After a Wild Card round that saw three of the four games come down to a touchdown or less, the Divisional round of the NFL playoffs should provide hard-fought matchups as well. In the AFC, the fifth seed Titans engineered a fantastic comeback after being 18 points down to top the fourth seed Chiefs and silence the crowd at Arrowhead, and the third seed Jaguars emerged victorious from a defensive struggle against the sixth-seeded Bills. This weekend, Marcus Mariota and Co. will need the magic they flashed in Kansas City if Tennessee will have any hope of beating the top-seeded Patriots on the road Saturday night, while the Jaguars-Steelers contest Sunday afternoon will likely be a closer contest. In the NFC, the defending conference champions and sixth seed Falcons beat the upstart third-seeded Rams by dominating time of possession and winning the turnover battle, while the fourth seed Saints survived a late threat from Cam Newton and the fifth-seeded Panthers. The NFC side of the divisional round will see the Falcons traveling to Philly to take on the Carson Wentz-less Eagles on Saturday afternoon, and the Vikings will welcome the Saints in a Week One rematch on Sunday night.
Atlanta Falcons (10-6) at Philadelphia Eagles (13-3): 3:35 p.m. CT, Saturday, Jan. 13th
Clearly, this matchup would be different had Carson Wentz decided against taking a risky goal-line plunge on a play that was negated by a penalty in Week 15. With their star quarterback sidelined, the top-seeded Eagles aren’t favored against the sixth seed Falcons at home. Nick Foles is the X-factor for this game, and this will serve as his first real test after playing in just two games this season against the Giants and Raiders. However, the 19-10 final score against Oakland at home doesn’t reflect the game properly, as the Eagles only took the lead with 22 seconds left. Foles needs to perform closer to his 24-38, 237 yard, four touchdown performance against the Giants than his 19-38, 163 yard, one TD and one pick stat line against the Silver and Black if the Eagles want to advance.
Though their play is far from the level of last year’s Falcons, Atlanta still has a formidable squad. The Falcons controlled the ball for nearly 38 minutes against LA last week, keeping the Rams’ top-ranked scoring offense off the field and holding them to 13 points. The Eagles have been tough to beat at home this year and possess the league’s best run defense. Atlanta’s performance largely hinges on their rushing attack, but Philadelphia will not be able to score enough to earn a spot in the conference championship.
Falcons 20, Eagles 13
Tennessee Titans (9-7) at New England Patriots (13-3): 7:25 p.m. CT, Saturday, Jan. 13th
With Marcus Mariota completing touchdown passes to himself and more, the Titans held the Chiefs scoreless in the second half to beat the AFC West champs 22-21. However, a more impressive roadblock now stands in their way. The Patriots, while plagued with a scandalous story reporting the rifts between Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, are still the favorites to take home the Lombardi trophy. Tennessee should hope to make the game interesting, but even that could be a stretch. Going into the playoffs, the Titans had beaten just one team with a record over .500 since Week 3 (not including their Week 16 win over Jacksonville, who rested their starters). The Titans’ best chance to win in Gillette is to get Derrick Henry going early, as the young running back who feasted on the Chiefs’ D last week gets an enticing matchup against the Pats’ 20th-ranked rush defense. Unfortunately for Tennessee, that probably wouldn’t be enough to win anyway. New England ranks second in scoring offense and fifth in scoring defense and should put away Tennessee quite easily.
Patriots 31, Titans 10
Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3): 12:05 p.m. CT Sunday, Jan. 14th
Possibly the most intriguing game of the weekend, both teams could present a challenge to New England in the AFC title game. The two teams faced off in Pittsburgh in Week 5, with the Jaguars dismantling the home team 30-9. That game is a good indicator for this weekend, though the score should be much closer this time around. The Jags’ defense dominated that matchup, picking off Big Ben five times and scoring twice while holding Le’Veon Bell to 47 rushing yards. As a result of “Sacksonville” and Leonard Fournette’s performances, Blake Bortles only had to throw 14 passes. The less the ball is in the hands of the inconsistent quarterback the better for Jacksonville, and getting a big game out of Fournette again would be huge. After that game, Pittsburgh suffered only one loss the rest of the season, which was the controversial Jesse James-game against the Patriots. The Steelers need to establish their run game early, as getting into third-and-long situations often will give Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye opportunities to make the game-breaking plays they did the last time around. Additionally, Pittsburgh’s defensive performance is a key factor, as the Jaguars can’t win if their offense is stymied like it was against Buffalo. In this game, look for both teams to keep the offensive play-calling conservative, but the Steelers’ offensive firepower will be enough to win.
Steelers 21, Jaguars 17
New Orleans Saints (11-5) at Minnesota Vikings (13-3): 3:40 p.m. CT Sunday, Jan. 14th
The final game of the divisional round is likely the best game of the weekend, as the rejuvenated Saints take on the surprising Vikings in Minneapolis. The two teams met in Week 1 of the regular season, where Sam Bradford was near-perfect in a 29-19 Vikes win. Bradford is now relegated to the bench, as a Week 2 injury opened the door for Case Keenum to take the offense’s reins, and the career backup has the highest QBR in the league of anyone who didn’t suffer a season-ending injury. Keenum has been spectacularly efficient, which has made up for the loss of Dalvin Cook, but he will face a tough test in the Marshon Lattimore-led Saints secondary. After years of Drew Brees throwing for a zillion yards per season but earning a 7-9 record due to defensive struggles, the Saints D is actually intimidating. Additionally, the stress has been taken off Brees’ arm, as Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara have formed a duo of historic proportions. Unfortunately for them, Minnesota owns the top-ranked defense in the league, which will make things difficult for the inexperienced Saints. Both teams have had no troubles scoring this season, however, which could make for an exciting contest. Ultimately, Minnesota’s consistency will deliver them a W.
Vikings 28, Saints 24