Ah, the week where eight becomes four – or, as everyone’s been saying since about week six of the regular season – the week New England and Pittsburgh is confirmed for the AFC Championship game.
Now that we’re here though, is quite as clear cut?
If you’re a fervent reader of these columns (you bloody well should be), you’d have walked away with a tidy 10/1 winner last week.
While it might be hard to get that level again, the formline currently ends with a 1 – and that’s a good enough reason for optimism. Let’s get cracking…
Atlanta Falcons v Philadelphia Eagles: Atlanta to win – 4/6
This one’s going to be close. When you take into account that Eagles fans will pack Lincoln Financial Field, raise the noise levels to far beyond what they were in LA and that Eagles offensive line could protect poor little Nick Foles for hours at a time, Philadelphia will have chances to win this game.
The point is – they won’t be able to execute. Steve Sarkisian came under fire prior to the Rams game last week and people believed he wouldn’t be able to utilise the tools effectively.
Instead of the boring cliché that consists of ‘getting the ball to Julio’, they were measured and took time off the clock when they needed to. They don’t face Aaron Donald this week. They do face Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox, though.
The key to this will be the balance between play-action and draw plays. The Philly secondary hasn’t got the star power that the Rams’ had. Patrick Robinson might well be their best corner and he’s usually limited to the slot.
There are plays to be made deep here – especially if that running back duo can create uncertainty in the front seven. Expect the Falcons to get another win on their road to redemption – thanks to some misdirection, clever designs and a gorgeously poised balance in play fakes.
Tennessee Titans v New England Patriots: New England (-13.5) points – Evens
Easy. Ha! Next.
Jacksonville Jaguars v Pittsburgh Steelers: Over 41.5pts – 20/21
The outcome of this total points line depended on the health of Jacksonville tight end Marcedes Lewis. Not only does his first name look like a knock-off luxury car, he’s the clear mismatch on this Jacksonville offence. He’s good to go.
The identity long associated with Pittsburgh on defence was one of ruthlessness and speed to the ball carrier. Those days are fading and the final nail in that coffin landed when James Harrison left for New England.
If Blake Bortles has to throw the ball into complex zone coverage looks, he will fail miserably. Do Pittsburgh do this?
Yes, but then Jacksonville will use Leonard Fournette to run away from Cameron Heyward. They have the speed to reach block Watt and Dupree. His reads should be that simple.
When they do eventually go man-to-man, there’s no Ryan Shazier to catch up with Lewis. They’ll get to 17 points – enough to see land the over.
New Orleans Saints v Minnesota Vikings: New Orleans (+5.0) – 10/11
How do New Orleans beat teams? The answer, is that they beat them in many different ways – depending on the opponent. For this reason, they’re a hard evaluation.
The Vikings might well be gifted with the best defence in the NFL. Of course, that stands up a point – there’s no more trying to force identities on teams in the postseason – it’s all about matchups.
Much like last week’s opponents Carolina, the Vikings can boast a stout front four, but also – the most athletic linebacking corps in football. Kendricks and Barr are agile enough in zones and in man coverage to take away underneath routes.
Barr is also clever enough to keep eyes on snaps where Alvin Kamara features. His say might be limited again. In terms of Thielen and Diggs – they’ll have their hands full on the outside with Rhodes and Waynes – let alone when Harrison Smith comes sniffing around. They’ll have to run the ball and they’ll have to win. With Andrus Peat out, they’re stretched.
None of the indicators suggest that New Orleans get within five points, but Brees is the master at diagnosing weak spots in coverages. While Case Keenum has to get Kyle Rudolph involved, the pace of the game might well be slow.
New Orleans likely won’t need too many points to get within five – and I’m happy to bet blindly on the wily veteran to get them to within touching distance.
* All odds correct at time of posting.