NFL Divisional Round Preview
I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.
I had to work last Saturday, but my shift ended at 5 p.m. and since I was at my home office, it wasn’t a long walk to prepare my first adult beverage and flop down on the couch to watch my Rams make their return to the playoffs.
To be honest, I felt as a fan, I was playing with house money. After all, this was a team coming off a truly putrid 4-12 season and there was no real reason to believe they would improve in any real way in 2017. So, the fact that they not only improved, but won the NFC West with Jared Goff and Todd Gurley leading the way was a real treat.
And let’s also be real here: I’m a complete fraud. I was a Rams fan for many years until they moved to St. Louis. I didn’t root for them at all until they returned to Los Angeles. So, I don’t really deserve to get a playoff team in just its second season back in Southern California, but that fact didn’t keep me up at night.
However, the fun came to end in the span of a few hours on Saturday. The Falcons came in looking like a team ready for the playoffs, while the Rams sputtered and stumbled like a team shrinking under the bright lights.
Like I said before, I’m not mad. And while there’s disappointment, there’s also a sense of relief. When your rooting interest gets eliminated from the postseason, you can finally relax and just hope for a good game.
And root against the Patriots like everyone outside of New England. OK, before we get to picking this week’s games, let’s take a look at things from an individual level.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
IMPORTANT NAMES IN THE DIVISIONAL ROUND
1) Marcus Mariota – Three things happened in the Titans’ amazing wild-card win that will give the third-year QB some serious locker-room cache for a while. The first was that touchdown pass to himself, the second was him bouncing back from a hellacious hit and the third was the block he threw on Frank Zombo to help spring Derrick Henry’s game-clinching run. And that wasn’t some soft Tom Brady “block” that comes off like a brush from a tissue. No, this one was legit. And nothing pleases teammates more than seeing their quarterback seek contact. Good for you, Marcus. Can you imagine what will happen if he somehow beats New England?
2) Bill Belichick – Last week, the Patriots dynasty was supposedly coming to its long overdue end. What happened? Did they work everything out like adults? If so, that sucks! We were all excited to watch the organization burn and sink into decades of sub-.500 glory. Sigh. Here’s Bill’s chance to do what he does best: Take out an annoying media story on an underwhelming foe. Sorry, Titans.
3) Tevin Coleman/Devonta Freemen – During the broadcast of the Falcons’ win over the Rams, the analyst (can’t remember who) said Atlanta was starting to experiment with having both running backs on the field at the same time. Uhhhh, what’s to experiment? Why hasn’t this been a staple of their offense? Both can catch the ball and would present matchup problems if you line them up in the slot. Hire me, I’ll get that done.
4) Max Unger – The Saints center is the man who directs the offensive line and he’s got his hands full this week. The Vikings defense leads the NFL in yards and points allowed per game. And Mike Zimmer is an expert at mixing up blitzes, making quarterbacks paranoid that pressure could be coming from any direction. The Saints lost guard Andrus Peat in last week’s win, so they’ll really need to bring it together if they want to protect Drew Brees and keep the chains moving on drives. Good luck.
5) Frank Reich – Sure, there’s a ton of pressure on backup QB Nick Foles. But truthfully, it’s up to the coaching staff to put him in position to be successful. The one thing that showed up for the Falcons last week is their speed on defense, which is going to be a problem for the Eagles if Foles can’t get rid of the ball in a timely manner. So, let’s see some quick throws and screens to take advantage of Atlanta’s aggressiveness, which is something the Rams tried to do but failed.
6) JuJu Smith-Schuster – This might be another homer selection since I’ve been a fan of the rookie receiver since his USC days. However, it can’t be disputed that Smith-Schuster has been a revelation this season with his sure hands and toughness. The Jaguars have a vicious secondary and it’s up him to find openings to move the chains on third down.
7) Keanu Neal – Another reason the Falcons got to this point is because their defense did an excellent job of tackling in the open field. The veteran safety delivered all kinds of punishment in the wild-card round and he must do that again to set the tone early against the Eagles offense.
8) Fletcher Cox – The Eagles led the league in rushing yards allowed, thanks in part to the efforts of their three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle and the rest of the front seven. They’re going to be tested against the two-headed monster in Coleman and Freeman. The Rams were able to get penetration against the Falcons last week, but couldn’t finish off negative plays often enough. It’s up to Cox to bottle up the middle and create havoc in the backfield.
9) Jalen Ramsey – The Jaguars cornerback is a frightening talent. And he’s undoubtedly going to get a heavy dose of Antonio Brown on Sunday. And with the latter returning from an injury, Ramsey has a good chance of at least keeping a lid of the speedster, if not shutting him down completely.
10) Blake Bortles – He gets one mulligan. The Jags got past the Bills last week in spite of their quarterback. No worries, it happens, but that’s not going to cut it in Pittsburgh. If he comes through with another stinkbomb, Jacksonville has zero chance, no matter how their defense plays.
WHAT’S THE CHATTER?
Jon Gruden: I waited anxiously year after year for Gruden to get back into coaching. I was breathless. But now that he’s back? Meh, I’m kinda over it. I wish him luck though.
Tom Brady: After reading that ESPN story, I’m even more sick of this guy, if that’s possible. And now he has a documentary series coming out, produced by Deepak Chopra’s son? Yeah, pass. Just go away. Ugh.
Case Keenum: The man is a win from the NFC Championship Game and there are already rumors about his next team. Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur is reportedly the frontrunner to get the Cardinals job and he could recruit Keenum to join him in the desert. I’m all for it.
Le’Veon Bell: The Steelers’ star running back says he’ll sit out next season or retire if the team puts the franchise tag on him again. By the way, he’d earn $14.5 million with the tag in 2018. That’s a ton of money to walk away from. But I guess it’s a mistake to look at that number like a regular citizen. Because you and I undoubtedly would commit horrific acts for that kind of green. But hey, you be you, Le’Veon.
Falcons at Eagles: Atlanta impressed me so much that I’m going to count on the Dirty Birds to keep rolling. Especially against a backup quarterback. Gimme the Falcons.
Titans at Patriots: Upset special? Yeah … no. Patriots all day.
Jaguars at Steelers: Ugh, I really want to pick the Jaguars here. If I was a man of courage, I would do so. However … I’m taking the Steelers.
Saints at Vikings: Home team in the dome? I love it. Vikings, baby!
Currently a Mobile Editor at Yahoo, Saraf spent 5.5 years (Oct. 2010 - Feb. 2016) working for FOX Sports as an NFL Editor and Writer. Prior to that, Saraf worked for CBS Interactive for 4.5 years (May 2006 - Oct. 2010) as a Staff Editor.