Last year the NFL playoffs started out rather slow. With Derek Carr’s injury, the Raiders had no chance to win at Houston, and the Lions were clearly outmatched by Seattle. Then, to finish up Wild Card weekend, the Steelers demolished Miami 30-12, and the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers routed the Giants 38-13. The average score in the 2016 Wild Card round was (with rounding) 30-11. That being said, I am very happy with this past week’s four football games. Even the less entertaining games (Rams-Falcons and Jaguars-Bills) still came down to the wire. The playoffs are a time when the NFL should be at its best, and last week, the NFL was.
Comment of the Week:
Thank you for the stat Justin. This is a lot like Antonio Brown’s primetime game stretch that I discussed earlier this year. Julio Jones is at his best in the NFL playoffs, and he was a major reason for Atlanta’s NFC title last year. If the Falcons’ game plan fails, Jones becomes a powerful plan B. Sometimes, because of Atlanta’s vast amount of skill position talent, Jones goes unnoticed. The Eagles must do their best to avoid that today. Jones is the type of player that can take over games if he plays well early on. I expect the Falcons are preparing to get him the ball often due to the cold northeast weather. Jones has the physicality to punish Philadelphia’s defense. That physicality is something that the Falcons will need badly against a tough Eagles’ defense.
Surprise of the Week:
Whenever a team comes back from 18 points down at Arrowhead stadium, it’s impressive. So, as goes the statement above, the Titans victory on Saturday was impressive. The plan to trust the power run efficiency of Derrick Henry was a success, and it gives the Titans a glimmer of hope going into Foxborough. Marcus ‘Magic Man’ Mariota stepped up big time in his first playoff game. Besides an early interception, which was not entirely his fault, Mariota extended plays all evening long with his legs, and made passes when it counted most. When scouts talk about the ‘it’ factor, they make it clear that ‘it’ is the will to win even when the game seems to be slipping away. Lately, it seems Mariota’s ‘it’ factor is spreading through the Titans’ organization.
Last week I had another poor 1-3 showing in the picks department. This year hasn’t gone as well as I hoped as I move to 159-101 (0.612) in picks on the season. Maybe this week will be better. Only one way to find out.
6-Atlanta Falcons (10-6) @ 1-Philadelphia Eagles (13-3) 4:35 NBC (Saturday)
As I said, this game may come down to the Falcons’ use of Julio Jones. Jones has played lights out in the postseason, but can he continue that success against a good Eagles defense in frigid temperatures? The cold weather will matter in this game as the Falcons are used to playing nine dome games a year. Coming from Los Angeles, where it is much warmer, it is worth wondering whether or not Matt Ryan is ready for postseason football in the cold. Coming into the 2017 postseason, Matt Ryan had played eight playoff games, and was 3-5 in those games. Seven of those eight, were played in domes. The only outdoor playoff game Atlanta had played was a 24-2 loss at MetLife Stadium, in 44˚ weather, to the New York Giants. In that game, the Falcons scored zero offensive points, and Julio Jones had one catch for 13 yards. It is going to be over 10˚ colder in Philly today. Matt Ryan is going to struggle to push the ball down the field into strong winds. Atlanta needs their improving pass rush to keep them in the game. The big question for me is, can the Eagles’ offense run the ball at a high level? Last week, Todd Gurley was efficient against the Falcons, but he didn’t get many touches. I think the Eagles will run the ball more, and become one dimensional early on. The cold weather will effect Matt Ryan, but he will make a big plays late as the Falcons force more turnovers, and despite an ugly performance, win a low-scoring slugfest. Pick: Falcons 13, Eagles 10
5-Tennessee Titans (9-7) @ 1-New England Patriots (13-3) 8:15 CBS (Saturday)
This is a game that no one should overlook. Marcus Mariota has nerves of steel. If anyone can go toe to toe as an inexperienced quarterback against Tom Brady, it’s Mariota. The Patriots like to focus on their opponents offensive strengths, and take them away. The Titans are going to have win using Mariota’s athleticism if this happens. Derrick Henry is the Titan’s home run hitter, so if the Patriots shut him down, the offense will have to throw the football. Marcus’ arm may have trouble beating a talented New England secondary, but I have no doubt that his scrambling ability is incomparable to anything that Bill Belichick coached teams have seen before. His legs will create some big plays in this game, and keep the Titans close. Of course, even with this happening, the Titans still have to stop a well rested Tom Brady. Not to mention Rob Gronkowski is playing his best football, and Dion Lewis is the best running back the Patriots have had in a while. I think the Patriots will enter this game with a run first mentality, and it will slowly wear down the Titans defense. Both sides should protect the ball well, and eventually experience will win this game. The Pats are victorious, but don’t cover the spread. Pick: Patriots 28, Titans 21
3-Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) @ 2-Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3) 1:05 CBS (Sunday)
The storyline here is obviously the brutal game the Ben Roethlisberger had against the Jags back in October. In that game, Roethlisberger threw five interceptions; two of which were returned for touchdowns. Jacksonville’s run game was on fire that day, but unnoticed by most, Blake Bortles was awful. Here’s my take: the Jaguars can win this matchup without a passing game. This may seem like a good thing for Jacksonville, but it isn’t. I think Roethlisberger could struggle in this game, but I don’t see him throwing two pick-sixes. The Jaguars’ excellent secondary couldn’t replicate their five interception performance all year long against quarterbacks like Blaine Gabbert and Tom Savage, so how can they do it again against one of the league’s most prolific passing offenses? Even if Roethlisberger threw five interceptions again, the Jaguars defense would have to return at least one of them for a score. Jacksonville needs their defense to score, because their offense can’t. In that 30-9 week 5 win for Jacksonville over the Steelers, the Jags run game was dominant. Leonard Fournette alone ran for 181 yards, something he didn’t come close to doing again all season. The October game against Pittsburgh is a statistical outlier. I think Ben Roethlisberger will struggle in this game, but Jacksonville’s offense will be unable to take advantage. Eventually, Antonio Brown should take over. After all, Brown did have 157 receiving yards in that week 5 game. Pick: Steelers 24, Jaguars 14
4-New Orleans Saints (11-5) @ 2-Minnesota Vikings (13-3) 4:40 FOX (Sunday)
This is the game of the week. I have a feeling that the winner of this one has a very good chance of lifting the Lombardi trophy in February. Those that expect the Saints to win this game will point to the difference in quarterback play between Case Keenum and Drew Brees. This is a fallacy, and I will tell you why. Quarterback play is a huge factor of deciding football games, but they are ultimately just a major part of the passing offense. The unit as a whole must be measured head to head in order to make a decision on who has the advantage. The big issue here for New Orleans is that the Vikings receiving corps is way more talented. Adam Theilen and Stefon Diggs have arguably both been top ten receivers in 2017. As for the Saints, their best receiver is Ted Ginn Jr. Ginn Jr is a fine player, but he doesn’t elevate the Saints’ offensive production. The Vikings have been almost flawless throwing the football this year, and I don’t expect that to change in Minneapolis tomorrow. The Saints will need Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram to pick up the slack, and they are definitely capable of this, however, last week against the Panthers, Kamara and Ingram were anything but dominant, combing for 68 yards on 21 touches. Usually those number are average, but for a duo that drives an offense, it’s unacceptable. I expect them to play better against Minnesota, but not enough. Case Keenum will prove he can win in the playoffs. Pick: Vikings 34, Saints 30
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All Rights Reserved – Nick Merriam – 2018