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What Did We Learn From The NFL Divisional Playoffs?

gfoster (Geoff Foster, sports editor): The Divisionals returned normalcy to the NFL. All four home favorites won outright – three of them covered the spread comfortably. There will be no wild card team making a run this year, which seems like a harder and harder path to the Super Bowl. But let’s start with the last team to get in, the Saints, who were the only home favorite to not cover, and they actually had to dig out of a 14-0 hole as Philly looked primed for another upset. So, is Foles Magic officially dead? And, where is Foles playing next year?

Salfino (Michael Salfino, contributor): Foles seems to have said his goodbye to Philadelphia. So it seems safe to say he’s leaving.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Hanging this on Foles seems deeply wrong. On that last drive, it was the receivers that failed, not Foles. That said, since we are positing magic, I guess it’s true it is gone.

gfoster: I wasn’t blaming Foles. I actually thought he played great.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Foles started the game so hot. The script seemed to be writing itself. But after those early drives, he really reverted back to the QB he has usually been over his career.

Salfino: The last drive was definitely not Foles’s fault but after those first two drives, he really did not make a play.

neil: In quarters two through four, Foles went 10-22 for 4.0 YPA and 0 TDs, 2 INTs

gfoster: OK, so maybe “great” was a reach.

neil: (Brees, meanwhile, went 26-32 for 8.5 YPA and 2 TDs, 0 INTs after a rough first quarter start — literally as rough as it gets on the first play of the game.)

gfoster: I feel like someone could have huddled up with the Eagles defense and said “Hey, I think they might be trying to throw to Michael Thomas; should we do something about that?”

joshua.hermsmeyer: 💯

Salfino: Ginn was open, too, by a couple of steps. Brees also was short on another throw later to Taysom Hill. But he was really good at attacking the deeper middle of the field, especially on third down. Plus the Eagles helped by suffering a spate of injuries.

neil: And at one point the Saints seemed to be doing everything they could to give the game away with penalties.

gfoster: The Saints seemed to almost abandon the run, which is very unlike them. And until that late 36-yard run by Ingram, the Eagles took Kamara and Ingram basically out of the game plan, it seemed.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think Foles will get hired on somewhere, but if I were a GM I would let the other guy overpay for his services. His completion percentage by depth is really just average. Overpaying for average is a team killer unless you are absolutely loaded everywhere else.

Salfino: I’m surprised that the Saints barely won play success over the Eagles. But that just shows you that they were unreal on third downs — 8-for-15, and a lot of them a high degree of difficulty.

neil: And Foles’s third-down magic seemed to abandon the Eagles. They only went 2-for-7 during the game on third downs. Usually third-down efficiency is a calling card of these Foles playoff runs.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Neil beat me to it.

Salfino: Re: Josh’s point, it’s really easy to say not to overpay for a QB unless you don’t have a QB. Someone is going to give Foles $100 million. I see the Giants or Jaguars as the landing spots for Foles.

gfoster: Josh, I don’t know what team fits that bill and needs a quarterback. It would almost need to be like the Sam Bradford trade a couple years ago when Teddy Bridgewater got hurt. Maybe Washington gives him big money because they are mess and have no idea what they are doing?

neil: The Giants would be HILARIOUS. Jettisoning Eli for basically a younger Eli

Salfino: Washington just gave big-ish money to Alex Smith though.

gfoster: Yeah, but his career is possibly over. What do they do?

Salfino: Someone on my Twitter mentions said that Foles is the new Earl Morrall. (I liked that.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Googles Earl Morrall

gfoster: LOL. Here you go.

neil: Ooooh, I like that. Or maybe Craig Morton? LOL.

Salfino: Morton was never really a backup though. He was part of the two-QB rotation with Staubach. Morton I believe has the all-time record for yards per completion in a season. Morrall had a magical MVP season in 1968 and then flagged the Super Bowl against the Jets with all those picks and then basically disappeared until Shula resurfaced him in Miami after Griese got hurt during the perfect 1972 season.

gfoster: Let’s stay in the NFC and talk about the Rams. Are we feeling better about them? They survived another tough road contest at home this weekend.

neil: I loved how they completely ran over the Cowboys D.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The fact that there isn’t a top 10 defense left in the playoffs confirms all my priors and warms my cockles.

neil: Who knew CJ Anderson would be such an effective featured back? Or, like, their featured back at ALL?

Salfino: The Rams had 51.3 percent play success, which is oddly exactly what the Patriots registered. CJ Anderson was hilarious in killing all the Gurley DFS guys but actually quite effective. A generational talent, some may say.

gfoster: Gurley got his points, though.

neil: (Kinda speaks to your story earlier this season, Josh, about Gurley being kind of a product of McVay and that offensive scheme.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: That (incredibly large) hole Gurley ran through for his long TD was so much not Gurley it was amazing.

Salfino: Is Gurley like Marshall Faulk with the St. Louis Rams, “the queen on the chessboard,” or is he replaceable? I would have thought the former, for sure.

neil: One thing on the Rams is that Goff didn’t necessarily play all that well. Again.

gfoster: Imagine what Zeke would do in that Rams offense. Because he seems to have to work for every yard, regardless of how much praise the Dallas O-line used to get or maybe still gets.

Salfino: Yeah, I have a hard time envisioning Goff beating Brees in New Orleans. Huge home-road splits for Goff, too. Does Jason Garrett get that extension still?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I saw a report that Garrett will get extended. Does anyone think he deserves it?

Salfino: The Cowboys offense is good if it’s working but if it’s not working, Garrett never seems to be able to figure something out on the fly. Garrett is weird in that he’s a CEO coach, but is so closely tied to the offense, which he doesn’t really run.

So what is Garrett’s value, really? Managing the staff? Managing the game? I think when you are a CEO coach you have to have a really strong personality like a Bill Parcells, be that “leader of men.” This is not Garrett, IMO. He just seems easily replaceable.

joshua.hermsmeyer: He is elite at clapping.

Salfino: Lombardi ended his clapping, which is sad.

neil: Yeah, I don’t understand Jerry Jones’s fascination with Garrett. It’s like they were looking for ANY excuse whatsoever to extend him.

gfoster: I just don’t think it’s a desirable job to coach with Jerry breathing down your neck.

Salfino: Remember, Jones doesn’t want a strong personality that will basically kick him out of the locker room and tell him to stay in his owner’s lane.

neil: He’s going to end up being one of the longest tenured coaches ever, and his record will pale in comparison with the others in the conversation. (Except maybe Marvin Lewis.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: For all the grief Jones gets, he does seem incredibly loyal, and that is a terrific boss to have in a league like the NFL that moves on from most coaches far too quickly. Stability does have value.

Salfino: He is basically Marvin Lewis, who also was a CEO coach without a really strong personality/culture. Tell that to Jimmy Johnson🙂:

gfoster: Going back to Rams-Saints: The Saints lost their starting DT, Sheldon Rankins, to a possible torn Achilles. That’s a big loss, especially to be down a big interior lineman against the Rams.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Mike, good point about Jimmy Johnson.

neil: The way the Rams were clearing space against Dallas was unreal. According to ESPN Stats & Info Group, the Rams rushed 33 times for 195 yards and averaged 4.1 yards per carry before first contact between the tackles.

Salfino: Maybe that will trick the Rams into running even more, especially on first down, right Josh?

joshua.hermsmeyer: You never want to lose a starter, but if I had to pick a position to lose, give me DT.

gfoster: That’s fair.

Salfino: Exactly right. If it’s a pass rusher DT, OK, that’s worrisome. But there are only like one of those and he’s on the other team. Where are the big plays in the Rams passing game? They’re going to need some, I’m certain, to win.

neil: True, their longest reception vs. Dallas was a 21-yarder to Brandin Cooks.

Salfino: 186 passing yards on 28 attempts is not the Rams offense from October, for sure.

joshua.hermsmeyer: With the loss of Rankins and their success with play-action, I would think the shot plays would come there. The linebackers may try to make up for Rankins’s loss by cheating a bit more than usual.

Salfino: Are they still successful at play-action, Josh? I think that’s debatable.

joshua.hermsmeyer: They did OK with it against Dallas I think.

neil: Yes, Goff was 6-of-11 for 108 yards off play-action vs the Cowboys. That’s not as amazing as their early-season standards. But it’s still much better than when he passed without play-action.

gfoster: Let’s talk about the AFC. The Chargers, who were 9-0 on the road, got absolutely destroyed by the Patriots. This was the one game that seemed completely over in the first quarter.

Salfino: Yeah, getting to Josh’s point, the Patriots-Chargers were exhibit A in “offense mostly controls outcomes.”

neil: Classic Patriots home divisional-round win.

Salfino: I absolutely hated the team flying back to Los Angeles after the Wild Card win in Baltimore.

gfoster: I think people tend to overweight air travel. But maybe you are right in this case.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The win probability charts basically concur with your assessment Geoff.

neil: I do wonder how much the travel had to do with it. They seemed out of sorts most of the game, especially on defense early. Didn’t help that their weird hybrid LB/DB scheme was totally ineffective against Brady and the Pats.

Salfino: I hate a West Coast team in the early slot in a playoff game, but the Chargers were their own worst enemy in opting to go back home. Still, it probably wouldn’t have mattered, as flat as Los Angeles seemed (especially with the missed tackles). The Patriots were flawless. Brady looked like a different player, and there are reports that trick play with him as a receiver against the Titans hurt his knee pretty badly. He was able to practice fully again though.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Angry Tom in the cold is the narrative, I think.

Salfino: Did you see how the Patriots taped that thermostat on the wall where the Chargers had to come out on the field? Seems lame but maybe it worked.

gfoster: Also, people spent all week talking about Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. That’s not too relevant when you dump the ball to James White 15 to 20 times a game.

neil: Tactically, you have to appreciate the way they used their RBs against Los Angeles’s defense. Sony Michel ran for 129 and 3 TDs, plus James White had 15 catches out of the backfield. The Chargers had no answer for that attack. Michel was averaging 4.6 YPC with eight-plus defenders in the box against a defense that had smothered the run-heavy Ravens a week before.

Salfino: The Patriots are all spares and no strikes now. They ran a ton with Michel. They had 15 catches for under 100 yards from White. Edelman got some big plays somehow, but he’s not a gamebreaker. Gronk had one catch. But this hyper efficiency works for them because they avoid mistakes. I’m not sure why the Chargers stuck with the Ravens defense with all those defensive backs. The Patriots are not a fast team at all. You want more size against them.

neil: Well, people spent all week saying they’d revolutionized NFL defense with that scheme.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Against a mobile QB, I think it’s a great defense. Against a pocket passer, I’m not sure what you are gaining.

Salfino: The difference between the Patriots and other teams is that they solve the puzzle with an opponent and move on to the next opponent. They don’t bring whatever worked one week necessarily into the next.

gfoster: Is Gronk a concern? Or not so much? Considering we’ve seen them go on SB runs without him before. He practically got the Bronx cheer from the Foxboro crowd when he made that one catch.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Gronk had a fantastic day…checks notes…blocking.

Salfino: Gronk’s yards per target this year was still good. He did gain 27 yards on that one play. It’s hard for me to believe he’s shot. He’s clearly not the same player, but I think he can still be effective. The Chargers are really designed to stop tight ends, though, with Derwin James.

gfoster: Also, is it me, or did Rivers’s deep balls look terrible? Just floating up in the wind, asking Mike Williams to make jump ball catches 40 yards downfield.

neil: In fairness, he was under heavy pressure much of the game.

Salfino: Williams has to make that catch, Geoff. I thought Rivers had a lot of pop on most of his throws. But the Patriots played that Ravens blitzing defense and it really surprised Rivers. By the time he adjusted, the game was over.

neil: According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, Rivers was pressured 24 times against New England, which was most of any quarterback in a playoff game in the last 10 seasons.

joshua.hermsmeyer: What’s interesting is that while the Chargers kept their Ravens defense, the Patriots adopted the Ravens defense with their cover-zero looks and massive pressure on Rivers.

Salfino: Yes, interesting but clearly not surprising that Belichick out-coached Lynn. That was the big worry for the Chargers in this game.What was interesting and unknown was “how” Belichick would get the edge.

gfoster: Rivers’s deep ball seemed like me trying deep passes in Thanksgiving touch football. “I got someone out there, so just going to heave it and hope for the best.”

Salfino: This is what those Ravens blitzes reduce you to, low-percentage deep throws.

What’s funny is that exactly no one thinks that the Patriots having had success blitzing are going to bring that into the Chiefs game.

gfoster: When the Chiefs played the Pats in the regular season, it was 43-40 and probably the most entertaining game of the season. I don’t think we will see 80+ points again. Or will we? The Chiefs defense seems to have improved recently.

Salfino: I think we do see 80 points again.

gfoster: Interesting. Even if conditions are much worse?

Salfino: If it’s windy, that’s a problem. Cold? Nah. Unless it’s Ice Bowl-like.

neil: Certainly seems like Patriots punter Ryan Allen probably won’t get as much of a workout as Rigoberto Sanchez against KC. Seemed like every time you looked up, Indy was punting.

gfoster: Judging by the Chargers games, I wasn’t aware the Patriots had a punter.

Salfino: Luck was so bad. It seemed like every other pass was deflected at the line. The first three, I’m pretty sure, though whether the first pass of the game was tipped is not entirely clear. That has to be a record though.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Regarding the total, Vegas has it at 57.5. That’s super high. I’m not sure I take the over.

gfoster: Kareem Hunt totaled 185 combined yards in that Patriots game. But Damien Williams has made people forget about him pretty quickly. Interestingly, Patriots were able to limit Kelce’s production (somewhat), which the Colts had no answer for.

Salfino: OK, I revise my prediction since the forecast is for a high of 16 degrees on Sunday.

joshua.hermsmeyer: If Sammy Watkins can contribute big, high-leverage plays, I think he will be one too many weapons for the Patriots to account for.

Salfino: Belichick wants to x-out Kelce in these games. And then Hill kills them. Also Hunt out of the backfield in the last game, though that’s no longer a threat.

neil: Gosh, that 57.5 is with the temperature baked into the over/under? (Well, maybe not “baked.” Frozen?) What would it be in a dome?

Salfino: Hunt actually killed the Patriots as a receiver in the last two games they played. Can Williams function this way? I don’t see it.

gfoster: Weather moves the total more than anything (except quarterback injuries), so we will see what happens with that line.

Salfino: No appreciable wind in the forecast, though about 20 mph on Saturday so maybe that’s a threat, too. I tell all my fantasy friends, it’s just wind other than super extreme conditions on the other side — cold, rain or snow. And really wind at over 20 mph only.

gfoster: Who does the weather help though? You could argue the Patriots. Has Mahomes played in games this cold? Brady sure has.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m going to fade the idea that something like weather can stop Mahomes. While it didn’t snow as much people envisioned, the Indianapolis game was plenty cold and Mahomes looked fantastic.

neil: For the sake of fun trivia, it was 17 degrees in Mahomes’ debut start. (According to PFR, that’s the coldest game he’s played as a pro.)

Salfino: Brady has played one game in 10 degrees or colder — in 2003. He had a 73.3 passer rating. (Note that includes playoffs.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Are any of you picking the Patriots?

gfoster: Great segue! Let’s close with our Super Bowl predictions.

neil: If the game was at Foxboro, I’d think about it. But Brady hasn’t won a road playoff game since this wacky one against the Chargers. Hard to believe! But Pats usually play at home in lead-up to Super Bowl.

gfoster: That’s where the game-sealing interception was fumbled for a first down?

Salfino: He’s 0-2 since then.

neil: Yes, the Marlon McCree game.

Salfino: So I will stick with my Chiefs-Saints Super Bowl.

neil: I will do the same!

Salfino: Save us, Josh.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think we’ll see the proverbial passing of the torch from Old Angry Tom to Mahomes, kinda like when Favre beat Young in the playoffs. And I still like the Rams in the NFC.

neil: Josh, Elias says this is the biggest age difference in a QB matchup in conference champ history.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Great stat

neil: I am also looking forward to Mahomes potentially doubling the record for playoff wins by a Big 12 quarterback.

gfoster: I also will take the Chiefs. But I’m going to say Chiefs-Rams just because I still haven’t seen the return of that devastating Saints offense. It’s been hibernating since the loss to the Cowboys in Week 13. The Saints managed just 20 points against a banged-up Eagles defense. It seemed like a struggle at times, even though a lot of that was self-inflicted penalties. Brees was under a lot of pressure. Trubisky even had more passing yards than Brees! Trubisky!!!

Salfino: I will defend the Saints. They had 420 yards to 250 for the Eagles. That’s actually 28 expected points (formula is a point every 15 yards from scrimmage). To me, that’s pretty close to being on schedule. I mean, they had 25 first downs.

gfoster: You know what the Saints need Mike, right?

Salfino: Do not say it, Geoff.

gfoster: More Taysom Hill gadget plays!

Salfino: Payton was determined to make noise with Hill in that game.

Salfino: Who would Taysom Hill be in the Star Wars universe? (Only episodes I-III.)

gfoster: He’s young Anakin in Episode I. Ten minutes into the movie, you are like “Is this kid really going to play this big of a role, here?”

joshua.hermsmeyer: I was going to say Porkins. “Stay on target.”

gfoster: I would love to see a close-up of Brees’s face every time he is set out wide with Hill under center; I feel like he’s rolling his eyes — but I can’t be sure.

Salfino: Ha ha ha.

joshua.hermsmeyer: His body language instills fear in the DB every time.

neil: One day, Brees will burn someone over the top.

Salfino: Brees has large hands and probably could win 50/50 balls.

joshua.hermsmeyer: No matter what combination of teams ultimately makes it, this is the correct four teams in the championship round, and the perfect end to the greatest offensive season in NFL history.

neil: Agreed! It’s the first time since the 1970 merger that each of the top four teams in scoring made the conference title game.

gfoster: We wanted offense. We got offense. Will see you next week when we know who is heading to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta.



Geoff Foster is the sports editor for FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Hermsmeyer is a football writer and analyst.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on Yahoo and the Wall Street Journal.

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