2018 NFL Playoffs Bracket Projection: Saints top Steelers for Brees' second title

My initial NFL playoff bracket projection went south quickly thanks to a pair of upsets on Saturday of Wild Card Weekend. But the premise of the Vikings winning out and hosting their own Super Bowl still lives. I think there's a good chance it still happens: Patriots-Vikings is the most likely Super Bowl matchup (3:1 odds according to Bovada.lv) but the Vikings might get their toughest test this weekend against the Saints. It is not out of the question for New Orleans to spend the next three weeks playing in a dome and setting up a second Super Bowl run in the Drew Brees-Sean Payton era. 

Let's imagine that possibility real quick. Maybe this weekend could belong to underdogs, but I'd much rather lean on some quarterback experience in the divisional round to help setup some epic conference championship battles. All lines beyond the divisional round are projections.

Divisional round

Falcons (-3) at Eagles - Sat. Jan. 13, 4:35 p.m. ET (NBC)

The Eagles are historic underdogs in this divisional matchup and it is very understandable why they're upset about it. They are a football team, not a bunch of dudes put on Earth to stand around Carson Wentz. They have defense and a run game. But the Falcons have a "2010 Packers" look at about them, a team that we knew was talented yet struggled to put it all together most of the season and suddenly had everything click. Plus, playoff experience is a real thing and Matt Ryan (nine starts) has a lot more of it than Nick Foles (one start). Foles comes out a little jumpy on a balmy Saturday afternoon in Philly and the Falcons fast-playing defense takes advantage with a pick six in the first half of the game. Matt Ryan settles in nicely and Julio Jones piles up another 100-yard playoff game. Devonta Freeman softens the Philly front and the Eagles can never establish the run early. The Falcons hold off a late rally to win one on the road and advance to the NFC Championship Game. Prediction: Falcons 24, Eagles 17

Patriots (-13.5) vs. Titans - Sat. Jan. 13, 8:15 p.m. ET (CBS)

Everyone everywhere is looking for a reason why the Titans can win this game. It's not so hard to imagine, it just has to involve Tom Brady playing poorly out of the gates against a Dick LeBeau defense, which is not something that has really ever happened. 

The Titans need a turnover early and have to limit what Rob Gronkowski does in the passing game (Travis Kelce was lighting them up last week before a first-half concussion) so they can feed Derrick Henry and let him run downhill. That's not going to happen though. The Titans are 24th in pass defense against tight ends and 32nd in pass defense against running backs per Football Outsiders DVOA. Their two biggest defensive weaknesses line up squarely with the Patriots biggest strengths on offense. Gronk and Dion Lewis are going to have a first half dance party and then the Pats are going to grind out a second half win that might look closer than it ever was. They won't want to risk Brady and Gronk getting hurt in a blowout but still win comfortably. Prediction: Patriots 31, Titans 14

Steelers (-7) vs. Jaguars - Sun. Jan. 14, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Revenge game for the Steelers coming? The Jaguars actually need to do the opposite of what you would expect and let Blake Bortles throw the football more early in drives and in non-obvious passing situations. But the guess here is they don't do that, and try to establish the run early, hoping to get in a low-scoring defensive battle with the Steelers. The problem for Jacksonville is they've been capable of giving up big runs this season (although the rush defense got much better after acquiring Marcel Dareus) and Le'Veon Bell is itching for a monster game. The Steelers can establish the run, throw the ball over the middle and then take some shots down the field to Antonio Brown, who may or may not be healthy. Don't forget that, despite Ben Roethlisberger throwing five picks during Week 5's loss to Jacksonville, AB still had 10 catches for 157 yards. The Steelers come out hot, put the Jags defense on its heels and are able to salt away this game in fairly convincing and comfortable fashion. The Jags just don't have the offensive firepower to keep up. Prediction: Steelers 28, Jaguars 10

Saints (+5) vs. Vikings - Sun. Jan. 14, 4:40 p.m. ET (Fox)

Another potential revenge game here with an interesting twist: if the Saints beat the Vikings, they could end up playing three games at Minnesota's home stadium. That's a pretty rare situation -- the Saints played the Panthers three times this year, but they're a divisional rival and only two of the games were at home for obvious scheduling purposes. The Saints played the Vikings in Minnesota in Week 1, are rematching with them there in the postseason for the Divisional Round and if New Orleans makes the Super Bowl, they will play in the Vikings stadium again. That's a pretty crazy advantage. It's also putting the cart before the horse, because New Orleans has to win this game first. It's going to require a tremendous effort from Drew Brees along with Michael Thomas stepping up and winning the one-on-one matchup with Xavier Rhodes. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram need to make the Vikings linebackers miss tackles, and the Saints offensive line has to hold up in pass protection. Getting a strong game from Cameron Jordan and Marshon Lattimore is a must as well, because the Saints are going to need some help on defense to win this one. They get all that in this projection though! Prediction: Saints 21, Vikings 17

Conference Championship Round

Steelers (+6.5) at Patriots

What a delight, a very popular matchup for the bosses at the mothership (Jags-Titans is basically the same thing though, so we're good either way). When the two teams met in Pittsburgh earlier this year, we got a real treat that came down to the last second and a controversial call. When the teams meet again in New England for the AFC Championship Game, we'll get more of the same, albeit with less controversy. Both teams can score quickly and we'll get points early and often as Brady and Ben elevate their games and we get a full-blown shootout. The Steelers end up with the ball last again this time around, though, and are able to kick a game-winning field goal to finally vault them past the Pats. Prediction: Steelers 31, Patriots 28

Saints (-5) vs. Falcons

Somehow the Saints are hosting the NFC Championship Game. That came out of nowhere! After splitting the season series with the Falcons, they get a chance to, ahem, choke out the Falcons' Super Bowl aspirations. This would be a tremendous NFC title game too, with Brees and Ryan both capable of putting up points in a hurry and both defenses having surprised people this year for different reasons at different points of the year. In this particular projection, Cam Jordan is able to get enough pressure on Ryan and Lattimore is able to limit Julio enough that the Saints can outscore the Falcons. Ultimately it's a game that comes down to the last possession as well, but Brees is too dialed in to stop and he hits Kamara out of the backfield for a late, game-sealing score that propels the Saints to their second Super Bowl under Sean Payton. 

Super Bowl LII

Steelers (-3) vs. Saints

Good luck handicapping this game and my, oh, my what a game it could be. Both the Steelers and Saints, like their conference championship competition, are capable of piling up points in a hurry. The defenses are better than people think but also capable of giving up big plays. It feels like this could be along the lines of either the Saints last Super Bowl win -- that wild shootout against the Colts that featured an onside kick to start the second half and a Tracy Porter pick six of Peyton Manning late -- or the Steelers last Super Bowl win -- the Ben to Santonio Holmes throw that ripped the hearts out of Cardinals fans and ended Kurt Warner's chance of winning a Super Bowl with two teams -- and it's not going to get one-sided. Even if one of these teams gets up early, you best believe there is a comeback in the works. Going against Brown and Bell on this stage is silly, but give me Brees indoors, in a stadium he's now comfortable with, and his playoff game history. Last time in the Super Bowl Brees completed 32 of 39 passes (82.1 percent!) for 288 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. A similar performance in a shootout nets him a Super Bowl LII MVP award as he hoists another Brees baby boy wearing earphones high into the sky. 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Will Brinson joined CBS Sports in 2010 and enters his seventh season covering the NFL for CBS. He previously wrote for FanHouse along with myriad other Internet sites. A North Carolina native who lives... Full Bio

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