Steven Senne/Associated Press
The New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers have been on a collision course since midseason in the NFL, when both teams asserted themselves as the best teams in the AFC.
Those two teams are one game away from meeting in the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots will have to beat the Tennessee Titans Saturday night to get there, while the Steelers must defeat the Jacksonville Jaguars to punch their ticket to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
The Patriots would seem to have the easiest path to the conference title game, as their history of success indicates they are going to beat the Titans.
They are 11-2 in divisional playoff games in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era. Their only to losses came after a 10-6 season in 2005 when they dropped a 27-13 decision on the road to the Denver Broncos, and a 14-2 season in 2010 was ruined by a 28-21 defeat at the hands of Rex Ryan and the New York Jets.
The Patriots have the second-ranked offense in the league, and they are led by the redoubtable Brady, who has completed 385 of 581 passes for 4,577 yards with 32 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
There is no secret to the Patriots’ offensive game plan. They have a plethora of weapons, and while tight end Rob Gronkowski may be the top threat after catching 69 passes for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns, the Pats also get major contributions from running back Dion Lewis, Danny Amendola, Brandin Cooks and James White.
Lewis is the team’s leading rusher with 896 yards and six touchdowns, and he also is a solid receiver out of the backfield. Amendola is a sure-handed receiver who will go over the middle, and he caught 61 passes for 659 yards and two TDs, while Cooks is a blazer and the team’s best deep threat. He caught 65 passes for 1,082 yards and seven scores.
The defense is the issue with New England, as the Patriots ranked 28th in yards allowed, but they are stingy when it comes to allowing touchdowns. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has fixed many of the coverage issues that dogged the team in the first four weeks of the season, but the defense needs to put consistent pressure on the quarterback.
Trey Flowers led the team with 6.5 sacks and Kyle Van Noy was second with 5.5, but if those two don’t apply the heat, the Pats are vulnerable.
They may not pay a stiff price against the Titans, but it could happen the following week against the Steelers.
Antonio Brown was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Year by the NFL 101 Awards.
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Pittsburgh should get something of a challenge against the Jaguars, but it’s almost impossible to see Blake Bortles getting the job done against Pittsburgh’s nasty and hard-hitting defense.
Bortles completed 12 of 23 passes for 87 yards with one touchdown in the 10-3 wild-card win against the Buffalo Bills, and he would not seem to be any kind of threat.
Bell rushed for 1,291 yards and nine touchdowns, and he caught 85 passes for 655 yards and two scores. Brown is the best receiver in football, and he caught 101 passes for 1,533 yards and nine scores in 14 games. Brown missed the last two games with a calf injury, but he has been a participant in practice this week and will be almost impossible to contain.
The Jaguars have two sensational pass rushers in Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue. Campbell had 14.5 sacks and Ngakoue added 12.0 more, and those two will have to be at their best if they are going to slow down the Steelers.
The Jaguars defeated the Steelers 30-9 in Week 5, but we are discounting that game as a fluke as Roethlisberger threw five interceptions. That won’t happen again.
Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press
The sixth-seeded Atlanta Falcons are 2.5-point road favorites over the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles, according to OddsShark. The defending NFC champions are coming off a 26-13 road triumph over the Los Angeles Rams.
The Falcons are healthy and their defense is functioning well, as they held Jared Goff and Todd Gurley in check last week.
It should be much easier to hold Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles down, because the Eagles’ backup quarterback has struggled since replacing the injured Carson Wentz.
The Eagles were clearly the best team in the NFC through the majority of the season, and perhaps the best team in the NFL. But it’s difficult to see them getting it back together if Foles does not find his stride.
The New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings have a chance to put on the best show in the final divisional playoff game of the weekend.
Drew Brees has been a consistently brilliant quarterback throughout his career, and this year he has a special running game with Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara supporting his accurate passing.
The other reason the Saints went from a 7-9 team to the NFC South champions is the improvement in the defense. New Orleans was one of the two worst defensive teams in 2015 and 2016, but the Saints were the 17th-ranked defense in 2017. Defensive end Cameron Jordan had 13.0 sacks during the regular season, while rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore had five interceptions and 18 passes defensed.
Free safety Vonn Bell had a team-high 83 tackles and should not be overlooked.
The Vikings have the top-ranked defense in the league, and that’s not a surprise given the teams’s strong personnel and the coaching of Mike Zimmer.
Defensive end Everson Griffen leads the team with 13.0 sacks, and he gets plenty of support from linemate Danielle Hunter with 7.0 sacks. Free safety Harrison Smith has 78 tackles, 12 passes defensed and five interceptions, and he is an excellent positional defender.
Linebackers Eric Kendricks (team-high 113 tackles) and Anthony Barr (75 tackles and six passes defensed) are a pair of nasty hitters.
While the Minnesota defense dominated, the offense more than held its own with Case Keenum at quarterback along with wideouts Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.
The Vikings have the 10th-ranked offense in the league, and it would not be a surprise if they are able to move the ball consistently against the Saints.
Look for the Patriots to roll over the Titans by three touchdowns or more, and the Steelers to take charge against the Jaguars and win by at least 10 points. That game could be close through the first half, but Bell and Brown will be decisive in the second half.
The Falcons should be able to survive on the road against the Eagles unless Ryan is guilty of two interceptions or more. It does not seem likely that Foles will perform consistently against the Atlanta defense.
New Orleans and Minnesota will go back and forth for 60 minutes, but the Vikings have the better defense and the home-field edge. The final quarter will belong to the Vikings, and they will get the job done and advance to the NFC title game.