How about Nick Foles getting the job done against the Falcons? He had a solid game throwing the ball, as he went 23-30 for 246 yards and didn’t turn the ball over once and the NFC Championship will be played in Philadelphia. The Patriots took care of business against the Titans and will be advancing to their 7th straight AFC Championship game. The Titans held their own early but once New England got going, there was nothing Tennessee could do to stop them. There were admittedly a few questionable calls that went against the Titans but overall it was a pretty resounding beatdown by New England. Let’s get to Sunday’s slate of games.
Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) vs Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3)
The Jaguars are coming off an ugly win over the Buffalo Bills, but a win is a win, especially this time of year. The defense played exceptionally well while the offense barely did enough to win. Interesting thing I noticed from that game, Jacksonville’s best three healthy receivers are Marqise Lee, Allen Hurns, and Kelan Cole. Not one of them caught a pass in that game and were only targeted once apiece. But again, it was enough to get the job done. The Steelers had an odd year. There were times where they looked downright abysmal and others where they looked like the cream of the crop in the NFL and are a poor fake spike decision away from having home field advantage throughout the playoffs. But the game everybody is certainly going to circle on their schedule from this year is their home loss to this same Jaguars team. Back in week 5, the Jaguars annihilated the Steelers 30-9 at Heinz Field, which included intercepting Ben Roethlisberger 5 times. In fact, the defense was playing so well in that game that quarterback Blake Bortles threw his last pass of the game with about 8 minutes left in the third quarter. 23 minutes of game time without attempting a single pass and they were still able to win by 21. It also helped that Leonard Fournette was the definition of a bell cow in that game, as he ran for 181 yards on a whopping 28 carries, both career highs for the rookie out of LSU. He also put the nail in the coffin with a 90-yard touchdown run in which he basically went untouched the whole way. But I think things are going to go differently for the Steelers. After that loss, they seemed to figure their shit out and won 10 of their last 11 games, the one loss being to the Patriots on the aforementioned failed fake spike. Antonio Brown was in the MVP discussion for much of the year before injuring his leg in that loss. He missed each of the final two games of the season but he is expected to suit up for this one. But keep an eye on how well he’s able to make his cuts. Jacksonville boasts arguably the two best corners in the NFL right now in Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye and if Brown isn’t his usual elusive self, he’s going to have a hard time getting open. But if he’s fine and can do what he does best, then we’re going to have some really fun receiver/corner matchups to watch. I think the key to this game is going to be the Steelers’ offensive line. They don’t have to give Roethlisberger a load of time to throw the ball, just enough so that he’s unimpeded in his 3-step drops because you can bet pass rushers Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler are going to be coming for him with Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson bumrushing the middle. They’re also going to need to create the lanes Le’Veon Bell needs to rush through while also throwing linebackers Telvin Smith and Myles Jack off his scent because those two fly through gaps like missiles. I think if the Steelers offensive line has a good day, the Steelers will exact revenge on the Jaguars. If not, I think it’s going to be a loooooong day for the Steelers offense and we may get a repeat of Week 5. But I think the Steelers will pull it off and return to the AFC championship game for the second straight year.
Projected Score: Steelers 27 Jaguars 24
New Orleans Saints (11-5) vs Minnesota Vikings (13-3)
The Saints are coming off a thrilling victory over the Panthers that came down to the final play and will look to ride that momentum into Minnesota and the same building where Super Bowl LII will be held. The Saints were able to beat the Panthers despite Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara not having great games statistically. That’s why Drew Brees is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, though. Even when defenses force the Saints to become one-dimensional, they’re breathing a little easier than most other teams because they have #9 under center. These two teams squared off all the way back in Week 1, which seems like an eternity ago. In that game, Sam Bradford absolutely picked apart the Saints secondary, which has since done a 180 and gone from a weakness to a strength. Bradford’s season also did the same, as an injury suffered in practice forced Case Keenum into the starting role and he played so well that no matter how this season ends, head coach Mike Zimmer is going to have a real decision to make at quarterback in deciding between Keenum, Bradford, and Teddy Bridgewater. Offensively, Minnesota was hovering just outside of the top 10 in pretty much every category. They had to deal with some injuries, as promising rookie Dalvin Cook tore his ACL back in Week 4 after getting off to a really impressive start to his career. LaTavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon were able to pick up the slack in the backfield but the biggest thing that propelled this offense was the emergence of receiver Adam Thielen. Thielen was fantastic in 2017, as he caught 91 passes for 1276 yards and 4 TD’s. He emerged as the biggest threat in a suddenly solid receiving group that features the likes of Stefon Diggs and tight end Kyle Rudolph. Minnesota’s defense was sensational this year, as they finished the season as the NFL’s #1 defense in both points and yards allowed. Everson Griffen is finally starting to get the respect he deserves as a pass rusher while Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith each continue their astronomical growth as players in the secondary. This is a difficult matchup to pick because I think both teams match up so well with one another. But I think the key thing here is going to be quarterback play and it’s really hard to bet against Drew Brees, no matter how well Case Keenum might be playing. I think the Saints are going to win this one and they’re going to hope it’s not the last time they win a game in Minnesota this season.
Projected Score: Saints 28 Vikings 23
That’s it for my picks in the divisional round. Let me know what you think of them in the comments section below or on Facebook or Twitter @jimwyman10 and contribute to my Patreon.