As always, wild card weekend was straight up bizarre. All four underdogs covered, and two pulled the outright upset. We saw the Rams look rusty in their home loss to the Atlanta Falcons after they rested their star players the week before. With the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings coming off a week of rest, we'll see if they can avoid a similar fate.
Here's how we see the 4 divisional round games playing out:
ATLANTA FALCONS (-3) vs. Philadelphia Eagles
The first match-up of the divisional round is certainly a weird one. The Eagles are the first #1 seed in NFL history to enter their first postseason game as an underdog, and it’s pretty easy to understand why. Losing MVP candidate Carson Wentz to a torn ACL was a devastating blow to their Super Bowl aspirations, and back-up Nick Foles hasn’t instilled much hope.
In his two-week tune-up to the postseason, Foles completed 23 of 49 attempts for 202 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. Now taking on a fast, confident Falcons defense who is coming off a dominant performance against the Los Angeles Rams’ #1 ranked offense, there is reason to be concerned for Philly’s offense. Getting some combination of LeGarrette Blount, Corey Clement and Jay Ajayi going on the ground will be key, as Foles’ only chance of success against Atlanta will be in the play-action game.
Avoiding 3rd and long will be crucial for the Eagles, as Atlanta’s vaunted pass rushers allow the defense to drop seven into coverage in these situations. Since Foles isn’t exactly known for his ability to carve up defenses, Philly fans will be holding their collective breath in must-throw scenarios.
However, there’s still a reason the Eagles are the #1 seed in the NFC. Even though the offense has taken a significant step back, the Eagles’ defense continues to dominate. Ranked third against the run and seventh against the pass, this unit led by Fletcher Cox and Malcolm Jenkins will have its hands full against Atlanta’s dynamic offense. If Philly is to have any chance of pulling the upset, the defense will need to force Matt Ryan into some poor decisions while containing Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman.
Ryan has been far from his 2016 MVP self this season, but he is still an elite NFL quarterback capable of winning road playoff games (as we saw last week). Returning home to Philly where he played his high school ball, I expect Ryan to emerge with the victory. It won’t be a pretty game as both defenses will shine, but Julio proves to be unstoppable and Foles throws two costly interceptions. Atlanta marches on to their second straight NFC Championship Game appearance.
Prediction: 17-13 Falcons
TENNESSEE TITANS (+13) vs. New England Patriots
Halfway through the first game of wild card weekend, few would’ve predicted the Tennessee Titans would be playing the New England Patriots seven days later. Rallying from a 21-3 hole at Arrowhead Stadium, the Titans saved their season (and likely head coach Mike Mularkey’s job). After taking down the most cursed postseason franchise in the NFL (Kansas City), the Titans now get to face the most successful.
The Titans have the weaker offense, the weaker quarterback, less experience and a huge coaching disadvantage. Despite all of this, Tennessee should be able to keep this one close.
Shutting down Tom Brady and New England’s offense is essentially an impossible task, but what‘s the easiest way to slow them down? Winning the time of possession battle. The Titans lean heavily on their rushing attack and are bolstered by an extremely effective offensive line. Taking on the 30th ranked rush defense in New England, the Titans should be able to move the chains and chew up the clock.
Knowing that the Titans want to run the ball, it’s safe to assume Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia are going to try to make Marcus Mariota beat them. While Mariota didn’t take the step forward so many hoped for in his third season, he has begun to find his groove recently. Utilizing his tremendous speed to become a running threat, it has opened up winnable 1-on-1 opportunities for his receivers. The Titans should be able to capitalize against an underwhelming pass defense.
Even though the Titans will keep this one close, New England isn’t losing at home to a Tennessee squad that sported a -22 point differential during the regular season. With no answer for the Brady-Gronk connection and a rejuvenated rushing attack behind Dion Lewis, the Patriots win to clinch their spot in the AFC Championship Game for the seventh straight season.
Prediction: 27-20 Patriots
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (+7) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Unlike the first two games of the weekend, these two teams have already faced each other once this year. Jacksonville pulled off a resounding 30-9 victory at Heinz Field, thanks in large part to FIVE Ben Roethlisberger interceptions. I’m going to go out on a limb and say Big Ben completes fewer than five passes to Jacksonville in this one.
For the Jaguars, they will only go as far as their defense carries them. And so far, this defense has carried them quite far. Boasting the best pass defense in the league combined with a deadly pass rush, “Sacksonville” makes life miserable for opposing offenses. It’s the blueprint they used to win the initial showdown in Week 5, and they will need a similar performance in this one.
However, getting some production out of their Blake Bortles-led offense will also be crucial. This side of the ball has been borderline-horrendous in recent weeks, posting a total of one offensive touchdown in their last two games against the Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills. Jacksonville will look to lean on Leonard Fournette, but the rookie only has 70+ rushing yards in one of his last five games. After hanging 181 yards on Pittsburgh in Week 5, it’s safe to assume the Steelers will stack the box against Fournette and force Bortles to beat them.
While Jacksonville has looked a bit shaky in recent weeks, the Steelers have been absolutely dominant since the humiliating home loss. Winners of 10 of their last 11 with the only defeat coming on a controversial call against the New England Patriots, Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offense have been unstoppable.
The health of Antonio Brown will be key, as Pittsburgh looks much more mortal without #84 on the field. However, if there’s one area where Jacksonville has shown weakness, it’s against the run. With Le’Veon Bell leading the way, Pittsburgh should have no problem taking advantage.
In a defensive, grind-it-out match-up, the nod has to go to the more experienced team with home-field advantage. I think A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey will do a tremendous job limiting Antonio Brown and the vaunted passing attack, but Bell will be the difference. Pittsburgh narrowly escapes, while Jacksonville covers the point spread.
Prediction: 17-13 Steelers
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (+5.5) vs. Minnesota Vikings
Like the Jaguars-Steelers game, this too is a rematch of a game that took place during the regular season. However, both teams look very different from their Week 1 match-up. Minnesota has a completely different starting quarterback in Case Keenum, neither team has Adrian Peterson on its roster, and the Saints have become a run-first offense. In other words, we can safely throw the Week 1 match-up out the window.
The days of Drew Brees needing to throw 40+ times for a Saints victory are over. Led by the two-headed monster of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, New Orleans boasts the most dynamic run game in football. Both guys excel as rushers and receivers, making the defensive game-plan that much more difficult. And to make matters tougher, we saw last week what happens when a defense sells out to stop these two guys – Brees will carve up your defense to the tune of 375 passing yards and 2 touchdowns.
While Carolina’s defense is no slouch, the Saints are facing an entirely different animal in Minnesota. Possessing lethal speed at all three levels, there’s a reason Mike Zimmer’s unit finished #1 overall in defensive efficiency this season. Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter combined for 20.0 sacks, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr wreak havoc against the run and in coverage, and All-Pro safety Harrison Smith is arguably the best at his position. As if that’s not enough to contend with, the Vikings also have a lockdown All-Pro corner in Xavier Rhodes.
If there’s any team capable of containing the Saints’ explosive, well-balanced attack, it’s the Vikings.
While the Saints’ offense vs. Minnesota’s defense will be a fascinating chess match, this one will come down to New Orleans’ defense vs. the Vikings’ offense. Case Keenum will be making his first career playoff start against an underrated Saints defense. The pass rush led by Cameron Jordan is phenomenal, and the young cornerback duo of Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley has exceeded all expectations. The duo will have their hands full trying to contain Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.
But for New Orleans, stopping the run must be their #1 priority. Minnesota likes to run the ball with Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon to set up play-action for Keenum. If they are able to get chunk yardage on the ground, it’s going to be a long day for New Orleans.
I don’t expect this to happen though.
In what will be the best game of the weekend, the Saints find some success on the ground behind Ingram and Kamara, setting Brees and Michael Thomas up for a huge game. The Saints pressure Keenum into two costly interceptions, and Kamara scores the game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Brees pulls off the upset and earns his first trip to the NFC Championship Game since 2009.
Prediction: 24-20 Saints
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