2017 NFL SEASON
T U E S D A Y ’ S G O N E :
D I V I S I O N A L R O U N D
Week 19: #NFL Game Predictions (w/ spreads & analysis)
Wild Card Round: 2-2 wins; 3-1 v. spread
Divisional Round: 2-2 wins; 2-1-1 v. spread
Note/Key: Statistical analysis based on the following metrics (abbreviations): Points scored (PF); points against (PA); Point differential (PD) Yards gained (YG); Yards allowed (YA); Red Zone TD efficiency (RZ); 3rd-down efficiency (3rd); Turnover ratio (TO); Time of possession (TOP); Yards per play (YPP); Sacks (S); Interceptions (INT); Penalty yards (PEN).
Saturday, 4:35 PM, Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, PA (Weather: Clearing; high 30s)
Reasons: The Falcons seem like the hottest team in the NFL right now, and the case could be made; Atlanta is 4-1 over their last five games and has only allowed an average of 16.8 ppg over that span. Conversely, the Eagles went from the favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl with MVP-candidate quarterback Carson Wentz at the helm to losing Wentz for the season and going 3-2 over their last five games of the regular season with an average point differential of 0.2 ppg over that span, compared to having the best point differential in the NFL during the regular season (10.1 ppg). Neither team gets after the quarterback consistently, although the Falcons seemed to have found a new gear over their last several games, but the Eagles league-leading run defense should put the game squarely on Matt Ryan’s shoulders. That could go either way because although Ryan is inconsistent at best, the Eagles pass defense is mediocre at best and Mohammed Sanu has become a serious threat opposite Julio Jones. The Falcons have a slight advantage in the kicking game, but equalizing atmospheric pressure will create just enough wind to make kicking a challenge, so the game could come down to two extremely important but often overlooked stats: time of possession and turnovers. If the Falcons (18th) can secure the ball as well as the Eagles did all year (4th) and keep the Eagles from hoarding the ball (1st in time of possession) this game could come down to something as silly as a missed extra point. Having said that, the suddenly hot Falcons could realistically come in and destroy the rested-in-a-negative-way Eagles, lest we forget, no top seed has ever been an underdog in their opening playoff game.
Damn, Falcons fans must be sick of this stuff happening. The Eagles turned the ball over twice - the only turnovers of the game - missed an extra point and gave the Falcons four chances to score the go-ahead touchdown with 80 seconds left in the game from within the 9-yard line and THE FALCONS STILL LOST. Matt Ryan (22-36 passing for 210 yards; 1TD) threw three passes to arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL in Julio Jones (9 receptions; 101 receiving yards) from within the 9-yard line and the Falcons came up empty. Jones came close on one of those passes, but this ain’t horseshoes and it ain’t hand grenades so the Eagles essentially won the game on two unanswered field goals off the foot of the same guy (Jake Elliot) who missed an extra point in the second quarter. The Falcons certainly lost the game more than the Eagles won it, but such is the NFL and the NFC Championship is a new game and another home game for the Eagles. The Falcons, meanwhile, get to ponder another horrific playoff loss the entire off-season. Hey, at least they weren’t up 28-3 in the Super Bowl.
Tennessee Titans #5 (+13.5) @ New England Patriots #1 (48): Patriots 27-20 Patriots 35-14
Saturday, 8:15 PM, Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, MA (Weather: 70% rain; high 40s)
Reasons: The Patriots come into the game banged up with a patchwork offensive line and key skill position guys either missing or questionable (O: Chris Hogan, Rex Burkhead, James White; D: Alan Branch, Marquis Flowers) and the Patriots are still going to manhandle the Titans. I could on analytically for paragraphs why the Patriots match up well with Tennessee and will overwhelm the Titans in every aspect of the game Saturday, save perhaps the Titans 4th-ranked run defense, which would only put more of the onus on Tom Brady to step up, which has never been a problem in the first place, but, especially not when a young cocky defensive player from the opposition (Free safety Kevin Byard) opens his mouth during the week and provides bulletin material. Truth be told, the media provided all the bulletin material the Patriots needed to galvanize the team with the bombshell story that the Patriots had cracked from within and that ownership, Brady and Bill Belichick were at serious odds. Even if true, which it could very well be, to think the Patriots won’t use this excuse to circle the wagons would mean you haven’t been paying attention to New England since Bill Belichick took over. The Patriots only statistical weakness is on yardage allowed, including the worst pass defense in the NFL despite a defensive backfield that boast Devin McCourty, Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler and Patrick Chung, but much of that can be explained away by garbage yardage statistics perpetuated by teams desperately trying to come back on a team that beat teams by an average of 10 ppg this season, best in the NFL. The Titans only chance of winning in Foxborough Saturday is if their 5th-ranked pass rush (43 sacks) gets to Brady early and often and Derrick Henry carries the ball 40 times and burns 38 or more minutes of the clock. Neither is out of the realm of possibilities.
The Titans led 7-0 heading into the second quarter, but that’s where Tennessee’s season ended. The Patriots, declared dismantled from within due to a week of internal turmoil between team owner Bob Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, also know in New England as the Holy Trinity, subsequently rolled off 35 unanswered points and put any claims the Patriots might be in trouble to rest. Consider those supposed distractions added to the fact both coordinators were being coveted throughout the week, with defensive coordinator Matt Patricia taking the head-coaching job in Detroit, and what we have is the most disciplined team in NFL history; or the most sensationalizing media. I suppose in the era of fake news the latter is just as possible, but I digress. The Titans 5th-ranked pass rush didn’t sack Brady (35-53 passing for 337 yards; 3 TDs) once, yet the supposedly horrible Patriots defense broke their own playoff record with eight sacks. The Patriots supposedly horrible run defense also held Derrick Henry to 28 yards on 12 carries; in fact, Marcus Mariota led the Titans in rushing (37 yards). The Patriots not only looked primed against the Titans, but their envied discipline was on full display while they kept one of the best pass rushing units in the NFL from sacking Brady and only touching him four times. Looks like “Sacksonville” might have their work cut out for them as they travel to New England to face the Patriots in the AFC Championship, New England’s record-extending seventh straight.
Jacksonville Jaguars #3 (+7) @ Pittsburgh Steelers #1 (41): Jaguars 24-23 Jaguars 45-42
Sunday, 1:05 PM, Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA (Weather: 20% snow; low 20s)
Reasons: Star running back Le’Veon Bell was out of this game until the late hours of Friday night, meaning that even if he plays he’s not going to be 100%. Spare me the “No one is 100% at this point in the season” talk because no one is randomly listed as “OUT” if the have a few scratches. Guess who else is questionable? Antonio Brown. That’s just the Steelers two best skill position player. Center Maurice Pouncey was listed as OUT Friday night as well, meaning the Steelers would have their work cut out for them against the Cleveland Browns, let along the best defense in the NFL. The Jaguars come into Pittsburgh, a team they beat 30-9 while intercepting Ben Roethlisberger five times Week 5, ranked 2nd in points allowed, yards allowed sacks, interceptions while boasting the league’s top pass defense. Offensively the Jaguars rank 6th in yards gained (366 ypg), 5th in points scored (26.1), 3rd in point differential (9.2), and 2nd in red zone efficiency. Using statistical analysis and taking the Steelers attrition at key positions into account, not to mention the shell of the former defense the Steelers have been without Ryan Shazier, and I can’t come up a single reason why the Steelers would be giving seven points to the Jaguars. Even the argument that the Steelers match up with or surpass the Jaguars in by the same metrics and are playing at home doesn’t explain seven points, especially when Pouncey, Bell and Brown could be less than 100% or even absent. Las Vegas is really leaning on Pittsburgh’s top-ranked pass rush and 5th-ranked pass defense to beat up on poor old Blake Bortles. Even if true, I wouldn’t hang my hat on that against this Jaguars defense.
It’s amazing when I predict a close score for a game with a large spread and I end up being right, but with a score twice what I predicted. This game went down to the wire, but got there in a fashion I don’t think anyone besides Calais Campbell imagined (Campbell predicted the exact score earlier in the week when asked about a potential defensive battle). The Jaguars went up 21-0 on three rushing touchdowns (Fournette twice; Yeldon) within 19 minutes on Pittsburgh’s 10th-ranked run defense. After Ben Roethlisberger connected with Antonio Brown (7 receptions for 132 receiving yards; 2 TDs) to make it 21-7 the Jaguars stripped Roethlisberger and ran the fumble into the end zone making it a 28-7 game as the two-minute warning approached. Roethlisberger (37-58 passing for 469 yards; 5 TDs; 1 INT) connected with Martavis Bryant as the half closed and then connected with Le’Veon Bell (16 carries for 67 rushing yards; 1 TD) for the only score of the 3rd quarter and suddenly it was a 28-21 game as the 4th quarter began. That’s when the shit show started. Two of the best defenses in the NFL combined to give up 38 4th-quarter points, trading scores twice before Jaguars kicker Josh Lambo’s 45-yard field goal made it a 10-point game with 1:45 remaining in the 4th quarter. The Steelers still had nearly two minutes to figure something out, but this Steelers coaching staff has proven over the years they’re not very good at those things and really just rely on the “Killer B’s”. It ultimately failed, and instead of kicking a field goal and then attempting an onside kick for a chance at a game-tying touchdown, the Steelers ended up padding Roethlisberger’s stats with a 5th, yet meaningless, touchdown with one second left on the clock. Despite the Jaguars blowing the game wide open early the game came down to two Pittsburgh turnovers, one of which ultimately decided the game, and Jacksonville’s historic defense gave up 42 points and 567 yards while “Sacksonville” only managed two sacks. The Patriots offense they face next week in the AFC Championship doesn’t get any easier, so let’s hope for the Jaguars sake the young team can maintain focus against a New England team playing in their record-extending seventh-straight AFC title game.
New Orleans Saints #4 (+5) @ Minnesota Vikings #2 (46.5): Saints 24-21 Vikings 29-24
Reasons: How lucky are the New Orleans Saints? Not only do they get the 4:40 Sunday afternoon slot again this week, but also their away game is in the comfy confines of a domed stadium, just like home. And before we go on and on about how great the Vikings defense is, and it most certainly is (allowing 11.4 ppg over their last five games), let’s not forget two things: The Minnesota Vikings are basically noobs at this playoff thing as of late, while the Sean Payton-Drew Brees combo is most certainly not new to this playoff thing, and Drew Brees might be the greatest statistical quarterback we’ve ever seen. Much of Brees’ career has been plagued by the presence of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, but the truth is Brees holds the highest completion percentage of any quarterback in NFL history and is slowly creeping up on the greats in many other passing metrics, which isn’t surprising considering Brees has thrown for over 5,000 yards five times; no other quarterback comes close. Any time you have a transcendent player like Brees anything is possible, and this Saints defense is quietly becoming as interesting as the vaunted Vikings defense. Consider: The Vikings are ranked 2nd in both total defense (276 ypg) and scoring defense (15.8 ppg), but aren’t really ball hawks and don’t really get after the quarterback; the Saints give up far more yards, but rank 10th in points allowed (20.4 ppg) and are the top-seven in both sacks (42) and interceptions (20; 5th). While we’re at it, though, we might as well praise a Vikings offense that surprisingly keeps pace with the Saints, much in the same way the Saints defense keeps pace with the Vikings defense. The Vikings are no barnburners, but they rank 11th in yards (357 ypg), 10th in points scored (23.9 ppg), 9th in red zone efficiency (44%), 3rd in third-down efficiency and were 15 seconds from being the league leader in time of possession. So while the Saints defense stacks up against the defense the media has raved about all season, the same could be said about the Vikings offense relative to the high-flying Saints. Expect an amazing game where the experience of Sean Payton and Drew Brees play out right on that beautiful dry turf grass.
This game featured the first ever “walk-off” touchdown in NFL playoff history. A game that resembled the AFC Divisional game earlier in the day, the Vikings went up big on the Saints early and went into the half leading 17-0; Drew Brees had thrown both of interception in the first half and things were looking bleak. Then New Orleans went Who Dat on the Vikings and three minutes into the 4th quarter Drew Brees (25-40 passing for 294 yards; 3 TDs; 2 INTs) hit Michael Thomas (7 reception for 85 receiving yards; 2 TDs) with a 3-yard TD to make it a 17-14 game. The Saints and Vikings traded scores before Wil Lutz kicked a 43-yard field goal with 25 seconds remaining to put New Orleans up 24-23 (Note: Pay no attention to how close I came to predicting the score of the game. Just kidding, hire me because of it). Then the Miracle at Minneapolis occurred. A play that even the casual fan has heard about by now, the Vikings, simply trying to get enough field position to kick a potential miracle field goal, instead got a miracle botched defensive play from an inexperienced Michael Williams, who dove towards Stephon Diggs, who had just hauled in a Case Keenum pass, and missed badly on the attempted tackle. Diggs was able to keep his balance, stay in bounds and score the first walk-off touchdown in NFL playoff history sending the Vikings to the NFC Championship game. A hilarious side note to the game was the importance of the PAT or two-point conversion. Because dejected Saints players walked off the field with the game technically unfinished, the Mike Zimmer-led respectful Vikings elected to kneel rather than kick or attempt two points. That means the Saints (+5) lost by five and Las Vegas got the push. About the only thing more miraculous than the ending to this game is how Las Vegas continues to do this on a weekly basis.
Stay tuned for Week 20: #NFL Game Predictions (w/ spreads & analysis) CHAMPIONSHIP ROUND EDITION coming Sunday.