Top storylines for the NFL Divisional Playoffs

By Vincent Frank

The NFL Wildcard Playoffs left a lot to be desired. Sure the Titans pulling off a tremendous late-game comeback against Kansas City gave us the drama we were looking for. The Saints’ near collapse against Carolina was also noteworthy.

Outside of that, there wasn’t a lot to write home about. The Los Angeles Rams proved they weren’t ready for prime time against Atlanta. Meanwhile, Blake Bortles and Tyrod Taylor stunk it up big time in Jacksonville’s 10-3 win over Buffalo.

Heading into the divisional round of the playoffs, there are a couple games that likely won’t end up being too close. The defending champion Patriots are more than two touchdown favorites over Marcus Mariota and the Titans. Can Tennessee pull off one of the greatest upsets in playoff history?

Meanwhile, the No. 1-seed Philadelphia Eagles enter their playoff slate as underdogs against the Atlanta Falcons. What does Nick Foles have to offer us? And in Minnesota, can Case Keenum prove his regular season wasn’t a fluke en route to leading the Vikings to a home win against New Orleans?

These are among the top storylines for the NFL Divisional Playoffs this upcoming weekend.

Can Blake Bortles get that signature win? 

Blake Bortles Jaguars

Bortles may have led his Jacksonville Jaguars to their first home playoff win since 1999 on Sunday, but he’s going to have to fix a whole heck of a lot to defeat Pittsburgh in the divisional round. Bortles was his normal erratic self in the wildcard round against Buffalo, continually missing open receivers on what we can objectively call easy passes. It led to him completing 12-of-23 passes for just 87 yards. That might work against a less-talented Bills team at home. It’s not going to work going up against the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh.

On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh’s defense was among the best in the game against the pass during the regular season. It yielded the fifth-fewest passing yards to go with 20 touchdowns compared to 16 picks.

Back in Week 5, Bortles completed 8-of-14 passes for less than 100 yards in a 30-9 Jacksonville win over the Steelers. He can’t rely on Ben Roethlisberger throwing five interceptions in this one. Instead, the much-maligned signal caller needs to step up in a big way for the Jaguars to upset Pittsburgh and advance to the AFC Championship Game.

New Orleans away from the Superdome

The Saints are nearly unbeatable on the fast turf inside the Superdome. Their team speed, coupled with Drew Brees’ otherworldly accuracy and Sean Payton’s offensive scheme makes it a living nightmare for opposing defenses. Once again, we witnessed this in the wildcard round with New Orleans putting up 31 points and 410 total yards in a win over the Panthers.

That whole dynamic changes to an extent in Minnesota. Sure the Vikings play indoors, but the situation is nowhere near the same. The Vikings yielded an average of 12.5 points at home during the regular season, including just 19 to these very same Saints back in Week 1.

We can’t expect the same level of production from Brees and Co. on offense. If that’s the case, a Saints defense that yielded north of 400 yards to Carolina last week will have to step up in order to send this team to the conference championship game.

Winning with Nick Foles

Eagles quarterback Nick Foles

It’s going to be a tall task for Foles to go in there against the defending conference champs and lead his Eagles to victory this coming weekend. Foles has not proven to be a starter-caliber quarterback since what now seems to be a fluky 2013 season in Philadelphia. He’s also struggled mightily for the Eagles since Carson Wentz went down with a torn ACL back in Week 14. In fact, Foles has thrown one touchdown compared to two picks since tossing four scores in his first start of the season against the hapless Giants.

But the Eagles are more than the sum of their individual parts. They didn’t put up a 13-3 regular season and earn a No. 1 seed because of one man.

If Foles can somehow manage the game and avoid turnovers, Doug Pederson’s squad stands a fighting chance as the first No. 1 seed to be underdogs in their initial playoff game in NFL history. If not, the Falcons will ride their strong effort this past weekend to an expected win over an Eagles team that simply doesn’t have the same vibe that it boasted with Wentz under center. It’s that simple.

Patriots’ drama leaking to the field

Owner Robert Kraft can deny it all he wants. Head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady can toe the company line. That’s fine. But there is definitely some drama surrounding the defending champs heading into their divisional around matchup with the Titans. Whether said drama is as intense as the ESPN report wants to suggest remains to be seen.

Here’s a trio that’s been together for nearly two decades now. It has earned five Lombardi Trophies and seven trips to the Super Bowl. If there’s any group of people that can put their egos aside and overcome perceived issues, it’s most definitely this group. Set to take on a much less-talented Titans at home in front of the lights Saturday night, any hiccups in this game could lead to more drama, whether it’s sensationalized by the media or not.

Ben Roethlisberger’s redemption story

Big Ben got his wish. By virtue of the Jaguars’ first-round playoff victory over Buffalo, the Steelers’ quarterback will have an opportunity to avenge that five-interception outing he had against Jacksonville back in Week 5. For Roethlisberger, that game acted as nothing more than anomaly. He’s thrown 22 touchdowns compared to seven interceptions in 10 games since, leading Pittsburgh to a 9-1 record in the process.

It won’t be easy. Jacksonville yielded less than 170 passing yards with 17 touchdowns and 21 interceptions during the regular season. Pro Bowl corners Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye dominated during the regular season, and continued with that performance this past weekend. They held Bills receivers to five catches for 52 yards on 12 targets in Jacksonville’s 10-3 win.

Roethlisberger will have Antonio Brown back on the field in this one. JuJu Smith-Schuster continues to play tremendous ball as a rookie. They’re much bigger threats to the Jags than what the team saw against Buffalo last week. Even then, Roethlisberger will have to avoid the mistakes that Jacksonville has forced in order for the Steelers to advance to the conference championship round.

Case Keenum’s career-defining game

If we were to have told you five months ago Keenum would be two wins away from leading his team to he Super Bowl, you would have figured we were writing from a padded room. But what Keenum has done for his Vikings this season is nothing short of extraordinary.

Keenum led Minnesota to an 11-3 record in 14 starts, completing nearly 68 percent of his passes with 22 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. He now enters the division round as one of the most accomplished quarterbacks from this past regular season. That’s an amazing turnaround for a signal caller who had thrown 24 touchdowns in 26 career games prior to 2017.

Sunday’s game against the Saints is going to be a completely different monster. Things aren’t the same in the postseason. Defenses are better equipped to handle passing games. Schemes are finer-tuned. And for its part, the Saints’ defense has proven to be tremendous under coordinator Dennis Allen this season.

Keenum has an opportunity to lay the groundwork for what could be an active free agency period for himself. With a win over Brees and the Saints, his value would skyrocket. Not only that, it would put the Vikings just two wins away from earning their first ever Super Bowl title. Imagine that.

These dangerous dirty birds

It’s how the Atlanta Falcons beat the Los Angeles Rams in the first round that should scare opposing NFC teams, the No. 1 seed Philadelphia Eagles included. Despite still struggling to an extent on offense, Atlanta’s defense came to play big time against Jared Goff, Todd Gurley and Co. It held a No. 1-scoring Rams offense to just 13 points and 5-of-14 on third-down opportunities.

For his part, Gurley recorded a grand total of 10 receiving yards on 10 targets with the underrated Deion Jones doing tremendous damage at linebacker for the Falcons. Meanwhile, Desmond Trufant continued to play elite-level football after missing the Falcons’ run to the Super Bowl last season.

Issues need to be fixed on offense. Atlanta converted on just 33 percent of its third-down opportunities against Los Angeles. The likes of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for just 106 yards on 32 attempts. But this is unlikely to be a major issue against an Eagles offense that will be led by Nick Foles in the divisional round.

Atlanta now has an opportunity to prove that its substandard regular season is a thing of the past. In doing so, it can move to within one win of earning a second consecutive NFC title. Not too shabby for a team many of us wrote off just a couple short weeks ago.

Any chance in heck for Super Mario and Co.?

Marcus Mariota might have put up a tremendous second half performance in a comeback win against Kansas City last week. It was legendary stuff. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that he entered January football as one of the worst playoff quarterbacks.

Here’s a guy that threw 13 touchdowns compared to 15 interceptions during the regular season. He averaged less than 216 yards per game and led the Titans to 17 points or fewer six times. That’s not going to get it done on the road against the defending champion Patriots Saturday night. Mariota simply can’t turn it up for 20 minutes of game action and expect it to be close once he decides to play well.

This means we’re going to need to see a version of Super Mario that hasn’t showed up since he put up four scores and nearly 300 passing yards against the Green Bay Packers back in November of 2015. It seems implausible. But Mariota did show us grit last week. He now needs to turn that into an awe-inspiring overall performance to pull one of the greatest playoff upsets in NFL history.