NFL DIVISIONAL ROUND PREDICTIONS
Minnesota @ San Francisco
Vikings QB Kirk Cousins silenced critics, at least for a week, with his game-winning overtime touchdown pass that beat the 13-3 New Orleans Saints in the wild card round last week. Entering last week’s game, Cousins’ record in ‘notable’ games was not all that stunning. Now, Cousins will have to do it again against one of the NFL’s best defenses.
The 49ers were the NFL’s best pass defense and ranked second in total defense for the regular season. The one area where they were just average was against the run. That could be a factor this week as San Francisco faces Minnesota RB Dalvin Cook, who ran for 94 yards and two touchdowns against the Saints last week.
The Vikings played great defense against Drew Brees and WR Michael Thomas, keeping the latter out of the end zone. Brees finished with just 208 yards passing and one touchdown. Minnesota will have trouble with San Francisco TE George Kittle. Kittle is the most dominant tight end in the game since Rob Gronkowski and is the difference in the 49ers offense. With Kittle in the game, 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo is much better.
Both NFC home teams lost last week, but San Francisco went 6-2 at home this season. This should be a battle, but one that the Niners win… SAN FRANCISCO 22, MINNESOTA 17
Tennessee @ Baltimore
The Titans pulled one of the bigger playoff upsets in recent memory in beating New England in the wild card round. Derrick Henry ran all over New England gaining 182 yards on 34 carries. Will he be able to do the same against Baltimore? The Ravens did have the fifth-best run defense in the NFL during the regular season.
If Baltimore contains Henry, that would force Tennessee QB Ryan Tannehill to become more of a factor. Tannehill threw just 15 passes against New England, but was one of the NFL’s best over the final 10 games of the regular season. Tannehill’s yards per attempt were the best in the league and Tennessee had the best red-zone touchdown percentage of any NFL team over the last 10 games of the season. Can that hold up against the Ravens?
The Titans caught New England at a good time. The Patriots had lost three of their last five games. Tennessee will not catch Baltimore by surprise. No. 1, they have to deal with Ravens QB Lamar Jackson. There has been only one NFL quarterback to throw for over 3,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000 in the same season. That would be Jackson.
Baltimore led the NFL in scoring averaging 33.2 points per game thanks to a powerful running game that averaged 206 yards per game. Having last week off allowed RB Mark Ingram to rest. He is listed as questionable for Saturday’s game. Even without Ingram, the Ravens will still be hard to stop… BALTIMORE 33, TENNESSEE 20
Houston @ Kansas City
Way back in Week 6 of the regular season, Houston beat Kansas City 31-24. That game was also at Arrowhead Stadium, so you know a Texans victory is possible. What one may not remember is that the Chiefs were without wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Tyreek Hill, OT Eric Fisher, and DE Chris Jones. All are back this time.
The Chiefs did lose rookie safety Juan Thornhill to a torn ACL and that will put more pressure on S Tyrann Mathieu, S Armani Watts and CB Kendall Fuller. Houston QB Deshaun Watson and his top target, DeAndre Hopkins, connected six times for 90 yards against the Bills last week. But, Buffalo sacked Watson seven times and got 12 hits on him. Luckily, the Bills couldn’t score. Kansas City doesn’t have that problem.
Reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes had another incredible season despite an injury that kept him out of a couple games. Mahomes still threw for over 4,000 yards (4,031) and 26 touchdowns. The Chiefs have all of their weapons back including TE Travis Kelce (1,229 yards receiving, 5 TDs), Hill (860, 7 TDs), and Watkins (673, 3 TDs). Running backs Damien Williams (498) and LeSean McCoy (465) give Kansas City enough in the running game.
Kansas City hasn’t lost since dropping a 35-32 decision at Tennessee on November 10. The Chiefs have won six straight and the biggest plus is the improvement in the KC defense since Week 6. Kansas City finished the regular season allowing 19.3 points per game. That was good enough for seventh in the league. Expect the Chiefs to get after Watson and the offense to score… KANSAS CITY 33, HOUSTON 22
Seattle @ Green Bay
Russell Wilson playing in Green Bay is not the ideal situation for the Seahawks. Wilson’s overall career passer rating at Lambeau Field is just 81.9. That is his lowest against any NFL opponent.
But, the last time Wilson and Seattle traveled to Green Bay in the postseason was for the 2014 NFC championship game. If you don’t remember, Wilson hit consecutive 35-yard passes, one to Doug Baldwin and the other to Jermaine Kearse, to beat the Packers. The pass to Kearse was for the game-winning touchdown and sent the Seahawks to the Super Bowl.
Wilson has gotten even better since then and had himself one whale of a season. Wilson passed for 4,110 yards and 31 touchdowns throwing just five interceptions in the process. Wilson and Seattle made up for consecutive end-of-season losses by beating Philadelphia last week in the wild card round. Wilson completed 18-of-30 passes for 325 yards and a touchdown. He also was Seattle’s leading rusher with 45 yards on nine carries. That could be a problem.
Green Bay has a 1,000-yard rusher in Aaron Jones and Seattle finished 22nd in the league in rush defense. If the Packers are able to run the football, it opens up the passing game for QB Aaron Rodgers who threw for 4,002 yards and 26 touchdowns this season.
Interestingly, the Seahawks are 0-5 against the spread in their last five trips to Green Bay. With the Packers favored, you know what that means… GREEN BAY 24, SEATTLE 17
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2018 Divisional Round Predictions
Betting odds: Chiefs -5 and O/U 57
There Colts and Chiefs have a playoff history, and the Chiefs don’t like it. In the 2013-14 playoffs Kansas City led by 28 only to blow the lead and lose to Indianapolis 45-44 It was the second-greatest comeback in NFL playoff history and happened in KC head coach Andy Reid’s first season with the Chiefs.
Then, there was the 2003 season. Kansas City played host to Indianapolis in a divisional round game. The Chiefs simply couldn’t stop Colts QB Peyton Manning and lost 38-31. If that one wasn’t bad enough, the Chiefs were the No. 1 seed in 1995 only to be upset 10-7 by the Colts in a game where Kansas City kicker Lin Elliott missed three field goals.
If the Colts have success running the football – which they should against the NFL’s 31st-ranked defense – they can keep the ball out of the NFL’s highest-scoring offense. Indy’s Marlon Mack rushed for a franchise record 148 yards last week in the win over Houston. If that happens again, look out.
Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes threw for over 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns. Kansas City has two 1,000-yard receivers in Tyreek Hill and TE Travis Kelce. The offense is explosive. The Chiefs also led the league in sacks (52) during the regular season. They are going to need to get to Colts QB Andrew Luck to have success, which they will…Kansas City 35, Indianapolis 31.
Betting odds: Patriots -4 and O/U 45.5
The Chargers avenged another loss this season by beating Baltimore in a wild card game last week. Los Angeles had lost to the Ravens in Week 16, but this time the Chargers defense took control. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley utilized seven defensive backs on most snaps and it was enough to confuse rookie QB Lamar Jackson.
Jackson threw an interception, was sacked seven times, and fumbled three more times. If the Chargers can get after Tom Brady like that, they could be the first team in six years to win a playoff game in Foxborough.
The Patriots need TE Rob Gronkowski to get healthy. The bye week helps, but Gronkowski has not been at full strength for a while. The former All-Pro tight end caught 47 passes for 682 yards and three touchdowns this season, well off his career bests.
The Chargers might have just enough offense with QB Philip Rivers, RB Melvin Gordon, and WR Keenan Allen to beat New England. The key is Brady and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. Under Belichick, the Patriots have won 27 playoff games including five Super Bowls. New England has played in each of the last seven AFC title games. Make it eight… New England 31, Los Angeles Chargers 27.
Betting odds: Saints -7.5 and O/U 50.5
Over the past two postseasons, Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles is 4-0 with a Super Bowl win. He led the Eagles to a win over Chicago last week. Foles faces a much tougher task this weekend as he and the Eagles face top-seeded New Orleans. The Eagles are going to need to convert on third down, something they did very well over the final three games of the season. They were fourth in the league in third-down conversion over the final three weeks converting at a 48.8 percent clip.
Foles and the Eagles converted on a fourth-and-5 with a minute left in the game with the Bears. That led to a Foles-to-Golden-Tate two-yard touchdown pass and a 16-15 Philadelphia win. Those are the types of plays Philadelphia will have to make to beat New Orleans.
The Saints were No. 2 against the run in the regular season this year proving they are more than just a flashy offense. That offense is very good averaging 31.5 points per game this season. Quarterback Drew Brees is a future Hall of Famer and the running back tandem of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram rushed for over 1,500 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Over the past two seasons, the Eagles are 9-1 in December, January, and February. Can they do it again? It will be much tougher playing as the No. 6 seed and having to win on the road. The Eagles lack of a running game will do them in… New Orleans 33, Philadelphia 27.
Betting odds: Rams -7 and O/U 49
The Dallas Cowboys have won eight of their last nine football games including last week’s wild card game against Seattle. They have done it by running the football. Last week, NFL leading rusher Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 137 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries against the Seahawks. The Cowboys will need to do the same against the Rams in this week’s divisional round game.
The Rams, surprisingly, give up more yards per rush than any team in the NFL. Los Angeles allows an average of 5.07 yards per carry. If Dallas is able to run the football, the Cowboys will keep the ball away from a pretty good Rams offense.
Los Angeles needs RB Todd Gurley to come back healthy. He is listed as questionable this week after missing the final two weeks of the regular season with a knee injury. Gurley had rushed for 1,251 yards prior to the injury. He is the key for the Rams offense.
Quarterback Jared Goff threw for 4,688 yards and 32 touchdowns and the Rams had two 1,000-yard receivers – Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks. Head coach Sean McVay has been imaginative enough to utilize his weapons to the tune of 32.9 points per game, second-best in the NFL.
On the other side of the ball, DT Aaron Donald led the NFL in sacks with 20.5. If the Rams can force Dallas into second- and third-and-long situations, Donald and the Rams defense can get after Dallas QB Dak Prescott. Look for that to happen…often… Los Angeles Rams 33, Dallas 25.
2017 Divisional Round Predictions
Kansas City @ New England
After starting the season 10-0, the Patriots are just 2-4 in their last six games. They still earned a bye in the Wild Card round of the postseason, but now a very hot Kansas City team visits Gillette Stadium next Saturday. It was just 15 months ago that head coach Bill Belichick and his Patriots were embarrassed by the Chiefs on Monday Night Football. After the 41-14 defeat, Belichick’s squad rallied and won 13 of 15 games including Super Bowl XLIX. New England will need to be sharp if it is to have a shot at winning Super Bowl 50.
For the Chiefs, it will come down to defense. Patriots QB Tom Brady leads one of the NFL’s best passing attacks. New England averages 287 yards per game in the air. The Patriots should have WR Julian Edelman back to complement TE Rob Gronkowski. Kansas City pass rushers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali need to put some pressure on Brady though it may not matter with the number of quick throws in the Patriots offense.
A win will be hard to come by for Kansas City who might have to play without their leading receiver, Jeremy Maclin. Maclin suffered an ankle injury and is listed as day-to-day. Even if he plays, Maclin may not be 100 percent which will allow the Patriots defense to load up on the Chiefs running game. The Patriots return the favor for last year’s beat down… New England 34, Kansas City 17.
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Green Bay @ Arizona
The Packers win over Washington in the Wild Card round earned them another shot at Arizona. Green Bay is hoping for anything other than what happened on Dec. 27. In a 38-8 Cardinals domination of the Packers, Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers was sacked eight times. Two of Rodgers’ fumbles were returned for touchdowns and the Cardinals defense held him to a season-low 151 passing yards. On the other side of the ball, the Cardinals offense was as efficient as ever. QB Carson Palmer completed 18-of-27 passes for 265 yards and a touchdown. Another performance like that and the Cardinals will easily punch their ticket to the NFC title game.
Green Bay is going to have to get creative on offense and allow Rodgers to gain some consistency in throwing the ball. Whether it is short, timing throws or crossing routes that allow receivers to come open quickly, the Packers cannot do what they did on Dec. 27 or they can keep the plane running for the trip back home. Green Bay struggled last week against Washington until pulling away late. It’s hard to envision the Packers having much success in Arizona… Arizona 33, Green Bay 28.
Seattle @ Carolina
Who would have thought Seattle would have another shot at an NFC title after starting the season 2-4? The offense, playing most of the year without RB Marshawn Lynch and TE Jimmy Graham, came to life averaging over 32 points a game over the second half of the season. That is thanks in large part to QB Russell Wilson (34 TD passes) and the NFL’s top-ranked run defense.
Carolina was on the verge of becoming the second team to go 16-0 in the regular season before an upset loss to Atlanta. QB Cam Newton is having an MVP-type season with a career high 35 TD passes. He is the team’s second-leading rusher and has 10 touchdowns on the ground. Back in October when these two teams met, it was Newton’s 26-yard TD pass to TE Greg Olsen in the closing seconds that gave Carolina a 27-23 victory. The Seahawks have had success against Carolina in the past. Since the arrival of Pete Carroll, Seattle was 5-0 against the Panthers prior to this season. That includes two blowout playoff losses in 2005 and 2014. Seattle won at Minnesota last week on a missed last-second field goal in freezing conditions. Can they pull off another upset? Anything is possible… Seattle 28, Carolina 27.
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Pittsburgh @ Denver
In yet another rematch in the postseason, the Steelers will face a Denver team that they beat just last month…in Denver. Can they do it again? It may much tougher this time around as the status of QB Ben Roethlisberger and WR Antonio Brown are uncertain. The Steeler QB was knocked out of last week’s Wild Card round game after a hit by Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict in the third quarter. Then, on the Steelers final drive, Burfict put a devastating hit on Brown that helped put Pittsburgh in position to kick the game-winning field goal. If Roethlisberger or Brown does not play, the Steeler offense will struggle.
Denver will start Peyton Manning at quarterback. In the first meeting between the two teams, it was Brock Osweiler who led the Broncos to a 27-10 lead in the first half only to fall victim to a furious Steelers comeback. Osweiler was benched against San Diego as the Denver running game pounded out 220 yards. Will they be able to run against a very good Pittsburgh defense? Probably not to the tune of over 200 yards, but if they can have some success and allow Manning to get into a groove the Broncos will reach another AFC title game.
The Steelers may have to rely on the unlikely pair of Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman once again to handle their running back duties. DeAngelo Williams is still hurt and may miss Sunday’s game. Toussaint and Todman combined for 183 yards against Cincinnati. If either or both Roethlisberger or Brown misses Sunday’s game, it may be up to this pair to guide the Steelers to victory. That probably won’t happen… Denver 28, Pittsburgh 17.