By Jason Keidel
Wild card weekend was merely a preamble to this, the most delicious weekend of the NFL year. In the Divisional Round, the eight best teams play four games over two days to unveil pro football’s final four. We went 2-2 last weekend, which is unacceptable.
Let’s do better, in order of games played.
Atlanta Falcons (11-6) @ Philadelphia Eagles (13-3)
Saturday, January 13, 2018, 4:35 pm ET
This is the first time since 1975 that a conference’s top seed is an underdog at home, with Vegas inserting the Falcons as a three-point favorite. We all know that’s because Eagles starting QB and MVP candidate Carson Wentz injured his knee in December. Nick Foles looked great when he first replaced Wentz, then reminded us why he’s not a starting QB in the NFL.
Consider this from NJ.com. In the 13 full games Wentz started, the Eagles were among the best third-down teams in the NFL, with 50 percent of Wentz’s completed passes resulting in a first down, second-best in the league. Under Wentz the Eagles were the best in third-and-short and third-and-long. Since Foles assumed the helm, however, the Eagles are converting just 23 percent of the time on third down. Foles hasn’t completed a third-down pass that resulted in a first-down since the third quarter in Week 15 against the Giants.
Not only that, the Eagles have lost four-straight playoff games, including two in Philadelphia. And if you’re hoping for some frigid, windy, and inhospitable weather to tilt the scales toward the home team, it looks like they will play during the rare, January day around 50 degrees. The Falcons surely and officially overcame their Super Bowl hangover when they whipped the Rams in Los Angeles last weekend.
The Eagles’ fourth-ranked defense is too good to be whipped, but not too good to be beat. Especially since they will be on the field all day.
Prediction: Falcons win, 20-13
Tennessee Titans (10-7) @ New England Patriots (13-3)
Saturday, January 13, 2018, 8:15 pm ET
The Patriots are an absurd 20-4 at home in the playoffs, with the vast majority of those wins coming under the blessed gridiron tandem of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Since 1966, teams that are favored by at least 13.5 points — the Vegas number for this game — are 19-3 overall (not against the spread).
The Titans are an overachieving team that made a miraculous comeback in Kansas City last weekend, crawling off the mat to nip the Chiefs, 22-21, a game they trailed 21-3 at halftime. You can say the Chiefs gagged, but don’t trivialize the toughness or temerity we saw from Tennessee. It’s just a shame they have to play this game next.
Last week was the second time in NFL history that a starting QB (Matt Ryan) was older than his opposing head coach (Sean McVay). Now we have the widest chasm in age between starting quarterbacks, with a 16-year gulf between Tom Brady (40) and Marcus Mariota (24).
Even better, Brady has more Super Bowl rings than Mariota, Nick Foles, Blake Bortles, and Case Keenum have playoff starts — combined. Add the fact that the Pats are playing at home, can sniff another AFC title, and are just better than the Titans on every level, and you have the obvious.
Prediction: Patriots win, 30-16
Jacksonville Jaguars (11-6) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3)
Sunday, January 14, 2018, 1:05 pm ET
The Jaguars are the only team ever to win twice at Pittsburgh in the same year. They are looking to repeat. Also, there have been 16 occasions when an NFL team has won by at least 20 points then faced the same team again in the playoffs. The first-time winners are 14-2 the second time.
But Jags QB Blake Bortles is one of a very few quarterbacks to complete at least 20 passes in a playoff game, for fewer than 100 yards, and win. Jacksonville may have a lovely defense, but their offense crawled during their soporific, 10-3, win against an average Buffalo Bills team that backed into the playoffs.
The last three playoff games the Steelers lost, their stellar RB Le’Veon Bell either didn’t play or left the game early because of injury. This year he had a career high in rushes and touches the ball an average of 27 times per game. The Steelers gleefully welcome back All-Pro wideout Antonio Brown, who missed the last two games because of a calf injury. By all accounts, Brown looks healthy, mobile, and agile. But for all of Brown’s splendor, the heartbeat of the Steelers’ offense is Le’Veon Bell.
And for all the “Sacksonville” talk, the Steelers actually got the opposing QB more often than the Jaguars, 56 times to 55 for the Jaguars. Not that Pittsburgh’s defense is better, but their offense is light years beyond Bortles & Co. Plus, the Steelers are at home, and are looking to avenge that 30-9 drubbing the Jags dropped on the them in October. Pittsburgh went 10-1 after that game. Make it 11-1.
Prediction: Steelers win, 24-19
New Orleans Saints (12-5) @ Minnesota Vikings (13-3)
Sunday, January 14, 2018, 4:40 pm ET
In the Super Bowl era, there have been only three cases of an undrafted quarterback throwing for 1,000 yards to an undrafted wide receiver in one season. The first two are Jon Kitna and Mike Furrey and Tony Romo and Miles Austin. The third? The breakout duo of QB Case Keenum and WR Adam Thielen. Seriously.
There are clashing stats regarding the home-team Vikings. Since 1990, Minnesota failed on three occasions to make the Super Bowl with a first-round bye, losing at home in 1998, 2000, and 2009.
Yet the last two teams to flaunt the NFL’s best defense statistically — surrendering the fewest points and fewest yards — have reached the Super Bowl. Vegas has the Vikings as five-point favorites. Most NFL power indexes give the Vikings a 65 to 70 percent chance to win the game.
The Panthers stopped the Saints newfound nuclear running attack of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. Which leaves the ball in Drew Brees’s hands. How’s that a problem? The Vikings may have a better club, and may be at home, but beyond the hometown noise, there’s no other home-team advantage, since the game is being played indoors. And while it’s true that New Orleans has just one road playoff win in franchise history, there’s just something special about these Saints. Dare we say Super?
Prediction: Saints win, 23-20
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.