gfoster (Geoff Foster, sports editor): The wild-card weekend — the best weekend — is in the books, and it would be hard to argue that it wasn’t great. Three of four road teams won. With the exception of the Colts wiping out the Texans, every game was within a touchdown. Let’s start with the most recent result: Nick Foles and the Eagles taking down the vaunted Bears defense in Soldier Field. This one was nuts — I’m not sure where to begin. Is this Eagles team under Foles doing it again? Do they need to order new dog masks?
Salfino (Michael Salfino, contributor): I guess we have to ask seriously if Foles Magic is real.
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Foles has won four consecutive playoff starts as an underdog. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, that’s tied for the third most ever. No. 2 is Jim Plunkett with five; No. 1 is Eli Manning with seven.
Is Foles the Eagles’ Eli????
Salfino: He did have 10 points through 59 minutes. Foles comping to Eli is funny since I guess he could conceivably replace Eli.
gfoster: The Eagles were the sloppy, mistake-filled team of the two yesterday. Some of that can be chalked up to the Bears defense; rookie Roquan Smith made a great play on one of Foles’s two interceptions. But the Philly defense was also struggling to stop Mitchell Trubisky in the second half, which means Drew Brees will tear that pass defense apart, right?
Salfino: If you had told me that Trubisky would throw for 300 yards and Chicago would get two picks and not have a turnover, I would have guaranteed victory even more stridently than I did here last week.
neil: (Which was pretty stridently.)
joshua.hermsmeyer: If Eagles rookie cornerback Avonte Maddox continues to try to jump every route, then Brees will destroy him. I have to think he’ll be much less aggressive after getting completely torched by Allen Robinson though.
Salfino: You have a 41-point prior matchup now, too, with the Eagles obviously on the short end. But that was with that bum Carson Wentz.
Rex Ryan is saying right now that Wentz has to get traded.
neil: The other thing was that the Eagles’ running game continued to struggle. They were second to last in the NFL in yards per carry during the season and averaged 1.8 yesterday. Even in today’s NFL, with the running game taking on less importance, those numbers seem like they will haunt Philly eventually. (Of course, the two mega-run-heavy playoff teams are now out, so maybe it won’t matter!)
gfoster: I wonder why the Eagles have given up on Josh Adams. He felt like the player who sparked this turnaround, in addition to Foles. They give Darren Sproles two goal-line carries when they were on the 1?
Salfino: Sproles oddly has been a very effective goal-line runner: 8-for-12 goal-line converting in his career. League average is a little under 50 percent. I was shocked that the Eagles run defense held up. I thought the Bears would control the game on the ground even with Jordan Howard.
In Philly’s last meeting with New Orleans, the Saints got 174 yards from Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram on 29 carries. Plus Brees had mad efficiency.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Chicago was better statistically on offense in every category except for third-down conversions and red-zone efficiency. If the Bears had used Tarik Cohen more, I think they would have won pretty easily.
Salfino: Cohen getting just one carry and five targets is a joke. I think this was Matt Nagy’s biggest mistake by far. The loyalty all year to Howard given his production is mysterious.
neil: Josh, it was that kind of cruel game for the Bears — those categories are really important to Ws and Ls but are also the most heavily influenced by variance. Oh, and also special teams — the post-and-crossbar special from Cody Parkey was impressive.
gfoster: It was blocked! Let’s leave Parkey alone.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Absolutely. It was positive Eagles variance Foles Magik. Incredible.
Salfino: People breaking down that kick at the pixel level is pretty funny. I guess it was blocked? Can’t we just ask the Eagle?
neil: Only Treyvon Hester knows for sure.
gfoster: He said he blocked it. That’s what started the Zapruder film-level analysis in the first place.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I saw a pic of his hand in the locker room, so.
Salfino: I note that on that last Philadelphia drive, the Bears were not getting there with four pass-rushers and didn’t try to get there with more.
gfoster: In the first game Sunday, we saw the demise of Baltimore’s run-heavy offense. The crowd was chanting for Joe Flacco at one point. If you are chanting for Joe Flacco in the playoffs, you don’t deserve to be in the playoffs.
neil: (Unless the season is 2012 — and only 2012.)
gfoster: Did John Harbaugh make the right call?
neil: Well, what was funny to me was that right when they started calling for Flacco was when Lamar Jackson’s passing started picking up.
Salfino: Has a QB who is unproven ever deserved to be benched more in a game of that magnitude than Jackson? Even with the closeout, his QBR for the game was under 10.
neil: He literally didn’t complete a pass between 1:07 p.m. ET and 3:06 p.m. ET Sunday.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes. Putting Flacco in the game appeals to our basest football instincts, but there is nothing about Jackson’s game that suggests he can’t make deep throws against zone out of structure. His issue is throwing on time and on target from the pocket. A mad scramble at the end of the game in catch-up mode is actually pretty well-suited to his game.
Salfino: I did not think the Chargers would do anything exotic with their defense, and they played a 4-4-3, but the back seven was almost always all defensive backs, including three safeties. It seems so obvious now: Get fast guys on the field and slower linebackers off the field against Jackson. But I didn’t think of going small against a running game.
Watching Flacco is hardly appealing. I would have benched Jackson to start the second half but would have had extremely low confidence that it would have worked. I had zero confidence then that Jackson would work.
gfoster: The Chargers had a great scheme. And that scheme only works when you have guys like Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram up front, allowing you to play all those fast defensive backs to track down Jackson.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Not only track down Jackson — but stop the run! I thought it was glorious and something we will see more of from NFL teams in the future.
Salfino: Bosa and Ingram were so disciplined and effective all game. The personnel trick will get a lot of publicity, but the real story I think was how those ends played.
neil: One thing that also contributed to Baltimore’s offensive struggle was a topic near and dear to your hearts, guys: play-action.
Jackson averaged 1.0 yards per attempt on play-action Sunday; in Week 16 vs. the Chargers, he averaged 12.8.
Salfino: The Ravens use play-action to set up the run, I think. They play backwards.
joshua.hermsmeyer: At one point, the Ravens’ net passing yards were -2, so I believe it.
Salfino: They had running holes in the prior matchup that were so gigantic. How has no other team ever thought of this? Now that’s the blueprint. So the Ravens have an offseason to counter.
gfoster: Los Angeles now plays Tom Brady, who is essentially the opposite of Lamar Jackson in every way. The Chargers with Philip Rivers at starting quarterback are 0-7 versus the Patriots when Brady plays. Even considering New England’s dominance in this period, that’s hard to believe.
neil: Pats also haven’t lost a home game since Oct. 1, 2017.
They haven’t lost a home playoff game since Jan. 20, 2013.
Salfino: I thought Rivers looked bad and has mostly looked bad down the stretch of the season. His only Rivers-like game since Dec. 2 was against the Chiefs. Two Ravens games hurts obviously, though. He seemed like he was throwing a weighted football yesterday. A 10-pound ball to 300-pound Antonio Gates.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Vegas has the Chargers as 4.5-point dogs on the road, and I think that’s a good reflection of reality. I think the Chargers have a very good shot of knocking the Patriots out — especially if they can scheme up counters to Gronk in his dotage and Julian Edelman. Then it will just be about not letting guys like White and Patterson gash you.
Salfino: Are these really the Patriots though? What is their defining strength? Where are they even above average? Avoiding sacks, I guess.
neil: This has definitely been kind of a “down” year by Pats standards. Yet they still ranked fifth in offensive Defense-adjusted Value Over Average and eighth overall, according to Football Outsiders. And two of the teams ahead of them in total DVOA are gone from the playoffs already. (Granted, one of the teams ahead of them is the Chargers.)
Salfino: Man, if Cordarrelle Patterson is a major guy you have to worry about, you’re in pretty good shape defensively.
The Patriots make all their spares on offense. No strikes though.
joshua.hermsmeyer: It just seems like such a Bill Belichick move to create a special gameplan for him in the playoffs.
Salfino: Nothing is easy now for New England.
gfoster: Let’s talk about the Saturday games. Who would have thought halfway through this season that we would have TWO NFC East teams in the divisional round? I don’t know what to make of this Cowboys’ team.
Salfino: Dallas had a big assist from Seattle offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. I turn it over to Josh. 🙂
neil: Oh, boy.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Someone had to win that game is all I can say.
Salfino: Schotty dusted off the Mark Sanchez Rookie Playoff Gameplan for Russell Wilson, who’s a Hall of Famer. It was weird.
neil: I loved the Seahawks’ single-minded devotion to not using Russell Wilson.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Going run-run-pass on their first series of the game was breathtaking in its devotion to establishing the run.
neil: That one sequence where it was like:
- Shotgun run for 3
- Shotgun run for 0
- Shotgun run for 2
- 22-yard bomb downfield
- Shotgun run for 3
- Shotgun run for 2
Salfino: Dallas controlled the game, but you really felt that the play-calling by the Seahawks was controlling Seattle.
The low-percentage passing was a story for that game, too. It’s like Schottenheimer hasn’t figured out that the rules have opened up the intermediate middle of the field. That’s the attack zone now.
joshua.hermsmeyer: When Seattle finally did get a long run from Rashaad Penny, they ran him on a sweep to the wide side of the field immediately after even though he was gassed from the previous run. They lost 7 yards.
Salfino: Seattle made, like, eight plays on offense the entire game.
Negative runs are a Penny special though. To be fair.
joshua.hermsmeyer: If you have no feel for passing, you better have a feel for the run game, is all I’m saying.
Salfino: Chris Carson had nothing all day, for sure. And he’s been good-to-great.
gfoster: I give credit to the Dallas defense though — bad play-calling by Seattle aside. We watched this team completely bottle up the Saints a few weeks ago. They are not given enough credit.
Salfino: Seattle’s defense had its problems, too. Allowing Dak Prescott to convert that QB draw play at the end of the game was insane. You have to be looking for that in that spot given the clock. And you let him convert a third-and-14 draw where the field goal there is absolutely meaningless because you were down your kicker anyway.
I agree that the Dallas D is very underrated.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I don’t think Dallas’s defense is going to help them much moving forward. It hasn’t helped anyone else:
gfoster: The big thing about this next Dallas game: I still don’t know what has happened to the Rams. They couldn’t have less buzz entering the playoffs — and that’s a team that was looking virtually unbeatable at the halfway point. Or maybe it’s all some elaborate Sean McVay ruse?
joshua.hermsmeyer: I have a theory!
gfoster: Cooper Kupp injury?
Salfino: The story for the Rams now is that their play-action game has collapsed. Is it teams ignoring the run threat? Todd Gurley being banged up/out? Kupp? Something is amiss. They are down, like, 4 yards per play-action pass since Week 9.
This is definitely going to be a home game for Dallas. The Rams will run silent counts in this game, I’m serious.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think the Rams’ success is very scheme-dependent, and sometimes play-callers hold on to their best counters and keep them off the tape if they know they will make the playoffs. Basically, they want to save their good plays for when it counts. The past few games were completely different in terms of personnel usage (two tight ends vs. three wide receivers) than the rest of the season when they were so successful.
Salfino: This is a good point. It’s like how teams that know going for 2 makes sense don’t do it because they want to save their highest-ranked goal-line plays for touchdowns.
gfoster: Ah, yes — the old theory on Belichick. That he is hiding his playoff scheme when toiling in the regular season.
neil: I do wonder how much of that is real and how much we map onto legitimate (or even random) struggles as a way of explaining them.
Salfino: Belichick was always getting the top seeds though anyway. He didn’t hide it against the Jets in 2010. 🙂
gfoster: Neil is so anti-Sean McVay love.
joshua.hermsmeyer: That is admittedly a huge danger, Neil. But I always like a good theory!
Salfino: Yes, Neil’s point is good. The simplest reason is that they’re trying but teams have adjusted.
neil: I think I feel the need to counter the football media’s obsession with Young Genius Play-Callers (TM).
Salfino: McVay is a generational talent.
gfoster: Lastly, let’s talk about the Colts and, specifically, Frank Reich’s awesome beard. And more specifically, how much fun will this game be against the Chiefs? Feels like a 60-, 70-point affair.
neil: Are Frank Reich and Adam Vinatieri having a graybeard contest? Who gets to Santa Claus-level first?
Salfino: Reich looks like he conceives his gameplans in a cabin in the woods by candlelight.
Marlon Mack is sending a message to Le’Veon Bell, I guess, that the Colts are fine at RB.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Vegas really seems to like the Colts. K.C. is just a 5.5-point favorite, which strikes me as very strange. I may place a wager.
neil: Are they skittish about Andy Reid?
gfoster: The Colts are definitely the public favorite right now. Kinda the opposite of the Rams.
neil: Memories of this?
joshua.hermsmeyer: Overweighting defense, IMO.
Salfino: I agree that this line is too low. The Colts, like Dallas, have an underrated defense. Darius Leonard is so phenomenal. He could be defensive player of the year he’s so good. But that spread is narrative-driven given the Chiefs’ playoff woes, I believe. It should be, like, 8.
neil: Might also be recency-based. Our own Elo only has K.C. -4.5.
Salfino: Josh and I agree that offense mostly dictates outcomes. And the Chiefs get a break by playing a team that has not seen their offense, vs. getting San Diego.
Indy is super hot, and Elo likes that.
And K.C. has only won three of its past six — after winning nine of its first 10.
gfoster: It’s strength vs. strength. The Colts’ protection for Andrew Luck is incredible, and the Chiefs get at the quarterback more than anyone — or are those sack numbers more a reflection of teams always passing against K.C. because they are always losing?
Salfino: But the Colts also lost to the Jets, let’s not forget. They own that too.
If the Chiefs are hoping to win the game by getting to Luck, they are in serious trouble. They have to win this game by scoring 35 points.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I’ve looked at it, and it certainly seems based on the data that protection or lack thereof is more a function of the offensive line, so you’d expect Luck to have time in this one.
gfoster: The Colts draft trade was an A+. They get those Jets second-round picks, and they got Quenton Nelson, who seems to have single-handedly turned this offensive line around. With the cap space, there’s no doubt that they are going to be good for a while. (Assuming Luck stays healthy.)
Salfino: Eric Ebron is only a factor near the goal line. Mack is good but sort of one-dimensional, kind of Carson-like. T.Y. Hilton is great, but you should be able to take out one guy. Kansas City cannot give up big plays to Hilton and must force those journeyman receivers to beat them.
neil: Certainly it seems very unlikely that the Colts will be able to replicate their winning formula vs. Houston, which was, “Get out to an early lead with Luck passing, then sit on it and run the ball in the second half.” You can’t do that to the Chiefs.
joshua.hermsmeyer: lol, no
Salfino: The Colts also had the advantage of Deshaun Watson just having an awful throwing game. He was flagging easy passes all day.
Also, Houston is a one-man band, and DeAndre Hopkins had a shoulder issue but also was shut down in their prior matchup.
gfoster: All right, let’s wrap it with our NFC/AFC championship predictions. I’ll start: Chargers vs. Chiefs and Saints vs. Cowboys.
I’m not ready to believe the Rams rope-a-dope theory. And I’m not ready to believe that these Patriots are any good.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I see no world where the Cowboys are in the championship.
Salfino: The Chargers seem clearly better than the Patriots. I hope they don’t go back to L.A. this week and instead practice somewhere on the East Coast. I can’t buy Dallas. If the Cowboys beat the Rams, we better put the McVay narrative in rewrite. I say Chargers-Chiefs and Rams-Saints in the championship games.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m with Mike, which means I’m probably wrong.
neil: New England vs. K.C. (I know the Pats will eventually lose a home playoff game, but I don’t think it comes this weekend.)
Saints vs. Rams is the NFC title game shootout we need.
(So I’m picking chalk! Now watch the Eagles beat New Orleans and keep the underdog streak rolling.)
Salfino: We are all completely discounting Foles’s dark magic.
gfoster: The dream of the All-L.A. Super Bowl is alive! Note: Literally no one is dreaming of this, even in L.A.
Salfino: If the Colts beat the Chiefs and the Chargers win, the AFC championship is going to be in front of 30,000 screaming Colts fans.
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