With the conclusion of the wild-card games, the playoff field was reduced to eight teams. The Super Bowl is just two wins away!
Let’s reset the field, breaking down the divisional weekend games with early projections from ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI).
Saturday, Jan. 12 | 4:35 p.m. ET | NBC | Arrowhead Stadium
Early FPI projection: Kansas City, 71.7 percent
Colts’ best chance to win: Run the ball the way they did in their wild-card win over the Houston Texans. Houston was the third-best run defense in the league in the regular season, allowing an average of 82.7 rush yards per game, but the Colts ran for 200 yards in their 21-7 victory Saturday. Kansas City was the 27th-best run defense in the league in the regular season, allowing an average of 132.1 rush yards per game. If Marlon Mack, who had a franchise-record 148 yards against Houston, and the Colts’ line can run the ball the way they did in the wild-card round, they might be able to control the game and keep the ball out of Patrick Mahomes‘ hands.
Chiefs’ best chance to win: Honestly, there are all kinds of possible answers here: Find a way to get pressure on Andrew Luck, stay away from the kinds of costly defensive penalties that have hurt them all season, protect Mahomes and let him do his thing. But the most important part of this game for the Chiefs might be psychological. Andy Reid’s past playoff failures (11-13 record in playoffs) are an unfortunate part of his otherwise sterling legacy, and the memory of last season’s 18-point home collapse against the Titans is still fresh. The Chiefs have been the better team all season and need to play like it.
Stat to know: The Colts allowed a league-low 18 sacks in the regular season (and none Saturday). But the Chiefs’ defense tied for the league lead with 52 sacks in the regular season. Something’s got to give, and the game could be decided by how that’s resolved.
Bottom line: The only quarterback who threw more touchdown passes this season than the Colts’ Luck (39) was the Chiefs’ Mahomes (50). Both of these teams are capable of explosive plays downfield, but with Colts wideout T.Y. Hilton battling an ankle injury, the Chiefs should be the more explosive team in this matchup. Indianapolis’ impressive defensive front is going to have to play as well as it has all season to both confuse and contain Mahomes. No one has done that all season.
Sunday, Jan. 13 | 1:05 p.m. ET | CBS | Gillette Stadium
Early FPI projection: New England, 62.1 percent
Chargers’ best chance to win: Generate pressure with their front four. The smart (though somewhat injury-driven) strategy Sunday by Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley to use seven defensive backs against a run-heavy Baltimore Ravens team seemed to confuse and rattle quarterback Lamar Jackson. But the main reason it worked was the way the Chargers’ defensive line was able to get to Jackson. Seven defensive backs isn’t likely to work against the Patriots, but if Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram & Co. can move Tom Brady off his spot, that’s historically the way to beat New England in the postseason.
Patriots’ best chance to win: A healthy Rob Gronkowski. The bye week is critical for teams, in part because it allows their banged-up and injured players extra time to heal. That might not be more important for anyone than it is for the Patriots’ tight end (47 catches, 682 yards, three TDs), who hasn’t looked like his dominant self for most of this season. The Chargers will be a legitimate challenge for New England on both sides of the ball, but a healthy Gronk is the kind of matchup-buster who can make a difference in a close game. Can he find that old Gronk magic in time for one more run?
Stat to know: It has been six years since a road team won a playoff game in Foxborough, but the Chargers are 8-1 on the road this season, including wins at Seattle, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Denver and Baltimore (plus overseas in London). They travel well, and they don’t mind the absence of home-field advantage. After all, they don’t really get that at home.
Bottom line: This has been one of the more under-the-radar Patriots teams in years. The story all season has been about their weaknesses, whether they’re nearing the end, etc. Sure, the Chargers (12-4) actually had a better regular-season record than New England (11-5), yet here the Patriots are, coming off a bye and playing at home in January, as usual. The Chargers have what it takes, personnel-wise, to win this game. But as long as Bill Belichick is on the sideline and Brady is behind center, no one is going to feel comfortable in this matchup until the scoreboard says they’ve won.
Sunday, Jan. 13 | 4:40 p.m. ET | Fox | Mercedes-Benz Superdome
Early FPI projection: New Orleans, 77.4 percent
Eagles’ best chance to win: Keep converting third downs. The first 14 weeks of the season, the Eagles converted a middling 38.9 percent of their third downs. The final three weeks of the regular season, with Nick Foles starting in place of an injured Carson Wentz, they were fourth in the league, at 48.8 percent on third down. In Sunday’s comeback victory in Chicago, the Eagles converted five of 12 third downs — not spectacular but good enough against the league’s best defense, especially when you convert a fourth-and-goal when down by five with a minute left in the game. Foles looks very comfortable in those situations.
Saints’ best chance to win: Get some pressure on Foles. He is 4-0 the past two postseasons, and he might just be unbeatable this time of year. But part of the reason Foles played so well the latter part of the season after Wentz got hurt was the performance of the Eagles’ offensive line. It was an elite protection unit this time last year, and it has shown the ability to be that again. Cameron Jordan & Co. need to dictate some things up front, make Foles uncomfortable and try to force him into some mistakes.
Stat to know: The Saints allowed an average of 84 rush yards per game the final eight weeks of the season, the fifth-best figure in the league over that span. In that same time, they allowed an average of 3.66 yards per carry on first down. The Eagles were just 24th in the league this season in yards per carry on first down, with an average of 4.14. The Saints have a chance to put Foles in some third-and-long situations if the Eagles can’t find some rushing success on the early downs.
Bottom line: The Super Bowl champions are 9-1 the past two seasons in December, January and February games started by Foles. Last season, the Eagles made their run from the No. 1 seed, meaning they had a bye and a pair of home games before the Super Bowl. Beating the top-seeded Saints in New Orleans without the benefit of a bye is a different kind of challenge. But then again, so was beating the mighty Bears’ defense on the road in Chicago, and they just did that.
Saturday, Jan. 12 | 8:15 p.m. ET | Fox | Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
Early FPI projection: L.A. Rams, 76.0 percent
Cowboys’ best chance to win: Run the ball with Ezekiel Elliott. It sounds obvious, but in this case, it’s worth pointing out that the Rams allowed a league-worst average of 5.07 yards per rush this season. Elliott, the Cowboys’ star running back, averaged exactly 5.07 yards per carry on first downs alone. The key to the Cowboys’ offense is Elliott picking up enough yardage on first and second downs to keep the third downs short or eliminate them entirely. Dallas’ strength on offense plays into the Rams’ weakness on defense, and the Cowboys need to hammer Elliott at the Rams’ aggressive front to keep Aaron Donald away from Dak Prescott and have a chance to control the game.
Rams’ best chance to win: A healthy Todd Gurley. The Rams’ star running back sat out the final two games of the regular season with a knee injury. The hope is the bye week helped him heal enough not just to play in this game but also to resume his role as the do-everything back in this offense. Dallas had the fifth-best run defense in the league this season, thanks to brilliant linebacker play by Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. It’s important that Gurley contributes as a receiver out of the backfield to keep the Cowboys’ defense honest.
Stat to know: As brilliant as Sean McVay’s Rams offense has been, it was only 18th in the league this season in terms of red zone efficiency. The Rams converted just 57.5 percent of their red zone possessions into touchdowns. Only three playoff teams were worse in that department: the Ravens, the Texans and … the Cowboys, who were a pitiful 29th in the league at 48 percent.
Bottom line: Coming off the bye and playing at home obviously works in the Rams’ favor, as Dallas was just 3-5 away from home this season. The Cowboys aren’t likely to win a shootout against the Rams, but they could make it interesting if they can slow things down with their run game. It’ll be worth finding out whether the confidence boost Prescott got from winning an otherwise meaningless Week 17 road game against the Giants carries forward.