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2018 NFL Divisional Round: What each team needs to do to win

Titans need another Mariota miracle, Jaguars and Falcons just need to play defense & Eagles need to pray.

Getty Images/Peter Rogers Illustrations

And then, there were only eight.

Granted, there were eight teams that played on Wild Card weekend, but technically there were really 12 teams to start the playoffs, just that four didn’t play. So now there’s really only eight teams.

While we may have a few games that won’t be as exciting as people expected—Eagles vs Falcons would’ve been sooo much better had the Football Gods not taken Carson Wentz’s ACL from us and Patriots vs Titans, really?—at least half of the games should be edge of your seat entertainment. The Jaguars have beaten the Steelers in Heinz Field already this season while the Vikings will hope to exorcise (and possibly exercise) the demons of the 2010 NFC Championship game.

If we’ve learned anything from this year’s Wild Card games, it’s that anything can happen, even quarterbacks passing the football to themselves. With that in mind, here’s what each team playing this weekend will need to do in order to move onto the Championship Round.

Falcons vs Eagles

What the Falcons need to do: Continue to be tenacious on defense

We all know the Falcons’ offense is not what it was last year but let’s be honest, did we really expect that record breaking offense to just casually roll into 2017 without a problem? Meanwhile, the defense has been nothing short of stupendous heading into the playoffs, allowing only 16.3 points per game over the last six games. They’re coming off a Wild Card game in which they held the number one scoring offense this year to only 13 points, at home. Eagles’ starting quarterback Nick Foles is not good and is even worse than not good when he’s under pressure. Put even a little pressure on Foles and his passer rating drops from 107.8 when kept clean to 23.8. That is, in a word, awfulstinkyhorribletheworstthingiveeverseen.

What the Eagles need to do: Run, Pray, D

Consider this the unheralded sequel to Eat, Pray, Love. For any upset to occur—and yes, the 1 seeded Eagles beating the 6th seeded Falcons would be an upset—running and playing stout defense tends to be the recipe. This will be especially true for the Eagles as, again, Nick Foles is not a good quarterback. But, their defense is very good and their run game could be a difference maker. The Eagles defense was second overall (per RODS) and 4th in the league in scoring, only allowing 18.4 points per game. That will be crucial against a Falcons offense that’s kinda been feeling itself recently. On the offensive side, it’ll be up to LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement to make plays on the Falcons’ 20th ranked rush defense (per DVOA). I’ll leave the praying to Philly fans.

Titans vs Patriots

What the Titans need to do: Hope for another Mariota miracle

If it took Mariota throwing a touchdown pass to himself for the Titans to pull off the upset over the Chiefs, what will it take for them to beat the Patriots? I’m predicting not only will Mariota throw a touchdown to himself again, he’ll also play defense for a point and get a pick-six on Tom Brady. That’s really the only next logical step.

But actually, here’s what the Titans need to do: Force Derrick Henry down the Patriots’ throats

The Patriots finished 2017 allowing the third most rushing yards and ranked 30th in run defense per DVOA. That’s a pretty favorable matchup for Henry, who ran all over the Chiefs last week. If the Titans can get the ground game going and keep Brady and the Patriots offense off the field, they might just have a chance at pulling off the upset.

What the Patriots need to do: Don’t get cute and f*** this up

This is Pete the Patriots fan speaking. Please Josh McDaniels, don’t use this game as the time to test out a whole bunch of trick plays or fancy movements or things of that nature. Don’t run a triple screen play with an end around that turns out to be really a deep ball downfield. That’ll not only kill Brady but also kill me. It will literally give me a heart attack if I witness that play. Just play good solid football and walk out of here with the win. No need to throw the ball 100 times or to run the ball once and then decide, “eh that’s not for me”. Again, that will literally kill me.

On a slightly more, um, professional note, the Patriots need to keep Brady upright. The Titans allowed the eighth most passing yards this season but were tied for fifth in the league in sacks (43). If the Patriots can protect Brady, he’ll have no problem picking apart this defense.

Jaguars vs Steelers

What the Jaguars need to do: Get Leonard Fournette going

This game will almost certainly play out differently than when these two teams met in Week 5—the Jaguars romped the Steelers 30 to 9—but the gameplan for the Jaguars could be the same. In Week 5, it was by the legs of Fournette that the Jaguars were able to move the ball. This was severely lacking from the Jaguars win against Buffalo last week as Fournette only mustered 57 yards on the ground and it was actually the legs of Blake Bortles that carried the offense. The Steelers will of course be focusing on Fournette but if the Jags can get their rookie back going early, they can take control of the pace of this game. And keep the ball out of Bortles’ hands. Always good when you have zero confidence in your starting quarterback in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.

What the Steelers need to do: Unleash JuJu Smith-Schuster

Actually what the Steelers really need to do is stop Fournette and force Blake Bortles to beat them or don’t let Ben Roethlisberger throw five interceptions again but I didn’t think those would be as fun to talk about. Smith-Schuster is not only is the league’s greatest celebrator, he’s also the league’s best slot receiver. The rookie led all wide receivers in yards per route run from the slot and didn’t drop a single ball when working out of the slot. Not bad if you ask me. The reason I pick Smith-Schuster here is because I’m assuming Jalen Ramsey will cover Antonio Brown while A.J. Bouye will take Martavis Bryant, leaving JuJu free of the two best corners in the NFL. Maybe I really should say “Unless whomever isn’t covered by Ramsey or Bouye” just to make sure I cover my bases.

Saints vs Vikings

What the Saints need to do: Keep the Vikings off the field

You ready for some stats? Well quickly get yourself mentally prepared, because they’re coming. The Vikings have converted 45% of 3rd downs this season at home, while the Saints have given up the same percentage on the road. If the Saints want a shot at winning this game, they’ll need to do a much better job getting (and keeping) the Vikings offense off the field. I’m also really excited to see Marshon Lattimore on Adam Thielen. That’s going to be a good battle.

What the Vikings need to do: Contain the Saints’ rushing attack

The Vikings defense is good. Like scary good. Like second best in the league per DVOA and first in weighted defense (meaning it’s been the best defense recently). The Saints offense has shifted to being built around the dynamic duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, a pairing the Vikings didn’t have to deal with in their Week 1 matchup. However, unlike the Panthers in the Wild Card round—who did a great job limiting the Saints’ running backs but were unable to control Drew Brees—the Vikings have the cornerbacks to matchup against the Saints receivers, a fact already demonstrated back in Week 1 when the Vikings didn’t give up 60 yards to any receiver and held Michael Thomas to under 50 yards receiving. If the Vikings defense can force the Saints to become a pass-first offense, as crazy as it might sound, that’ll give them the best chance to win this game.


Which team is most likely to pull off the upset?

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