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NFL Picks – Divisional Round

The NFC’s top seed needs something… anything … from their starting quarterback. Can Nick Foles deliver? (Photo by Getty Images)

Last Week:  3 – 1 – 0
Playoffs:      3 – 1 – 0

Saturday, January 13 (4:35PM ET)

(6) Falcons at (1) Eagles
You don’t need a wild imagination to construct a recipe for an Eagles victory Saturday afternoon. However, when one of the main ingredients is Nick Foles playing well, reality sets in pretty quick. Foles has been disastrous since beating the Giants a month ago. He can’t read a defense. In that Oakland game he missed W I D E open receivers on 3rd down at least four times. He panics in the pocket when there is no pressure and hangs in too long when there’s a defensive end in his earhole. Did I mention his arm is closer to Peyton Manning’s end of career noodle than Carson Wentz’s cannon? Is all hope lost? Probably, but I’m a homer and can whip up plenty of ways the Eagles can pull this thing out.

  1. The running game. It’s pretty simple, if the Eagles can run the ball well enough so that 70% of their 3rd downs are 3 yards or less, they’ll have a shot. Foles can’t be trusted on any down, but he’s been especially horrible on 3rd down. Even on 3rd and short he’s missed open receivers 10 feet from his eyes. It’s somewhat uncanny how good he is at missing open receivers. Run the ball, churn out two or three scoring drives that eat up seven minutes and Philadelphia will be sitting pretty. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Atlanta will likely sell out to stop the run and dare Foles to do something with his arm.
  2. The defense wins the game for the Eagles. This is probably the most realistic chance the Eagles have. There are layers to it, however. First, they’ll need to give the offense at least 10 points. AT LEAST. Either score the points directly or give it to the offense in a situation where even Foles can’t screw it up. Obviously, scoring points come from turnovers. Most turnovers come from pressuring the quarterback. I trust the Eagles defensive line more than any unit on the team, and that includes Carson Wentz. They’ve been great. When teams figured out the Eagles secondary was just OK they went to quick drops, slants and tight end/back dump offs and STILL the line got pressure. Matt Ryan isn’t exactly mobile. He’ll be a sitting duck back there, so mistakes are certainly possible and even likely. The Eagles would also be wise to target Devonta Freeman as a fumble victim. He’s gone through stretches of fumbling and if you noticed, wasn’t the back getting the carries as Atlanta closed out the Rams.
  3. Discipline on the back end. Over the past month its own aggressiveness has burned the Eagles secondary. Their scheme allows for aggressiveness, but only when every man plays his role. On the big plays they’ve allowed, either the safety or corner went off the reservation and both players bit hard. That can’t happen. If the Falcons get past (and probably even into) the 21-24 points range, it’ll be almost impossible for the Eagles to win.
  4. Tackle. If I’m the Falcons, I’m getting Julio Jones the ball at or close to the line of scrimmage any time Jalen Mills is lined up across from him. Mills was excellent for the first ten weeks and has fallen off dramatically since. Likewise, the Eagle linebackers have been a disaster in pass coverage. The Jordan Hicks injury is partly to blame, but like Mills, Mychal Kendricks’ play has been erratic over the last quarter of the season. Depending on what version of Kendricks the Eagles get, Atlanta getting the ball to Freeman and Tevin Coleman in space could be a big problem.

In conclusion, the Falcons were the best draw the Eagles could hope for because Steve Sarkisian completely neutered the NFL’s most potent offense. However, the Eagles have to find a way to win without needing Nick Foles. Quarterbacks are kind of important, so this seems like a lost cause. Why did God make ACLs that tear? FALCONS If I were Charles Barkley; Falcons -3

Saturday, January 13 (8:15PM ET)

(5) Titans at (1) Patriots
I BOLDY predicated the Titans to get trounced last week in Kansas City. Shame on me for backing an Andy Reid squad so aggressively. I’ll admit, Reid was a disaster in that 2nd half. Only running the football five times with the NFL’s leading rushing and a two score lead for most of the 2nd half was the most egregious sin. On the other hand, Reid’s team let him down big time. All the Chiefs needed in that 2nd half was a field goal to win. The special teams gave it to them in the 3rd quarter. The Chiefs lost two yards on three plays and missed a 48 yard field goal. On the drives before and after the missed field goal, Kansas City faced a 3rd and 1 and a 3rd and 2, respectively. On 3rd and 1, someone (maybe Reid, maybe Nagy) called a quarterback option sweep. My 7 year-old wouldn’t call that in Madden. He knows better. Needless to say, the Chiefs lost yardage and punted. On the 3rd and 2, Kansas City threw the ball to a guy who had two receptions all season. You’re not gonna believe this, but he dropped it. Defensively, the Chiefs were an even bigger mess. The Titans had four possessions in the 2nd half. They scored three touchdowns and ran out the clock on their fourth. The NFL didn’t help, either. An obvious fumble was called back due to “forward progress.” Never in my life have I seen a quarterback get drilled, fumble the football immediately, and someone call forward progress. It’s ridiculous. I support the NFL protecting low hits on the quarterback and head-to-head spearing, but other than that, the calls are 100% garbage. Anyway, I blame Andy Reid and Alex Smith the most for last Saturday’s collapse. (Alex Smith audibled to a QB draw on 3rd and 9 with his season on the line. He was also terrified to throw downfield. He wanted NO part of that pressure.) Now, as a result of their collapse, we get to watch the miserable Titans get demolished by a Patriots team that’s been fuming on a bogus headlines for two weeks. Even after leaving my beloved Eagles, Andy Reid continues to crush my soul. PATRIOTS If I were Charles Barkley; Patriots -13.5

Sunday, January 14 (1:05PM ET)

(3) Jaguars at (2) Steelers
I know it’s easy to look at this matchup and think, “Steelers roll. No question,” but slow down just a bit and review Pittsburgh’s schedule with me.

Week 1: at Cleveland, Won 21-18
Week 3: at Chicago, Lost 17-23
Week 10: at Indianapolis, Won 20 -17
Week 12: vs Green Bay, Won 31-28
Week 13: at Cincinnati, Won 23-20
Week 14: vs Baltimore, Won 39-38

Those are six awfully tight games with non-playoff teams. Look through the Eagles or Patriots schedule. Both mostly rolled through bad teams. Pittsburgh’s a good team, but I’m not convinced they’re that good. Was their 30-9 loss to Jacksonville in Week 5 a fluke? Maybe, but it’s not totally inconceivable that the Jaguars bottle up Le’Veon Bell again and force Roethlisberger to beat them through the air. If I’m a Steelers fan, that Week 5 box score scares me. A lot. Blake Bortles threw for 95 yards. As they displayed in the Wildcard round, the Jaguars can win without a quarterback. Leonard Fournette rushed for 181 yards. Over their last four meaningful games of the regular season, the Steeler defense was not good against the run;

Week 13: Bengals – 130 yards, 5.9 avg.
Week 14: Ravens – 152 yards, 5.8 avg.
Week 16: Texans – 176 yards, 6.3 avg.

Yes, Fournette has looked worn down (or inured) over the last month or so, but a lousy run defense could be the cure for Jacksonville to control the clock and let their defense tee-off on Ben Roethlisberger. It’s highly unlikely Roethlisberger throws five interceptions again, but with limited opportunities, it’s reasonable to think the Pittsburgh offense will panic a bit, especially if they can’t establish Bell and the run game. The factors that led to the Jaguars blowout victory are absolutely repeatable; stop the run, force turnovers, run the ball. While I’m not willing to pick a Jaguars win, that line is 4.5 points too high for me. STEELERS If I were Charles Barkley; Jaguars +7.5

Sunday, January 14 (4:40PM ET)

(4) Saints at (2) Vikings
I love football. I really love the postseason. I love how the smallest moments swing playoff games. For example, everyone points to Kaelin Clay dropping that 1st quarter touchdown pass and the ensuing Graham Gano missed field goal as crucial mistakes that cost Carolina a victory in New Orleans. And they’re absolutely right. If either play swings the other way, Carolina probably moves on. Though, my favorite example of the tiniest mistake swinging the game came on 1st down with 46 seconds remaining in the 4th quarter. Carolina had the ball at the New Orleans 21. Cam Newton had Devin Funchess streaking open on a post route at the goal line. Pressure came right up the middle of the pocket and forced Newton to throw off his back foot. The pass was two feet short and fell incomplete after nearly being intercepted. If Newton gets just a half second longer there, there’s little doubt he nails Funchess for the touchdown and the lead. Newton was incredible in that game. One half second longer and it’s the Panthers in Minnesota this weekend. That’s what makes the playoffs so much fun.

That last paragraph was essentially my way of saying I have no clue what will happen here. Am I willing to bet on Case Keenum in a playoff game against Drew Brees? Is Minnesota’s defense really that good? I’m assuming the Saints take away the Vikings running game and force Keenum to win it for Minnesota, so if I’m picking the Vikings I’m saying, “Yes, Case Keenum will win it for the Vikings.” I don’t know if I can do that. I love Minnesota’s defense, though, and they really are that good. While the Vikings already beat New Orleans this season, that was way back in Week 1. You know, before the Saints unleashed Alvin Kamara. I’d like to pick the Vikings but everything points to an all NFC South title game in New Orleans next week. It was by far the best division in football so it’s only fitting the NFC South battles for the NFC crown. SAINTS If I were Charles Barkley; Saints +4

*****

If I were Charles Barkley…
Last Week: 2 – 2 – 0
Playoffs:     2 – 2 – 0

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