With the initial round of the NFL Playoffs being a fun-filled and enticingly unique experience in terms of the divergent styles of play, the second weekend of the NFL Postseason should offer even more contentious affairs as the stakes become that much bigger. While the AFC side of the bracket looks to be completely predictable with Tennessee and Jacksonville being the respective underdogs to New England and Pittsburgh, time and again fans have witnessed the impossible occur on a fairly regular basis in this sport. Remeber when the Baltimore Ravens overcame the Denver Broncos on the road a few years ago? How about when the underrated Giants denied the Patriots their perfect season in the Super Bowl? These are just a couple of the many instances where underestimated teams have pulled off miraculous upsets en route to improbable Super Bowl victories. Will this weekend offer the same excitement that was prevalent during the initial week of the playoffs? Let’s find out.
Atlanta Falcons vs. Philadelphia Eagles
Time: Saturday, 4:35 PM E.T.
Location: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
TV Channel: NBC
Although you could view this contest and assume that this could be a high scoring affair, this matchup actually has all the makings of a gritty defensive slugfest. With both teams ranked in the top ten in rushing yards allowed per game, it would be shocking to see any running backs amassing anywhere near 100 rushing yards in this contest. On top of that, both teams are ranked in the top eight when it comes to total points allowed this season, meaning that points will be extremely difficult to come by regardless of how each team decides to attack the other. Still, neither defense is perfect and will be susceptible from time to time to certain offensive plays. For the Falcons, it is paramount that they find a way to utilize wide receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu in the deep passing game as the Eagles rank 17th in the league in passing yards allowed per game. Comparatively speaking, the Eagles will have to contend with a slightly better secondary in Atlanta (rank 12th in passing yards allowed per game), but will still have opportunities to sling the ball downfield and over the middle thanks to the presences of Alshon Jeffrey (13.8 yards per reception) and Zach Ertz (824 receiving yards, 11.1 yards per reception). Ultimately, this game will come down to who can pass the ball effectively from start to finish, which is something that will be tremendously difficult to accomplish. However, the veteran experience and proven ability of Matt Ryan against an average Eagles secondary will be the deciding factor in what should be a physical and hard-fought contest.
Final Score: Falcons 20 Eagles 17 Spread: Atlanta -3.0
Tennessee Titans vs. New England Patriots
Time: Saturday, 8:15 PM E.T.
Location: Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Massachusetts
TV Channel: CBS
Considering the Titans literally limped their way into the playoffs and had to play in one of the most difficult environments in Arrowhead Stadium, it is simply astounding that this resilient Tennessee team has been able to get this far. Thanks to some late-game heroics by quarterback Marcus Mariota and a resilient second-half performance by his team’s defense, the Titans were able to overcome a 21-3 halftime deficit and shocked the Chiefs on the road. With all of that being said, the once forgettable Titans will have to pull off another miracle of epic proportions if they hope to overcome the explosive offense of the New England Patriots on the road. Passing for 276.1 yards per game (2nd in the NFL), scoring 28.6 points per game (2nd in the NFL), and allowing just 18.5 points per game (5th in the NFL), the Patriots have been dominant on both sides of the football this season. Furthermore, the Titans defense will face an incredibly difficult challenge in covering the intimidating physical specimen that is tight end Rob Gronkowski (15.7 yards per reception, 18 receptions for 20+ yards). The only area where the Patriots are truly weak is their porous passing defense as they have allowed 251.3 passing yards per game this season. Even if Mariota and the Titans offense can put together a stellar performance through the air during the entire game, it’s nearly inconceivable to imagine the Titans passing attack out slinging one of the best quarterbacks of all time in Tom Brady.
Final Score: Titans 23 Patriots 35 Spread: New England -13.5
Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Time: Sunday, 1:05 PM E.T.
Location: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
TV Channel: CBS
The last time these two opponents faced each other in October, the ferocious defense of the Jacksonville Jaguars had their way with the Pittsburgh Steelers as Ben Roethlisberger threw five interceptions en route to a 30-9 Jaguars victory. However, since then the Steelers signal caller has thrown two interceptions on just one occasion and has thrown for multiple touchdown passes in all but two games since losing to Jacksonville. Obviously, the Steelers have a plethora of elite and dynamic receivers to pass to in Antonio Brown (1533 receiving yards), rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster (15.8 yards per receptions) and Martavis Bryant (12.1 yards per reception). For the Jaguars to defeat the Steelers again, the solution is quite simple: shut down the Steelers passing game. Allowing just 16.8 points per game (2nd in the NFL) while stifling opposing passers to just 169.9 passing yards per game (1st in the NFL), the Jaguars are relentless and highly effective at shutting down elite wide receivers and can rush the quarterback consistently on practically every down (55 sacks this season). While many will expect this to be a game heavily influenced by a sense revenge for the Steelers which will result in a comfortable victory, I actually see this one coming down to the waning seconds in the fourth quarter with kicker Chris Boswell sealing the deal with another clutch field goal kick (leads his team in points scored with 142).
Final Score: Jaguars 21 Steelers 24 Spread: Pittsburgh -7.5
New Orleans Saints vs. Minnesota Vikings
Time: Sunday, 4:40 PM E.T.
Location: U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minnesota
TV Channel: FOX
Against the Carolina Panthers last week, the New Orleans Saints were able to gash their opponent through the air as quarterback Drew Brees completed 23 of his 33 pass attempts for 376 yards and two touchdowns. Despite rushing for just 41 yards, the Saints were miraculously able to dismantle the Panthers defense with a vintage performance by Brees. However, the Saints will unlikely have the same success passing the football as they did last week as they will face a Minnesota Vikings secondary that has only allowed 192.4 passing yards per game (2nd in the NFL), which has also stifled their opponents to a league-best 15.8 points per game. Offensively, the Vikings have been surprisingly effective at both passing (234.6 passing yards per game) and rushing (122.3 rushing yards per game) the football throughout this year. In particular, the breakout season for quarterback Case Keenum has been nothing short of remarkable as the once back up passer has completed 67.6% of his passes this season while throwing 22 touchdowns to just seven interceptions. Of course, Keenum’s impressive success has somewhat been predicated on a dynamic rushing attack led by Latavius Murray (eight rushing touchdowns) and Jerick McKinnon (991 all-purpose yards, 8.3 yards per receptions). Although the Vikings have a noticeable advantage on defense, the Saints have far and away the better quarterback with two running backs that have been much more productive than the capable albeit less explosive rushers of the Vikings.
Final Score: Saints 28 Vikings 24 Spread: Vikings -4.0