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Who are you picking to win the Divisional games?

Posted Jan 12, 2018

talkSPORT's Mike Carlson make his picks for the weekend games.

DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS

This weekend features what is probably the biggest home-field advantage in sports. Home teams win roughly 57% of their game in the NFL (higher than MLB or the NHL, but lower than the NBA) but the four home teams in the divisional round win about 75% of the time.

The reasons are obvious: the seeded teams have enjoyed a bye week, which means more preparation and, crucially, recovery, time; they are seeded higher because their records say they are 'better' in the first place (all four of the seeds finished the season 13-3; no other team won more than 11); and they are at home, which means no travel, yet more preparation, and of the course the help of the partisan crowd in the stadium, disturbing the opponent's signals, perhaps influencing timid referees, and of course spurring on their team.

So in theory, picking the four home teams should get you three right, but the trick would be identifying the road warriors best equipped to win. Last year both the Steelers and Packers won on the road; the year before home teams swept the divisional round, which of course averages out to 75%!

This year, the road win is being predicted widely, for the first game of the weekend. The NFL is a quarterbacks' league, and that has a lot to do with it. Read on...

SATURDAY

Atlanta (10-6) at Philadelphia (13-3): Bird Derby! The Eagles are the first-ever top seeds to enter the divisional round as underdogs, and it has everything to do with quarterbacks. Well, not everything, because there is an element of recency bias too. But the spotlight is on Nick Foles, and although he has been competent for the Eagles, the differences between him and Carson Wentz are foremost in everyone's mind. Foles sees things more slowly, can't keep plays alive as long, and so far this season has left plays on the field. Against a very fast Falcons' defense that, just like last year, has seemed to jell in the late season, this could be very dangerous. Dan Quinn's defense is a mirror of Seattle's (where he was defensive coordinator), and you may recall the Seahawks often coming on strong late in seasons. If the officials allow the Falcons the freedom they enjoyed against the Rams: to hold receivers all the way down the field, to tie them up in the end zone, to shove them to the ground after plays, and to maul the best D lineman, the Eagles will have a tough time generating offense. It could turn into a situation of trying to pound the ball with Jay Ajayi and LaGarrette Blount: power vs speed. What the Falcons did very well was to force the Rams into third downs; their offense works best when it's playing a two-down game. The Saints are kind of the same.

The Falcons were holding teams to 17 points a game late in the season, but their offense was not scoring much more than that, which is why I warned about recency bias. Take away Pharoah Cooper and those two muffed punts (three if you count the one late in the game which he recovered himself, but failed to get any return yards), the Falcons were handed opportunities to create a huge lead which they could only turn into field goals. At the same time, as the Rams' line faded (Michael Brockers' injury being more crucial than folks noticed) the Falcons integrated their dual-threat runners (Freeman and Coleman) just as they had last season, and Matt Ryan was brilliant at avoiding the Ram rush with small subtle movements in the pocket.

The Eagles' pass rush comes from the 'wide 9', which suggests the best way to avoid it would be to use those backs filling spaces behind the rushers. Atlanta have Julio Jones, and the Eagles have no equivalent of him, which gives the Falcons' D another advantage, so look for the Eagles to try to pull backers out of run-stopping, maybe with Zach Ertz. I suspect that, were Wentz starting, the Eagles would have been more substantial favourites than they might have deserved; so his loss has probably swung the margins by 8 points or so. They are at home. The weather is likely to be cold and windy, not like inside the newest Dome in Georgia. The Falcons are coming off a big win, but on the road in LA, and they're on the road again. Is Nick Foles that big a counterweight? Pick: Falcons

Tennessee (10-6) at New England (13-3): Ryan/Kline/Cassel Bowl! The Titans bast three ex-Pats. Logan Ryan at corner has received most of the attention, especially when he said his de-briefing by the Titan equivalent of the CIA was exhaustive, but Kline has been a reasonable starting guard just as he was in New England: like most of the Titans' line, tough and gritty but not very athletic, and Cassel of course is Marcus Mariota's backup, just as he was Tom Brady's. The thing about mining ex-Pats for info is that New England change their game plan so much that last week's stuff is often out of date, much less last year's.

This is one which would be the huge upset, with the Pats double-digit favourites, and the Titans coming off a huge upset over the Chiefs. Here the story is again about quarterbacks, but in this case it's one who isn't there: Jimmy Garoppolo—whose departure has, if you believe the press, created a rift so huge in the Patriots that the team is in danger of disappearing down a deep crevice of hurt feelings and childish anger. Or not. On paper the Titans can do some things which bother the Pats: they have a road-grading line that can wear a D down and Derrick Henry is one of those backs who keeps getting yards and then breaks through for a big gain once or twice. Their D contains teams, and stops big plays, though if you noticed in the first half the Chiefs helped them out with drops or their halftime lead might have been insurmountable. The matchup of Kevin Byard and Jonathan Cyprien against Gronk, should it pan out that way, is one that will challenge Tom Brady, and the Titans' D line, led by Jurrell Casey, are just the kind of aggressive pounders who can give the Pats'finesse-blocking offense problems.

But the bye week has been good for the Pats, especially with DT Alan Branch back. He's the big space-eater in the middle of their line, and if he's fully fit he'll make a difference. The Pats boatd the most amazing stats of the season. Offensively, they led the league in yards and were tied for second in points per game with the Eagles (28.6) behind the Rams (29.9). Their defense, however, was 29th in the league in yards allowed, but was actually 5th in points allowed (18.5 per game), with just one point more than the Eagles over the season. A lot of that is down to situational football, and some to a secondary that's hard to beat in the red zone: the Titans are relatively good in the red zone, with Mariota not turning the ball over at all. But he has few receiving weapons: if the Pats can shut down Delanie Walker, Corey Davis and Rishard Matthews aren't likely to beat them, which again will force Mariota to do it, with his feet as he did against the Chiefs. Keeping him in the pocket will be the Patriots' key. It's really hard to see the Pats losing their one, most of the speculation has been around whether they can cover the big spread. Pick: Pats

SUNDAY

Jacksonville (10-6) at Pittsburgh (13-3): The story here, of course is the Jags' 30-9 win in Pittsburgh in week five. But that was driven by two second-half pick sixes and a late 90 yard run by Leonard Fournette that sealed a game that had been 9-7 Steelers at the half.Big Ben threw five picks overall, and the sharp-eyed have been quick to point out that his record against the Jags is only 4-4, 0-1 in the playoffs and 1-3 at home! Antonio Brown is expected back at full strength; he had 10/157 in that game, but no scores, and if anything the Steelers receiving targets are more dangerous now, with Martavis Bryant back on planet team.

Although January playoff games seem to be influenced by defense, running and weather, it's still quarterbacking that is the key, and the key to picking this one is how much do you trust Blake Bortles to perform at playoff level? He led the Jags to one scoring drive, indeed one drive period, last week, and he did it scrambling, much like Marcus Mariota. In the end he ran for 88 yards and passed for only 87, but 87 is only seven less than the 94 he threw for in week five. The real key may be the runners: Fournette and LeVeon Bell. Fournette is closer to Derrick Henry at this point in the season: he seems to have lost a little burst, so you want to get him the ball in some space. In week five the Jags bottled up Bell, who likes to pick his holes: he had 47 yards rushing and 46 receiving. His effectiveness opens up the rest of the Steeler attack.

The Jags are probably the best defense in the league against the pass: their secondary gives their front four extra time to get to quarterbacks, and their linebackers are fast enough to cut down space for check-down receivers. They led in the league in fewest passing yards allowed, and were second in overall yards and points allowed to Minnesota. The Steelers' lack depth defensively (watch for ex-Jag Tyson Alualu); they miss Ryan Shazier in the middle of the D and corner Artie Burns and 2/3 of their front three hadn't practiced as of Thursday: missing Hargrave or Tuitt up front would be huge. But I expect everyone to be out there for the Steelers, and for them to stifle the Jags' offense even more than the Jags can stifle theirs. Pick: Steelers

New Orleans (11-5) at Minnesota (13-3): This, even more than the Eagles, is the game that could come back to haunt you if you pick all the home teams. The teams met in Minneapolis in week one, but that was a different Vikes, with Sam Bradford and Dalvin Cook on offense. It was also a different Saints' team: they got better on defense quickly, then suffered a string of injury losses which were noticeable against the Panthers, though that didn't stop Dennis Allen from dialling up the big blitz on Carolina's final play. The Saints' Ken Crawley gave away some penalties, Rafael Bush was burned at safety, and their linebackers were exposed in coverage: Manti Teo has been a decent replacement for AJ Klein, but on the outside Craig Robertson is more of a mike backer and Michael Mauti, the ex-Vike, will likely give way to a lot of nickel coverage. Which is interesting because the Vikes are largely a two-wideout offense: I would expect them to try to get Jarius Wright the ball against that soft-middle, and we might even see big-bodies Treadwell and Floyd at some point.

If this game were outside, you'd jump all over Minnesota; but last week with Carolina throttling their run game, Drew Brees looked like the Brees of old, hitting downfield passes, and recognising that Michael Thomas is that rarest of NFL talents, a true number one guy. How much extra coverage they give him will be interesting to watch, because the Saints and Brees always spread the ball as well as any team in the league, and use all their weapons. This is the best match-up of the weekend, precisely because it is the most even. Pick: Vikes

LAST WEEK 2-2 REGULAR SEASON: 173-83

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