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The Keys to Every NFL Divisional Round Game

Andy Reid gets a chance to avenge his most tragic playoff failure, the Cowboys D will face its greatest test, and the Patriots may have to try to run the ball against the team that just shut down Lamar Jackson

Elias Stein/Getty Images

There are seven NFL games left this season, and four of them are this weekend. This simple tipping-point math gives the divisional round a disproportionate weight, and luckily this year’s matchups all look promising. In Kansas City, Patrick Mahomes II and Andrew Luck will wage war in the snow over Andy Reid’s legacy. The Rams will host the Cowboys in their blue-and-gold throwback uniforms against Dallas’s throwback game plan. The Chargers could improve their record to 10-0 in true road games (where we count their “home” game in London as away and their “away” game against the Rams as home) and have a chance to knock the Patriots out of the playoffs before the AFC championship game for the first time since the 2010 season. Most importantly, if the Saints beat the Eagles, we won’t have to listen to people who live in Philadelphia again until August. Hell, next week, we could have an AFC championship where the Chargers host the Colts in the StubHub Center while the Cowboys play the Eagles at Jerry World in the NFC championship game. Things could get weird, fast. Let’s dive into the keys to every divisional round game.

Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs

Kickoff Time: Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET
Channel: NBC
Announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya, Heather Cox
Line: Chiefs -5.5
Over/Under: 57
Overworked Story Line: Patrick Mahomes II is a living deity
Key(s) to the Game: Coaching

If True Detective didn’t convince you that time is a flat circle, this Chiefs-Colts game will. Five years ago, in Andy Reid’s first year as Kansas City’s head coach, the Chiefs had a 38-10 third-quarter lead over the Colts in the wild-card round, only to witness Andrew Luck lead the second-largest comeback in NFL playoff history to secure a 45-44 win. Reid’s career (and Kansas City’s history) is littered with examples of regular-season triumph ending with postseason heartbreak, and that collapse against the Colts is the crown jewel. His playoff reputation has not gotten much better since then. Just last year, the Chiefs blew a 21-3 halftime lead against Tennessee, giving Reid two blown 18-plus-point halftime leads in the playoffs, as many as every other NFL coach in the Super Bowl era combined. Both of Reid’s have come in the past five years.

These teams have little in common with those 2013 squads. Reid’s Chiefs used a conservative Alex Smith–led offense focused on ball control, field position, and not turning the ball over to win ugly games with running back Jamaal Charles—a far cry from the Chiefs’ world-destroying offense in 2018 led by Patrick Mahomes II, Travis Kelce, and an improved offensive line. The Colts have gone from a team almost entirely dependent on Andrew Luck to a roster that complements him better than any he’s had in his career. Though these teams hardly resemble their 2013 versions, it would be foolish not to acknowledge that the January 2014 game looms over their matchup on Saturday.

The biggest impediment to Reid’s success in Kansas City has been himself. Now, Reid has the best regular-season squad of his Kansas City tenure (and perhaps of his entire career) while facing another Luck-led Colts squad. A win would exorcise some long-lingering demons. A loss even remotely related to clock management, timeout usage, or poor coaching that ends this Chiefs season without a playoff win might be even worse than the Colts game five years ago.

Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams

Kickoff Time: Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Announcers: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews, Chris Myers
Line: Rams -7
Over/Under: 49.5
Overworked Story Line: Todd Gurley vs. Ezekiel Elliott
Key(s) to the Game: Jared Goff vs. Dak Prescott

The Cowboys have undergone an identity change this season. The team that was once built around the league’s best offensive line and perhaps the league’s best running back still is a run-oriented team—Ezekiel Elliott led the league in rushing yards—but Dallas’s defense has been the heart and soul of the team. This shift was highlighted in a 13-10 win over the New Orleans Saints on Thursday Night Football in Week 13. Key to that turnaround has been the play of rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch and second-year linebacker Jaylon Smith who, along with cornerbacks Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, and Anthony Brown and pass rusher Demarcus Lawrence, have put together a surprisingly strong defense.

On Saturday, the Rams offense will test just how legit the Cowboys defense is. The Cowboys finished with the 11th-ranked defense by weighted DVOA, while the Rams finished second in weighted offensive DVOA. L.A. has by far the most play-action-heavy offense in football, and the Cowboys have been mediocre against play-action all year and were burned by it last week by Russell Wilson to the tune of 9-of-10 passing for 111 yards.

“They really get your eye to wander,” Cowboys safety Jeff Heath told The Ringer’s Robert Mays this week.

The less wandering, the better chance Dallas has on Saturday.

Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots

Kickoff Time: Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, Tracy Wolfson, Jay Feely (kicking correspondent)
Line: Patriots -4
Over/Under: 48
Overworked Story Line: Tom Brady vs. Philip Rivers
Key(s) to the Game: New England’s rushing

The Chargers shut down the Baltimore Ravens in the wild-card round largely because they stifled the Ravens’ running game. They played seven defensive backs against the Ravens for nearly the entire game, a counterintuitive strategy that prevailed because Los Angeles’s defensive linemen dominated the Ravens blockers while their defensive backs countered Lamar Jackson’s runs with speed. After the game, L.A.’s defenders explained that Ravens tackle Ronnie Stanley’s foot placement was a tell that gave away runs versus passes, and the team realized that many of the Ravens’ plays from their matchup two weeks earlier had not changed. The Chargers took all of those things and combined them into a dominant defensive performance: Despite the Ravens averaging 229.6 rushing yards per game since Jackson took over in Week 11, the Chargers held Baltimore to just 90.

“We pretty much knew what they had going on,” rookie defensive lineman Justin Jones told The Athletic’s Sam Fortier.

The natural reaction to that game is to assume that the Patriots should pass, but the Chargers are uniquely well-suited to stop New England in the air. They have athletic defensive backs in All-Pro rookie Derwin James and Adrian Phillips, who are versatile enough to take Rob Gronkowski one-on-one or completely shut him down in double coverage. After losing Josh Gordon, the Patriots don’t have any receivers that match up well with Chargers cornerbacks Casey Hayward Jr. or Michael Davis on the outside, and Julian Edelman will likely be facing All-Pro cornerback Desmond King II, the second-highest-graded cornerback in football, according to Pro Football Focus. Tom Brady has not looked himself against the pass rush this year, and Melvin Ingram III and Joey Bosa are among the best pass-rush duos he’ll face all year.

Strangely, the Patriots’ best game plan against the Chargers on Sunday might be to run it down the defense’s throat. It might seem silly based on how well the Chargers played the Ravens run game, but New England’s offense is nothing like Baltimore’s. The Patriots won’t have players giving away any tells like Stanley. The Chargers certainly won’t be able to guess what plays Bill Belichick’s team is running. And the team won’t be daring Tom Brady to throw like he’s Lamar Jackson. The Chargers probably won’t repeatedly throw seven defensive backs out against New England, but the original reason they even thought of it—thin linebacker depth after Jatavis Brown and Denzel Perryman went to injured reserve—still holds. If the Patriots play a run-heavy game focused on getting their offensive linemen to the second level against smaller defensive backs and inexperienced linebackers, the Patriots could get big days on the ground from Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, and James White while also limiting Brady’s exposure.

Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints.

Kickoff Time: Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Announcers: Kevin Burkhardt, Charles Davis, Pam Oliver
Line: Saints -8
Over/Under: 51
Overworked Story Line: Nick Foles
Key(s) to the Game: Eagles cornerbacks vs. Sean Payton and Drew Brees

Philly fans have been whining all season about the Eagles’ cornerbacks. They have a point. Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills are both on injured reserve and Sidney Jones has missed the past four games with a hamstring injury. Philly’s season has depended on Avonte Maddox, Rasul Douglas, Cre’Von LeBlanc, and Tre Sullivan far more than anyone could have expected.

Testing that group will likely be the first, second, third, and fourth priority for New Orleans, who roasted the Birds in their first game without Darby in Week 11 by specifically targeting Sidney Jones, according to Pro Football Talk’s Peter King, who was embedded with the New Orleans coaching staff for their Week 11 matchup against the Eagles. At one point during the team’s Saturday night walkthrough, King asked Payton about a specific play design.

“Part of it, really, is thinking of something that they [the Eagles] haven’t seen,” Payton said. “That’s the job of a game-planner. You want eight heads to turn to [Eagles safety] Malcolm Jenkins and be like, ‘What do we do?’”

The Saints won that game 48-7. The details will be different without Carson Wentz (and likely Jones), as the Eagles’ entire season has been flipped upside down since their first matchup, but the question remains the same: Can the Eagles’ depleted secondary avoid getting shredded by Sean Payton and Drew Brees?

Maddox will be critical to the game. He finished the year with the fewest passing yards allowed per coverage snap of any cornerback, according to Pro Football Focus, and he showed the highs against Chicago last week along with some lows. He demonstrated excellent anticipation by jumping an outside route and dropping a potential interception from Mitchell Trubisky late in the first half.

But he also showed later in the game that those aggressive tendencies can be used against him by falling for doubles moves, as he does here, giving up the easy touchdown to Allen Robinson II.

The Eagles have some new players to throw out there instead of Jones this time around, but the Saints will be bringing plenty of new looks too. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Saints start with underneath passes to test how aggressive Philly’s corners plan on playing.