2018 NFL Conference Championship Predictions

The 2018 NFL season has boiled down to three games that we really could have predicted we’d get back in Week 9. That was when the Saints won 45-35 at home against the Rams, just a few weeks after the Patriots beat the Chiefs 43-40. They were two of the most entertaining games this season, and the home team got the edge in both. While that first matchup has led the Rams back to playing on the road, the Chiefs caught a break from the Dolphins in keeping the Patriots at the No. 2 seed for a change. With expectations for more scoring fests this weekend, it’s shaping up to be a potentially classic Conference Championship Sunday. We could use it after the last two weeks, and don’t forget the fact that the home team is 10-0 in these games going back to the 2013 season. Both home teams are a FG favorite right now, which basically means a pick ’em on a neutral field.

But neutral these fields are not…

Rams at Saints (-3)

It’s simplistic, but I think this game comes down to which Jared Goff shows up. He was having a really fine third season, but hit a wall after the bye week for three games. Two good games to close the regular season, then he didn’t have to do too much against Dallas last week when the running game and offensive line just dominated. The Saints are a defense that you have to attack deep (32nd in DVOA) and typically outside the numbers to WRs (30th and 31st vs. #1 and #2 WRs). You saw Nick Foles have success in building that 14-0 lead last week. The Rams are almost always in 11 personnel (3 WR/1 RB/1 TE), even after the big slot receiver Cooper Kupp injury, and the Saints don’t handle that too well in the passing game. They’re one of three defenses to allow over 8.0 YPA against 11 personnel. They are however the best in rushing YPC against 11, so Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson should not find as much success as they had last week. It’s going to be on the passing game to deliver.

In Week 9, Goff had a strong game (391 yards and 3 TD) on the road. Gurley only had 13 carries for 68 yards, so the Rams didn’t dominate on the ground. The game almost got away from them in the second quarter. Tied at 14, the Rams did nothing with good field position following a fumble, tried an ill-fated fake field goal, later missed a 51-yard FG, then Goff threw a bad pick before halftime that set up a short field for Drew Brees. The Rams were down 35-14, but Goff did lead them back to a 35-35 tie in the fourth quarter. It’s just that the defense couldn’t stop Michael Thomas on a couple of third downs and scored the final 10 points. Goff’s receivers let him down late, unable to make tough catches on money downs.

I recall coming away from that one thinking the Rams had a good shot in a rematch. Over the last seven games (including a Teddy Bridgewater start in Week 17), the Saints haven’t topped 31 points as the offense has regressed. They’re obviously better at home, but even last week the Saints only scored 20 points against a Philadelphia defense they annihilated for 48 points in Week 11. The Rams can certainly cook up a plan with Sean McVay and Wade Phillips to not make this a 45-35 repeat.

In rematches like this I like to look at the impact of injuries. Who have these teams lost since Week 9 and who is back this time? That area favors the Rams. While the Kupp injury sucks, they get cornerback Aqib Talib back and the Saints just lost Sheldon Rankins on the DL. Andrus Peat is banged up on the OL and will have his hands full with DPOY Aaron Donald. There was no sacks on either side in Week 9, but expect that to change this week.

As far as Talib goes, it has been the Rams’ strategy this year to play their CBs on sides. Michael Thomas moves around a lot, but if I was Wade, I would have Talib do shadowing this week instead of letting Marcus Peters get him again. Thomas went off for 211 yards, including this 72-yard TD to seal the game when Peters was caught not paying attention.

Thomas destroyed the Eagles last week too. The Saints don’t have a ton of weapons this year. Ben Watson is out at TE with appendicitis. Keith Kirkwood is out. Alvin Kamara only had 34 receiving yards in Week 9, so just don’t let him beat you deep (like Eagles in Week 11) or take a screen a long way (like Steelers in Week 16) and you should be good there. Let the gambling Peters guard someone like Ted Ginn. I’m not going to pretend the Rams are actually good enough on defense to dominate this offense on the road, but what I’m saying is they have a really strong cover corner and should utilize him appropriately against the Saints’ best weapon. If the Saints can do that with a bit more pressure this time around from Donald and company, then I really like the Rams’ chances to pull off the win.

Maybe this time there’s a Taysom Hill interception that leaves Twitter in a WTF? blaze of glory. “You have Drew Brees at QB trying to win a ring at 40 and you call that?” On 8 dropbacks this season, Hill has already thrown one pick and taken one sack. He’s best left to running on 3rd-and-2. Both coaches have been super aggressive at times this season, but McVay’s timeout management could be better.

I also keep pointing out how these teams have been the best in the league at winning close games and protecting small leads (7-0). The Saints especially have done well in closing with a league-high seven game-winning drives and zero blown leads in the fourth quarter. We also know that those types of streaks are always a mistake away from going the other way. The Saints won their first Super Bowl against an Indianapolis team that was 7-0 at 4QC opportunities in 2009 under Peyton Manning. One jumped route by Tracy Porter and that was that.

What (or who) will it be this week?

Final: Rams 31, Saints 28

Patriots at Chiefs (-3)

The Chiefs lead 30-27 in overtime. Tom Brady takes the field, under a SUPER BLOOD WOLF MOON, with a chance for another legacy-defining drive and Super Bowl appearance. Justin Houston, who was out in Week 6, strips him of the ball and sends to the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl since the merger. Brady can only see red as the dawn of the new AFC is upon us.

That would be some imagery. I already did my big preview on this game at FO, so check that out. Basically, I want to stress that I think the Chiefs have a great chance to win this game at home. We’d be singing a different tune if it was at Gillette, but it’s not. The Chiefs have played better this season, and their pass rush has the highest pressure rate at home as opposed to 26th in road games. That has a lot to do with why their defense is much higher in DVOA at home and terrible on the road, and why they haven’t given up 30+ at home yet. The Patriots will play better and smarter than the Colts did last week, but I still see Patrick Mahomes putting up his points at home. The Patriots are 2nd in DVOA at home, but 31st on the road on defense. That’s because they’ve had truly dreadful games against the likes of the Jaguars, Dolphins, Titans, Lions. Now what do you think might happen when they get Mahomes on the road, who already put up 40 in NE this year? He just needs to get the ball last. Andy Reid has hung 40+ on the Patriots three times since 2014 now. This team is going to be way better prepared than the Chargers were last week.

Now the issue is that the Chiefs are 32nd in run defense and the Patriots already had one of their best rushing games all season in Week 6 on them. They’ll want to run the ball, dink and dunk, play-action looks to Julian Edelman, control the clock and limit Mahomes’ possessions. Throw in some classic Reid clock mismanagement that allows Brady to win the game late instead of Mahomes putting it away, and in the end do you trust a defense that ranks 32nd in yards per drive, 28th in points per drive, and 26h in DVOA? That’s why it’s not a shock to see the Patriots win this one on the road, but there performances away from home leave much to be desired this season.

Final: Patriots 30, Chiefs 27

Regardless of what happens, we should get a fine Super Bowl matchup this season. Personally, I think a rematch of Super Bowl 52.5 (KC-LAR 54-41) would be very cool since that was such a hyped game that delivered at midseason. If that is the matchup, then we would have a record set for the most points scored by a Super Bowl winner. The first nine teams to score more than the 1999 Rams (526 points) all failed to win a Super Bowl. The Chiefs (565) and Rams (527) will hope to rewrite that history for high-scoring teams, but there’s also a chance neither gets past this weekend.

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2018 NFL Divisional Round Predictions

Even though the home team wins 71.4% of the games in this round since 1970, it’s often the most dramatic and best weekend of the year. In the 32-team era, 2002, 2004 and 2015 are the only seasons where the home teams finished 4-0 in the divisional round. Someone is likely getting upset and leaving their fans upset in the process. Even the Patriots have an actual challenge this week with the smallest spread (-4) of the weekend.

Colts at Chiefs (-5)

This was my big preview at FO, so go there and read that one. Basically, I’m going to assume the snow isn’t a big deal today. The game comes down to Andrew Luck playing efficiently and effectively to limit Patrick Mahomes’ drives and make him score more than 30 to win. The Colts defense isn’t that good, but the Chiefs are certainly worse in that area despite better numbers at home. I see Mahomes putting up his usual points, but Luck will have a chance for a late game-winning TD drive and this defense is going to have to make a play to stop him. So do something this time, Orlando Scandrick.

Final: Chiefs 30, Colts 26

(IND +5, Under 56.5)

Cowboys at Rams (-7)

Both offenses are a little shaky to me. Dak Prescott takes way too many sacks and isn’t aggressive enough on third downs this season. That’s bad news against Wade Phillips’ defense, and especially with Aaron Donald against this interior OL. Dallas is 10-0 when scoring 20+ points this season and they’ll definitely need to hit that total here. It should be noted that Dallas only surpassed 17 points on the road three times, though LA isn’t a huge home-field advantage yet and the Cowboys may actually feel at home with more fans in the seats. Still, the Rams have scored 23+ in every game this season except for the disaster in Chicago (15-6). Jared Goff has been shaky since the bye, but at least the last two games were good. Dallas has a good defense but I’m not blown away by it or anything.

With this week’s coaching hires revolving around finding the next Sean McVay, it would look really bad if McVay lost this game to fall to 0-2 at home in the playoffs. He was a favorite of 6.5+ points in each game too. I’m going to back the Rams in this one, but I think it’s still an underrated story of how the offense misses Cooper Kupp in the slot.

Final: Rams 26, Cowboys 20

(DAL +7, Under 49)

Chargers at Patriots (-4)

The Chargers have played better than the Patriots this season, but there’s just something about this opponent where San Diego Los Angeles goes into extra Chargering mode. I’ll spare the lowlights of Nate Kaeding or Marlon McCree from many years ago, but just look at this Travis Benjamin punt return from a 2017 game coached by Anthony Lynn in New England:

There’s a good reason why Philip Rivers is 0-7 against the Patriots with Tom Brady at quarterback. They are their own worst enemy in these games. Now Rivers can stand to play better against Bill Belichick’s defense, but at least his ACL won’t be torn this time around. He however has not been sharp in the last month and will need to play better. And it figures it could be a snow game when Melvin Gordon has been banged up for the Chargers. On defense, the Patriots are 2nd in DVOA at home and 31st on the road. Nice to get this game at home against a team with a better record. Don’t let the fact that NE is 4-0 against playoff teams hide the fact they lost five times to non-playoff teams.

Again, I think the Chargers are a better team this year, but I can’t bring myself to picking them in this venue. Especially not with the Patriots coming off a bye, which I think is huge for their old offensive players (not just Brady, but Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman). Also, despite the loss to the Eagles in the Super Bowl, Belichick is still money against new playoff opponents and the Chargers have only seen this team once in the last four seasons. It was a comedy of errors in that 21-13 loss last year, and I can just imagine what they’ll cook up this time. Maybe Hunter Henry fumbles in the red zone in his season debut (I cribbed this from Marvin Harrison vs. 2007 Chargers in AFC-DIV). Maybe their kicker (Michael Badgley) gets hurt so the new guy they signed for kickoffs blows a game-winning field goal.

This is the game where the Chargers can show it truly is a different year, but do you trust them?

Final: Patriots 27, Chargers 20

(NE -4, Under 48)

Eagles at Saints (-8)

This would definitely be a huge upset if the Eagles can continue their late run here behind Nick Foles. In Week 11, the Saints waxed Philly 48-7 with Sean Payton and Drew Brees pouring it on with a long touchdown pass on fourth-and-6 in the fourth quarter. The Eagles come in with virtually zero pressure to win while the Saints are the favorites to go all the way.

I’m ultimately picking the Saints to win, but let me just state some facts and thoughts why an upset is possible here:

  • Carson Wentz had the worst game of his career in Week 11. He’ll be replaced by a QB in Foles who has incredible playoff stats in five starts and is simply better at getting this team to win games of this magnitude, not to mention better in crunch time and in shootouts. The Eagles aren’t just a front-running team with Foles under center.
  • Doug Pederson is one of the most aggressive coaches on fourth downs and two-point conversions, so knowing he has nothing to lose here, look for him to take advantage of +EV chances.
  • The Saints are a below-average passing defense and struggle with wide receivers, especially on deep throws (32nd in DVOA). Foles gets the WRs involved in this offense and is willing to take deep chances.
  • Brees struggled down the stretch this season, though most of those games were on the road. He took off Week 17 as the Saints really didn’t put much effort into that game period. Now with a bye week too, could we see some rust and a slow start? It’s happened before to teams that rest early in addition to the bye.
  • Perhaps we can keep talking about this if Saints advance, but it’s incredible to me that this passing offense is so successful despite how much it relies on Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. Thomas is great, but he’s not the all-around athlete Julio Jones is, he’s not as good after the catch as Odell Beckham, not as good at the catch point as DeAndre Hopkins, and not the kind of deep threat Tyreek Hill is. He has a great connection with the accurate Brees, but I would often double team him and make other players step up to beat you. Kamara is dangerous after the catch and on screens, but he’s still limited as a RB in just how much damage he’ll do to you. His only catch vs. Eagles was that 37-yard run-up-the-score TD. Now the Eagles are too banged up in the secondary to really afford to double team, but it’s something to think about should Thomas have a bad game. Where else will the production come from?
  • Finally, in Week 11 there was this stat (see below) where Brees had a completion rate that was +20.5% above expectation based on next gen charting data. He was on fire that day, but obviously with that being his best performance this season, it’s hard to expect him to repeat that. So what if the Eagles are able to get him to throw into tight windows with good coverage again, but some of those passes just don’t connect this time? I think this is a good sign for the Eagles going into this one.

I mean, if the 2010 Jets can go from 45-3 to beating the Patriots with Mark Sanchez at quarterback a month later, is it really asking that much for the defending champion Eagles to turn 48-7 around with Foles going into the Superdome? This wouldn’t be the upset of the decade, but it would create one hell of a quarterback controversy in Philadelphia, if we aren’t already there. For that reason alone I wouldn’t mind seeing the Eagles win, but I’m not betting on it.

Final: Saints 30, Eagles 27

(PHI +8, Over 52)

2018 NFL Wild Card and Full Playoff Predictions

The 2018 NFL season has been so competitive that I can’t help but think we’ll get some stunning playoff results this year. The point spreads being quite small (1-to-2.5 points) in three of the games this week looks like a good start for that. The last five chalky postseasons have produced nine No. 1 seeds in the Super Bowl and the 2016 Falcons were a No. 2 seed. The wild card teams aren’t necessarily strong this season, but the Chargers had a good year, the Colts are hot with Andrew Luck, the Eagles won the Super Bowl with Nick Foles last year, and the Seahawks are always a tough out. Throw in Baltimore’s old-school approach and the Chicago defense, and there’s a better chance we see a non-bye team go on a good run again.

Before I pick the whole tournament, I’m going to preview each of the four wild card games. I’m really just throwing out some thoughts at 5 A.M. (sleep schedule is FUBAR) rather than building a structured narrative or detailed analysis of the matchups. You can read the previews on FO for more of that.

Colts at Texans (-1)

It’s amazing these teams are here with double-digit wins after starting 0-3 and 1-5. Both defenses have benefited from a soft schedule (the softest of any two defenses in the NFL), though that’s a bit immaterial when they’re playing each other this week with a good quarterback matchup. I like the over. Houston has won a lot of close games and relied on some opposing coaching mistakes, including that memorable Frank Reich move in overtime in the 37-34 win by Houston. Had he taken the tie, this game would likely be in Indy this week, but I don’t think it’s a huge deal for the Colts in the end. They have won in Houston this year, they’ve won there before, and if you’re going to win a Super Bowl this year, you have to go beat a team like Kansas City anyway. Hell, it might even set up better if the Ravens or Chargers can knock off the Patriots, Indy’s personal nightmare venue.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, it’s Round 3 with Houston and a roster with some really talented players. None of those players are on the offensive line however, and I think Deshaun Watson’s tendency to hold the ball and take sacks can really help out an Indy defense that doesn’t have a dominant pass-rusher. Watson took 5 sacks in the last meeting and had to lead his team in rushing against a Colts defense that stops the run well. DeAndre Hopkins is always a problem, but T.Y. Hilton has been incredible in his career against Houston. He had 199 yards in the last matchup and has been playing at a high level despite his health. The Colts protect Luck much better this year, he’s changed his playing style to be more dart thrower than gunslinger, and I think the Colts can win this one on the road as long as he avoids the dumb interceptions like we saw on the pick-six in Tennessee on Sunday night.

Houston was 1-4 this year when allowing 24+ points with the only win being 37-34 over the Colts in overtime. Indy has scored 24+ in 11 games this year, including both against Houston. I like the Colts to score enough in this one and close it out late.

Final: Colts 27, Texans 24

Seahawks at Cowboys (-2)

Like the first game on Saturday, these teams are hot, and in Dallas’ case, playing a schedule with the AFC South and NFC East has helped out too. The Cowboys are 7-1 in their last eight, and 7-2 since the trade for Amari Cooper. He’s turned in some huge games that helped the Cowboys win the NFC East, but he also has 13 catches for 83 yards and a lost fumble in his last three games combined. That’s the problem with Cooper in that he’ll put up 180 and a score one week, then struggle to break 20 yards the next. The Seahawks don’t have Richard Sherman anymore, and while a respectable defense overall, they were 25th in DVOA against #1 wide receivers. Cooper needs to come up big in this one.

I like that Dallas has put more responsibility on Dak Prescott in recent weeks. He threw for 455 yards against the Eagles and added 387 against the Giants in Week 17, a game where Ezekiel Elliott and a couple star lineman didn’t even play. Prescott has been playing better the last eight games, but his problems this year are that he takes way too many sacks and he doesn’t pull the trigger as much as he should. If he’s not taking a sack, he’s settling for a checkdown, which is why he has the worst third down ALEX in the league. Those third-down struggles are also why his advanced stats aren’t too hot.

I’ll still take Russell Wilson any day over Prescott, but I think in many ways the Seahawks are the team Dallas wants to be when it comes to running and defense. The Seahawks are running the ball as much as anyone not named Baltimore, and it’s worked for the most part this year. Wilson didn’t even throw for 3500 yards, but he was efficient, had a dominant efficiency season with Tyler Lockett, and he still threw 35 touchdowns. Wilson hasn’t even broke 200 yards against Dallas in the last two meetings, and this Cowboys defense is playing better, but it didn’t matter. The Seahawks still won 21-12 and 24-13 after Prescott and the offense struggled in both matchups. I can see that happening again here, though with Cooper in the mix, Elliott back in action, and Prescott having experience to pull games out late, I think Dallas has a good shot in this matchup.

I’m still going with Seattle just because I trust Wilson and Pete Carroll more than I do Prescott and Jason Garrett. But it really is a game that could come down to Prescott hitting Gallup on a deep shot and Wilson not connecting with Lockett on a similar play like they have done so well this year.

Final: Seahawks 23, Cowboys 20

Chargers at Ravens (-2.5)

This was my big preview at FO, so go there for 3500+ words on the matchup. Basically, it boils down to both teams need to have a good start, but it’s even more important for the Ravens so they can keep up their style of running the ball and pressuring on defense. Philip Rivers can lead a comeback, but probably not from 14+ late against this defense. Can Lamar Jackson deliver enough with his arm if called upon? It’s best if the Ravens don’t find out yet, but with the way they play defense, special teams, and one of the best home-field advantages in the league, I think they take care of the Chargers in this one.

Final: Ravens 26, Chargers 20

Eagles at Bears (-6.5)

Outside of Colts-Texans, this might be the game with the widest range of possible outcomes this week. The Bears have a great defense that gets the most turnovers, but the Eagles have played better offensively with Nick Foles at quarterback. He’s also been prolific in the postseason, albeit that’s four starts. He seems to be good to go this week with the rib injury. With Mitchell Trubisky, the Bears aren’t exactly sure what they’re getting. I see him as a deluxe Rex Grossman with scrambling skills maxed out, but as a passer, he’s either Good Mitch or Bad Mitch each week. If the Eagles can pressure him and force him into mistakes, then they have a great shot of advancing as a true underdog this year.

Something I really like about the Bears under Matt Nagy is that they haven’t had a bad game yet this season. They finished 12-4, but they lost two games in overtime. They blew a huge lead in Week 1 against Green Bay and would have won that game if Kyle Fuller held onto Aaron Rodgers’ interception late. They would have beat the Dolphins with a field goal in overtime. They had a Hail Mary completed to the 1-yard line vs. New England, so maybe go for two there to win in regulation if they could have got that yard. They should have gone for two at the end of regulation against the Giants on a day Chase Daniel was QB1. Nagy, like Doug Pederson, hasn’t been afraid to try unorthodox fourth downs or two-point conversions this year. So the Bears haven’t laid any eggs this season, which is impressive for a rookie head coach with a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2010.

The Eagles definitely win out at big-game experience, but I’ll trust the Bears to deliver on defense at home. The Bears are 12-0 when allowing fewer than 24 points this year (0-4 when allowing 24+). The Eagles have gotten to 24 points in Foles’ last three starts, but none of those defenses are on the level of Chicago.

Final: Bears 26, Eagles 19

In the end, I’m going with road dogs on Saturday with the better quarterbacks and the top two scoring defenses at home on Sunday.

2018 Full NFL Playoff Predictions

Here is my crack at predicting the whole tournament.

Wild Card:

  • Colts over Texans
  • Seahawks over Cowboys
  • Ravens over Chargers
  • Bears over Eagles

Divisional:

  • Chiefs over Colts
  • Saints over Seahawks
  • Patriots over Ravens
  • Rams over Bears

Conference Championship:

  • Chiefs over Patriots
  • Saints over Rams

Super Bowl LIII

  • Saints over Chiefs (Super Bowl MVP: Drew Brees)

As always, every postseason has its own narrative and I tried to craft one here but still couldn’t force too many upsets. I honestly think the Colts can win in KC and same with Baltimore in New England, but I’ll go with home-field advantage in the AFC again. After the two No. 1 seeds squaring off (with the better defense winning and the Drew Brees fanboys celebrating his Super Bowl MVP over Patrick Mahomes’ regular season MVP), my 2nd pick for the Super Bowl would actually be McVay and the Rams beating Belichick and the Patriots. That’d be the second year in a row an NFC team with a second-year head coach outdid the Patriots on the big stage. Then again, I can just as easily see the Bears knocking off the Rams in the divisional round to create a much different McVay narrative (0-2 at home!), but I can’t wait to see how things play out here.

One final look at my 2018 results, which were pretty good on straight up picks at least.

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