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Jeff Haynes/Associated Press
And then there were eight.
After a Wild Card Weekend that included Saturday upsets and Sunday chalk, the divisional round matchups were set.
In Philadelphia, the Eagles will attempt to allay fears that they are a wounded No. 1 seed without quarterback Carson Wentz when they host the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons.
Outside Beantown, the Tennessee Titans will look to do a mean imitation of David when they take on the AFC’s top seed and the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
In Pittsburgh, the Steelers will try to avenge a Week 5 drubbing at the hands of a Jacksonville Jaguars team that was patently offensive on offense against the Buffalo Bills.
And in Minneapolis, the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings will meet in a battle of balanced teams that have shattered expectations in 2017.
Of course, there will be many more than just four games this weekend. Football is a game of games within the game. Matchups between teams are decided by any number of matchups between individuals.
It’s those battles within the war that will determine which four teams move on to the conference championship games.
And here’s a look at the most crucial one for each team.
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As Mark Inabinett of Alabama Media Group reported, Titans running back Derrick Henry wasn’t pleased with his performance in the regular-season finale against the Jaguars.
But after gashing the Kansas City Chiefs for 156 yards on 23 carries in Tennessee’s wild comeback win in the Wild Card Round, Henry was a bit happier with how he played:
“I just wanted to play better this week than last week. I just wanted to be able to come out and help this team on offense.
“I just wanted to go out and run hard. Run north-south and forward. I had a lot of negative plays last week. I told you all that it didn’t leave my head. It was in my head when the game kicked off. So I just wanted to be better than I was last week.”
There was plenty for Henry to be happy about Saturday. He was without question the Titans’ offensive MVP, setting a franchise playoff record with 191 total yards.
Now all he has to do is have an even better game at Gillette Stadium.
If Tennessee is to have any chance of pulling off an upset against the AFC’s No. 1 seed, it has to dictate the tempo of the game. There is exactly zero chance the Titans are going to outgun the Patriots.
A shootout would turn into an execution pretty quickly.
If the Pats put the clamps on Henry and force the Titans into a lot of 3rd-and-long situations, Tennessee is toast. Marcus Mariota’s shown little this season to indicate he’s capable of carrying the offense—especially in a game like this.
But if Henry finds similar success against New England’s 20th-ranked run defense as he had in Kansas City, it will keep Tennessee in manageable down-and-distance situations.
It will also keep the Golden Boy on the sideline, which may well be the best defense the Titans have against him in the divisional round.
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Steven Senne/Associated Press
There are a few things we know about the Titans defense.
We know it’s excellent at stopping the run—only three teams allowed fewer rushing yards per game than Tennessee’s 88.8, and the Titans held the NFL‘s leading rusher (Kareem Hunt of the Chiefs) in check in the Wild Card Round.
We know the Titans weren’t as effective against the pass, ranking 25th in the league with 239.3 yards allowed per game.
However, while the Titans may have struggled yardage-wise against the pass, the team did well when it came to pressuring quarterbacks. Tennessee’s 42 sacks tied for the fourth-most in the AFC.
It’s that last part that’ll be most important for the Titans on Saturday night.
Let’s work for a moment under the assumption that the Tennessee run defense will play up to its ranking and shut down New England for the most part.
Forcing the Patriots to the air isn’t exactly taking them out of their element. Tom Brady threw for a league-leading 4,577 yards in 2017. Whether it’s tight end Rob Gronkowski or wide receiver Brandin Cooks, the Pats have a number of pass-catchers who present matchup problems for the Titans.
Simply put, if Brady has time to throw the ball, he’s going to pick Tennessee apart, and New England is going to roll.
Whether it’s defensive lineman Jurrell Casey or outside linebackers Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo (the trio combined for 20.5 of the Titans’ sacks), Tennessee has to get in Brady’s face. Dirty up his jersey. If the Titans can do so without blitzing, that’s preferable, but if necessary, Tennessee will have to send extra guys—like inside linebacker Wesley Woodyard, who tied for fourth on the team with four sacks—and play man coverage.
The alternative is to get shredded.
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The Eagles are the No. 1 seed in the NFC, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the betting line ahead of Saturday’s divisional round matchup with the Falcons—per OddsShark, the Falcons are 2.5-point favorites.
The primary reason for that discrepancy is the presence of Nick Foles under center for the Eagles, but that isn’t the only matchup where the Eagles will find themselves at a disadvantage. While Philadelphia led the NFL in rushing defense and ranked fourth in total defense, the pass defense was a soft spot—the Eagles allowed 227.3 passing yards per game, 17th in the NFL.
That could mean a long day for Philadelphia corner Jalen Mills against Atlanta receiver Julio Jones, who finished the 2017 season second in the NFL in receiving yards.
Mills, who piled up 64 tackles, 14 passes defended and three interceptions, said he’s aware he’ll need to be on his game, per Matt Lombardo of NJ Advance Media:
“One thing I like about Julio is he’s a grinder. You see him get pressed at the line of scrimmage or guys playing off him or breaking off his route, you see him trying to still fight for position. You don’t see that out of a lot of receivers. Regardless of how good they are or not. You see most guys get jammed up at the line, and they just give up on the play because the quarterback’s looking off them, or you see guys jump a guy’s route, and they just kind of stop and let the ball get picked off. Julio’s a grinder, though. He’s definitely going to fight you and try to get to the ball.”
The Eagles and Falcons didn’t face one another in 2017, but there is a recent meeting we can use as a measuring stick for this matchup.
The bad news is that when the Eagles and Falcons squared off in Week 10 of the 2016 season, Jones burned Mills to the tune of 10 catches for 135 yards.
The good news is Jones didn’t find the end zone and the Eagles won that game.
Or maybe that’s the bad news—it’s all about perspective.
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Fred Vuich/Associated Press
The first game of the divisional round Sunday is a rematch of a Week 5 meeting between the Jaguars and Steelers in Pittsburgh that was won in blowout fashion.
By the Jaguars.
The Jaguars were spurred to that October victory by rookie tailback Leonard Fournette, who gashed the Steelers for an eye-popping 181 yards on 28 carries—including a 90-yard score in the fourth quarter that was the NFL equivalent of a “fatality” move in Mortal Kombat.
Per Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward said shutting down Fournette will be the key to payback:
“Continue to tackle. Don’t guess. There were three plays we got beat on in that game. We need to clean that up. We can’t guess because he’s going to make you pay in any situation. Just stay in the game with our execution, continue to focus on it.
“And understand it’s a 60-minute game, not 58 minutes or 59.”
Other than that part about “three plays” (the Steelers were outplayed in just about every way imaginable), Heyward knows his stuff.
Slamming the door on Fournette, however, might be easier said than done. Pittsburgh has played well defensively in 2017 (fifth in the NFL), and the team’s 10th in run defense—nothing to sneeze at.
But that run defense has scuffled since it lost inside linebacker Ryan Shazier to a scary back injury. There’s going to be a ton of pressure on inside linebacker Vince Williams to be both physical at the point of attack and disciplined in his pursuit angles.
Physicality isn’t a problem for Williams, who is a classic inside linebacker who excels in traffic. But if he gets caught out of position, it could mean trouble—he lacks Shazier’s speed, and Fournette showed in the October trouncing that his straight-line speed is nothing to sneeze at.
Fournette’s stat line will go a long way toward telling the story of who moves on to the AFC Championship Game.
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Don Wright/Associated Press
Fans of the Jaguars are going to spend the better part of this week kidding themselves.
They are going to tell anyone who will listen that Blake Bortles’ astoundingly bad performance in the Wild Card Round against the Bills doesn’t matter.
After all, the Jaguars still won the game. And when Jacksonville trashed Pittsburgh back in Week 5, Bortles had a similarly uninspiring stat line: 8-of-14 passing for 95 yards with an interception.
However, as Eric Adelson of Yahoo Sports reported, Jags left guard Patrick Omameh knows better. He said this about Sunday’s win:
“We weren’t able to sustain drives the way we wanted to. We weren’t able to move the ball the way we wanted to. We came away with the win, the defense put forward a tremendous effort, but we have some critical evaluation to do.
“As the season went on, teams really started to load the box against us. If that’s something we don’t want defenses to do, we have to hit them multiple ways.”
Frankly, calling Bortles’ performance against the Bills horrible doesn’t do it justice. It’s not just that he missed open receivers on a number of throws.
Bortles missed open receivers on routine throws. More than once he sailed a screen over a receiver’s head or pushed the ball into the ground at their feet.
The Jaguars have the NFL’s most potent rushing attack and arguably the league’s best defense. But you can bet the rent the Steelers will sell out to stop Fournette and dare Bortles to beat them—just as the Bills did.
Fournette’s probably not going to gash the Steelers for 181 rushing yards Sunday. It’s just about guaranteed Ben Roethlisberger won’t throw five interceptions (and two pick-sixes) like he did in October.
And fewer than 100 passing yards from Bortles isn’t going to come close to getting it done this time around.
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You aren’t going to find here a detailed breakdown of what quarterback Nick Foles has to do for the Eagles against the Falcons on Saturday.
If the last few weeks were any indication, that breakdown can be a single sentence.
The Eagles’ chances of winning are inversely proportionate to how much Foles has to carry the offense.
That’s a nice way of saying Foles has looked like poo of late.
However, there’s a way around that—a matchup the Eagles should be able to exploit.
The Falcons ranked ninth in run defense, allowing just 104.1 yards per game. In their wild-card win over the Los Angeles Rams, the Falcons gave up 115 yards on the ground.
That defense will be tested even more in the divisional round. The Eagles ground game ranked third in the NFL with 132.2 yards per game in the regular season.
That stat comes with an asterisk, however.
As Tim McManus of ESPN.com noted, over the two full games Foles played, the Eagles averaged just 93 yards per game on the ground and 3.9 yards per carry instead of the 4.5 yards they averaged throughout the season.
Head coach Doug Pederson said Philadelphia just needs to execute better to get the running game back on track:
“I don’t think we ever got away from [the run]. I just think our execution in the run game has been poor. So we just have to get back to fine-tuning and showing our guys every look potentially front-wise and making sure we, as coaches, have everything covered. Then it’s just a conscious effort to stay dedicated to the run game.”
There are any number of reasons why the run will be critical for the Eagles—whether it’s to take pressure off Foles or keep Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense off the field. And in LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi, Philadelphia has a pair of physical backs who are more than capable of grinding out yards between the tackles. They combined for 1,174 yards and three touchdowns with the Eagles and averaged 4.8 yards per carry.
For Philly, recording 93 instead of 132 yards on the ground could be the difference between defeat and victory.
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These are not your father’s Saints. Or even your older brother’s.
In recent years, the Saints have been all about outscoring people. The team couldn’t run the ball especially well, and the defense was abysmal.
The 2017 Saints have balance. Yes, the team was still fifth in the NFL in passing. But it was also fifth in rushing and a respectable 17th in total defense. It’s entirely possible New Orleans defenders could bring home both the Defensive Rookie of the Year (cornerback Marshon Lattimore) and Defensive Player of the Year (end Cameron Jordan) awards.
That defense is going to be put to the test Sunday in the Twin Cities.
Because these aren’t your father’s Vikings either.
Despite the fact that Minnesota has used third-string quarterback Case Keenum for most of the season, it ranks 11th in the NFL in passing. Partly that’s because Keenum had easily the best season of his career.
But part of the reason Keenum had that career year is that in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, the Vikings have perhaps the best one-two wideout punch in the NFL.
Thielen (who ranked fifth in the league in receiving yards) and Diggs combined for 155 catches for 2,125 yards and 12 touchdowns. They formed one of the NFL’s best duos in terms of catches, yards and touchdowns.
In the teams’ first meeting this season, Lattimore and the Saints secondary were beat soundly by Thielen and Diggs in a 10-point Vikings victory. Thielen hauled in nine passes for 157 yards. Diggs caught seven passes for 93 yards and found the end zone twice.
In fairness to Lattimore, Ken Crawley and P.J. Williams, the New Orleans secondary has improved since that game. Lattimor