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Top 10 X-factors for NFL Divisional Playoffs

Eagles quarterback Nick Foles
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

After a Wild Card Weekend that could best be described as underwhelming, we’re staring down a divisional round that looks like a mixed bag.

The Saturday games — Eagles-Falcons and Titans-Patriots — look like potential duds. Eagles quarterback Nick Foles simply doesn’t seem to be equipped to play in the postseason based on what we saw from him after taking over from Carson Wentz. And the Titans go into New England as a two-touchdown underdog.

Sunday, however, features two exciting contests. Blake Bortles could easily tank the Jaguars’ chances of beating the Steelers at Heinz Field, but Jacksonville already proved they can win in Pittsburgh earlier this season. Later, Saints-Vikings looks like it could be the best matchup of the postseason on the NFC’s side of things.

After last week, however, we re-learned one football’s most important lessons: Don’t take anything for granted. Especially in the postseason. Here are 10 X-factors that will decide who moves on this weekend.

Can Nick Foles force the Falcons to respect Philly’s passing game?

Atlanta is going to dare Nick Foles to throw the ball because it doesn’t think he can. And who can blame it?

After an encouraging performance against the Giants in Week 15, Foles has been completely abysmal under center. In the season’s last two games, he completed under 50 percent of his passes for an average of 4.12 yards. He looked terrified to throw the ball more than five yards and had the accuracy of a drunk throwing darts.

The Eagles’ offense was predicated all year on Carson Wentz making plays. Philadelphia was only the 17th-ranked team in rushing DVOA despite adding Jay Ajayi midseason. Blocking Grady Jarrett in the middle is going to be an issue for any team trying to run the ball against the Falcons, but if Atlanta can load the box without fear of Foles hurting them, good luck.

An easy solution here for Philadelphia is to be aggressive early in the game. When Denver won the Super Bowl two years ago in spite of a poor offense, it forced teams to respect their passing game by having Peyton Manning come out firing. In both the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl, the Broncos put early points on the board by surprising opponents with intermediate and deep throws from Manning. That opened up defenses enough that Denver was able to run the ball adequately and put their defense in a good spot.

The Eagles can follow that playbook. Foles will have a chance to make a play early in the game, as Atlanta will be looking for the run. If he can execute, it will change the game.

The Eagles need to force Atlanta into a field position game

Even if Foles connects on a deep ball early, the fact remains: Philadelphia is not going to win this game in a shootout. The Eagles’ offense simply isn’t good enough for that option to exist against a Falcons defense which shut down Jared Goff last week.

However, Philadelphia’s defense ranks fifth in DVOA. Slowing down Atlanta — a team that has a tendency to beat itself when it comes to Steve Sarkisian’s play calling — is more than feasible. The Falcons are still going with Ben Garland at left guard, a matchup Aaron Donald feasted on last week. Things won’t get much easier for Garland against the duo of Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan at defensive tackle.

And though Julio Jones is a matchup nightmare for any secondary, the Eagles are seventh in pass defense DVOA against No. 1 wide receivers this season. The Falcons will attack Jalen Mills, but Patrick Robinson has been one of the league’s better corners all year. He’ll likely draw the assignment on Jones.

This will be an uphill battle, especially if Foles struggles, but it’s not impossible. The Eagles can win at home if they force Atlanta to play a field position game.

Tennessee must dominate the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball

The Titans are flatly outmatched from a talent perspective. Ditto for coaching. The only area where Tennessee could possibly have a leg up on New England is in the trenches.

The Titans’ offensive line ranks fourth in pressure rate, per Football Outsiders, though its run blocking numbers are notably worse. Marcus Mariota should have time in the pocket against a Patriots’ pass rush which gets pressure an abysmal 28.1 percent of the time, per Football Outsiders. For a young quarterback playing on the road, the importance of that can’t be overstated. It’s no coincidence the Titans managed to come back against Kansas City last week after Chris Jones — the Chiefs’ best interior pass rusher — went out of the game with an injury.

On the other side of the ball, the Titans are top-10 in both pressure rate and run defense DVOA, per Football Outsiders. The Patriots’ offensive line has managed fine thus far without right tackle Marcus Cannon, but that will become a issue sooner or later. Tennessee can make it one. Stopping the run seems like small potatoes when Tom Brady is under center, but the Patriots are third in rushing DVOA this season. Slowing down Dion Lewis is a feasible goal for Tennessee.

Even if it does all of that, however, this game will be an uphill climb for Tennessee. It’s hard to overcome a talent deficit on the road in the NFL playoffs and sometimes, things are just that simple.

Rob Gronkowski is a challenge too big to overcome

Having Gronkowski is unfair. It’s like the Patriots developed the atom bomb while the rest of the league was still fighting in the trenches.

Belichick has gotten to the point where he won’t bring out the Gronk Nuke unless necessary. However, no team has found an adequate deterrent yet and it’s unlikely the Titans — who rank 24th in pass defense DVOA against normal tight ends — will be the first.

If New England wins as easily as bookmakers expect, the Patriots might not even need to use Gronkowski extensively. Don’t underestimate the fear of an injury here. However, if the Pats need Gronkowski, it’s a near-impossible task for Tennessee to defend.

New England’s final drive against the Steelers is emblematic of the absurd impossibility any team faces here. Three straight catches for 26, 26, and 17 yards. All open. All easy. All with the entire stadium knowing where the ball was going. Right now, Gronkowski the biggest inevitability in sports.

Blake Bortles has to be competent

The bar is lower than you might expect for a Super Bowl winning quarterback, at least when his team’s defense is as good as Jacksonville’s.

However, there is a bar, and even if it was below the ground, Bortles wouldn’t have met it last week. Only 16 quarterbacks have ever thrown for as little yardage in a playoff game as Bortles did against Buffalo and won. The most recent of those was in 2010. Playing the Bills was a gift from God.

The Jaguars can win this game by playing defense and running the ball — they’re good enough to beat anybody that way. But Bortles needs to meet the bar of competency. He can’t misfire on multiple throws to the flat. He can’t throw multiple should-be interceptions. He can’t average 4.65 yards per attempt. These are all extremely basic things for an NFL quarterback to do.

Ironically, the only other game in which Bortles threw for under 100 yards was Jacksonville’s Week 5 win in Pittsburgh. It feels safe to say that Ben Roethlisberger won’t throw five picks on Sunday like he did in that game. The only part of that game which feels replicable is the Jaguars stopping the run.

As for Bortles, his last two games have been a regression to the guy we all expected. Jacksonville doesn’t need a hero, but they need competency.

Le’Veon Bell needs to play like its 2016

Le'Veon Bell

Despite getting an All-Pro nod for the first time since 2014, Bell’s play quietly slipped this season. He averaged nearly a full yard less per carry than in 2016, beating his overall yardage mark from last year by all of 23 yards despite 60 more carries. Though Bell sprinkled in games where he flashed the same brand of electrifying patience on inside zone and counters we’ve come to expect, he hit the 100-yard mark in just four games this year.

In the first go-round against Jacksonville, he went for all of 47 yards. The Jags are 26th in run defense DVOA — a rare weakness for a defense as good as theirs. One of few problem with having a trove of young studs — Yannick Ngakoue, Myles Jack, Dante Fowler — is that over-aggressiveness in run defense becomes a given. Bell is the type of player who usually feeds on exactly that.

There’s also a not insignificant possibility the Steelers hold the ball for 40 minutes if Bell runs well. It’s alarmingly feasible that Jacksonville spends half the game going three-and-out. If Pittsburgh can keep the Jaguars on the field to boot, this will become an easy win.

Antonio Brown vs. Jalen Ramsey

Despite Roethlisberger’s godawful Week 5 performance, Round One of this matchup ended up being a draw. Brown put up gaudy numbers in that game — 157 yards on 10 receptions — but did so on 19 targets. The Jaguars also picked three passes intended for Brown, though none were by Ramsey (he got in on the action on a Vance McDonald target).

That said, drawing conclusions in January from an October game is a dangerous game to play. The Steelers have gotten better since then, especially in terms of their passing game. Brown ended the year with an absurd 1,533 yards, which led the league even after he missed the season’s final two games. Ramsey is seventh among qualified corners in both yards per pass and success rate. It’s hard to imagine a better one-on-one matchup.

This also has bigger in-game ramifications for Jacksonville. The Jags’ offense (and, for that matter, special teams), creates an incredibly thin margin for error. They need to win nearly every matchup on defense to win a game like this — especially those involving players like Brown.

Case Keeum has to do it in the postseason

At this point, the only reason left to doubt Keenum is his history with the Rams. He’s done almost nothing this year to cast doubt on his ability to command a wining team. And yet, anybody who says they aren’t scared just little bit about Keenum is lying.

The Saints rank fifth in pass defense DVOA and they’ve gotten better as the year has gone on. Given how potent New Orleans’ offense has been this season, Keenum will need to make a throw at some point to win this game. The Vikings don’t have much of a run game to speak of — Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray are both averaging below four yards per carry. There’s also the looming specter of Teddy Bridgewater on the sideline. If Keenum begins to struggle, it will be impossible not to consider bringing Bridgewater off the bench, especially with Tua Tagovailoa’s National Championship Game performance fresh in everyone’s memory.

Keenum has been nothing but reliable all year, even against good defenses. He leads all quarterbacks in DVOA, ranks fourth in DYAR, and has thrown just seven interceptions this season. But the playoffs are a different game. And until you see it, it’s hard to trust it.

Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley vs. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs

Two of the 10 best receivers in the league against two of the 10 best corners in the league. No matchups this weekend will have a bigger impact on a game than these two.

The Vikings can’t win this game without throwing the ball. Even against a fairly weak run defense, Minnesota isn’t good enough on the ground to win in the postseason. Keenum’s supporting cast has been the biggest reason for his success all year. New Orleans might be the only defense in the league with the cornerbacks to match up with Thielen and Diggs.

Lattimore is one of the most physical corners in the league, even in his rookie season. Crawley isn’t far behind — he’s been called for 12 penalties this season, including two pass interferences against the Panthers last week. They can take Thielen and Diggs — two surgical route runners — out of their comfort zones, but that goes both ways.

If New Orleans manages to handicap Keenum by taking both out of the game, it’s hard to find a path to victory for the Vikings. If Thielen and Diggs both win their matchups, then the Vikings will suddenly be playing the 2016 Saints — a team that scores at will and bleeds points. In other words, a team that can’t compete in the playoffs.

Minnesota needs to stop the run

The Carolina Panthers committed to stopping the run against the Saints last week and it darn near worked. New Orleans was held to just 41 yards on the ground, a season-low. If not for some poor secondary play — namely letting Ted Ginn get behind the defense for an 80-yard score — and missing a 25-yard field goal early on, the Panthers would be playing this week.

The Vikings won’t be as sloppy when it comes to stopping Drew Brees. That doesn’t mean they’ll stop the passing game, but Minnesota is fourth in pass defense DVOA. Dumb mistakes aren’t going to happen. Brees, Michael Thomas and co will need to play their best games. The run game should be the Vikings’ focus.

Right now, that means finishing every tackle you start. The Saints’ offensive line is good, but not great. With Andrus Peat out after breaking his fibula against the Panthers, Minnesota will have clear matchup advantages at both guard spots, only one of which can be helped by center Max Unger at a time. Danielle Hunter — still one of the most underrated pass rushers in the league — is capable of beating anyone on the edge.

All year, the success of Kamara and Ingram has been predicated on breaking a stupefying number of tackles. The huge plays have come when the offensive line opens up a hole, but the six and seven-yard gains that slowly rip away at the very being of a defense are largely the running backs themselves.

The Vikings, however, have been one of the best teams in the league when it comes to tackling efficiency. Only 8.6 percent of their defensive plays have featured a broken tackle, the third-best mark in the league, per Football Outsiders (another tidbit to watch out for: the Saints are first in the same category). Not one player on their defensive line has had more than five broken tackles all season, per Football Outsiders.

Stopping the run isn’t akin to stopping New Orleans’ entire offense. But it would go a long way.