Paul Higham runs through the eight teams left in the NFL play-offs with the New Orleans Saints are rightly favourites to win the Super Bowl.
We’re down to the final eight in the NFL play-offs and the top seeds enter the fray having sat out last week, but who has the best chance now of making the Super Bowl?
Well, according to the odds it’s the New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs as the two top seeds with home field advantage, with the LA Rams and the ever-present New England Patriots also benefiting from playing at home this weekend.
The wildcard teams have come flying through though, with the Indianapolis Colts and LA Chargers in particular looking impressive and if there are to be some upsets it looks more likely to come in the AFC than the NFC.
Surely the Philadelphia eagles’ long, drawn-out title defence will end in New Orleans?
Super Bowl odds
- 9/4 Saints
- 4/1 Chiefs
- 9/2 Rams
- 11/2 Patriots
- 10/1 Chargers
- 12/1 Colts
- 16/1 Eagles
- 18/1 Cowboys
Saturday’s divisional games
We start off with what could be a barnburner as perhaps the most in-form number six seed in the Colts takes on the best offence in the NFL and their 50-touchdown QB Patrick Mahomes.
Andrew Luck is second to Mahomes in TDs this season and their 89 scores is the most ever combined for a play-off meeting – it has all the ingredients to be a shootout but the key to victory could well lie on the defensive side.
The Colts: Come flying into the game after seeing off Houston and although Luck is the star, their running game and defence has been key to their success. Marlon Mack helped them chew up over 200 yards on the ground against the Texans – and the Chiefs have the fifth-worst run defence in the league.
Defensively the Colts have had given away the least points per game since week seven, so they’ll lean on a combination of that and their run game to try and control the ball, and the clock, and keep Mahomes off the field.
The Chiefs: Arguably the best team in the NFL all season, the Chiefs have been a joy to watch but now it’s crunch time and all Mahomes’ yards and TDs count for nothing as he plays his first play-off game.
KC fans also have bad recent memories that may see a few nerves engulf Arrowhead as they blew an 18-point lead last year against the Titans and a 28point half time advantage five years ago – against the Colts no less. That added to the fact the home fans last saw a play-off win 25 years ago when Joe Montana was the quarterback and you can see why Indy have much more than a puncher’s chance.
There’s a relatively simple equation to this one – in that if the LA Rams can somehow slow down Ezekiel Elliott then they should be far too good for the Dallas Cowboys who have endured more than a hint of travel sickness this season.
The Cowboys: Are 3-5 on the road this season but the upside to playing in LA is that there’ll be plenty of Dallas fans inside the stadium making plenty of noise. Riding Elliott is the obvious key but it is THE key for the Cowboys and if he’ll see plenty of the ball as Dallas tries to control both the ball and the clock.
Funnily enough the Rams allow 5.07 yards per run this season – that’s the worst in the league and coincidently the exact same number Elliott averages on first down runs. An added benefit of Elliott chewing up yards early is it will keep Aaron Donald away from Dak Prescott.
The Rams: Hopes could rest on a star runner of their own with Todd Gurley back after missing the last two games of the season with a knee injury. Gurley needs to also show up in the passing game to keep Dallas guessing and if it’s too much to ask due to his knee LA could be in trouble.
Sean McVay’s side were stunned at home by Atlanta in last year’s play-offs so will hope to learn plenty from that occasion. They need to brush up on their red zone efficiency which was only 57.5 percent but on the flip side the only play-off team left with a worst percentage is none other than the Dallas Cowboys.
Sunday’s divisional games
It’s been six years since an away team won a play-off game in New England but the Chargers arrive with a better regular-season record and on the face of things a better team with more playmakers on both sides of the ball. The Pats have Bill Belichick and Tom Brady though and that makes it desperately difficult to back against them.
This is the closest game of the weekend to call and the contradictory nature of the stats we can call upon show why. The Chargers are 9-0 this season outside of LA, but the Pats are 8-0 at home and Philip Rivers is 0-7 against Tom Brady. LA have the players, and coaches, to get it done, but they’ll have to be at their best.
The Patriots: Are coming off a bye and that always gives evil genius Belichick time to scheme up a way of stopping the opponents and taking their biggest weapon off them. That would appear to be Melvin Gordon (if fit) but the x-factor LA have is Rivers and his big-play receivers – New England have allowed 59 20-yard passing plays this season and just one or two could make a huge difference.
Rob Gronkowski is also a huge difference-maker. The tight end has been a shadow of his usual dominant self this season but that bye week may have made all the difference in freshening him up for this.
The Chargers: For all of their attacking prowess, edge rushers Joey Bose and Melvin Ingram have to be dominant off the line of scrimmage and flush Brady out of his comfort zone to have a chance. Brady has carved apart more fearsome defences than this with his dink-and-dunk short passing, but being disrupted from the pocket is traditionally the only way to slow him down.
The train surely stops here for a brave Philadelphia Eagles title defence, but then again maybe it’s written in the stars for back-up QB Nick Foles after he went 4-0 in the last two post-seasons courtesy of a post and crossbar in Chicago.
Beating the ferocious Bears defence in Chicago took a huge effort and to then beat Drew Brees and his Saints in New Orleans looks just a step too far – but we’ve said that before about this Eagles who just won’t let go of the Super Bowl.
The Saints: Are the biggest favourites of the weekend and rightly so as they’ve already beaten them 48-7 in the Superdome this season. The play-off Eagles are a different breed though and the Saints’ O-line will have to keep Philly’s game-wrecking front four at bay to keep Brees on an even keel.
The running back duo of Alvin Kamara and Melvin Ingram will be crucial, not only in running the ball but also as receivers out of the backfield – catching quick balls to keep Philly’s rushers away from Brees and on their heels.
The Eagles: Foles is 6-0 in his last six games as an underdog, so the odds will not worry Philly one bit and although their QB is the media darling it’s their defence, that’s only allowed 15 points in total in their last two games, that will decide their fortunes.
New Orleans have averaged 40 points a game in their first five games at home and are 5-0 in the Superdome in play-offs with Brees at QB – the odds are stacked against the defending champions but they’ve been defying them for weeks now.