NFL

NFL Divisional Round: Seven Point Preview

Let’s face it: to win a Super Bowl you need a great quarterback or an elite defense. Each game in the divisional round features a clash in experience level at QB as the newcomers will try to knock off the established guard of the league. Four have appeared in a Super Bowl: Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan and Drew Brees, while the other four have a combined three games of playoff experience: Marcus Mariota, Blake Bortles, Nick Foles and Case Keenum. In the NFC, the winners of wild card weekend hold the quarterbacking edge, while in the AFC both Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks are at home and coming off byes.

But a Hall of Fame quarterback is not the be-all and end-all for success in January, as the 2015 Broncos, 2002 Buccaneers and 2000 Ravens demonstrated. The remaining playoff field features most of the league’s elite defenses, as four ranked in the top five in yards allowed during the regular season (Minnesota, Jacksonville, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh). Overcoming unproven quarterbacks is not unheard of, and may be realistic for Minnesota and Philly, but for Jacksonville to make a run, their defense will have to do something special.

With that in mind, here are seven things to consider heading into this weekend’s slate of games.

Will Blake Bortles make a fatal mistake?

Blake Bortles quarterbacked the Jaguars to one of the ugliest playoff wins in recent memory against the Bills, completing 12 of 23 pass attempts for 87 yards and a touchdown to score a 10-3 win in a game that appeared to set football back at least a decade. After the uninspiring performance, Bortles leads the Jaguars north to Pittsburgh. The Jags were 4-4 on the road this year, including a 30-9 win over Pittsburgh in Week 5. However, the Jags dropped the last three road games of the season, with Bortles throwing interceptions in each loss.

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The Jaguars were 2-6 in games where Bortles threw an interception during the regular season and 1-4 when he did so on the road. The one road win when Bortles threw a pick on the road came in Week 5 at Pittsburgh, when Roethlisberger cost the Steelers with five interceptions of his own. Although Bortles avoided doing so last week, turnovers from Bortles will eventually doom this team. It’s hard to imagine Jacksonville escaping Pittsburgh with a win if they don’t win the turnover battle and cash those turnovers in for easy points. With the forecasted temperature at kickoff in Pittsburgh not expected to crack the teens, Bortles and the Jags are in for a tough outing.

Jalen Ramsey vs Antonio Brown

Antonio Brown has been a full participant in practice this week for the first time since he suffered a torn calf muscle on December 15th. Awaiting his return will be Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who at just 23 years old has become one of the league’s top defenders. In his playoff debut, Ramsey held Buffalo Bills receiver Kelvin Benjamin to just two targets, one catch, and nine yards in the Jags’ win. Brown is more explosive than Benjamin, and was thought by many to be an MVP candidate until his Week 15 injury, but during the Week 5 matchup in Pittsburgh, Brown was targeted a season-high 19 times for ten catches and 157 yards. On the other side, Ramsey had a solid performance of his own despite Brown’s big day, with an interception and four pass deflections to help secure a Jaguars victory.

For the Jaguars to pull the upset at Heinz Field, they will need to shut down Brown. The Steelers have lost their last three postseason games in which Brown failed to reach 100 yards, including last season’s AFC Championship game in New England.

Derrick Henry putting the Titans on his back

The Patriots are 10-1 in the divisional round coming off a bye with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. The extra week of scouting and preparation has spelled doom for teams that draw a trip to Foxborough. The focus of the Patriots’ game plan this week will be neutralizing the run, after Derrick Henry’s 156 yards on 23 carries in Kansas City.

Over Henry’s two-year career, the Titans are 12-0 when Henry has at least 11 carries. The Patriots are expecting reinforcements in the form of Alan Branch and Kyle Van Noy, looking to aid the league’s No. 20-ranked defense against the run. After allowing 4.7 yards per carry this season, Henry will present a formidable challenge. The 2015 Heisman trophy winner was second in the NFL with 390 fourth-quarter yards and led the NFL with 6.09 yards per carry in the final period. However, in order to have a chance to take advantage of a tired Patriots defense in the fourth quarter, the Titans will have to hang with the high-powered Patriots offense.

Can the Titans defense stop Rob Gronkowski?

In case you’ve forgotten, Rob Gronkowski was sidelined for the last eight games of the Patriots’ Super Bowl run last season with a back injury. The massive tight end has proven to be a force come playoff time, with at least one touchdown in each of his past five games and nine in his 10 career postseason games. This season, Gronkowski led the Patriots in receptions (69), yards (1,084), and touchdowns (eight) in 14 games.

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A turning point of the Titans’ 22-21 victory over the Chiefs was Travis Kelce’s concussion. Before Kelce got knocked out in the first half, he tallied four receptions for 66 yards, helping the Chiefs to a double-digit lead. With Gronk at full strength, it will take extra attention from the defense to try and slow him down. Much of that load falls on the shoulders of Wesley Woodyard, an inside linebacker having the best season of his career, and Kevin Byard, the NFL regular season leader in interceptions (eight). To pull off the upset, the Titans will need to be innovative and force multiple turnovers. Taking Gronk away and forcing the Patriots to rely on their less talented pass catchers would be a good start.

Eagles are home underdogs against the Falcons

The Eagles’ upside took a big hit in Week 14, when Carson Wentz’s MVP-caliber season ended due to a torn ACL. Since then, their odds have taken a nosedive, to the point where they’re home underdogs in the matchup of the 1 and 6 seeds. Granted the Falcons are not a typical 6 seed, as defending NFC Champions, but it’s just the fourth time since 1990 – when the league expanded the playoffs to 12 teams – that a road team is favored in the divisional round, and the first time since 2013, when the then-NFC defending champion 49ers were one-point favorites at Carolina (SF won 23-10). The other two times were the 2011 Saints at the 49ers and the 1996 Cowboys at Carolina, who both lost.

Both teams face long odds in pursuit of a first Lombardi Trophy. The Eagles will benefit greatly from home-field throughout the NFC playoffs, but Nick Foles’ passing totals over the last two weeks – 202 yards on 49 attempts – does not inspire confidence. On the other side, the Falcons roll in off two consecutive double-digit victories over playoff teams, Carolina and Los Angeles. The Falcons will look to become the third 6 seed to win it all, following the path of the 2010 Packers and 2005 Steelers.

Saints offense vs Vikings defense

Of the games on this weekend’s slate, the most intriguing is the Saints at the Vikings. A rematch between the Saints’ second-ranked offense and the Vikings’ top-ranked defense is sure to be worth the price of admission. Since 1990, a top two total offense has faced a top two total defense in the playoffs seven times. Six of the seven were won by the elite defensive unit.

The Saints backfield had a historic season, as Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram are the first running back duo to accumulate 1,500 yards from scrimmage in NFL history. Paired with the explosive receivers at Brees’ disposal, the Saints struck a balance rarely seen in the Brees era with receivers Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr., resulting in the second most yards in the league behind New England.

Defensively, the Vikings allowed the fewest yards and points in the league. More impressively, they held opposing offenses to a 25.2 third-down conversion percentage, which represent the best mark in the NFL since 1991. New Orleans converted 73 of 194 attempts (37.6 percent) to rank No. 19 in the league. Getting the Saints off the field in those situations will be crucial if the Vikings want to play beyond this weekend.

Speaking of which…

Will the Vikings be the first team to host a Super Bowl?

Although no team has ever played on their own field, two teams did play within their home market. The 49ers won Super Bowl XIX at Stanford Stadium (not Candlestick Park) against the Dolphins, and the Los Angeles Raiders lost Super Bowl XIV at the Rose Bowl (not the Los Angeles Coliseum) to the Steelers. For Minnesota, the opportunity to host the game provides a chance to wipe away four losses in the big game and no appearances since the 1976 season.

To get past the Saints, Case Keenum will have to channel his inner Tim Tebow, as Tebow was the last quarterback to win his playoff debut against a quarterback with more than ten playoff wins.

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