NFL Playoffs Divisional Round: Tried and True versus New Blood!

Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, and Matt Ryan have started a combined 75 playoff games.

Nick Foles, Marcus Mariota, Blake Bortles, and Case Keenum have started a combined 3 playoff games.

75 to 3. That’s what we’re looking at folks, and save for one of the youth v. vet matchups, all of our other contests favor the men with experience. “Old folks” rejoice! The only matchup where one of our vets is the underdog is in the Saints and Vikings finale of the weekend in Minnesota, and that “underdog” status is as much a result of the Vikings impressive defense as it is a slight to Drew Brees.

One more obvious, albeit fun fact: Tom Brady has more Super Bowl wins than all four of the young bloods have playoff appearances combined. *Roethlisberger nearly accomplishes this feat as well with his two rings. Brees has one Lombardi trophy and Matt Ryan obviously came up just short last season. The four quote un quote “inexperienced” QBs haven’t even sniffed a Super Bowl.

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It almost looks more disheartening in visual aid form. Image Credit: ESPN NFL IG

The disparity in terms of experience versus upstart or revamped teams has never been more apparent or on display than 2017-2018’s divisional round. In case you missed it, we went a perfect four for four in last week’s wild and wooly wild card weekend and we’re looking to keep that impeccable record in tact as we start this week’s preview!

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Saturday, January 13th, 2018

Atlanta Falcons @ Philadelphia Eagles – NBC

The first one seed to ever play underdog to a visiting six seed??!

You guessed it! The 2017-2018 Philadelphia Eagles. How’d you guys know?! TSO readers are the smartest!

That’s right, with the absence of Carson Wentz the Eagles find themselves in an unusual position. Philly boasts the home record over the past two seasons, and this year they were an impressive 7 and 1, yet they still face an uphill battle against the defending NFC champs. Why you might ask? Short answer, Nick Foles.

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Foles will need to display more poise than he has the past few weeks filling in for Wentz if the Eagles hope to advance. Image Credit: Sporting News

Foles has looked borderline awful since taking over for Wentz. There’s no easy way around it. In just his second season in the league Wentz has vaulted himself into the conversation with some of the game’s best in terms of overall value to his team. A-la Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, so goes Carson Wentz so goes the Philadelphia Eagles. With Wentz out the Eagles corners are being exposed by offenses that are getting to run more plays by virtue of the Eagles’ offense possessing the ball less with Foles under center. In short, Foles does not sustain drives the way Wentz is able to, which puts Philadelphia’s defense on the field more often, exposing them to more opportunity to get burned on deep balls and crossing patterns.

The strength of the Eagles defense is their front seven, and the longer they are on the field the more likely they are to give up a big play. Atlanta has the reigning MVP and a guy by the name of Julio Jones. Did we mention that per Pro Football Focus, during the wild card round Matty Ice had the best passer rating under pressure at 108.9? Yeah. You do the math.

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A deadly combo, Ryan and Jones will look to keep it rolling in Philadelphia for the divisional round. Image Credit: Atlanta Falcons

The Eagles did not play the Falcons this season, but Jay Ajayi did prior to his trade from Miami. Ajayi did well, but Atlanta’s defense has improved drastically against the run from the beginning of the season. Philly will try and establish a run game with their plethora of backs in order to alleviate the inevitable pressure on Foles. The Eagles won’t go down without a fight, and could keep this game within reason in the first half, but in the end Atlanta’s experience, talent, and depth will lead the Falcons to a dominant victory. The last six seed to beat a one seed? The 2010 Green Bay Packers who defeated the Atlanta Falcons and went on to win the Super Bowl. Just saying Falcons fans…just sayin… Dirty Birds return to the NFC Championship to defend their title as kings of the NFC!

Tennessee Titans @ New England Patriots – CBS

Forgive me.

MARIOTAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!

AHHHHHHHHHH!!!

That’s right! Marcus Mariota stepped up in a big way in one of if not the toughest place to play in the NFL and lead his team to a one point victory over the heavily favored Chiefs! In case you missed it Mariota made NFL history as the first player to ever throw a touchdown to himself in a playoff game. That’s right, the stat line for the play read:

Marcus Mariota throws left to Marcus Mariota for six yards, TOUCHDOWN TITANS!

Yeah.

In what was initially a blocked pass, Mariota put all of his tools on display in a feat of athleticism that left even the announcers speechless. Mariota rolled to his left, threw, had the pass deflected, caught it and ran it in from six yards out, diving for pylon and Titans touchdown. Unbelievable.

Was it the best pass in the world? No, of course not, but the awareness and athleticism to pull that off and ultimately spark the Titans comeback was nothing short of magnificent. NFL, a new star has been born.

Will Mariota’s heroics be enough to best one of the greatest dynasties of all time? If history tells us anything, maybe. Earlier this season, another mobile QB with a big arm lit New England’s less than impressive defense up for over 30 points. We’re referring to DeShaun Watson of the Houston Texans who came into the league as a rookie and lit the NFL world on fire until his awful ACL tear in practice. Does Mariota have the tools to light up the Pats in similar fashion? Yes. Does he have the weapons and support around him? Sort of.

Tennessee’s rushing attack is one of the best in the NFL, but their wideouts have been unimpressive this season. Eric Decker came up with a huge touchdown catch against the Chiefs, only after dropping two to three critical balls earlier in the game. Corey Davis profiles as a big, fast and physical future number one, but has yet to put his skills on display for all to see. Delanie Walker is the only reliable target for Mariota, and for all of Walker’s immense talent at tight end, he’s only one piece of a much larger puzzle for Tennessee.

De’Marco Murray may return this week, which would be a boost to the Titans run game, but even without Murray, Tennessee is in capable hands. Derrick Henry has averaged the third most yards after contact this season. Two problems. One, Bill Belichick loves to eliminate your best weapon, and Henry has clearly established himself as “that guy” for Tennessee. Two, the top running back for yards after contact is on the other team, Dion Lewis. That’s right, Henry, at 6’3″ and 250 lbs. isn’t all that much of a surprise, but Lewis, at 5’8″ and easily 50 lbs. less than Henry leads the NFL in yards after contact. “Takes a ‘lickin’ and keeps on a tickin’!” Lewis is certainly small but mighty!

I want to believe! I want to see Mariota make sharp passes and squeeze balls into tight windows while extending drives with his legs. I want the Titans receivers to create more than an inch of separation and run for more than two yards after a big catch. Marcus Mariota does have four fourth quarter comebacks and five game winning drives this season, most in the NFL, so there is reason for optimism Titans fans! However, when it comes down to experience, the Pats have that in spades. The Titans corners will struggle to contain Cooks, Hogan, Gronkowski, and Burkhead, setting Brady up for a huge game that Mariota will struggle to match. Tennessee will keep it closer than some think, but New England marches on to an inevitable AFC Championship showdown. 

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Just a reminder that this Brady guy is really, really….REALLY GOOD. Oldest QB to ever lead the league in passing? No biggie, just add it to the overflowing trophy case. Image Credit: NFL Network IG

Sunday, January 14th, 2018 

Jacksonville Jaguars @ Pittsburgh Steelers – CBS

The rematch that Big Ben said he wanted and the Jags D is happy to give him. This game gets real simple real quick, but first, let’s add one interesting fact. Ben Roethlisberger only has a losing record at home to two teams. The Patriots, understandably, and the Jaguars. That’s right, Big Ben is 1 and 4, or those teams are 4 and 1 against him at Heinz field. After a 30 point beat down earlier this season, the Jags will attempt to prove their blowout of the Steelers was no fluke.

One glaring problem. Blake “don’t throw that!” – “no, no, no, no!” -Bortling Bortles. Yes, the man who ran for more yards last week than he managed to throw for. Yes, the QB who threw for under 100 yards as his Jags marched to victory on the back of a 90 yard junk time Leonard Fournette TD and defensive turnover for a touchdown. Never mind those pesky facts though, because it’s also a fact that the last time the Steelers allowed a defensive turnover to result in touchdown was in 2013, which signals just how good this Jacksonville defense is.

How good are the Jacksonville Jaguars on the defensive side of the ball? 2000 Baltimore Ravens good. Five interceptions of Big Ben good. Allowing 10 points or less in nine games this season good. The last team to do that? 2000 Ravens. Just sayin’, that’s how good this “Sacksonville” defense has been. Calias Campbell is a monster on the front line, and Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye are both legitimate, shut down corners. Mr. prolific, Antonio Brown, will need to bring his A game as he’ll be pushed around and tested by the Jags big, fast, and physical cornerbacks.

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Ramsey and co. were flying high at home in the Wild Card round, but will they be able to reprise their role as upsetter in their return to Pittsburgh this Sunday? Image Credit: Jacksonville.com

Pittsburgh often wins by out “athleticizing” and overpowering their opponents, but that will be difficult to do with this Jacksonville D. LeVeon Bell, Martavis Bryant, and JuJu Smith-Schuster will play critical roles in keeping the chains moving for the Steelers. Assuming Pittsburgh is able to punch in a score or two, the Jags will be unable to keep pace. This may be the game with the most heavy hitting, smack talking intrigue, as they are two prideful, powerful teams squaring off in smash mouth football. Once the Steelers get up, Bortles will be exposed and with Fournette not looking like the same Fournette pre-ankle injury, we like the Steelers to win at home and set up a showdown with the Pats for AFC bragging rights!

New Orleans Saints @ Minnesota Vikings – FOX

 

That Saints and Vikings week one rematch! A few things have changed since that week one affair. Most notably, AP was traded, Dalvin Cook who ran for 125 yards was sent to the IR with a torn ACL, and did we mention a guy named Case Keenum since stepped in as the starting quarterback for Sam Bradford? Yeah. A lot has changed.

Speaking of change, the last time these two met in the playoffs was 2009. Remember that Brett Favre last second interception? Funny because AP was on the Vikings back then. Keeping with our theme of experience though, one guy has been there in the 2009 days and in our 2017-2018 matchup. Drew Brees. Brees will certainly be pivotal in this matchup yet again.

We shared the graphic earlier in association with Tom Brady’s game and greatness, but let’s just take a moment to realize just how damned impressive Brees is and has been too. Brees is also fourth on that list, and has thrown for more 5,000 yard seasons than the rest of the guys on that list, combined. Yeah. Dude’s really freakin’ good. Did we mention that he just set the new single season completion record this year too? Why hasn’t Brees won a league MVP? Just seems a bit ridiculous. Drew will need to be firing on all cylinders to topple this Vikings D.

Minnesota’s D is easily 1b to Jacksonville’s 1a. The Vikes have the size and speed to cause even the most elite offenses like New Orleans all kinds of hell. Anthony Barr will chase Kamara down sideline to sideline, and Harrison Smith brings the hammer down for any crossing routes that Brees wants to exploit. The Saints top wideout, Michael Thomas, usually incredible difficult to shut down, will struggle to find any easy targets with Xavier Rhodes undoubtedly shadowing him for the majority of the game.

We still don’t believe in Case Keenum. He has improved from his first few seasons, but he’s still the beneficiary of two receivers at the top of their games. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are two of the top receivers at bringing down contested catches. That’s the definition of helping your QB out and making something out of nothing. Keenum will continue to get bailed out this week as he’ll only need to avoid throwing rookie, Marshon Lattimore’s way. Whoever Lattimore doesn’t cover, Diggs or Thielen, will be on an inevitable mismatch all game. All Keenum has to do is identify the mismatch, throw that way, or hit big Kyle Rudolph over the seam or his running backs on a check down. It’s hard to believe this Vikings train can keep rolling, but it does by exploiting mismatches. Too many mismatches line up in Minnesota’s favor at home. Vikes win a close one, and move one game closer to hosting the Super Bowl. 

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Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer is known for getting the most out of his players, and he certainly has gotten more than enough out of backup Case Keenum. Keenum’s mobility will be key to a Vikings victory. Image Credit: SB Nation

That’ll do it for our divisional round games! Thank you for all of the liking, tweeting, sharing, and love. We appreciate you reading and hope it continues to add to your enjoyment of the games. We’ll be back next week with championship previews!

 

 

 

 

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