By Fergus Head.
The best week of the football season is finally here, so I thought while I’m stuck at home recovering from surgery that has left my face looking rather like a Megabus has smashed into it at 50mph, I might as well give the games a look and a prediction.
Colts vs. Chiefs, Luck vs. Mahomes. What an absolute treat with two quarterbacks at the peak of their game. The Colts looked mighty in the first half against the Texans, and had they shown that same edge a bit more in the second half I would have found it harder to pick against them, but they almost appeared to run out of ideas, which was hidden by how weak Houston were in capitalising on this stagnancy later in the game. The defense was heroic against All-pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins and sophomore phenom Deshaun Watson, but they have to deal with that all over again this week, on steroids.
Tyreek Hill pairs up with Travis Kelce to create one of the most dangerous pass catching pairings in the NFL, with a quarterback who this year became only the second in history to record 50 TDs and 5000 yards passing in a season. If the Colts want to win this game, which they definitely can (anything is winnable when Andrew Luck is your QB) it will come from continued inspired offensive play, not just one half of it. Let’s not forget Andy Reid’s unbelievable record after a bye. That extra time to prepare will have given the offense the recuperation time it needed, alongside an extra week of creativeness. Expect to see more of those easy chunk plays from earlier in the season, alongside a rejuvenated run game boosted by a loud Arrowhead stadium.
Darius Leonard will be crucial to the Colt’s chances, because if the Chiefs can run the ball too, they will be impossible to handle, and the game will be put to bed with ease. The only chance at stopping the Chiefs offense is by relying on a front 4 that can crash the pocket and stop the run without much assistance, and a quick, intelligent spy to keep Mahomes flustered with nowhere to run. And even then some praying will be required (see 4th&9 vs Ravens) to stop Mahomes. But Leonard has proven with his speed and instincts that he can fit that spy role well.
On the flip side, the Colts have to replicate the running attack of the wild card round, and if they gain any form of lead, start pounding Mack early, as easy as it would be to keep throwing with Luck. If they can tire a sub-standard Chiefs defense and keep the KC offense off the field with smash-mouth running (no doubt headed by the Herculean Quenton Nelson), it will make the shoot out easier later on if Luck needs time in the pocket. Thankfully for Andy Reid, Mahomes’ ability to march the length of the field regardless of the time left on the clock eradicates some of the concerns over his time management skills (no doubt his weakest attribute as one of the premier coaches in the league) and though the Colts will be a plucky and worthy opponent throughout, I just think there is more to see from Kansas City in these playoffs than just another one and done.
Prediction: Colts 30-45 Chiefs
The ‘Boys have the best chance of all the underdogs to get it done this weekend in my opinion. They’ve proven their ability to not only come up clutch in a crucial situation, play physical and bruising football that can stymie any team in the NFL on their day, but also to beat the very best in the league with impeccable defensive efforts from their young-guns.
While it’s quarterback intrigue galore across the rest of the matchups, this game takes us into a time-warp back to an age where the focal points of offenses were those who can take the ball up the field on the ground, the prototype work-horse back. Elliott and Gurley represent two of the elite examples at their position, behind lines built for games such as this; hard nosed playoff football, ON GRASS. There will be plenty of examples of lost footing on the dewy ground in LA on a night such as this, and I expect the white of the Cowboy’s outfit to be muddied and stained by the end of the night, but not without reward. Of course, no analysis of the Rams can take place without observing the mighty Aaron Donald who poses the biggest challenge to an O-line that has suffered from some injury woes this season.
However, behind him there is little else to suggest that the Rams will shut down a Cowboys offense that has found its groove somewhat later this season, and if the run game isn’t all that it was expected to be, then look outside the numbers for the next man up. Amari Cooper has sparked brilliance in his oft-troubled quarterback since his arrival, and after a few quiet games where Dallas rested on its ground-pound attack to see out the season, Coop bounced back last week with a crucially dominant outing that kept the Seahawks defense scared deep and opened up the whole game plan. Both the previously lauded cornerbacks for the Rams have been liabilities at times this season, and if I were the Texas based outfit, I’d want to exploit that matchup with deep crossing routes from hard play-actions early on and try to jump to a lead early in order to force Jared Goff to drag his team back into it, as I don’t know if he’s capable of doing that.
Getting beaten this week would be an immeasurable blow to a Rams team that were unable to secure a playoff win last year being beaten by the Falcons in the Wild Card round at home. Earlier this season, a feisty Eagles team got the job done in the Coliseum too, and to call it any sort of fortress would be to forget the high-profile games that have been dropped too regularly by this Rams team in the last couple of years. Sean McVay has to find a way to beat the Cowboys to continue to be regarded as one of the brightest stars in this league, because the NFL moves so fast, it will be a long off-season if he can’t, and believe me, though I don’t think they should, questions will be asked. That said, despite my dislike of Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett, I’m a massive fan of the style of play that Dallas bring to the table, and to have them around would be refreshing in contrast to the rest of the teams left.
Prediction: Cowboys 21-17 Rams
This goes against everything I usually stand for in terms of betting against the Patriots, but watching the swarming front 7 pin Lamar Jackson in and hold him to 3 points for most of the game, I know for a fact that it won’t be easy for Tom Brady. I won’t go as far as saying he’s scared or worried, he’s the greatest competitor in sports history, but human instinct has to kick in as Melvin Ingram (who played out of his mind versus the aforementioned Jackson and the Ravens), Joey Bosa, Derwin James and the rest of the supporting cast announce their glee at a chance to get to Brady in such a big game. Not only that, but this has the feel of the year of Rivers. The other signal callers that entered the league with him and have so often stolen the spotlight have both underwhelmed, while Rivers has been inspired all year. If he’s going to win it all, it’s got to be soon, and it would be poetic if it happened in a year when Big Ben didn’t make the playoffs and Eli Manning’s viability as a starting QB was questioned for much of the season.
The biggest danger for the Chargers is this: we’ve seen over the past few seasons some of the weakest situational football on offer come from them, and if there is one matchup where that will hurt you more than ever, it’s against the genius of Belichick and Brady. Watch out Chargers fans; if they can’t stay disciplined, it’ll turn ugly in Foxborough. That said, the Bolts couldn’t have been more disciplined in all areas of the game against a vaunted defense and punishing offense this past Sunday. All of the defense were completely tuned in with their assignments, Rivers played with poise and shrewdness, never putting the ball in danger, while Badgely and Desmond King highlighted the leaps and bounds being made in the special teams areas with clutch field goals and long returns. The advantage of creating a hostile environment is least effective against the Chargers; they are 8-1 away from home, with ‘home’ being a loose term as it is, given the lack of support. There is character aplenty in this team and they pose a huge threat to New England.
Now for the Patriots. The focus lies completely on protecting Brady. Get him hit early and/or often and the game is done. We’ve seen more than ever Brady struggle to stand his ground in the pocket when pressure is getting up in his face, and the way Ingram and the rest of that D-line played on Sunday will have to be countered with a great deal of inventive scheme, as the talent isn’t there on its own. That said, Belichick is master of the counter-punch and the Patriots have had a week of rest, and a lifetime of experience in games such as this. Also, they just don’t lose. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Patriots come out much as they did earlier this season like they did against the Packers at a warp-speed, the ball flying out short and fast, with complementary bruising runs from rookie Sony Michel.
I predict a remarkable game of football, both running backs (Michel and Gordon) making their mark early, before both quarterbacks take a hold in the later stages to create a fascinating chess match. It might not be high scoring, but every single matchup is crucial, in all 3 phases of the game. Don’t be shocked if special teams play an enormous factor, and watch out for the pressure on Brady, it’s where this game will be won and lost. I see an incredibly tasty rematch of Chargers-Chiefs in the Championship game, which I can’t help but hope for given their last matchup.
Prediction: Chargers 28-25 Patriots
Oh Nick Foles, how you make our lives difficult. Somehow it feels completely stupid to bet against him. And I can pride myself in saying that I haven’t bet against him since his remarkable run last year. This is a different beast though.
New Orleans is unequivocally the best team in the league in my opinion, at 13-3 their record shows it and they cannot be underestimated when looking at the other teams around the league making claims at the Lombardi trophy. Right now Drew Brees is a man on a mission. He will likely miss out on the MVP award this year thanks to that aforementioned kid in Kansas City, but his season will still be noted for its extreme efficiency. Trubisky’s inexperience was an aid for Philadelphia last week against the Eagles born-again defense, but they can be completely assured the same won’t be true of Brees. He will be 100% ready to go, locked in, and like Mahomes and co.; unstoppable. I truly believe that. I couldn’t have more respect, admiration and awe for what Nick Foles has been able to produce in the last couple of the years. His abilities when under the pressures of key games make him a completely different animal to that of the one we saw at the start of this season even. The rule book has to be thrown out, and the Eagles will be in this game, I’m too scared to suggest otherwise. These Birds have embarrassed too many analysts over the last few weeks and months.
Watch out for Cam Jordan vs Lane Johnson. That will be a brilliant one on one matchup for the technique junkies, Jordan demonstrating fantastic speed, and situational awareness that have allowed him to blow up screens and outside runs all year, alongside a slew of pass rushing moves. Johnson on the other hand remains seemingly unbeatable for stretches of these games, Mack finding that out this week in the wild card round, with the whole offensive line dominating on the most important drive of the game that ended in Tate’s catch for the TD. They’ll have to extrapolate that single drive exemplar material to the whole game however, if they want to keep with a Saints offense that has the ability beat you in any way imaginable. They’ll make chunks through the tackles, outside burst runs, seam strikes, and impeccable wide-receiver play from Michael Thomas.
If all of that wasn’t enough, the Saints are at home, in their immensely comfortable dome, which is all advantage New Orleans. We saw the Eagles deal with the conditions in Chicago as they felt at ease outside in the cold. Put New Orleans in their dome however and it becomes a feat so daunting it makes it impossible, at least in my mind, to bet against them.
Prediction: Eagles 21-34 Saints
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Mowlem is a sports writer from Reading, United Kingdom. All articles are written by Reece Mowlem (unless stated otherwise).