And then there were eight.
It would be nice to say that the final eight teams left in the hunt for the Vince Lombardi trophy were the best in football but nobody, not even the most dyed-in-the-wool Tennessee Titans fan, believes their team is in the top 25% of the league. However, the fact remains they took advantage of the Kansas City Chiefs beating themselves last weekend and secured their spot in the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs.
The downside of that, of course, is Mike Mularkey keeping his job as head coach for one more year, wasting another season of Marcus Mariota’s career.
Elsewhere in the AFC, the Jacksonville Jaguars scored just 10 points for the second week in a row, but it was still enough for them to beat the Buffalo Bills. By now you know that Blake Bortles had more yards with his feet than he did through the air but, perhaps lost in the euphoria of a first playoff win at home since 1999, was the fact he completed just 12 throws in the game, missing three and five yard passes that you’d expect a high school quarterback to make.
While we also lost the league’s highest scoring team last weekend, with the LA Rams managing just 13 points against the Falcons who capitalised on a number of special teams mistakes by the hosts to secure the second upset win of Saturday’s action, it’s safe to say we have at least four of the top-five teams from the regular season still involved.
It’s impossible for all four to make it to the Championship Round — the Saints play the Vikings after all — but are people overlooking the obvious choices for contesting the AFC and NFC title games because the top seeds didn’t play last weekend?
Atlanta Falcon @ Philadelphia Eagles – Saturday, 9.35pm
With Matt Ryan at quarterback, the Falcons have faced the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field four times and their record is not great, winning just once. It might just be a case of hometown nerves for Matty Ice as he grew up in Exton, Pennsylvania and has a perfect record hosting the same opposition. His last trip in 2016 — a season when the Falcons offense was dominant — resulted in just one touchdown in a 24-15 loss that saw Julio Jones make no fewer than 10 catches.
There’s also history to be made with this game as it marks the first time that the number one seed has been an underdog in their first playoff game since the NFL introduced the idea of home field advantage in 1975. Indeed, since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, only four top seeds have been anything less than a 3-point favourite in their opening game.
The reason for the Eagles receiving so little love, of course, is that they lost Carson Wentz to injury late in the season and Nick Foles has looked far from ideal as his replacement since. This weekend he’ll face a defense allowing just 16.3 points per game over its last six, stopping some of the NFL’s best offenses — the Saints and Rams among them — in that time. With Foles only finding the endzone once in Philly’s last two games, compared to two picks, there’s every reason to believe Atlanta will justify its favouritism.
However, the Eagles do have a top-five defense of their own, finishing the season fourth in both points and yards allowed, as well as fifth in DVOA. And, for as poor as their offense has been over the past two games, the other side of the ball has given up just 18 points in those games — though it must be said the Falcons offense is a lot more potent than both the Raiders and Cowboys units were at the end of the season.
I’m a big fan of the under in this game as the 41.5 seems a little generous given what I’ve outlined above. The Falcons opened at 2 point favourites but that’s moved out to -3 as the week has gone on. For me, the Eagles were Carson Wentz and his absence makes them very hard to back so I’ll be taking Atlanta in this one.
Tennessee Titans @ New England Patriots – Sunday, 1.15am
Much of the build up to Wildcard weekend was dominated by the Patriots, despite the fact the AFC’s number one seeds were not taking part. Of course, it was mostly because of that ESPN story that Tom Brady, Robert Kraft and, most recently, Bill Belichick have all refuted. However, one aspect they can’t deny is that their five-time Super Bowl winning quarterback looked every day of his 40 years as he struggled to six touchdowns, five picks and a lowly 81.6 QB rating in December.
Despite this, New England still kept hold of top spot in the AFC thanks in large part to the NFL’s stupid catch rule and a ground game that closed in on 200 yards in three of their last six games. Dion Lewis has been particularly good of late with 366 yards and five TDs from scrimmage in the last three games and it is to him that the Patriots might look to if the forecasted rain develops in Foxborough.
But don’t let the two-touchdown point spread fool you, the Titans are not without their chances in this game. For a start, in Derrick Henry they’ve a pretty effective run game of their own and the former Alabama star will look to build on the 207 rushing yards he has had in his past two games as starter since DeMarco Murray’s injury.
And their defence, while void of some of the big names of the other front fours in the AFC South, will look to the likes of Derrick Morgan, Brian Orakpo, Jurrell Casey and Erik Walden to put pressure on Brady in the same way as the they did with Alex Smith last weekend, recording four sacks in the process.
I struggle with backing any team that are double-digit favourites in the playoffs, but the Patriots have won eight of their past ten games as home favourites and they have covered the line in seven of those, so I’ll be taking New England, even at 13.5. Once more, I’ll be taking the under (47) in this one.
Jacksonville Jaguars @ Pittsburgh Steelers – Sunday, 6.05pm
Back in week five, the Jacksonville Jaguars played their statement game of the 2017/18 NFL season with a 30-9 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.
Their defense picked off Ben Roethlisberger no fewer than five times, prompting the quarterback to contemplate retirement when speaking to reporters after the game.
However, the 35-year-old has had just seven interceptions in the 10 games since — he was rested in week 17 — and found the end zone 22 times.
While the entire Jaguars’ defense played well last week against the Bills — holding Tyrod Taylor to just 134 passing yards on 37 attempts and keeping LeSean McCoy under 100 rushing yards — second-year cornerback Jalen Ramsey really lived up to his superstar billing. Aside from the headline-grabbing interception to end the game, Ramsey gave up just one catch all day, a nine-yard pass to Kelvin Benjamin in the first quarter.
If he’s fit to play on Sunday — and he has practiced this week — Antonio Brown can expect to see quite a bit of Ramsey. The Steelers wide receiver was the only unanimous selection to the NFL’s All-Pro team this season and it’s easy to see why when you look at this stats. Brown led the league with 1,533 receiving yards — in just 14 games — finding the end zone on nine occasions. Though he failed to score against the Jags earlier this season, he had 157 yards on 10 receptions in the game.
As for the Jacksonville offense, they surely can’t rely on Blake Bortles’ legs again in this one. The former UCF quarterback had just nine yards on one rushing attempt against Pittsburgh the first time around, compared to 10 attempts for 88 yards against the Bills last week. They can’t rely on Leonard Fournette either. The running back has only hit triple digits on the ground twice since week six and managed just 57 on a whopping 21 attempts last weekend.
I’m loathe to back against the Jacksonville defense and I’ve given them the benefit of the doubt on offense up to now, but this is the end of the road for Bortles and company I fear, and I’ll be taking Pittsburgh at -7.5. Even at just 40.5, I’ll also be taking the under.
New Orleans Saints @ Minnesota Vikings – Sunday, 9.35pm
Another match-up of teams that have already met this season but you can almost certainly disregard the Vikings’ 29-19 win over the Saints all the way back in week one. For a start, Sam Bradford completed 84% of his passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns at quarterback for Minnesota, while Dalvin Cook starred in the backfield with 137 yards on 25 touches. Neither will feature this week.
For the Saints, Adrian Peterson was hogging carries that would eventually allow Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram become the most dynamic running back pairing in the league. However, as New Orleans showed last week, even when the pair are stuffed — they combined for just 45 yards on 19 attempts against the Panthers — Drew Brees is still able to roll back the years when he needs to. The soon-to-be 39-year-old had his least productive season as a passer with 4,334 yards as the Saints switched to a more dink and dunk offense, but pulled out the big throws when he needed last weekend, torching the Panthers for 376 yards and two scores. Indeed, his 115.2 passer rating was the third best of his career in 12 postseason games.
There are lots of match-ups to watch this weekend, but perhaps the most fascinating is rookie defensive backs Marcus Williams and Marshon Lattimore going up against Vikings wideouts Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, who combined for 2,125 yards and 12 touchdowns on 155 catches this season. Both first-year players have been a huge part of the reason the Saints defence has improved this season, but few receiving corps are as potent as Minnesota’s.
The other battle to watch is how the Vikings deal with Ingram and Kamara. Between them, the pair accounted for 1,852 yards and 25 touchdowns during the regular season and New Orleans won’t want to see them stifled again. However, they’ll be fully aware they’re facing the second best defense in football — at least according to Football Outsiders — and giving up just 83.6 yards per game on the ground and a miserly 15.75 points per game.
The Vikings are my Super Bowl pick, so I’m obviously backing them at -4 in this game, comfortable that their average margin of victory this season is over eight points (and over 18 in their last three games). Once again, I think this game goes under the 45 points total.