In the AFC, the playoffs could still be a week away from actually becoming interesting. In the sense that you truly don't know which teams will come out on top, anyway. But with that said, here's an attempt at making some NFL Playoff picks for the Divisional round.
The headliner around here, of course, is the Patriots against the Tennessee Titans in Saturday's AFC Divisional Playoff at Gillette Stadium. New England boasts a ridiculous 13.5-point spread in that game, and it's hard to find reasons why they can't cover that number. The hope for Titans fans, to even make it closer than two touchdowns, is that Tom Brady continues to be as uninspiring as he was in his final five games of the regular season (81.6 passer rating).
The spreads are also interesting in the other three matchups taking place in Divisional Round weekend, including the Steelers' 7.5-point advantage over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Falcons-Eagles is close to basically being a pick-em with Atlanta favored on the road by three. And the Minnesota Vikings are set as five-point favorites with Drew Brees and the impressive Saints offense heading to Minneapolis.
NFL Playoff Picks: Divisional Round
Here's how I personally see this weekend's games shaking out according to the spreads. Still, please please please don't take this as legitimate betting advice. I'm no R.J. Bell. But in any event, it's always fun to make some NFL predictions and see how horribly wrong they end up being.
Hopefully, for New England's sake, this Patriots prediction is just spot-on...
Patriots (-13.5) Over Titans
Not sure if this makes me a sucker, but if I were to bet this game I would take the Patriots to cover. And I would also take the under at 48.5. I'm picturing something like 30-13.
Than again, Tom Brady and the Patriots have averaged over 32 points per game in his historically favorable matchup against Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Brady and Bill Belichick figured out LeBeau's zone-blitzing, stunting, and other trickeration a long time ago. There's a chance that LeBeau reduces his blitzes on Saturday, which he's done for the last five games against Brady, according to the Boston Globe's Alex Speier.
Still, Brady had a surprisingly weak 85.0 passer rating against blitzes this season. That probably has a lot to do with the absence of Julian Edelman and no consistently reliable underneath receiver behind him. So it will be interesting to see what LeBeau does this time - but the likelihood is that a laser-focused Brady drags the Titans through the fire and flames en route to 30-plus on the scoreboard.
And at the same time, the Titans finished 20th in the NFL in touchdowns per red zone appearance, according to Football Outsiders. This game has "trading field goals for touchdowns" written all over it. But Tennessee does have a talented defense that may be able to keep it close in the first half, before the Patriots pull away in the second. That's what should keep the scores relatively low, but the spread nice and large for the Patriots.
Jaguars (+7.5) Over Steelers
That's right. I'm picking the Jags. At least to cover the spread. Obviously people are all over Blake Bortles this week (even guys who aren't playing him), and for good reason. It's not like he's going to match Ben Roethlisberger throw-for-throw. But at the same time, he can't possibly play worse than the 87 passing yards he slapped out there last Sunday.
This pick isn't really based on some kind of X's and O's analysis. It just doesn't feel right for the Steelers right now. They don't sound focused. They sound like a team that's already won - at least safety Mike Mitchell does. Nothing like guaranteeing a win in a game you're not even guaranteed to play yet.
Also, Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell spouted off about the potential of getting the franchise tag in the offseason. He's publicly threatened to hold out or even retire if that happened. It just makes you wonder what the focus of the whole team is like right now. Obviously it's nothing new for Mike Tomlin's Steelers to make candid remarks before games; it doesn't always guarantee a loss.
But this Jaguars team is one that already marched into Pittsburgh and won 30-9 in Week 5. They also won that game mainly on defense and and running and won in spite of their quarterback. It's going to be very tough to pull that off again, but why can't they? They have enough defense, especially against the pass, to keep the Steelers from pulling away. I don't know if the Jags can achieve another upset, but I definitely believe this game will be decided by seven points or less.
And for the Steelers to be overlooking the Jags the way they seem to be could turn out to be a massive mistake.
Saints (+5) Over Vikings
In the case of the Patriots, it's prudent to avoid Super Bowl opponent talk until they actually get to Minneapolis. But if the Pats do make it back to the dance (like they should), the opponent that should worry you more than any is the Saints.
For one, it'd be quite the challenge for Brady and Belichick to beat Drew Brees and Sean Payton twice in the same season. Especially since the Saints are a different team and a much better team than when these they last squared off. Brees was hugely impressive last Sunday against the Panthers, consistently making big throws down the field and spreading the ball around. He completed passes to eight different receivers and the Saints had little trouble getting to 31 points despite a lackluster afternoon from their dynamic running back duo of Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara.
The Panthers defense was no slouch, but the Vikings certainly present a bigger challenge for Brees. Especially in the secondary. Harrison Smith emerged as the best safety in the league in 2017, while cornerback Xavier Rhodes also delivered an All-Pro season. So if the Vikes have any hope of keeping up with Brees, it will come down to execution on D.
And I say "keep up" because I don't see Vikings QB Case Keenum doing it. It's about time for him to turn into a pumpkin. He was excellent in the second half, posting a 107.2 passer rating in his final eight games. But at the end of the day, Keenum is making his playoff debut and this is the first season that he didn't look like a journeyman.
I expect the Saints to make him look more like a journeyman on Sunday.
Falcons (-3) Over Eagles
More people should have seen the Falcons' Wild Card win over the Los Angeles Rams coming. Sure, 28-3 and all that. But the fact is the Falcons were in the Super Bowl last season and, with a few better coaching decisions, may have actually closed the deal. They started slow in 2017 and looked ugly in Week 7 against the Patriots, but they've played much better lately and suddenly look like they have a good chance to make it back to the big game.
If the Eagles still had Carson Wentz, who in 2017 looked like he has a chance to be the best QB in the league a few years down the road, this would be a much different story. But with Nick Foles under center? Even at home, it would be surprising if he could keep pace with the Falcons on offense, especially if Dan Quinn's defense is flying all over the place and sticking to their receivers like they did for most of the game against the Rams.
It's likely that Matt Ryan has a little trouble up front, based on how the Rams' Aaron Donald abused the Falcons last weekend. The Eagles' Fletcher Cox could make life difficult in a similar fashion. This game certainly feels like a field-goal-at-the-end-of-the-fourth kind of game
So what do you think? Feel free to chirp at me on Twitter if you don't like my picks (looking at you, Steelers fans). Surely we're looking at a Titans-Eagles Super Bowl, just because.
-- By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].