realignment to rally from a 1-5 start and make the playoffs. After missing the entire 2017 season with a shoulder injury, Andrew Luck rebounded with 4,593 yards, 39 TDs, and a career high 639 passing attempts. Luck will be throwing to T.Y. Hilton who’s averaged 133 yards and a TD in seven games at Houston and to the resurgent Eric Ebron who lead all tight ends with 13 touchdown catches. On defense, Indianapolis has newly minted All-Pro rookie LB Darius Leonard and DT Denico Autry’s team leading nine sacks.
It’ll come down to the offensive lines. The Texans allowed an NFL high 62 this season. In 23 career games, Deshaun Watson has been sacked 81 times. On the other side, the Colts will bring the fifth-ranked scoring offense that has also given up the fewest sacks in the league (18.) As impressive as the Texans have been, it was Indianapolis that stopped their nine game win streak in Week 14 in Houston. I’m looking for a closer, but similar outcome. Colts win 30-26.
(5) Seattle Seahawks at (4) Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys once one-dimensional offense now has some balance after trading for Amari Cooper. He was third on the team in catches (53) and had the most TD catches (six) in just nine games with Dallas. But the offense still revolves around Ezekiel Elliott. The Pro Bowler gained 2,001 yards from scrimmage this season.
It was supposed to be a rebuilding year in Seattle, but nobody told Pete Carroll and the Seahawks. Bobby Wagner might be the NFL’s best middle linebacker and is having his best season. Russell Wilson has shouldered more than he should (he has 67% of Seattle’s total yards) but he can lean on a committee of running backs that compromises the NFL’s best rushing offense.
Both of these teams are better at home, so Dallas should have the advantage (7-1 this year.) But Seattle has beaten the Cowboys three straight times including the last two in Dallas (2015 and 2017.) Both teams can run the ball well and are great at stopping the run. The difference will lie in the quarterbacking. Wilson led Seattle to a 6-1 record down the stretch and had career highs in TD passes (35) a career low seven interceptions, and a career best 110.9 QB rating. Dak Prescott had 2,468 yards and 14 touchdowns after Amari Cooper joined the team, but has been inconsistent all season. Dallas’ red zone offense ranked 29th in the league. Points are a premium in the playoffs and if pressed, I’ll always lean on the QB that’s been there before. Seattle wins on the road 23-13.
Sunday, January 6th
(5) Los Angeles Chargers at (4) Baltimore Ravens
In their earlier matchup, the Chargers only managed 198 yards against a tough Ravens defense but were driving for the winning score before a turnover. Los Angeles also didn’t have Melvin Gordon, Austin Ekeler, or Keenan Allen at full strength. Now, all of those players are healthy and they could see TE Hunter Henry for the first time this season. Philip Rivers is having one of his best seasons and will garner a few MVP votes. Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and All-Pro rookie Derwin James lead an opportunistic defense.
The Ravens are once again one of the best defensive teams in the league (1st in total yards, 2nd in points allowed.) And their offense is straight out of the same tough and rumble style. In his seven starts, Lamar Jackson has averaged 100 yards rushing and scored five touchdowns.
There isn’t a precedent for what Baltimore is doing on offense in the NFL. They are more reminiscent of the college service academies. They run, run, and run again. Jackson is slightly built, but elusive and knows where the sidelines are. The Chargers will have their work cut out for them. But unlike other opponents, Los Angeles has film on Jackson. DC Gus Bradley, who led the Legion of Boom in Seattle, will get another shot at him.
It’s always tough to beat a team twice in a season and even tough to beat one twice in three weeks. The Ravens will rely on ball control and their staggering defense to keep Rivers on the sidelines. The Chargers will have to counter with their own running attack, minimize their mistakes, and find a way to make Jackson beat them through the air. It should be a tough game, but I like the Chargers to beat the Ravens 24-23.
(6) Philadelphia Eagles at (3) Chicago Bears
The Eagles have found their stride late in the season once again. And just like this time last year, it’ll come with Nick Foles replacing an injured Carson Wentz. In the three wins against the Rams, Texans, and Redskins to end the regular season, Foles has thrown for 962 yards, six touchdowns, and completed 72% of his passes. Zach Ertz and Alshon Jeffery have played well of late. I expect Doug Pederson to temper his play calling a bit, they’ve got plenty of experience on the offense to use their bag of tricks.
Chicago has won as they’ve won in the past. The Bears defense is ranked third in the NFL and caused the third most turnovers. Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and Kyle Fuller lead a tough squad that will work on disrupting an aggressive Eagles offense. Matt Nagy has added some style to a franchise with a traditionally stagnant offense, but they only have a few weapons. Mitchell Trubisky has played well this year at times and keeps plays alive, but that style is prone to mistakes.
Philadelphia will have to defend their title the hard way. They’ll have to keep Foles upright against a tenacious Bears defense and stop the Chicago running game. The Bears will stop the ground game and force the Eagles offense to throw the ball into the swirling Chicago wind. Playoff football is often a slugfest. This game should typify that. The Eagles had a remarkable run just to get here, but I think Chicago wins a low scoring game, 17-10.