It's the Divisional Playoffs, so time for our NFL picks ATS. As discussed on our Playoffs podcast this week, it's the best NFL weekend of the year! Whatever you have to do this weekend, get it done early on Saturday because the first Divisional game, Atlanta-Philly, kicks off that afternoon at 4:30 Eastern. At that point you need to settle in for Playoff football all night, and then again all afternoon on Sunday. We're down to the final eight teams that have a shot at a Super Bowl run. It includes both defending conference championship teams, several future Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks, some rising stars, and a couple nasty defenses. Let's take a look at what to watch for, and how to pick the games. Here we go! All the picks, previews, and commentary you need from The Football Pod:
***These are Wednesday morning lines for the Divisional Playoffs. If you pick later in the week and need help with adjusted lines just find me on twitter, and I'll help you out. That's what friends are for!***
Atlanta (-2.5) @ Philadelphia:
If you just started paying attention to the NFL Playoffs this week, you read the line for this game correctly. Atlanta - the NFC's sixth seed and a dome team from the South - is favored to beat top-seeded Philly on the road, in what could be cold, rainy, and windy conditions on Saturday. Combine the Falcons strong regular season finish and impressive Wildcard win, with the Eagles unimpressive regular season finish, and you've got a recipe for the #1 seed being a home underdog. But can Atlanta really go into Philly and win this game as the six seed? We're about to find out.
The first, and most important, thing to remember about the Falcons this year is that the defense is improved over last year and appears to be getting better the farther they go. Atlanta finished the season with the ninth best scoring defense in the league, only giving up 19.3 points per game (PPG). That's an impressive number, but the Falcons are even better when you look at their last six games. In the last six, they're a full field goal better, only giving up 16.3 PPG. They've done this despite seeing some good offenses recently like the Rams, the Panthers, and the Saints twice. Now they get an Eagles offense that's really struggled without Carson Wentz in recent weeks. His replacement, Nick Foles, was decent against the bottom-feeder Giants a month ago. But Foles hasn't had a good outing since. In a Week 17 loss to Dallas, Foles was off to another awful start when the Eagles benched him. Granted, Philly had nothing to gain that day, but it seems like Foles could have used a few good series for confidence if nothing else. Instead, Foles went to the bench right away and then the Eagles sat on bye last week. That was nice rest for the players that needed it, but it means Foles hasn't seen much meaningful playing time in the last three weeks. I don't even like this approach for good quarterbacks: Remember how Aaron Rodgers was slightly off in a 2012 Divisional round loss to the Giants? He'd been league MVP after a spectacular 2011 regular season, but then didn't play for three weeks and it seemed like he was just rusty enough to impact his performance that day. We know that Foles is no Rodgers, and he's not even playing well to begin with. So how will he perform after so much time off? Perhaps the Eagles will work at establishing the run early to help him. But Atlanta had a top ten rushing defense this year so they should be able to commit to stopping Philly's stable of backs. That's when Foles will have to make the Falcons pay, but that will be difficult too. The Atlanta secondary has Desmond Trufant back (he missed the Super Bowl last year), leading a good group of corners. By the end of the regular season, the Falcons didn't just have a top ten scoring defense, but they were also ranked in the top ten in total defense. This is a tough matchup for an Eagles offense that struggled so much in its last three games that they averaged over 100 yards per game (YPG) less than their season average. They also averaged 11 PPG less than their season average over that stretch. Expect the Falcons to make some plays early on defense.
How well the Atlanta offense can play on Saturday is more of a mystery. The Falcons offense was good, but not exactly great, in the Wildcard win over the Rams. But they avoided mistakes, didn't turn it over, and cashed in on short fields to build a lead early. The Philly defense, though, will be a much bigger challenge than what Atlanta got in Los Angeles. The Eagles finished the regular season only allowing 18.4 PPG, the fourth best mark in the league. While the Philly offense struggled down the stretch, the defense turned it up a notch and limited opponents to a mere 15 PPG in their last three outings. The Eagles have been dominant on defense at home all year, where they only surrendered 13.4 PPG. Now they've been told that they're the underdogs all week. I can't wait to see how they respond to that. Can teams at the professional level rally to play the "disrespect" card? The last thing the Falcons need is for this Eagles defense to play with a chip on their shoulder. In addition to being a top four scoring defense, Philly was top four in forcing turnovers. At home they averaged two every week. They'll need big plays like that on Saturday to try and give Foles and the offense shorter fields to work with. I think we'll see their best effort. Keep in mind that the Eagles were also the best rushing defense in the NFL this year, giving up less than 80 YPG on the ground. They should be able to get Matt Ryan into third-and-long situations, and whoever wins those downs may win the game. If Ryan can convert and keep drives alive, Atlanta will be tough to beat. Even if the Falcons don't convert, Ryan needs to avoid turnovers, sacks, and other disasters. With Philly dealing with so many limitations on offense, Ryan can afford to play a smart, conservative game and wait for his opportunities. I think he will. I expect Philly to come out swinging (at least on defense) and they should have a good home field advantage. Weather may be an equalizer as well. But as discussed, Atlanta has a decent defense this year too and they have a nice matchup here. That may mean points are at a premium for both teams. Under's for either the first half, the game, or both, are probably a decent play. But I like Atlanta to gradually get it done and cover for the game. Falcons by at least a field goal:
***Sam's Football History Lesson***
For New York Giants fans, it's unfortunately been many years since the Giants participated in Divisional Playoffs Weekend. But this wasn't always the case. Ten years ago the Giants, fresh off a Wildcard win in Tampa Bay, headed to Dallas to take on the 13-3 Cowboys. "America's Team" had won the NFC East that year, beating the Giants twice in the process, and the Cowboys were the number one seed in the conference. Prior to the game, Dallas owner Jerry Jones famously left each of his Cowboys players two tickets to the NFC Championship game. The Cowboys being the one seed, would host that game in Dallas the following week, provided they could complete the season sweep over the Giants. The Wildcard Giants had other ideas. Dallas dominated the first half, but New York got a couple huge plays from their all-time leading receiver, Amani Toomer, including a touchdown right before halftime to even the score at 14-14. It was a momentum swing for the Giants to go into the half tied despite being outplayed for most for the half. Coach Tom Coughlin's Giants took full advantage in the second half. Brandon Jacobs scored the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, and the defense continued to stifle a Cowboys offense that had put up over 28 PPG that year (including 38 PPG in their previous two wins over the Giants). The win was sealed when Giants cornerback RW McQuarters intercepted a Tony Romo pass in the end zone. Dallas was done and New York was on to Green Bay for the NFC Championship game. The Giants beat the Packers at Lambeau, then beat the 18-0 Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. At the time it was the third Lombardi Trophy that the Giants had won in the history of the franchise.
Tennessee (+14) @ New England:
Another year of AFC Divisional Playoffs, another Saturday night showcase in New England. It seems like the Patriots play at home on Saturday night every year. And yes, it seems like they always win this game as big favorites. This year they're heavily favored again. Vegas is giving the Tennessee Titans a full two touchdowns here, a huge number for a Divisional game. I thought it may be more like a 10 point line after Marcus Mariota and the Titans were so impressive in their second half comeback win in Kansas City last week. Yes, Andy Reid had another Playoff meltdown and the Chiefs fell apart in that second half, but the Titans still had to capitalize and score three touchdowns. Mariota had just completed a relatively unimpressive regular season, so this was a huge game for him. But remember the Titans for their Arrowhead heroics since their run will come to an end at Foxboro. The Patriots are 9-1 in Divisional games played at Gillette Stadium. They're also 11-5 ATS this year despite having to cover hefty - if not downright inflated - spreads on a weekly basis. For Tennessee to stand any chance, the Titans will have to run the ball effectively. And yes, they did just that last week against the Chiefs, but most of the damage came in the second half when the Titans wore down an already bad run defense. The Patriots aren't much better defensively. They struggled mightily at the beginning of the season and although they improved, they're not the strength of this team. So the Titans may have some success running the ball early. But can they stop New England? The Titans gave up 21 points in the first half last week, but nothing in the second. If the Patriots score a quick 21, they won't be limited to zero thereafter. They'll keep scoring. If the Titans fall behind by double digits early, that will get them out of their balanced offensive game plan that they need to compete here. That's what happened to Tennessee in their Week 11 loss to Pittsburgh on a Thursday night. This will be a similar story. Patriots to cruise:
Jacksonville (+8.5) @ Pittsburgh:
So Jacksonville went into Pittsburgh earlier this year, intercepted Big Ben five times, and beat down the Steelers for a 20 point win. At Three Rivers. And now the Jaguars are an 8.5 point underdog in the rematch? Okay. The truth is the first meeting was way back in Week 5 and Jacksonville was still catching teams off guard. Especially the Steelers who play down to the level of their competition way too much these past few years. This game and could and should be a little different. After all, Roethlisberger said he wants a shot at a rematch with Jacksonville in the Playoffs. Wish granted. It'll be fun to see what kind of swagger the Jaguars bring to Pittsburgh knowing that their opponent wanted them specifically. It'll also be fun to see how Jacksonville performs on the road against the Steelers. It's a little different than getting the Bills at home.
The Jaguars will most likely try to establish their ground game early. And by ground game, I mean Leonard Fournette, not the scrambling Blake Bortles. But the Steelers should be ready for this. Even the Bills did a pretty decent job bottling up Fournette. I expect the Steelers to sell out to stop the run, almost like a college team that dares a running opponent to throw the ball. Bortles managed all of 87 yards through the air last week. The Steelers will force him to beat them. This is a major advantage for Pittsburgh at home. As is their own run game. The Jaguars are mostly excellent in every defensive area. But their run defense is sometimes exploited. Just last week the Bills got several big runs from LeSean McCoy. The Steelers should use Le'Veon Bell early and often. After establishing the ground game, that's when Pittsburgh should be able to open things up. Even then, the Steelers need to be careful. The secondary for Jacksonville is really second to none. Antonio Brown should be back for the Steelers and JuJu Smith-Schuster has come on very strong. But the Jaguars should be ready for them, and we don't know how healthy Brown will be anyway. He may be a bit of a decoy here. But if Brown occupies Jalen Ramsey, that's fine for Pittsburgh.
Finally, the Jaguars have to keep this close to have any shot. Like Tennessee the night before, Jacksonville can't afford to fall behind. If they have to lean on Bortles then they're done. The Jaguars defense is excellent and that will keep them in this game into the second half. But barring another catastrophic game from Big Ben, the Steelers will pull away. They'll also get a takeaway or two in the second half when Bortles is forced to throw downfield. It may take all four quarters, but Steelers to cover:
New Orleans (+4) @ Minnesota:
The NFL nailed it last week, putting Panthers-Saints in the late afternoon Sunday TV slot. I agreed last week and I think they made the right move doubling down on the Saints again in the Divisional Playoffs. We get Sean Payton, Drew Brees, Michael Thomas, and the Saints excellent pair of running backs going up against Mike Zimmer, Xavier Rhodes, and the Vikings incredible defense. Sounds like the perfect way to close out Divisional Weekend. Brees played one of the very best games I've ever seen him play last week. Carolina took away the New Orleans run game that had been so prolific with both Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara this year. Yet the Saints made it look so easy to transform themselves back into the pass-first team that we've been so accustomed to watching. Think about that... when the Saints get taken out of their game plan, they can simply go to their plan B, Drew Brees?! It'll be interesting to see if the Saints try to go run or pass first this Sunday. Or better yet, maybe Payton is figuring out the best way to attack the Vikings with a perfectly balanced offense. Whatever the game plan, the Saints ability to adjust and lean on either strength is a major advantage. Of course, they'll take every edge they can get against this Minnesota defense. The Vikings finished the regular season tops in scoring defense (15.8 PPG) and total defense (276 YPG). The Saints beat a good Carolina defense last week but to win again this week they have to beat an even better Minnesota defense.
Fortunately for New Orleans, they have players on defense this year too. Their cornerbacks, led by rookie Marshon Lattimore, have fared well against some of the best receivers in the NFL. This week they'll their hands full with the Vikings talented, if not-so-well known, receivers. Adam Thielen and Stephon Diggs combined for 155 catches and well over 2,000 yards this year, making life much easier for former backup quarterback Case Keenum. Keenum has been better than the Vikings could have possibly hoped for, but we're about to find out how well he can perform in his first Playoff start. Keenum and the Vikings receivers versus Lattimore and the Saints defense should be fun to watch. It'll be especially interesting if the Saints score early and force the Vikings to play catch up at home. There's a lot on the line for Keenum. It's not just the chance to play at home in the Super Bowl (the game is at the Vikings home stadium this year). It's also the chance for a big-time contract after the season. How much of this will be on Keenum's mind is unknown. But we do know the Saints will get an excellent game from their quarterback. The Vikings should have a great home field advantage, but the Saints are playing really well. More than a field goal for either side seems like too much to me. I'll take the Saints getting the points in what should be a fantastic finish to the weekend.
Did you like our NFL picks this week? Hate the picks? Want to play along and teach us how to pick? Let our experts know what you think:
|Sam finally had a decent season in 2016 and hit a 55% success rate on his NFL picks. So your best bet is to fade his picks this year. It won't hurt his feelings.|
|The voice of thefootballpod.com, KAM's so good that she's been known to pick both NFL and college games. She'll share her picks as long as you don't trash talk her Packers.|
|Need power picks and the power sweep, both? Then look no further than Kevin's picks. This Western Pennsylvania football product knows the game as well as anyone.|
|She's not only the best bartender in town, but #PaytonsPicks set the pace in 2016, to the tune of a 56% success rate! Catch her if you can. Or just wisely follow her picks.|
|He's our resident Cowboys expert, so you'll hear from Rick a lot this year. As for his picks, #RicksLocks are as money as Dallas playing as the one seed in the NFC Playoffs.|
|Founder of theredbeat.com, and a contributor at turnonthejets.com, Greg is the newest member of the team. He's the biggest Jets fan we know (and willing to admit it...)|
|After making the rounds on the podcast circuit for years, we finally have our Kansas City Chiefs expert weighing in, writing columns, and picking games. So pay attention!|
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