There is much excitement revolving around this weekend’s divisional playoff games. The parity of the NFC will be on full display with two great match ups. On the other side we have the AFC powerhouse teams (Patriots, Steelers) taking on the AFC Cinderella teams (Titans, Jaguars). Each game has its own story line or drama surrounding it, making it must see TV for football fans.
Falcons vs Eagles
This game figures to be the most intriguing of the playoffs. We have the NFC’s #1 seed, the Philadelphia Eagles hosting the # 6 seed, Atlanta Falcons. Both teams are out to prove their critics wrong. The Falcons are out to forget their biggest collapse in Super Bowl history and bring home the Lombardi trophy. A Falcon’s Super Bowl win would definitely remove the “28-3” label hanging over their heads. The Philadelphia Eagles were the strongest team throughout the whole season, until Carson Wentz’s season ending injury. Since the injury, the Eagles have not had the same type of offensive chemistry, struggling against the Oakland Raiders, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys. Considering all of this, the Eagles are out to prove their team is built well enough to win the NFC and play in the Super Bowl.
Players to Watch
Julio Jones vs Eagles Secondary
In the last 3 weeks of the regular season, the Eagles have shown some weaknesses in their secondary. Julio Jones is one the most dominating wideouts in the NFL. Once he gets on a roll, he can be hard to stop. Jones is coming off a strong performance last week, amounting for 9 receptions, 94 yards, 1 TD against the Rams stout defense. Jones is the perfect wide receiver to exploit those weaknesses in the Eagles secondary. If the Eagles cannot cover Jones, he will be destined for a big game.
Jay Ajayi vs ATL run defense
All season long, the Eagles running backs have been one the strengths of the offense and it became stronger with the addition of Jay Ajayi. If the Eagles defense is able to contain Matt Ryan and keep Julio Jones from becoming an impact player, then they should heavily rely on their rushing attack. This is where Ajayi comes into play. Ajayi had earlier success against the Falcons this season as a member of the Miami Dolphins. He rushed 26 times for 130 yards. He should feel confident going into this playoff matchup as the Falcons gave up 101 yards through the ground to Todd Gurley.
Nick Foles vs Falcons defense
This match up provides the most questions. Nick Foles once threw for 7 touchdowns as a member of the Eagles. Can he repeat a performance like that in the playoffs? Were his sub-par performances in the regular season a fluke? We will find out this weekend. His success will determine how far the Eagles can go in these playoffs.
The Falcons will be tough to stop this week. Given the Eagles recent struggles on offense and their inability to find chemistry with Nick Foles this will be the death of the Eagles playoff chances. The Falcons are also riding high on an impressive win against the Rams and their confidence to repeat as NFC Champs will push them through to championship weekend. Falcons squeak by in a close and hard fought defensive game, Falcons 24-20.
Titans vs Patriots
The second game on Saturday will be the Tennessee Titans traveling to Foxborough to take on the New England Patriots. Although the Patriots were on a bye week, their team remained in news headlines. Controversy surfaced late last week surrounding Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft on the decision to trade QB backup Jimmy Garoppolo. This could be the type of distraction that could result in a disappointing loss. On the other side we have the Tennessee Titans who are coming off an impressive comeback win against the Kansas City Chiefs. This matchup favors the Patriots in almost every phase but it will be interesting to see how the team plays with the recent controversy hanging over their heads.
Players to Watch
Tom Brady vs Titans defense
Tom Brady is considered to be the most clutch QB in NFL history and is destined for another Super Bowl appearance. With the recent controversy surrounding Brady, it will be interesting to see how he comes out and performs. If Brady struggles in any way, it could result in a Titans victory.
Rob Gronkowski vs Titans defense
Gronk is known for his dominance in the playoffs and his matchup is a favorable one. The Titans defense had a difficult time covering Travis Kelce last week. Given the similarities in Gronk’s and Kelce’s game, this figures to be huge matchup for the Patriots. If the Titans can’t stop Gronk, it will result in a huge performance for this stud tight end.
Marcus Mariota vs. Patriots defense
Marcus Mariota’s performance last week was less than stellar but he did just enough to win the game. Mariota provided a great block in the final 2 minutes to spring RB, Derrick Henry for a game clinching first down. This is the type of play in the playoffs that can spark a team with confidence. More plays like this have to occur in order for the Titans to have any chance on beating the defending champs. Mariota has to limit the turnovers and display his athleticism. If the Patriots begin to worry about Mariota’s play, then Henry can have success in the rushing game. Mariota’s success will determine how competitive the Titans can be.
The Patriots will be too much for the Titans. Brady has historically shown (deflategate) that he can block out controversy and only focus on the game in front of him. I think this game will be no different and the Patriots passing attack will be too difficult to contain. Patriots 34-13
Jaguars vs Steelers
This will be a rematch game for the Steelers, who lost to the Jaguars in blowout fashion in Week 5. The Jaguars hope to repeat this performance so they can advance to the AFC championship game. The Jags defense has carried their team to their first playoff appearance since 2007. The Steelers are coming into this game well rested and reunited with their best playmaker, Antonio Brown. It will be interesting to see how Ben Roethlisberger plays against this defense after his 5-interception game vs the Jags. It is rare for a QB to throw 5 interceptions in any game and I expect that won’t happen. This figures to be a physical game full of trash talking and scuffles. In the words of Bart Scott, “Can’t wait!!!”.
Players to Watch
Ben Roethlisberger vs Jaguars defense
Big Ben will be taking on the 2nd ranked defense on Sunday. Although the Jags defense consists of a scary front seven and talented secondary, the Steelers have plenty of play-making wide receivers that can take the pressure off. In order for Big Ben to have success, he must remain upright and utilize short quick routes that result in yards after catch.
Antonio Brown vs Jalen Ramsey
This is a two for one special. Both players are difference makers on the field and both can dictate the outcome of a game. This match up can be considered as the NFL’s best wide receiver vs NFL’s best corner back. It will be interesting to see how effective Brown will be, coming off the calf injury he sustained at the end of the season. Brown has consistently shown that he can beat double and triple coverages. If Brown starts fast, it will be very difficult to contain him. On the other hand, if Brown turns out to be not as healthy as he claims, Ramsey can be capable of shutting Brown down. If Ramsey is able to contain Brown, then Big Ben will have to turn to other receivers, possibly throwing him off his game plan. The Jags have shown they can be an elite defense. Steelers safety, Mike Mitchell’s recently commented on guaranteeing an AFC championship victory vs the Patriots. This comment can fuel the Jags to win this game and have the Steelers regret overlooking their current opponent.
This will be a much closer game than their previous match up. Steelers have a great offense and although they face a tough defense, they will be more productive than the Jaguars offense, giving them the slight edge. The deciding factor could be a last second field goal. Steelers 17-16
Saints vs Vikings
This match up offers two equally strong teams in the NFC. These teams faced off in Week 1 of the regular season. This regular season game cannot predict a winner because the first weeks of the NFL season are usually the time teams are finding out how good they can be. Now let’s fast-forward to Sunday. The Saints are coming off a hard fought victory against their division rival, the Carolina Panthers. The Minnesota Vikings had a bye week and now begin their journey on becoming the first NFL team to play in their home stadium in the Super Bowl. This match up offers the 2nd ranked Saints offense vs the 1st ranked Vikings defense. Both teams counter each other beautifully, making this a must watch game. Vikings QB Case Keenum has surprised many by his emergence and it will be exciting to see if he can continue his success. The Saints on the other hand, now have a respectable defense making them a complete team. The Saints have not had a great offense and good defense since their Super Bowl season in 2009. This game has the makings of a heavy weight fight and will be great way to close out the NFL divisional round.
Players to Watch
Drew Brees vs Vikings defense
Brees will have a very tough match up this week going up against the #1 ranked defense. Brees is used to taking on pressure and delivering his throws as he gets hit so he won’t be rattled. The key to his success will come on having enough time in the pocket. If his offensive line gives him enough time to go deep to Michael Thomas or Tedd Ginn Jr., then the Vikings will pay.
Case Keenum vs Saints defense
This year Case Keenum has shown the NFL that he has great poise, athleticism, and pocket presence. The Vikings chances on winning this game will come down to how effective Keenum can be. Keenum will have to go toe to toe with one of the league’s best passers and keep up with the Saints scoring. On the Brightside, the Saints do not have a great defensive pass rush, if Keenum can scramble or move within the pocket then it can prove to be very successful outing.
Alvin Kamara vs. Vikings defense
The Vikings will provide a stout rush defense, limiting the rushing yards for both Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. The Saints must remain patient and attempt to find weaknesses. One way of breaking them down, will be to utilize Kamara as a pass catching threat. Kamara has displayed great hands and vision, catching out of the backfield this season. Making the Vikings worry about Kamara will open up chances for playmakers Michael Thomas or Tedd Ginn Jr.
The Saints will strongly utilize Kamara and the tight ends giving them the slight advantage. In my opinion the Saints have the better Quarterback, running backs, and wide receivers, which could result in struggles for the Vikings defense. Saints 27-21
It will be interesting to see how this divisional weekend unfolds. By Sunday evening this playoff picture will begin to clear up. The world will know who the top 2 teams in the hard fought NFC are or whether the AFC Cinderella teams were pretenders or contenders. No matter the outcomes, we are in for a good conference championship weekend.