After a Wild Card Weekend of upsets and entertaining affairs, the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs features plenty of heavy favorites facing seemingly overmatched opponents.
In the AFC, the Steelers and Patriots are expected to handle their business this weekend and set up a meeting between the two in the AFC Championship. New England is a -13.5 point favorite, and while the oddsmakers are giving the Jaguars a slightly better chance of an upset against Pittsburgh, nobody is realistically expecting Blake Bortles to upset the Steelers and their star studded offense.
Over in the NFC, the injury to Carson Wentz and the insertion of Nick Foles at quarterback hurts the excitement level of a Falcons-Eagles game that could be the funeral for the Eagles season.
New Orleans’ trip to Minnesota to face Case Keenum and the Vikings will serve as the marquee game of the quartet of divisional round matchups. The battle between the Vikings and Saints provides the most even matchup on paper and the quarterback battle between Brees and Keenum offers an intriguing storyline to follow.
Before this weekend’s games, here are my picks and breakdowns of all four divisional round clashes.
New England Patriots vs. Tennessee Titans
It needs to be said before previewing this matchup that nobody expects the Tennessee Titans to win this game. For good reason, the New England Patriots have a track record of avoiding any funny business in the AFC Divisional Round over the course of the Bill Belichick Era.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) January 12, 2018
While the Titans defied expectations in their second-half comeback against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium to get past the Wild Card, a trip to Foxboro to face the well-rested Patriots is an entirely different animal.
Tennessee won’t be able to afford another slow start and will need a perfect game to beat a Patriots team motivated by a narrative of dissention amongst their ranks. Something that is unlikely from a Titants team haunted by Marcus Mariota turnovers throughout the second half of the season.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s defense and the running game of Derrick Henry may keep things respectable. However, the Patriots unstoppable record after the playoff bye in Foxboro provides an insurmountable task for a Titans team that is fortunate to even be here after overcoming the odds to upset the Chiefs.
There will be no miracle, but the Titans should hang around and keep things within a couple scores. The dream is for things to be close in the fourth quarter in the game most expected to be a blowout of the four divisional round games.
Pick: Titans +13.5
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jacksonville Jaguars survived a terrible offensive output in the Wild Card round against the Buffalo Bills and will now try to replicate their Week 5 blowout of the Pittsburgh Steelers in an intriguing rematch.
Despite the Jaguars strong season and convincing regular season win over the Steelers, they enter Sunday’s game at Heinz Field as decided underdogs. Deservedly so after the Jags’ putrid display against the Bills, where Bortles nearly threw away their season against an awful and banged up Buffalo team.
There is an interesting subplot looming in the Pittsburgh looker room with Friday’s report that Le’Veon Bell may sit if the Steelers attempt to franchise tag him again for the 2018 season. The timing of the report is unfortunate for the Steelers and provides a potential glimpse of dysfunction entering the playoffs.
I’m trying to win a super bowl…I can care less about what happens after this season…my biggest thing I’m focused on is this team I’m on right now, playing for/with my brothers, & bringing back a 7th ring! what happens next year is irrelevant to my goals
— Le'Veon Bell (@L_Bell26) January 11, 2018
If Jacksonville’s defense can disrupt the Steelers explosive offense and Leonard Fournette can replicate his dominant outing from Week 5 on the playoff stage, the Jaguars have an incredible chance to win this game. If they get an improved performance from Bortles – an unlikely proposition based on his career and recent play – they will end the Steelers season in a game where the Jaguars should not be counted out.
Pick: Jags +7
Philadelphia Eagles vs. Atlanta Falcons
The opening game of the weekend slate features the surging Atlanta Falcons and their redemption story from last year’s Super Bowl and the top seed Philadelphia Eagles. A top seed that will be without their MVP caliber quarterback in Carson Wentz and now are reliant on Nick Foles to guide them through the playoffs.
Without Wentz and much to play for in the final weeks of the regular season, the Eagles struggled mightily on offense. Week 17’s 6-0 loss to the Cowboys sent the Eagles into the playoffs with negative momentum and head coach Doug Pederson has a tough task in putting his team back together for a run at the Super Bowl.
Alshon Jeffery said he's "definitely" more confident in @Eagles QB Nick Foles this week but is everyone as convinced?
— GMFB (@gmfb) January 11, 2018
On the inverse, the Falcons are entering Saturday afternoon’s game as an on fire Wild Card team. Battle tested and with the motivation of last year’s loss to the Patriots, the Falcons stopped the young Rams in their tracks and will look to the do the same with the Eagles.
It is a shame this game won’t feature Wentz as the battle between Ryan and the young Wentz would have made for an instant playoff classic. Instead, the Falcons are set to roll into Philadelphia and add to the long history of Eagles playoff heartbreaks. Left to Foles to salvage their season, the Eagles are doomed to wonder ‘What If’ on what looked like a potential championship season.
Pick: Falcons -3
Minnesota Vikings vs. New Orleans Saints
Super Bowl hosts, the Minnesota Vikings begin their quest to make history and become the first team to play in the Super Bowl in their home city with a marquee matchup against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.
After years of regression, the Saints have their best team since their championship season and won a difficult NFC South before dispatching a division rival a final time in the Wild Card with a home win over the Carolina Panthers.
Now, the Saints will look to survive on the road in a game that will be defined by the matchup of the two quarterbacks. Brees – the Super Bowl winner and future Hall of Famer – against the Cinderella story of unlikely Vikings starter Case Keenum.
Keenum stepped in for Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer in the face of injuries to both Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater and never looked back. Reviving the form that made him a college cult hero at Houston that brought back memories of the Cougars Air Raid offense of the 90s, Keenum lifted the Vikings to a division title.
Keenum’s play kept Bridgewater on the sidelines and now the Vikings will hope his dream season continues into the playoffs. The story inspires memories of Tom Brady and Kurt Warner’s rises to prominence and armed with an elite defense and electric downfield weapons such as Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph, the Vikings are built for a Super Bowl run.
It is hard to believe, but the Vikings are the NFC team best built to head to the Super Bowl and would make for an unique storyline as a true home team. The burden of past playoff disappointments and Keenum’s inexperience are weaknesses that can be overcome at home against the Saints to continue the Vikings run.
Pick: Vikings -5