It’s my favorite weekend of the NFL year, but I fear we might not get a really good game to watch until Sunday this time.
Falcons at Eagles
It’s the first time a No. 1 seed is an underdog in the divisional round in this format. Obviously there are some unusual circumstances here with the Eagles losing their quarterback while they were leading the conference. The Falcons also have some clout after what they did in the playoffs a year ago and last week in Los Angeles. Atlanta was my only road dog I liked to win last week, but even I didn’t see a wire-to-wire 26-13 win where the defense was pretty impressive. The Falcons have flipped the script from last year when they were an offensive juggernaut and one of the worst defenses to reach a Super Bowl. The defense has improved in the second half of this season and the offense is still talented, but not nearly as productive. Still, the Falcons have grinned out 22-10 and 26-13 wins over Carolina and LA, two teams thought to be better than Atlanta this year.
But I can’t help but think this is going to be an ugly, low-scoring game. Maybe not as ugly as Eagles-Raiders from Christmas night, but nothing pretty about the offenses. I do take notice of the indoor team going to frigid Philly, which also features a pretty good defense in case we forgot. In 2016, the Falcons scored a season-low 15 points and really struggled that day. The Eagles will have to rely on defense to win this one, but at least Nick Foles has a playoff start in his past, and he did throw four touchdowns against the Giants. He didn’t screw up the LA game in the fourth quarter. Oakland game was awful, and he barely played in Week 17, so there’s a lot of doubt in Foles, which I can understand. He hasn’t been good on third down. The thoughts of him forcing 50/50 balls against this secondary is a scary thought. But if the Eagles can get Jay Ajayi and the RB stable going against a defense that is vulnerable to that position, then Foles may not have to do a ton in this game.
Again, it comes down to defense in this one. Matt Ryan’s had some bad luck with tipped interceptions this year, so if that were to continue today, I can easily see that being the difference. The Eagles are likely going to need a break like that. I think Vegas did another outstanding job with the spread, because this easily could be the closest game of the weekend, with an ugly 1-3 point win by the road team. That’s right, the team who barely made the tournament is the team I’m going to pick to go to the NFC Championship Game. Things have just broken the right way for Atlanta down the stretch here.
Final: Falcons 19, Eagles 17
I don’t want to make it sound like the 2017 Patriots are a juggernaut (best of a weak bunch), but this would be a top 5 upset in NFL history if the Titans won. Tennessee was already so fortunate to get the comeback win in Kansas City., and yes, I’m still pissed we’re not watching Chiefs-Patriots tonight. The botched call (forward progress on a sack/fumble) went their way. The big injury (Travis Kelce) went their way. The lucky bounce (Mariota’s tipped TD pass to himself) went their way. The missed FG (KC) went their way. Good luck repeating that strategy in New England where you’re more likely to get screwed on a call, see your star get injured, suffer a bad bounce, and miss an important FG.
Somehow the Patriots have drawn a “double bye” so often since 2011. I think the 2014 Ravens and 2015 Chiefs were respectable divisional round opponents, but the other years were a joke. Some of the worst teams to advance in the playoffs have drawn New England. Think about the 2011 Broncos (Tebow), who won in overtime against a Pittsburgh team that was missing its RB (Rashard Mendenhall), center (Maurkice Pouncey), and Ben Roethlisberger was playing on a high ankle sprain. Safety Ryan Clark couldn’t play in that game in Denver’s altitude because of his rare sickle cell trait. The 2012 Texans slumped hard to end the year, but since everyone beats Cincinnati in January, they ended up going to New England first instead of Denver. Meanwhile, the Ravens knocked out New England a week later. The 2013 Colts were always a heavily flawed team led by the one-man show known as Andrew Luck. They were lucky to get past the Chiefs after trailing 38-10 in the third quarter. Then you have the awful 2016 Texans, who only got past Oakland thanks to a late injury to Derek Carr. Even in a game where Tom Brady played poorly, the Patriots still covered a 16-point spread last year.
Now the Patriots get the 2017 Titans, who were outscored by 22 points this season. This is a Dick LeBeau defense that ranked 32nd in DVOA against short passes and struggled with tight ends, and that’s what Brady and Rob Gronkowski get to feast on today. The recipe for a Tennessee upset is difficult to make. Derrick Henry would need to have the game of his life after arguably doing so a week ago. Running backs usually don’t dominate against the Patriots. You need a quarterback to step up, and Marcus Mariota has not been trustworthy enough this season. While the Titans keep every game pretty close, they lost 40-17 in Pittsburgh in that stretch, and this is the most similar caliber opponent to that game.
Reminder: since 2001, the Patriots are 13-0 in the playoffs against new opponents and 12-9 in rematches.
Final: Patriots 30, Titans 17
Jaguars at Steelers
This was my big preview at FO, so check that out. Simply put, the Steelers can’t play hero ball against the best defense in the league. Just take a conservative approach, shake off the rust from the stars who haven’t played since Christmas, and hope that Blake Bortles will screw up enough. I don’t think you can just dismiss Bortles in this one. Brett Hundley, Joe Flacco, and DeShone Kizer averaged 30 PPG with their offenses at Heinz Field late in the season. The Steelers might actually have the worst defense of the eight remaining teams in the playoffs. Still, I think the Steelers prove Week 5 was a fluke and win this game with a big second half that puts the clamps on Bortles.
Final: Steelers 24, Jaguars 16
Saints at Vikings
Perhaps the most interesting game this weekend. The closest thing we have to a quarterback duel without one major liability, though I’m still stunned that we’re talking about Case Keenum in these terms. Maybe he completely flops in the biggest game of his career, but he was No. 1 in passing DVOA this year. That’s not a six-game hot streak either. He had over 500 pass plays and still finished No. 1. Can he be as great as Sam Bradford was in Week 1 against this defense? Probably not, but the Saints were also playing worse than they are now on that side of the ball. The offense is obviously still dangerous too with Drew Brees, who is statistically the best active playoff quarterback in the NFL. He’s always up for games like this, but he’ll have to be great against a top defense.
The Vikings quietly recorded the best third-down defense since 1991, only allowing conversions just under 26% of the time. The Saints were able to score a lot last week without rarely getting to third down, but it’s also a down where Brees wasn’t as good as usual this season. He only ranked 14th in conversion rate on third-down passes, the first time he ranked out of the top eight in any season with the Saints. The Saints have been a much more conservative passing offense this season, and Brees had his first completion of more than 55 yards last week to Ted Ginn for an 80-yard touchdown. The great running back duo of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram was really shut down against the Panthers, and I think the Vikings can also do a good job against them this week.
It basically comes down to Keenum (or perhaps a Minnesota kicker) not shitting his pants, if we’re being honest. He has the skill players around him, he had the bye week to prepare, he has a great defense, and Mike Zimmer is one of the better head coaches in the league. I think Keenum can avoid some of the sacks that got Cam Newton in trouble last week, and he’ll make enough plays to get the Vikings this win and likely host the NFC Championship Game.
Final: Vikings 27, Saints 20
(My spread picks are PHI, TEN, PIT, MIN)
- Week 1: 8-7
- Week 2: 11-5
- Week 3: 9-7
- Week 4: 8-8
- Week 5: 6-8
- Week 6: 6-8
- Week 7: 11-4
- Week 8: 12-1
- Week 9: 6-7
- Week 10: 12-2 (Spread: 6-8)
- Week 11: 8-6 (Spread: 8-5-1)
- Week 12: 12-4 (Spread: 7-9)
- Week 13: 11-5 (Spread: 10-6)
- Week 14: 6-10 (Spread: 7-9)
- Week 15: 14-2 (Spread: 7-6-3)
- Week 16: 12-4 (Spread: 7-8-1)
- Week 17: 10-6 (Spread: 8-8)
- Wild Card: 3-1 (Spread: 2-2)
- Season: 165-95 (Spread: 62-61-5)