As we get to the divisional round of the playoffs this year, we once again realize one thing: How interesting the NFC Playoffs are every year, and how predictable the AFC Playoffs are every year. For the last 15 years, it seems like it’s always the Patriots, Steelers, or wherever Peyton Manning was in the Super Bowl every year, whereas the NFC has much more variety. I’m not here to say Jacksonville can’t beat Pittsburgh, because they definitely can with that championship-caliber and hungry defense. However, it is more likely that the Falcons and Saints get their upset victories just because they are some of the stronger teams in the league with not a lot of weaknesses on their roster. And like last year, with the 1 seeded Cowboys against the Packers and the 2 seeded Falcons against the Seahawks, it will be no walk in the park for these home teams.
Starting with the Falcons and Eagles, Atlanta is riding a lot of momentum after a defensive domination against the top offense in the league in the Los Angeles Rams. This defense, with the addition of Dontari Poe, Adrian Clayborn, and Takk McKinley as well as the return of star cornerback Desmond Trufant, are more loaded in the playoffs than last year. And that showed, when they limited potential league MVP Todd Gurley to 101 yards on 14 carries, with the bulk of those yards coming on three big runs. They will look to carry that momentum against another prolific power run attack in the Eagles, with free agent acquisition LeGarrette Blount and trade deadline steal Jay Ajayi. They will be looking to stop the run as the Eagles best chance of winning this game without Carson Wentz will be playing a ball control style game against a very aggressive and fast Falcons offense. The Eagles defense vs. the Falcons offense will be another matchup to watch, especially up front. The Eagles are very deep at the defensive end position and have two good defensive tackles in Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan. The Falcons offensive line has some talent up front too, and that will be a matchup that defines this game. The Eagles are also bringing in the #1 rush defense statistically this year. And that will be essential if they have any shot of dominating time of possession and winning this game. Quick stops and maybe even turnovers will come with the talent level of this defense and the dropoff of Atlanta’s offense from last year. Overall, this game features a lot of strength-on-strength matchups, but even though these teams talent-wise are known for their flashy offenses (pre-Wentz injury), expect these talented defenses performance-wise to set the tone of this game. And with the Falcons carrying the momentum of dominating the Rams defensively last week and the Eagles having Nick Foles at quarterback, expect Atlanta to win a surprisingly lower scoring game.
The other NFC Matchup features the Saints and the Vikings. The Vikings have a chance to play a Super Bowl in their own stadium, which would be the first time ever a team would do that. The question that will remain is can they handle that kind of pressure, or if they’re up for the challenge in the postseason, as that seems like one of those stories that’s too good to be true. There are a lot of strength-on-strength matchups in this game as well, with the biggest one being the Vikings #2 ranked run defense on the Saints prolific rushing attack of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. Others include the matchup of Xavier Rhodes and Michael Thomas man-to-man, as well as the matchup of the offensive line for the Saints against the Vikings defensive line, which in my opinion is the deepest in football, despite losing star defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd. I believe the thing that will define this game is the screen game for the Saints. Ever since Sean Payton has been the offensive play-caller for the Saints, screen passes have been one of their points of emphasis, with various pass-catching running backs and slot receivers over the years. I think that will be the thing that will counter the pass rush for the Vikings well, and forcing the outside linebackers and slot corners to make tackles and cover the short passes. To me, that will either open up the deep passing game for Drew Brees, who has arguably the most accurate deep ball in football, or just keep rolling with that as a point of emphasis. If the Vikings can defend that, I think they win this game. However, I think the combination of the mental pressure and loss of momentum with the bye week, and the more experienced quarterback in Drew Brees, I see the Saints winning a tight one setting up a divisional rivalry with Atlanta in the NFC Championship game.
However, I don’t think the AFC road teams have as much of a chance, as the Patriots and Steelers are the two most experienced teams in these playoffs. Jacksonville does have a chance with their defense, as they have a big size advantage on the outside with corners that are excellent in physical man-to-man coverage. What will be tough for them is duplicating the performance rookie running back Leonard Fournette had for two reasons: The first is that the Jaguars just struggled to run the ball against the 4th worst run defense in football in the Buffalo Bills, who haven’t been the same since trading Marcell Dareus to Jacksonville. The second reason is the Steelers run defense has gotten better since then and they are a very good adjustment defense. The Miami Dolphins pounded the Steelers in the regular season last year and Jay Ajayi went off for 204 yards. However, in their playoff matchup, he was a non-factor, with just 33 yards on 16 carries. I believe a similar performance is due for Fournette, with the Steelers with a more improved run defense and Jacksonville having some injuries at the wide receiver positions. That being said, if Jacksonville’s defense can play to the elite level we know it as, they can win an ugly defensive duel like we saw with the Bills. However, it will have to shut down Le’Veon Bell for them to stand a chance. Jacksonville’s main weakness with their defense is their run defense, which ranked 21st in the league at 116.2 yards per game. If they can trust the corners to shut down the Steelers receivers on their own and have their linebackers key in on the run, they can get quick stops and turnovers. The other key is that Blake Bortles will have to play a lot better. The Jags, even with Allen Robinson hurt, still have some receiver mismatches with the successful play of Dede Westbrook, Keelan Cole, and Marqise Lee in the month of December. Not to mention they still have a talented receiver in Allen Hurns, who came back for the playoffs last week. If they can win some mismatches against a young Steelers secondary, they can take pressure off Fournette and move the ball. To me, expect a low-scoring game that can go either way. But right now, I still think the Steelers have more talent and experience, despite Jacksonville playing them well historically, and will edge the Jags out in this game.
Lastly, is the game I think will be the biggest blowout, the Tennessee Titans vs. the New England Patriots. Many people, including myself, didn’t think the Titans were built to win a playoff game and didn’t think they would go anywhere squeaking in the way they did. However, they came back on the Kansas City Chiefs and stunned them with a great running game and, best of all, Mariota throwing a touchdown to himself. However, that doesn’t mean I think they stand a chance vs. the New England Patriots, a team Brady and Belichick has dominated historically. To beat the Patriots, you need an identity that works where the Patriots defense can’t key in on one star player. Teams like the Broncos, Giants, and Ravens that have succeeded against them have always had that identity. This Titans team doesn’t have that with all the inconsistencies they have on their offense. I think Derrick Henry, who had a strong game last week versus the Chiefs, can run a little in the first half but will be lost in the second half if they are down big. Defensively, the Titans are led by Dick LeBeau, the former defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers. As good as the Steelers defense was when he was there, the Patriots torched that game in and game out, and with a lower level of talent, expect Brady and his receivers to have a field day. I, like the majority of the non-Patriots fans, hope they lose. But I just can’t see it happening against a team that never plays close with them.
And that, once again will set up another very predictable AFC Championship game, with the #1 seeded Patriots and #2 seeded Steelers, with likely the #1 seed going to the Super Bowl in the conference with no parity. The NFC, however, has a much better chance of sending their lower-seeded teams to their respective title game. And even if the Eagles and Vikings do win, which can definitely happen, a 1 vs. 2 doesn’t have that same predictable feel, as both teams are on a quest for their first Lombardi Trophy, rather than their sixth or seventh.