Pete Prisco's Divisional Round picks: Saints, Falcons on crash course for NFC title game
Plus the Titans and Jaguars keep it closer than people expect in the AFC side of the NFL playoffs
The Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs is usually the best weekend in sports. The upcoming one might not be -- especially in the AFC.
It seems so easy to pencil in the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game next week. The Patriots play host to the fifth-seeded Tennessee Titans this week and the Steelers host the Jacksonville Jaguars, fresh off their 10-point scoring output in the wild-card round against Buffalo.
But the playoffs are made for weird happenings. Do I think the Jaguars and Titans will win? No. But they can.
In the NFC, the two games have much more intrigue. The Atlanta Falcons, the defending NFC champs, come off their impressive road victory at Los Angeles against the Rams to face the Philadelphia Eagles on the road. That's against Nick Foles, which is why the Falcons are favored.
The wild-card round wasn't great in terms of excitement, and this has the look of the same. But let's hope that's not the case.
Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles
Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET (NBC)
The Falcons are favored in this game, which speaks volumes about the perception of Foles. He struggled in a big way in his final two games, which is why the top-seeded Eagles aren't getting the respect of a normal top seed.
The Falcons went to Los Angeles last week and beat the Rams behind an impressive defensive showing. That defense, which finished the season ranked ninth overall and eighth in scoring, is as fast a unit as there is in the league. Young players on the unit made big strides as expected this season, players like linebacker Deion Jones and safety Keanu Neal, and they give that defense a lot of speed and talent. That will pose big problems for Foles, who is as ordinary as they come.
The Atlanta offense hasn't been as explosive this year, but they had a nice plan last week against the Rams and will continue use the run game to key their passing game. The Eagles can rush the passer, which is why the run game will be key. The Eagles were first in rushing defense, sixth in yards per rush. Even so, I think the Falcons win it behind the running game. They are a dangerous sixth seed, and even though this is a second straight road game, I think it shows here. Falcons take it.
Pick: Falcons 23, Eagles 17
Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET (CBS)
The Titans ran their way to this game last week, as Derrick Henry rumbled for 156 yards in the upset of the Chiefs on the road. The Chiefs were 26th in yards per attempt against, but the Patriots are even worse with a 31st ranking.
That could mean another big day for Henry, with the Tennessee offensive line coming off an impressive game last week. I think the Titans will attempt to control the football with Henry in an effort to keep Tom Brady off the field.
It will work to some extent, but I still think Brady will have his way with the Tennessee secondary. With all the talk of discourse inside the Patriots, this will be their chance to show none of it matters. Brady will have a good day throwing it, as the Patriots move on in a closer game than expected.
Pick: Patriots 24, Titans 20
Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers
Sunday, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
The Jaguars dominated the Steelers in Week 5, picking off Ben Roethlisberger five times in a rout. This time around, they can't expect that to happen again.
The Jacksonville defense is as good as it gets, and they are coming off a victory over the Bills where they gave up just three points. But the Steelers seemed to get it together on offense down the stretch, even if Antonio Brown's health bears watching here. He missed the last two weeks with a calf injury, but will play in this one.
The Jacksonville offense was awful against the Bills. They couldn't get anything going and Blake Bortles struggled -- and that's being kind. He looked lost in the moment.
If the Jaguars are to win this game, they have to open things up. If they think they will line up and win with their running game, they are nuts. They need to take some shots. Jacksonville can't count on the defense to have another day like it did in October.
The Steelers are the better team. And they have the much better quarterback. That matters in January. Steelers will be moving on.
Pick: Steelers 21, Jaguars 17
New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings
Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET (FOX)
This is a rematch of Week 1 game between the teams, which the Vikings won 29-19. But that was a different Vikings team.
Case Keenum has done a nice job as the starter, but this will be his first playoff start. That matters.
The Vikings have the NFL's best defense, but the Saints were the second-ranked offense and fourth-highest scoring team in the league. Drew Brees got going in the victory over Carolina. Adrian Peterson tied Alvin Kamara as the leading rusher for the Saints in the first meeting. He's long gone, and Kamara and Mark Ingram both were selected for the Pro Bowl. That running game is much better.
This will be a much tougher challenge for the Vikings defense, which is why I think the Saints will go into Minnesota and pull off the upset.
Pick: Saints 20, Vikings 19
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