Before I give you my predictions for the four divisional round games this weekend, let’s take a look back at what transpired in last week’s games.
TEN 22 – KC 21
Andy Reid and Alex Smith once again folded under the bright lights of the postseason. They did this in front of their home crowd, against a 9-7 Titans team. Oh, and they were up 21-3 at one point. How did this happen? Well, in my three keys for a Titans upset, I said they needed to run the ball successfully. Derrick Henry had 156 yards and a TD, so that box is checked. I said Marcus Mariota needed to lead this team to a victory, and boy is there a giant check in that box. He passed, ran, blocked, and CAUGHT the ball successfully! My third key was for them to win ugly. I don’t know if you consider coming from behind an ugly or a pretty way to win, but in any case, the Titans are advancing to Foxborough.
While it was Jon Gruden’s last game in the booth, it was Sean McDonough that got the attention for this voice crack on a play that got called back: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhK0CO647PY
ATL 26 – LAR 13
As I expected, the playoff experienced Falcons were able to take down the youthful Rams. Other than the 2nd quarter, the Falcons defense shut down the explosive LA offense, limiting them to just 3 points in the other 3 quarters. This is the new recipe for success for Atlanta. Their offense was what got them to the Super Bowl last year, but as we’ve been told a million times, defense wins championships. The offense is less exciting, but the defense can grind out victories. Atlanta’s D will have the test of Nick Foles this week, which might just be a mismatch.
JAC 10 – BUF 3
This game was mostly an exchange of punts, however the Jags got the last laugh, as they were the ones able to score a touchdown. Blake Bortles had an ugly game passing the ball, as everyone is bringing up the stat that he actually rushed for more yards in this game than he passed for. If Jacksonville is to advance, they will need their QB to make plays. 87 passing yards ain’t gonna cut it. However, the Sacksonville defense remained strong, even if it was up against relatively weak competition. The Bills were obviously happy just to make the playoffs, though it would’ve been fun to see their fans break more tables had they advanced to Foxborough.
NO 31 – CAR 26
In probably the most exciting game of Wild Card Weekend (you can make an argument for Titans-Chiefs) the Saints were able to stifle a late comeback by the Panthers to advance to Minnesota. New Orleans didn’t quite run the ball as effectively as they would have hoped, and so Drew Brees had to go back to classic Drew Brees form. He put up 376 on the Panthers D, but #9 probably isn’t getting anywhere near that number in the next game. Carolina ended up losing the game at the end partially due to a controversial intentional grounding call against Cam Newton. It really contributed to the Panthers demise, as it was a 10 second run off, a 10 yard loss, and a loss of down. To me, the refs actually got this call right. http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-game-highlights/0ap3000000904107/Cam-Newton-s-big-intentional-grounding-penalty-costs-Panthers-late
Now, let’s get into my predictions of the divisional round games. Instead of giving “three keys” to each team having a victory like I did last week, I’ll describe in general what they have to do to win.
ATL @ PHI: How The Eagles Pull the Upset
It’s a very historical moment for the NFL, as Philly is a #1 seeded underdog. Losing Carson Wentz has made Atlanta the 3 point favorites. For the Eagles to win, they must establish a strong ground game with Jay Ajayi and LeGarette Blount. However, the Falcons do have a solid run defense. But obviously relying on Nick Foles too much will do no favors for the Eagles. In addition, the Eagles must stop the Falcons offensive weapons, like Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu. The good news for the Eagles is they have quite a strong pass defense (not nearly as strong as their run defense though). Basically, Philly has to play very strong defense, and hope Nick Foles does enough to win.
How the Falcons get the W
As I mentioned in their recap from their game against the Rams, the Falcons identity is now their defense. They held the league’s highest scoring offense to 13 points. And now they’re facing Nick Foles, so you can truly see why Vegas made the Eagles underdogs. Because the Eagles likely will be relying on their run game more, the Falcons rushing defense must create a physical edge up front. Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe are great at that, but they’re going up against an elite Eagles rushing attack. In addition, the Falcons offense can’t put up a stinker. Their offense is obviously not at the level they were last year, but they need to score just enough points to win. With the way their defense is playing, they can definitely settle for some Matt Bryant field goals. However, too many drives ending with 0 points or a turnover, and you find yourself losing to Nick Foles. Don’t let it happen.
My Prediction: Falcons win 19-13
The Eagles have the home field advantage and the motivation of having Vegas disrespect them. However, I think the Falcons will ultimately do enough on offense to get the job done and advance to their 2nd consecutive NFC Championship Game.
TEN @ NE: How the Titans Pull a Huge Upset
First off, Marcus Mariota must channel his inner Eli Manning. He must lead his team to victory much like he did last week. However, he will need a lot of help. The Titans must get another great performance out of Derrick Henry, and they’re playing against a Pats run defense that has given up 4.7 yards per carry. And the most important key to beating the Pats in the playoffs is getting after Brady. Ask the Giants, Broncos, or Ravens how important it is. If the Titans don’t bring the heat against Brady, he will likely pick their defense apart. Tennessee’s pass rush is solid, but not great, so Dick LeBeau must draw up a great game plan for his defense.
How the Pats Pull the Inevitable
Let’s be honest here, the Patriots winning this game is about as likely as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. It’s going to happen. The Pats haven’t missed an AFC Championship game since the 2010 season, where they got bested by Mark Sanchez and the Jets in the Divisional Round. While Marcus Mariota is a better QB than Sanchez, the Jets clearly had a better team. Essentially, the Pats can’t play down to their 9-7 competition. The way the Pats probably win this game is they keep it close through the first half, and into the third quarter. But then Brady hits the gas pedal and it ends up being a rout. If Brady isn’t quite as good as expected, the defense must commit to stopping the Titans rushing attack.
My Prediction: Patriots win 35-21
While I have the Pats covering their 13.5 point spread, I’m actually being nicer with this score than a lot of the other prognosticators out there. Many people expect this to be a blowout, but I think the Titans will keep it close for the majority of the game.
JAC @ PIT: How the Jags Repeat their Road Success
With the way Blake Bortles looked last week, their defense truly will have to dominate in this one. That means stopping Le’Veon Bell, and picking off Big Ben once the Steelers start relying on the passing game. The good news for the Jags is Antonio Brown is expected to be a game time decision, which means he probably won’t be 100% if he does play. Their defense must set Bortles and the offense up with short fields, where they can at least get a field goal. As for the Jags offense, you must be a run first team. That is what lead you to victory against Pittsburgh in Week 5, as Leonard Fournette exploded for 181 yards (a 91-yard TD run helped elevate that total). The Steelers don’t have Ryan Shazier to stop you now, so getting Fournette going is key. Remember Jacksonville, you won 30-9 last time you played these guys. People will mention the Steelers playoff experience and that the teams were “different” in week 5. So you gotta feel like you have a chip on your shoulder.
How the Steelers Avoid Another Loss at the Hands of Sacksonville
Simply put, get Le’Veon Bell going. Big Ben threw 5 picks last time he played the Jags, so don’t let him get flashbacks to that. The one part of the Jags defense that isn’t dominant is their run defense, as they’re ranked 21st in the league. Pittsburgh must exploit that, as the Jags secondary is elite and ready to feast on Big Ben. The Steelers most also rely on good old playoff experience. The aforementioned Big Ben and some other veterans on the Steelers team have seen this song and dance before. On defense, Pittsburgh must make Blake Bortles do Blake Bortles things. Despite Bortles’ horrific 87 yard performance against the Bills, he didn’t throw an interception. When Bortles doesn’t throw an interception, the Jags always win (at least that’s the case for this season). Picking off Bortles once or twice (or forcing a fumble) will be key to a Steelers victory.
My Prediction: Steelers win 20-17
The Jags defense will keep it close, and Leonard Fournette will have a solid game. However, the Steelers are looking for revenge not only against the Jags, but the Pats. If Pittsburgh does win this game, they will inevitably face New England. I think the Steelers have just enough offensive firepower for this one.
NO @ MIN: How the Saints Go Marching out of Minnesota with a W
I mentioned in the recap of the Saints-Panthers game that the Saints had a difficult time establishing the run against Carolina. That task doesn’t become any easier against the Vikings #2 ranked rushing defense. So, rely on Drew Brees, right? Well, the Vikings also have the #2 ranked passing defense. That’s just how elite their defense truly is. So Drew will have to rely on playoff experience, much like Matty Ice, Brady, and Big Ben. The Saints defense has been great this year, but not nearly on the same level as the Vikings. Their secondary must make plays against a revitalized Case Keenum, and they must also hope that Keenum succumbs to some level of playoff pressure. I mention turnovers as a key for many teams, but setting Drew Brees up with a short field will be vital, as the Vikings defense is ferocious.
How the Vikings Get Sweet Revenge
The Vikings made the NFC Championship almost a decade ago, during the last leg of Brett Favre’s retirement tour. They faltered to the Saints in heartbreaking fashion. But now they’re the home team, and they have arguably the NFL’s best defense to take on #9. Not to mention, everyone has waited for Case Keenum to slow down, but he hasn’t all season. What’s to say he stops now, other than playoff pressure getting to him? Keenum has a great assotment of weapons in Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, and Kyle Rudolph. And here’s an interesting stat: If you don’t count Drew Brees’ Super Bowl win, he’s 1-4 on the road in the playoffs. The most important thing for the Vikings here is to not squander any leads. Don’t miss any chip shot field goals, and just win the freaking game if it comes down to a kick (all eyes are on you, Kai Forbath). Minnesota is infamous for gut-wrenching playoff losses, and it can’t happen again here.
My Prediction: Saints win 23-21
I went back and forth with picking this game literally all week. Ultimately, I’m surrendering to the leadership of Drew Brees and Sean Payton, as they’ve seen this all before. Case Keenum hasn’t.
Minnesota’s elite defense must now stop Drew Brees. Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn/USA Today Sports