2018 NFL Playoffs: Bold predictions that pave a path for every underdog to win
Here's how upsets can happen in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs
After a Wild Card Weekend that featured four spreads of six points or more, it felt logical to see a bunch of lower spreads for the divisional round games this coming weekend. And yet, here we are, with even bigger spreads than we had last weekend. We have a historical home underdog in the Eagles, the Patriots as yet another double-digit home favorite, the Steelers are a touchdown favorite despite losing to the Jaguars at home once already and the Vikings spread over the Saints is quickly flying up.
If Vegas is right -- and Vegas is right a lot -- there could be four not-very-close games coming up on the schedule. But football works in funny ways, and very rarely do we get exactly what we expected to see.
Let's look at some specific paths for the underdogs to make a run at the favorites, to make the weekend spicy and then make some bold predictions as it relates to those underdogs pulling upsets.
To be clear: these are not my picks. I made my, and I'm backing the quarterbacks with the experience (a.k.a the favorites). It could totally backfire. Again, football is weird. Let's figure out how these underdogs can win.
Eagles (+3) vs. Falcons
The easiest game to imagine a victory in for the underdog, because the Eagles are at home and they're the No. 1 seed. The difference between the juggernaut Philly team we saw all season and the squad that will play the Falcons is obvious. Nick Foles replaces Carson Wentz. That is a substantial downgrade, especially because of what Wentz was capable of doing on third down and with his ability to extend plays with his legs. Foles is a streaky passer -- he can roll out of bed and throw four picks, but he also is tied for the NFL record for most touchdown passes in a single game (7).
How do the Eagles win? The weather could help out Philly in a big way here, if the Big Guy upstairs decides to uncork a winter storm over the Philadelphia area on Saturday afternoon. It doesn't look like it's going to be the case right now. But the weather has decided to take quite the dip over the past 24 hours. There's going to be a serious temperature drop on Saturday across the East Coast and the expected high 24 hours ago (48 degrees) is very different from the expected high as of Friday evening (40 degrees). It looks like temps are going to be much closer to freezing than expected.
Couple that with rowdy Eagles fans and this could easily be a brisk and unfriendly playoff atmosphere for the Falcons.
On the field, the Eagles need two things to happen. One, they need to send a wave of pass rushers after Matt Ryan. Fortunately, they have the ability to do that, with Fletcher Cox, Timmy Jernigan, Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Derek Barnett and Chris Long creating a killer rotation that can mess with any offensive line. The Falcons are a little banged up in that regard, and Jim Schwartz has done exceptional work creating pressure with his defensive line this year. Turn Ryan over early, either with a strip sack or an interception caused by pressure and it sets up the second angle for the Eagles win.
Offensively, Philly needs to run the ball down Atlanta's throat. The Falcons defense flies around all over the place and has elevated its game the last few weeks. They look like a Super Bowl-caliber defense. But they can be run on. Todd Gurley piled up the rushing yardage with some big breakaway runs in the Rams loss. Jay Ajayi is the x-factor here. If he can produce a bunch of big runs and rip off one or two that end up with him either scoring points or setting up the Eagles in the red zone, the Eagles can utilize their rebound weapons (Zach Ertz, Alshon Jeffery) to punch the ball in.
If the Eagles get up, they can use the same formula that vaulted them to a strong record early: run the ball downhill and pin ears back in the pass rush. An early Eagles lead would get the crowd frothed and make life difficult for the Falcons.
Bold prediction: An angry Fletcher Cox bursts through the Falcons offensive line in the first quarter, gets to Ryan before the quarterback can get a throw off, rips him to the ground, scoops up the ball and runs to the goal line. He pirouettes into the end zone and the Eagles use a 7-0 lead to vault to a convincing win at home that silences the doubters and sets them up to host the NFC Championship Game.
Titans (+13.5) at Patriots
How do the Titans win? Well this one is significantly more difficult to project a win. Impossible almost, except for the fact we just saw the Titans overcome a 21-3 deficit by running the ball in the second half and still winning against a vastly superior team. The problem for Tennessee in this one is the Titans just faced a team that's basically the poor man's version of the Patriots. The Chiefs utilize the short- and intermediate-passing game a ton, feed their superstar tight end, value accuracy in the passing game and don't turn the ball over. The Chiefs were first in turnovers per drive this year (0.72) and the Patriots were right behind at No. 2 (0.70). The Chiefs were sixth in points scored and yardage produced per drive, the Patriots were first in both. The Titans are 24th in defensive DVOA against tight ends and dead last in the NFL in defensive DVOA against pass-catching running backs. The Patriots have them in droves.
So if Tennessee is going to win, they'll have to defend the short passing game by New England. They have to pressure Tom Brady up the middle with Jurrell Casey and minimize the catch-and-run opportunities. New England specializes in yards after catch -- don't miss tackles. The Titans need some kind of special-teams theft, like an Adoree Jackson punt return to score or set up a score. And they need to be leading. I said the Titans weren't built to come back and I stand by it: Kansas City gave them that game on a platter. The Patriots won't be so kind. But if the Titans can score early and shock the Gillette Stadium crowd, take a lead and then hand the ball to Derrick Henry, there's a real upset opportunity here. The Patriots rank 30th in the NFL in terms of rush defense DVOA. Henry is a super-sized, power running back who can push through piles and, as Bill Belichick noted, cut "across the grain" on long runs. He didn't pile up yards this year, but he had some massive breakaways. It's not difficult to see Marcus Mariota giving Matt Patricia's defense some headaches as well in that situation.
Bold prediction: Henry gets handed a 7-0 lead and continues to deliver on his Heisman pedigree during the playoffs, ripping off a pair of touchdowns of longer than 50 yards, ends up rushing for 200 total yards and stuns the Patriots into a situation where they find themselves down early. Brady does his best to come back, but Henry ices things with the second of his big runs and Mike Mularkey is coaching in the AFC Championship Game. Ready your bunkers.
Jaguars (+7) at Steelers
How do the Jaguars win? We've seen this movie before. The Jaguars already won once in Pittsburgh this season, so the easy answer would be to say "." It's not quite that simple, however, because the Steelers also are aware of the previous script. It is unlikely the Steelers are willing to let Ben Roethlisberger throw the ball 55 times this week. And when they throw, don't expect them to challenge the Jaguars down the field quite as often. Here's Roethlisberger's Week 5 passing chart from Next Gen Stats:
Expect the Steelers to try and exploit the Jaguars across the middle and avoid, where possible, throwing directly at Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. If the Jaguars compress that portion of the field and can keep from allowing big running lanes -- we saw some of them for LeSean McCoy last week in Jacksonville -- it could force the Steelers to push the ball down the field. Maybe that's not a problem under normal circumstances, but it's hard to believe Antonio Brown is just going to be 100 percent after tearing a calf muscle. A banged up A.B., Roethlisberger getting pressured by Calais Campbell/Malik Jackson and the Steelers getting off their spot from a playcalling perspective could flip this game upside down early. But here's the real kicker: .
As colleague Sean Wagner-McGough pointed out in his Divisional Round Stats to Know piece, Bortles has been way more efficient and way more productive when the Jaguars let him throw early. Pete Prisco echoed that point on the Pick Six Podcast too, noting that Bortles just looks uncomfortable whenever he's stuffed into obvious passing situations.
Bold prediction: Bortles DOES throw early and it stuns the Steelers, putting them on their heels and allowing the Jags offensive line to create some holes for Leonard Fournette to run. The Jaguars get a defensive turnover early in the game too, setting up a field goal and take a 10-0 lead in the second quarter. The Steelers start pressing in front of a nervous home crowd and forget the gameplan of giving Le'Veon Bell the ball. Roethlisberger commits three turnovers (two picks, one fumble) and is outplayed by Bortles in a low-scoring rock fight of a game that the Jaguars win 17-14.
Saints (+5) at Vikings
How do the Saints win? It's not too difficult to imagine an underdog win here, either. The Saints are just a really good football team. Minnesota has a GREAT defense, which is a major concern if you're hoping the Saints can win. Minnesota doesn't have a weakness on their defense. They're great against the run and just as stout against the pass, capable of locking down top weapons with Xavier Rhodes and bringing a hammer in Harrison Smith. Fortunately for the Saints, they have Drew Brees. And, really, it's as simple as that for plotting the path to a Saints victory. Brees plays lights out against a top-tier defense, the Saints offensive line protects him and opens up holes in the run game for Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. There actually is one weakness for the Vikings: according to DVOA they are below average at defending deep passes. Aha! Fortunately for the Saints, they have a strong defense too. And the Vikings offense, while impressive this year, does have some weak spots. This is Case Keenum's first playoff start and Latavius Murray's done a superb job taking over at running back with Dalvin Cook down, but he isn't as explosive. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are criminally underrated but not unstoppable.
Bold prediction: Brees has the game of his life despite already having an incredible postseason career and lights up the Vikings defense for 300 yards and four touchdowns. Kamara jailbreaks one out of the backfield and Marshon Lattimore justifies his likely DROY pick by intercepting Case Keenum twice. The Saints roll in Minnesota and realize they're just one win away from coming back to U.S. Bank Stadium for the third time this season.
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