Every analyst will tell you this week to pick the teams with the best quarterbacks in each matchup. That means the Falcons, Patriots, Saints and Steelers win easy.
Is that it? Is it really that easy?
Of course not! If picking football games were that easy, Vegas wouldn’t be Vegas and you’re home wouldn’t be your mom’s crib.
Sidebar: Ya boy went 3-1 overall and against the spread last week, and sits at 14-6 in the Divisional Round all-time.
Atlanta Falcons (#6) (-3) at Philadelphia Eagles (#1)
The Falcons pulled off a road upset last week, as predicted in our Wildcard column. The experience factor was staring everyone in the face—it just came down to whether or not you bought into it. The overall experience advantage isn’t nearly this vast for the Falcons this week, but the Eagles are being counted out by the population as their star quarterback is on the shelf for the season.
While Carson Wentz is a major reason for the Eagles’ success, he’s far from the only reason. The talent around Wentz afforded him the opportunity to be incredibly efficient, and he capitalized beautifully.
It’s worth noting Philadelphia has arguably the best run game in football, the focal point of which should be Jay Ajayi, a midseason acquisition from the Miami Dolphins. Ajayi split time with LaGarrette Blount and (to a lesser extent) Corey Clement upon arriving in Philly, but he’s averaged nearly 6.0 yards per carry since joining the Illadelph. The shrewd move would be for coach Doug Pederson to finally unleash Ajayi for their playoff push without Wentz. Why make the move if you’re not gonna give him 20+ carries now?
Philly also has the fourth ranked defense and was fourth in takeaways in 2017. And even as the world piles on Nick Foles, he just threw many Wentz owners into their fantasy championship with a four TD performance a mere three weeks ago.
Atlanta will likely catch a break as the weather will be fairly warm for a January weekend in Philly, but this week’s opponent ain’t “just happy to be here”. The Eagles went 13-3 for a reason, and THEY ARE PISSED! They literally compared their treatment from the media to that of THE CLEVELAND BROWNS…only PURE SAVAGERY can result from that level of disrespect!
The Falcons still have Ryan, Julio, a good defense and another significant experience edge at QB and head coach. But unlike last week, every Tom, Dick & Harry is on them now. And you mean to tell me, according to ESPN the Eagles are the first top seed in NFL history to enter its opening playoff game as an underdog?? Nah, ock—you ride with that jawn.
Tennessee Titans (#5) at New England Patriots (#1) (-13.5)
So…how do the Titans do this?
Pulling off a win in Kansas City after being down 21-3 was essentially their championship. The Titans played exceptionally well in the second half (outscoring KC 19-0 in the last 30 minutes), but think about what had to happen for this to come to pass:
- The Chiefs best pass catcher, Travis Kelce, (s/o Heights High School) left the game in the second quarter.
- Mr. 13 TD Passes in 15 Games, Marcus Mariota, threw a touchdown to himself!
- The NFL’s leading rusher, Kareem Hunt, (s/o Willoughby South High School) basically vanished into thin air thanks to questionable play-calling (not questionable enough to prevent the OC from receiving multiple job offers though).
- An obvious sack/fumble was butchered by the officials so badly, the head referee RETIRED AFTER THE GAME!
And of course, DeMarco Murray had to miss the game due to injury, so the superior Derrick Henry could run wild. We mentioned last week this was the Titans only shot at making it a game—they’ll have to duplicate that strategy against the two-touchdown-favorite New England Patriots.
The Pats are allegedly in the midst of turmoil. Brady, Belichick and Kraft are “fighting” like it’s the Real Housewives of Nantucket. The sky is falling…but they’re still the Pats. They still have Tom Brady, who will start his 35th playoff game on Saturday. For perspective, you could add Ben Roethlisberger’s and Drew Brees’ playoff experience to Mariota’s, and it’s still less than Brady’s.
In order to keep the future MVP off the field, Tennessee will have to pound Henry even more than last week (it’s what Nick Saban would do). Mariota must protect the ball, and Tennessee can’t fall behind like they did last week because the Pats won’t beat themselves. It can be done; the Pats 4.7 ypc allowed is second worst in football. And the Patriots D only excelled against weaker opponents.
It won’t be enough. The Patriots are beatable this year, but they will win and cover on Saturday, just to prove the point that they can still transform ridiculous headlines into playoff jet fuel.
Jacksonville Jaguars (#3) at Pittsburgh Steelers (#2) (-7.5)
ICYMI, here’s the Jaguars whoopin on the Steelers in Pittsburgh back in October.
What will be different on Sunday? Well, the Jags probably won’t pick off Roethlisberger five times (two were tipped, a third came when the receiver fell down), the Jags probably won’t score two defensive touchdowns, Leonard Fournette probably won’t run for 181 yards again and Le’Veon Bell will probably churn out more than 93 total yards on 25 touches.
But it doesn’t mean the Jaguars won’t win.
Despite the fact Blake Bortles’ performance last week would lead one to think he was playing with a separated right shoulder, the Jacksonville defense held Buffalo to exactly three points (after we said they’d struggle to reach 14). They forced two turnovers, held LeSean McCoy to 75 yards and under 4.0 ypc, and no receiver reached 45 yards.
The Jags are a young, Florida team going up to face an AFC blue blood in frigid temperatures. Luckily, they’re built like an AFC North team. Defense travels, and Jacksonville easily has the best D left in the conference.
Bortles finished 8-14 for 95 yards and a pick in October and his team won going away. Don’t expect him to look like Dan Marino, but it’s hard to imagine him being this bad again. He had five games on the year with a passer rating north of 119 and all he’s heard all week is how much he sucks. He’ll be facing a Steelers D still without Ryan Shazier (their defensive heart & soul mind you, or is that Mike Mitchell now?). The only team to finish with more sacks than the Jags was Pittsburgh, but both finished near the top of the NFL in allowing the fewest sacks.
This contest may come down to Antonio Brown and Leonard Fournette. Neither player will be 100% Sunday—the team with the man who looks most like himself will have a distinct advantage. It’s also imperative Jacksonville packs that swagger and gets out to a strong start defensively.
If you’re gambling, this is a classic stay away. For the sake of this column, grab the Jags and the points. Their all-world defense should keep it close, and this Pittsburgh team that’s played down to their competition all season finally gets burned as Jacksonville narrowly pulls the upset.
New Orleans Saints (#4) at Minnesota Vikings (#2) (-5)
Ordinarily you’d love to have a Southern dome team travel north for an outdoor game in January—too bad the Vikings don’t have that advantage anymore. The trade off is you get the host the Super Bowl.
Even though Minnesota (the only team currently operating with a backup quarterback AND running back) is ceding their advantage as a cold weather team by playing in a dome, they are a healthy favorite over a Saints team most seem to have picked to win. The Vikes are riding arguably the league’s best defense into the playoffs—a defense that allowed the fewest yards and points. You can’t take much out of their Week 1 matchup though because the Saints barely knew who they were.
The Saints’ identity turned out be a run-first power football team that has the capability of beating you with the pass; they’re basically last year’s Dallas Cowboys but with a far more accomplished quarterback. And that’s why they’re so dangerous. Carolina dared Drew Brees to beat them. He did. And if there’s one thing to take from the opening Monday Night Football of the season, it’s New Orleans putting up 19 points on this defense, on the road, before they even knew who they were. Hell, they were still screwing around with Adrian Peterson at that point.
Minnesota’s defense is transcendent, and their flankers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen is the best receiver tandem in football. Though Thielen had the better year, Diggs is actually one of the five best wide receivers in the league (yeah, I said it: AB, OBJ, Hopkins, Julio and Diggs—apologies to A.J. Green). He just needs more opportunities to shine, although, he torched the Saints in Week 1. This duo has allowed Case Keenum to thrive to the point he received faint MVP buzz.
Keenum is the X-factor. The journeyman QB had never completed 61% of his passes or thrown 10 TDs in a season, but went for 67% and 22 scores in 2017. Of course, he’s never played a playoff game.
Vikings fans should be wary (and not just because Minnesota has a lengthy history of gut-punch playoff defeats).
Sidebar: No shade, Minny fans. But this video was too funny not to include.
Case Keenum is the type of player to totally fall on his face in the playoffs. Not because he’s not good, but because he’s 29. Six seasons, 38 career starts and 29-years-old—that’s exactly long enough to have been in the NFL and fully comprehend the stakes. He’s not a vet that’s been there before (like Brees); he’s not a rook that’s so young he doesn’t feel the pressure (like Dak Prescott last year). Keenum will feel this game and the weight of its expectations. It happens sometimes in sports—look no further than Deron Williams and Kyle Korver in the 2017 NBA Finals. Maybe Keenum responds, but the smart money is on Case being dismissed.
The Saints proved their toughness last week, winning a competitive playoff game against a recent Super Bowl participant; they’ll prove it again this week in the de facto NFC title game.
Kenneth’s Picks: Patriots, Falcons, Jaguars, Saints
Anthony’s Picks: Patriots, Falcons, Steelers, Saints