By Don Banks | January 11, 2018 12pm PT
The divisional round of the playoffs usually give us some surprises, like when the top-seeded Cowboys fell to the No. 4 Packers a year ago, and to a lesser degree when the No. 2 Chiefs couldn’t handle the visiting No. 3 Steelers last January.
This year’s eight-team field produces legitimate hopes for three of the road teams, and the fourth, Tennessee, at least has the Cinderella factor going for it as it ventures into Foxboro against the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots. The Falcons are favored in Philadelphia, the Jaguars have already won this season in Pittsburgh, and the Saints are seen as a Super Bowl-caliber club as they prepare to meet Minnesota in what everyone considers the glamor game of the weekend.
It’s the best weekend of the season on the NFL calendar, and it’s about to unfold in four cold-weather, football-mad cities.
* Last week’s picks: 2-2 (.500); Season: 59-25 (.702).
No. 6 Atlanta (11-6) at No. 1 Philadelphia (13-3) — The Falcons are certainly the trendy pick coming off their manhandling of the Rams in Los Angeles last Saturday night, with the Eagles having to stomach being the first top seed ever tabbed as an underdog in the divisional round. At this point, Philadelphia getting off to that 11-2 start with Carson Wentz at quarterback feels like ancient history, and the entire football world is expecting Nick Foles to go down in flames in his second career playoff start. Maybe it happens just that way, and the Eagles once-glorious season ends with a whimper against an Atlanta team that has at last found its stride. But I don’t think so. I think Foles will rebound and play a very serviceable game, with the Eagles dominant defensive front having its way against the Falcons offensive line. It’ll be low-scoring and a bit ugly, but for a week at least, Philly’s Super Bowl dreams will live on as the NFC Championship game returns to the City of Brotherly Love. Winner: Philadelphia.
No. 5 Tennessee (10-7) at No. 1 New England (13-3) — The Titans aren’t given much of a chance to stay with a Patriots team that has won 11 of its past 12 games and now has fresh motivation to prove its dynasty is not done yet (see last week’s ESPN story). New England quarterback Tom Brady is a mind-boggling 17-3 in home playoff games, and the Patriots in the Belichick era are 10-1 in the divisional round when coming off a first-round bye. Maybe if Marcus Mariota makes two or three plays with his legs in key situations, and Titans running back Derrick Henry has another monster game like the one he had in Kansas City, Tennessee can make a game of it and be within striking distance in the fourth quarter. The Titans gained confidence with their huge comeback from an 18-point halftime deficit against the Chiefs, but pulling off another such miracle in Gillette Stadium increases the degree of difficulty considerably. I could see Tennessee covering the 13-point spread. I can’t see the Titans making enough big plays to deny the Patriots their seventh consecutive trip to the AFC title game. Winner: New England.
No. 3 Jacksonville (11-6) at No. 2 Pittsburgh (13-3) — The Steelers know better than anyone how the Jaguars’ superb and aggressive defense can take over a game and ruin your day. That Week 5 shellacking Pittsburgh absorbed at the hands of Jacksonville in Heinz Field was the low point of the Steelers season and even had Ben Roethlisberger questioning whether he still had it. Five interceptions with two of those returned for touchdowns can make for a crisis in confidence, even for the best of them. But the Steelers have lost just once since that meltdown against the Jaguars, and that was at home by one point to the Patriots thanks to that controversial Jesse James no-catch replay review. The Jaguars will frustrate the Steelers multi-faceted offense at times, but they won’t be able to shut Pittsburgh down enough to offset the passing-game limitations of Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles. These Steelers are too good to lose a second time at home to Jacksonville, and their rematch with New England in next week’s AFC Championship feels fated to occur. Winner — Pittsburgh.
No. 4 New Orleans (12-5) at No. 2 Minnesota (13-3) — The Saints’ resurgence this season was built on their productive and reliable running game and a defense that suddenly turned stingy. So what happens against Carolina in last week’s first round of the playoffs? New Orleans wins in a shootout, giving up 413 yards to the Panthers offense and getting next to nothing out of its own ground game (41 yards rushing on 22 carries). The Saints defense came through when the game was on the line against Carolina, but the task is much tougher for New Orleans on both sides of the ball. The Vikings have the No. 1 ranked overall defense and have been particularly good on third down, giving up the first down just 25 percent of the time. Minnesota has limited 12 of its 16 opponents to less than 20 points, and doesn’t give up many big plays. If Vikings quarterback Case Keenum can deal with the pressure of his first career playoff start, taking care of the ball as he has all season, Minnesota should be one big step closer to becoming the first team to play a Super Bowl on its own field. Winner: Minnesota.