NFL 2019 - Divisional Round
NFL 2018-19 – Divisional Weekend
Well, wild-card weekend didn’t exactly go according to the script, but that’s the thing about the NFL: Any Given Sunday and all that… Our Game of the Week wasn’t quite the closest contest of the four that kicked off the playoff process but proved to be as difficult to call as we (and may others) expected, with the Dallas Cowboys holding on to win by a couple of points over Seattle. Admittedly, it took an injury to Seahawks’ kicker Sebastian Janikowski and a subsequent muffed onside restart from rookie punter Michael Dickson to settle any nerves on the Dallas sideline, but the Cowboys remain a dark horse in this tournament nonetheless. The tightest game on the slate came in the other half of the NFC bracket, with reigning champions Philadelphia squeaking out a one-point win over pre-match favourites Chicago thanks to a missed field goal in the final seconds. It’s hard to believe that Cody Parkey hit both the upright and crossbar before the ball bounced back on the wrong side of being a winner, but not as hard to fathom as the fact that he has now hit a post six times this season!
Over in the AFC, things were a little more clear cut, with comfortable victories for both Indianapolis and the Los Angeles Chargers. The Colts have long appeared to be rounding into form at just the right time of the year and bolted to a three-touchdown lead in Houston before the hometown Texans had a chance to draw breath. This proved to be the most one-sided of the weekend’s four fixtures, and will have undoubtedly caused Indy’s next opponent to do a little extra homework. The Chargers looked to be similarly running away with their game in Baltimore, avenging the embarrassing defeat they suffered to the same opposition in LA just a couple of weeks ago, but were made to sweat a little towards the end as rookie Ravens QB Lamar Jackson finally found his groove and brought the North division champs back into contention. The uncertainty ended on yet another Jackson fumble, however, moving the Chargers onto another east coast date this weekend.
Game of the Week – Indianapolis Colts @ Kansas City Chiefs
After what was possibly the best wild card weekend for many years, the playoffs move on to an equally intriguing divisional round. This is where the four best teams from the regular season make their bow, having enjoyed an extra week off to prepare for an already embattled foe but, as last Saturday and Sunday showed, nothing should be taken for granted. The ‘at home away from home’ Chargers take on the ‘unbeaten at home’ Patriots in Foxboro, the unpredictable Cowboys travel to LA to take on a Rams team that has shown signs of fallibility of late, and the Eagles get to go to NOLA after their win in the Windy City, but a snap poll of experts (OK, members of my fantasy football league!) points to just one game as the highlight of the coming weekend...
The Chiefs have not faced the Colts for a couple of seasons, and there have been myriad personnel changes since they last clashed in the playoffs, back in 2013, when the Chiefs – having leapt out to a 38-10 lead in the third quarter – proceeded to lose 45-44. KC also squandered an early advantage in last year’s playoffs, going down to the Colts’ South division rival Tennessee, so Andy Reid’s men have more than a few post-season points to prove. Where the Chiefs have a different quarterback to their last meeting, Indy has a new man at the helm on the sidelines, with Frank Reich now in tandem with veteran QB Andrew Luck, having helped guide Philadelphia to Super Bowl success last season.
Players to watch?
While Saturday's match-up throws up various interesting plot-lines, not least the season pace-setter taking on the team coming up hot on the rails, it also pits Luck against second-year phenom Patrick Mahomes, the pair combining to set a new record for regular season passing touchdowns coming into a playoff showdown. Mahomes led the way with 50 scoring tosses in his first season as a starter, while Luck added 39 of his own having returned from missing the entire 2017 campaign with a shoulder injury, so it should be an exciting game if nothing else. Luck’s return has been aided by a much-improved Colts offensive line, which was strengthened to the point where Luck was barely touched – let alone sacked - through the middle of the campaign, as well as a receiving corps that has added to the already potent threat of TY Hilton with the previously unheralded Dontrell Inman and Chester Rogers. Perhaps the most significant addition, however, has been TE Eric Ebron who, having come over from Detroit, has proven to be a favourite target for Luck, the pair combining for 13 regular season scores.
Running back appeared to be a mid-season weak link for Indy, but recent weeks have seen Marlon Mack come into his own, posting big numbers as he cemented the number one backfield spot. Rookies Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins also provide adequate back-up, giving the Indy offense a more rounded look. On the other side of the ball, the Colts also appear to have unearthed a major talent in rookie linebacker Darius Leonard, who led the entire NFL in tackles made this season. Leonard lines up alongside Najee Goode and Anthony Walker behind a defensive line already stacked with talents such as Jabaal Sheard, Denico Autry, Tyquan Lewis and Estonia’s Margus Hunt, while the secondary, despite losing veteran Mike Mitchell to injury, boasts young stars in Malik Hooker, Nate Hairston, Kenny Moore, Pierre Desir and Clayton Geathers. Not that that will worry ever-improvising Mahomes, who has taken the league by storm this season. With weapons such as Sammy Watkins, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce to throw to, the former Texas Tech star came close to matching Peyton Manning’s all-time record for touchdown passes in a single season, and became only the second to throw for 50 touchdowns and 5000 yards.
Although KC’s backfield took a hit when damning video of Kareem Hunt emerged, leading to the star running back being dismissed by the Chiefs, most of the slack has been taken up by Spencer Ware and Damien Williams. It’s not yet clear which one will get the start this weekend, with Ware having been carrying an injury, but either will give the Colts pause for thought on Saturday. The Chiefs defense hasn’t been the best this season but, with Mahomes slinging it on offense, that hasn’t always been a problem. With Luck now on the opposite of the ball, however, veterans Justin Houston, Eric Berry and Daniel Sorenson will need to be on their game, with their younger team-mates Anthony Hitchens, Reggie Ragland, Chris Jones, Dee Ford and Kendall Fuller in support. With the game likely to be a close-fought affair, even in a potential shoot-out, the respective kickers could become the focal point, and both sides have little cause for concern, as multiple Lombardi winner Adam Vinatieri and second-year player Harrison Butker have proven more than reliable this year.
Best of the rest?
Again, all four games this weekend will be guaranteed television air-time, starting with the Colts’ visit to Arrowhead on Saturday evening. The late night game again features the Cowboys, who head west in search of gold, this time to Coliseum to face the Los Angeles Rams. Having seen off the Seahawks on the back of another accomplished performance from both Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, could Dallas be poised for another upset akin to their regular season victory over New Orleans? If they are, they will need the receiving game to be on point, with Amari Cooper, in particular, having another big night. The defence continues to play a big part in the Cowboys’ late-season surge, with linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith garnering the headlines, and unintentionally overshadowing the work of both the D-line – featuring DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory and Tyrone Crawford – and an improving secondary headed by Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie.
The Rams, meanwhile, will be hoping for a fully fit Todd Gurley to provide them with a complete armoury, although replacement CJ Anderson has hardly disgraced himself in recent outings. Quarterback Jared Goff needs to rediscover the form he showed in the first two-thirds of the season if he is to take full advantage of a receiving corps built around Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Josh Reynolds, but should still prove more than a match for the Dallas D. LA’s own defense is not to be sniffed at, either, with Aaron Donald among the consensus best players in the NFL, and cohorts Dante Fowler, Michael Brockers, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib all capable of turning games.
The Chargers head in the opposite direction to Dallas as they return to the east coast and an unenviable meeting with the New England Patriots. Although Bill Belichick’s men scraped into a bye this season, they remain unbeaten at Gillette Stadium and, with temperatures forecast to be sub-zero for much of the week, will make things uncomfortable for their visitors. Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman are all beginning to show their age, but there is enough surrounding them on the offense, including running backs James White and Sony Michel, to keep putting up points. The Chargers, meanwhile, will be buoyed by their victory over a Baltimore side with a reputedly better defense than New England, and should have enough on both sides of the ball to keep the Patriots honest. QB Philip Rivers has a groundswell of public support for a Super Bowl appearance behind him and, with Melvin Gordon at running back and Mike Williams and Keenan Allen finding the endzone from wideout, can also keep the scoreboard ticking over. The defence, if anything, is even better, with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram leading the pass rush pressure coming for Brady and impressive rookies Derwin James and Desmond King making an impact in the secondary. Kicker Michael Badgley set a new franchise record with five field goals in Baltimore a week ago, and should go toe-to-toe with Patriots’ veteran Stephen Gostkowski.
The final word of the weekend might again lie with the reigning champions as Philadelphia head from Chicago to New Orleans to take on the top-seeded Saints. Nick Foles once more underlined why he is the best back-up QB in the NFL by guiding his team, not just into the playoffs, but through a tricky wild card encounter, and has enough of a threat in receivers Alshon Jeffrey, Golden Tate and Nelson Agholor and tight end Zach Ertz to worry the Saints secondary. On defense, the Eagles will look to veterans of the calibre of Fletcher Cox, Michael Bennett, Brandon Graham, Jordan Hicks and Malcolm Jenkins to slow the Saints offense and keep the game within reach. The Saints threat is two-fold, with veteran QB Drew Brees able to call on both his own arm and the legs of his running backs to challenge defenses. Brees, who turns 40 before Sunday’s game, has established a fine rapport with receiver Michael Thomas, almost to the exclusion of recognition for the team’s other pass-catchers, while the backfield tandem of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara has being laying waste to opponents all year. While the Saints’ defense isn’t on a par with the best in the league, it can still call on Cameron Jordan, Sheldon Rankins, Alex Anzalone and Marshon Lattimore to lead the resistance. The two sides met a month ago, and the New Orleans D enjoyed itself on that occasion, playing a big part in a blow-out Saints win but, with several members of the Eagles accusing their hosts of ‘running up the score’, expect this game to be more than a little different.
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