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NCAA Tournament appearances by Temple’s Fran Dunphy, tied for most by Big 5 head coach

Home teams ripe for upsets?

Posted by Eric Fisher On January 12

This weekend features home teams that tailed off during the second half of the season. The Rams were 5-3 during the second half of the season after being undefeated during the first half of the season. The Patriots limped home with a 4-3 mark against a relatively easy schedule. The Chiefs weren’t quite the same after suspending running back Kareem Hunt.

On the other hand, the Colts enter Kansas City having won 10 of their last 11 games, the Cowboys go to Los Angeles with eight wins in their last nine games, and the Chargers, who have been good all season, take an 8-1 road record into Foxboro, where the Patriots are unbeaten this season.

The quarterback matchups should garner a lot of attention. Andrew Luck vs. Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady vs. Philip Rivers are marquee matchups, and Dak Prescott vs. Jared Goff is intriguing.

Another intriguing aspect of this weekend’s playoff games is, aside from the Eagles-Saints games, none of these matchups occurred during the regular season.

Here is a preview of this weekend’s playoff games.

COLTS (11-6) at CHIEFS (12-4)

(Saturday, 4:30 p.m.)

How they got here: The Colts beat the Texans, 21-7, in the wild card round. The top-seeded Chiefs had a first-round bye.

Meetings this season: They didn’t play each other

Story lines: The Chiefs were an offensive juggernaut the entire season, but they were only 3-3 in their final six games. After a 1-5 start but the belief Reich had in his team and his aggressive nature eventually caught on, and the Colts won 9 of their final 10 regular-season games. The Colts have won all four of their playoff matchups with the Chiefs, all of which have occurred since the mid-1990s. The story line will focus on the quarterbacks, but the battle between the Colts’ offensive line and Chiefs’ defensive line may be the most important factor.

COLTS

After a 1-5 start, the Colts have been terrific, winning 9 out of 10 regular-season games and beating the Texans in the wild card round. Their five-game winning streak entering the playoffs includes two wins over the Texans (24-21 and 21-7), a win over the NFC East-champion Cowboys (23-0), a comeback win over the Giants (28-27) and a victory over the Titans (33-17) on the last night of the season to earn a playoff spot. Quarterback Andrew Luck has had a bounce-back season, completing 67.3 percent of his passes and throwing 39 touchdowns. The one negative for Luck is he has thrown 15 interceptions. Luck’s top target is T.Y. Hilton (76 receptions for 1,270 yards, 6 TDs), but in the red zone the man to watch is tight end Eric Ebron (66 catches for 750 yards), who has 13 touchdowns. Running back Marlon Mack has the quietest 1,195 yards and nine touchdowns in the NFL. One reason for Luck’s resurgence is a terrific offensive line, anchored by All-Pro rookie guard Quenton Nelson, who was drafted sixth overall out of Notre Dame. The rest of the line, consisting of tackles Braden Smith and Anthony Catanzaro, guard Mark Glowinski and center Ryan Kelly, is pretty darn good. Luck was only sacked 18 times (an NFL low) during the regular season. The defense has been much better than expected, in part due to rookie linebacker Darius Leonard, who made 163 tackles and earned All-Pro status after being selected 36th overall out of South Carolina. Cornerback Pierre Desire helped limit the Texans’ DeAndre Hopkins to just five receptions last week.

CHIEFS

The Chiefs knew what they were doing when they traded up to select Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the 2017 NFL Draft. Mahomes completed 66 percent of his passes this season for 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns. Yes, 50! Mahomes threw 12 interceptions, yet still has an impressive quarterback rating of 113.8. Mahomes rushed for 278 yards and two touchdowns, so he’s also dangerous on the run. The Chiefs offense is dangerous, but it’s not as balanced since running back Kareem Hunt was released following the release of a video showing an altercation between Hunt and a woman at a hotel. Damien Williams (50 carries for 256 yards, 4 TDs) has contributed, but he can’t replace Hunt. The passing game relies heavily on tight end Travis Kelce (103 receptions for 1,336 yards, 10 TDs) and speedy receiver Tyreek Hill (87 receptions for 1,479 yards, 12 TDs). The Chiefs defense allows a lot of yards and points, but it can create big plays with its pass rush. Chris Jones (15½ sacks) applies pressure up the middle. Dee Ford (13 sacks) and Justin Houston (9 sacks) provide pressure from the edges.

Prediction: The Chiefs have homefield advantage, but, surprisingly, they have lost their last six playoff games at Arrowhead Stadium. A positive sign for the Chiefs is all four of their losses this season came against playoff teams. The bad news is they only posted two wins over teams that qualified for the playoffs. A key matchup will be the Colts’ offensive line, which did a good job against the Texans’ defensive line last week, against the Chiefs’ disruptive pass rush. The Colts may try to run the ball consistently to keep the pass rushers from teeing off. On the other hand, it took at least 29 points to beat the Chiefs, so the Colts won’t be able to be comfortable if they put up 21 points in the first half, as they did last week against the Texans. Colts head coach Frank Reich should be coach of the year. The Chiefs are just 1-4 in the playoffs under Andy Reid. The Chiefs are definitely less balanced without Hunt. The big question is whether the Colts can contain the Chiefs offense. Chiefs 31, Colts 30

COWBOYS (11-6) at RAMS (13-3)

(Saturday, 8:15 p.m.)

How they got here: The Cowboys beat the Seahawks, 24-22, in the wild card round. The second-seeded Rams had a first-round bye.

Meetings this season: They didn’t play each other

Story lines: The Cowboys turned their season around at the midpoint. The Cowboys were 3-5, with rumors swirling about head coach Jason Garrett being fired, before a Monday night win against the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field kicked off a 7-1 record during the second half of the season. The Rams, on the other hand, were 8-0 midway through the season before a loss to the Saints triggered a 5-3 second half. All three losses were to NFC playoff teams (Saints, Bears and Eagles), but the Rams also won shootouts against the Chiefs and Seahawks during the second half of the season. The matchup of marquee running backs and an old AFC West battle between former Raiders receiver Amari Cooper and former Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib and former Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters could be the deciding factors.

COWBOYS

The Cowboys’ seven wins in their final eight games included a 13-10 triumph over the Saints and a pair of victories over the Eagles. Their lone loss during the second half of the season was on the road against the Colts. Ezekiel Elliott led the NFL in rushing (304 carries for 1,434 yards, 6 TDs), but the underrated part of his game is his pass receiving (77 for 567, 3 TDs). The difference in the passing game, however, has been the addition of Cooper (75 receptions for 1,005 yards, 7 TDs), who looks like he’s worth the first-round draft pick the Cowboys gave up to get him from the Raiders. Cole Beasley (65 for 672, 3 TDs) is an effective possession receiver, and rookie Michael Gallup (33 for 507, 2 TDs) can’t be ignored. Quarterback Dak Prescott (67.8 completion percentage, 22 TDs, 8 interceptions) certainly has plenty of targets to choose from. Young linebackers Leighton Vander Esch, a rookie who was selected to the All-Pro second team, and Jaylon Smith lead the defense with 140 and 121 tackles, respectively. If Sean Lee, who returned from a lingering injury, to play in the regular-season finale, can be added to the mix, the Cowboys’ linebacker corps will be even better. Don’t overlook cornerback Byron Jones, who joined Vander Esch on the All-Pro second team defense. Defensive end Demarcus Lawrence leads the team with 10½ sacks.

RAMS

There is concern about two of the Rams’ top weapons. Running back Todd Gurley (256 carries for 1,251 yards, 17 TDs and 59 receptions for 580 yards, 4 TDs) has been battling a knee injury. The Rams hope the week off due to the bye has provided enough time for Gurley to heal. Quarterback Jared Goff has nice numbers (64.9 completion percentage, 4,688 yards, 32 TDs, 12 interceptions, 101.1 QB rating), but Goff hasn’t looked confident down the stretch, particularly during losses to the Bears (15-6) and Eagles (30-23), two playoff teams with good defenses. Goff’s top targets are Robert Woods (86 receptions for 1,219 yards, 6 TDs) and Brandin Cooks (80 receptions for 1,204 yards, 5 TDs). The middle of the Rams’ defensive line includes Aaron Donald, the likely defensive player of the year, and cornerbacks Talib and Peters, who will have the task of containing Amari Cooper.

Prediction: Questions about Gurley’s health and Goff’s confidence make this a difficult game to predict. The Rams could have difficulty piling up points against the Cowboys defense, just as they did against the Eagles and Bears during the final month of the regular-season. The Rams defeated the Chiefs in Week 11, 54-51, but didn’t exceed 30 again until the final two weeks against the Cardinals (31-9) and 49ers (48-32). The question then becomes how well the Rams defense can contain the Cowboys. The Rams have good cornerbacks and have Donald and Ndamukong Suh to slow down Elliott and the Cowboys’ rushing attack. An upset is certainly possible, but… Rams 26, Cowboys 24

CHARGERS (13-4) at PATRIOTS (11-5)

(Sunday, 1 p.m.)

How they got here: The Chargers beat the Ravens, 23-17, in the wild card round. The second-seeded Patriots had a first-round bye.

Meetings this season: They didn’t play each other

Story lines: The Chargers have been pretty good all season. After losing two of their first three games, to the Chiefs and Rams, the Chargers went 11-2, with a one-point loss at Denver being their only loss to a team that didn’t win a division title. The Patriots also started the season 1-2 before reeling off six straight wins, including consecutive wins over the playoff-bound Colts, Chiefs and Bears. But the Patriots limped to the finish line with a 4-3 record, with a win over the Vikings being the most notable victory. The obvious story line is quarterback Tom Brady, with his five Super Bowl titles, against quarterback Philip Rivers, who has never reached the Super Bowl during his otherwise stellar career.

CHARGERS

Philip Rivers completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 4,308 yards and 32 touchdown passes; however, he has thrown 12 interceptions, with six of them coming during the final weeks of the regular season. The Rams’ offensive line isn’t very good at pass protection, so one of the keys against the Ravens’ attacking defense is to effectively run the football. Melvin Gordon (175 carries for 885 yards, 10 TDs and 50 receptions for 490 yards, 4 TDs) left the regular-season finale with an ankle injury and injured the other leg during last week’s playoff win over the Ravens. On the other hand, Austin Ekeler (106 carries for 554 yards 3 TDs and 39 receptions for 404 yards, 3 TDs) returned to their lineup. If their running backs aren’t healthy and effective, it would make the Chargers one-dimensional on offense, which could be a problem against the Patriots. Keenan Allen (97 catches for 1,196 yards, 6 TDs) is the Chargers’ top receiver. With all of the focus on offense, it’s easy to overlook that safety Derwin James and cornerback Desmond King, each with three interceptions, were selected to the All-Pro team. King also made the All-Pro second team as a punt returner, and Adrian Phillips made the All-Pro first team for special teams, so special teams could be crucial for the Chargers.

PATRIOTS

There were times when Tom Brady didn’t quite look like himself this season, but the Patriots hope Brady’s nagging injuries healed during the bye week. Brady completed 65.8 percent of his passes for 4,355 yards, but his mix of 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions is below his usual standard. The Patriots have found a reliable running option in rookie Sony Michel (209 carries for 931 yards, 6 TDs). Running back James White is a threat to run (94 carries for 425 yards, 5 TDs), but his greatest value is as a receiver (87 receptions for 751 yards, 7 TDs). Julian Edelman (74 receptions for 850 yards, 6 TDs) and tight end Rob Gronkowski (47 receptions for 682 yards, 3 TDs) are familiar targets. The Patriots have a solid defense, but they don’t generate a lot of pressure on the quarterback.

Prediction: The Patriots are 8-0 at home this season. They have won eight straight home playoff games. All three losses during their past seven games were on the road. On the other hand, the Chargers are 8-1 on the road this season (with a “home” win in London making them 9-1 away from their home stadium). Rivers’ numbers down the stretch haven’t been good, but he may feel as if he has hours to throw after facing the Ravens twice in the past three games. The Patriots don’t have the pass rush to take advantage of the Chargers’ suspect offensive line. On the other side of the ball, the Chargers may have the secondary to contain Brady, especially if defensive linemen Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram can generate pressure on Brady. I would feel better about this pick if Gordon were healthy, but … Chargers 27, Patriots 24

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Side angle of Cody Parkey's missed field goal