The Best Eight Days of Football Start On Saturday With NFL Divisional Round And The Conference Championship Games On January 21st.
The most prominent storyline of the divisional round is the quarterback matchups. This weekend, four Hall of Fame caliber quarterbacks (Brady, Roethlisberger, Ryan, Brees) will face two backups (Keenum, Foles), a first-round bust (Bortles), and a quarterback who almost got his head coach fired due to his regression (Mariota).
The HOF quarterbacks have a combined 47 playoff wins, 10 Super Bowl appearances, and seven Super Bowl wins. The other guys, one playoff appearance combined between the four signal-callers.
Atlanta at Philadelphia – Jan. 13th at 4:35pm on NBC | Line: Falcons by 3
The one-seeded Eagles are the underdogs at home; Vegas has the Falcons as three-point favorites. A one seed has never been an underdog at home vs. a six seed in NFL Divisional Playoff history. Will that be motivation for Philadelphia? Do they need motivation?
Can Foles Get It Done?
The only reason the Eagles are underdogs at home is due to the loss of MVP-caliber quarterback, Carson Wentz. Current quarterback Nick Foles has been up and down since becoming the starter.
Obviously, Foles isn’t as good as Wentz, but he’s not as mobile either. Can Foles avoid the Falcons’ pass rush and resort to his 2013 form? Or will the Eagles have a lost season? This is where Eagles head coach Doug Pederson Earns his money.
Must Win Game for Matt Ryan?
The Falcons offense has taken a step back due to offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan’s departure. Most noteworthy, quarterback Matt Ryan. Ryan’s 20 touchdowns are the least since his rookie season; his 4,095 pass yards are the least since 2010.
After last year’s Super Bowl collapse, followed by a down year this season; is this a must-win game for Ryan? Is he elite or just above average? Saturday’s matchup vs. a stout defense will help decide.
Saturday’s contest features a top-ten defensive matchup, Philadelphia (1st) and Atlanta (9th). There won’t be much room to run as the Eagles have the first-ranked run defense and the Falcons yield the ninth-ranked run defense. When it comes to scoring defense, Atlanta gives up 19.7 points per game (9th), and Philadelphia gives up just 17 points per game (1st).
The early downs will be crucial in this matchup. Whoever can gain significant yardage on first and second down, making third down manageable, will have the inside track to a victory.
Tennessee at New England – Jan. 13th at 8:15 pm on CBS | Line: Pats by 13.5
The Patriots Are Just Fine…For Now
The drama that surrounds the New England Patriots is real. It doesn’t matter. Bob Kraft, Tom Brady, and Bill Belichick have been together for almost two decades and realize what’s a stake. An eighth trip to the Super Bowl together and possible sixth Championship.
This trio has been through a lot together Deflate-gate, Spy-gate, and more; but it hasn’t affected the play on the field. However, if the Patriots lose to Tennessee on Saturday things will get interesting. A loss to the Titans being a 13.5 point favorite at home will bring nothing but speculation.
Titans Relying on Heisman Winners
The Heisman Memorial Trophy is awarded to the best player in college football. But winners of the prestigious award have not always panned out in the NFL. That’s not the case for Titan’s quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back Derrick Henry.
The Titans will rely on not one but two of the five Heisman Trophy winners (Sam Bradford, Mark Ingram, Cam Newton) in the playoffs to beat the Patriots Saturday night. To win, both of these players will have to resort to their Heisman form, but last week’s form will do just fine.
Mariota had a season to forget with 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in 15 games. But he’s brought the Titans this far, playing well enough in week 17 and extraordinary in the second half vs. the Chiefs last week.
Dick LeBeau vs. Tom Brady
Some think Tom Brady is old playing quarterback at age 40. Titans’ defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is 80 and still calling plays.
LeBeau was let go by the Steelers after the 2014 season after helping Pittsburgh win two Super Bowls (XL, XLIII).
After 44 years, LeBeau doesn’t have many years left in coaching. A win vs. New England would be a signature moment for LeBeau, as he is just 2-6 vs. Brady since 2004.
Mularkey is Here To Stay
After the week 13 win over Houston, the Titans sat atop the AFC South at 8-4. Then Tennessee lost three straight games. Mariota wasn’t playing well, and there was speculation that Titan’s head coach Mike Mularkey would not be back next season.
However, the Titans beat Jacksonville in week 17, 15-10. With help in weeks 16 and 17, they Titans made the playoffs. After beating the Chiefs on the road, Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk gave Mularkey a vote of confidence.
“Just to eliminate any distractions moving forward, Mike Mularkey is our head coach and will be our head coach moving forward” said Strunk.
Not a lot of people talk about Tennessee’s defense. But they are much better than people think, especially in the run game. The Titans have the league’s fourth-ranked run defense giving up 88.8 yards per game.
Tennessee completely shut out Kansas City’s explosive offense in the second half of last week’s AFC Wildcard matchup.
The Patriots do not have a great defense by any means. The 29th-ranked defense gives up 251.3 yards per game through the air (30th) and 114.8 yards on the ground (20th). However, New England is very good where it counts, giving up just 18.5 points per game (5th).
Jacksonville at Pittsburgh – Jan. 14th at 1:05 pm on CBS | Line: Steelers by 7.5
Jaquan Cathey covers the Jacksonville Jaguars for Sports Talk Florida.
New Orleans at Minnesota – Jan 14th at 4:40 pm on FOX | Line: Vikings by 4.5
All Roads Go Through Minnesota
No literally, all roads go through Minnesota as the Vikings try to become the first team to go the Super Bowl in its host city. U.S. Bank Stadium is scheduled to host Super Bowl LII on February 4, 2018.
Minnesota and New Orleans will be the last of four divisional games this weekend. If the Eagles lose Saturday night, a Vikings win means the NFC Championship game will be in Minnesota.
Will Case Keenum Have a Leash?
Case Keenum took over the quarterback duties in week two after Sam Bradford was hurt in week one. He had a breakout year, worthy of consideration for being a starter somewhere in the NFL.
But Zimmer never really gave Keenum a solid vote of confidence. Now, with a fully healthy Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford; would Zimmer pull Keenum if the Vikings struggle on offense in a win or go home situation?
Zimmer Vs. Payton
Mike Zimmer and Saints head coach Sean Payton have a lot of history together and know each other very well. It started in 2003 when both coaches were in Dallas under Bill Parcells. Payton was the assistant head coach/quarterbacks, and Zimmer was the defensive coordinator.
The two coaches used to compete against each other in practice, often ending in shouting matches, according to ESPN’s Darren Woodson.
Payton is looking for his second Super Bowl, while Zimmer is looking for his first. Which coach will be the better Parcells disciple?
How Much Does Brees Have Left?
For the first time in about 11 years, Saints’ quarterback Drew Brees didn’t have to carry the team on his back. Brees (39), hasn’t had a down year but taken a step back due to the production of running backs, Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram.
Brees has had his lowest passing attempts per game since 2005 (33.6), lowest passing yards since 2005 (4,334), and lowest passing touchdowns since 2003 (23).
Minnesota has the leagues top defense, top scoring defense and second-ranked pass defense. How much does the 39-year old quarterback have left? Can he carry this team via volume passing if he has to? He might have to.