The NFL kicks off its divisional round tomorrow afternoon in Kansas City, when the Chiefs play host to the Colts. That game will be followed by Rams-Cowboys later Saturday night and then Chargers-Patriots and Eagles-Saints on Sunday. This year, more so than in past years, the playoff field feels wide open. One could make an argument for any of these teams to move on to the conference championship games. Or, you could make the case for why every single one will lose this weekend.
Long-time NFL analyst Merril Hoge shared that exact sentiment when he stopped by the CBS Local studios on Friday. Hoge, who was in town promoting his book Brainwashed: The Bad Science Behind CTE and The Plot to Destroy Football, told us that this was the first time since he has become an analyst when he thinks you could pick any team and have pretty good odds of being right.
“When you look at the matchups that exist, this has not been a year where I can say I’m definitive on one side or the other, like I have been in the past,” said Hoge. “When I look at stuff now, it’s like, ‘Wow.’ Easily I could come up with all kinds of reasons that the Chargers could beat the Patriots going on the road. The way Indianapolis is playing, going into Kansas City. Philly and the way things have gone as they go into New Orleans. It’s going to be a fantastic run.”
Speaking of those Eagles, they find themselves on another hot streak, with Nick Foles as their quarterback, winning four straight games. Now, they enter a rematch with the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, a team that routed them 48-7 during the season. But, with Foles, the offense seems different than it was with Carson Wentz. We asked Merril why that is.
“Carson, when he comes back, there are some plays that he can make and some throws I have seen him make, that Nick Foles just flat can’t. That is the kind of gifted player that he is,” said Hoge. “What you have to realize is, when he was playing, they had a lot of injuries on both sides of the ball. They’re starting to actually get healthier, ironically, now that Nick Foles is playing. I think Carson was trying to do too much. Carson was part of that Super Bowl, but he wasn’t the quarterback. That is tough because even though you were a part of that team and did your part in getting them there, you didn’t play in that game. I know that he really wanted to validate himself and sometimes, you press when you do that.”
That all said, Wentz won’t be on the field this Sunday when the Eagles play the Saints. But, despite the Eagles facing the top seed in the conference, Hoge isn’t counting them out by any stretch, noting they have been a different team in their last four games.
“That team isn’t playing like it did four weeks ago,” said Hoge. “That is why I tell fans all the time, you always evaluate a team based on the last four weeks, not the full 16. That is what every NFL team does, that is what we did every week. Take a look at how did they play in their last four games. That gives you the true flavor of who they are and what they are. If you look at their (the Eagles) last four weeks, it is the best they have had all year long.”
The Eagles aren’t the only hot team left in the field as, in the AFC, the Colts have won five straight games, spanning the end of the regular season to last week’s win over the Texans. They head to Kansas City to face the Chiefs and their high-powered offense. And, in Foxborough, the Chargers enter as winner of six of their last seven games, and they avenged their only loss in that stretch when they beat the Ravens last week.
This week is a different animal however, as Philip Rivers has never beaten Tom Brady in his career and this game will once again be on the road, this time in Foxborough. However, Hoge thinks that after playing the past two seasons in a temporary home while waiting for the new stadium to be built, the Chargers are more used to playing “road” games.
“I heard something come out of their locker room, I don’t know if it was a coach or a player, but they said after winning on the road, ‘Yeah, you know what, we’ve been playing on the road for a couple of years.’ And, if you think about it, they really haven’t had a home in L.A.,” said Hoge. “Right now, this is like a pit stop before they get to their home. There is some truth to that. I can tell you this. From a player’s perspective, winning on the road, in a hostile environment, is much more satisfying than winning at home.”
“Yes, you like to celebrate with your home fans, absolutely,” Hoge continued. “But, when you win games on the road, there is a sense of confidence and strength you get from doing that. This team has been doing it for a long time. Does it bother them to go to New England? Nah.”
Finally, we couldn’t let Merril go without asking him about the drama that has played out in Pittsburgh. While speculation continues to swirl about the future of wide receiver Antonio Brown, we asked Hoge for his thoughts on what Steelers fans should expect heading into next season.
“I know that organization. They’re not going to sit there and go back and forth,” said Hoge. “They will sit down, cooler heads will prevail, and they will look at all of the options that they have. But, it is my feeling that neither one of those guys (Bell or Brown) will be there next season.”
Hoge’s book, “Brainwashed: The Bad Science Behind CTE and The Plot to Destroy Football” is available now at all retailers.