The Wild Card Round brought us plenty of excitement and entertainment, but this weekend comes the NFL Divisional Round of the playoffs. The top seeds are coming off their BYE weeks, and will have to fend off the lower seeds at home. Below are my NFL Divisional Round previews and predictions:
Tennessee Titans (5) at New England Patriots (1)
Last week, the Titans showed great heart in their 22-21 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead. They were down 21-3 at halftime, but never gave up and went on to score 19 unanswered points. A touchdown thrown by Marcus Mariota to Eric Decker late in the fourth quarter sealed the Tennessee victory. However, their first playoff appearance since 2008 will almost surely end on Saturday in Foxborough. Mariota, while good enough to defeat the Chiefs, won’t be able to get by the Patriots’ pass defense. I predict the Titans’ passing game will be shut down, making the offense one-dimensional. This, in turn, will place the workload on running back Derrick Henry. While Henry was phenomenal against the Chiefs, rushing for 156 yards and a touchdown, he won’t be able to do it all against a New England defense that ranked fifth in the NFL in defensive points allowed per game (18.5).
As for the other side of the ball, I expect Tom Brady to give us the usual Tom Brady playoff performance. He didn’t have the best finish to the regular season, but with a week of rest, he will be far too much for the Titans to handle.
Final score prediction: Patriots 31-13 Titans
Jacksonville Jaguars (3) at Pittsburgh Steelers (2)
The Jaguars were barely able to scratch out a 10-3 win at home over the Buffalo Bills, who, to put it bluntly, were one of the worst teams I’ve ever seen make the playoffs. Quarterback Blake Bortles was terrible, throwing for just 87 yards, and missed easy passes that I myself probably could have completed. The defense remained strong, however, as they have all season, and held the Bills to just 133 passing yards. They rank second in the league with just 16.8 defensive points allowed per game, but it will be difficult to repeat last week’s performance at Heinz Field this Sunday. The Steelers had arguably the most explosive offense in the NFL, even without top wide receiver Antonio Brown, who will return from his calf injury this week. Together with the powerful right arm of Ben Roethlisberger and fellow receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant, the Steelers offense will be as potent as ever. In addition, running back Le’veon Bell started playing his best football toward the end of the season, so the Steelers offense should be firing on all cylinders. Though the Jacksonville defense is great, I see the Steelers offense being too much to handle.
The Pittsburgh defense has lost a leader in Ryan Shazier, but they won’t have to be spectacular in order to stop the Jags. Rookie sensation Leonard Fournette rushed for just 57 yards against Buffalo, and the Steelers rank a respectable 10th in the league for rushing yards allowed per game (105.8). Considering the Jags’ performance last week, I think the Steelers will run away with this one.
Final score prediction: Steelers 27-6 Jaguars
Atlanta Falcons (6) at Philadelphia Eagles (1)
Last Saturday, the Falcons marched their way to a somewhat surprising 26-13 victory on the road over the Los Angeles Rams. Reigning MVP Matt Ryan turned in a solid 218 yards and one touchdown, but the real stars were on the defensive side. They held a potent Los Angeles offense to just two field goals and a touchdown, and the special teams also forced two fumbles on a kick returns. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Eagles were resting, getting ready for their home game this week. The Wentz-less Birds will have a tough task this Saturday, as the Falcons are one of the hottest teams around the league. Including last week, they’ve won four of their last five, and look as motivated as ever to claw their way back to the Super Bowl. The Eagles, on the other hand, are on a steep decline. The last two weeks of the regular season, they scored a combined 10 points at home against the Raiders and Cowboys, neither of which made the playoffs. Most of the offensive struggles can be attributed to the loss of Carson Wentz and insertion of Nick Foles into the starting quarterback role. Foles is a solid backup, but so far he has had trouble integrating himself into the offense that was so successful with Wentz. Without their leader in Wentz, I see the Philly offense getting smothered by the Falcons defense.
The Eagles defense ranked fourth in the league, allowing just 18.4 defensive points per game, but if the Falcons defense holds down Foles, their offense shouldn’t have to do too much. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones should do just enough against the Eagles in order to send Atlanta back to the NFC Championship.
Final score prediction: Falcons 17 – 10 Eagles
New Orleans Saints (3) at Minnesota Vikings (2)
Of all the games this weekend, I think this will be the closest and most exciting. The Saints are coming off a 31-26 win over the Panthers at home, in which quarterback Drew Brees threw for a phenomenal 376 yards and notched two touchdowns. He looks poised to lead his Saints back to the NFC Championship game for the first time since he won it all in 2009. However, the Vikings stand in the way, and won’t be an easy task, especially in Minnesota. The Vikes were 8-1 at US Bank Stadium this season, virtually unbeatable at home. As I mentioned before, Drew Brees looked great against Carolina, but going up against the Vikings defense will present a much more difficult challenge. The Vikings defense surrendered the fewest points this season, allowing just 15.8 per game. Brees has an accurate arm and solid receivers at his side, but that might not be enough to crack the Vikings defense.
he Vikings offense is not as good as the Saints’, but the Saints defense is also not as good as the Vikings’. Despite Case Keenum’s success this year, I still don’t know if I trust him to get it done on the big stage. Even so, I expect him to put up a decent performance against the Saints defense, which is mediocre, to put it lightly. This game features two evenly matched teams and should go down to the wire, but in the end I think that Brees and his extensive playoff experience will prevail.
Final score prediction: Saints 24 – 21 Vikings