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10 key questions for NFL Divisional playoffs

Larry Brown Sports logo Larry Brown Sports 1/12/2019 Grey Papke, Larry Brown Sports
a man wearing a helmet © Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL’s conference championship games will be determined this weekend, as eight teams square off for four spots in what promises to be an intriguing Divisional Round. The NFL’s best are involved, as the four teams that got to enjoy a week off jump into the fray hoping to avoid upsets.

What factors should we be watching as these teams square off? Here are 10 key questions for the NFL divisional playoffs.

1. Do the Chiefs have the defense to contain Andrew Luck and the Colts?

The Indianapolis offense isn’t a juggernaut like Kansas City, but Andrew Luck and Co. showed they’re no joke in beating the Houston Texans a week ago. What’s more, the Chiefs’ defense has shown itself to be vulnerable time and time again. Kansas City can win a shootout, but they’ll have to at least contain the Indianapolis offense long enough for their own players to get a leg up.

2. Can Nick Foles keep up with Drew Brees?

On paper, this is very much a quarterback mismatch, but Nick Foles has won a Super Bowl against Tom Brady, so that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. That said, Foles will have to be at his sharpest to keep up with Drew Brees, especially if the New Orleans offense hits its stride and really gets going. Much will rely on how Philadelphia’s defense does here, but Foles needs to keep his team in the game at the very least. That may mean playing at a level, slightly higher than he’s used to.


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3. What will Chargers’ DC Gus Bradley cook up for Tom Brady?

The Chargers completely confused the Baltimore Ravens a week ago with difficult defensive looks and a game plan that worked to perfection in what was, overall, a stifling victory that made the Baltimore crowd turn on its rookie quarterback. While they probably won’t have quite the same luck this time around, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has made it clear that each team will be game planned differently. If the Chargers can turn in another stifling defensive performance, their odds are good.

4. Will Dallas turn around their road struggles when they need to?

The Cowboys’ inability to play well on the road has been a consistent theme all season, and it has led them to an inevitable road game against the Los Angeles Rams, among the class of the NFC. All their numbers across the board are worse away from home, and that’s particularly true of QB Dak Prescott’s play. They will probably have to lean hard on running back Ezekiel Elliott in this one, but with the Rams’ ability to put up points quickly, Dallas has to play perfectly.

5. Will history matter for the Chiefs against the Colts?

There are two factors in play here. First is the obvious: The Kansas City Chiefs have a record of coming up short in big moments at home during the playoffs. The second is the Colts have tormented them plenty in the modern era, including that 45-44 playoff win in Indianapolis five years ago that saw the Colts erase a 31-10 halftime deficit. Many players from that game have moved on, but the recent history of playoff failure looms large. If the Colts start well, things could get hot under the collar.


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6. Will the Saints’ offense have a timely revival against Philadelphia?

After a brief swoon late in the season, the Saints’ offense appeared to come back to life against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the most recent game they’ve played at full strength without resting anyone. If the Saints play to their offensive capabilities, they should overwhelm the Eagles and win this game at home. However, against the likes of Dallas and Carolina, they demonstrated that they can be stopped for periods of time. If that happens, all bets are off.

7. Can Sean McVay win a playoff game?

It’s a simple question, and it’s perhaps a silly thing to be considering since the NFL is so convinced by McVay that many teams are trying to hire one of his proteges as their head coach. However, the reality is that for all the success the Rams have had over the past two years, they were bounced from the playoffs early last year. If it happens again this time around, the heat will start to rise on McVay a bit. His job won’t be anything close to endangered, but playoff success is meaningful, and he doesn’t need to become known as just a regular-season coach.

8. Can the Chargers overcome the Patriots’ home playoff history?

The Patriots almost never lose at home in the playoffs. They’ve won their last eight at Gillette Stadium, and their last loss came against Baltimore on Jan. 20, 2013. The Chargers present a real challenge as they’re talented all-around and play very well on the road, but they’re fighting against a whole lot of history here. New England simply seems to find a way this time of year, and though this year’s team has its flaws, Los Angeles will have to be at their best and then some to win this.

9. What impact will weather have in Kansas City?

Of all four Divisional games, the one in Kansas City stands the best chance of being disrupted by weather. While the bulk of the weather is likely to have passed by kickoff, there is potential for several inches of snow to fall ahead of the game, and it will be cold. The Colts, who play in a dome, could certainly be impacted by this, though the impact may be minimized if the storm passes through quickly enough. Still, it bears watching, as plenty of playoff games have been inhibited by these types of factors.

10. Can the Cowboys lean on their run game against the Rams?

There is something of a case to be made that the Cowboys have the best matchup they could hope for against the Rams. It is one that may allow them to lean on their workhorse running back Ezekiel Elliott against a run defense that has been vulnerable at times this season. It’s a lot to put on one guy’s shoulders, but given Dak Prescott’s road struggles, it is probably the best ticket to victory. Any Dallas win will probably involve Elliott having a big day.

Related slideshow: Best of NFL playoffs (provided by USA Today Sports)


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