And then there were 8! This weekend the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs gets underway, and we here at the Turf are gonna breakdown what to look for in these games.
Saturday, January 13th
Atlanta Falcons (#6) @ Philadelphia Eagles (#1)
4:35 PM – NBC
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Whew, here come the Falcons. After having a bit of a drop off season after last year’s Super Bowl run, Atlanta is back with a vengeance. Last week’s game against the Los Angeles Rams proved just how important experience is in the playoffs. The Rams were the upstart team this year, surprising everyone as they took over the NFC, but when it counts, people have performed in those high pressure games know how to shut out the noise. The Rams committed too many careless errors, and the Falcons were too poised. So how does that play out as we look a week later?
Which Nick Foles is gonna show up?
We’ve seen Nick Foles be an assassin…in the regular season. Twice now as a backup for the Eagles he’s proven that he has some talent when he wants to. He’s also shown that he can throw errant passes, make boneheaded decisions, and generally be the weak link on a team keeping them from winning. I’d also say that Foles is almost certainly going to be that in the playoffs. He’s going to have to play a nearly perfect game, too, because…
The Falcons Secondary is playing Lights Out
Last week we saw the Falcons secondary take over that game. Robert Alford will be able to do to Alshon Jeffrey what he did to Sammy Watkins, and Trufont is more than capable of handling Agholor or Smith, whoever he draws from play to play. I think Jared Goff is a far superior quarterback to Nick Foles, and I think Goff was taken out of the game by the Falcons secondary.
Can the Eagles Backfield take control?
The Eagles might have the most talented core of runners in the league. All 5 of the runners could make the roster on any other team, and because there’s 5 of them, if used properly they can be fresh all game. If LeGarrette Blount can do his steamroller thing, and Jay Ajayi can have those strong outside runs while breaking tackles, and then Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement, and Kenjon Barner can catch? I think the Falcons are going to have a hard time when the fourth quarter rolls around.
When the dust settles I think the Falcons are moving on to the NFC Championship for the second year in a row. This team has come together at just the right time, and the Eagles seem lost without Carson Wentz at the helm. I think this isn’t even really a contest. Falcons win it 24 – 10.
Tennessee Titans (#5) @ New England Patriots (#1)
8:15 PM – CBS
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Pretty much all of the pundits are counting the Patriots as moving on to the AFC Championship. You can count me among them…sort of. I do think the Patriots will win but I don’t think it will be a cakewalk.
Can Marcus Mariota get to the Red Zone?
Marcus Mariota is the best quarterback in the NFL when in the Red Zone. The Patriots are on the lower half of the league as far as yards allowed goes. This is a recipe for disaster. Now Matt Patricia has shown that he can hold teams to field goals, but Mariota is an assassin. If the Titans can drive the field, the Patriots are going to have trouble.
Do the Patriots come out with a fire?
It’s been said many times, but I will be someone to echo it, the Patriots play to where they believe their opponents are. I think this works both ways, teams are so excited to topple the champs that they play up to their potential, but the Patriots leave teams in games far too often, and sometimes find themselves with a surprising loss from a team who wanted it more. The Patriots need to come out quick, put the game away, and then play keep away. If the Titans gain any kind of lead, this could go differently than anyone thinks.
Can the Patriots stop the running backs?
If Derrick Henry is contained, I can’t see a single way that the Titans win this game. If Henry is able to wreak havoc like he has so often this season, then the Patriots will start to eyeball him a little too hard and we’ll see a deep ball past Gilmore that no one saw coming. The Titans have a dangerous man back there, and a quarterback who’s smart and conservative with the ball. Those are the Patriots’ Achilles heel every time. If the Patriots can’t lock up Henry and make the Play Action useless, then the Titans will be much more effective on offense than anyone is giving them credit for.
When all is said and done, I think the Patriots come out strong, and I think they take a sizable early lead. I’m talking 21-0 in the first half. I think the Titans get mad, and they get desperate, and I think the Patriots accidentally let them back in. The Patriots win on a field goal at the end of the game, 31-28. Because no one gives us playoff drama like the damned Patriots.
Sunday, January 14th
Jaguars (#3) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (#2)
1:05 PM – CBS
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Aren’t the Jaguars fun? I mean all season they have been a blast to watch. Despite being young, despite having one of the worst franchise records over the last 10 seasons, they showed up this year to play. They did all of it without their best player. So what should we look for this week?
Which Blake Bortles shows up?
Do I sound like a broken record yet? With these teams with unproven quarterbacks, in a passer-friendly league, that is the first question. If turnover prone Blake Bortles shows up, then the Jaguars are in for a long, long day. If the Blake Bottles from November shows up, then the Steelers will be reeling
Can Le’Veon Bell carry the team?
This week it was reported that Bell might retire if the Steelers franchise tag him again. If any of that disgruntled employee situation boils over to the actual team? The Steelers are up the creek without a paddle. He is the fulcrum on which the team pivots. He’s the safety valve that allows Antonio Brown to be the Hall of Famer that he is. This team isn’t anything without Le’Veon Bell, and if the Jaguars can shut him down? This game is over before it starts.
Can the Jags D maintain their dominance?
This Jaguars Defense is downright scary. They are absolutely flattening quarterbacks with bone crushing sacks, they are getting turnovers at an astronomical rate (imagine if they had a ball security quarterback, their differential would be insane). Their corners can cover anybody anywhere for an entire game. Plus they have incredible subs for when their starters are gassed. This is a dangerous team, and more than almost any other team in the league, they can win football games even when their offense isn’t clicking.
A few weeks ago there was a game between the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers that ended, shall we say, controversially. I was chatting with a good friend of mine, who’s a Steelers fan, about how, despite being a Pats fan, I thought James had made a catch and the refs screwed it up. He thanked me, and said “can’t wait to see you again in the playoffs”. I paused, thought about it and said, “no you won’t.” I proceeded to explain that no matter what the Jaguars would be representing the AFC in the Championship. If the math fell out and the Patriots played them in the Divisional, I think the Patriots lose that game. So, sorry Steelers fans, I know you want another crack at the Pats. But there’s always next year. Jaguars take a surprisingly early lead, and end up winning 31-14.
New Orleans Saints (#4) @ Minnesota Vikings (#2)
4:40 PM – FOX
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It’s weird to think of the Saints as a team people sleep on, but all season I heard fans and pundits alike surprised at their success. The Saints earned their #4 seed, and if the final two weeks of the season had played out slightly differently, they could’ve been much higher. They’re walking into Minnesota to take on the second scariest defense in the NFL, and I think this is the game of the week.
Will the New Orleans backfield control the game?
The Saints have struck gold with Alvin Kamara. That may go down as one of their most brilliant draft choices in recent memory. Add in Mark Ingram and you have a two headed weapon that can hit you in so many ways. Why the Saints thought they needed Adrian Peterson, I’ll never know. With Kamara having the kind of season that should get him Rookie of the Year honors, and Ingram proving to be a steadfast veteran with lots of gas in the tank, they should be able to draw enough coverage to open up some passing lanes for Drew Brees.
Where does Xavier Rhodes play?
The Vikings defense goes through Rhodes. Does he cover Michael Thomas? Is he free coverage on whoever’s lined up #1? Do they allow him to roam and make sure that no one’s coming out of the backfield? I honestly don’t know, but the Saints gameplay has to account for him on every play. I think the Vikings will use him creatively to confuse Brees and hopefully create a couple of mismatches or turnovers.
Can the Saints defense stop Case Keenum?
If you haven’t yet read Case Keenum’s awesome op-ed in The Player’s Tribune, do so now. This guy has battled to get where he is, and now he’s on the brink of taking a team to a super bowl as a backup. (Both top slots in the NFC have this situation, but only the Vikings have trended upwards). He isn’t always the guy, though. The Vikings have a talented enough team to account for Keenum’s shortcomings. If the Saints can keep him throwing to the 3rd and 4th receiver, he’ll make mistakes. Should that happen, and the Saints can capitalize? The Vikings will not get to be the first team to play in a Super Bowl at home.
I don’t think the Saints can do it. The Vikings have truly been the team to beat this season, and I think their team is better set up for the playoffs. This won’t be a shootout because the Vikings won’t let Brees get that far. I think the Vikings win 16 – 10.
I think we end up with an AFC Conference Championship that sees the Jacksonville Jaguars heading to Foxborough to take on the New England Patriots. In the NFC we’ll have the Minnesota Vikings hosting the Atlanta Falcons.