Underdogs' success carried over into the playoffs as they went 3-0-1 against the spread last week. Three of them won outright. History shows that home teams dominate the divisional round, winning 71 percent of the time. But none of these four top seeds are unbeatable. The belief here is that every game will be close, leading to all four underdogs covering and three — yes, three — winning outright.
Get ready for a divisional round that will be even wilder than wild-card weekend.
LOCK OF THE WEEK
COLTS AT CHIEFS
TV: Ch. 4, 4:35 p.m.
Chiefs by 5; O/U: 57
If you're a casual NFL fan that parachutes into the playoffs, you might look at this line and think: "Why aren't the Chiefs favored by more? They're the top seed and Patrick Mahomes is the MVP." But for fanatics like myself who have watched countless hours of NFL RedZone this season, we know that the Colts are not to be taken lightly. Since a 1-5 start, they've won 10 of 11, including last week's dominant win at Houston, its second win there in a month. While Kansas City has basically had two weeks off (bye preceded by a visit from the Raiders), Indianapolis essentially has played two straight playoff games. Remember, the Week 17 game at Tennessee was a win-and-in scenario.
There are so many reasons to like the Colts in this matchup. It all starts with rookie Quenton Nelson and a game-changing offensive line, which allowed an NFL-low 18 sacks and just held J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and the Texans to zero. The O-line will get the ground game going early for Marlon Mack (148 yards, 6.2 yards per carry and a TD in the wild-card round). The Chiefs allow 5.0 yards per carry, the second-most in the NFL, to go along with the sixth-most yards per game at 132.1. Mack will put Indy in favorable third-down distances, and Andrew Luck will be able to extend drives against the Chiefs' 25th-ranked third-down defense (41.5 percent).
On the flip side, the Colts' young and underrated defense was one of just three teams that didn't allow a 100-yard rusher all season and yielded 15.5 points per game during the 10-1 streak. Yes, they haven't faced an offense as explosive as Kansas City's, but the loss of Kareem Hunt takes away a big part of it. As great as Mahomes was this season, he's not unbeatable. The Chiefs finished 3-3 after a 9-1 start, and were 2-4 against fellow playoff teams. It needed Mahomes' magic act in a 27-24 overtime win over Baltimore at Arrowhead in Week 14.
This is Mahomes' first playoff appearance, and all the pressure will be on him and Andy Reid, who is 1-4 in the postseason with KC. The Chiefs are 0-4 all-time vs. the Colts in the playoffs, including the wild 45-44 loss at Indy in January of 2014 in which Reid's Chiefs blew a 38-10, third-quarter lead. I picked the Colts to make the Super Bowl before the playoffs started knowing they'd have to win this game. Oh, and if it snows or if the field is slick, that favors the Colts, too.
The pick: Colts
The score: Colts 30, Chiefs 27
COWBOYS AT RAMS
TV: Ch. 5, 8:15 p.m.
Rams by 7: O/U: 49.5
The Rams were the last unbeaten team at 8-0, got to 11-1 and finished 13-3. It's those back-to-back losses at Chicago (15-6) and vs. the Eagles (30-23) in Weeks 14-15, however, that make me think L.A. will be upset in prime time for the third time. Dallas' biggest strengths — running the ball and stopping the run — are just the 1-2 punch to KO L.A. Ezekiel Elliott (137 yards and a TD on 26 carries) averaged 5.3 yards per clip against Seattle. The Rams allow an NFL-worst 5.1 yards per carry. If the Cowboys feed Elliott 25-30 times, they'll be in great position to win.
While the Rams struggle to stop the run (122.3 ypg), Dallas excels, holding opponents to 94.6 ypg and 3.8 ypc, both top-5 rankings. It just held Seattle's No. 1 rushing attack to 73 yards on 24 carries. Linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch will contain Todd Gurley and put Jared Goff in third-and-longs. He struggled in both those late-season losses (zero TD passes, five INTs, five sacks and three fumbles combined). Another reason to back the Cowboys: The Rams have no home-field advantage, and Dallas fans figure to make up close to half the crowd.
The pick: Cowboys
The score: Cowboys 24, Rams 21
CHARGERS AT PATRIOTS
TV: Ch. 2, 1:05 p m.
Patriots by 4; O/U: 47.5
Before we delve into what should be a classic something's-gotta-give matchup between the NFL's best home team and the NFL's best road team, let's first give credit to the Chargers' masterful defensive game plan last week. L.A. used seven defensive backs on 58 of 59 plays, the plan working to perfection as it stopped the Ravens' run-heavy attack. The Bolts will need to be just as creative against a Patriots team that went 8-0 at home and has dominated the divisional round: 7-0 the last seven seasons. Tom Brady has never lost against Philip Rivers, the Pats going 7-0, including 2-0 in the playoffs.
But here's the thing: This Chargers were one of the best teams in the NFL all season, and is only the 5 seed because their 12-4 record lost out to a tiebreaker with the Chiefs. Including the wild-card win at Baltimore and a "home game" in London, the Chargers are 9-0 when boarding a plane (the lone road loss at the Rams in Week 3). They won't be intimidated going into Foxborough one bit. The recipe to beat Brady always has been to apply pressure (see: Super Bowl XLII), and the Bolts have two charged-up pass rushers in Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. It's usually unwise to fade the Pats in January, but this isn't a dominant team like seasons past. Even if it snows, L.A. can win a low-scoring slugfest.
The pick: Chargers
The score: Chargers 20, Patriots 17
EAGLES AT SAINTS
TV: Ch. 5, 4:40 p.m.
Saints by 8; O/U: 51
When Philadelphia walked off the field after a 48-7 beatdown at New Orleans in Week 11, it was 4-6 and its season appeared over. Now, after six wins in seven games, Nick Foles and the defending champs are on another super run. These teams have some bad blood, with Alvin Kamara using some choice words when he said the Saints would've beaten Philly in last year's NFC title game if not for the Minny Miracle. Throw in the fact that the Eagles felt the Saints ran up the score less than two months ago, and this should be a fun one.
Now, if there's one of the four hosts this weekend that has the potential to win big, it's New Orleans. Not including Week 17, when the Saints rested starters, they averaged 37 points per game at home. New Orleans wasn't its dominant self the last month, but 16 points won't cut it for Philly as it did in Chicago. In the first meeting, Drew Brees lit up an undermanned Eagles secondary, but the defense has since regrouped. This spread scares me a little because the Eagles can be in it the whole way and then just like that, 24-20 could be 31-20 with a late Brees TD pass. But I'll take my chances that Foles and an angry Eagles defense keep this inside the number.
The pick: Eagles
The score: Saints 31, Eagles 26
STAFF PICKS AND STANDINGS
(best bets in bold)
Playoffs: 1-2-1, 1-0 best bets
Regular season: 113-135-8, 9-8
Colts Cowboys Chargers Eagles
Playoffs: 1-2-1, 0-1
Regular season: 115-133-8, 6-11
Chiefs Rams Patriots Saints
Playoffs: 1-2-1, 0-0-1
Regular season: 126-122-8, 7-10
Colts Rams Chargers Saints
Playoffs: 1-2-1, 0-1
Regular season: 134-114-8, 11-6
Chiefs Rams Patriots Eagles