NFL Game Picks: Divisional Round
We’re only one week into the postseason and we’ve already seen plenty of excitement. That should continue into the divisional round, where the list of eight remaining teams will be whittled down to four. Who’ll be moving on and who’ll be heading home?
Let’s look at this weekend’s matchups:
No. 6 Atlanta Falcons (11-6) @ No. 1 Philadelphia Eagles (13-3)
It seems like history is being made all the time in the NFL. That’s certainly the case here. For the first time ever, the No. 6 seed has been named the favorite over the No. 1 seed. It’s not hard to see why. Quarterback Carson Wentz was an MVP contender until he went down with an injury, and his replacement Nick Foles looked rather spotty near the end of the regular season. Atlanta, meanwhile, is coming off a decisive road victory over the upstart Rams.
There is clear reason for Eagles fans to be worried. Matt Ryan was near impeccable in the wild card game. The backfield put up some decent numbers, and, of course, Julio Jones was a major factor in the victory. The real key players, however, were on the defense. Matt Ryan and the offense only scored two touchdowns, but that was all they needed because of the defense’s dominant performance. Atlanta’s defense absolutely shut down the high-flying offense of Jared Goff, Todd Gurley and company by forcing two turnovers in the process of holding Los Angeles to just 20 minutes of offensive possession. These Falcons are no slouches.
Despite the daunting task ahead, there may still be hope for Philadelphia. If Foles doesn’t pan out, the Eagles can always turn to Nate Sudfeld, who looked surprisingly decent in Week 17’s game against Dallas. Philadelphia can also rely on the rushing game. LeGarrette Blount and Wendell Smallwood are quiet playmakers. Jay Ajayi, who’s been under-utilized since coming to Philadelphia, may make an impact this week. Of course, the defense needs to be on the top of its game in order to keep Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and the offense under control.
At a glance, it’s clear to see why Atlanta is favored, but Philadelphia is certainly not out of this contest, especially with home-field advantage. It all hinges on which team makes the right moves at the right times.
The pick: Atlanta 28, Philadelphia 23.
No. 5 Tennessee Titans (10-7) @ No. 1 New England Patriots (13-3)
Atlanta vs. Philadelphia may have seen the lower seed favored, but that is certainly untrue here. New England is an astounding 13.5-point favorite over the Titans. Some people may not find this surprising, but this Tennessee team is better than the betting line predicts.
What can be said about the Patriots? This team has earned a first-round bye each year for the past eight seasons. Sustained success is a way of life in New England. When Tom Brady is still playing like an MVP at the age of 40, it doesn’t come off as surprising. Of course, having a terrific supporting cast that includes Rob Gronkowski, a whole slew of underrated backfield targets and coach Bill Belichick on the sideline makes for a pretty good combination.
As good as the Patriots may be, Tennessee isn’t too shabby either. Sure, they may have snuck into the playoffs, but they proved they can play when they need to with last week’s comeback in Kansas City. If Marcus Mariota can play like he did last week (he played like a quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and offensive lineman), then Tennessee has a chance. One key to victory may be Derrick Henry. The Titans are 10-0 when Henry gets the ball 10+ times and 0-7 when he has less than that. Obviously, the defense will need to step up as well. Safety Kevin Byard said he wanted to make Tom Brady “look like Blake Bortles.” That’s no easy task.
Overall, it makes sense that New England is the heavy favorite. But this game has a great chance to be closer than many may think. Don’t sleep on the Titans.
The pick: New England 31, Tennessee 24.
No. 3 Jacksonville Jaguars (11-6) @ No. 2 Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3)
Jacksonville returns to the Pittsburgh for the first time since week five’s 30-9 blowout victory. In the scope of things, another blowout is looking very unlikely.
Both teams have an advantage on one side of the ball. For Pittsburgh, it’s the offense, and for Jacksonville, it’s the defense. Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster vs. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. A strong offensive line vs. the fearsome Sacksonville pass rush. Ben Roethlisberger will be looking for redemption after his five-interception performance in week five. With all those weapons at his disposal, he may just get it. When the Steelers have the ball, there’s going to be a real intense football game happening.
Then there’s those times when Jacksonville has possession. Not nearly as exciting. Head coach Doug Marrone said he’d be a fool not to be worried about the offense, and he’s right. Blake Bortles had more rushing yards than passing yards last week against Buffalo. That reason is enough to be worried. If there’s a bright side to be found here, it’s that Pittsburgh’s defense is not at its peak. Tackling has often been an issue, and the absence of defensive leader Ryan Shazier is a clear disadvantage for Pittsburgh. Bortles and the offense will need to capitalize on the Steelers’ defensive mistakes in order to stay in this one.
You won’t want to miss this one. The storyline that is the Steelers’ offense vs. the Jaguars’ defense may be worth the price of admission alone (or at least worth turning the TV on for). Expect a classic at Heinz Field on Sunday.
The pick: Pittsburgh 29, Jacksonville 23.
No. 4 New Orleans Saints (12-5) @ No. 2 Minnesota Vikings (13-3)
Steelers and Patriots? Forget that. This one could very well be the game of the year. The last time these teams met, Minnesota came out on top 29-19 back in week one. Since then, both teams have undergone some massive changes. This will not be the same game we saw four months ago.
Where to begin? There’s so much to digest here. Let’s start with the quarterbacks. Who would have thought that Case Keenum would have as good a season as Drew Brees? The latter does have the edge in terms of completion percentage, yards and touchdowns, but not by a significant amount. Keenum really has played well this year, and he’ll likely be a hot offseason target for teams looking for a quarterback. Depending on how the day pans out, he and Brees could be in some sort of gunslinger duel on Sunday afternoon.
How about the rest of the offense? Again, it’s a wash. The backfield duo of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram has been explosive, but Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon have quietly been one of the better running back tandems in the league this year. As for receivers, Brees has the explosive Michael Thomas and a revitalized Ted Ginn. Keenum’s got Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, and Kyle Rudolph, who have all been major playmakers this year. Don’t forget about the offensive lines. Neither of these teams could have had the same offensive success that they did without them.
The defensive battle is just as good. Pass rush? Cameron Jordan and Everson Griffen have you covered. Need someone to cover? Marshon Lattimore and Xavier Rhodes have been shut down corners all year long. Perhaps Minnesota has the advantage just because of Harrison Smith, a legitimate defensive player of the year candidate. Regardless, this is a matchup for the ages.
These are quite possibly the two most complete teams in the NFL this season. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all if the winner of this game went on to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
The pick: Minnesota 30, New Orleans 28.
DJ Bauer is a freshman majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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