The Divisional Round is my favorite weekend of the NFL season. The top eight teams are playing for a spot in the conference championships games, one step closer to the Super Bowl.
After some upsets on Wild Card Weekend, Vegas has made three of the four games this weekend a touchdown or more in the spread. Conventional wisdom would say that these games should be blowouts. But if you’re looking for close games, or rooting for an underdog, I’ll give you the reason that could happen in all four contests.
Point spread: Vikings +7
Key to the upset: Execution in the first half
The Vikings are a frontrunning team. Their defense can rush the passer with energy. But more importantly, they are an offense built on both a rushing attack led by Dalvin Cook and play-action pass from the arm of Kirk Cousins. Cousins excels at play-action passing — he’s second at his position in expected points added (EPA) when these plays are dialed up.
Generally speaking, coaches are more inclined to call play-action passes when two things are going well: The rushing attack and the scoreboard. In the Vikings’ 11 wins this season, they have been leading at halftime in nine of those, plus a tie. When they execute their offense early in games, they can generate leads, which allows the offense to stay on track.
What it also does is allow Cousins to operate more confidently, knowing he’s not needed to win the game. I know he made an amazing throw to Adam Thielen to help the Vikings beat the Saints, but historically speaking, Cousins is 7-30 in his career against winning teams, including the playoffs. When things get off schedule, Cousins hasn’t always shown the ability to make the plays to lead his team back. He, and the offense, play much better from ahead.
The Vikings need to start fast on Saturday afternoon to keep this game close.
Point spread: Titans +9
Key to the upset: Beating the Ravens’ man coverage
I get it. The Titans beat the Patriots and of course there’s excitement about that, as there should be. But the Titans’ offense was not good enough to beat the Ravens — the 14 points they scored won’t do.
Ryan Tannehill was not good in New England, especially against man coverage, which has not been the norm for him. On Saturday night, Tannehill was 2 of 6 for 23 yards against this defensive look. The Titans need Tannehill to turn back to the quarterback who was third in yards per attempt, with 15 touchdowns (first) and the seventh-best completion percentage against man coverage this season.
The Titans need Tannehill to have a big day against the Ravens’ excellent man defense. Since Marcus Peters arrived via trade in Week 7, the Ravens are only allowing 50 percent of passes against their man coverage to be completed, best in the NFL. The yards per attempt their defense is allowing is just hovering above 4, which is totally wild.
Tannehill will have to target rookie wide receiver A.J. Brown, who’s averaging 20.5 yards per reception since Tannehill took over. The Titans have to get Brown open, most likely with play-action pass, to help this offense score enough points against the Ravens.
Point spread: Texans +9.5
Key to the upset: Run the ball
This game is a severe mismatch. The Texans finished the season ranked 19th in DVOA, while the Chiefs finished second. These two teams played earlier this season, a contest the Texans won 31-24. That was Week 6, and the Chiefs were missing a whole bunch of starters and Patrick Mahomes was banged up. The Chiefs are better on both sides of the ball now. Throw out that game result when looking at this one.
However, the Texans used the recipe that must be done to beat the Chiefs: Run the ball. Last time, Deshaun Watson, Carlos Hyde, and Duke Johnson combined to rush for 192 yards in Kansas City.
The Chiefs’ pass defense has quietly improved to one of the best in the NFL. Their rushing defense, not so much. They are 29th, according to DVOA. The Texans need to turn these rushing yards into points. When you’re rushing the ball at a high success, it makes third down shorter and, in theory, easier to convert.
The Texans are eighth in the NFL on third down, and first in the NFL in passing EPA on third-and-short (1-4 yards). On the flip side, the Chiefs are 24th in EPA defending in this situation. So, if the Texans can run the ball to get shorter third downs, they can keep this game close.
Point spread: Seahawks +4
Key to the upset: Jadeveon Clowney
The easy answer for Seattle is always Russell Wilson being awesome enough to overcome the boring playcalling and some poor in-game management by Pete Carroll. So I’ll find something else. And that something else is Jadeveon Clowney.
The Seahawks ranked 32nd in pressure rate according to Sports Info Solutions, and were 16th in ESPN’s pass rush win rate. The Packers have an outstanding pass-protecting unit. They are third in pressure rate according to SIS, and first in ESPN’s pass block win rate. The Seahawks need Clowney to have that “eff you, I’m the best player on the field” game, like he did against the 49ers in their first meeting. According to Pro Football Focus, he had 11 pressures and four QB hits, both of which are his season highs. He also had five run stops, most of the season.
The Seahawks need Clowney to create pressure because Aaron Rodgers is worse when seeing players around his face. Rodgers completes 45 percent of passes under pressure vs. 69 percent when kept clean.