DIVISIONAL ROUND: After a Wild Card Weekend in which not a single favorite covered and two lost outright, we now move on to what is in my opinion the best weekend of the NFL season— the Divisional Round. It’s our final weekend of getting more than two games until September, and the games themselves should be full of intensity, nastiness, and “hair on fire” effort. Come Sunday evening only four teams will remain in the quest for Super Bowl LII.
In the AFC it’s fairly straightforward, as both New England and Pittsburgh are clear favorites so both games will have, to some degree, a David and Goliath quality. That doesn’t mean we should discount the possibility of an upset, of course, but if either home team should lose it would be considered a catastrophic failure on their part and a major surprise in NFL circles.
In the NFC, however, both games feature point spreads of less than a touchdown and should be tightly contested. The Falcons are the first 6-seed to be favored over a 1-seed since the current playoff format was adopted in 1990, a situation that can be chalked up to the Week 14 injury to Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz and the uneven play (to put it kindly) of his replacement, Nick Foles.
The other game— which is the final game of the weekend, New Orleans at Minnesota— should be a dandy. The Vikings have won 11 of their past 12 games and were playing their best football towards the end of the regular season, with their final three victories coming by a combined score of 73-17. They beat the Saints 29-19 way back in Week 1, but that was before the New Orleans defense had found its footing and before Sean Payton fully knew what he had in rookie running back Alvin Kamara (also, Minnesota had a different starting quarterback and starting running back at that time). This might be Drew Brees’ last, best chance to return to the Super Bowl, and it will be fascinating to see him go up against a Minnesota defense that is the NFL’s best by almost any measure.
Here are my thoughts on what should be a terrific weekend of football:
ATLANTA FALCONS @ PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (Atl -3, 41.5)
Recommendation: Under 41.5 at 1.91
The unfortunate Carson Wentz injury has changed the outlook for the Eagles, as Nick Foles has played poorly in relief and the defense, though solid, isn’t the type of dominant unit that can carry a team to the Super Bowl. It will be interesting to see how Philly approaches this game offensively: the passing attack has essentially died under Foles and the Falcons have a quality secondary, so Doug Pederson may decide to go run-heavy with Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount. If successful, that strategy would have the added benefit of keeping Matt Ryan and Julio Jones on the sidelines, and there’s reason to believe it can work— the Falcons surrendered 4.2 yards per rush this season, ranking 19th in the league in that department, and last week they let Rams tailback Todd Gurley roll up 101 yards on just 14 carries.
But Atlanta probably has a hunch that this sort of thing is coming— I don’t think Dan Quinn is expecting Foles to throw the ball 40 times. And the Atlanta defense has exceeded expectations all season, ranking in the top-10 in both yards allowed and points allowed and generally looking nothing like the unit that was universally regarded as the team’s weak link over the past few years. They’ve been especially good lately, surrendering 20 points or fewer in six of the team’s past seven contests, and last week they held an extremely dangerous Rams offense nearly 17 points below its season average.
The Falcons offense, on the other hand, has been a disappointment: they averaged 12 fewer points per game this season than they did last season, a startling backslide, and last week’s 26-point outburst was a bit deceiving because they were aided so much by L.A.’s mistakes. The Rams actually ended up outgaining the Falcons, and Matt Ryan threw for just 218 yards on 30 attempts. There’s no reason to expect a sudden offensive explosion from Atlanta here, especially when you consider the circumstances: on the road, outdoors in winter weather, and facing a defense that ranked 4th in the NFL in both yards allowed and points allowed this season. This is likely to be a low-scoring defensive struggle, making the Under a sensible play.
TENNESSEE TITANS @ NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (NE -13.5, 47)
Recommendation: New England -13.5 at 1.9
I want to bet on the Titans here, I really do. Nobody likes laying a number like 13.5— there’s just so much that can happen, from injuries to turnovers to the dreaded backdoor cover. I’ve spent much of the week trying to talk myself into a Tennessee bet— the defensive scheme! Derrick Henry! clutch Mariota! Brady’s late-season struggles! 13.5 points!— but in the end I can’t help but feeling like I’d be stuck rooting for something out of the ordinary to happen.
Let’s talk basic facts: the Titans have played poorly for much of the past month, losing three straight games before a season-ending 15-10 win over Jacksonville that earned them a Wild Card berth. They were absolutely awful in the first half of last week’s game in Kansas City, falling behind 21-3 and looking totally overmatched before staging a miraculous 2nd-half comeback. The offense has regressed over the course of the season and can best be described as non-threatening: they rank 23rd in the league in total offense (ypg) and they’ve scored 24 points or fewer in 11 straight games. They’re a plodding, run-first unit that doesn’t produce many big plays in the passing game.
Most of the pro-Tennessee arguments I’ve heard this week mention New England’s season-long defensive numbers, which are not good. Because the Patriots rank near the bottom of the league in yards allowed, they say, the Titans should be able to move the ball and put up some points. But this ignores two key facts: one, the Tennessee offense has been consistently impotent regardless of the opponent. Also, the New England defense is much better than the numbers indicate— ever since a brutal first month, the Pats D has actually been one of the stingiest units in the league, surrendering 17 points or fewer in 10 of the team’s past 12 games.
Also relevant here is the fact that the Patriots have lost only once in that 12-game span, and, critically, 7 of their past 9 wins have come by 17 points or more. So even though a 13.5-point number feels a little excessive, the fact of the matter is New England wins by that margin quite regularly. This week they’re playing at home, coming off a bye, and facing a team that is inferior in nearly every measurable way. Don’t get cute here— time to bite the bullet and back the better team.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS @ PITTSBURGH STEELERS (Pit -7.5, 41)
Recommendation: Pittsburgh -7.5 at 1.98
The Jags went up to Pittsburgh as a double-digit underdog in Week 5 and smoked the Steelers 30-9, and that game was really a turning point for both teams— it lit a fire under the Steelers, who went on to win their next eight games, and it validated Jacksonville as a legitimate contender. Though they would lose the following week to the Rams, the Jags would then win 7 of their next 8 games to clinch the AFC South and lock up the franchise’s first playoff berth in a decade.
Of course, there’s reason to believe that the Week 5 game was an outlier— Ben Roethlisberger suffered through the worst performance of his career, throwing five interceptions, so Jacksonville was able to cruise to an easy victory despite getting fewer than 100 passing yards from quarterback Blake Bortles. Something tells me Big Ben won’t throw five picks this time around, but as for Bortles… well, he didn’t reach 100 yards passing in last week’s Wildcard Round win over Buffalo, either, and he continues to be the clear weakness on an otherwise dangerous Jacksonville team. The Steelers have surely watched plenty of tape of the Jaguars offense over the past week, and they probably see what everyone else sees: stop Leonard Fournette and the running game, and the Jacksonville offense dies. Despite the run defense taking a slight step back since the loss of Ryan Shazier, the Pittsburgh D is still solid up front and they rank 5th in the league in total yards allowed, so they should be able to handle the pedestrian Jaguars offense without much trouble.
The other side of the ball is where the Jags thrive. Their defense is undeniably dominant, ranking second in the NFL in both yards allowed and points allowed, and they’re especially good in the secondary, so Roethlisberger faces a real challenge here. But the Pittsburgh offense, which sits behind only New England and New Orleans in total yards per game, can hurt you in a lot of different ways. Not only do they have one of the league top passing attacks, but they also have an All-Pro running back in Le’Veon Bell, and the Jags have been mediocre against the run this season, surrendering 116.3 rushing yards per game (21st in NFL) and 4.3 yards per carry. In other words, the Steelers have options— they could win this game in a lot of different ways, while for Jacksonville the path to victory is much more limited. Pittsburgh will be helped by the return of All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown, who has been out since Week 15 with a calf injury but has been practicing this week and, according to teammates, has looked fully healthy.
One other thing bears mentioning here: sub-freezing temperatures are expected in Pittsburgh on Sunday. I’m not sure how big of an effect that will have on the Jags as a whole, considering they’re a run the ball/play defense type of team and those teams generally thrive in bad weather, but there’s one rather important member of the team who may not be used to throwing ball in those type of conditions: Blake Bortles. As a native Floridian who played college ball at Central Florida and has spent his entire pro career in Jacksonville, Bortles simply hasn’t played much cold weather football. The thought of trusting him in a situation like this— a road playoff game in sub-freezing temps against a top-10 defense— is almost laughable. I have a lot of respect for the Jacksonville defense and it wouldn’t surprise me if they managed to keep this one competitive for awhile, but the Steelers aren’t losing this game. And if Bortles doesn’t do a good job of protecting the football, this one could get ugly.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS @ MINNESOTA VIKINGS (Min -5, 45)
Recommendation: New Orleans +5 at 1.92
This game is a must-watch for any NFL fan, as these teams are the class of the NFC right now and this is a strength vs. strength matchup: the fearsome Minnesota defense vs. the explosive New Orleans offense. The Vikings lead the league in both yards allowed and points allowed, surrendering just 15.8 ppg, while the Saints average 28 points per game and rank second in the NFL in total offense, behind only New England. Something’s gotta give.
These teams met on this very field way back in Week 1, and the Vikings came away with a 29-19 victory. Both teams were very different, however: New Orleans had not yet figured things out on either side of the ball, as Sean Payton didn’t really know what he had in rookie running back Alvin Kamara (who was then playing behind Adrian Peterson) and so had not yet shifted to the run-heavy attack that would propel the Saints to eleven wins and a division title. On defense, the Saints looked totally lost over the first two weeks of the season before coordinator Dennis Allen shored things up and turned them into a capable unit.
As for the Vikings, they had a different starting quarterback (Sam Bradford) and starting running back (Dalvin Cook) the last time these teams faced off. But Case Keenum has proven to be an effective replacement for Bradford, and the running game has held up better than anyone expected since Cook went down. Still, it’s not the offense that’s making headlines in Minnesota— the defense has been absolutely tremendous, and if the Vikings make a Super Bowl run this year it will be the defense that does the heavy lifting.
But make no mistake: that defense will face its toughest test of the season this week. Not only is the New Orleans offense explosive, it’s also supremely balanced, ranking 5th in the league in both passing yards and rushing yards. Last week the Saints faced the Carolina Panthers, another excellent defensive team, and the Panthers decided to crowd the line of scrimmage in an effort to slow down the Saints rushing attack. The thinking, I guess, was that the running game had carried Drew Brees for most of the season, maybe even “hidden” him if you subscribe to the theory that Brees is starting to decline. Well, all Brees did last week was go 22/33 for 376 yards and two touchdowns. So much for that theory, eh? And when it comes down to it, the difference between the two quarterbacks— and the 5-point number— is what pushes me over the edge here. I expect this to be a close, hard-fought game— an “instant classic”, possibly— and it’s just difficult for me to back Case Keenum over Brees in a situation like this, especially when you throw in five points as a sweetener. Don’t be surprised if those points come in handy.