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Divisional Round Picks

January 11th, 2018

I suppose I should be happy to have come out of the wild card round with a picks record of 2-2 both straight up and against the spread.

I was only half kidding last week when I said I expected to go 0-4. I certainly believed 0-4 was a stronger possibility than 4-0. You never know where upsets are coming in the wild card games, only that they’re coming. So I picked the games straight and split the results. I’ll live with that. Because while I suppose I should (or at least might) have seen Atlanta’s win over Los Angeles coming, and while Andy Reid-coached teams melting down in the postseason is nothing new, there’s absolutely no chance I ever would have picked the Titans to beat the Chiefs in Kansas City. None. In fact, if they were to play that game again this weekend, I absolutely promise you I’d pick Kansas City to win and cover.

So, you know, consider that overwhelming evidence of my wisdom as you ponder my picks in the divisional round.

Or, put another way, here’s what not to expect.

Atlanta (-3) at Philadelphia
I don’t have any better idea than anyone else of what’s likely to transpire in this game. I do know that Nick Foles isn’t the quarterback I’d want starting for my team in the divisional round of the playoffs. Not on any field. I think (by which I mean I know) Foles was playing far better football than he is now the last time (the only other time) he started a postseason game, and he wasn’t quite good enough to carry the Eagles to a victory then. But that doesn’t really matter. Four years is forever in NFL time. Plus, the 2017 Eagles are a better team than the 2013 Eagles were, and the 2017 Falcons probably aren’t quite on par with the 2013 Saints. Also, while Foles is a undeniably a big step down from Carson Wentz, Philadelphia’s success this season has had as much to do with defense as offense. Through the regular season, Philadelphia had the league’s third highest scoring offense and fourth stingiest D. That’s a solid combination. And it tells me that with the Eagles hosting this game and coming off a first round bye, Philadelphia may be in a position to take a step or two back on offense and still come out on top. That is, all the Eagles may really need Foles to do is play conservatively and not lose the game for them. So the question is, can the Falcons O overcome the Eagles D to enough of an extent that Foles and the Philly offense are forced to take some risks? Or maybe it’s, can the Atlanta D force some early errors, or at least create some three-and-outs, keep the Philadelphia D on the field and wear them down? I don’t know the answer to either of those questions, because I still don’t feel like I know what the Falcons are as a football team. Atlanta’s run hot and cold all season. And I’m confident that’s going to become a problem for the Falcons in the postseason. But I’m not entirely sure it’s going to happen this week. My gut says the Eagles D steps up, hems in the Falcons offense, keeps this a low scoring game, and produces a narrow victory for the home team. I won’t be in any way shocked if what I end up seeing is a runaway win for Atlanta, but since I’ve got to make some kind of prediction, I’m going with the Eagles by a point.

Tennessee (+13.5) at New England
Any given Sunday (or Saturday night, I suppose) and all that, right? Honestly, I just don’t know about that principle here. I don’t want to dismiss the Titans or anything. I did that last week and it bit me on the ass. And, you know, one wants to believe one has the capacity to learn from mistakes. But I still have a hard time seeing a path to victory for Tennessee in this game. Take a look at this stuff.

I could do more, but I’m guessing you get the point. And, yeah, I know it’s not all about quarterback play. But it’s kind of a lot about quarterback play. Still, you know, just to be safe, let’s look at the big three predictive stats: scoring differential, New England +5.1; passer rating differential, New England +11.9; takeaway-giveaway differential, New England +10. There’s nothing in any of those numbers that says the Titans go into Foxborough to play in a third straight elimination game and a second straight road game and upend the Patriots who are coming off a first round bye and looking healthier than they’ve been in months. Could it happen? Sure. Anything can happen, and sometimes it does. But anything can happen isn’t a real prediction. Patriots by 17? That’s a real prediction.

Jacksonville (+7.5) at Pittsburgh
The disparity in quarterback numbers here (there are more than what you see above) isn’t nearly so stark as it is in Saturday’s AFC game, but it’s not exactly insignificant. I suppose that’s more meaningful if you’re someone (as I am) who needs to see more than a solid run against mostly middling competition before he buys into the Blake Bortles resurrection myth. If the Jaguars are going to win this game, they’re going to have to do it behind an offense driven not by Bortles but by Leonard Fournette, and a defense that figures out how to turn its well established ability to get to the quarterback into some actual sacks against Ben Roethlisberger, who is about as hard to bring down as any QB I’ve ever seen. Can they do it? Maybe. I don’t know. I’m going to need to see it before I’m ready to believe it. Until then, I’ll just look for the Jaguars to make this a game. Pittsburgh by three.

New Orleans (+4.5) at Minnesota
We all know this is the real NFC Championship game, right? I mean, I know there’s still a solid chance that I am — that many of us are — significantly underestimating the defending conference champion Falcons. Barring that, however, I don’t think anyone outside of the teams’ fan bases believes that either of Saturday’s NFC competitors can stand up to either of these teams on the big stage. This is a terrific matchup between two very talented and very well balanced football teams. And, assuming Tennessee doesn’t find a way to sneak through, I think this game sets up a phenomenal matchup in the Super Bowl. If the game were being played in New Orleans, I’d probably pick the Saints. But it’s in Minnesota. The Vikings have the benefit of a first round bye. And the Minnesota defense, I suspect, has a great chance to take away the run and make the Saints offense a bit more predictable and a bit less robust. I have to lean toward the home team. I expect a great game. And I expect the Vikings to win by four.

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