Last week’s record: 3-0-1. Season record: 20-16-1
Colts +5 1⁄2
Pending some kind of miracle, the weather in Kansas City, Missouri, is going to be a problem for both teams. For that reason, I believe the Colts have the advantage, and it’s not because I want to see another game-winning field goal in the snow by Indianapolis kicker Adam Vinatieri. Both teams have great offenses. They move the chains efficiently on third down and they convert red-zone trips into touchdowns at a rate higher than 72 percent over their past three games. However, the Chiefs defense leaks like a sieve and the Indianapolis defense has become one of the elite units in the NFL since Week 7, having allowed just 16.4 points per game during that stretch. The Colts play a disciplined zone that does not allow big plays. So it’s going to come down to which team can convert more intermediate throws, and which team can avoid settling for field goals. I think that team is Indy. With snow in the forecast, even Vinatieri would rather be kicking extra points than long field goals with the game hanging in the balance. Take the Colts and the points.
Teams have found the blueprint for beating the Rams: apply pressure to quarterback Jared Goff. When Goff is forced to play fast, his accuracy and decision-making decline at an alarming rate. For that reason, it is imperative for Los Angeles to establish the run. Luckily, Todd Gurley will be back in action after three full weeks of rest. Similarly, the Cowboys’ success on offense is predicated on Ezekiel Elliott carrying the ball. This is more true than ever with wide receiver Allen Hurns done for the playoffs and slot receiver Cole Beasley playing at less than 100 percent — Dallas will have limited weapons outside the numbers. I think this is a game where the home team coming off a bye has a significant advantage because it’s going to be a physical game played mostly in the trenches. Los Angeles has a few more weapons and that will prove to be the difference later in the game, but the flow and pace of the game should make it easy for Dallas to cover.
Chargers +4 1⁄2
The strongest handicap I have heard for New England is: They’re the Patriots, they’ll figure it out. Well, there will come a time when they won’t figure it out. That time is now. In previous years, the Pats have figured it out because they had a good football team. They had game-breaking players who could single-handedly change a game. They do not have that this year. I think signing wide receiver Josh Gordon was a desperate move. And now that he’s gone, New England’s offense is suddenly without its third-most targeted receiver. That is a significant adjustment to make against a Chargers defense playing better than they have all season. Los Angeles quarterback Philip Rivers is 0-7 against Tom Brady, however he is 6-1 against the spread with four outright wins as an underdog in the playoffs. Conversely to New England’s ragtag squad of receivers, the Chargers boast one of the strongest receiving corps left in the playoffs. Not only will Los Angeles win, but it’s going to be a wakeup call for the Patriots’ player personnel department.
I said it last week: Until someone proves they can defeat the defending champs in a win-or-go-home game, how can you bet against them? Aside from the magic that may or may not exist with Nick Foles at quarterback for the birds, Philadelphia has vastly improved its defense. If you told me after the 41-point beatdown the Saints put on the Eagles in Week 11 that I would be taking Philly getting less than 10 points, I would have laughed. However, over their past seven games, the Eagles have figured out how to get back to their winning formula. Foles’ mastery of the offense has kept the defense off the field. Over the past seven games, Philly’s defense has played just 27 minutes per game. With a defense predicated on a successful pass rush, the defensive line needs to stay rested. Finally, the Eagles have inserted mid-season acquisition Cre’Von LeBlanc as a cornerback. He is mostly responsible for covering slot receivers, but plays outside as well. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz credits LeBlanc with playing a critical role in the resurgence of the Eagles. The Saints will almost surely come out on top, but this revitalized Philly defense should keep it close.