Eight will become four this weekend in the NFL as the race for Super Bowl LIII heats up.
With the Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams entering the fray after enjoying a bye week, the top two seeds in each conference will be expected to progress from the Divisional Round to the Conference Championship stage, and history is on their side.
Not since the 2012 season has a team contested the Wild Card Round and then reached the Super Bowl, with the Baltimore Ravens beating the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII on that occasion.
However, this weekend’s matchups are more finely poised than you might think, and here, with the help of Opta, we look at where the Divisional Round will be won and lost.
Indianapolis Colts @ Kansas City Chiefs
Much of the focus will be on how a vastly improved Colts defense stops Patrick Mahomes at Arrowhead Stadium, where the Chiefs have only lost once this season, but Kansas City will have a similarly tough task slowing down Indianapolis’ attack.
The Colts were excellent running the ball last week in their win over the Houston Texans. They became the 24th team since 1940 to rush for 200-plus yards in a road playoff game, and the third to do so since 2010. Running back Marlon Mack set a single-game postseason rushing record for the Colts last weekend by tallying 148 yards and will hope for similar success against a Chiefs defense that ranked 27th against the run in the regular season.
Indianapolis did not give up a sack against the Texans’ vaunted defensive front, and their offensive line will face another stiff challenge on Saturday. Defensive lineman Chris Jones and linebacker Dee Ford became the first pair of Kansas City players since 1992 to each record 13-plus sacks in the same season and the first since 2000. Preventing that pair from getting to Andrew Luck will be pivotal if the Colts want to keep pace with the Chiefs.
Dallas Cowboys @ Los Angeles Rams
Sean McVay’s Rams offense will have to be at its best against a fearsome Dallas defense that held the New Orleans Saints to 10 points in a Week 13 victory, but on the other side the Cowboys will have little hope of putting up points themselves if they cannot stop Los Angeles’ star defensive tackle Aaron Donald from disrupting their passing attack.
This season Donald became just the fifth player since at least 1993 to record 20-plus sacks, force four-plus fumbles and recover at least two fumbles. With quarterback Dak Prescott having fumbled 12 times this campaign, it could be a long evening for the Cowboys if their talented offensive line fails to prevent Donald from being his usual disruptive self.
Los Angeles Chargers @ New England Patriots
The turnover battle is key to most games and that will most certainly be the case in Foxborough. New England were the fourth-best team at forcing turnovers this season, doing so on 15 per cent of drives, and excelled at not giving it away, only turning it over themselves on 9.2 per cent of their possessions, again the fourth-best number in the NFL.
That care with the football will be especially important against the Chargers, who had three takeaways against the Baltimore Ravens in the Wild Card Round, giving them seven takeaways in the last two games. They had eight takeaways in their previous 10 games. In that victory the Chargers recorded seven sacks, only eight teams have ever had more in a playoff game and they will look to replicate that performance against an increasingly immobile Tom Brady. However, the Patriots did an excellent job of protecting their veteran quarterback this term, only giving up 21 sacks.
Philadelphia Eagles @ New Orleans Saints
The defending champions head to the scene of a Week 11 humiliation in their bid to keep the title defence alive. Philadelphia were crushed 48-7 in Week 11, but their defense has since shown marked improvement and the Eagles actually led the league in red zone defense, allowing a touchdown from inside the 20 just 44.6 per cent of the time.
Philadelphia will have to be similarly resolute in the Superdome to have any hope of knocking off the number-one seed. The Saints scored a touchdown on 69.6 per cent of their red zone trips this season, the fourth-best rate in the league.