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Ranking Divisional Round games by upset potential

Jesse Reed
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The hunt for the Lombardi Trophy

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Eight teams remain in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy ahead of the Divisional Round, and all four games on tap feature some significant spreads. So, which of the underdogs has the best chance to pull off the upset and advance to the conference title games?

Given recent history, the most obvious answer for most fans is likely the Philadelphia Eagles, who can trigger some free beer for some of their fans in the process. But are they really the team best equipped to pull off the upset?

Here’s how we see these four Divisional Round games playing out, ranking the upset potential from least to most likely.

 

Philadelphia Eagles vs. New Orleans Saints (-8)

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For the most part, we can usually throw regular-season outcomes out the window when assessing playoff matchups. But in this case, what the Saints did to Philly’s defense in mid November was just too glaring to ignore. Remember, Drew Brees and Co. absolutely obliterated the Eagles, 48-7, not too long ago.

The Saints feature balance that’s rare in today’s NFL. They can win pretty much any type of game, whether that be a defensive slug-fest or an offensive shootout. Sean Payton and Co. have had an extra week to dial up a game plan, and this is being contested in New Orleans, where Brees is particularly potent.

It’s also worth pointing out that Philly only advanced because Treyvon Hester got a couple of fingers on Cody Parkey’s potential game-winning field goal last weekend. The Eagles have that playoff magic going with Nick Foles. And that’s special. But we fully expect the magic to run out this Sunday night in the Bayou.

 

Los Angeles Chargers vs. New England Patriots (-4)

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles defensive coordinator Gus Bradley drew up the perfect game plan to stymie and frustrate rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson last weekend. That’s really the reason why the Chargers were able to advance into the Divisional Round, as Philip Rivers and Co. were pretty frustrated in their own right going against the Baltimore defense.

As talented as Bradley is, and as talented as the Chargers are defensively, it’s going to be a heck of a lot harder to keep Tom Brady from doing his thing at home this Sunday. The Patriots got a much-needed week off and should be well rested for this upcoming matchup. That, combined with the Patriots’ tendency to scheme up near-perfect game plans of their own during the postseason, gives the edge to the home team in this game.

Furthermore, the Chargers are not fully healthy. Melvin Gordon is still dealing with a knee injury, and Los Angeles’ offense isn’t nearly as potent when he’s not at his best.

 

Dallas Cowboys vs. Los Angeles Rams (-7) 

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys have one of the best defenses in the NFL right now. The front seven is incredibly talented, and the linebacker duo of Jaylen Smith and rookie Leighton Vander Esch is already one of the league’s most dangerous. If any defense is equipped to slow down the juggernaut that is Todd Gurley, it’s this one.

On the flip side, Los Angeles’ defense is one that tends to get bullied by opposing run games. And Dallas features one of the best. Ezekiel Elliott came into the playoffs rested up after a week off and ate a full-course meal against Seattle. He’s likely going to continue eating on Saturday in Los Angeles.

The key to this game is how both young quarterbacks play. Jared Goff finished his season with a big game against San Francisco. But he previously had struggled mightily, throwing two touchdowns and six interceptions in his prior four games. If the Cowboys get a solid game out of Dak Prescott and can force Goff into mistakes, this game is theirs for the taking.

 

Indianapolis Colts vs. Kansas City Chiefs (-5)

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the playoffs, the two AFC teams nobody wanted to face were the Colts and Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens were eliminated, but the Colts absolutely dominated a very good Houston Texans team to advance.

The reason the Colts are so feared right now is that they are potent on both sides of the ball and have some serious momentum on their side. They won nine of their last 10 regular-season games before chewing up and spitting out Houston. Andrew Luck is perhaps playing better ball than he ever has, Indy actually has an offensive line protecting him and paving the way for a dominant run game, and the Colts can play defense now, too.

Granted, Kansas City has Patrick Mahomes. He should be a near-unanimous MVP choice later this year, and he’s been pulling off miraculous plays all year (like this) to guide his team to the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

But Kansas City has a really bad defense — a defense that’s been bad all year and will almost certainly be bad in the playoffs. If Mahomes slips up even a little, then Luck and Co. will take advantage.

 

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