Only a quarter of the teams in the NFL remain standing, as the 2017 season reaches the divisional round stage. Which four sides will make it through to the conference championship game next weekend? Richard O’Hagan has some thoughts.
ATLANTA FALCONS at PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (Saturday, 9.35 pm)
As expected, the Falcons had just too much experience, too much nous, for the Rams in the Wild Card round and so travel to NFC top seeds Philadelphia for the opening game of Divisional Weekend. They’ll go into the contest bouyed by the news that Julio Jones will be fit to play after being limited in practice all week with injury. And after shutting down the Rams’ offense so effectively, their defense will be licking their lips at the prospect of taking on an Eagles team without the injured Carson Wentz.
That, really, is the crux of this contest. How effectively can Philly perform with Nick Foles under center? Foles is not a bad quarterback, but his performances as Wentz’s replacement were unimpressive. The Eagles have, of course, had an extra week in which to install a game plan to reflect both his strengths and his limitations. That is likely to focus heavily upon the running back duo of LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi, against a defense which did such a good job of policing Todd Gurley last weekend.
Prediction: Falcons by 5 points
TENNESSEE TITANS at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (Sunday, 1.15am)
Tennessee’s dominant second half performance in Kansas last Saturday earned them the dubious honour of a trip to Foxborough for Saturday’s prime time game. There were two keys factors in that record-setting victory. The first was that the Chiefs simply froze on the day, with some very odd play calling in that second half. The other was the shift in defensive strategy after falling so far behind. There was something heartening in seeing their octogenarian Hall of Fame defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, reading the riot act to his players towards the end of the second quarter, but they certainly responded to him.
The Titans will need a similarly massive defensive effort to beat the Patriots. There was nothing in the offensive game plan which suggested that they can really trouble the Pats. For all of the talk of Marcus Mariota throwing a pass to himself, the reality is that it was a muffed interception chance by Darrelle Revis which luckily rebounded to him. Mariota made some very bad decisions during the whole game and will need to be a lot sharper this time around.
Bad decisions are not something that you associate with Tom Brady, of course. For all of the rumours of discord in the New England camp, real or imagined, there will be one thing that you can guarantee and that is that they will be completely focused on this game and this game alone. As we always seem to say at this time of year, they have injury problems across the team, but they always find someone to step up. It will be interesting to see if troubled veteran signings James Harrison and Kenny Britt see any game time, as the team looks to keep the coaching triumvirate of Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia together for a few weeks longer.
Prediction: Patriots by 12
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS at PITTSBURGH STEELERS (Sunday, 6.05pm)
The Jaguars overcame a brutal battle with Buffalo to make it through to this stage. What should, on paper, have been a fairly comfortable contest for them turned into a real scrap as their offense seemed oddly incapable of dealing with a crosswind in their own stadium. In the end it was the excellence of their defense, plus Blake Bortles‘ willingness to use his legs to make plays, that saw them through. We tend to think ‘inaccurate passer’ rather than ‘runner’ when talking about Bortles, but he’s actually now fourth among all quarterbacks ever in terms of yards gained per rushing attempt. It is a tactic that he may well need to employ again in this game against this swarming Steelers defense.
The better contest, though, will be on the other side of the game. How will Jacksonville’s stellar defense cope with Pittsburgh’s famed ‘Killer Bs’ offense? Cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye were excellent against the Bills, but a fit-again Antonio Brown will be a very different test for them. Similarly, can their ‘Sackson Five’ defensive line shut down Le’Veon Bell – a man with anger in his heart at the prospect of being franchise tagged in 2018? This game promises to be the closest and most interesting of the weekend.
Prediction: Steelers by 4
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS at MINNESOTA VIKINGS (Sunday, 9.40pm)
The Vikings have an awful lot riding on this game. After a regular season in which they far surpassed expectations, they are now two games away from being the first team to play a Superbowl in their own stadium. Whether they welcome the extra pressure that brings or not could be significant in the course of the game.
The turnaround in Minneapolis under Mike Zimmer has been so great and so rapid that they have very few players on their roster who have experienced the post-season before. Case Keenum has performed far above expectations all season, but how will a new and bigger occasion affect him?
One thing that the Vikings do have in their favour is a pretty good run defense. Given that a very significant part of the Saints’ offense is their twin rushing attack of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, we could be in for quite a contest there. That isn’t, of course, all that New Orleans can bring on that side of the ball. Michael Thomas is developing into one of the most intelligent wide receivers in the game. Ted Ginn Jr might be approaching his 33rd birthday, but he can still outrun most defensive backs in the league. And then, of course, there’s a chap named Drew Brees, who can still throw the ball a mile – and loves to do so in indoor arenas like this one.
Defensively, New Orleans are almost immeasurably better when cornerback Marshon Lattimore is fit. It will be interesting to see how the Saints use him against a team whose principal receiving target, Adam Thielen, tends to operate out of the slot rather than as a true wideout.
Prediction: Saints by 7