The best weekend of the NFL season is upon us.
We’re down to the final eight teams, and the NFL’s best clubs will fight for a spot in championship weekend when they battle this Saturday and Sunday in the divisional round. There’s no shortage of fascinating storylines and intriguing matchups, with a couple of teams even looking to exact some revenge for losses earlier in the season.
NESN.com’s Mike Cole, Ricky Doyle and Andre Khatchaturian are back to make their against-the-spread picks.
Before they give their takes, here’s how they fared last week with overall records for the regular season and playoffs.
Mike Cole: 1-3 (122-120-11)
Ricky Doyle: 1-3 (108-134-1)
Andre Khatchaturian: 1-3 (122-120-11)
Here are their divisional round picks.
(-3) Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles, 4:35 p.m.
Mike: Eagles. A No. 1 seed never has been an underdog in the divisional round until now, and you can assume that fact isn’t lost on the Eagles, who are probably feeling pretty disrespected right now. Nick Foles’ struggles should give anyone pause when picking Philly, but that defense is one of the best in the NFL. The defensive line is an elite unit that has been great against the run at home this season, allowing just 3.3 yards per carry. Let’s not get too carried away with the Falcons just yet, as they still don’t look completely solved on the offensive side of the ball. I’m expecting a low-scoring game, so I’ll grab the points and take my chances.
Ricky: Eagles. I love the matchup inside for the Eagles, with defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan going up against a Falcons offensive line that lost starting guard Andy Levitre before last week’s game against the Los Angeles Rams. Philadelphia will slow Atlanta’s ground game, create pressure on Matt Ryan up the middle and force the Falcons into some third-and-long situations, where secondary options like Mohamed Sanu and Austin Hooper won’t be quite as effective as they otherwise would be.
Andre: Falcons. Since December, the Eagles are 26th in yards-per-play differential. That’s bad. Foles also is averaging less than five yards per pass attempt this season — a full yard per pass attempt less than Joe Flacco, who was last in the league in that category this season. Meanwhile, Atlanta finished the season third in yards-per-play differential and has the advantage in the passing game, the ground game and possibly in the trenches. The Falcons have the fifth-best opponent sack percentage and the Eagles don’t really get to the quarterback (22nd in sack percentage).
Tennessee Titans at (-13.5) New England Patriots, 8:15 p.m.
Mike: Titans. Obviously a pick I could regret as early as halftime, but I think the Titans can run the ball just well enough to slow down the pace of the game and keep the Patriots’ offensive snaps limited. Marcus Mariota played one of the best games of his young career in Kansas City last week, and the Patriots have had some issues with mobile quarterbacks at times this season. I don’t know. Maybe the Patriots have completely solved all their defensive issues, but I think a play here or there will be just enough to keep it within the number.
Ricky: Patriots. Classic divisional-round ass-whopping by the Patriots. Marcus Mariota sucked for most of the season, but he was especially bad on the road (five touchdowns to 11 interceptions; 69.1 QB rating in seven games), which shouldn’t be overlooked despite his performance last week in Kansas City. The Patriots, meanwhile, have been taking care of business at home, allowing just 11.8 points per game in their last five contests at Gillette Stadium. Remember Travis Kelce’s hot start against the Titans last week (four catches on four targets for 66 yards and a touchdown) before leaving in the second quarter with a concussion? Extrapolate that over a full 60 minutes and you’re looking at a huge game from Rob Gronkowski, the only tight end better than Kelce.
Andre: Patriots. Since Week 10, the Patriots have the best yards-per-play differential in football. On the contrary, the Titans haven’t had a turnover-free game since Week 3 and have a minus-six turnover differential. Expect Gronkowski and the Patriots’ running backs to have huge games. The Titans have allowed 853 passing yards to tight ends this season (second-most among playoff teams) and 967 receiving yards to running backs (most in the NFL).
Jacksonville Jaguars at (-7.5) Pittsburgh Steelers, 1:05 p.m.
Mike: Steelers. Thought about taking the Jaguars, but I’m not ready to live in a world where I put confidence in Blake Bortles on the road. That’s in part because he was much worse away from Jacksonville, with a passer rating roughly 30 points lower than at home. The Steelers shot themselves in the foot when these teams met earlier this year, too, inexplicably getting away from the run. Expect a heavy dose of Le’Veon Bell, as Pittsburgh should have success against a Jags defense that struggled at times to stop the run. Mix in a couple of injuries in the Jacksonville linebacking corps, and it’s hard to shy away from the Steelers.
Ricky: Steelers. Don’t put much stock into their Week 5 meeting, because the box score — namely, the 30-9 final score in favor of Jacksonville — is in no way indicative of how that game played out. One player’s performance worth taking into consideration, though: Bortles, who completed just 8 of 14 passes for 95 yards with an interception. His 48.2 quarterback rating ended up being his second-worst mark of the season. Add that his season-long issues on the road and last week’s game against the Buffalo Bills in which Bortles attempted just six passes more than five yards down the field — completing three — and it’s easy to envision a total stinker from the oft-criticized quarterback.
Andre: Steelers. These two teams combined for 111 sacks this season, but they also protect their quarterbacks well, so the battle in the trenches could be irrelevant. If that’s the case, I’m going to take Ben Roethlisberger with protection over Bortles with protection. In fact, Big Ben is on fire lately, throwing for 16 touchdowns with just four picks over the last six games. Pittsburgh hasn’t scored fewer than 20 points in a game since Week 6. The Steelers have the better quarterback, more explosive offensive weapons and just as strong of a defense, and they’ll be more comfortable playing in the 19-degree weather than a team from Florida.
New Orleans Saints at (-4.5) Minnesota Vikings, 4:40 p.m.
Mike: Vikings. This goes one of two ways: It’s either an instant classic and is by far the best game of the weekend, or the Vikings stomp out the visiting Saints. I’m leaning toward the latter. Minnesota’s defense is elite in all three levels. The Vikings’ defensive line might be the best in the NFL, and it’ll put pressure on Drew Brees, who’s playing behind a banged-up offensive line after losing left guard Andrus Peat to an injury and with left tackle Terron Armstead already nursing an injury. Minnesota has good, athletic linebackers, as well as a ball-hawking secondary led by All-Pro safety Harrison Smith, who will make a big play Sunday. And don’t sleep on the Minnesota offense, either. The Saints have allowed 400 yards or more two weeks in a row (and in four of the last eight games) while also struggling to defend slot receivers this season. Minnesota’s Adam Thielen is arguably the NFL’s top slot receiver.
Ricky: Saints. While there’s no real evidence to suggest Case Keenum will lay an egg with the stakes raised, there is a precedent for quarterbacks struggling in their first taste of the postseason. Since 2013, quarterbacks making their first career playoff starts have gone 3-12, with two of those wins coming in games where one first-time quarterback played another first-time quarterback, meaning there needed to be a winner. Conversely, Brees has a ton of experience and is one of the best QBs in NFL history, therefore New Orleans has an overwhelming advantage at the most important position on the field. And that’ll be huge in a game where each team will be looking to control the clock and the tempo.
Andre: Saints. Alvin Kamara and Mike Ingram were taken out of the Saints’ wild-card game against the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans still won because Drew Brees was vintage Drew Brees. This shows the Saints can beat you in many different ways. Their defense also is just as good as Minnesota’s in some ways. They get to the quarterback at a higher rate than the Vikings, and they had six more takeaways this season than Minnesota. The Vikings actually were 23rd in takeaways, and that doesn’t bode well when going up against one of the most accurate quarterbacks in NFL history. Let’s not forget the Saints played in the most difficult division in football and they still were first in yards-per-play differential. That’s pretty impressive.
Thumbnail photo via Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports Images
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