With the Divisional round of the NFL playoffs upon us, only eight teams remain in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy. Before action kicks off this weekend, here’s a look at how each of the remaining teams can advance to their respective conference championships.
Atlanta Falcons: Stop the Run
Fresh off an upset of the 3-seeded Rams, the Falcons head to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles, whose offense has struggled mightily since MVP-candidate Carson Wentz went down with a torn ACL, leaving journeyman Nick Foles to replace him. Following a promising 4-TD game from Foles in his first start against the Giants, the Eagles totaled 19 points over their next two games.
Philly still boasts the league’s third best rushing offense and the Falcons rank 20th in rush defense by DVOA. If the Falcons can shut down the Eagles’ Ajayi and Blount-led run game and force Nick Foles to beat them with his arm, they could be well on their way to a second consecutive NFC Championship Game berth.
Philadelphia Eagles: Ugly it up
It’s surprising and unusual to see a team that went 13-3, earning a bye and the top overall seed in their conference, listed as underdogs in a home playoff game. Alas, that’s where we are with the Wentz-less Eagles.
With how Foles has played, there’s no reason to think he’ll suddenly turn it around and throw for 300 yards and 3 tds to lead the Eagles to the NFC Championship game. However, there is a way the Eagles can beat the Falcons even if Foles continues to struggle: their defense. The Eagles finished the season ranked 4th in total defense, scoring defense, and passing defense, first in rushing defense, and 5th in defensive DVOA. The Falcons offense, although not the world destroying unit it was last season, is laden with talent but if Philly can shut down Atlanta’s run game, pressure Matt Ryan, and turn the game into a defensive battle, they’ll have a great shot at advancing to their first NFC Championship game since 2009.
Tennessee Titans: Feed Derrick Henry
Last week the Titans pulled off an 18-point comeback for an upset win over the Chiefs behind a career-high 156 yards on 23 carries from running back Derrick Henry, as they were able to dominate possession for much of the second half and ultimately run out the clock after taking a 22-21 lead.
As massive 13.5 point underdogs heading into New England, the Titans will need to lean on their run game again and play keep away from Tom Brady and the Patriots’ explosive offense to protect their defense. The Patriots can be beat on the ground, as they’ve allowed 4.7 yards per carry (31st in the NFL). If Tennessee can be efficient with their drives, get some explosive plays from Henry and Mariota, and control the game like they did in the second half against the Chiefs, they have a chance to shock the world and move on to the AFC championship.
New England Patriots: Protect Tom Brady
The Patriots open up as double-digit home favorites against the Titans but a win isn’t a foregone conclusion. In just about every Patriots postseason loss, opponents have gotten to Brady early and often, throwing him and the entire offense out of rhythm and there have been times this year when New England has shown some vulnerability in pass protection. The Titans racked up 4 sacks in their win against the Chiefs and ranked 5th in the NFL with 43 sacks this season. If the Patriots’ offensive line can hold up, Brady should have no problem taking advantage of the Titans’ 25th ranked pass defense and leading New England to yet another AFC Championship berth.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Re-establish Fournette in the run game
The clash of the Jaguars AFC-best defense against the explosive Steelers offense should be an interesting one to watch this weekend. Last time these two teams played, Leonard Fournette went off for 181 yards and 2 touchdowns on 28 carries. That’s quite a contrast from last week when Fournette mustered only 57 yards on 21 carries in Jacksonville’s win over the Bills. In that game, Blake Bortles led the Jags in rushing with 88 yards but that’s not production the team can count on week-in and week-out.
The Jags’ offense is at its best when they’re running the ball effectively and having Blake Bortles manage the game and take care of the football. If their defense can make a few big plays and Fournette can produce anywhere near as well as he did against the Steelers in Week 5, Jacksonville has a chance to pull off the upset and get to the franchise’s first AFC Championship game since 2000.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Protect the ball and Feed Le’Veon Bell
Back in Week 5, the Jaguars defense harassed Ben Roethlisberger into his worst day as a pro as he threw 5 interceptions and no touchdowns in a 30-9 loss. The turnovers forced the Steelers to become one dimensional in their attack. While Roethlisberger threw the ball 55 times, Le’Veon Bell only got 15 carries in the game.
The Steelers best course of action against the Jaguars historically good pass defense is to turn to Bell early and often. Pittsburgh is 6-0 this season when Bell gets 25 or more carries, which isn’t surprising, as Bell is arguably the best running back in the league. The return of Antonio Brown and emergence of Juju Smith-Schuster should open up even more running lanes to get going despite a difficult matchup with Calais Campbell, Marcell Dareus, and the rest of the Jags’ front seven. If Bell can get going, the game should open up for Roethlisberger, in turn helping him avoid turnovers and lead Pittsburgh to the AFC Championship Game.
New Orleans Saints: Get Kamara and Ingram back on track
The running game has been a recurring theme here and it’s no coincidence. Defense and run game remain two crucial factors in the playoffs despite how pass-happy the NFL has become in recent years. This season, the Saints became the first team in NFL history to have two running backs cross the 1,500 yard threshold. However, both running backs struggled to get going in New Orleans’ wild card win over the Panthers. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram combined for 19 carries, 45 yards, and one touchdown on the ground and 2 catches for 23 yards through the air. As a result, Brees carried the Saints with a vintage performance through the air with 376 yards, 2 touchdowns and one interception.
There are much worse fallback options in the NFL than having Drew Brees carry your team to victory but against the Viking’s league-best defense Brees could use all the help he can get. If Ingram and Kamara return to their explosive ways on Sunday, the Saints have a good shot at bringing down the NFC’s 2-seed and returning to the NFC Championship game for the first time since their 2009 Super Bowl run.
Minnesota Vikings: Establish the run
Despite losing Dalvin Cook, the Vikings finished 7th in the NFL in rushing offense behind Latavius Murray and Jerrick McKinnon. The Vikings also ranked 5th in the league in rush percentage (47.5%). Additionally Case Keenum is one of the league’s most efficient play-action passers. The Vikings offensive gameplan will benefit as a whole if their run game is effective from the start of the game.
QB's who are most and least effective using Play Action, according to passer rating. pic.twitter.com/LSv86AaKF7
— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) October 10, 2017
The weakness of the Saints’ defense also happens to be against the run as they give up 4.4 yards per carry, 28th in the league and rank 22nd in the league in rush defense DVOA. By abusing the Saints’ weakness against the run (they rank 3rd in pass defense DVOA), the Vikings could continue their playoff run and like the Saints, make their first NFC Championship game since the 2009 postseason.