It’s a different sport, of course, but no one anticipated UMBC beating Virginia, the No. 1 overall seed in the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, by 20 points, to become the first 16th seed to beat a 1 in the history of March Madness. But it happened.
This weekend, two six seeds in the NFL playoffs have a chance to knock off the No. 1s in the NFC and AFC when the Indianapolis Colts play at Kansas City (Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET) and the Philadelphia Eagles go to New Orleans (Sunday, 4:40 p.m.) in the Divisional Round.
It’s happened more than you might think. Since 2005, No. 6 seeds are 5-3 against No. 1 seeds.
Here’s a look at how the upsets could come about. What do you think?
Luck Is The Reason
Working in favor of the Colts is the Chiefs’ suspect defense. Chiefs safety Eric Berry, the veteran lynchpin of their secondary, is not expected to play because of an injured heel. And that is going to really help Andrew Luck, who threw for 4,593 yards and 39 touchdowns. Berry played in only the final two games this season and made 11 tackles.
Andy Reid hasn’t been saying much about Berry’s status, limiting his comments to the generic “day-to-day, same thing it’s been throughout the season.” So, let’s put it this way: If’s he not out there, Luck will pick up on it.
The loss of Berry is going to put more pressure on the Chiefs front to get to Luck – and good luck with that. Indianapolis’ offensive line had kept the crown jewel upright this season, allowing a league-low 18 sacks. And the O-Line is the main reason its running game has also been able to evolve with Marlon Mack.
Mack gained more than 900 yards despite playing only 12 games and he gained 148 yards on 24 carries in the Wildcard win over Houston.
When you put it all together, it’s easy to understand how the Colts recovered from a 1-5 start by winning nine of their last 10. That said, no one still understands how a 6-0 loss at Jacksonville on Dec. 2 managed to mess that up.
Disrupting Luck will fall to Chris Jones and Dee Ford. But it’s a job they’ve done remarkable well already. They have combined for 28 ½ sacks and 118 quarterback pressures and that’s more than enough to grab the attention of the Colts line.
Putting Luck in bubble wrap will be crucial, of course, because of Pat Mahomes. Every game the Chiefs play has the potential to crack “the over” at 100 because of his poise and remarkable cannon. He led the Chiefs to a league-leading 565 points. He also joined Peyton Manning in the 50-50,000 club in 2018. There aren’t many stalls in that locker room.
It looks like Mahomes may even have one of his favorite weapons back. Sammy Watkins (foot), who hasn’t played since Mahomes went Pac-Man on the Rams secondary in Week 11, looks like he is ready to go.
But the Colts have their own defensive weapon in rookie linebacker Darius Leonard, who lead the NFL in tackles. And if he can help disrupt Mahomes, then the focus will shift back to a Chiefs defense that allowed 421 points.
We’ll talk later about how the mystical Nick Foles might help the Philadelphia Eagles in New Orleans. But there’s another statistical phenomenon that hovers over the Colts-Chiefs game and its Reid’s inability to get much done in the postseason.
He has coached in 13 postseasons with the Eagles and Chiefs and his combined record is 11-13. Reid’s Chiefs teams have lost four of the five playoff games he’s coached.
His Eagles’ record obviously includes five NFC Championship Games, including his Super Bowl XXXIX run in 2004, during which they beat the Vikings and Falcons before losing to the Patriots. So, Reid is no Abe Gibron. But that one Super Bowl is the fewest any coach with at least 20 postseason games has ever had.
His postseason winning percentage of .458 is 83rd among the 166 coaches who have worked in the postseason. Even John Harbaugh (.667) blows Reid away.
The question is: When does this begin to constitute a trend worth worrying about?
“The further you go in the playoffs, the more you [have to] minimize those mistakes, whether that’s scheme or penalties or whatever it might be,” Reid said when asked why his teams haven’t been better. “You create your own deal and you go play. We don’t worry about all that stuff. … It’s what happens on that field [that matters]. It’s man against man, and you play the game.”
The Colts counter with Frank Reich, who is 1-0 in his postseason career. That was last week’s win over the Texans. But Reich was the offensive coordinator of last season’s Super Bowl champions and has already earned a stellar reputation as a fearless play-caller.
Reich may be the Bobby Fischer of the NFL, adept at moving his chess pieces into blackjack positions. He shifts and slants, motions and mixes things up. Not only does he have Luck, but he’s had good luck translating his imagination into reality.
The Colts rely heavily on their offensive line, led by center Ryan Kelly and guard Quenton Nelson. Reich uses formations that accentuate protection, allows time over options, leaving guys like Luck and T.Y. Hilton (76 catches, 1,270 yards) to figure things out from there.
And Reich helps protect Luck by calling a number of quick routes from spread or empty formations. He takes the snap, drops back and fires. He finds receivers, like tight end Eric Ebron (66 catches, 750 yards), in open space and depends on them for yards after the catch, one of the NFL’s favorite metrics.
“We are trying to score every time we touch the ball, and we are going to game-plan and call the game in a way to score points,” said Reich this week. “We are really not trying to think so much about, Well, let’s hold the ball and keep it from them. We want to run it — there’s no secret about that. That does keep them off the field, that would be great, but at the end of the day, the primary goal is to score points.”
Foles A Force Of Nature
It might be too much to ask the Eagles to make up so much ground so quickly against the Saints. After all, it was hard not to notice what happened on Monday Night Football two months ago when the Saints decimated the defending Super Bowl champions, 48-7.
It was the worst defeat, in magnitude, any champion had taken the year following their title run. The Eagles allowed 546 yards, 363 through the air. Drew Brees threw for four touchdowns.
The Eagles were at their worst that night, the Saints at their best. Brees devasted an injury-plagued secondary down to second- and third-stringers. It was joyful for the Saints, tearful for the Eagles.
“It was one of those things that I didn’t feel like as a team we had a lot of fight. I would rather get thrown out of a game than just lay down and take it,” said Eagles defensive back Malcolm Jenkins that night. “At this point in time, we need to figure some things out about ourselves.”
But that was then. Nick Foles is now. And the Eagles are only an eight-point dog. They’ve been the dog in all five playoff games they’ve played in the last two seasons. They are 4-0.
Foles, the Super Bowl MVP, is back at it again. Since taking over for injured Carson Wentz (back) with three games to play in the season, Eagles have not lost. And here they are back in the Superdome playing the NFC’s top seed.
If fate wore a uniform this week, it likely would be Kelly green. The only reason the Eagles moved past the Chicago Bears was the illogical confluence of a block, dink and a doink that kept a game-winning field goal from crossing the crossbar on Sunday at Soldier Field.
Eagles fans are reading the tea leaves. And they say it’s all because of Foles. Sad to say, it’s not. But the Eagles are playing more inspired on each side of the ball and they certainly have the momentum.
The problem is going to be stopping the Saints offense. But during the Foles’ run, the Eagles defense has experienced a rebirth. It has allowed only 12 third-down conversions in the last four games. They have allowed an average of 18.9 points since the loss in New Orleans and have a plus-10 sack differential. The Eagles are flying. They’ve won six of seven.
“I think everyone knows what happened last time,” said Eagles tight end Zach Ertz. “That was probably the most humbling game I’ve ever played in. Phenomenal football team. The No. 1 seed for a reason. At the same time, no one expected us to be here. We’re playing with house money right now. We’re focusing on going 1-0 every week.”
As for the offense Foles now directs, its averaged 27 points in its last six regular season games. He led the league in completion percentage and yards over the three he started. What’s helped the passing game, in part, has been the return of Darren Sproles from a hamstring injury. The Eagles really have had no running game.
Like the Chiefs, the Saints do have problems with deep coverage, although the Eagles, other than Ertz (who set the league mark for receptions by a tight end), do not have downfield threat as imposing as Hilton, unless you believe Alshon Jeffrey is in is class.
In fact, the Saints are last in the league defending the bomb, which is anything longer than 16 yards. They have allowed 14.56 yards per reception this season. But remember, no one is close to Brees in completion percentage (74.4) – and he has Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara to throw to – and that means the Eagles are going to need to be on point from start to finish.
Regardless of what happens Sunday, the will have an interesting decision to make about Foles (and Wentz) during the offseason.
If the Eagles want to prevent Foles from becoming a free agent, they’ll need to pick up his $20 million option for 2019. Although the numbers aren’t overwhelmingly conclusive, their offense has averaged more points and yards and is more efficient in the red zone and on third down since Foles took over.
During the regular-season finale against Washington, Foles also tied the league record for most consecutive completions (25), something only Philip Rivers and Ryan Tannehill have done.
Since the beginning of the 2017 playoffs, Foles leads the league in completion percentage (79.2), passing yards per game (105.9) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (10:1).
And he comes into the game with the highest playoff passing rating (105.2) of any player with at least 150 pass attempts. That’s better than Brees (100.7) and Tom Brady (90.9). And he’s only 29.