It is Divisional Round Weekend in the NFL and the margin for error has decreased just a little bit more as the playoff role on. Some people will say that this is where the “big boys” begin to play, and by that they mean that the 1 and 2 seeds will be playing this weekend after their first-round bye. With this said, on Saturday, the 6th seeded Atlanta Falcons, who defeated the Rams, will be heading to Philly to face the 1 seed Eagles while the 5th seeded Titans, who beat the Chiefs last week, will travel Foxborough to face the 1 seeded New England Patriots. On Sunday, the 3rd seeded Jacksonville Jaguars, will face the 2nd seeded Pittsburgh Steelers while the 4th seeded New Orleans Saints travel to Minnesota to face the 2nd seeded Vikings. With this all said, here’s what to watch for on Divisional Round weekend.
Atlanta Falcons @ Philadelphia Eagles; 4:35pm NBC
1. Nick Foles Vs Falcons Pass Defense
Nick Foles will have to do his part if the Eagles want to advance to the Championship Game on Saturday. In his 3 starts, Foles racked up 5 TD passes, threw 2 interceptions, and has left several plays on the field by either holding onto the ball too long or not giving his receivers a chance to go up for the ball. He’ll be facing a Falcons defense that ranked 12th in passing yards per game allowed (214.3) and allowed 259 passing yards to Jared Goff last week. The Falcons may be a little overconfident seeing as Foles has looked inconsistent while starting for the Eagles, but they’ll need to ensure that they don’t allow Foles to tear them apart.
2. Jay Ajayi Vs Falcons Run Defense
Jay Ajayi will most likely be the feature back against the Falcons as he rushed for more than 100 yards against them back when he was still with the Dolphins. Also, Ajayi has had plenty of rest which means he’ll have fresh legs and will be running hard to win this game for the Eagles. He’ll be facing a Falcons defense that allowed Todd Gurley to run for 101 rushing yards and ranked 9th in rushing yards per game allowed (104.1). The Eagles will most likely be running the back a lot to keep the Falcons offense off the field just like they did in the 2016 regular season where the offense only scored 15 points. But this is a much different team that knows that they must shut down the run game to put up points against the Eagles defense.
3. Matt Ryan Vs Eagles Pass Defense
Matt Ryan is hot at the right time and is recently coming off a solid performance against the Rams as he threw for 218 passing yards and 1 TD. He’s going to face an Eagles defense that ranked 17th in passing yards per game allowed (227.3), so he could play pretty well given that this is the Eagles weakness. The Eagles also ranked 15th in total sacks (38.0) so the Eagles also can get to the quarterback. If the Eagles shut down the run game, Matt Ryan will be forced to throw a lot more than he wants to.
4. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman Vs Eagles Run Defense
The two-headed monster in the backfield rushed for 106 yards last week in their win against the Rams. Now they have a much tougher defense that they’ll be running against as the Eagles defense ranked 1st in rushing yards per game allowed (79.2), but they are coming off a bye so they may be starting off slow, which could end up working in the Falcons favor. If the Falcons want to win, they’ll need Freeman and Coleman to run for at least 90 yards to try and wear down this Philly defense. In their loss last year against the Eagles, they only rushed for 48 yards and that will not cut it on Saturday.
5. Julio Jones Vs Eagles Secondary
Julio Jones is coming off a great performance where he caught 9 passes for 94 yards and a TD. Last year, Julio Jones racked up 10 passes for 135 yards against the Eagles in Week 10 of the regular season. He will have a number of corners against him like Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills, and maybe even Patrick Robinson if Jones plays in the slot. Julio will play a crucial role in the outcome of this game and most likely will have a solid performance come Saturday.
Bold Prediction: Julio Jones racks up 150 receiving yards and a TD.
Tennessee Titans @ New England Patriots; 8:15pm CBS
1. Marcus Mariota Vs Patriots Pass Defense
Marcus Mariota led his team to a big upset over the Kansas City Chiefs as he threw for 205 passing yards, threw 2 TDs and an interception while also running for 46 yards and throwing himself his own TD pass, becoming the first player to do that. He will be facing a Patriots defense that ranks 7th in total sacks (42.0) and rank 30th in passing yards per game allowed (251.3), which could mean a big game for Mariota on Saturday night. However, the Pats will be looking to keep Mariota in the pocket to eliminate the second element of a scrambling QB and force him to throw against them.
2. Derrick Henry Vs Patriots Run Defense
Derrick Henry is coming off a monster game against the Chiefs last week as he ran for 156 yards and a TD. He’ll be looking to carry that performance into this next game against the Pats because Marcus Mariota will play much better if the run game is successful. This Patriots defense ranked 20th in rushing yards per game allowed (114.8) and they’ll need to prevent Henry from running all over them or else they’ll have some problems. The Titans might actually be planning on keeping Tom Brady on the bench by keep long drives going so that the Titans can have a chance to come away with a win come Saturday night.
3. Tom Brady Vs Titans Pass Defense
Welp, another week for Tom Brady and another Divisional playoff game coming off a first-round bye for the trillionth time in his career. He will be looking to pick apart a Titans defense that ranked 25th in passing yards per game allowed (239.3) and 5th in total sacks (43.0). This defense is coming off a game in which they allowed Alex Smith to throw for 264 yards and 2 TDs just a week ago. If the Titans play a lot of zone coverage, Brady will expose them, so they need to mix up some blitzes to ensure that Brady has a rough time standing in the pocket. The Titans aren’t hopeless, but they are certainly going to face an uphill battle when facing Tom Brady.
4. Rob Gronkowski Vs Titans Safeties/Linebackers
Let’s be honest, not one player on the NFL can match up against Gronk. Put any linebackers or safety on him and he’ll beat you. This year, Gronk lead the Pats in receiving yards with 1,084, which was 2 more yards than Brandon Cooks. It seems like e linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Avery Williamson along with safeties Jonathan Cyprien and Kevin Byard will match up against him. It seems very likely that Gronk will get the best of all of the players that end up defending him on Saturday Night.
Bold Prediction: Tom Brady throws for 350 passing yards and 3 TDs.
Jacksonville Jaguars @ Pittsburgh Steelers; 1:05pm CBS
1. Ben Roethlisberger Vs Sacksonville
Big Ben will have a very tough test ahead of him as he faces Sacksonville once again and will hope he plays a much better game than he did in back in Week 5 where he threw 5 interceptions. This defense finished 2nd in total sacks (55.0) and 1st in passing yards per game allowed (169.9) while also allowing Tyrod Taylor to throw for only 150 passing yards. This defense has a lot of swagger and moxie to them and will know they have to shut down Le’Veon Bell to force Ben into a few turnovers. This will be a massive factor in how this game ends on Sunday.
2. Le’Veon Bell Vs Jaguars Run Defense
Le’Veon Bell is going to be facing a very aggressive defense that can play very well against both the run game and the passing game. Last time the Steelers played the Jags (Week 5), Bell only ran for 47 yards, but that was back when Bell was still a bit rusty since he held out of training camp. Now he faces a Jaguars defense that ranks 21st in rushing yards per game allowed (116.3) and recently allowed 130 rushing yards against the Bills just a week ago. The Steelers know that the Jags weakness is their run defense so they will look to establish the run early and often. As for the Jags, they’ll be looking to stop him from running rampant if they want to advance to the Championship Game.
3. Antonio Brown Vs Jalen Ramsey
This is going to be a fun matchup to watch as AB is coming off a partially torn calf muscle and Jalen Ramsey sealed the victory for the Jags last week against the Bills with a game-winning interception. The first time these two matched up, AB got the best of Ramsey as he caught 10 passes for 157 yards. Ramsey has developed into a lockdown corner and will look to shut Brown down this time around (like that rhyme?). If he does shut him down, Big Ben will be forced to throw to his other receivers on Sunday.
4. Blake Bortles Vs Steelers Pass Defense
Oof, Blake Bortles played pretty poorly when he was throwing the ball last week (87 passing yards), missing open recievers and couldn’t complete simple checkdowns which should be concerning. On the bright side, Bortles did enough running the ball as he ran for 88 yards and gashed the Bills hopes of making it to the Divisional Round. Now he faces Steelers defense that ranked 5th in passing yards per game allowed (201.1) and 1st in total sacks (56.0). Bortles will have to get rid of the ball quickly and complete simple passes to have a chance of keeping up with the Steelers or else the game will get out of hand quickly.
5. Leonard Fournette Vs Steelers Run Defense
Fournette is coming off a rather disappointing performance in which he ran for 57 yards on 21 carries, but the Bills did a nice job of forcing the Jags offense ti becoming one-dimensional. Now, the Steelers defense ranks 10th in rush yards per game allowed (105.8) and they know they can’t allow Fournette to run for 181 yards and 2 TD because they will not win. If the Steelers can manage to stop Fournette, they’ll have a really good chance of forcing the offense to lean on Blake Bortles and will have a better chance of winning the game.
Bold Prediction: Le’Veon Bell racks up 150 scrimmage yards and 2 TDs.
New Orleans Saints @ Minnesota Vikings; 4:40pm FOX
1. Drew Brees Vs VIkings Pass Defense
Brees is coming off a monster game against the Panthers as he threw for 376 passing yards, 2 TD, and an interception which nearly lost them the game. Also, last time he played against the Vikings, he threw for 291 yards and 1 TD, so Brees has proven that he can dissect this aggressive defense that ranked 2nd in passing yards per game allowed (192.4), 1st in points per game allowed (15.8) but 17th in total sacks (37.0). If Brees can pick apart this’s defense like he is in the first game and the run game ends up being effective, the Saints could see themselves in the Championship Game next week.
2. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram Vs Vikings Run Defense
This Saints run game has been lacking juice, especially last week as they ran for only 47 yards on 19 carries against the Panthers. This could end up being a very similar outcome for the two running backs since the Vikings defense ranks 2nd in rushing yards per game allowed (83.6) and they only allowed 68 rushing yards back in Week 1. The Vikings know they must stop these two because then they can force Brees into throwing the ball a lot and the Vikings are very good at defending against the pass.
3. Michael Thomas Vs Xavier Rhodes
Michael Thomas has been a very productive reciever in his two years in the NFL as he joined Odell Beckham Jr. in the only two receivers to catch 90+ passes in their first two seasons of the NFL. This year he racked up a team-leading 1,245 receiving yards and will be matched up against Xavier Rhodes for the second time this year. In their first matchup, Rhodes allowed 5 receptions for 45 yards and is arguably the best corner in the game. Since Rhodes has been shutting down receivers all season long, it seems more likely that Rhodes wins this matchup again.
4. Case Keenum Vs Saints Pass Defense
Case Keenum will be facing the Saints for the first time this season as he was the backup to Sam Bradford back in Week 1. He had a great season under Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur as he threw 22 TD passes and threw for 3,547 yards with a 67.6% completion percentage. He’ll be put to the test against a Saints defense that ranked 7th in total sacks (42.0) and 15th in passing yards per game allowed (224.8). The Saints also allowed Cam Newton to throw for 349 passing yards and 2 TDs, so the defense must bounce back. If not, Keenum will tear them to shreds on Sunday.
5. Latavius Murray Vs Saints Run Defense
Latavius Murray will be the main running back in this game since Dalvin Cook was the starter back in Week 1 against the Saints and has since done a great job of filling in for Cook. He’ll be facing a Saints defense that ranked 16th in rushing yards per game allowed (111.7) and recently allowed the Panthers to run for only 107 yards in last week’s win. The Vikings will look to use the Saints weakness of defending the run to their advantage to come away with a victory this weekend.
6. Adam Thielen Vs Marshon Lattimore
Adam Thielen had a breakout season this year as he was 5th in the league in receiving yards with 1,276. This time around he’ll have Case Keenum instead of Sam Bradford but in the first game against the Saints, Thielen caught 9 passes for 157 yards and will look to do the same against Marshon Lattimore again. However, Marshon Kattimore has become a very good corner this year and is a Pro Bowler as well as a serious candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year, ending the season with 5 interceptions. This will be a very fun matchup to watch on Sunday, so keep your eyes peeled for these two when they play.
Bold Prediction: Case Keenum and Drew Brees combine for 600 passing yards and 4 TDs.