By Sterling Pingree
Last week in the Wild Card round, I went 2-2. I got both Saturday games wrong, but rebounded in picking both Sunday games correctly. Some will argue that the divisional round is the best round of the NFL postseason. The argument in favor is that this is traditionally the week where most upsets happen, plus there is still the maximum number of games taking place. The argument against, essentially has to be that the conference championships are better because, in theory, you should have the four best teams playing for the chance to go to the Super Bowl.
This year’s divisional slate is pretty solid and I think there’s one upset that is so likely it’s no longer an upset. (Follow that logic.) To mix things up, this week, we’ll start in the NFC.
NFC: Falcons at Eagles
This game is an anomaly as it’s the first time ever that a #6 seed is favored over a #1 seed. The Eagles have limped home down the stretch on the (lack of) strength in the arm of Nick Foles. I think there’s still a way for them to win this game and it has more to do with Atlanta than it does Philadelphia. If Atlanta no shows this game, like they did for most of the regular season, Philly could absolutely win a home playoff game. It’s really weird to say that a #1 seed, playing at home has only a chance to win but it’s true. There is a vanilla game plan that involves running the ball, not turning it over and forcing Matt Ryan to make bad decisions that could get the Eagles a win on Saturday.
There is always one team that looks way too good in the wild card round that people overreact to the following week, I feel like that team is the Falcons. Actually, by process of elimination it probably has to be the Falcons, right? Did anybody else really play that well last week? Jags? Titans? Saints? It kind of has to be the Falcons that people are going to bet on, ignoring the fact that the Eagles have had a week off, instead of like Atlanta who had to travel to the west coast to play the punishing front 7 of the Los Angeles Rams. I also think Matt Ryan is banged up, he took a couple of big shots in that game. In the end, I don’t think the Philadelphia offense is going to be able to move the ball well enough to get it done.
The pick: Falcons 23 Eagles 16
NFC: Saints at Vikings
This is the game of the weekend from a match up stand point. Two good dome teams, playing in a dome. Minnesota and New Orleans played in week 1 and the Vikings won 29-19 at home. As the great Mike Lombardi says, “Past performance, predicts future success,” however in this case, I don’t think that there is as much to derive from this game. Sam Bradford started for the Vikings, so did rookie running back Dalvin Cook who ran for 127 yards and both are out for the season. Almost as telling is that Saints running back Alvin Kamara only rushed for 18 yards. But remember back to week 1 and who was the Saints number two back behind Mark Ingram? That’s right, it was Adrian Peterson. The Saints, and most importantly Kamara, took off as soon as AP took off for AZ.
This is a tough game to call, after watching what the Rams did in their first playoff game of their new regime, I’m slightly gun shy to pull the trigger on picking Minnesota here with a Vikings team that is playing a quarterback who is making his first postseason start. I’ve said for most of the season that I think Minnesota is the most complete team in the NFC, and I’ll stick by that this week. (For the record, if the Saints somehow went to the Super Bowl, they would have played 3 road games in Minnesota in one season. That’s a neat stat.)
Something else to be aware of, the revenge tour. Minnesota is hosting just its second Super Bowl ever, the last one coming in 1992 when the Redskins dismantled the Bills in Super Bowl 26. The two most crushing losses in modern memory for the Vikings is the 1998 NFC Championship game against Atlanta (the Gary Anderson missed field goal) and the 2009 NFC Championship game against the Saints (Bountygate/Brett Favre’s horrible 4th quarter interception.) Minnesota could avenge 2009 this week by toppling the Saints and then host the Falcons in the NFC title game to avenge Gary Anderson. Add in that they could play Pittsburgh, who beat them in Super Bowl IX, and you have the Minnesota Vikings revenge tour. This is in play.
The pick: Vikings 33 Saints 23
AFC: Jaguars at Steelers
The Jaguars went to Pittsburgh in week 5 and won 30-9 and were outscored 23-3 in the second half. The more stunning numbers though came from individuals: Ben Roethlisberger went 33-55, 318 yards and 5 INTERCEPTIONS. Keep in mind, that Jags quarterback Blake Bortles only went 8-14 for 95 yards. Not only did Bortles only complete 3 more passes to Jacksonville than Roethlisberger did, but if you add up the return yardage on those 5 interceptions, Big Ben threw for 103 yards to the Jacksonville defense and Bortles only threw 95 yards to the Jacksonville offense. ALSO, two of the 5 interceptions were returned for touch downs, which is stunning when you realize that neither QB threw a touchdown to their own team!
The biggest x-factor in this game is Leonard Fournette. The LSU rookie had 28 carries for 181 and 2 scores in the week 5 match up and if the Jags decide to take control of the game out of Blake Bortles hands, which based off of the fact that he’s Blake Bortles seems like a good idea, Fournette will need to be productive on the ground and help Jacksonville dominate time of possession. Jacksonville could pull off the upset in Pittsburgh if they can run the ball and cover Pittsburgh’s fast receivers. The Jaguars are the kind of team that gives the Steelers fits because they can get pressure on the quarterback and are athletic enough in the secondary to hang with their receivers down field.
All of that being said, I don’t think that Jacksonville can overcome the lack of production from their quarterback and try as their defense may, eventually Pittsburgh is going to put points on the board. It might not be a lot, but Jacksonville only scored 10 last week……at home……….against Buffalo.
The pick: Steelers 20 Jaguars 6
AFC: Titans at Patriots
Despite all that has been written about the Patriots in the last 8 days, here is what we know for sure going into this game: Tom Brady will play quarterback for the Patriots, Bill Belichick will be head coach and Robert Kraft is still the owner. Outside of that, people can believe what they want to believe as far as the New England Patriots go. The Titans played a great second half in Kansas City, and KC played about as nondirectional as a team could play a football game. The Chiefs never rebounded from the loss of tight end Travis Kelce in the first half, but give the Titans credit, they limited the Chiefs to only 8 offensive plays in the third quarter. The game changer for the Titans as Derrick Henry, who started in place of DeMarco Murray. Henry, the former Heisman Trophy winner out of Alabama, made the most of the opportunity and in big situations, he carried the wagon.
Should the Patriots be worried about the Titans? Only slightly, but as Bill Belichick did point out this week, the Titans have essentially won two playoff games in a row if you include their win or go home week 17 game against Jacksonville. The argument for the Titans pulling the upset is that Mariota is becoming a gritty quarterback who catches his own touch downs, throws game winning blocks and can win playoff games on the road.
The argument against the Titans pulling off the upset is that they’re playing the Patriots coming off of a bye week that they’ve had so often, that a second bye week is almost automatically written into their schedules each year at this point. The bye week has worked its magical powers however, as the Patriots had their first practice on Thursday with 100% attendance. It’s been reported that Chris Hogan and Kyle Van Noy will play and that could be huge, as is the possible return of Rex Burkhead. The Patriots offense is just more dynamic with Burkhead because he’s been used as a pass catcher down the field as well as a running back between the tackles. That could be a luxury against Dick LeBeau’s tough run defense, as having Burkhead healthy gives the Patriots multiple looks.
The forecast is calling for a rain/snow mix early Saturday but giving way to clearing skies and cold temps around 18 degrees by game time. Temperatures in the teens sounds like playoff football in Foxboro.
The pick: Patriots 30 Titans 17
Sterling Pingree (@SterlingPingree on Twitter) is a co-host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.