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Four more teams down, four still left in pursuit of a Super Bowl title. As we did last week, we say goodbye to the four teams that lost their playoff games this weekend in true “Overreaction Monday” style. And for the four teams remaining, we try to answer one big question still facing them as they confront their final game or two.
OVERREACTIONS FOR DIVISIONAL-ROUND LOSERS
Philip Rivers will never win the Super Bowl
This season’s Chargers were 12-4 in the regular season — one game better than the Patriots — and 9-0 outside of Los Angeles counting their wild-card-round victory in Baltimore. This season’s Patriots were supposedly undermanned on offense and represented the start of some sort of decline. If Rivers couldn’t beat Tom Brady (against whom he’s now 0-8 lifetime) with THIS season’s Chargers team, there’s no reason to think he ever will. And not only could he not beat the Patriots, the Chargers couldn’t even stay remotely close Sunday. It was an embarrassing performance on both sides of the ball by a team with one of the deepest rosters in the league.
Graziano’s verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. “Never” is a very long time, but the rest of Rivers’ career probably isn’t. He just turned 37, and there’s no guarantee he’ll have a better team than this one over the remaining two, three, four or however many years before he retires.
Plus, Brady doesn’t seem ready to retire anytime soon, so he’ll remain in Rivers’ way even if Rivers can keep getting to the playoffs. And then there’s the small matter of Patrick Mahomes, just 23 and coming off a likely MVP season for a Chiefs team that finished ahead of the Chargers in the standings (albeit by tiebreaker) to win the division for the second year in a row. Sunday was a devastatingly disappointing end to a brilliant Chargers season, and it’s not an overreaction to worry that they won’t get a better chance to cash one in than they had in 2018.
The Colts should sign Le’Veon Bell and trade for Antonio Brown
Indianapolis was one of the surprises of the season, winning nine of their final 10 regular-season games to reach the playoffs after a 1-5 start and thumping the Texans in Houston in the wild-card round. It was a hyper-accelerated rebuild led by general manager Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich and assisted by the return of Andrew Luck from injury to the top echelon of NFL quarterbacks.
They exited the playoffs Saturday night with a loss to the top-seeded Chiefs at Kansas City, but the future appears bright, and the Colts project to have more 2019 salary-cap space (maybe more than $120 million) than any other team in the league. They should be able to add anyone they want this offseason, and the two Steelers stars are supremely available. Bell will be a free agent once the new league year begins in March, and Brown’s relationship with the Steelers seems to have reached a breaking point.
Graziano’s verdict: OVERREACTION. I actually like Bell for the Colts, though I don’t expect Ballard to spend like that on a running back. And while they absolutely need help at wide receiver, they’re already carrying a $15 million cap charge for T.Y. Hilton, who has two years left on his deal and will be looking for a new deal sometime soon.
As much as they need help at wide receiver, the Colts’ big spends should be on the defensive side of the ball, where this season’s group overachieved and could use some reinforcements. The Colts are in a position where they can spend their money and their cap space on their own young stars as they start to need extensions. It’s not as if they shouldn’t go out and find help in free agency; it’s just that their economic circumstances allow them to focus on building an overall deep roster, as opposed to patching holes with flashy additions. It’s good to be the Colts right now.
The Cowboys need to move on from Jason Garrett
Last Saturday’s victory over the Seahawks was just Garrett’s second playoff win in eight-plus seasons as Dallas’ coach, and that number stayed stuck at two following the Cowboys’ loss to the Rams in L.A. In Garrett’s eight full seasons as head coach, the Cowboys have made the playoffs just three times and have failed to reach even a single conference championship game. The Cowboys haven’t played in the Super Bowl in 23 years, which is far too long to go for a franchise as storied as this one.
Graziano’s verdict: OVERREACTION. It’s not that playoff success isn’t important. It’s just that it’s too often held up as the only thing that’s important. Since the start of the 2016 season — counting playoffs — there are exactly three NFL teams that have won more games than Garrett’s Cowboys. They are the Patriots, Steelers and Chiefs. Garrett has had four winning seasons and won three division titles in the past five years. The Cowboys’ 4-12 2015 is the only season in which Garrett has finished under .500. It’s easy to understand why fans might be tired of the lack of playoff success, but Garrett consistently has his team in position to reach the playoffs, you never hear about locker-room discord, and ownership always has seemed to love him. I don’t think he’s going anywhere, and I don’t think he should, either.
Nick Foles has thrown his final pass as a Philadelphia Eagle
Foles was 4-1 as Philadelphia’s starter the past two postseasons, including a Super Bowl MVP performance that will live forever in the hearts of the city’s rabid fans. But the team still believes in 2016 first-round pick Carson Wentz as its long-term franchise quarterback. The Eagles could pick up Foles’ $20.5 million contract option for 2019 if they wanted to keep him as a backup or if they thought they could trade him for something of value, but it’s also possible they wish him well and move on from one of the most incredible chapters in franchise history.
Graziano’s verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. Realistically, it doesn’t make sense for the Eagles to carry a $20.5 million backup, and the draft-pick investment in Wentz makes it unlikely they’d install Foles as the starter ahead of him. And the contract includes a mutual 2019 option, meaning that even if the Eagles did pick it up with the idea of trading Foles, he could buy his way out of it for $2 million and probably cash in as a free agent somewhere else.
Foles wasn’t the reason they lost Sunday — the final interception bounced off of Alshon Jeffery’s hands — but there comes a point where this accidental-but-glorious second act of Foles’ Eagles career has to end, and it’s probably this offseason.
BIG QUESTIONS FOR DIVISIONAL-ROUND WINNERS
Can the Chiefs’ defense do that two more times?
Top-seeded Kansas City had the 31st-ranked defense in the NFL in 2018, allowing an average of 405.5 yards per game. The Chiefs were 31st against the pass and 27th against the run. On average, they allowed 26.3 points per game. But on Saturday, they held Andrew Luck and the Colts to 13 points (seven of which came on a blocked punt) and 263 yards of offense.
The 180 rushing yards the Chiefs’ offense put up had a lot to do with their stunning 39-minute, 49-second time-of-possession figure, but so did the fact that the Chiefs’ defense held the best third-down offense in the league to 0-for-9 on third downs in the game. They’ll face a tougher test Sunday night when the Patriots come to town, but the fact that the game is at Arrowhead Stadium will matter.
The Chiefs actually had the league’s sixth-best scoring defense in home games, allowing only 18 points per game to opposing offenses at Arrowhead (as opposed to 34.63 on the road). That indicates they have a fighting chance for a repeat performance next week, though it could be tougher if they reach the Super Bowl and have to try it in a neutral site. Regardless, Saturday’s victory left the Chiefs’ defense a confident bunch, and was a pretty big relief for a team and a fan base that hadn’t won a home playoff game in 25 years. With that first one out of the way, the Chiefs might play looser going forward.
Can the Patriots dominate like that on the road?
The Chargers were the best road team in the league, and they didn’t even belong on the same field as the Patriots on Sunday in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The win improved New England to 9-0 at home this season, but the Pats are just 3-5 on the road, and the AFC Championship Game will be at Kansas City. The Patriots averaged 32.88 points per game at home in the regular season but just 21.63 on the road. They allowed 16.63 points per game at home and 24 on the road. Tom Brady’s completion percentage is 5.1 points lower on the road, and his QBR is 8.2 points per game lower. Opposing quarterbacks posted a 38.9 QBR against the Patriots in Foxborough but 71.5 on the road.
They are a different team away from home, and now they head into Arrowhead Stadium, where the Chiefs are 8-1 this season. The Patriots haven’t won a road playoff game since Jan. 14, 2007, when they beat the SAN DIEGO Chargers on the road. Winning road playoff games is something that hasn’t been asked of them very much during the Brady/Belichick era, but that combo is 3-4 as the visiting team in the playoffs. And the way the Patriots played on the road in this regular season raises legitimate concern about their ability to repeat Sunday’s performance next Sunday in K.C.
Can the Saints stop the Rams’ potent rushing attack without Sheldon Rankins?
The Saints’ victory Sunday was pyrrhic, as one of their best young defensive linemen tore his Achilles tendon early in the game and obviously won’t play again this season. And against a Rams offense that rolled up 273 rushing yards on 48 carries with the tandem of Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson, that’s a hole they could find tough to fill. If the Rams can control the game on the ground the way they did against Dallas (they possessed the ball for 36:13), they could avoid the kind of shootout they lost in the Superdome in Week 9 and win a lower-scoring game. It didn’t work out for the Eagles on Sunday, but they were able to keep the game low-scoring and had a chance late. And Philly didn’t have a back like Gurley on Sunday.
Will the Rams’ inexperience show up against Sean Payton, Drew Brees and the Saints?
The Rams played the Saints tough in their Week 9 loss in New Orleans, coming back from 21 points down to tie the game at 35-35 in the fourth quarter before Brees and the Saints pulled away and won by 10. And they showed against the Cowboys that they can win in different ways — running the ball down Dallas’ throats with Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson instead of airing it out with Jared Goff. But this Saints group is far more seasoned in key spots than that Dallas team is. Brees is the league’s all-time leader in passing yards, and he and Payton have won a Super Bowl before. The Saints went deeper into the playoffs than the Rams did last season, and especially at home there’s a chance their experience advantage plays a role in what should be a close matchup. Sean McVay just became the youngest coach ever to win an NFL playoff game, and he and his team are dangerous on both sides of the ball. But Payton surely would love to remind the world that he knew a little bit about coaching offense before McVay showed up.