NFL Playoffs odds, picks: Cowboys have formula to beat Rams, Patrick Mahomes wins first playoff start

The Cowboys already earned one of the biggest upsets of the season in November when they ended the Saints' 10-game winning streak with an out-of-nowhere 13-10 victory that established the Cowboys as fringe contenders in a hyper-competitive conference. A little over a month later, the Cowboys are well-positioned to pull off another mammoth upset, this time against the Rams in Los Angeles, this time with a trip to the NFC title game at stake. 

On Saturday night, after they held off the Seahawks on Wild Card Weekend, the Cowboys will visit the second-seeded Rams in the divisional round. The Cowboys are seven-point underdogs, which doesn't not make sense considering the Rams went 13-3 with a plus-143 point differential, finished the season ranked second in DVOA, should be well rested after a first-round bye, and are playing a team that (barely) went 10-6 with a plus-15 point differential, finished the season ranked 21st in DVOA, and is coming off a hard-fought win over the Seahawks. By pretty much every important measure, the Rams are better than the Cowboys. 

But the Cowboys have the formula to beat the Rams. That doesn't mean the Cowboys will beat the Rams, but they are at least in a position to hang with them on Saturday. The Cowboys are in a position to hang with the Rams because the Cowboys can run the ball like crazy and because the Rams can't stop the run. 

Including Saturday's win over the Seahawks, during which they rushed for 164 yards, the Cowboys are averaging 125.1 rushing yards. In 16 games (15 regular-season and one playoff game), running back Ezekiel Elliott has 1,571 yards on 330 carries for an average of 4.8 yards per carry. In 17 games, quarterback Dak Prescott has rushed for 334 yards and seven touchdowns. The Rams, meanwhile, finished the regular season ranked 28th in DVOA against the run, 23rd in rushing yards allowed, and dead last in yards allowed per carry. Look for the Cowboys to try to jam the ball down the Rams' throat, and most of the evidence suggests they'll be able to do so. 

Except that, the Cowboys can't keep handing the ball off if the Rams' offense is going up and down the field and putting up points. The NFL remains a passing league and the Rams -- with Sean McVay calling the shots, and Jared Goff throwing the ball to Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods -- can throw the hell out of the ball. The Rams will need to throw the ball, because the Cowboys are equipped to shut down the Rams' running game, which is hobbled right now. Todd Gurley, who has been dealing with a knee injury, is expected to play, but it's entirely fair to question just how healthy he'll be when he steps out onto the field.

Regardless of his health, Gurley faces a sizable challenge Saturday. With a defensive front featuring the likes of DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Antwaun Woods, Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, the Cowboys' defense is physical and rangy and disruptive enough to limit Gurley. In the regular season, the Cowboys' defense ranked fifth against the run by DVOA, fifth by rushing yards allowed, and fifth in yards allowed per carry. On Saturday, they limited the Seahawks' run-focused offense to 73 yards on 24 carries (3.0 yards per carry). The Seahawks entered that game averaging an NFL-high 160 rushing yards per game and the fifth-most yards per carry (4.8). The Cowboys took away that component of their game almost entirely. 

If the Cowboys manage to stymie the Rams' run game, then this will turn into a Goff game. I rate Goff higher than Prescott, but he's struggled ever since that epic shootout win over the Chiefs. In the five games since, Goff has completed 58.9 percent of his passes, averaged 6.3 yards per attempt, and 1.2 touchdowns and interceptions per game, and accumulated a passer rating of 74.8. The Cowboys' pass defense isn't something to write songs about, but they're not awful, checking in at 16th by DVOA. What they can do, though, is rush the passer. According to Sports Info Solutions, the Cowboys' defense finished ninth in quarterback pressures. Goff struggles under pressure. 

If the game does turn into a shootout, I'm not so sure Prescott can't keep up. Since trading for Amari Cooper (in a 10-game sample size), Prescott is averaging 269.4 passing yards per game, and has thrown 15 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Before Cooper arrived, Prescott averaged 202.4 passing yards per game, and threw eight touchdowns and four interceptions in seven games. Prescott looks like an entirely different quarterback with Cooper. The thing about hot and cold streaks is that it's difficult to predict when they'll end, but as of right now, Prescott is playing better football than Goff.

None of this means the Cowboys will actually win on Saturday. The Rams are an incredible team that still got to 13 wins even through a late-season slump. Sean McVay is a better coach than Jason Garrett. Goff has been better than Prescott over the past two seasons. Donald might be the best player in football without factoring in positional value. 

But I think the Cowboys are good enough to hang around and give themselves a shot at the upset. And so, with the first of my picks, I'm taking the Cowboys to cover the seven-point spread against the Rams.

Last week: 2-2
Regular season record: 
Combined record: 51-37-1

Giphy / Star Wars

All odds via SportsLine

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Cowboys (+7) at Rams

Saturday: 8:15 p.m. ET (Fox)

The biggest area of concern for the Cowboys isn't an area. It's one person. 

I have no idea how they'll block Donald unless they figure out how to clone Zack Martin so he can play at both right and left guard.

Donald could be in for yet another huge night and he might make the difference in what I think will be a close game.

The Pick: Cowboys +7

Chiefs (-5.5) vs. Colts

Saturday: 4:35 p.m. ET (NBC)

Quarterbacks making their first playoff starts went 0-3 (Mitchell Trubisky, Lamar Jackson, and Deshaun Watson) during Wild Card Weekend, which leaves Patrick Mahomes as the final quarterback to make his first postseason start.

Unlike those before him, I think Mahomes will emerge with a win because Mahomes isn't like those other first-time playoff starters. Mahomes isn't really like that many other quarterbacks. He just became the second quarterback in NFL history to throw for at least 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in a single season. 

I love what Andrew Luck, Frank Reich, and the Colts have done this season. They've now won 10 out of their past 11 games. But they've yet to face a team like the Chiefs in that span. The Chiefs are the league's best team in terms of DVOA and yards per play. Andy Reid is masterful when he's coming off a bye. I think we'll see the Chiefs come out with a great game-plan and go up big early, and I'm not sure how the Colts will be able to catch up if they fall behind. Hanging with the Chiefs is like being forced to sprint for the duration of a marathon. I don't think the Colts have it in them to do so.

The Pick: Chiefs -5.5

Chargers (+4) at Patriots

Sunday: 1:05 p.m. ET (CBS)

It's impossible to ignore the history of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, but if you were to overlook the past two decades and focus on only this season, you would walk away with one conclusion: The Chargers are the better team from top to bottom. The Chargers won more games, rank ahead of them in overall DVOA, offensive DVOA, defensive DVOA, and they have the quarterback playing better football right now. The Chargers won the same number of games as the Chiefs. If the playoffs were seeded more fairly, the Chargers wouldn't be traveling for the second straight road playoff game.

The fact remains, the Chargers are traveling to Foxborough this weekend. They are going up against Belichick and Brady, arguably the greatest coach and quarterback combination in the history of football. You can't just ignore their history. For all of the Patriots' struggles this season, they still won 11 games. Brady threw for 4,355 yards and 29 touchdowns in a down year. The Patriots might not be the near-unbeatable team they were over the past couple of seasons, but they're still very good.

And I'm still taking the Chargers to cover the four-point spread. History matters, but it doesn't matter as much right now, and right now, the Chargers are the better team. They're the most complete team in the AFC. Rivers is playing better than Brady right now. The defense -- with Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa up front -- is good enough to get after Brady and bother him. We just saw them stuff the Ravens' vaunted running game. We just saw them win and cover on the road. I'm not sure they'll win, but I think this is a field goal game either way. 

Oh and by the way, the Chargers can actually make field goals now! Rookie kicker Michael Badgley made five of his six field goals against the Ravens, and his only miss was a block that came after a botched hold. He went 15 of 16 on field goals and 27 of 28 on extra points in the regular season. The Chargers no longer have a kicking problem. It'll likely matter in what should be a tight game against the Patriots this weekend. 

The Pick: Chargers +4

Saints (-8) vs. Eagles

Sunday: 4:40 p.m. ET (Fox) 

I know the legend of Nick Foles says the Eagles will go into New Orleans and stun the Saints, but I don't buy it. The Eagles are only alive because Cody Parkey couldn't make a short field goal. The Bears are not the Saints. Soldier Field is not the Superdome. Mitchell Trubisky is not Drew Brees. That's not an insult to the Bears, who should've beaten Foles and the Eagles. It's a testament to how good this Saints team is.

For one, the Saints won 13 games -- and it probably would've been 14 if they hadn't rested their starters in Week 17. Brees would be the frontrunner for MVP if Mahomes hadn't appeared out of nowhere and submitted one of the greatest seasons in NFL history. Michael Thomas caught 125 of his 147 targets this season for 1,405 yards and nine touchdowns, which is pure insanity. Alvin Kamara hasn't been talked about as much as he was a year ago, but he finished with 1,592 yards and 18 touchdowns, both of which eclipsed the marks he hit last season. For as much as we've been talking about the Saints' decreased offensive production at the end of the season, maybe we should be talking more about their defense down the stretch, which played out of its mind. The last time these two teams met in mid-November, the Saints obliterated the Eagles by 41 points. I don't think it'll be a 41-point blowout this time around. But I also don't think it's going to be particularly close. 

The Saints haven't lost a home playoff game, by the way, since 1993. 

The Pick: Saints -8

CBS Sports Writer

Sean Wagner-McGough joined CBS Sports in 2015 after graduating from UC Berkeley. A native of Seattle, Sean now resides in the Bay Area. He spends his spare time defending Jay Cutler on Twitter. Full Bio

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