ATLANTA @ PHILADELPHIA
Matt Ryan vs. Eagles Pass Rush
The Eagles enter this game as underdogs, a first for a #1 seed heading into the Divisional Round. Obviously, they haven’t been the same team offensively since their team (and potential league) MVP Carson Wentz went down with a torn ACL.
Offensive struggles aside, the Eagles still possess one of the league’s staunchest defensive units – ranked #1 in opposing rush yards per game (79.2). After watching Devonte Freeman & Tevin Coleman struggle against a Rams defense that had their issues stopping the run all season, it’s hard to picture the Falcons torching this Eagles unit on the ground – Apart from a 22-yard run (his longest), Freeman ran 17 times for 44 yards last week vs. the Rams. Coleman ran 14 times for 40 yards.
Matt Ryan needs to be the Falcons catalyst in this game. Expect him to use his running backs in the passing game, mixing in screens and release routes to help control the Eagles pass rush. If given time to survey the field, he will find open targets.
For Philly, if Nick Foles is unable to sustain drives and convert on third down, it won’t take long for the defense to lose steam and get fatigued. Time of possession will be a key stat to watch.
Finally, keep an eye on the weather…could be a cold, windy affair in Philadelphia which could affect both team’s passing and kicking games.
Prediction – Falcons by 8
TENNESSEE @ NEW ENGLAND
Marcus Mariota vs. Patriots Front Seven
All good things must come to an end…whether the end of the Patriots dynastical run comes this Saturday remains to be seen.
The Titans have (hopefully) been watching on repeat the Jacksonville Jaguars 1996 upset of the Denver Broncos. Teams have produced some truly odds-defying performances in the past. It will take another one on the part of the Titans to beat New England…regardless of who is and isn’t texting and talking to one another inside the Foxboro walls.
In order for Tennessee to pull off an upset, they will need Marcus Mariota to be special – say, two self-tossed touchdowns special. Only two players have beaten Tom Brady at home in the playoffs: Joe Flacco (twice), and Mark Sanchez (?????????). It’s an exclusive club.
Run the ball, run it some more, and then some more. That has to be the Titans game plan – keep Brady off the field. The Patriots finished the season as the 20th ranked rush defense, but in their last 3 games have been the 6th best at stopping the run. Mariota will need to be a dual threat in this game, along with a healthy dose of Derrick Henry. Getting Mariota outside the pocket is a must to keep the Patriots defense on their heels.
I expect the Titans to put up a valiant effort early, but the Patriots ultimately run away with this one in the second half.
Prediction – Patriots by 14
JACKSONVILLE @ PITTSBURGH
Jalen Ramsay vs. Antonio Brown
This game provides viewers many intriguing matchups, including Bortles vs. himself, or Big Ben vs. a defense that picked him off five times in their prior meeting. Lev Bell vs. a Jags defense that, for all their pass defending prowess, did not defend the run nearly as well.
Coming off a wild-card weekend win that saw them give up 130 yards on the ground, Sacksonville will need to first stop the run before thinking about pinning their ears back and rushing Roethlisberger.
Speaking of wild-cards…
…Antonio Brown, the league’s undisputed best wide-receiver returns to the field, only several weeks removed from suffering a reported torn calf muscle. While he claims to be 100%, I have my doubts. Don’t expect the Jags to take any chances though. Brown is quite possibly the most puzzling code to crack for NFL defenses, so look for Jacksonville to put their code-breaker, Jalen Ramsay on #84.
The Jags shocked the league earlier this year when they traveled into Heinz Field and thrashed the Steelers. I just don’t see them doing it again. They have a stellar defense, but a Blake Bortles led offense will not score enough in this game to get the W.
Prediction – Steelers by 10
NEW ORLEANS @ MINNESOTA
Drew Brees vs. Vikings Third Down Defense
Saving the best for last, this showdown between week one opponents figures to be an epic clash. The Saints boast one of the league’s most dynamic offenses while the Vikings defense has feasted on opposing offenses all season long, especially at home (248 opposing yards per game & 12.5 opposing points per game).
While their earlier meeting has been brought up in the build-up to this playoff contest, both teams have undergone significant changes. For one, the week one Saints had Adrian Peterson. The Vikings were led by Sam Bradford and Dalvin Cook back then. None of them will be a factor on Sunday – though reports suggest Bradford will be active.
Unlike in years past, Drew Brees now has had help all over the field. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram have formed a lethal duo in the backfield, to compliment wide-receiver Michael Thomas. And the Saints finally have a defense. So many things have changed…one thing that hasn’t though? – the Vikings defensive dominance. Something’s gotta give.
Often lost in the discussion of defensive dominance is Minnesota’s offensive competence under Case Keenum. At home this season, the Vikings averaged nearly 25 points per game. Don’t expect the Saints to eclipse 25 points against this defense, in what will undoubtedly be a hostile environment. They will need to establish the run, something few teams have been successful at doing this season against Minnesota (83.6 yds/game, dropping to 55 yds/game at home).
Finally, no defense was better at getting off the field than the Vikings this season, holding opponents to a 23% third-down conversion rate at home. The Saints only managed to convert on 37% of their third-down attempts, though they were better on the road (43%).
Predicition – Vikings by 6