Divisional Round Predictions

mark-ingram-short-run-gain-saints-vs-vikings-101f2351d1e05f24.jpgThe Wildcard weekend ended up being a very interesting one with two of the lower seeds advancing, and all four of the underdogs covering with the spread. This divisional round features two matchups that occurred in the regular season which were both rather one sided. Both of those games happened early in the regular season, so all four of those teams have changed drastically since that time. With two games a piece on Saturday and Sunday, this should be another action packed weekend of playoff football.

Wild card weekend results:

Straight up: 2-2

Against the spread: 2-2

Falcons 20 Eagles (+3.5) 17: Before getting started, I wanted to make it clear this Eagles team is much better than they’ve been given credit for since Carson Wentz went down. Yes, Wentz really took the next step in his second season but this team still has fantastic offensive and defensive lines along with a supporting cast that Nick Foles will be able to work with.

One player in particular I think Foles will be targeting often in this one is Nelson Agholor. The third year wideout saw an increase in usage when Foles came under center and has a matchup against Brian Poole who per Pro Football Focus has allowing a passer rating of 111.4 when targeted in the slot.

In my opinion, the outcome of this game will be determined by what version of the Eagle secondary shows up. The group has been rather inconsistent at times this year, and a poor start against a Matt Ryan led offense while facing off with Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu can make for a long day. This game features two of the more talented rosters in the league, but in what should be a close game, I’m going with what quarterback I trust more.

Titans 23 Patriots (-13.5) 34: A team that has been overlooked the majority of the season, the Titans saw last week that if you let Marcus Mariota operate out of the shotgun and give Derrick Henry the ball good things happen. Who knew? Now the Titans have the toughest task of them all and beating the Patriots on Saturday night might go down as one of the bigger playoff upsets in recent memory.

Good news for the Titans entering this one is that the Patriots have allowed 4.4 yards a carry on the ground in their past five games. One reason for the Chiefs collapse in the second half is that their defense simply couldn’t get off the field. 20 plus touches of Henry would help in establishing that. Mariota has been contributing in the running game, but if they’re in comeback mode again he’ll need to win with his arm. Odds are Delanie Walker and Eric Decker could both be in for big days in this one. Walker is Mariota’s safety valve, and should see plenty of volume. Decker who caught the game winning touchdown last week, will be in the slot against a secondary that has had trouble defending slot receivers of late.

While Tom Brady looks to get everyone involved, Rob Gronkowski could be in for a monster game. Prior to a concussion ending his day late in the first half, Travis Kelce was having his way with the Titan defense who will clearly have their hands full again. Assuming the Patriots take a pass first approach in this one, the return of Chris Hogan to go along with the likes of Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola and three running backs who can all contribute as pass catchers could be too much to handle. Unless the Titans are able to firmly control the time of possession, I don’t believe they have the firepower to win in a shootout.

Jaguars 16 Steelers (-7.5) 23: Earlier this year, the Jaguars had a statement win in Pittsburgh which they controlled from the start. Part of that was due to the game plan the Steelers had coming in. At the time of the game, the Jaguar run defense was struggling, but Le’Veon Bell only saw 15 carries while Ben Roethlisberger ended up attempting 50 plus passes. Roethlisberger ended up throwing five interceptions (which is unlikely to happen again) and the Steelers were in a hole right away.

This game simply comes down to which Blake Bortles shows up. While the criticism of Bortles has been excessive the past year or so, another passing performance like he had last week is simply not going to cut it. In an ideal world for the Jaguars, Bortles will complete 60 plus percent of his passes for 200 or so yards without turnovers. That’s really all they need. This figures to be another high volume game for Leonard Fournette which could be favorable as the Steelers run defense has regressed since Ryan Shazier’s season ending injury. The bad news is that Fournette has averaged barely three yards a carry in his last eight games. Despite his size, Fournette so far has been best when in space, and it will be interesting to see if the Jaguars get him on the edge rather than sticking to between the tackles.

Aside from their matchup with the Jaguars earlier this year, the Steelers offense once again hit another level at home. This week, Bell could have a big day as a pass catcher against a Jaguar defense who has allowed backs to beat them through the air of late. Fortunately for the Steelers, Antonio Brown returns and his matchup against Jalen Ramsey will be a whole lot of fun to watch.

While Brown should be targeted frequently, how he feels in his first game back from injury could play a role in his snap count. JuJu Smith-Schuster played primarily in the slot when these teams last played, and it will be interesting how he fares against Aaron Colvin. Colvin surprisingly hasn’t been targeted much despite Ramsey and A.J. Bouye on the outside, but that could change this week. The Jaguars have the formula to win on the road multiple times in the playoffs, but after his past few performances it’s tough to trust Bortles in the event the Jaguars need to make their way back into the game.

Saints 20 Vikings (-4.5) 24: When these two teams met in week one, the Vikings won in a route and it appeared it would be another Saints season of high octane offense, but not much on the defensive side of the ball. A lot has changed the past few months as the defense is much improved, and the Saints duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara on the ground has been so good teams are now daring Drew Brees to beat them. For most teams, neither formula bodes well but they don’t have the defensive personnel of the Vikings.

The Viking defense is not only stout against the run, but they limit opposing backs from contributing as receivers which is a huge factor in this one. Michael Thomas also has a much more difficult matchup this week against Xavier Rhodes but should still see a half dozen targets thrown his way.  One player to watch in this one is Ted Ginn in matchup against Trae Waynes who despite improvements is a more vulnerable corner than Rhodes. Ginn’s deep speed could once again be a difference maker.

Case Keenum comes into this game on a role and the Vikings hope his feel good season continues. Of late, the Saints have shown some vulnerability to receivers on the perimeter which bodes well for both Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Thielen also lines up a decent amount in the slot which could create even more favorable matchups for him. If the Vikings get out to an early lead, the Saints could be in for a heavy dose of Latavius Murray, while Jerick McKinnon figures to see the majority of snaps if the Vikings needed another passing threat.  This game has the makings to be the best of the weekend, and in the end I can’t help but go with the home team whose defense is arguably the best in the league.

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