OK, time to talk about the 8 remaining teams vying for the Lombardi Trophy! We have lots of quality teams playing this weekend with some of the more popular teams in the prime time slots.
Before we get into the lines and our predictions, we have some analysis to share in the table below.
Keep in mind that the NFL is a quarterback's league. Even though teams like Philadelphia and Minnesota had a week off to rest, are playing at home, and have very good defenses, their QBs are inexperienced and don't have the accolades that veteran QBs such as Drew Brees and Matt Ryan have.
It's interesting to see how the average age of the more experienced QBs is at least 10 more than the average of the younger QBs and the QB ratings for this season is also at least 10 more. Age is simply not a number when it comes to being an NFL QB. Not saying the teams with less experience at QB are doomed this weekend but their chances of winning definitely takes a hit.
As for our analysis and predictions, here we go!
- Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles (Saturday, January 13 at 1:35 PM PT on NBC)
Vegas Line (Westgate Casino & Sportsbook): Atlanta -3, O/U 41
GE Line: Philadelphia -5.42, O/U 42.09
The Falcons showed everyone on national TV last Saturday night that there is no such thing as a Super Bowl hangover. After a slow start to the regular season, one had to wonder if the way they blew a huge lead in Super Bowl LI was going to have a lasting effect. Atlanta has shown some resiliency over the last few weeks with a superb pass defense and being smart on offense. The result was a wild card berth in a rather crowded field and traveling cross country to beat a prolific offense last weekend. Next up is the top team in the NFC sans Carson Wentz. Losing a Pro Bowl quality QB like Wentz definitely stings and so an adjustment needs to be made to the point spread. However, making the Eagles a dog at home after a week of rest (in fact 2 weeks of rest since the starters didn't play Week 17) doesn't make any sense. What is Vegas up to?! At worst, this game should be a pick 'em. Nick Foles is no Wentz but he's not bad. He did after all pass for 7 TDs in one game in 2013 for the Eagles and this year, has played pretty well. Of course he is facing stiffer competition with the Dirty Birds flying north for this battle of aviary mascots.
We just discussed how QBs can make a difference and I would take Matt Ryan any day of the week over Foles. However, this is not the same Matt Ryan as last year and the Eagles defense is very good, especially at home. Wentz is a QB, not a defensive player, so the defense should be fine. Of course several 3 and outs on offense doesn't allow the defense to get much needed rest in between possessions so it is essential that the Eagles lean heavily on their 3-headed monster for the run game (Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, and Corey Clement) and that Foles plays it safe by targeting tight Zach Ertz early and often. The Falcons secondary is very good so it would be wise for Foles to not test them as Jared Goff learned the hard way last weekend.
While the Falcons key offensive players are very talented, just remember that the Eagles are at home. The opposition's QB rating drops from 82.9 to 72.7 and the opposition's yards per carry for the run game drops from 4.2 to 3.3 when you consider Philly's home/away splits. This is not a coincidence. The Eagles have a very real home field advantage going 7-1 at home this season and 6-2 at home last season. The Falcons have been on a fun ride and while it would be cool to entertain a Super Bowl re-match with the Patriots, it just won't happen.
Prediction: Philadelphia 24 - Atlanta 17.
- Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots (Saturday, January 13 at 5:15 PM PT on CBS)
Vegas Line (Westgate Casino & Sportsbook): New England -13.5, O/U 48
GE Line: New England -6.33, O/U 53.95
Tennessee shocked the NFL world with their 22-21 victory against Kansas City at Arrowhead. At first it seemed they were going to get run out of the building during the 1st half but the Titans showed some resolve. Of course serendipity was on Tennessee's side when Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce was knocked out of the game with a concussion. Prior to leaving the game, Kelce was dominating the Titans. Just imagine what Rob Gronkowski can do, assuming he doesn't get hurt during the game which is not uncommon for Gronk. Even more fortuitous and fluky was Mariota's touchdown pass to himself. That was only the 2nd time in NFL history for that to happen. Lastly KC's fumble recovery for a TD near the end of the game was called back when it was determined that Derrick Henry's forward progress was impeded prior to coughing up the ball. Add it all up and you get a 1 point upset victory on the road for Tennessee.
Fat chance that happens again in Foxborough. When you give head coach Bill Belichick and Tom Brady an extra week to prepare and you don't have a defense to slow down the Patriots, you are toast. The Patriots offensive weapons are pretty much at full strength so expect Brandin Cooks and Gronk to have a field day against the Titans' porous secondary. Rex Burkhead and Chris Hogan also return. Tom Brady has several options at his disposal which is when he thrives. You will never know who he will use to attack your defense.
The Patriots defense looked awful at the start of the year but have shored things up since Week 4. It's a typical bend-don't-break defense for Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. They will let teams move the ball but then tighten up in the red zone. In fact, the Patriots lead the NFL in opponent yards per point. What does that mean? That means that teams have to work extra hard to score on the Patriots. The fact that the Patriots are 4th to last in total yards allowed but lead the league in the aforementioned category speaks volumes about New England's red zone defense. The Patriots red zone defense is top 5 according to most metrics used to measure the efficiency of that aspect of the game. The Titans red zone offense is nothing special so don't be surprised if the Patriots force the Titans to kick a few field goals. While it's fun to entertain upsets, it's simply not happening.
Prediction: New England 31 - Tennessee 24 (back door cover for Tennessee is possible here)
- Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers (Sunday, January 14 at 10:05 AM PT on CBS)
Vegas Line (Westgate Casino & Sportsbook): Pittsburgh -7, O/U 41
GE Line: Pittsburgh -0.10, O/U 39.29
The postseason is not complete without a slugfest between Pittsburgh and another physical team. We have seen some classic and just downright physically brutal games between the Steelers and Ravens and the Steelers and Bengals ... so brutal that it would rival the Hatfield - McCoy feud in the 19th century for all of you US History buffs. Interesting that that 19th century family battle took place in roughly the same region where Pittsburgh is located right now!
Instead of an AFC North rival duking it out with the Steelers, we get arguably one of the best defenses in the NFL this year in the Jacksonville Jaguars. For those relatively new to football, the Jaguars used to be divisional rivals with the Steelers before the divisions re-aligned in 2002. The problem with the Jaguars is that while the defense is very talented, they are beatable. They lost to Tennessee twice this year with one of those games being a 36-17 loss at home. The 49ers put up 44 on the Jaguars! Another problem with Jacksonville is the lackluster offense. The Steelers defense is very good but is missing their leader Ryan Shazier. The Steelers run game hasn't quite looked the same for the past 4 games. Still, the Jaguars had trouble moving the ball against the worst run defense in Buffalo and now the Jaguars travel to a cold weather stadium against a very experienced playoff team.
Antonio Brown is due to return. We are thinking he might be more of a decoy but he is also a phenomenal athlete so perhaps his calf is healed. Even if it's not, there are just way too many talented offensive weapons for the Steelers such as Le'Veon Bell. We also discussed that QB experience matters. Even though we are siding with Nick Foles against Atlanta and will side with Case Keenum over New Orleans, we don't think Blake Bortles will figure it out in Pittsburgh. We suspect the Jaguars will go the conservative route by feeding the ball often to Leonard Fournette. This game should be close given how good both defenses are. In such a scenario, we have to side with the home team with the better offense and a week of rest. Experience matters too.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 21 - Jacksonville 19.
- New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings (Sunday, January 14 at 1:40 PM PT on FOX)
Vegas Line (Westgate Casino & Sportsbook): Minnesota -5, O/U 47
GE Line: Minnesota -4.53, O/U 45.74
Will Minnesota be the first team to play a Super Bowl in it's home stadium? This question has been asked repeatedly this postseason and the frequency of such a question will only increase should the Vikings win this weekend. What we will say is that US Bank Stadium offers a really nice home field advantage for the Vikings. It is ridiculously loud and couple that intensity with a superb defense, and you can see why road teams struggle there. Minnesota's home record this season was 7-1 and last season it was 5-3. The Saints offense is very good but that's at the SuperDome. It is more of an above average offense on the road even though the Saints did put up a lot of points at Carolina and Buffalo this season. When you look at the home/away splits for Minnesota since 2016, it's really hard to go against the Vikings.
The strength of the Saints offense for most of this season has been the run game. The Vikings, however, defend the run very well. In fact, the Vikings are top 5 in most run defense metrics. At home, the Vikings run defense is especially potent. The Vikings allow 4.3 yards per carry on the road but just 2.8 at home. That is ridiculously good and says a lot about Minnesota's home field advantage. As much as we feel Drew Brees can pull off a road victory in the postseason, you have to win the war in the trenches and Minnesota does that well.
On the flip side, Minnesota's offense is solid. They have five guys in addition to QB Case Keenum who can make you pay. Adam Thielen is the one we think will shine. He is a top 10 WR and will line up in the slot. Most likely Marshon Lattimore will shadow Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph has been hobbled so it will be Thielen who helps move the chains for the Vikings. As impressive as Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara have been for New Orleans, Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon have been nearly as good. They also tend to play better at home than on the road. The Vikings churn 0.4 more yards per carry at home and their QB rating jumps from 92 to 103 at US Bank Stadium. Case Keenum is playing in his first playoff game but his QB rating is right there with the top guys and he is probably the best QB out of the young bunch left in this postseason. The chances of a team playing a Super Bowl in its home stadium for the first time ever will get one step closer.
Prediction: Minnesota 24 - New Orleans 20.
The takeaways here are QB play but also the war in the trenches. If you can balance those two, you will win. That is precisely what Philadelphia, New England, Pittsburgh, and Minnesota do better than their opponents this weekend so that is who we think will be the Final Four. They did, after all, earn 1st round byes for a good reason and should be all the talk next week as we march on towards the conference championships. Good luck and enjoy the 3-day weekend!