NFL Conference Championship Weekend Breakdown

This weekend, we will find out who is going to compete in Super Bowl 52. After a crazy divisional round with upsets and walk-offs, four teams remain in the quest for a Lombardi Trophy. For this special post on Charm City Bird Watch, we will break down the AFC Championship and the NFC Championship. Our preview for each contest includes a quick blurb and a score prediction from founder Jake McDonnell, along with contributors Nolan McGraw and Tyler Feeser. Both games take place this Sunday, Jan. 21.

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Image Credit: WBUR

AFC Championship – #3 Jacksonville Jaguars @ #1 New England Patriots – 3:05 pm – CBS

Jake: If you picked the Jacksonville Jaguars to compete in the AFC Championship game before the season began, hats off. After shocking the world by defeating the Steelers last week, the Jags look to do the same this Sunday in Foxboro. If they do, they’ll embark on what would be the franchise’s first trip to a Super Bowl.

On the other side, the Patriots look to reach the eighth Super Bowl appearance for quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick. Just like usual for the Patriots, there is some drama surrounding the team this week. According to reports, Brady jammed his throwing hand during a team practice held on Wednesday. The injury kept Brady out of practice on Thursday. That’s definitely something to monitor over the next few days.

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I pointed this out on the Ebony Bird podcast this week, and I originally heard it while listening to the Simms and Lefkoe Podcast, but over the summer the Jaguars and the Patriots held a few joint practices together before their preseason game on Aug. 10. We all know the schemer Belichick is. Something tells me that Belichick knew the talent on Jacksonville’s roster was good enough to get them into the playoffs. Belichick probably got what he wanted when the Jags scrimmaged the Patriots. It allowed Belichick to see what Jacksonville does well and what they do not to well on both sides of the football. Imagine what these joint practices, along with 18 games of Jags film to watch, will do for Belichick this week.

Pick: Patriots 27, Jaguars 20

Nolan: I had a gut feeling about Jacksonville victory last week and it came true. The Jaguars improved upon their wildcard game against the Buffalo Bills and did exactly what they were supposed to. Leonard Fournette had a great game and Blake Bortles was smart with the ball. This allowed the defense to play without any hesitation and forced the Steelers to play from behind. Even though the Jaguars defense was successful on Sunday, they still allowed Ben Roethlisberger to throw for 469 yards and five touchdowns. Unlike the Steelers, New England will not be overlooking the Jaguars and I don’t expect them to be in a situation where they are down by three scores.

This one is going to come down to a few key drives late in the game. Jacksonville contained a talented Steelers offense and forced some very timely turnovers but will they have an answer for Rob Gronkowski? On top of this, I’m not entirely convinced that Bortles can have another mistake free game. Even if he has another clean game, does he have what it takes to win if this game turns into a shootout? Jacksonville’s run has been a lot of fun to watch but I really can’t bet against the Patriots in this one.

Pick: Patriots 30, Jaguars 23

Tyler: This is the matchup that everyone outside of New England was hoping for. The Jaguars defense vs Tom Brady and Patriots offense. Is this the defense that can slow Brady down? Is this the defense that can take him down completely and knock the Patriots out of the playoffs? The short answer is no.

The Jaguars defense has been dominant this season. There is no denying that. They are vulnerable though. See the Steelers game last week, the 49ers game, and the Rams game. Don’t think for one second that Brady, McDaniels, and Belichick won’t come in knowing exactly how to exploit this Jaguars defense. I expect the Patriots running backs and Rob Gronkowski to all have big games catching the ball.

Lets not lose sight of the fact that Jacksonville can get pressure on the quarterback. They will get to Brady and we could see 🚨ANGRY BRADY🚨 come out on Sunday. The Jaguars defense is somewhat similar to the Ravens and Giants defenses that historically give Brady fits. Lets also not forget that Tom Coughlin, who seems to have the Patriots number, is now with the Jaguars.

From the Jaguars offense perspective, I think Blake Bortles will continue to make a few plays here and there. His confidence is carrying him right now and that is what the Jags need. Leonard Fournette will be getting the same treatment Derrick Henry got last week. The Patriots defense will be selling out to stop him because he is the best player on the opposing offense. That will force Bortles to make plays if the Jaguars want to win. Can he outperform the future hall of famer? We will find out.

Pick: Patriots 34, Jaguars 24

usa_today_9627739.jpgImage Credit: Behind the Steel Curtain NFC Championship – #2 Minnesota Vikings @ #1 Philadelphia Eagles – 6:40 pm – FOXJake: Like I said about the Jaguars playing in the AFC Championship, if before the season you predicted a Nick Foles/Case Keenum dual in the NFC Championship, let me know so I can buy you a beer sometime soon. I’ll admit, I was in the wrong picking the Falcons last week. Jim Schwartz had his defense playing lights out, forcing Matt Ryan into several bad decisions. They attacked Atlanta’s weaknesses and limited the reigning NFC Champions to 10 points. On the following afternoon, it was Keenum and Stefan Diggs connecting on a walk-off 61-yard touchdown that is now being deemed “The Minneapolis Miracle.” No matter if it’s Vikings fans crying tears of joy after so many heartbreaking playoff losses, or Eagles fans riding the coattails of Foles, there’s a lot of emotion going into this game.

Both teams quickly became Super Bowl favorites early in the season, and the Vikings even have a chance to become the first team in NFL history to compete in a Super Bowl at their home stadium. I believe that we will see that happen, because I’m picking the Vikings this weekend. Foles and company did just enough to get by last week against an above-average, but not great, Falcons defense. The Vikings finished the regular season with the top-ranked defense in yards allowed. Their numbers have slipped lately, but I think they’ll handle whatever the Eagles throw at them.

Just like the Falcons, the Vikings are used to playing in a dome, which scares me. However, I’m going with Minnesota in a nail-biter.

Pick: Vikings 24, Eagles 21

Nolan: I was wrong about Philadelphia’s defense last week. They controlled the game against Atlanta and even when the Falcons were threatening at the very end, Philly stood their ground and got a huge red-zone stop. However, they will have their hands full again this week as the Vikings come to town. Minnesota has prided itself on their defense this year but also showed that they can trade punches with a high-octane offensive team like the Saints. Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu gave the Eagles some trouble last week and I expect Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs to do the same.

I think it will be harder for Nick Foles and the Eagles offense to stay clean against the Vikings defense. Philadelphia fumbled the ball four times against Atlanta but only lost two of them. They overcame these turnovers last week, but the Vikings defense will not be as forgiving as Atlanta’s. While I acknowledge that the Eagles have a good defense, I am still not sold on Foles and his ability to put points on the board. He was smart with the ball last week but only led the offense to one touchdown drive. I don’t care how good the Eagles defense is, Foles has to start scoring if the Eagles are going to make the Super Bowl.

Pick: Vikings 24, Eagles 14

Tyler: One way or another, I feel like this game is being underappreciated. Everyone is underestimating and, to be honest, flat out disrespecting Philadelphia. Many people believe that last week’s game between Minnesota and New Orleans should have been the NFC Championship game. But realistically, the Saints got dominated in the first half and only led that game for about two minutes. The second half was great but the only reason people will remember the game is because of the ending. I’m not trying to trash that game, but lets give Philadelphia some credit for getting here when nobody expected them to.

I am really looking forward to this game. Many people may expect this game to be boring due to both teams boasting great defenses that could potentially take over the game. I for one am looking forward to watching a game like this. I enjoy watching games like the one in Pittsburgh last week, but something about this matchup has me drawn in.

Last week, Philadelphia showed that they love the underdog role, which they will be in again on Sunday. The stadium will be rocking and the defense will feed off the atmosphere. The top-ranked rush defense will shut down the Vikings running game and force Case Keenum to make plays himself. The Eagles secondary will have to have a great game against one of the better receiving corps that they faced all season. If the Eagles’ pass rush can get pressure on Keenum that would help out the secondary tremendously.

Minnesota’s defense, from top to bottom, is even more impressive than Philadelphia’s. I don’t expect the Eagles running game to have much success. The key for the Eagles offense is going to be Foles not turning the ball over. If he can’t do that I don’t think the Eagles will stand much of a chance. If he doesn’t turn the ball over this one will come down to wire and be very low scoring.

Pick: Eagles 13, Vikings 10

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NFL Divisional Weekend Breakdown

The Divisional round of the NFL playoffs is often referred to as the best weekend on the pro football calendar. This weekend, eight teams will try to make the Divisional round live up to it’s name with four playoff matchups. In this special post on Charm City Bird Watch, we will break down each matchup. Each game includes a 100-word blurb and a score prediction from founder Jake McDonnell, and contributors Nolan McGraw, Tyler Feeser, and Vasilios Nikolaou.

Saturday, Jan. 13

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Image Credit: Atlanta Falcons 

NFC: #6 Atlanta Falcons @ #1 Philadephia Eagles – 4:35 pm – NBC

Jake: Just a few short weeks ago, the Philadelphia Eagles were the clear-cut favorite in the NFC to reach Super Bowl 52. Without their potential MVP-caliber franchise quarterback in Carson Wentz, the Eagles are left with Nick Foles, and the #6-seeded Falcons are actually favored.

The end of Philadelphia’s regular season left a lot to be desired, whereas the Falcons clinched a playoff berth by beating the Carolina Panthers. Atlanta followed that up with an impressive Wild Card win on the road against the Rams. I originally picked the Rams to win that game, but switched to Atlanta heavily due to the battle-tested experience of Dan Quinn, Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman and Julio Jones. I am using that same narrative this week to pick Atlanta. Their experience will outplay, outthink, and outlast the experiences of Doug Pederson, Foles, and company.

Pick: Falcons 27, Eagles 16

Nolan: Despite finishing with one of the best records in the NFL and getting a first round bye, things are looking not so sunny in Philadelphia right now. The Eagles will be three-point underdogs this Saturday when they host Atlanta, mainly due to the loss of Carson Wentz. Since losing their star quarterback, the Eagles have averaged just 17.6 points per game while playing teams with a combined 18-30 record. I don’t see the Eagles defense stepping up and controlling the tempo of the game, which means 17 points will not be enough to beat Atlanta. Matt Ryan and the Falcons are heating up at the right time and should have no trouble taking the Eagles down.

Pick: Falcons 27, Eagles 16

Tyler: Like most people, I underestimated the Falcons this past week. They looked very good while taking down the NFC West Champion Rams. They don’t quite look as dominant as they did during last season’s Super Bowl run but they are hot and that is all that matters.

Now, the Falcons travel to Philadelphia and take on the #1-seeded Eagles. The Eagles are obviously without Carson Wentz, which helps the Falcons tremendously. Since Nick Foles has taken over at QB, he has only played well in one game. That’s not to say he has played terribly either. He has thrown two interceptions in roughly two and a half games compared to five touchdown passes. With the way the Falcons offense is clicking right now, Foles is going to have to be more than just a game manager for the Eagles. He is going to need to put up points. Will he be able to against the defense that just held the league’s highest scoring offense to 13 points? I don’t think he can.

Matt Ryan and the Falcons are proving that their playoff experience and confidence is carrying them right now and I look for them to continue it into conference championship weekend.

Pick: Falcons 20, Eagles 16

Vasilios: Atlanta absolutely stunned the top-scoring offense in the NFL last week in the Rams, and all of a sudden they regained their composure from last year’s playoff run. It seemed the old Falcons were back. Last week was the first road playoff victory of Matt Ryan’s career and he will look to make it two consecutive weeks against the Eagles. The Eagles finished as the #1 seed even after the devastating loss of sophomore phenom Carson Wentz. Nick Foles will be under center and the loaded RB stable will be relied on heavily. Eagles are most likely to be one and done.

Pick: Falcons 24, Eagles 10

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Image Credit: WBUR

AFC: #5 Tennessee Titans @ #1 New England Patriots -8:15 pm – CBS

Jake: Last week the Tennessee Titans shocked the world when they marched into Kansas City, scored 19 unanswered points, and won their first playoff game in 13 years. Marcus Mariota looked like the franchise quarterback that the Titans drafted him to be, throwing touchdowns to himself and leading the Titans back from an 18-point deficit.

The Titans’ playoff party will end on Saturday in New England. Despite what may or may not come out of the Patriots rumors that recently came to light, the Patriots cannot be pleased with this latest distraction. Even if the relationship between Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady is at a stand-still right now, they’ll want to prove that they’re as strong as ever. This game has blowout written all over it.

Pick: Patriots 34, Titans 13

Nolan: For the second year in a row, New England will be facing a pushover team in the divisional round. Last year the Patriots defeated a very weak Houston Texans team and now they look for their seventh straight trip to the AFC championship as the Titans come to town. I doubted Marcus Mariota and the Titans offense coming into the playoffs but they really showed a lot of poise in their comeback against Kansas City. If Tennessee is going to pick up another upset, they have to be perfect. Anything is possible, but you would be a fool to bet against New England here.

Pick: Patriots 30, Titans 17 

Tyler: This game is not appealing. It’s football so it’s better than nothing but for a divisional round matchup it leaves a lot to be desired. I know I trashed the Titans last week and said that they weren’t a traditional playoff team and that they were helped out by a weak AFC conference. That is still all true. If anything, last week’s game against the Chiefs speaks volumes about how weak the AFC is. This week they will are in for a much bigger test.

Don’t let week one convince you that Kansas City is a better team than New England. They were back then, but now New England would embarrass Kansas City. Bill Belichick will always take away the opposing team’s best option on offense, which this week is clearly Derrick Henry. Look for Henry to be bottled up most of the afternoon. The Patriots are going to force Marcus Mariota to beat them and I don’t think he can do that. Even if he can sustain a few drives here and there, I see no way that he can keep pace with Tom Brady and the Patriots offense on the other side.

Pick: Patriots 34 Titans 20

Vasilios: Tennessee had an impressive win last week against the Chiefs that almost no one saw coming. I still hold true to my take that the Titans are the weakest team talent-wise in the playoffs. Derrick Henry and Marcus Mariota made it look easy in last week’s second half, but Tom Brady and the Patriots will surely crush the Titans. The Patriots are the most vulnerable they’ve been in years. The Titans will go step for step in the first quarter, but after that, it’s just a formality.

Pick: Patriots 27, Titans 17

Sunday, Jan. 14

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Image Credit: Steel City Blitz

AFC: #3 Jacksonville Jaguars @ #2 Pittsburgh Steelers – 1:05 pm – CBS

Jake: In October, the Jaguars picked off Ben Roethlisberger five times and handed the Steelers a 30-9 loss. What people forget about that game is how well the Steelers defense played against Jacksonville’s offense. Two of Jacksonville’s four touchdowns were scored on defense, and Leonard Fournette broke free for a 90-yard score in garbage time. If we took away that 90-yared run, Fournette was limited to 91 yards on 27 carries (3.37 yards-per-carry). Blake Bortles threw for just 95 yards on eight completions with an interception.

Jacksonville’s defense won that game for the Jags, plain and simple. Is their defense capable of doing that again? Sure, but that won’t happen in Pittsburgh in January. Yes, Antonio Brown will not be 100% coming back from that calf injury, but against Jalen Ramsey, how effective would he be anyway? Look for a Steelers win off a big day from Le’Veon Bell, as well as some help from JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant.

Pick: Steelers 20, Jaguars 13

Nolan: The Jaguars escaped their Wild Card game against Buffalo with a 10-3 win thanks to a stout performance by their defense. Many are already counting them out against Pittsburgh but that is simply foolish. I am fully aware that Blake Bortles only collected 87 yards on Sunday but when the Jaguars laid the smackdown on the Steelers earlier this year, Bortles had just 95 yards and no touchdowns. An effective defense and heavy rushing attack was good enough to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh 30-9. Bortles is just a few adjustments away from making this team complete in my opinion. I expect the Jags to walk into Pittsburgh on Sunday and play like they have nothing to lose.

Pick: Jaguars 27, Steelers 24

Tyler: Up until Sunday I had this game as a toss up. I was really considering picking the Jaguars. I thought they had the team to potentially knock off the Steelers and the Patriots. After watching the sad excuse for an offense that the Jaguars rolled out on Sunday I don’t think they have what it takes. Their defense is still championship-caliber and they will give the Steelers problems on Sunday.

One thing that the Steelers can learn from the Bills is that running the ball is the way to beat Jacksonville. The Bills were effective with a banged up LeSean McCoy on Sunday. The Steelers should be more effective with a fully healthy and rested Le’Veon Bell. When they do need to pass, Ben Roethlisberger is a much better option than Tyrod Taylor as well. I expect the Steelers defense to sell out, to stopping Leonard Fournette just like the Bills did. This will force Blake Bortles to beat them. I expect more than 13 points to be scored this week but I still expect a relatively low-scoring, defensive game.

Pick: Steelers 23 Jaguars 13

Vasilios: The Jaguars defense was very impressive last week as they held the Bills to a measly three points. Blake Bortles on the other hand, did all of his damage with his legs, as he compiled 88 rushing yards and only 87 passing yards. The Jaguars offense looked inept and the defense should and will be their saving grace in this playoff run. They beat the Steelers earlier this season and Big Ben threw 5 interceptions. I think they replicate that success, especially without Antonio Brown at full strength for Pittsburgh.

Pick: Jaguars 20, Steelers 17

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Image Credit: Minnesota Vikings 

NFC: #4 New Orleans Saints @ #2 Minnesota Vikings – 4:40 pm – FOX

Jake: From a football standpoint, this is clearly the best game on this weekend’s schedule. There are so many exciting young players on both teams that have made their units among the best in football.

Seeing the top-ranked Saints offense battle the #1-rated Vikings defense is going to be a treat. For New Orleans, running backs Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara are the first running back duo in history to record 1,500 yards from scrimmage in a season. Second-year receiver Michael Thomas ranks sixth in the NFL in receiving yards (1,245). For Minnesota, linebacker Anthony Barr, defensive end Everson Griffen, and cornerback Xavier Rhodes are some of the best in the business and were all named to the Pro Bowl.

Going back to the experience factor, it will be interesting to see how longtime journeyman quarterback Case Keenum fairs in his first career playoff start. Keenum has several receiving weapons in Stefon Diggs, Kyle Rudolph, and Adam Thielen that will go up against the likes of stud rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

I know many people, including myself, want to see the Vikings be the first team in NFL history to play in a Super Bowl in their home stadium, but I have to go Saints here. Drew Brees plays particularly well indoors, and I think that him and Sean Payton will find a way to win. I see Keenum making a late-game mistake to seal it for New Orleans.

Pick: Saints 24, Vikings 21

Nolan: I had high hopes for the Vikings coming into the playoffs but the Saints are probably the last team they want to face in their first divisional game since 2009. These two teams opened up the season against each other and Minnesota came out on top 29-19. This rematch should be just as exciting since the Saints have a highly explosive offense and the Vikings have one of the best defenses in the league. If there is one team that can keep Drew Brees and New Orleans in check, it’s probably the Vikings. None the less, this game is hard to predict but I am rolling with Minnesota and their 7-1 home record.

Pick: Vikings 24, Saints 23

Tyler: On Sunday Minnesota will try to become the first Super Bowl-hosting team to make it to a conference championship game. The Saints looked good last week even with the inability to run the ball. Like I stated last week, Drew Brees still has it. If defenses key on the run game, Brees will just beat them through the air. This week will be a little different as Minnesota boasts a better defense than Carolina does and the Saints will be on the Road.

These two teams met all the way back in week one in Minnesota with the Vikings winning 29-19. They are much different than they were roughly 19 weeks ago. I think this game could be surprisingly high scoring even with the two stout defenses. The key to this game is going to be Case Keenum. If he can continue to play the way he has and not turn the ball over, the Vikings will be in good shape. If Keenum doesn’t protect the ball it’s game over and season over for the Vikings.

Pick: Saints 28 Vikings 24

Vasilios: These teams faced each other in week 1 and things couldn’t have looked more different back then. The Saints had a narrow victory against the Panthers last week in which the offense exploded. Defensively, rookie sensation Marshon Lattimore had his best game as a pro. This will be a tougher test. Vikings are at home, they have the best defense in the NFC this year and Case Keenum is playing lights-out football. Everyone is on the edge of their seat to wait and see if Keenum will revert back to the quarterback that bounced around to several different teams early in his career. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs will be huge factors in this game. They are the best receiving tandem Atlanta will face in the playoffs.

Pick: Vikings 28, Saints 21

NFL Wild Card Weekend Breakdown

The NFL playoffs officially begin this weekend with the Wild Card Round. Four games make up Wild Card Weekend. In this special post on Charm City Bird Watch, we will break down each matchup. Each game includes a 100-word blurb and a score prediction from founder Jake McDonnell, and contributors Nolan McGraw, Tyler Feeser, and Vasilios Nikolaou.

Saturday, Jan. 6

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs

Image Credit: KC Kingdom 

AFC: #5 Tennessee Titans (9-7) @ #4 Kansas City Chiefs (10-6) – 4:35 pm – ESPN/ABC

Jake: The AFC Wild Card round is really underwhelming. All four teams in the AFC playing this weekend don’t pose any legitimate threats against the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

However, its nice to see some new teams in the AFC Wild Card slots. The Titans limped their way into the playoffs and have been up-and-down all season. The Chiefs started off as one of the hottest teams in the NFL, but then proceeded to lose six of their next seven games. They did end the season 4-0, and I believe that trend will continue on Saturday. Neither team has a game-changing unit, but I believe the playoff experience of Alex Smith and Andy Reid outmatches the inexperience of Marcus Mariota and the Titans.

This week, the Jon Gruden Raiders rumors added another element to this game. Despite publicly stating that he will likely become the next head coach of the Raiders, Gruden will call this game. Some have criticized Gruden for holding the Raiders up, but Gruden had prior commitments to calling this game and he wants to honor them. Enjoy what will probably be Gruden’s last game in the booth for a long time.

Pick: Chiefs 24, Titans 20

Nolan: Andy Reid’s Chiefs got off to an extremely hot start by winning five games in a row while averaging over 32 points a game. They followed this up with an abysmal stretch before pulling themselves together for a strong finish and a division title. Because their season was such a rollercoaster, it’s difficult to get a read on the Chiefs but they are certainly favored over the visiting Titans. Tennessee is just not a threatening team. They dropped three of their last four but still got into the playoff mix with a win this past Sunday. The Chiefs have the coaching and enough playoff experience to pick up a Wild Card win over a Tennessee team that has been very shaky on the road.

Pick: Chiefs 27, Titans 19

Tyler: When Tennessee travels to Kansas City they will be making their first playoff appearance since 2008 and will look for their first playoff win since 2003. Kansas City, on the other hand, has been in the playoffs the past two seasons and three of the last four. Kansas City will come in hot, winners of their last four games. Tennessee comes in winning their last game of the season, but they dropped the previous three games. The Titans don’t look like a traditional playoff team and quite frankly were aided by a weak AFC. I don’t expect this to be a lopsided game but the Titans will be overmatched. The loss of Eric Berry will lead to a big game for Delanie Walker but a subpar offensive line and too many offensive weapons for Kansas City will lead to the demise of Tennessee.

Pick: Chiefs 24, Titans 13

Vasilios : The Tenessee Titans limp into the AFC playoffs being the weakest team to make it in. If the Titans had lost the final game of the season against the Jacksonville Jaguars (who are also in the playoffs), head coach Mike Mularkey and his patented “Exotic Smashmouth” offense would’ve been out the door without much of a thought.

The Kansas City Chiefs have something to prove, showing that they are one of the more tenacious teams in the league with a slate of impressive wins this season to show for it. Head Coach  Andy Reid may have found his QB of the future in rookie Patrick Mahomes who is just waiting for seasoned veteran Alex Smith to make a mistake.

Pick: Chiefs 28, Titans 10

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Image Credit: SITNews

NFC: #6 Atlanta Falcons (10-6) @ #3 Los Angeles Rams (11-5) – 8:15 pm – NBC

Jake: If you listened to the latest episode of the Ebony Bird Podcast this week, you’ll know that I originally picked the Rams to win this game. I’m going to change that pick and go with Atlanta. I did not realize that the Rams went 4-4 at home this season. That’s concerning. The Falcons also have one of the fastest defenses in the NFL that I believe can contain Jared Goff. Todd Gurley may take off for 100+ yards in this game, but the Falcons should be able to limit Goff.

Matt Ryan and the Flacons have not forgotten their 28-3 blown lead against the Patriots in Super Bowl 51. They are still angry about it. Their road to the Super Bowl will have to take place all on the road, but the Falcons are much more battle-tested than the Rams. In my book, the experience of Ryan, Devonta Freeman, and Julio Jones will outmatch whatever Sean McCoy and the Rams draw up.

Pick: Falcons 34, Rams 30

Nolan: At just 23 years of age, Jared Goff and Todd Gurley have helped the Rams win their first division title since 2003. They are one of the more inexperienced teams in this year’s playoff pool but their resume is still strong. The Rams averaged a league high 29.9 points a game this season but do they have the poise to hold off a Falcons team with a chip on their shoulder? Atlanta managed to claw their way into the postseason and we all know they want to do nothing but avenge their loss in last year’s Super Bowl. I can see this one being a shootout but I am going with the Falcons. They know what is at stake here and their experience can give them an edge over a younger Rams team.

Pick: Falcons 35, Rams 31

Tyler: The defending NFC champs snuck their way into the playoffs with a week 17 win and look to return to the Super Bowl. If they do they would be the first NFC team to repeat since the 2013-2014 Seahawks. It wont be an easy feat though. The NFC is very tough this year and is anyone’s conference to win. The Falcons start their playoff run in Los Angeles this week against the Rams. The Rams will be playing their first home playoff game in L.A. since 1986. The key for Atlanta is going to be stopping Todd Gurley and Jared Goff. The Falcons defense will need to play like it did during their 2016 Super Bowl run in order to beat the Rams’ high-powered offense. The Rams have too many offensive weapons and have the defense to shut down Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Devonta Freeman. I do think that the Falcons will be able to keep pace for a while but the Rams will pull out a win in the end.

Pick: Rams 31, Falcons 23

Vasilios: Atlanta is one of the very few teams to make it back to the playoffs after partaking in the Super Bowl last season but they have a glaring Kyle Shanahan-shaped hole in their organization. Quarterback Matt Ryan has regressed slightly this season, and once again Julio Jones turns into Houdini in big spots. The Super Bowl hangover is still lingering for this squad.

What can I possibly say about the LA Rams that hasn’t been said already? Sean McVay looks like the next great NFL head coach after tapping into the seemingly bottomless talent of quarterback Jared Goff and serious MVP candidate – running back Todd Gurley. The addition of Wade Philips as a defensive coordiantor will go down as one of the best hires in recent history. Rams to the Super Bowl, calling it now.

Pick: Rams 35, Falcons 21

Sunday, Jan. 7

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Image Credit: Bleacher Report 

AFC: #6 Buffalo Bills (9-7) @ #3 Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) – 1:05 pm – CBS

Jake: I’m changing another pick.

I would like to start by saying that I think this game will be a lot closer than most people think. I know this is the first playoff experience for the Jaguars in 10 years, but the Bills’ playoff drought was much longer. They also have one of the most passionate fanbases in the NFL, where the Jaguars have one of the least passionate fanbases. This could turn into a favorable crowd for the Bills before the game even begins.

I know that the Bills’ offense does not match up well against the Jaguars defense, but let’s not forget how bad Blake Bortles looked the past two weeks against Tennessee and San Francisco. The Bills have the 29th-ranked run defense in the NFL this season. All the Jaguars need to do is feed Leonard Fournette the ball and they will win the game. Keep the ball out of Bortles’ hands. The loss of LeSean McCoy is a killer for the Bills. He practiced on Thursday, but a sprained ankle for a running back is not promising. I expect Shady to be very limited. That will put more pressure on Tyrod Taylor and Buffalo’s limited receiving core, and the Bills’ playoff resurgence will collapse quickly.

Pick: Jaguars 24, Bills 13

Nolan: If you’re someone who is getting tired of same NFL playoff scenarios every year, this is the matchup for you. Both The Bills and Jaguars managed to make the playoffs this year, breaking two of the longest active playoff droughts. Jacksonville has spent the last decade outside the postseason while Buffalo has waited 17 years. The Jaguars may have backed into the postseason and they lack playoff experience, but they have the pieces to be a legitimate threat in the coming weeks. Leonard Fournette helped the Jags average a league-high 141 rushing yards per game and the defense was arguably the best in the AFC.

Pick: Jaguars 23, Bills 17

Tyler: The Bills and the Jaguars will both break long playoff droughts when they meet this weekend in Jacksonville. Buffalo will make its first playoff appearance since 1999 (haven’t won a playoff game since 1995). Jacksonville will be making its first playoff appearance since 2007, the year of their last playoff win. The Bills, like the Titans, were aided by a weak AFC. They don’t look like a playoff team and on paper this matchup looks like a complete mismatch. Buffalo has the league’s fourth worst rush defense while Jacksonville leads the league in offensive rushing yards per game. I fully expect the Jags to run the ball all afternoon. The Jaguars coaching staff knows that they can’t win a Super Bowl by relying on Blake Bortles. They have to establish the running game early and rely on their stout defense. That will start this weekend. From Buffalo’s perspective it will come down to LeSean McCoy’s health. If he is able to play I think they can make a few plays but still not enough to squeak out a win. If McCoy can’t go, this could get ugly.

Pick: Jaguars 31, Bills 10

Vasilios: Man, I have had a few Bills fans rub in my face that they took the Ravens spot in the playoffs. But despite all of that, I like Tyrod Taylor and think the Bills are a solid team. But not solid enough to take on the likes of Jacksonville. Especially not when running back LeSean McCoy, who suffered a high ankle sprain last week, isn’t at 100%. #BillsMafia’s excitement will be very short lived.

The Jags had a tough ending to the season, losing to the San Francisco Garoppolos (49ers) in week 16 and the Titans in week 17. This will be the week for their defense to reassert their dominance and put Jacksonville back on the map for the first time since Mark Brunell threw passes to Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith.

Pick: Jaguars 17, Bills 0

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Image Credit: Where Y’at Magazine 

 

NFC: #5 Carolina Panthers (11-5) @ #4 New Orleans Saints (11-5) – 4:40 pm – FOX

Jake: Both of the NFC games are much more compelling than the AFC Slate. The Panthers, despite losing to the Saints twice this season, finished with the same record as the Saints and had a chance (albeit a small one) to clinch a bye last week. Even though that did not happen, they are back in the playoffs after missing them last season. New Orleans is back after a three-year playoff drought.

Both defenses present nothing special, so I think this game comes down to who has the better weapons. To me, that’s easily the Saints. I love Cam Newton, but Christian McCaffery is not Alvin Kamara or Mark Ingram, and Greg Olsen is not Michael Thomas. At this stage of their careers, Newton may be a better quarterback than Drew Brees, but Brees has more to work with, and that will be the reason why the Saints win this game and beat the Panthers for the third time this season.

Pick: Saints 31, Panthers 27

Nolan: Wild Card weekend will conclude with a high-profile matchup between two NFC South teams. Both of these teams entered the postseason with 11-5 records, but New Orleans took the division title after taking down Carolina in both meetings this season. It’s extremely difficult to defeat a team three times in one season but the Saints are certainly capable of this with their high octane offense. Drew Brees and company have put up 34 and 31 points against the Panthers this year and I think they can reach this again with home field advantage on Sunday.

Pick: Saints 31, Panthers 27

Tyler: The Saints are back in the post season for the first time since 2013 and have a legitimate shot at representing the NFC in the Super Bowl. New Orleans has the best quarterback of all the NFC QBs, they have one of the best running games in the NFC, and they have once of the top three defenses in the NFC. Teams will need to choose if they want to get beat by Drew Brees or by Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. Minnesota may be the only team that can defend both. But when we talk about this week’s matchup I do expect it to be competitive…for the first half. This is the third meeting between these division rivals this season, with the Saints winning both of the previous matchups. The Super Dome will be loud and the Saints defense will feed off of the atmosphere. Cam Newton will make a few mistakes and I expect him to unravel in the second half. The Panthers just don’t have the defense to defend the balanced Saints offense.

Pick: Saints 34, Panthers 17

Vasilios: Carolina is one of those teams that flew under the radar for most of the season and quietly compiled an 11-5 record despite trading away their #1 receiver in Kelvin Benjamin at midseason. Cam Newton has yet to regain his dominant 2015 form, but the play of rookie running back Christian McCaffrey has been admirable. Also, having a defense with a backbone always helps.

Speaking of defenses with backbones, the Saints have finally found theirs thanks to rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore. The Saints are one of the feel-good stories of the season, with quarterback Drew Brees approaching the twilight of his career, the pieces around him are stepping up. The Saints have a plethora of weapons at Brees’s disposal,  like wide receiver Michael Thomas, and running backs
Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. Brees deserves to go out with another ring for all that he’s done for this Saints team that was irrelevant before his arrival.

Pick: Saints 27, Panthers 24