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NFL divisional round playoff game guide – score predictions, key matchups, stats to know, betting nuggets and more



One round of the 2018 NFL playoffs is in the books. Now we’re previewing the divisional game slate with a rundown for each matchup from Dan Graziano, score predictions from our NFL Nation reporters and Football Power Index projections from ESPN Stats & Information.

Plus: Key matchups to watch from Matt Bowen, what to know from a sports betting perspective by Rob Nelson of ESPN Stats & Information, officiating nuggets from Kevin Seifert and more.

Jump to a matchup:


Point spread: KC -5 | Matchup quality: 70.3 (of 100)

The Chiefs don’t want to talk about the 28-point lead they blew after halftime to Andrew Luck and the Colts in a playoff game five years ago in Indy. They don’t really want to talk about last year’s 18-point collapse in the second half at home to the Titans. Or the fact that they’re 0-6 in home playoff games since Joe Montana won one for them a quarter-century ago. They’re focused on a Colts team that has won 10 of their past 11 games and may be the hottest No. 6 seed in playoff history. Patrick Mahomes makes his first playoff start, but after a 50-touchdown, 5,000-yard passing season, it’s hard to believe anything fazes this young man. Yet the Colts ran for 200 yards against a tough Texans defense last Saturday and should be able to find plenty of room to run against a much more permissive Kansas City D. — Graziano

FPI win projection: KC, 74.9 percent. There should be plenty of offense in this game, as Mahomes (50) and Luck (39) combined for 89 passing scores this regular season, the most in any QB matchup in postseason history, according to Elias Sports Bureau research. While the Colts’ defense has been better as of late, ranking fifth in the NFL in efficiency during their 10-1 stretch, Kansas City has the edge, according to FPI (No. 1 offense in terms of efficiency at 85.1 and the league leader in Total QBR in Mahomes at 81.6).

Matchup to watch: Marlon Mack vs. the Chiefs’ front seven. The Kansas City defense ranked No. 27 versus the run during the regular season, giving up 132.1 yards per game. Look for the Colts to lean on their power run game with Mack. Block down and pull. The idea here is to control the line of scrimmage, eat clock and limit possessions for Mahomes. Let those big boys go to work up front. Bowen

Betting nuggets: The Colts are 6-0 both against the spread and straight up in their six games against teams with a winning record this season. Andy Reid, on the other hand, has lost outright in each of his past four games as a home favorite in the postseason, including twice with Kansas City. — Nelson

Officiating scouting report: Referee John Hussey averaged 14.6 flags per game during the regular season, fifth fewest in the NFL. That frequency will be tested by the Chiefs, who were the most penalized team in the league (163). Their defensive secondary was especially grabby, committing a league-high 24 fouls for defensive holding; the rest of the league averaged just 9.8. — Seifert



Darren Woodson says the Chiefs will “put big numbers up” at home, but Tedy Bruschi sees the Colts winning in their playoff game.

Mike Wells’ pick: The Colts have been the NFL’s stingiest defense since Week 7, giving up an average of 16.4 points per game over that span. But they also haven’t faced a team with the scoring ability of Kansas City. The Chiefs are first in the league in yards per game (425.6), yards per play (6.84) and points per game (35.3). But the opportunity to run the ball will be there for the Colts, as the Chiefs were 31st in the league (5.0 yards allowed per carry), which would keep Mahomes on the sideline. It wouldn’t be shocking if the Colts won, but the Chiefs get the slight edge because they’re playing at home. Chiefs 34, Colts 30

Adam Teicher’s pick: Few road teams have been able to run up the score against the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, where the home team allowed 18 points per game this season (sixth best in the NFL). The Chiefs are second in sack rate (10.5 percent) and third in interception rate (4.1 percent). That’s enough defensive goodness to beat Luck and the Colts at home. Chiefs 31, Colts 27

In case you missed it: What’s behind Chiefs coach Andy Reid’s struggles in the playoffs?Colts’ incredible turnaround happened fast, but was no quick fix

Point spread: LAR -7.5 | Matchup quality: 61.8 (of 100)

Dallas is 8-1 at home this season and just 3-5 on the road, so the question is whether the Cowboys can get control of the game without the help of their own friendly confines. The Rams allowed a higher yard-per-rush average than any other team in the league this season, so it’s possible Ezekiel Elliott can get something going against L.A.’s aggressive, pursuing defensive front. But the Rams appear set to get their own star running back, Todd Gurley, back for this game and are coming off a bye week. They should have answers for Dallas’ young linebackers and fearsome defensive line led by DeMarcus Lawrence. The Rams were in the playoffs last season and felt they didn’t play their best in a first-round loss to Atlanta. What did Sean McVay’s crew learn from that experience? — Graziano

FPI win projection: LAR, 78.7 percent. The Rams finished the regular season ranked first in offensive efficiency in the NFC, according to FPI (78.1), but also should cause Dak Prescott and the Cowboys problems on the defensive side of the field. The Rams ranked second in the NFL in ESPN’s pass rush win rate (how often a pass-rusher is able to beat his block within 2.5 seconds), using data from NFL’s Next Gen Stats. This is thanks in large part to Aaron Donald, who led all players with a PRWR of 46 percent this season.

Matchup to watch: The Rams’ first-down play-action vs. the Cowboys’ defense. The Rams’ foundational pass concepts start with play-action off the outside zone run look. It allows L.A. to create voids in coverage schemes, with Jared Goff throwing on rhythm to Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods. If the Cowboys lean on their core zone coverages, McVay can dial up early-down play-action to attack the middle of the field. — Bowen

Betting nuggets: The Cowboys have won each of their three games as an underdog of at least seven points outright this season. And Goff is 4-11-1 ATS in 16 career starts against teams with a winning record, including 0-3-1 ATS this season. — Nelson

Officiating scouting report: Referee John Parry threw the second-most flags for roughing the passer (11), a notable total in a game that includes the Rams’ aggressive defensive front. The Rams were called for six such penalties, second most in the league. — Seifert

Todd Archer’s pick: Matchups matter, especially in the playoffs. It was believed to be better for the Cowboys to avoid the Saints in the divisional round because the Saints are nearly flawless at home, but the Rams went 7-1 at the Coliseum and averaged 37 points per game. The stat that sticks out the most, however, is 5.1 yards per carry. Los Angeles allowed that during the regular season, and the Cowboys clearly want to build their game around Elliott. That’s the best way to keep a high-scoring team off the field. And that’s the best way for the Cowboys to advance to the NFC title game. Cowboys 23, Rams 20

Lindsey Thiry’s pick: The Rams’ run defense is certainly a concern facing the NFL’s leading rusher in Elliott. However, it can’t be overlooked that the Rams’ defense has made late-game stops throughout the season when it has needed to in crunch time. As for their own run game, teammates said Gurley appeared strong and fresh in his first practices back from a knee issue that had kept him sidelined since Week 16. Rams 32, Cowboys 28



Darren Woodson says the Cowboys will take away the Rams’ running game to win, but Tedy Bruschi sees L.A. getting off to a fast start.

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Point spread: NE -4 | Matchup quality: 76.5 (of 100)

The Patriots at home in January coming off a bye feels like easy money. Philip Rivers is 0-7 in his career against Tom Brady, and the Patriots are tried-and-true playoff blue bloods. But these Chargers are 9-0 this season when they’ve had to travel outside of Los Angeles. Flying to Baltimore last week, back home Sunday night and back to New England this week might bother some teams, but it’s not likely to make much difference to Anthony Lynn’s road warriors. Will Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley have an ingenious new game plan to combat Brady and the New England run game, as he did last week against the Ravens? And what aspect of the Chargers’ diverse offense will Bill Belichick scheme to take away? It may be now or never for Rivers, who’s got his best team in years and a chance for a sweet late-career addition to his legacy. — Graziano

FPI win projection: NE, 65.0 percent. The Patriots are the smallest favorite in this round, according to FPI, but were also the only team to go undefeated at home this regular season. New England finished fourth in offensive efficiency (78.4) and second in defensive efficiency (80.5) at home, according to FPI. Rivers was second in the NFL in QBR in road games during the regular season (81.3) and posted a 78.3 at Baltimore in the wild-card round.

Matchup to watch: Belichick vs. Rivers. Let’s keep an eye on the coverage schemes and rotations Belichick draws up to limit Rivers’ ability to throw intermediate cuts off high-low concepts. In the Chargers’ playbook, Rivers can work two-level reads inside, which puts defenders in conflict — and that leads to open windows. New England’s linebackers and secondary must take away his ability to make high-percentage throws with Keenan Allen and Mike Williams on inside breaking routes. Bowen

Betting nuggets: The Chargers have won outright in each of their past five games as an underdog and are led by Rivers, who is 6-1 ATS with four outright wins in seven career postseason starts as an underdog. As for the total, eight of the Patriots’ past nine games have gone under. — Nelson

Officiating scouting report: Referee Ron Torbert’s regular-season crew threw the second-lowest total of flags (13.7 per game) this season. That increases the likely possibility of a low-flag game. The Patriots finished the season tied for seventh in the NFL with 113 penalties. The Chargers ranked No. 14 with 124. — Seifert

Eric D. Williams’ pick: The Bolts will have to play a near-perfect game on the road to earn a victory. However, with a veteran coaching staff and two edge rushers, Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, who can pressure Brady, the Chargers have a chance to pull off the upset. The key for the Chargers will be limiting mistakes and scoring touchdowns on offense. The Patriots allowed 4.9 rushing yards per play during the regular season, tied for third worst in the NFL, which bodes well for Melvin Gordon. New England also allowed 59 passing plays of 20-plus yards in 2018, so the Chargers’ receivers should create some explosive plays down the field. Chargers 24, Patriots 21



NFL Live’s Tedy Bruschi and Darren Woodson explain their picks for the AFC divisional matchup between the Chargers and Patriots.

Mike Reiss’ pick: The Patriots’ defense has been a different unit at home (where the team is 8-0) and that will ultimately be the difference-maker against a Chargers team that is dominant outside of Los Angeles County. The Patriots are well-rested and healthy coming off the playoff bye, and players felt like Wednesday’s full-pads practice was an important one for them to ramp things up for a physical game. Meanwhile, the Chargers are banged up in some key spots (running back, for one) and will be making another flight across the country after playing in Baltimore on Sunday. Patriots 27, Chargers 20

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Point spread: NO -8 | Matchup quality: 60.4 (of 100)

To get to last year’s Super Bowl, the Eagles had to win two home playoff games. To get to this year’s big game, Nick Foles & Co. have to win three road playoff games. One down and two to go, with the help of a Soldier Field upright, but this week’s trip to the Superdome may be the toughest test yet. They’ll see a rested Saints team that finished top-five in the league in rushing and passing offense for the second year in a row. If the Saints’ offensive line can keep the Eagles’ defensive front from wrecking the game with the pass rush, Drew Brees should have plenty of time to pick apart Philadelphia’s decimated secondary. New Orleans would be wise to build a big lead, though. Based on the past two postseasons, the last thing you want to do is put the ball in Foles’ hands late in a close game. — Graziano

FPI win projection: NO, 80.9 percent. The Saints are the biggest favorite of the weekend, thanks largely to their offensive prowess at home this season. Brees posted a league-leading 89.7 Total QBR in home games this season, the second highest since ESPN began tracking QBR in 2006 (Aaron Rodgers, 90.5 in 2011), leading the Saints to the second-best offensive efficiency in home games, according to FPI (85.0). One ray of hope for Philadelphia is that the Saints had a 30.4 defensive efficiency at home, second worst in the league this season.

Matchup to watch: Brees vs. Avonte Maddox. Maddox is an aggressive corner with the transition speed to break downhill on the ball. He’s going to close in a hurry. But that also leads to opportunities to run double-moves at the young cornerback. If Maddox is sitting on the slant or the quick out — like we saw in the wild-card matchup against Chicago — look for Brees to target the rookie with a double-move over the top. — Bowen

Betting nuggets: The Eagles have won outright in each of Foles’ past six starts as an underdog, with four of those wins coming in the postseason. As for the total, the over is 9-0 in the Saints’ nine postseason games played in Superdome. — Nelson

Officiating scouting report: Referee Carl Cheffers’ crew gets two of the least-penalized teams in the NFL. The Saints had the second-fewest penalties (109), and the Eagles ranked No. 6 (112). Officials did nab the Saints for 20 defensive pass interference (DPI) calls, second most in the league, but Cheffers’ regular-season crew made the second-fewest such calls (nine), and overall had the lowest combined total of DPI, illegal contact and defensive holding (27). — Seifert



NFL Live’s Tedy Bruschi and Darren Woodson explain their picks for the NFC divisional matchup between the Eagles and Saints.

Tim McManus’ pick: The Eagles are playing their best ball of the year and are 4-0 since Foles came in for the injured Carson Wentz. The defense was gashed for 546 yards and 48 points by New Orleans in Week 11, but it has since stabilized, yielding 15 points total over the past two games. This will be a much closer game, but the home-field advantage the Superdome provides will come into play and tilt the game the Saints’ way. Saints 27, Eagles 24

Mike Triplett’s pick: Of course I don’t expect another 48-7 rout like their last meeting two months ago, but the Saints do have a lot going in their favor as the No. 1 seed. Most importantly, their banged-up offensive line has had time to rest, which should help their offense get back on track and help nullify Philly’s terrific front four. New Orleans’ receiving corps is also healthier with Ted Ginn Jr. coming back late in the season, and a refreshed Alvin Kamara should play a huge part in the passing game. Last but not least, the Saints are at home, where they have averaged 40 points per game in the past five games that Brees played. The Saints are 5-0 in the Superdome in the playoffs during the Sean Payton-Brees era. Saints 30, Eagles 20

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Burfict joins Raiders, says AB pairing ‘all positive’



The Oakland Raiders have signed Vontaze Burfict to a one-year contract, a day after the veteran linebacker was released by the Cincinnati Bengals.

The deal is worth up to $5 million, according to NFL Network.

With the Raiders, the 28-year-old Burfict will reunite with defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, who held the same role with the Bengals from 2014 to 2017. He’ll also join forces with wide receiver Antonio Brown, and the two have a rocky history.

It started in the 2015 playoffs, when Burfict was suspended three games for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Brown during an AFC wild-card game. Brown ended up with a concussion and didn’t play for the Steelers for the rest of the postseason.

Then this past season, Brown caught a pass over the middle and was tackled by two Bengals defenders when Burfict flew in with his right elbow, connecting with the receiver’s upper body and head area. Brown was down on the turf for a few seconds and then was evaluated by the team on the sideline, before re-entering the game. Afterward, Brown called it a “nasty hit.”

The play, as well as another one during that game involving Steelers running back James Conner, led to $112,000 in fines that week for Burfict, who has been fined more than $415,000 in his career.

On a conference call with media after the deal was announced Tuesday, Burfict downplayed any lingering tension between the two players.

“We’re on the same team,” Burfict said. “It’s one goal. It’s all positive, man. He’s a great player. … I’m going to approach him just like I do all my other teammates. … There’s nothing negative here. We’re on the same team. We’re trying to win a championship here.

“Honestly, we might be the closest friends on the team, you know what I mean? So, just got to go along with it and I can’t wait to meet him.”

Brown, who was traded to Oakland earlier this month, tweeted later that the two had spoken.

Guenther’s ties to Burfict date back to the linebacker’s rookie season in 2012, when Guenther was his linebackers coach. Burfict had one of the best seasons of his career in 2013, when he made his only Pro Bowl.

Guenther took over as Cincy’s defensive coordinator in 2014, and he has been one of Burfict’s biggest supporters throughout his career, defending him publicly after several of the linebacker’s fines and suspensions. A source said that the Raiders inquired about trading for Burfict last year due to Guenther’s ties to him, but the Bengals said Burfict was not available.

Guenther clearly didn’t give up, as Burfict was in the Raiders’ facility and signed within 24 hours of his release from Cincinnati. Burfict told reporters that after his release from the Bengals he called his mom and then Guenther.

“He didn’t pick up. I think I called him seven times straight,” Burfict said, laughing.

Last season, Burfict had 33 tackles in seven games with the Bengals, but he missed several contests due to injuries, including a hip issue and two concussions toward the end of the season. He was suspended for the first four games of 2018 after violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.

Asked about his health Tuesday, Burfict said he feels good.

“Some of the concussions, I passed the concussion protocol,” he said. “Sometimes the team actually told me to stay in the locker room, that I couldn’t go out there because the replay was bad. I can’t fight the trainers. I have to do what they say. Football is a dangerous sport like that, but I’m totally fine. I got my physical and I passed it, otherwise I wouldn’t be signing with the Raiders if I wasn’t good.”

Information from ESPN’s Katherine Terrell was used in this report.

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Texans sign QB McCarron to back up Watson



HOUSTON — The Houston Texans on Tuesday signed AJ McCarron to be the team’s backup quarterback behind Deshaun Watson.

The deal is for one year and $3 million, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter, confirming an NFL Network report.

McCarron will be an upgrade at quarterback for the Texans behind Watson, who was backed up by Brandon Weeden and Joe Webb III in 2018 and Tom Savage in his rookie season in 2017. Weeden and Webb are both free agents, and Weeden is not expected to re-sign in Houston.

McCarron, a former Alabama standout, has played in 12 NFL games, including seven for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2015 when he took over for an injured Andy Dalton. In his career, McCarron has completed 64 percent of his passes for 928 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions.

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Texans to make McCarron backup QB



HOUSTON — The Houston Texans are finalizing a one-year, $3 million deal with quarterback AJ McCarron, a source confirmed to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

McCarron will be the Texans’ backup quarterback behind Deshaun Watson. The deal was first reported by NFL Network.

McCarron will be an upgrade at quarterback for the Texans behind Watson, who was backed up by Brandon Weeden and Joe Webb III in 2018 and Tom Savage in his rookie season in 2017. Weeden and Webb are both free agents, and Weeden is not expected to re-sign in Houston.

McCarron, a former Alabama standout, has played in 12 NFL games, including seven for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2015 when he took over for an injured Andy Dalton. In his career, McCarron has completed 64 percent of his passes for 928 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions.

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