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

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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:
IND-KC | DAL-LAR
LAC-NE | PHI-NO


SATURDAY’S GAMES

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

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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

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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.

In case you missed it: Showtime Rams? Not yet, but Rams are ready for the A-listersWant to learn about Rams culture: Learn your McVayismsGurley, Elliott headline Rams-Cowboys playoff matchupCowboys headed to L.A., aiming to raise bar on expectations


SUNDAY’S GAMES

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

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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

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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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Saints DE Noah Spence tears ACL while training away from team

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New Orleans Saints defensive end Noah Spence suffered a torn ACL while training away from the team, a source confirmed, Tuesday.

Spence was placed on the reserve/non-football injury list since the injury did not occur as part of New Orleans’ offseason training program — which was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. That means he can’t play for the Saints this year and won’t count against their 90-man roster. The NFL Network was the first to report the nature of Spence’s injury.

Situations like this could add another wrinkle to these unusual offseason circumstances. Teams aren’t required to pay salaries in the cases of “non-football” injuries. But they could decide to work out injury settlements or place players on injured reserve when rosters are trimmed in September and continue paying them.

Spence, 26, was scheduled to make $910,000 on a one-year deal if he made the Saints’ 53-man roster. He would have counted $750,000 against their salary cap as part of the veteran minimum salary benefit.

The fifth-year pro originally joined the Saints last December after being released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington Redskins earlier in the 2019 season. He was a healthy inactive for all four games with New Orleans, including the playoffs. But he had a chance to earn a roster spot this year to provide depth behind starters Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport.

Spence (6-foot-2, 251 pounds) began his career as a second-round draft pick with the Buccaneers in 2016 and had a terrific rookie season with 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.

His production has tailed off since then, however, in part because of a nagging shoulder injury that limited him to six games in 2017. He had another sack and forced fumble with the Bucs in 2017 and one sack with the Redskins in 2019.

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Miami Dolphins to open drive-in theater at Hard Rock Stadium

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The Miami Dolphins will soon let fans drive their cars inside the stadium where football players typically play every weekend in the fall.

The Dolphins announced Tuesday that they are launching an outdoor drive-in theater inside Hard Rock Stadium that will be used to show marquee games in team history, classic movies, commencement ceremonies, concerts and more. They are also hosting an open-air theater which can host small groups for an intimate viewing experience in the complex plaza.

The Dolphins have mocked renderings of the drive-in venture, which they say can host up to 230 cars. They are promoting it as a family-friendly event that people can participate in amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

Food and beverage can purchased through an online system and delivered to cars. Restrooms will also be made available for use. Fans can put their name on an email list via the stadium website to be notified when tickets are available.

“We’ve spent several weeks planning this to be able to provide people with a safe option to go out and enjoy movies, classic Dolphins content, concerts, and celebrate 2020 graduates,” said Dolphins and Hard Rock Stadium vice chairman and CEO Tom Garfinkel. “It’s a fundamental human need to physically experience and celebrate events and experiences together, and we’re trying to provide options for everyone where they can be safely socially distant and socially present at the same time.”

Hard Rock Stadium became the first public facility to earn the Global Biorisk Advisory Council’s STAR accreditation, the standard used for facilities to implement cleaning, disinfecting and infectious disease prevention work practices to control risks involved with infectious agents like the coronavirus.

Garfinkel and the Dolphins have been proactive and innovative in ways to function during the pandemic. They released mock-up plans earlier this month for what it could like to host approximately 15,000 fans in the stadium for NFL fans if the NFL and the government allows it in the fall. Owner Stephen Ross also said on CNBC Tuesday that there will “definitely” be a football season this fall and the plans as of now is to include having fans in the stands.

Hard Rock Stadium was the host for Super Bowl LIV. It also has hosted Miami Open tennis tournaments, several multiple large music festivals, college football championship games and international soccer games.

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Ravens’ Lamar Jackson to host informal workouts for teammates

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With the Baltimore Ravens facility unavailable to players due to the coronavirus pandemic, reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson is hosting his Baltimore Ravens teammates for some informal workouts in south Florida next week.

Wide receiver Miles Boykin told reporters in a video conference call that he is scheduled to run plays with Jackson, wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and others in what is believed to be the team’s largest gathering this offseason.

“We’re still finalizing it,” Boykin said Tuesday. “There are going to be a lot of guys down there. There’s only so much you can do in [virtual] meetings without being able to go out on the field.”

And while the Ravens announced Tuesday that they have re-opened their training facility under Phase 1 of the NFL process, it is still closed to players and coaches. Like many other teams, Baltimore’s offseason training activities would’ve begun by now.

What works in the Ravens’ favor is their continuity and familiarity on offense. Baltimore returns 11 of 13 players who caught a pass from Jackson last season in what was the NFL’s highest-scoring offense (33.2 points per game).

Boykin said there are plans for additional workouts with Jackson beyond next week. Jackson’s recent throwing sessions appear to have been limited to Brown, who also lives in Florida. Based on social media posts, it looks like Jackson and Brown have been working on routes at a local park.

Boykin isn’t sure of the exact details of the workouts.

“Right now, we just have the plan to go down there and be able to run through some plays on offense and just play football a little bit to get back to something that we love doing,” Boykin said. “It’ll be exciting for us to be together, just work on that chemistry.”

This is the second straight year that Jackson has gotten together with teammates in the offseason, which had been a point of contention with the Ravens’ previous starting quarterback. Joe Flacco only held private workouts twice in his 11 seasons in Baltimore.



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