Hold Onto Your Bortles: NFL Divisional Round Preview

Quibbl Sports takes a look at the playoff weekend’s sure things, long shots, and who-knows-whats.

By Gavin Byrnes

Atlanta (12-5) at Philadelphia (13-3)


Meet the Quarterbacks
Second-year quarterback Carson Wentz led the Eagles to their best start in years, but when the hard hits came, there his leg Wentz. His replacement, Nick Foles, has had such an up and down career they should call him the Follercoaster (please note that however much you hate this joke, that’s how much I love it). He was a sensation in 2013, throwing 27 touchdowns and 2 interceptions for Chip Kelly’s gung ho offense; in 2015, he was a punchline, throwing for a very not nice 69.0 passer rating in St. Louis and losing his starting spot to Case Keenum (more on him later). In three games as the starter since Wentz’s injury, Foles has torched the Giants (easy enough), been mediocre against the Raiders (erm…), and given way to Nate Sudfeld in a meaningless, frigid game against the Cowboys (whatever).

Atlanta’s quarterback is 2016 MVP candidate M28tt R3an, whose play has dropped off a bit from last year but was still strong enough to finish 7th in passing DVOA and 6th in QBR. It had been something of a concern that Ryan only threw 5 touchdowns in his last 6 regular season games, but he appeared very smooth and confident leading the Falcons to a Wild Card round victory over the favored but less playoff-experienced Rams.

When Atlanta Has the Ball

Last year, Atlanta’s 28ffense was the b3st in the league according to Football Outsiders; they’ve fallen to ninth this year, but still can call on the incredible athleticism of Julio Jones and a competent (when healthy) backfield timeshare of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Philadelphia’s defense ranked 5th in the league in DVOA (7th against the pass, 3rd against the run), 4th in takeaways, and 1st in rush attempts against (thanks in part to their offense spotting them big leads).

When Philadelphia Has the Ball

Over the course of the season, Atlanta’s defense was mediocre and Philadelphia’s offense was excellent, but much and more can change in a moon’s turn. The Eagles offense is noticeably less ambitious without Wentz under center, and the Falcons tallied three sacks and forced two fumbles in the Wild Card game against the Rams. These two teams have been headed in opposite directions, and nowhere is that clearer than when Philly is on offense.

Something Weird That Might Happen

Against Los Angeles, only 1 of Matt Ryan’s 30 pass attempts was intended for a wide receiver other than Julio Jones or Mohamed Sanu. Philadelphia’s pass defense ranked in the top 10 in DVOA this season against #1 WRs, #2 WRs, and RBs, but was below average against tight ends and other wide receivers. It might be a good idea for Atlanta to take advantage of the (justified) attention on Jones and try to get other players involved, like small but Swift Taylor Gabriel on deep balls or Mott The Austin Hooper over the middle.

My Gut Feeling

I know, the Falcons are the team that 28ed away a historic l3ad in the Super Bowl last season. But I can already hear Eagles fans bemoaning that they earned the top seed in the NFC only to see it all go to waste with an injury to their franchise quarterback. When in doubt, trust Eagles fans to know when their season is ruined (and they know). I’m picking the Falcons.

Tennessee (10-7) at New England (13-3)

Meet the Quarterbacks

Marcus Mariota is, of course, the best and most famous quarterback to come out of Hawaii… at least until this past Monday, when Tua Tagovailoa walked off the bench and into the history books with an astonishing second-half performance in the college national championship that almost made a person want to root for Alabama. But that has nothing to do with Mariota, for whom a combination of injuries, poor teammates, and unimaginative coaching has led to an inconsistent pro career. That said, while this season in many ways has been a step back from what appeared to be a breakout 2016, he has been a roughly league-average passer and one of the three to five most effective running quarterbacks in the NFL.

If you don’t know who Tom Brady is, how good he is, and that you should be rooting against him, you may want to do some research before continuing with this preview.

When Tennessee Has the Ball

Early on this year, the Patriots defense leaked like a porous canoe rowed by George Papadopoulos. Happily for them and unhappily for people in service to the common good, their defense has made like a tree getting subpoenaed and turned over a new leaf; though they still rank 31st in DVOA, Football Outsiders’ weighted measurement that emphasizes recent performance has them all the way up in 22nd.

The good news for the Titans is that their strength running the ball — both with running backs and Mariota — matches up well against the Patriots’ defensive weaknesses. Derrick Henry, starting in place of and more effective than the injured DeMarco Murray, tips the scales (note: I love the expression “tips the scales” and really ought to use it more in everyday life) at 247 pounds on his 6’3” frame. Pro-Football-Reference even suggests that his nickname is “Tractorcito,” though I feel that if his nickname were really something that bizarrely awesome I’d have heard it by now. The bad news for the Titans is that it is very hard to run the ball consistently when you are losing the game, and, well…

When New England Has the Ball

I wouldn’t be shocked if New England put together multiple drives lasting half a quarter, or simply blew the doors off the Titans at every opportunity. Not only does Tennessee rank 24th in the NFL in DVOA against the pass — and particularly poorly against tight ends and running backs — but their remarkable strength against deep balls (3rd in DVOA on passes travelling over 15 yards) is rather overshadowed by their placement of Dead Stinking Last in the NFL against short passes. That’s a recipe for the legendary Brady-Gronkowski connection to methodically slice its way through the defense, with plenty of dump-offs to Dion Lewis or other such patient Belichickian chumpery mixed in for variety. As long as Gronk knows that postseason receptions don’t count toward season totals, he can rack up double digit catches without endangering his Very On Gronk Brand 2017 total of 69.

Something Weird That Might Happen

Derrick Henry (who rushed for 156 yards on 23 carries in last week’s win over Kansas City) sets the tone early and keeps New England’s defense on the field for long stretches, hurting Brady’s chances of getting into a rhythm and keeping the game close throughout.

My Gut Feeling

Patriots backup quarterback Brian Hoyer gets on the field. And not because Tom Brady is hurt.

Jacksonville (11-6) at Pittsburgh (13-3)

Meet the Quarterbacks

Large adult and bad person Benjamin Todd Roethlisberger gave fans pause and foes hope when he turned in a performance against this same Jacksonville team earlier this season that was positively Bortlesesque. Petermanian. Dare I say Orlovskish? He threw five interceptions, is what I’m trying to say, and the Jagulars beat the Steelers 30 to 9, and there was much rejoicing. But wouldn’t you know it, the big oaf dusted himself off and turned in a virtuoso performance the rest of the season, with Pittsburgh’s only loss after the Jacksonville shellacking coming in a three-point defeat against New England in Week 16 [Yinzer Editor’s Note: ONLY CUZZA ‘OSE JAGAWFF REFS]. Big Ben has playoff pedigree, a strong arm, and lots of weapons. He’s been on the short list of quarterbacks who can tip the scales (am I overdoing it?) in a big game for more than a decade, and that is unlikely to change any time soon.

Last week in this space I wrote about how Blake Bortles, despite having a name synonymous with bad quarterbacking, had been tentatively mediocre this season. Then he went 12 of 23, passing for 87 yards with multiple badly missed throws. So what do you know, he’s still bad. But! Blake the Snake ran for 88 yards against Buffalo, coming up with crucial first down yardage on scrambles seemingly all day. Bortles almost certainly isn’t good enough to win this game for the Jags, but he’s capable of not losing it if the defense wins it for him.

When Jacksonville Has the Ball

Pittsburgh will stack the box and make Bortles beat them deep. Their run defense was only mediocre in the regular season, but 8 men is greater than 4 nette. Leonard of the aforementioned Fournette is a talented running back who found the end zone 9 times this season, but has averaged more than 4 yards a carry in a game only once since getting injured in week 6. That said, he did run for 181 yards and 2 touchdowns against the Steelers.

If Pittsburgh manages to bottle up Fournette and Bortles is forced to take to the skies, he should try to look deep rather than leaning on short throws to his tight ends. Pittsburgh’s defense was the best in the league at defending opposing tight ends, but is vulnerable to long passes… if Blake can make them. What I’m saying is that Pittsburgh’s defense is probably not vulnerable to long passes.

When Pittsburgh Has the Ball

It is an immutable law of sports that whenever three players on the same team have a name beginning with B, they must be called the “Killer B’s.” Pittsburgh’s trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and LeVeon Bell are certainly deserving of the sobriquet, though; we’ve already discussed Ben, and Brown and Bell led the league in receiving and rushing yards respectively (despite Brown missing the last two games of the regular season with a torn calf muscle). They’re extraordinary athletes with great vision who can bust open big plays at any time, and they are not even Pittsburgh’s only weapons! The Steelers also have disappointing but talented speedster Martavis Bryant and bicycle-adventuring bundle of joy JuJu Smith-Schuster.

On the other hand, there’s the Jaguars defense. You’d be forgiven for not wanting to watch very much of their stumblefest with Buffalo last weekend, the lowest-scoring game in Wild Card weekend history (and tied for 3rd in the playoffs overall). But you should know that Jalen Ramsey, Calais Campbell, and the rest of this mean green (uh, teal?) defensive machine ranked #1 in defensive DVOA for the season as well as in the top two in many other categories (points allowed, takeaways, percentage of opponent drives ending in a score, crushing their enemies and seeing them driven before them, et cetera). Jacksonville has been very difficult to throw on all year; in no game has this been more apparent than their blowout victory over these same Steelers. But they are vulnerable to the run, only 26th in DVOA.

Something Weird That Might Happen

A quiet game from Antonio Brown is a rare occurrence, but a situation in which he is recovering from an injury AND going up against the best pass defense in the league could lead to a game plan that relegates him to a lesser role while Pittsburgh rides LeVeon Bell.

My Gut Feeling

I have two gut feelings here, which shouldn’t be allowed, but this is my article and you can’t stop me from saying both of them. The first is that it means something that Jacksonville so thoroughly swallowed up Pittsburgh’s offense last time they played. The second is that Blake Bortles on the road against a 13-3 team in the playoffs is a recipe for complete disaster. I tried to flip a coin to decide, and then George Washington looked up at me from the quarter and yelled that I’m an idiot and that Blake Bortles is going to overthrow open receivers all day. I can’t go against the Father of our Country, so Pittsburgh’s the pick.

New Orleans (12-5) at Minnesota (13-3)

Picture2

Meet the Quarterbacks

Drew Brees has completed a higher percentage of his passes than any other quarterback in the history of football. (Don’t all jump up and shout out who’s in second place at once.) Brees isn’t the be-all and end-all of the Saints offense like he once was, now that he is 38 and the bi-Kameral running back legislature of Alvin and Mark Ingram (new quibbl: which pun is worse, that one or “Ingram and Kamara go to White Castle”?) have taken over a substantial load of the offense — but if anything, reduced expectations and reliable weapons have helped him become even more efficient, as his 72.0% completion percentage ranks first all-time. His consistency and reliability are astonishing.

Remember back in the Philadelphia section when Nick Foles was once benched for Case Keenum? Well, here’s Case Keenum and… he… might be good? Going into this season, Case Keenum was 29 years old and expecting to back up Sam Bradford while Teddy Bridgewater (ostensibly the REAL Minnesota quarterback of the future) recovered from a brutal injury. One Week 2 Bradford injury and a baffling season later, Keenum ranked first in DVOA per play among quarterbacks in both passing and rushing (though he ran only 22 times and also threw fewer passes than most of his competition). A player expected only to be the proverbial “game manager” now has a 9-game touchdown pass streak, a completion percentage above two thirds, and an entire fanbase waiting for the other shoe to drop. Let’s just say that Viking fans are used to heartbreak.

(Oh, and second place all time in career completion percentage is the immortal Chad Pennington, whom I truly believe could have been a great quarterback had he avoided injury. And had a stronger arm. And not played for the Jets.)

When New Orleans Has The Ball

Unstoppable force, meet immovable object. Ingram and Kamara are a two-headed beast of nightmares, Michael Thomas has quietly caught more balls in his first two seasons than any receiver in the history of the league, and Brees is Brees. But! Minnesota’s defense is second only to the Jaguars in DVOA, has allowed the fewest points in the league, and is more balanced than Jacksonville’s while also playing a tougher schedule. The Vikings D certainly got the better of New Orleans when they played in week 1… but that game featured Sam Bradford, Adrian Peterson, and Dalvin Cook — it was practically a generation ago. If I had any suggestion for New Orleans, it would be to throw deep down the right sideline; that’s the only area Minnesota struggles with in coverage.

When Minnesota Has The Ball

As noted last week, the days of the New Orleans Saints as an all-O no-D shootout machine are, if not over, at least temporarily on hold. This squad has a legitimately excellent pass defense led by rookie corner Marshon Lattimore and trash-talking, wine-drinking (or at least -buying) defensive end Cameron Jordan. On the other hand, the Saints gave up 349 yards passing to a Cam Newton who probably shouldn’t have played the whole game last weekend; they have also been somewhat vulnerable to the run all season long.

The Vikings offense will go as far as Keenum takes them, which sounds frightening but has, oddly, worked so far? It helps that he has developed blood-rejuvenating chemistry with breakout wideout Adam Thielen, with Thielen complemented by the even more awesomely named Stefon Diggs and the reliably red nose of Kyle Rudolph. On the ground, former Raider Latavius Murray has a reputation as an uninspiring grinder; only 44% of his plays this season met Football Outsiders’ definition of “success” (based on down and distance) and he exceeded 20 yards on a play only 7 times with a long of 46. However, he’s proven to be a solid innings-eater when protecting leads, having reached 20 carries in 4 of his last 6 games, all Vikings victories (Vike-tories?). I’d expect Minnesota to try hard to establish the run and keep Keenum comfortable with play-action, a tactic they’ve employed often and successfully this season.

Something Weird That Might Happen

Alvin Kamara is one of those glorious fellows, like peak Devin Hester or Tyreek Hill, who is capable of scoring every time he touches the ball. If the Saints can manage to get him the prolate spheroid and some workable space, he might be the one player who is most capable of tipping the scales of the game with a single play (okay yeah I heard it too, that was overkill).

My Gut Feeling

Minnesota has an excellent defense, and Case Keenum has had a remarkable season. Given New Orleans’ historical outdoor struggles, I might pick Minnesota if this were out in the snow. But it’s not, and the Saints are playing as well as any team in the league. When in doubt, look at the quarterbacks — ride that Summer Brees dear god I hate myself for writing this.

Questions? Comments? Dare we say… QUIBBLS?  Get at us in the box below!

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