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Jesse Pantuosco

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Dose: Divisional Round Preview

Tuesday, January 9, 2018


The Chiefs: done-zo. The Rams: adios. The Bills: thanks for playing. The Panthers: better luck next year.

 

That takes care of the first four playoff teams, but there are still plenty of dominos left to fall before Super Bowl LII kicks off in exactly 26 days. Let’s run through the remaining combatants with a preview of the weekend slate.

 

Falcons at Eagles (Saturday at 4:35 PM ET): Here’s a new one. The 13-3 Eagles will host the sixth-seeded Falcons in Saturday’s Divisional matchup, but they’ll do it as 2.5-point underdogs. The last time a top seed opened the playoffs as a home underdog was … well, never.

 

Labeling the Falcons, who made the playoffs by the skin of their teeth following a surprisingly lackluster regular season, as favorites may seem a bit ambitious. But keep in mind the Falcons were heartbreakingly close to winning it all last year and now face an Eagles team missing its best player, Carson Wentz. Nick Foles has been a serviceable backup throughout his career and was even a Pro-Bowl caliber starter at one point. But he’s never won a postseason start—he lost to the Saints in his lone appearance back in 2013—and has mostly struggled since replacing Wentz (54.0 completion percentage, 77.7 quarterback rating in three starts).

 

Atlanta may have experience on its side after going to the Super Bowl last year, but it’s anyone’s guess which Falcons team will show up to Philadelphia this weekend. The Falcons squeezed into the playoffs by winning three of their last four but that was preceded by an ugly midseason slump that included losses to the Bills, Dolphins, Patriots and Panthers. After firing on all cylinders during his MVP season in 2016, Matt Ryan took a noticeable step back this year under new OC Steve Sarkisian. A native of Exton, Pennsylvania, Matty Ice should have plenty of friends and family on hand for Saturday’s showdown at the Link.

 

Titans at Patriots (Saturday at 8:15 PM ET): It’s always something with the Patriots, isn’t it? Spygate, Deflategate, Julian Edelman stealing Matt Harvey’s girlfriend—drama seems to come with the territory in Foxboro. Seth Wickersham’s bombshell article pulled back the curtain on Tom Brady’s souring relationship with head coach Bill Belichick while suggesting that their long-time partnership could be nearing its end. The presence of Brady’s personal trainer, Alex Guerrero, and Jimmy Garoppolo’s trade to San Francisco (a move Belichick reportedly disagreed with, but facilitated nonetheless) have reportedly created a wedge between the most decorated coach of his era and his prized pupil, Touchdown Tom. Belichick predictably brushed off the article when asked about it (he claims he hasn’t read it yet) but that will do little to quell the dark cloud hovering ominously over the Patriots’ dynasty.  

 

On paper, this is a pretty good draw for the Patriots, who get a Titans team that won just nine games during the regular season. The alternative would have been the Chiefs, who wreaked havoc on New England with a lopsided win in Week 1. Tennessee advanced in thrilling fashion on Saturday, eliminating the Chiefs by outscoring them 19-0 in the second half. Former Heisman Trophy-winner Derrick Henry delivered the knockout blow, burying Kansas City behind a career-high 191 yards from scrimmage (156 rushing, 35 receiving). He also scored his second touchdown in as many games while filling in for an injured DeMarco Murray.

 

Henry has been a bright spot for a Tennessee offense that has otherwise underachieved. Marcus Mariota disappointed with 15 interceptions during the regular season, though he made a miraculous play in his postseason debut last week by throwing a touchdown pass to himself. Coach Mike Mularkey had been on the hot seat, and rightfully so given the inexplicably-slow pace of Tennessee’s offense this year, but last week’s win assured him at least one more year in Nashville. Mularkey may get the key to the city if he upsets New England on Saturday.   

 

The Titans were getting shredded by Travis Kelce before he left with a concussion last week and have done little to stop tight ends this season. The Patriots would be wise to exploit that deficiency by feeding Rob Gronkowski early and often. New England should also benefit from the bye, which gave Rex Burkhead (knee), Chris Hogan (shoulder) and James White (ankle) an extra week to get healthy. With New England favored by a whopping 13.5-point points, the Titans are easily the biggest underdogs on this week’s slate.

 

Jaguars at Steelers (Sunday at 1:05 PM ET): The Jaguars weren’t exactly world-beaters on Sunday, squeaking by with a 10-3 win over Buffalo despite Blake Bortles throwing for just 87 yards on 12-of-23 passing. But the Jags, flawed as they may be, won handily when they faced the Steelers back in Week 5. That game was played at Heinz Field, which will also be the site of Sunday’s rematch. Leonard Fournette dominated Pittsburgh in the first meeting, shredding the Steelers for a career-high 181 yards and two touchdowns.

 

While Fournette was doing the heavy lifting on offense, Jacksonville’s league-best defense made life miserable for Ben Roethlisberger with five interceptions including two that were returned for touchdowns. Despite what may have been the worst game of Roethlisberger’s career, Antonio Brown still found a way to fill up the stat sheet, pouring on 10 catches for 157 yards on 19 targets.

 

Speaking of Brown, the wide receiver resumed practicing Monday and is on track to play for the first time since tearing his calf against the Patriots in Week 15. He’ll be going against one of the league’s best in Jalen Ramsey, but if anyone is equipped to handle such a matchup, it would be Brown, who led the league in receiving yards despite missing the final two games of the regular season. Le’Veon Bell had a rough go of it when he faced the Jags in Week 5 (93 yards on 25 touches) but he was still rounding into form at that point after holding out all of training camp due to a contract dispute. Well-rested after the bye week and also getting a breather in Week 17, Bell should be at the top of his game for Sunday’s battle royale.

 

Fournette gave Pittsburgh the business the last time these teams squared off, but he hasn’t been the same player since spraining his ankle in Week 6. Before the injury, Fournette was averaging a robust 4.58 yards per carry but has seen that average dip to 3.15 over his last eight games. If the Jags plan on making it to their first AFC Championship game since 1999, they’ll need Fournette to bring the thunder.  

 

Saints at Vikings (Sunday at 4:40 PM ET): No team has ever played the Super Bowl in their home stadium, which the Vikings can accomplish by capturing their first NFC title in 41 years. Vegas believes they’ll do just that—they’re 7-5 favorites to win the conference—but first they’ll have to go through the Saints, who advanced by beating Carolina in Sunday’s Wild Card game.

 

If this matchup feels familiar, it’s because the Vikings hosted New Orleans in their season opener on September 12. The Vikings won that game 29-19 on the strength of 346 passing yards from Sam Bradford. Dalvin Cook also showed well for Minnesota, leading the backfield with 127 yards on 22 carries. Both players have since been lost to season-ending knee injuries. Losing your starting quarterback and your top ball-carrier in the same season would be a death blow to most teams, but not the Vikings. Journeyman Case Keenum has filled in seamlessly at quarterback while Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon have provided a surprising spark to Minnesota’s ground attack.

 

The Saints have also evolved since Week 1. In the opener, New Orleans employed a three-man backfield featuring Adrian Peterson, Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. The aging, one-dimensional Peterson proved to be a poor fit in New Orleans and was later traded to the Cardinals for a sixth-round pick. Kamara and Ingram have taken the league by storm since Peterson's exodus, combining for 2,637 yards from scrimmage and 24 touchdowns while leading the Saints to a 10-3 record during that span.

 

If Jalen Ramsey versus Antonio Brown is the best individual matchup of Round Two, Michael Thomas versus Xavier Rhodes is a close second. Thomas set a team record with 104 catches during the regular season while Rhodes cemented his status as an elite corner by earning his first All-Pro selection this year. Stefon Diggs could have his hands full against Saints rookie Marshon Lattimore, though Lattimore didn’t cramp his style much in Week 1 when Diggs erupted for 93 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

 

For Kyle Rudolph, the first-round bye couldn’t have come at a better time. The 28-year-old was ineffective while playing through a sprained ankle down the stretch, managing just four catches for 26 yards over his final three regular season games. Rudolph can be a difference-maker when healthy and has maintained a consistent red-zone presence throughout his career. Among tight ends, only Jimmy Graham scored more touchdowns than Rudolph in 2017.

 

Quick Hits: The Bears have hired Matt Nagy to be their next head coach. Nagy has spent the last two years as Kansas City’s offensive coordinator. This will be the 39-year-old’s first head-coaching job … Redskins coach Jay Gruden wants the team to make a decision on Kirk Cousins’ long-term future in Washington. “I think you want to have a quarterback in here that’s going to be here,” said Gruden. “And hopefully that is Kirk, and if not, we have to move on and do what we have to do as an organization." Cousins has played under the franchise tag each of the last two seasons … The Bengals have chosen Teryl Austin as their new defensive coordinator. With the Lions expected to replace fired head coach Jim Caldwell with Patriots DC Matt Patricia, Austin didn’t think he had much of a future in Detroit … Philip Rivers expects Mike Williams to be more involved in the Chargers’ offense next year. Back and knee injuries limited the first-round rookie to 10 games this season … Greg Olson and Paul Guenther have joined the Raiders staff as offensive and defensive coordinator respectively. They’ll be working under Jon Gruden, who will be introduced as head coach on Tuesday … Sammy Watkins said he’d be open to re-signing with the Rams this offseason. The impending free agent led Los Angeles with eight receiving touchdowns this year … Panthers DC Steve Wilks is in for a busy week. He’ll interview for the Giants’ head-coaching vacancy on Tuesday before sitting down with the Cardinals on Wednesday and finally the Colts on Thursday. The 48-year-old has been with the Panthers since 2012 … Broncos RBs coach Eric Studesville will interview for the Giants’ head-coaching job on Wednesday. Studesville had planned to meet with New York last week but his meeting was pushed back due to severe weather … Former Browns coach Mike Pettine will interview for the Packers’ opening at defensive coordinator. Green Bay fired long-time DC Dom Capers last week.



Jesse Pantuosco is a football and baseball writer for Rotoworld. He has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. Follow him on Twitter @JessePantuosco.
Email :Jesse Pantuosco



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