After going 3-1 last week (our bad; we should have known Mariota would throw himself a touchdown pass, obviously), we’re back to push our luck in the Divisional Round.
New England Patriots vs. Tennessee Titans
The good news for Tennessee: New England’s run defense is just so-so, and all the Titans really do is run. Their D did a good job against Kareem Hunt last week, and Dion Lewis is not quite Kareem Hunt. Derrick Henry looks like a real live superstar.
The bad news for Tennessee: Tom Brady is on the other side. They don’t have the pass rush or the secondary to stop him. Their best player probably isn’t as good as New England’s second or third best player.
The good news for New England: Tom Brady is on their side. They’ve got the much, much better coach. They’re a dramatically better team than the Titans.
The bad news for New England: Mariota is a chaos magician. Various media outlets are trying to stir up controversy. Brady won’t shut up about his “pliability” and it’s starting to make things weird in the locker room.
Final Verdict: Pats should win in a route unless Brady gets hurt.
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
The good news for Jacksonville: Blake Bortles can’t play any worse than he did last week, and they won that game. Their defense absolutely waxed the Steelers last time they played to the tune of 5 interceptions. The Good Place is rooting for them.
The bad news for Jacksonville: Blake Bortles can play exactly as badly as he did last week, but they won’t win this time if he does. Pittsburgh’s offense is ludicrously stacked. Leonard Fournette doesn’t look right.
The good news for Pittsburgh: They’re deeper, more versatile, and playing at home. Their quarterback probably won’t throw five picks (and two pick-6s) this week. Jacksonville’s otherwise best-in-class defense is vulnerable to the run, and Bell runs as well as anybody.
The bad news for Pittsburgh: Jacksonville’s pass-rush and secondary both have the potential to break the Steeler’s QB. Bell’s best day isn’t necessarily any better than Fournette’s. Their defense isn’t at full strength, and they probably can’t win a game where the Jags score 20 or more.
Final Verdict: This is a close one, and could go not only to either team, but by just about any margin. Jacksonville winning is the better story, and definitely more in play than most people think, but the Steelers are stacked, evil, and inevitable. The bad guys always win in the second act.
Philadelphia Eagles vs. Atlanta Falcons
The good news for Atlanta: They’ve got the better quarterback by every conceivable metric. They’re way more seasoned and, given Wentz’s injury, more versatile. They absorbed a solid game from Todd Gurley last week and still won, so they’ve got a shot even if they can’t stop Ajayi and Blount.
The bad news for Atlanta: They’re a warm weather dome team playing on the road in a cold outdoor arena full of some of the loudest fans in all of sports. Philly’s defense is more complete than theirs. Atlanta’s pass-rush is good, but Philly’s O-line might be even better.
The good news for Philly: They’ve got a world-class offense at nine out of eleven positions, and passable subs at the other two. Giving Philly fans—who were already nuts—a chance to feel like an underdog is a great way to make sure they go full Rocky. They’ve got the defensive firepower to keep Atlanta from nuking the stadium from orbit.
The bad news for Philly: When Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are both feeling it, the defense almost doesn’t matter. Nick Foles is decent, but still probably the worst starting offensive player on either team. Halapoulivaati Vaitai, their current starting left tackle in the absence of Jason Peters, is lining up against Adrian Clayborn, who’s mostly known for destroying Dallas’ backup left tackle and racking up a ridiculous 6 sacks in the process.
Final Verdict: This could go any way—Foles’ good games are almost as good as Wentz’s, he just has less of them—but Atlanta’s pass rush and linebacking corps are strong enough that I don’t love his odds. Ajayi and Blount are for real, but asking them to carry the entire offense without a credible passing attack is probably a bit much. I’ll take Atlanta for the victory, but with the caveat that I won’t be remotely surprised if the Philly fans will their team to an extra level and fairy tale win.
New Orleans Saints vs. Minnesota Vikings
The good news for Minnesota: Home field advantage. World-class secondary may actually be able to contain Drew Brees. Enough receiving threats that Marhson Lattimore can’t single-handedly blow up their passing game.
The bad news for Minnesota: Their two-headed running back isn’t as good as New Orleans’ two-headed running back. World class secondary may actually not be able to contain Drew Brees. That Vikings defense has an intermittent bad habit of letting running backs over-perform, which is death against New Orleans.
The good news for New Orleans: Brees brings more big-game experience to the table than all of Minny’s stars combined. Odds are either Kamara or Ingram will have a big enough game to keep the defense honest. Lattimore should be able to neutralize either Thielen or Diggs as the game flow demands.
The bad news for New Orleans: The Vikings are largely immune to pass-rushing. As good as New Orleans is, they’re still a dome team playing on the road in frigid weather. It doesn’t look like Case Keenum is going to turn back into a pumpkin this season.
Final Verdict: Saints by a hair. They’ve got just enough weapons, and just enough of an experiential edge, that they should be able to pull it out by the skin of their teeth.
Come back next week for the conference championships!