GOLD JACKET GAME OF THE WEEKEND
NEW ORLEANS @ MINNESOTA, Sunday, 4:40 p.m. (EST)
The line: Vikings by 5
The weather: Closed roof
The story: This feels more like the conference championship game, and maybe it’s because the teams involved have the look of the NFC’s two best clubs The Vikings won 11 of their last 12, including eight straight, while the Saints won 12 of their last 15 (including the playoffs) and, like Minnesota, had a run of eight consecutive wins. But there’s a big difference between the two, and look no farther than the most important position on the field. Saints’ quarterback Drew Brees has playoff experience, starting 12 postseason games (he’s 7-5) and winning a Super Bowl. The Vikings’ Case Keenum? Try no playoff experience. In fact, he’s starting only because Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater were hurt. But since taking over for Bradford, Keenum has been a revelation, winning 11 of 14 starts and making the Vikings the No. 2 NFC seed. But it’s not Keenum that makes this team formidable; it’s the league’s top defense, with the Vikings holding five of their last seven opponents to 10 or fewer points and 11 of their last 14 to 17 or fewer. It doesn’t taken an Einstein to figure out that solving that unit is the key to the Saints’ success … and all I know about New Orleans is that when Carolina shut down Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram a week ago, Brees turned into Drew Brees again, throwing for 376 yards. Could that happen again? It didn’t in the first game of the season when the Vikings won here with Bradford. But the Saints are better, much better than that team. Of course, so is Minnesota.
Something to consider: The Vikings allowed only 20 runs of 10 or more yards, fewest in the league, tying them with the 1995 San Francisco 49ers for the fewest since 1991.
AND THEN THERE WERE THREE
ATLANTA @ PHILADELPHIA, Saturday, 4:35 p.m. (EST)
The line: Falcons by 3
The weather: AM showers, high of 47
The story: The Eagles already made history as the first No. 1 seed since 1970 to be an underdog in its opening playoff game, and that tells you how much faith oddsmakers have in Nick Foles. They don’t … or at least not as much as they do in Matt Ryan … and you can see why. The defending league MVP comes off his first career playoff victory on the road, has a string of five straight postseason games with passer ratings of 100 or better and has 13 TDs and one interception in his last five playoff starts. Moreover, he hasn’t thrown a pick in six of his last eight games this season. Granted, these aren’t the 2016 Falcons that led the league in scoring. But these aren’t the 2017 Eagles that, until the Carson Wentz injury, led the league in scoring, either. That puts the pressure on Foles, who lost his only postseason start four years ago and who struggled down the stretch after stepping in for Wentz. Coach Doug Pederson says he wants his quarterback to “just be Nick,” whatever that means. But what it’s meant this season is a lot of checkdowns, with Foles averaging 4.96 yards per pass attempt. So what? So, prior to this season, he averaged 7.19. You know what you’re going to get with Ryan. You don’t with Foles, and maybe what you get is not so much Foles as it is a heavy dose of the league’s third-ranked rushing attack. But beware: Atlanta ranked ninth vs. the run and kept MVP candidate and NFL touchdown leader Todd Gurley out of the end zone last week.
Something to consider: The Eagles led the league in Red Zone TD efficiency (65.5 percent) and time of possession (32:41), and their defense ranked first vs. the run, allowing an average of 79.2 yards per game.
TENNESSEE @ NEW ENGLAND, Saturday, 8:15 p.m. (EST)
The line: Patriots by 13-1/2
The weather: AM rain, high of 54
The story: Finally, the Patriots get to stare down their biggest playoff speed bump: Themselves. The spread here tells you what oddsmakers think of this game, and they think it’s more a beatdown than a game. Maybe. OK, probably. But New England has been dealing with fallout the past week from that ESPN story, the Patriots have been known to start slowly after byes (see Super Bowl LI, 2016r vs. Seattle, 2014 divisional playoff game vs. Baltimore, etc.) and let’s be honest: Neither Tom Brady nor his teammates looked all that overwhelming the past six weeks — five of which included Brady interceptions. The reality, of course, is if the Patriots are on their game, the Titans will shortly be on the road to the next tee. Brady is 17-3 in the playoffs at home, including 11-2 in the divisional round, and the Patriots not only won their last six vs. Tennessee, they outscored the Titans, 126-29, the past three. Maybe that’s why Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaugnessy called the Pats “the first team in NFL history awarded back-to-back byes before the AFC championship.” Titans’ fans didn’t like that, but time to smell the coffee, people: This looks more like a dress rehearsal for New England’s seventh straight conference championship game.
Something to consider: Mike Mularkey is 0-6 vs. New England.
JACKSONVILLE @ PITTSBURGH, Sunday, 1:05 pm. (EST)
The line: Steelers by 7
The weather: Mostly sunny, high of 17
The story: So now we see how well defense travels. Jacksonville is here not because of Leonard Fournette or Blake Bortles. The Jags are here because of the AFC’s top defense, a unit that frazzled Buffalo last weekend, didn’t allow a touchdown and produced two sacks, two interceptions and one fumble. And they’re here because of what happened at Heinz Field in September, too, when they intercepted Ben Roethlisberger a career-high five times, returning two for scores and another to set up a TD. So we know Jacksonville can lock down opponents. But what are the chances they lock down these guys for a second time … in Pittsburgh … in the same season? Yeah, I know, it’s happened only once, and that was courtesy of the 2007 Jacksonville Jaguars, winning with David Garrard at quarterback. But it shouldn’t happen again, mostly because the Steelers have too many playmakers (Antonio Brown is scheduled to return, though he went home sick Friday), and the Jags have Bortles. Too often he looks like the Venus de Milo of quarterbacks, which means … which means the Jags better not fall behind. Remember: It wasn’t Jacksonville (Sack-sonville?) that led the league in sacks this season. It was Pittsburgh.
Something to consider: Le’Veon Bell’s playoff average of 5.5 yards per carry is the fourth highest among running backs with a minimum of 50 carries.
OUR BEST BETS
(Picks made vs. the spread)
RON BORGES (Season record: 11-7) — PATRIOTS (–13-1/2). I’ll take the Patriots, even though the spread is wider than the Grand Canyon. Tennessee has the second-worse pass defense vs. tight ends, and, when facing Gronk, that’s not good.
CLARK JUDGE (Season record 9-9) — SAINTS (+5). Not only can they beat the spread; they can beat the Vikings.
RICK GOSSELIN (Season record: 8-10) — JAGUARS (+7). The Jags won’t score much, but neither will the Steelers — not against this Jacksonville defense on an afternoon when weather conditions figure to favor the defense.
THE WEEKEND’S HALL OF FAMOUS
NEW ENGLAND COACH BILL BELICHICK. With his 37th playoff appearance, he has coached more postseason games than anyone in league history. He had been tied with Tom Landry and Don Shula.
NEW ORLEANS QB DREW BREES. He can tie Peyton Manning for the most playoff games (5) with 375 passing yards. Brees and Hall-of-Famer Kurt Warner each have four.
ATLANTA WR JULIO JONES. In his last five playoff games, he has 39 catches for 610 yards and 6 TDs. In his last three vs. Philadelphia, he has 24 receptions for 399 yards and three scores.
NEW ENGLAND QB TOM BRADY. In six starts vs. Tennessee, he has 13 touchdowns, no interceptions and a rating of 111.1.
PITTSBURGH QB BEN ROETHLISBERGER. He has two or more touchdown passes in each of his past seven starts, the longest streak in team history.
NEW ORLEANS QB DREW BREES. In five career starts vs. Minnesota, he’s 4-1 (his only loss was this season), with 12 TDs and no interceptions.
MINNESOTA QB CASE KEENUM. He was 6-1 at home this season, with eight TDs, two interceptions and a rating of 100.1.
TEN THINGS YOU PROBABLY SHOULD KNOW
- Philadelphia and Jacksonville advance to the divisional round of the playoffs after completing “worst-to-first” finishes, going from the bottom of their divisions one year to the top the next. In the past 14 years, four “worst-to-first” clubs advanced to conference championship games, and two (the 2003 Panthers and 2009 Saints) went to Super Bowls.
- Tom Brady and Marcus Mariota are separated by 16 years and 88 days, the largest age difference between two starting quarterbacks in an NFL playoff game.
- Matt Ryan’s five straight playoff games with passer ratings of 100 or better are second only to Joe Montana (8). Ryan is tied with Joe Flacco and Troy Aikman. Ryan has completed 70 percent or more passes in five consecutive playoff games and can tie Aikman with a sixth this weekend.
- The Patriots and Eagles tied for the league lead in point differential this season at +162.
- The Titans’ Derrick Henry this season ranked behind only rookie Kareem Hunt for most fourth-quarter yards rushing. Henry had 390; Hunt had 474. Henry’s 85 fourth-quarter yards vs. Kansas City last weekend were the third most in playoff history since 1991.
- The Vikings not only led the league in overall defense and in fewest points allowed but were the only team to rank in the top three in passing and rushing defense.
- Minnesota held each of four opponents to no more than one third-down conversion this season, tying the Vikings with Arizona for the league lead.
- In his two seasons at Tennessee, Mike Mularkey is 7-1 in games decided by three or fewer points. That ties him with Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin for the NFL’s best percentage the past two years.
- Tom Brady is 6-2 vs. Dick LeBeau defenses, including the playoffs, with 19 touchdowns, three interceptions and a 110.9 rating.
- New England has been the AFC’s top seed seven times since 2001. In five of the previous six, they went to Super Bowls — missing only in 2010.