NFL Divisional Round preview and picks

It’s experience vs. inexperience, and revenge is on the mind …

It was a more exciting Wild Card weekend than expected, with two road teams getting a win and the other two taking it to the final minutes. That made for exciting football, but it left us with some odd matchups this weekend. Divisional Round is typically one of the surest things in sports, with the rested home team winning almost three-quarters of the time. But this year’s games set up a little differently.

This weekend is all about experience versus inexperience. Each Divisional Round game pits a quarterback we’ve been watching in the playoffs for years against one we’ve barely seen at all. Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, and Matt Ryan have 75 playoff starts between them. Opponents Marcus Mariota, Blake Bortles, Case Keenum, and Nick Foles have just three — and two came last weekend. The AFC home teams have the experience, but the more intriguing matchups come in the NFC where Keenum and Foles are at home.

But experience isn’t the only story this weekend. Revenge is on the mind.

Jacksonville embarrassed the Steelers in Pittsburgh earlier this season, giving Ben Roethlisberger one of the worst performances of his career. The Titans haven’t beaten the Patriots in 15 years. The Falcons are still on their 28–3 revenge tour. And the Vikings remember Bountygate, the ugly New Orleans scandal that knocked Brett Favre and the Vikes out of the 2009 playoffs and sent the Saints to their one Super Bowl.

New Orleans suffered some of the most severe punishments in sports history for their dirty deeds. Four players, three coaches, and a general manager were suspended, several for an entire season, and the Saints lost multiple draft picks. But no reparations were ever made to the Vikings, who haven’t been back to the NFC Championship since, and you can bet Minnesota fans haven’t forgotten. This one sure hasn’t.

It’s time for revenge. Let’s get to the picks …

Atlanta -3 at Philadelphia

Has everyone sent their votes in for NFL MVP already? ‘Cause voters could decide Carson Wentz is MVP after all.

After a lackluster season, the Falcons eked into the playoffs and beat an inexperienced Rams team and now find themselves the first ever Divisional Round favorite over a 1-seed. With Wentz on the field, the Eagles were a juggernaut and probably enter this one as at least five or six point favorites. Without him, they’re underdogs.

So what does history tell us about disrespected Divisional Round teams? Ten times in the last decade, a home Divisional Round team has been favored by three points or fewer (or an underdog). Those teams went 5–5, with six games coming down to the final plays. The Vegas favorite is 5–5 in those ten games. Twice in that span, a home Divisional Round team has been an underdog. One of those teams was beaten soundly; the other won on a last-second touchdown. Four times in the last decade, a 1-seed Divisional Round team has been favored by three or less. They won two and lost two, and all but one game came down to the final drive.

So what does history tell us? Not much. It tells us to take Atlanta seriously — but not to count out Philly either. And it tells us this one should be close.

But all of that is history, and so is Philadelphia’s success with Wentz, and Atlanta’s 2017 Super Bowl run too. These teams are playing as is, and both should be healthy and ready to go outside of the Wentz injury. Philly won 11 times with Wentz this season, scoring 26 or more every time, but they’ve scored under 13 points a game without him. This is not the same team.

Forget the record. Just take Nick Foles, a handful of decent backs, and some slightly above average receivers. Is this a top-10 offense? Is it top 20? Is this better than the 49ers offense? Is it better than the Bears?

The Eagles will have to win this with their talented defense and the only thing that’s left from their great regular season, an earned home-field advantage. This high-powered Atlanta offense is never the same on the road or on grass, and it hasn’t been as high-powered this season anyway, averaging just under 21 points a game since September.

It feels like this game will be low-scoring and close, and Philly should have a shot. But in a close game you have to look at the coach, the kicker, and the quarterback, and those are three huge advantages for Atlanta.

The pick:
Atlanta 20, Philadelphia 16

New England -13.5 vs Tennessee

It’s pretty tough to find a reason to talk yourself into Tennessee even keeping this competitive.

The Titans have won 10 games this season counting last week but still have a -21 point differential. Tennessee’s pass defense has been carved up by guys like Tom Savage, Jared Goff, and Jimmy Garoppolo over the final month, and they’ve been bad all year. They’ve allowed more field goals than any other team, indicative of a defense that bends all game and breaks often. Tennessee was behind 21–3 at halftime last week, and it was ugly. This team is not good.

The Patriots struggled against versatile backs like LeVeon Bell, Kareem Hunt, Kenyan Drake, and Melvin Gordon, but DeMarco Murray is out injured and Derrick Henry is not in the mold of those guys. New England also struggled early against mobile quarterbacks like Alex Smith, Deshaun Watson, and Cam Newton, but those games were all in the first four weeks before the defense took shape. They shut down Tyrod Taylor in two later games, and Marcus Mariota has more interceptions than TDs this year.

The Patriots are 10–1 against the spread the last three years as a double-digit favorite. They’ve covered this spread eight times already this season. Remember that Jesse James non-TD a month ago? This is what it won New England — a second consecutive bye week.

The only drama in this game will be finding out if the Titans play poorly enough to get Mike Malarkey fired even after a playoff win.

The pick:
New England 32, Tennessee 13

Pittsburgh -7 vs Jacksonville

On paper, this is the most intriguing game of the weekend. Jacksonville already beat the Steelers 30–9 in Pittsburgh, and the vaunted Jags defense against the loaded Pittsburgh offense should be fun to watch.

But is it possible this Jacksonville defense is a little overrated? The Jaguars only played three games all season against definite top-15 quarterbacks — Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, and Russell Wilson. Jacksonville won all three but gave up plenty of passing yards, and they lost four games against other decent QB options (Goff, Garoppolo, Mariota). They’ve only allowed one 300-yard passer this season — but it was Roethlisberger.

They’ve also allowed only one 100-yard receiver, but it was Antonio Brown. Just like QB, the Jags have benefited by avoiding most of the league’s top receivers. Brown had a huge 10-catch 157-yard effort. DeAndre Hopkins had 11 catches for 135 yards and a pair of TDs in two games. Keenan Allen was held in check, but he’s the only other really good receiver Jacksonville’s faced.

Jacksonville had the league’s third best point differential but piled up most of that against terrible opponents. In six games against the Browns, Bengals, Colts, and Texans, the Jaguars rolled up 173 points to just 38 for their opponent. But in their other ten games, Jacksonville went 4–6 with just a +7 point differential.

Jacksonville’s run game may be a big overrated, too. Everyone is excited about rookie Leonard Fournette, but he’s averaged only 78 rushing yards per game with under 3.8 yards per carry. And that includes two huge runs of 75 and 90 yards; without those two plays, he’d be under 3.2 YPC. The games with those two long runs were two of Fournette’s three games all season over four yards per carry. There’s a faint whiff of Trent Richardson about him.

Even that 30–9 Jags win over Pittsburgh is nowhere near as dominant as it looks. The Steelers were up 9–7 at halftime before Roethlisberger threw four interceptions in five possessions, including two pick-sixes, and Fournette had a meaningless 90-yard TD in the final minutes to run up the score up. At no point did Jacksonville look a threat to move the ball — the Jags just tipped and intercepted a lot of balls.

So if Jacksonville’s defense is not as dangerous against top teams and if its run game is overrated and if that Jags win over Pittsburgh was not as dominant as it seems, then it all comes down to Blake Bortles … uh oh.

Pittsburgh is 13–3. LeVeon Bell and Antonio Brown are the best in the league at their positions, and JuJu Smith-Schuster is blossoming into a star too. The Steelers should be on an 11-game win streak if not for that terrible Jesse James TD overturn.

Yes, the Steelers have eight one-score wins, seven against bad teams, but do you notice how you’re trying to talk yourself into the Jaguars covering? You know in your heart the Jags are not a good team. They’re a really fun, really good defense, but they’re still quarterbacked by Blake Bortles.

The only formula for Jacksonville to win this game is for Fournette to break a long run, Roethlisberger to suck all game, and the defense to score multiple times — you know, the exact thing that happened earlier this year.

Blake Bortles on the road against a loaded Steelers team. Don’t overthink this.

The pick:
Pittsburgh 23, Jacksonville 9

New Orleans +5.5 at Minnesota

The league’s top defense will indeed be playing Sunday, but they’re playing in Minnesota.

The Vikings allowed under 200 passing yards in over half their games, including each of the last five. They last allowed a passing touchdown in Week 14 and gave up only 12 all season. Only one opposing receiver had 100 yards all season, and it took one of the catches of the year for Marvin Jones to do that. And this is a defense that’s faced Antonio Brown, Michael Thomas, Julio Jones, and A.J. Green. It’s been “Rhodes closed” for opposing WR1s against Xavier Rhodes this season.

But pass defense isn’t even the better half of the Minnesota D. The Vikings have the league’s best run defense. They’ve allowed only three runs all season longer than 10 yards. The Vikings have give up under 20 points in all but four games this season. They’ve allowed 10 or fewer in five of their final seven, including against opponents like the Rams and Falcons.

But the Saints are really good too. Like Minnesota, they had an eight-game win streak this season, and they’re 5–4 against playoff opponents. But three of those wins are against Carolina, and New Orleans hasn’t been as good since its win streak ended. They’ve lost all three road games since and should well have lost two more at home. For all the hype about the Saints two-headed running attack, New Orleans hasn’t had a 100-yard runner since before Thanksgiving. This might be a team that peaked too early.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the obvious Drew Brees edge, no matter how good Case Keenum has been this season. The Saints haven’t been out of a game late since the first two weeks of the season, and every Vikings fan will be scared to death in a late game, whether Keenum or Brees is on the field.

But the Saints have to keep it close the rest of the game for that to matter, and just about every sign points to Minnesota being a little better. The Vikings are 7–1 at home with a +98 point differential. The Saints are only 4–4 on the road. Minnesota has the run defense to match up with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara and the corner to match up with Michael Thomas. The Saints will have a hard time finding long sustained drives, so they’ll need big plays from guys like Kamara and Ted Ginn to break through. Minnesota’s offense is the little engine that could. Keenum keeps plays alive, Stefon Diggs is finally healthy again, and Adam Thielen is always open somehow. The Saints have allowed 300 passing yards seven times already. This should be an eighth.

The edges are subtle, but they point Minnesota’s way. But five and a half points is a high spread in a game that feels like it could come down to the final drive. There’s a good chance both teams are playing this one knowing the winner hosts the NFC Championship. And Minnesota isn’t interested in going anywhere.

The pick:
Minnesota 23, New Orleans 19

Playoff record: 1–3
Regular season record: 130–116–11
Best bets: 29–20–1
Locks: 2–1

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