NFL Divisional – Round Playoffs Preview: Day 1

Following an upset-filled wildcard-Saturday that witnessed the Tennessee Titans and Atlanta Falcons oust their opponents, the Jacksonville Jaguars and New Orleans Saints took similar modes of action, beating out the Buffalo Bills and Carolina Panthers respectively. Now, each team will hit the road for the second week of NFL playoff action, set to begin this upcoming Saturday.

Game 1: Atlanta Falcons (6-NFC), vs Philadelphia Eagles (1-NFC)
Saturday, Jan 13: 4:35pm, ET, NBC
Betting Line: Falcons -3

The first matchup of the week scheduled for Saturday afternoon will see Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons take on the Carson Wentz-less Philadelphia Eagles. Coming off a super-bowl visit last season, the Atlanta falcons struggled to re-gain their explosive offense from the 2016 campaign in the early parts of the regular-season, however, a 6-2 record compiled in the latter half of their schedule helped the team stumble into the post-season in the final week of action. Although the offense has been better as of late, putting up at least 20 points in all 6 of those wins, it still lacks a certain flare from last year. In comparison, the 2016 Atlanta Falcons managed to score 30 points in 11/16 games last year, and 40 points in 5 of them.  The 2017 Atlanta offense however, has failed to reach the 40-point plateau at all this year, and have pleased fans with 30 points a dismal four times. Overall, the Falcons offense has not been “bad”, ranking in the top 10 in yards per game and witnessing the team’s top receiver, Julio Jones catch more balls and rack up more yards then a season ago. But, the teams main issue has been putting the ball in the end-zone. In short, Matt Ryan passed for 18 less Touchdowns and the team has collectively rushed for 8 less. Thankfully for the Falcons, the inconsistency of the offense has been overshadowed by great defensive play over the last few weeks. Specifically, the play of the Falcons secondary has played a large role in getting the team this far, keeping opposing teams under 25 points over the last 7 weeks (which included two meetings with the high-scoring New Orleans Saints).

On the opposing side of the field, the Falcons will be faced with the top-ranked team in the NFC this past season, the Philadelphia Eagles. Despite the ranking difference, the Eagles come in as slight underdogs as their Franchise-Quarterback and MVP-Candidate Carson Wentz will not be suiting up for the team as he is still recovering from a season-ending ACL injury. Since Nick Foles has taken over under-center for the NFC-East champions, the Eagles still have managed a winning record of 2-1, but were shutout last week in a game in which Foles completed only 25% of his passes and threw an interception in limited-playing time. In fact, Foles only looked fit for the job in one of his three starts, and even that was against the lowly New York Giants defense. In this game, I do believe the play of Foles will be the x-factor as the Arizona-alumni does have the intangibles to be an elite-quarterback, however, he has not consistently illustrated this since the 2013 season when he put up a 27-2 TD-INT ratio and scored a touchdown on nearly 10% of his attempts. Since this time, I do believe Foles has been worried about his role as a starter and thus has played extremely conservative, ultimately negatively affecting his stats. If Foles can pass the ball accurately and convert on a couple of big plays, the Eagles can win this game, however, the Eagles defense and run-game on its own will likely not be enough to override the timely offense and strong secondary play of the Atlanta Falcons.

Prediction: As good as the Eagles defense has been year-round, I cannot foresee Ryan being held to less than 2 TDs and imagine the Falcons will score at least once more on the ground or on the defensive-side of the field. Coupling this with a field goal or two, the Falcons should easily be able to put up at least 24 points in this game. For the dirty-birds, the 24-point plateau should be enough as the team has only lost 2 games since week 8 of the 2016 season (including playoffs) when reaching this number. This calculates to a winning percentage of nearly 93% over this time. Considering Foles has only averaged 1.2 Touchdowns per game over his career and LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi combined for only 3 scores this year, the bewildered Eagles offense is unlikely to compete with the Falcons offensive weapons and will need a flawless game from their defense and special teams if they seek to be victorious. Reasonably, the potential of Matt Ryan, Devonte Freeman, and Julio Jones to give a clutch performance at this point of the year is far more likely then that of anyone on the Eagles squad, especially against a much-improved Falcons defense. Because of this, the Falcons will win and cover the spread

Score: Atlanta Falcons 31, Philadelphia Eagles 19

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Game 2: Tennessee Titans(5-AFC), vs New England Patriots (1-AFC)
Saturday, Jan 13: 8:15pm, ET, CBS
Betting Line: Patriots -13.5

The Tennessee Titans reminded audiences of two things in their record-setting come-from-behind victory last Saturday in Kansas City. First, that when Derrick Henry goes off, the Titans are a force to be wrecking with. Second, and perhaps more importantly however, is that Marcus Mariota is a winner. Beginning with the importance of Henry, it should be noted that when the sophomore runs for at least 50 yards in a game, the Titans yield an undefeated record of 7-0. Ironically, the two wins the team did rack up without Henry reaching the 50-yard rushing mark did have the smallest margin of victory for the Titans, winning by only a Field Goal in overtime against the winless Browns; followed by another 3-point victory against the Ravens two weeks later. As a result of Henry’s significance, the injury to former pro-bowl running back Demarco Murray is much less detrimental to the Titans offense, as Henry is more then capable of efficiently playing more snaps in the backfield.

Moving onto the man under center for Tennessee, Mr. Marcus Mariota. Coming off a fantastic sophomore-season, Mariota had a less-impressive third-year at QB. Specifically, the former Oregon standout struggled to maintain consistency TD-INT ratio wise, yet the Titans gained their first playoff birth since the Vince Young-Kerry Collins era nearly a decade ago. It can be debated that Mariota’s play this-year cannot be attributed to the team earning a playoff birth, but a slight improvement in completion %, combined with 5 less overall fumbles may confirm that Mariota wasn’t the Titans main issue offensively. Furthermore, it was mentioned that Mariota did struggle this year with maintaining a respectable TD-INT ratio, but, since Week 13 of regular season action, the third-year QB has put up  6 Touchdowns compared to only 4 Interceptions with his performance against the Chiefs last week. In comparison, the legendary Quarterback standing across from him and potential Most Valuable Player winner, Tom Brady, has put up congruent numbers, throwing 6 touchdowns since Week 13 and giving the ball away on 5 separate occasions. Even if Mariota cannot compete with Brady in the passing game, his agility, versatility, and ability to never give up on plays brings a valuable-asset to the Titans offense that can cause opposing defenses troubles on any given night.

Like Marcus Mariota, the main offensive weapon at the disposal of the New England Patriots, Tom Brady, is unquestionably a winner. Under Brady’s lead, the Patriots have made the post-season 14 out of the last 15 seasons, with the lone playoff hiatus coming in a season that witnessed Brady throw only 11 passes due to a season-ending ACL-injury. At 40 years of age, Brady did see slight declines in his numbers during the later-contests of the year, yet the QB still topped the league in passing yards and finished third in passing touchdowns and % of attempts with an interception thrown, with only 1.4% of Brady’s passes being picked off. Of course, all the credit can’t be given to the Michigan alumni, as coach Bill Belichick is constantly recognized for his repeated coaching success no matter how thin his roster may be.

This current campaign re-illustrated the intelligence of Belichick on the football field as the teams offense had four players run the ball at least 40 times; all of whom averaged at least 3.7 yards per carry. The long-time Patriots Coach/General Manager also made efforts to acquire Brandin Cooks in the offseason, providing Brady with a reliable speed-option he desperately needed along the sidelines. This move turned out great for the Patriots as Cooks was one of three receivers who finished the year with at least 60 receptions and 5 touchdowns. Another of these targets, Rob Gronkowski, is perhaps Brady’s favourite target, and rightfully so. The man known as “Gronk” not only matched Cooks by piling up over 1000 yards of receiving yards this year, but also went his fifth straight campaign without losing a fumble, giving Brady a level of reliability the Titans simply do not have in their receivers. Lastly, the Patriots defense has been strong against the run, but weak against the pass throughout the year. A flawed secondary may raise cause for concern for most teams entering the playoffs, however, Bellichick’s defences seem to consistently have this critique attached to them. Despite this, the team still finds a way to win come playoff-time.

Prediction:
Unfortunately for the Titans, the play of Henry or Mariota may not be enough to get them into the AFC title game next week as the defense will also have to play at an elite level to pick up the Victory in Foxborough. The defensive scheme Mike Mularkey has applied in Tennessee since arriving has helped the team build a strong foundation of becoming a respectable unit against the run. Over the course of the season, the team ranked 5th in rush yards allowed and 1st in opposing team scores on the ground, giving up only 5 all year. Adding to this, the teams defense also finished in the top 5 in sacks, however, the lackluster play by the teams’ secondary will likely be the teams’ downfall in this one. This year, the Titans finished in the bottom 10 in overall passing defense, with their worst performance coming against the Houston Texans early in the season; a game in the Titans defense allowed a NFL season-high 57 points. Although the Patriots have been just as bad against the pass, they also make up for it with strong rushing-defense, trailing only the team the face on Saturday in opposing rush-touchdowns allowed. Statistically speaking, the defensive-fronts of each team should be able to do enough against the run to have this game largely be decided through the air. Luckily for Tom Brady, all but one of his playoff losses has been a result of poor offensive production, failing to score more then 21 points in each of those games. No matter how average Brady has looked the last few weeks, the stud-QB always has the potential to torch average defenses on any given night. Combining this with the extra week of recovery time the Patriots have had and the Titans abysmal record on the road, should be enough to see New England return to the AFC Championship game for an unimaginable 7th straight season. Barring a great performance from the Titans secondary, the away team will struggle to keep up with the Patriots on the scoreboard, losing by double digits in the process.

Score: Tennessee Titans 14, New England Patriots, 42

 

 

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