NFL Divisional Playoffs: Predictions for Titans at Patriots, Jaguars at Steelers, Falcons at Eagles and Saints at Vikings

Divisional playoff weekend in the NFL this year looks to have revealed a truism about the league that is, nevertheless, true.

The two AFC games should result in easy wins for the home teams, the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers. It would be a mighty shock if the Tennessee Titans left Massachusetts with a place in the AFC Championship game; slightly less shocking if the Jacksonville Jaguars upset the Steelers. But it’s still difficult to envisage either result actually happening.

In contrast, the depth of talent in the NFC makes those two fixtures very tricky to predict. The Atlanta Falcons head to the Philadelphia Eagles with the advantage purely because the Eagles don’t have Carson Wentz. But Atlanta isn’t the team of last season. As for the Saints at the Vikings… how that shakes down is really anybody’s guess. And that’s the beauty of the NFC bracket. Read below to find out our predictions for the divisional games.

Titans (5) at Patriots (1) (January 13; 8.15 p.m.  E.T. on CBS)

It’s easy to forget how the Houston Texans gave the Patriots genuine problems in the divisional round last year in Foxborough. They forced three turnovers, including two interceptions from Tom Brady, and they might have won had they been anything better than utterly inept on offense.

The Titans aren’t quite like the 2016 Texans. Their pass rush isn’t as good, and it was the pass rush that harried Brady last year. Tennessee doesn’t have Jadeveon Clowney or Whitney Mercilus but it can stuff the run effectively and bring pressure through the middle. And with Marcus Mariota and Derrick Henry, the Titans are also an offensive threat.

Still… even if the Patriots are at their absolute worst and the Titans play several tiers above themselves, it’s hard to see anything but a home victory here. Tennessee’s impressive season ends in Gillette Stadium; now they need to not do anything stupid and reactionary like firing Mike Mularkey.

Prediction: Titans 14 Patriots 31

Jaguars (3) at Steelers (2) (January 14; 1.05 p.m. E.T. on CBS)

Imagine the Jaguars with a quarterback other than Blake Bortles and I’ll show you a team advancing to the AFC Championship game. Jacksonville’s defense bottled up Le’Veon Bell in a 30-9 win on October 8, a game in which Ben Roethlisberger threw 55 times. Five of those attempts ended in interceptions for the Jaguars’ ball-hawking defense.

Jacksonville got a monster game that day from Leonard Fournette. The rookie rushed for 181 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries, covering up Bortles’ flaws. The Steelers aren’t going to let an aging, possibly declining Roethlisberger sling the ball around again. They will hand it to Bell to open up the play-action passing game for Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and the NFL’s third-best passing offense. For the Jaguars to win they are going to have to get ahead early, chew the clock with Fournette and force Roethlisberger to throw into the jaws of their elite secondary. If Bortles has to chase a game on the road, Jacksonville’s season ends here.

Prediction: Jaguars 14 Steelers 24

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Tom Brady of the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts, October 18, 2009. Brady faces the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Divisional game on Saturday. Elsa/Getty

Falcons (6) at Eagles (1) (January 13; 4.35 p.m. E.T. on NBC)

Beyond the advantage of home, well, advantage, you can probably disregard the difference in the seedings here. The Falcons won impressively on the road last weekend in Los Angeles against the Rams, suggesting they won’t be overawed by walking into Lincoln Financial Field.

They shouldn’t be, either. Dan Quinn’s team comes into the divisional round as the sixth seed but, arguably, the favorite. If this comes down to a shootout between Matt Ryan and Nick Foles, there is only one winner. The Eagles need to stick with a balanced attack, limiting Foles’s work and putting the load on Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount. The Falcons’ middle linebackers, led by Deion Jones, were excellent against the Rams in the red zone and on third down. They just about contained Todd Gurley, even though he ran for 101 yards on 14 carries. But that same linebacking corps can struggle against bigger backs.

On the other side of the ball, the Eagles’ secondary, led by Pro-Bowl cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, will seek to keep Julio Jones in check. Philadelphia will look for pressure on Ryan from Fletcher Cox and its elite defensive line. Ryan has been fallible this year but his playoff experience should see the Falcons through to a second NFC Championship game in two years.

Prediction: Falcons 27 Eagles 24

Saints (4) at Vikings (2) (January 14; 4.40 p.m. E.T. on Fox)

What should be the game of the weekend is up last. The Saints will run the terrifying hydra of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara into the maw of the NFL’s best defense. If that fails—and there’s a good chance it will, since the Vikings allowed 83.6 rush yards per game during the regular season—then New Orleans can fall back on the arm of Drew Brees. The Saints have multiple ways of winning a football game this season.

The result may come down to how well the Vikings can protect the surprisingly great Case Keenum from the Saints’ rejuvenated defense. Gone are the days when Brees would have to put up 30 points per game just to give his team a chance. The Saints are mean and hardened but the Vikings’ defense can rouse itself to even greater heights with the piquancy of the playoffs. This is almost impossible to call.

Prediction: Saints 27 Vikings 34 (After overtime)