Even if your team was sent home, you have to admit, the Wild Card round of this year’s NFL playoffs was pretty fantastic. Only one of the four games was decided by more than one score, with nearly all of them coming down to one final deciding drive. Hell, even that two-score game between the Falcons and Rams could have been won by Los Angeles in the last couple of minutes. In short, last weekend gave us everything we could’ve wanted from the first round of an NFL playoffs in terms of competitiveness (I’d say “excitement” as well but holy shit was that Bills-Jaguars game boring).
Now that we’ve weeded out the worst of this year’s playoff teams, it’s time for the best of them to jump in. After having an extra week to prepare, the Eagles, Patriots, Steelers, and Vikings will all seek to defend their home field against the lower-seeded invaders. Given the matchups, it looks like we might have another set of tight games ahead of us, and here’s what to look out for during each one.
Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles, Saturday, January 13 @ 4:35 pm EST
I’m not gonna lie: I was pulling for the Rams to beat the Falcons for a couple of reasons. Reason #1: I owe my fantasy football life to Todd Gurley. Reason #2: they were just so much fun to watch this season. But, as I’ve learned countless times throughout my life, ya can’t always get what ya want. Atlanta played a great game of football, with their previously middle-of-the-road defense stifling the highest-scoring offense in the NFL. They managed to bottle Gurley up for most of the game save for a couple of big runs and consistently managed to make quarterback Jared Goff look extremely uncomfortable throughout. My big problem with the Falcons last week, though, was that they couldn’t do anything spectacular on offense. Quarterback Matt Ryan had a not-so-great 43.3 QBR and the team as a whole rushed for only 3.18 yards per carry. While they managed to get things done when it mattered, they relied very heavily on the leg of 42-year-old kicker Matt Bryant, who made all 4 of his field goal attempts and played a huge part in keep the momentum on Atlanta’s side. That sort of offensive play is most likely not going to cut it against an Eagles defense which finished the season 4th in total points allowed. Let me put it to you this way: if the Falcons can only average 3.18 per carry against the 28th-ranked rushing defense, it’s gonna be really, really hard for them to make an impact on the ground against the best rushing defense, a title which belongs solely to Philadelphia.
But (and that’s a “but” big enough to make Sir Mix-a-Lot blush), I don’t know how much confidence I have in Nick Foles as the Eagles’ starting quarterback. Yes, he managed to decimate the Giants and played well against the Raiders during his two starts, but those teams ranked 30th and 26th in passing defense respectively this past season. The 12th-ranked Falcons passing D will be a huge step up in competition, and I’m not entirely confident in Foles’s ability to make it past them. If Carson Wentz were still under center for the Eagles, this would be an easy pick, but Foles leading the Eagles’ offense really complicates things. This is a really tough game to pick, but I’m gonna have to take the Falcons. It’s not often you see a #6 seed beat a #1 seed in the NFL playoffs, but you also don’t find the #1 seed without its superstar quarterback that got them there.
Predicted winner: Falcons
Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots, Saturday, January 13 @ 8:15 pm
The second half of last week’s Titans-Chiefs matchup was nuts. With a 21-3 lead heading into halftime, Arrowhead Stadium was going nuts, with their team seemingly on their way to face the Patriots in the next round. But come the third quarter, Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota said, “Yeah, fuck that,” and came out to lead his team to an amazing comeback of 19 unanswered points, while also passing a touchdown to himself in one of the strangest yet coolest plays you’ll ever see on a football field. Running back Derrick Henry also stepped up tremendously in the absence of feature back DeMarco Murray, rushing for 156 yards on 23 carries (an astounding 6.78 yards per carry) and making it in for a touchdown as well. While Mariota’s pass to himself was a great thing to watch, his best play of the game had to have come on the final 3rd and 10, in which he threw himself into Chiefs linebacker Frank Zombo in order to help Henry get the first down and seal the game. That’s exactly the type of winning attitude you need from your young quarterback, and it’s a great show of things to come in the future.
As great as last week’s win was, though, Tennessee finds themselves in Foxboro this week to take on a Patriots team which has only lost one time in the last three months. Three. Months. The Pats are arguably the best team in football right now thanks to the Eagles being Wentz-less, with quarterback Tom Brady being the only real option for MVP other than Todd Gurley. In fact, the spotlight is so fixated on the Patriots that they’re making headlines even on weeks where they don’t play thanks to these rumors surrounding the tumultuous relationships between Brady, coach Bill Belichick, and team owner Robert Kraft. For just about any other team in sports, I’d say that all these off-the-field distractions could play a factor in how they play, but the Patriots are just too damn professional to do that. Expect them to be at the top of their game as usual and send Tennessee home. While last week was a great indication for the Titans’ future, I highly doubt that success continuing against New England.
Predicted winner: Patriots
Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, January 14 @ 1:05 pm
The day is Sunday, October 8, Week 5 of the NFL season. The Steelers are 3-1, riding high and, aside from an overtime loss in Chicago, looking like the great team we expected. The Jaguars are 2-2, playing fairly well but not at a particularly exciting level. The teams line up across from one another at Heinz Field, and all hell breaks lose. The Jaguars intercept Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger 5 times, return 2 of them for touchdowns, hold superstar running back Le’Veon Bell to only 47 yards on 15 carries, and don’t allow a single touchdown over all 60 minutes of play. It was such a damn mess that Roethlisberger even said he might not “have it anymore” after the loss. Yeah, those words came from a future Hall-of-Famer as a result of one game. That story is why this playoff matchup will be extremely compelling. As a whole, both teams are both ranked in the top 8 in both offense and defense, making this a very evenly matched game on paper, but has the shock of that loss worn off for the Steelers? I really hope so for their sake, because Jacksonville’s defense is ridiculously good and is clearly capable of taking advantage of any and all mistakes they come upon.
Last week, they looked fantastic against Buffalo, limiting the Bills to only 3 points and making them look foolish. However, the Jags’ offense was really, really not good, with quarterback Blake Bortles rushing for more yards (88) than he did through the air (87). This might’ve worked against Buffalo, but it’s not the sort of attack that will be effective against a team as good as Pittsburgh. Since the quality of neither team’s defense is in question, picking this game has to come down to the offense in which I have the most confidence. In this case, it’s the Steelers, especially now that star wide receiver Antonio Brown is back from injury. After seeing how poorly their offense played against Buffalo, I would only be able to pick the Jaguars to win against teams with very bad defenses. The Steelers are not one of those teams, and I expect Pittsburgh to travel to Foxboro for the AFC Championship.
Predicted winner: Steelers
New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, January 14 @ 4:40 pm
Once again, the Saints wind up participating in what I think will be the best game of the week. They didn’t let me down in the excitement department last week, taking down the Panthers in a fantastic matchup that came down to the final minute of play. Veteran Saints quarterback Drew Brees looked like his classic self, throwing for 372 yards and a pair of touchdowns while completing just over two-thirds of his passes. He did a wonderful job of spreading the ball around, completing passes to 8 different receivers, allowing both wide receivers Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr. to rack up 100+ yard games. Yes, 80 of Ginn’s yards came on a gorgeous catch and run toward the end of the first quarter, but doing so solidified him as a big time deep threat and opened the door for other receivers to get in on the action. Their defense wasn’t great, but they got the job done so whatever. However, what really helped the Saints to be great this season was the fact that they had the most success running the ball since Brees took over as the team’s quarterback in 2006. Running back Mark Ingram had arguably his best season as a pro this year and rookie RB Alvin Kamara has established himself as one of the most explosive players in the NFL and a bonafide future superstar. Nonetheless, they were completely stifled against Carolina, with the team as a whole gaining only 41 yards on 22 carries over the course of the entire game, making for a meager 1.86 yards per carry. Kamara and fullback Zach Line both managed to get a pair of goal line touchdowns, but the run game as a whole was nonexistent.
That’s definitely going to need to improve against Minnesota’s top-ranked defense. The Vikings’ D has been the definition of shutdown defense this season, limiting opposing team to a league-best 15.8 points per game this season. There are absolutely no questions that need to be answered on that side of the ball. There is one huge question regarding the Vikings offense, though: how will Case Keenum play? Keenum had been either a mediocre starter or solid backup throughout his entire career, but he showed everyone up after taking control of the Vikings offense this season, leading the team to the #2 seed in a very strong NFC and looking almost like an MVP. However, I really don’t know if I can trust him in this, the biggest game of his life. I have absolute faith in every aspect of the Vikings except for Keenum, and it’s tough to pick them to beat a team as good as New Orleans if I don’t fully believe in their quarterback situation. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to downplay how great Keenum has been: I just think Brees’s veteran experience will be able to outplay Keenum relative newness to the playoffs. Regardless, this is going to be a fantastic game, which could only have been better if Adrian Peterson were still with the Saints. I’m beyond hyped.
Predicted winner: Saints