NFC and AFC teams continue their march toward Super Bowl 52 in Minneapolis on February 4th as the Divisional round commences today in Philadelphia with the Falcons visiting the Eagles at 3:35 PM CT and continues on into tomorrow as the Saints and Vikings finish it off at 3:45 PM CT. In between the Patriots host the resurgent Tennessee Titans tonight at 7:15 CT and the Pittsburgh Steelers host the Jacksonville Jaguars tomorrow at 12:05 PM CT. Here's a look at each game along with predicted outcomes.
Last year in Playoffs: 6-1
Lost Super Bowl 51 as I picked the Falcons, 38-35, only to see them fall to the Patriots, 34-28, in overtime in an all world comeback performance by Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. The Falcons led 28-3 in the third quarter and looked to be in excellent shape, but the Patriots became the Patriots again and pulled off an improbable but typical Patriots clutch performance.
I was picking the Patriots all week at 38-35, but woke up that Thursday morning and decided on the Falcons. My heart was in it a little bit for Julio Jones. I learned not to do that again.
No.6 Atlanta Falcons (11-6) @ No.1 Philadelphia Eagles (13-3)
Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, PA. 69,176
3:35 PM CT
Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya
Laundry: Referee, Bill Vinovich, Replay official, Charles Stewart
Falcons by 2 1/2
This game has all the makings of a defensive battle. The Eagles are number 4 in the league in scoring defense, giving up 18.4 points per game while the Falcons are 8th giving up 19.7 per game. The Eagles are also number 1 in rushing defense so the great Devonta Freeman and stud Tevin Coleman may have a tough time getting yards. That will lay the onus on quarterback Matt Ryan, who finished off another solid year completing 65% of his passes (342-of-529) for 4,095 yards and 20 TDs. But Ryan also threw 12 interceptions. It wasn't even close to the MVP year he had last year. The difference in this year and last year is that in 2016, Ryan had Kyle Shanahan calling plays and this year he has Steve Sarkisian. Sark is doing his best, but Shanahan, who is now the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and finished off the season with 6 straight victories with October quarterback acquisition Jimmy Garappolo from New England, was a prolific offensive coordinator. The superb Julio Jones still caught 88 passes for 1,444 yards but only had 3 TDs. The conditions in Philly look tough for throwing the football today. It'll be 31 at kickoff, feel like 21 with winds at 12-16 MPH throughout the game and getting colder as the game progresses, which will have an impact on Ryan, Jones and offense that is used to playing in an indoor stadium in Mercedes-Benz.
Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, who took over from the injured Carson Wentz who was lost for the season on Dec. 10th after throwing for 33 TDs against 7 ints and having an MVP caliber year, is serviceable and that may be all he needs to be today. LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi are very good running backs, so I like the Eagles to run it well and play solid defense and Foles to make enough plays to keep the Falcons honest on defense, and allow the Eagles to advance to the NFC Championship game which will be played at Lincoln Financial if the Eagles do survive today.
Eagles 17, Falcons 16
No.5 Tennesse Titans (10-7) @ No.1 New England Patriots (13-3)
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, MA. 66,829
7:15 PM CT
Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, Tracy Wolfson, Jay Feely
Aladdin: Ron Torbert, be ready for massive laundry; replay: Darryll Lewis
Patriots by 13 1/2
Tom Brady led the NFL in passing again this season completing 385-of-581 passes, 66%, for 4,577 yards, 32 TDs against 8 ints. His passer rating was 3rd in the league at 102.8 only behind KC's Alex Smith (104.7) and the great Drew Brees (103.9). Anything above 100 is considered excellent He's got a virtual fountain of youth inside of him at 40 years old. His career passer rating is 97.3, as good as it gets. He's also got 5 Super Bowl rings with ambitions to get more and play into his mid 40's. I can see him doing that. He keeps himself in such tremendous shape and never gets hurt, so both of those things are attainable for Brady. Derrick Henry and Marcus Mariota played superb games last Saturday as the Titans came back from a 21-3 halftime deficit and defeated the KC Chiefs 23-21 in raucous Arrowhead Stadium where the noise can register almost 4.0 on the Richter Scale, earthquake-like. It was a sensational performance by the Titans and in particular Henry, who rushed for 156 yards and a 7, and Mariota who completed 19-of-31 passes for 205 yards and 2 TDs against 1 int. But this is in Foxborough where the Patriots are always difficult to defeat and the temperature will be 25 at kickoff and feel like 10 with an 18 MPH wind throughout the game. I like the home team to advance here.
New England 24, Tennessee 14
No.3 Jacksonville Jaguars (11-6) @ No.2 Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3)
Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA. 68,400
12:05 PM CT
Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, Evan Washburn
Vogue: Brad Allen, Replay, Jim Lapetina
Steelers by 7
The Jaguars defeated the Steelers in week 5, 30-9, in Pittsburgh as Ben Roethlisberger threw 5 interceptions. There was talk that Ben, at 35 years old, should call it a career, but Roethlisberger finished the season completing 360-of-561 passes, 64%, for 4,251 yards with 28 TDs and 14 ints, and a 93.4 passer rating, all solid numbers. The Jags have a solid defense and awesome corner Jalen Ramsey won the game for them last week in the wild card game against the Bills with a game clinching interception in a 10-3 victory. Still, Blake Bortles had a horrible day throwing the ball as he only completed 12-of-23 passes for 87 yards and a TD. He ran for more yards in the game (88) than he passed for. The rushing yards were a major reason why the Jaguars won though. But again, the temperature will be 14 at kickoff and stay in the teens throughout the game. Not much wind, but the temperature will be tough on Jacksonville which is used to balmy northeast Florida. Leonard Fournette had a good year for the Jags rushing for 1,040 yards and 9 TDs, but only averaged 3.9 yards per carry. He didn't do anything against a good Bills defense last week. It's hard to tell what you're going to get from Fournette week to week.
I like Roethlisberger and the Steelers to advance and face a much anticipated rematch with the Patriots next Sunday. The Steelers lost a tough one to the Patriots in week 15, 27-24, at home in which tight end Jesse James looked like he had caught the game winning TD in the last minute, but after review, it was ruled that James did not complete the catch through the ground when he fell into the end zone as the ball moved when it hit the ground. That rule has been controversial, but I like it. I contend that the best football players in the world, who are also extremely well paid, should be required to hang on to the ball throughout the catch. It's a good rule no matter what other people may say.
Steelers 20, Jaguars 10
No. 4 New Orleans Saints (11-5) @ No.2 Minnesota Vikings (13-3)
U. S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, MN. 66,655
3:45 PM CT
Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews, Chris Myers
Yella: Gene Steratore, could be some controversy with Steratore, Replay: Paul Weidner
Vikings by 5
Drew Brees had a phenomenal 2017 season completing 386 of 535 passes, 72%, for 4,334 yards, 23 TDs against 8 ints and had a league leading 103.9 passer rating. That completion percentage is off the charts good. He also threw for 376 yards and 2 TDs last week including an 80 yarder to Ted Ginn Jr, that hit Ginn Jr right in stride and Ginn concurrently took it straight to the house. His passer rating was 115.2 last Sunday against the Panthers a 31-26 victory in the Superdome. But the Vikings have the No.1 scoring defense in the league giving up only 15.8 points per game. They also have the second best rushing and passing defense in the league, so Mark Ingram, Alvin Kamara and Brees may have some tough sledding. The Saints lost super offensive lineman Andrus Peat to injury last week. He's out this week and that hurts the Saints' cause somewhat
Case Keenum has been more than impressive in relief of Sam Bradford as Bradford was injured after 2 games. In 14 starts, Keenum completed 325-of-481 passes, 67%, for 3,547 yards, 22 TDs against only 7 ints. He's been nothing short of spectacular and has found a resurgence in Minnesota under stellar offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who is a major candidate for job openings in New York (Giants), Detroit and Arizona. Latavius Murray rushed for 842 yards and 8 TDs. The dynamite receiving trio of Adam Thielen (91-1,276, 4 TDs), Stefon Diggs (the older brother of Alabama's Trevon, 64-849, 8 TDs) and tight end Kyle Rudolph (57-532, 8 TDs) make this Vikings offense versatile and highly formidable.
Super Bowl 52 will be played at right there at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings take their first step towards getting there.
Vikings 31, Saints 27