Game 3: Jacksonville Jaguars(3-AFC), vs Pittsburgh Steelers (2-AFC)
Sunday, Jan 14: 1:05pm, ET, CBS
Betting Line: Steelers -7.5
When you make the Super-bowl in 3 out of 6 years, fans and experts alike share disappointment when the team fails to replicate this success. For the Pittsburgh Steelers, this unfortunate reality has haunted the team over the last decade as the tribe in black and yellow has failed to raise the Lombardi trophy since a victory over the Arizona Cardinals in 2008. Now, coming off a season in which Mike Tomlin won his most games as coach of the Steelers with 13, the team hopes to once again play February-Football. To do so, the teams first test will come against a surprisingly strong Jacksonville Jaguars team.
During the season, the two teams met once with Jacksonville dominating Pittsburgh in a game that saw long-time Steelers QB, Ben Roethlisberger throw a career-high 5-interceptions against the stingy Jaguars defense. Following the week-5 matchup, many critics suggested Roethlisberger was ready for retirement, however, the 14th-year QB rebounded in a big way, putting up 22 touchdowns over the final 10 weeks of the season. As well, the 35-year old only gave up 8 interceptions during this period and a stellar overall QB rating of 103.1. As great as Big Ben has been during this time, it is without question that the teams most dangerous weapon on the offensive side of the field is their franchise-wideout; Antonio Brown. Despite missing two full-games as a result of nagging injuries, Brown still leads the league in overall receiving yards and yards per game. Additionally, Brown was fifth in receptions, fourth in receiving touchdowns, and was second in yards after the catch for players listed at the WR position, trailing only Golden Tate in that category. Unfortunately for the Steelers, it has been determined that Brown will be forced to play through an ankle injury, but having him in the lineup regardless will be a huge boost to a Steelers team playing against one of the toughest passing defenses in the league.
While the Steelers defense has played at a high level this season, ranking in the top 10 in nearly all major defensive categories, the Jaguars secondary is simply on another level this campaign. When looking at the Jaguars statically, flaws can be seen in the rush-defense, with the team being a bottom-10 team in this category. Usually, this would raise cause for concern in a game against an elite running back such as Le’veon Bell, but the insane play of the Jaguars secondary simply overshadows this. Despite struggling against the run, Jacksonville gave up the second fewest overall yards and points in the league to Minnesota. Furthermore, the Jags topped the league in passing yards allowed, giving up 360 fewer yards than the team directly below them; which was also the Minnesota Vikings. Finally, the dominance of the Jaguars secondary was consistently present throughout the season as the team gave up 30 points on only two occasions, and held opposing teams to 10 points or less in 50% of their games this year.
Per experts, the main cause for concern for Jacksonville in this game will be the play of their own Quarterback, Blake Bortles. Since being drafted third overall in 2014, Bortles has constantly been ridiculed for lacking accuracy, making poor decisions, and not showcasing basic QB fundamentals that were needed to win in this league. Though there have been times where these arguments are true, I do feel Bortles has been unfairly ridiculed in the past. For example, the Bortles has put up at least 3500 yards and 20 touchdowns in every one of his years as a starter, except his rookie campaign. In fact, three seasons ago Bortles put up 35 touchdowns and nearly 4500 yards, numbers that would have potentially put him in the running for offensive player of the year this past season. Overall, Bortles numbers are quite similar to Roethlisberger’s through 4 years of the careers, with the following numbers representing such:
Ben Roethlisberger-84 TDs 54 INT, 11,673 yards; 1252 rush yards (career) 8 rush TD, 39 wins, 16 losses
Blake Bortles 90 TDs, 64 INT, 14, 928 yards; 1410 rush yards, 7 rush TD, 21 wins, 40 losses
Combining these statistics with the similar physical stature of the two men, Bortles and Roethlisberger are actually very similar Quarterback’s the way they play the game. At this point, the two main differences between Bortles and Roethlisberger is that Bortles is unquestionably a better runner, already having more rushing yards through 4 years then Roethlisberger has in his entire career. Secondly, is that Roethlisberger had a decisive edge in winning% as a starter through his first few seasons. For some, the lack of wins was a result of Bortles “poor” play, but, it may also be possible that the Jaguars simply did not have the offensive weapons around Bortles to support him.
Prediction: Both teams bring respectable run units to the game, however, both were lightly mentioned in this preview because the production of both Bell and Fournette should cancel each other out. As a result, the game will likely be a battle between Roethlisberger and the Jaguars secondary that has been constantly praised over the course of the year. If Jalen Ramsey can shut down either Brown or Smith-Schuster, the Steelers will struggle to put points up on the board. Additionally, if Brown was healthy this game would serve as a stronger test for the Jaguars secondary, however, I do not feel the Steelers possess enough weapons on the outside after Brown to give Jacksonville much trouble. This game will likely be a low/average scoring contest, with neither team topping the 28-point mark. Since Pittsburgh does rely on big plays through the air to get into scoring position, they are unlikely to yield much success in this game. If Bortles can once again perform at least to an average level, the Jaguars should be able to put the ball in the end zone 2-3 times, which should be enough to pull out the upset in this one.
Score: Jacksonville Jaguars, 28; Pittsburgh Steelers, 21
Game 4: New Orleans Saints (4-NFC), vs Minnesota Vikings (2-NFC)
Sunday, Jan 14: 4:40pm, ET, FOX
Betting Line: Vikings -4
In a rematch from a game in 2009 that is still one of the most memorable games in the history of both Franchises, the New Orleans Saints travel to Minnesota to take on the Vikings in a divisional matchup between two powerhouse NFC teams with completely opposite strengths. For Minnesota, the team prides itself on strong defensive play as the team finished at the top of nearly every major defensive category come seasons end. To fellow coaches around the league, this is no surprise as defensive guru Mike Zimmer has helped keep the Vikings relevant through a series of Quarterback changes and the loss of possibly the greatest running back of this decade, Adrian Peterson. Currently, the team does lack an offensive “superstar” per say, but they do contain a series of players who were productive offensively, such as Quarterback Case Keenum who surprised many with his rather efficient play in 15 games this season. With Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater inactive for a majority of the season, the journeyman QB finished the season being one the top-12 QB’s statistically, with his best category being completion %, trailing only his opponent on Sunday, Drew Brees in that column. In the backfield, Latavius Murray concluded this year with nearly 1000 yards, and receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs both caught over 60 balls apiece. Considering this, the Vikings definitely have the ability to play offense at a respectable level, but it will still be up to the premier defense of Minnesota to keep the Saints offense from taking over this football game.
Remaining on the topic of the New Orleans offense, the Saints were the first team in NFL-history to have two players manage 1500 scrimmage yards, with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara doing so. In the running game, Ingram provides a reliable every-down option for the Saints, averaging nearly 5-yards a carry on over 200 attempts. While Ingram is more of a “power-back”, Kamara has a level of speed defenses simply don’t anticipate after focusing on Ingram. As a result of his nearly unmatchable speed, Kamara is also constantly used as a receiver, leading all running-backs with 826 receiving yards this year, and finished second in receptions with 82. The yards and receptions Kamara gained were also second on the Saints team, as only Michael Thomas put up better numbers in both categories. Thomas and Kamara were 2 of the 4 Saints players who caught at least 50 balls this season, giving quarterback Drew Brees a series of talent he has greatly taken advantage of. Although the touchdown numbers are down for Brees compared to previous years, the 38-year old had the best completion % of his career, completing 72% of his passes and threw the least amount of interceptions he has since 2004, when he still played for the San Diego Chargers with 8.
Prediction: As a quarterback, Brees has been rather successful in the playoffs, however, the Saints have struggled with defensive consistency during Brees tenure with the team, leaving Brees with only 1 super bowl ring. Realistically, I hate to pick the away team In 3 out of the 4 divisional matchups, but the offensive firepower New Orleans brings to the table is too lustful to stay away from. The Vikings unquestionably had the most diverse defense this season, and likely won’t go down without a fight, but the NFC North champions have only won two playoff games at home since 2000. The inability to Minnesota to follow up regular-season success with deep-playoff runs will likely continue as Drew Brees simply seems in a zone where he will not accept another playoff failure. The game will undoubtedly be the most entertaining of the weekend as even in a blowout, the ability of either Brees or the Vikings defense to shut one another down will serve useful for the overall super-bowl picture playing out. The Vikings are good on both sides of the field, however, the combination of Brees, Kamara, Ingram, and respectable defensive play from the Saints will be enough to get them into the NFC Conference game next week.
Score, New Orleans Saints, 24; Minnesota Vikings, 18