NFL Divisional Round Picks
Thanks to Marcus Mariota throwing a touchdown to himself and Andy Reid deciding to give Kareem Hunt 11 carries in a game they were leading 21-3 at halftime, I had a 3-1 record on Wildcard Weekend.
Atlanta @ Philadelphia Sat. 4:35 PM EST
The Eagles are the NFC’s #1 overall seed, 7-1 at home, the #3 rushing offense, and the #4 defense in the NFL. So how is this team a 3 point dog at home against the 6th seed? In this league, most teams can only advance as far as their quarterback can take them. Carson Wentz’s potential MVP season ended in LA on December 10th and the Eagles season metaphorically may have ended that day as well. His replacement, Nick Foles, is not exactly throwing it back to his dream season of 2013. Foles had a mediocre performance in a win against the Raiders. Then, in an effort to salvage some momentum going into the playoffs, he played in Week 17 against an already eliminated Cowboys team that promptly shut the Eagles out and limited Foles to a stat line of 4-11 for 39 yards and an interception. Atlanta’s defense limited the league’s highest scoring offense to 13 points last week and Matt Ryan found Julio Jones 9 times for 94 yards and a TD. The defending conference champs are not your usual 6 seed and look like they are starting to play their best football of the season. The Eagles still have a tremendous defense, but it won’t be enough to overcome their quarterback play.
The Pick: Falcons 24-14
Tennessee @ New England Sat. 8:15 PM EST
New England is not the juggernaut that they are perceived to be. They are the 29th defense in the league and have allowed more passing yards than any other team remaining in the playoffs. The problem is their offense. Tom Brady is as dynamic as ever and Dion Lewis is a game changer for Bill Belichick. Lewis is often Brady’s checkdown on flat and flare routes out of the backfield. Rob Gronkowski is potentially the biggest matchup problem in NFL history. If you play soft zone, he will find the hole and sit. He runs excellent routes and is so aware of where the underneath coverage is. More teams are starting to play man or a press cover 3 look, which messes with the timing of Brady’s throws and allows the defense to get hurries. Unfortunately, someone has to cover Gronk. Do the Titans have a safety capable of this? Does anyone? The Titans looked overmatched against Kansas City in the first half, but shutout the Chiefs in the second half. New England is likely to get their points in this matchup. The key will be the play of Marcus Mariota. The Titans converted 8 of 13 3rd down opportunities in this game and will have to stay on the field to keep it close. The possibility of an upset might be higher than we’re giving credit for, but the Titans need too much to go right to make it happen.
The Pick: Patriots 31-20
Jacksonville @ Pittsburgh Sun. 1:05 PM EST
I covered this game much more extensively in an article earlier this week. Here is the text from that article if you missed it:
One thing is certain about football at any level, if you turn the ball over 5 times, your chance of success is limited. Many are going to point to the worst performance of Ben’s career in Week 5 as to why the Jaguars are going to win this game, but there is a much more concerning element to that football game. It was the inability of the Steelers defense to play gap control defense plugging their run fits with any consistency. This has plagued the Steeler D all year and couldn’t be more evident than when Leonard Fournette ran for 181 yards including a 90 yard explosion on a power run play to seal the game late in the fourth quarter. Vince Williams and Sean Spence are huge keys to this game. Cameron Heyward is an All-Pro and is relentless in his pass rush and winning one one matchups. Watch for him to destroy some of those power plays with penetration.
The Steelers defense is allowing splash plays at an alarming rate. According to Chris Adamski, Over the past nine games alone the Steelers have allowed: 12 passes of 40+ yards, 22 passes of 30+ yards, and 27 passes of 25+ yards. This is an incredible stat and something to think about going forward. They are out of position, blowing basic coverage principles, and constantly giving up the big play. Sean Davis has played a little better as of late, and Mike Mitchell is going to have to improve his ability to help others in two high and one high safety looks. One thing is for certain, the Jaguars are not an offensive juggernaut and this is one of those areas we tend to scrutinize when facing a quarterback we know will take advantage of it (Tom Brady) rather than one who won’t (Blake Bortles). After watching the Jaguars on Sunday, the Steelers defense absolutely has no excuse to allow big plays to this offense.
As has been the case with Steelers teams over the last few seasons, this team goes as the offense goes. Early this season, the offense was in an incredible rut and there was concern after the Week 5 matchup as to just how competitive this team could be with an average offense. Well, this has definitely changed as a direct result of the play of Ben Roethlisberger. His 500 yards against the Ravens salvaged a win and his heroics nearly knocked off the Patriots despite a lapse of judgement on their last play of the game.
Calais Campbell is playing out of his mind right now. He had three hits and four hurries in the wild card game against Buffalo. Alejandro Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert have also been playing well as of late. Villanueva’s footwork is significantly better and he just keeps improving on a weekly basis. Ton of props to Mike Munchak, who is being interviewed for the Arizona Cardinals head coaching job. This will be an incredible matchup to watch.
It’s impossible to talk about the Jaguar defense without discussing Jalen Ramsey. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed a NFL passer rating of 36.7 on throws into his coverage this past week. Granted, that was against the hapless Tyrod Taylor and the Bills offense, but he definitely has an argument as the best corner in the league. His teammate, A.J. Bouye, is dynamic as well. These guys maximize mistakes, but will have a much tougher matchup in Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Martavis Bryant.
The Jaguars are huge, physical, and have tremendous defensive backs. They are a matchup problem for anyone. Unfortunately for them, this is definitely strength against strength as the Steelers present problems that keep defensive coordinators up at night. The Steelers are healthy, rested, and should take care of the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.
The Pick: Steelers 27-14
New Orleans @ Minnesota Sun. 4:40 PM EST
Minnesota has the #1 defense in the NFL and this is clearly apparent in their secondary. Case Keenum is playing better than I think any of us expected, but the shine may be about to come off as we enter the playoffs. This should be a great matchup. This is perhaps the best game of the week, but the Saints are so dynamic that it may not matter how good the Vikings are on defense. The Vikings have the extremely rare chance to host every game in these playoffs including the Super Bowl. I think their run ends here.
The Pick: Saints 21-17