(3) Jacksonville Jaguars at (2) Pittsburgh Steelers
You couldn’t pick two teams more opposite from one another. Pittsburgh is a high-profile, playoff-experienced team with a QB/RB/WR combo that rivals any in the league. Jacksonville hasn’t been in the playoffs in a decade and has a quarterback likely playing out his last days with the team.
When they met back in Week 5, Jacksonville held Pittsburgh to just nine points and picked Ben Roethlisberger off five times, even leading him to question whether he still had it (link). Since then, the Steelers won 10 of 11, only losing a heartbreaker to New England that easily could have been a win. Pittsburgh is home, favored by 7.5, and has a two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback playing at a high level right now. Antonio Brown is expected to be at full strength after a calf injury late in the regular season, and Le’Veon Bell is ready to take on a heavy workload against a defense that surprisingly ranks just 21st in rushing yards allowed.
Jacksonville will try to hide Blake Bortles, which means running Leonard Fournette anywhere from 25-30 times against a Pittsburgh front seven that rated 27th in the league in rushing yards allowed per carry. The Steelers are also without Pro Bowl inside linebacker Ryan Shazier. Fournette rushed for 181 yards and two scores against Pittsburgh earlier this year, including a 90-yard touchdown that sealed the win. It’s Jacksonville’s defense though that got them to the playoffs. That unit is flat out dominant. Four different players on the defensive line racked up at least eight sacks, and Calais Campbell could win Defensive Player of the Year. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye are a shutdown corner duo. Telvin Smith can play all over the field. There’s a reason they led the AFC in points and yards allowed.
It’s going to be a smash-mouth, low-scoring affair that could easily come down to a late field goal. It’s difficult to pick against Pittsburgh. They’re home, they have a better record, a better quarterback, and much more playoff experience.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 17, Jacksonville 13
(5) Tennessee Titans at (1) New England Patriots
No one expected Tennessee to win their first playoff game, especially after they were down 18 at halftime on the road. But then Andy Reid turned into playoff Andy Reid, Marcus Mariota turned in a wild and wacky play, the referees helped the Titans out, and a late fumble return by Kansas City wasn’t what it appeared to be. All of a sudden, one of the weakest playoff teams in recent memory is set to travel to Foxborough to play the defending Super Bowl champions.
Tennessee was in the bottom half in the league in points scored and yards this season, and Mariota was one of the major reasons why their offense struggled. The key to winning this game will be a run-first offense behind Derrick Henry. DeMarco Murray has been ruled out with an MCL tear, which means Henry needs to get 30-plus carries for Tennessee to win this game. After all, the New England defense really isn’t that good – the team finished 31st in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings, 29th in yards allowed, and 31st in rushing yards allowed per carry. A series of questionable trades recently (Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins) has left Bill Belichick with no pass rush – the team signed 39-year-old James Harrison late in the season to bolster its front seven. And the secondary saw Stephen Gilmore flop as a highly-priced corner, with the unit allowing over 4,000 passing yards in all.
Still, when you have Tom Brady on your offense, you’re probably going to win. Brady is battle-tested in the playoffs, fresh off a 25-point Super Bowl comeback and his fifth ring. He struggled down the stretch, but still, he’s going to win his third MVP award as the league’s oldest starter. Brady has led the offense to at least 20 points in 11 straight games. Rob Gronkowski is possibly the most uncoverage player in the league. And Dion Lewis is an underrated running back who can run with the ball and catch passes.
Prediction: New England 31, Tennessee 20
(3) New Orleans Saints at (2) Minnesota Vikings
On the one hand, you have the team no one wants to play – a New Orleans squad that rated No. 1 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings for the season, a team with a Hall of Fame quarterback, a dynamic running back duo, and a vastly underrated defense. On another hand, you have a team that led the league in scoring defense, total defense, won 13 games, and has a chance to play the Super Bowl in its home stadium.
We’d all rather have Drew Brees than Case Keenum. Brees is an experienced postseason quarterback with a ring. He’s thrown for 375 yards in four of his last six playoff games to date. Case Keenum has never started a playoff game. He could implode, but he could also play as well as he’s played all season. Keenum was the team’s third-string quarterback to start the season but finished with a 67.6 completion percentage (second), 20 touchdowns to just seven interceptions, and a 98.3 passer rating (seventh). The weapons are there – Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs – as well as an underrated running game led by Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray.
Historically, home teams that rank first in scoring and total defense fare well in the Divisional Round. The 2014 Seattle Seahawks won both games and advanced to the Super Bowl. The 2013 Seahawks won both home games and then the Super Bowl. The Vikings host a Saints team that typically plays much better at home. I think Minnesota defense will be too much for Brees & Co. The Vikings rank first in defensive DVOA against running backs in the passing game, which is a big part of what the Saints do on offense. They pressure the quarterback very well, and Brees is now without starting lineman Andrus Peat. It’s easy to look at this matchup and pick the Saints because of the quarterback, but the Vikings are home.
Prediction: Minnesota 24, New Orleans 21
(6) Atlanta Falcons at (1) Philadelphia Eagles
I’ve gone back and forth on this game all week. You have the first #1 seed in league history to be a home underdog in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, an obvious testament to what Carson Wentz brought to this team. The Philadelphia Eagles managed to limp into home field advantage on behalf of a nearly unwatchable win over Oakland and then a shutout loss to Dallas to close out the season. Nick Foles was impressive in his first game against the New York Giants, but has failed to capture any magic since then. He’s directed an offense that struggles to move the ball, one that doesn’t seem able to score against a playoff-tested team like Atlanta.
Let’s give the Eagles the benefit of the doubt though. Let’s assume the coaching staff, comprised entirely of former quarterbacks in Doug Pederson (head coach), Frank Reich (offensive coordinator), and John DeFilippo (quarterbacks coach). Pederson was a physically limited quarterback in the NFL. Reich was essentially a career backup. DeFilippo played quarterback in college and has plenty of experience coaching rookie quarterbacks in the NFL – JaMarcus Russell in 2007, Mark Sanchez in 2009, then Derek Carr in 2014. Foles isn’t a rookie quarterback, but he’s playing like one now, and you have to assume the coaching staff is creative enough to put together a game plan that can maximize production from Foles.
Remember the trade for Jay Ajayi? This is the time to use him. Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount form what could be a very formidable 1-2 running back duo in the playoffs. The offensive line is still a strength, and the defense may even be better than what the offense was for the majority of the season. Covering Julio Jones will be difficult. Jalen Mills isn’t good enough to match with him one on one, and putting a safety over top leaves the middle of the field open for Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman.
Fortunately, the Eagles have experience playing Matt Ryan, and they’ve bested him. They’re 3-3 against Ryan since he debuted in this league. In his 2016 MVP campaign, he posted his single-game worst passer rating against Philadelphia (78.7). Ryan is an underrated postseason passer and he’s topped a 100 passer rating in five consecutive playoff games to date, but it’s significantly tougher to play on the road, and it comes on a shortened week for Ryan. It’s also not even close to the ’16 Falcons squad; this Atlanta team has scored an average of 12 fewer points per game and needed a Week 17 victory to even sneak into the playoffs.
Defense and special teams will be huge in this contest. It could easily come down to a long Jake Elliott field goal. A bounce of the ball could decide it. Expect this to be a one-score game in the fourth quarter, just like Foles’ previous playoff game.
Only this time the result is different.
Prediction: Eagles 21, Atlanta 20