Be­lieve it or not, Nin­ers ahead of game.

After cov­eted play­off byes, re­ju­ve­nated Chiefs, Pa­tri­ots, Saints, Rams look to shake off rust in di­vi­sional round

The Mercury News Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - By Barry Wil­ner

NFL teams buck for a play­off bye all sea­son. Then peo­ple won­der if those four lucky clubs are go­ing to be rusty when they re­turn in the di­vi­sional round.

The foot­ball world will find out this week­end when the Chiefs, Pa­tri­ots, Saints and Rams get into post­sea­son ac­tion.

That Jan­uary week off is cov­eted for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons. Play­ing one less game de­creases the chances of get­ting knocked out of the Su­per Bowl chase. Heal­ing in­juries is a crit­i­cal piece of the puz- zle. Ex­tra time to strate­gize, par­tic­u­larly against an un­fa­mil­iar op­po­nent, is a bonus.

And yet, there’s al­ways the ques­tion of get­ting stale.

“I think, re­ally, you could look at it where if you want to main­tain your rhythm and your rou­tine and be­ing able to play — it’s been a cou­ple weeks off — but I think the play­ers would say that the rest is def­i­nitely the best way to go,” Rams coach Sean McVay says.

“Get­ting as healthy as pos­si­ble for us where we’re about as healthy as you could ask to be go-

ing into the di­vi­sional round. So, I know we’ve cer­tainly looked at it as a pos­i­tive. It’s been a good chance for guys to kind of get re­freshed, re­ju­ve­nated. There’s a good buzz in the build­ing this week build­ing into Satur­day night.”

That would be when the Rams (13-3) host the Dal­las Cow­boys (11- 6), who elim­i­nated Seat­tle in the wild­card round.

The other matchups are AFC top seed Kansas City (12- 4) host­ing In­di­anapo­lis (11-6 after beat­ing Hous­ton) to open things. On Sun­day, it’s New Eng­land (11- 5) at home for the Los An­ge­les Charg­ers (13- 4 after win­ning at Bal­ti­more), and NFC top seed New Or­leans (13- 3) home for de­fend­ing Su­per Bowl cham­pion Philadel­phia (10-7 after a vic­tory at Chicago).

So what if Neil Young was cor­rect that rust never sleeps? Are the Chiefs, Pa­tri­ots or Saints in need of some WD- 40?

New Eng­land safety Pa­trick Chung notes the bye was “a good time to rest up, hang out with my fam­ily, chill out, get my mind off foot­ball. We’re locked in now.”

Team­mate Phi l l ip Dorsett senses the op­po­site of rusti­ness: “Hav­ing a week off from foot­ball, it’s tough, but a lot of guys wanted to go back out there, it’s a big game com­ing up ... def­i­nitely ex­cited to go out there and start play­ing.” IN­DI­ANAPO­LIS AT KANSAS CITY » The Colts are 4- 0 in the post­sea­son against the Chiefs, 2- 0 at Ar­row­head Sta­dium. They are on quite a roll from go­ing 1-5, with an ef­fi­cient of­fense that pro­tects its quar­ter­back bet­ter than any team, al­low­ing sacks on only 2.7 per­cent of An­drew Luck’s passes. That could be a key be­cause the Chiefs’ de­fense is one- di­men­sional, with a strong pass rush but oth­er­wise plenty of holes.

Of course, keep­ing pace with Kansas City’s dy­namic of­fense led by All-Pro quar­ter­back Pa­trick Ma­homes is a ma­jor chal­lenge.

Kansas City scored a fran­chise- record 565 points, third most in NFL his­tory. Ma­homes led the league with seven games with a 100-plus passer rat­ing (Luck was third with five). Ma­homes set a fran­chise record for TD passes (50), touch­down- in­ter­cep­tion dif­fer­en­tial ( plus38) and 300-yard pass­ing games (10).

Worth fo­cus­ing on: The tight end pro­duc­tion for Indy’s Eric Ebron, who had 15 touch­downs this sea­son, and KC’s Travis Kelce, sec­ond among TEs with 1,336 yards re­ceiv­ing. He has a catch in 79 straight games. DAL­LAS AT LOS AN­GE­LES RAMS » These fran­chises have split eight post­sea­son games, and the Rams are the most fre­quent play­off op­po­nent for Dal­las. The Cow­boys last won a road play­off game in 1993 on their way to a Su­per Bowl ti­tle, but their next play­off vic­tory will be their 36th, ty­ing Pitts­burgh for the most in NFL his­tory.

Rams All- Pro de­fen­sive tackle Aaron Don­ald topped the NFL with 20 1-2 sacks, nearly twice as many as Cow­boys leader Demar­cus Lawrence’s 10 1-2. Un­der for­mer Dal­las coach Wade Phillips, LA’s de­fense had 41 sacks to the Cow­boys’ 39, yet the Rams had 97 more sack yards.

Worth fo­cus­ing on: This game could be de­cided on the ground, which means All-Pro Todd Gur­ley for the Rams and sec­ondteamer Ezekiel El­liott for the Cow­boys. El­liott won the rush­ing ti­tle for the sec­ond time in three years, but Gur­ley was side­lined late in the sched­ule by a knee in­jury. Gur­ley led the league in touch­downs with 21, 17 rush­ing. LOS AN­GE­LES CHARG­ERS AT

NEW ENG­LAND » New Eng­land was 8- 0 at Gil­lette Sta­dium, the only per­fect home record in the league. And the Charg­ers were a league-best 7-1 on the road — some say they don’t re- ally have home games con­sid­er­ing they play in a tem­po­rary sta­dium built for soc­cer — and won at Bal­ti­more last Sun­day.

Quar­ter­back Philip Rivers en­ters Sun­day’s game with a 1-7 record against the Pa­tri­ots, in­clud­ing 0- 4 in Foxbor­ough and 0-2 in the play­offs. There is con­cern about lead­ing rusher Melvin Gor­don, who hurt his knee in Bal­ti­more.

Con­versely, Tom Brady is 2- 0 in the play­offs and 6-2 in reg­u­lar-sea­son meet­ings.

Worth fo­cus­ing on: The sec­on­daries. If the weather is de­cent, Brady and Rivers will be test­ing de­fen­sive back­fields of vary­ing ac­com­plish­ments. There often have been gap­ing holes in New Eng­land’s cov­er­ages, while the Charg­ers have an All-Pro in rookie safety Der­win James, and an­other stand­out back there in Desmond King. PHILADEL­PHIA AT NEW OR­LEANS » They call him St. Nick around Philly, and the way Nick Foles has per­formed, why not? He guided the Ea­gles to the cham­pi­onship and was Su­per Bowl MVP last year after re­plac­ing an in­jured Car­son Wentz. This time, with Wentz side­lined again, Foles got the strug­gling Ea­gles into the post­sea­son, then helped them beat the Bears in the wild­card game.

He’ll need to be plenty, well, saintly against New Or­leans and its col­lec­tion of Saints, the league’s top team in the reg­u­lar sea­son. Drew Brees has had per­haps the best sea­son of his Hall of Fame-cal­iber ca­reer. And of all the teams com­ing off byes, New Or­leans is the most bal­anced. Oh, yeah, the Saints also routed the Ea­gles 48-7 in Novem­ber, be­fore Philly won six of the next seven, in­clud­ing the 16-15 ver­dict in Chicago.

Worth fo­cus­ing on: Again, the sec­on­daries. The Ea­gles have pros­pered de­spite a rash of in­juries there, and the Saints’ DBs can be had when the guys up front don’t get in a QB’s face.

PHO­TOS BY GETTY IM­AGES

Stars An­drew Luck (up­per left), Jared Golf (up­per right), Philip Rivers (lower left) and Drew Brees will play key roles in week­end play­off games.

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