Chris Simms' NFL Divisional Playoff Picks

Chris Simms@@CSimmsQBNFL Lead AnalystJanuary 11, 2018

Chris Simms' NFL Divisional Playoff Picks

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    Divisional Round Weekend is the best weekend of the NFL season, as far as I'm concerned. It's the one I look forward to more than any other because we almost always get the seven or eight best teams in football in win-or-go-home situations. 

    What makes things even more compelling is that the four teams with the best records didn't play the previous week. There are positives to having that week off, but there are also negatives.

    The teams that got the first-round byes are going to come into the weekend about as healthy as they've been since the start of the season. That's a great advantage. Their coaching staffs have gotten to work on team weaknesses and get a head start on game-planning. Those are also advantages. Not only does a No. 1 or No. 2 seed get to fix issues on its own team, but it gets to add some new wrinkles that can help exploit its upcoming opponent.

    I can tell you firsthand, though, that having a week off can also cause a team to come out slow. Teams coming out of the wild-card round have that feeling of playoff intensity. It can take a team with a bye a quarter or two to regain that.

    On top of that, it can take players coming off the bye time to readjust to full-speed football. Remember, some of these guys rested in Week 17, so they haven't taken live hits in three weeks. You might think that NFL players should always be used to getting cracked at full speed or blasted on the pile, but no, nobody's ever really used to that.

    It might sound absurd, but the recent sense of intensity and game action actually give wild-card teams an advantage of their own. It's a big reason why we have upsets in the divisional round and why this weekend's games carry plenty of intrigue.

    While we're going to see the NFL at its finest, we're in many ways going to see it at its most unpredictable.

    I'm here to make predictions, though, so here's how I see the divisional round playing out.

Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles

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    When: Saturday at 4:35 p.m. ET (NBC), Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia

    The Atlanta Falcons won their wild-card matchup last week. That much is obvious. However, after going back and watching the game film, I really believe the Los Angeles Rams were the better team. On film, Atlanta was underwhelming.

    There's a lot to like about the Falcons. They play tough, they have talent and I'd argue that quarterback Matt Ryan is having a better season than he did in 2016. This year, he's been making plays with his physical ability. Last year, many of his big plays were served up with great game-planning.

    The Philadelphia Eagles are going to come into this game more pissed off than any team we've seen in a long time—and I certainly expect them to fight harder than the Rams did.

    The Eagles have been disrespected since losing Carson Wentz. I'm guilty of it. A lot of analysts are. Philadelphia is being given little chance with Nick Foles at quarterback, and the players know that.

    Having the Eagles' talented defense angry and well-rested could be trouble for Atlanta. It's a defense that has plenty of talent in the front seven who can get to Ryan and win the game by disrupting the Falcons offense.

    I also have to think the extra time has allowed the Eagles to adjust the offense to something that suits the current personnel. Atlanta is the faster team, but Philadelphia is one of the biggest in football. The Eagles are built to win games in the Northeast in January, and they can overpower the Falcons.

    Fast teams can get slower late in the year and late in games. Big teams don't get smaller. It's been the big, powerful teams that have given the Falcons trouble this year.

    While conventional wisdom may say to pick the team that was in the Super Bowl last year and has the better quarterback, there's something about the matchup that makes me believe in Philadelphia—maybe it's because I've spent time in NFL locker rooms and know what it's like to feel disrespected.

    Because of their defense, their running game and the chip on their shoulder, I'm going with the Eagles.

    Prediction: Eagles 20, Falcons 17

Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots

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    When: Saturday at 8:15 p.m. ET (CBS), Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts

    The big question is how successful the Tennessee Titans' running game can be against the New England Patriots. It's the biggest way the Titans move the football, it's the best way to keep Tom Brady and Co. off the field, and it's going to be a huge factor in this game.

    Tennessee is going to have difficulty moving the ball through the air. Malcolm Butler, Devin McCourty and Stephon Gilmore are difference-makers for the New England secondary. Their versatility in coverage—all three can play man-to-man, McCourty from the safety position or the slot if needed—opens up options for the rest of the defense.

    The Titans need to have a tremendous day running the ball to win.

    On the other side, Tennessee has struggled against complete offenses. Good quarterback play with the schemes to match have given the Titans fits. We saw that early last week against the Kansas City Chiefs. The difference is that this is Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels running the show. There won't be a second-half lull like Kansas City had.

    If the Titans are going to find success, they're going to have to force the Patriots to run. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau likes to stop the run first, and Tennessee has to get away from that. I'd like to see someone in the Brady and Bill Belichick era actually force New England to run 30-plus times in a meaningful playoff game.

    Tennessee can do it. The Titans need to get into a Bear front, put Sylvester Williams, Jurrell Casey and Austin Johnson—all fantastic interior defenders—over the guards and the center, and consistently drop seven and eight guys into coverage.

    The Patriots don't want to rely on the run. They have Brady and Rob Gronkowski, so why would they?

    Having said all of this, I'm not ignorant. I'm going to pick the Patriots, at home, rested and with additional time to game-plan. Even if Tennessee gives New England trouble early, expect things to finish like they did with the Houston Texans in last year's divisional round.

    Prediction: Patriots 34, Titans 20

Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers

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    When: Sunday at 1:05 p.m. ET (CBS), Heinz Field, Pittsburgh

    The game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Pittsburgh Steelers is the one I'm most looking forward to this weekend. I'd argue that this will be the most physical of the divisional round. There will be more big, fast physical players in this game—particularly on the defensive side of the ball—than any other.

    The big question mark is the Jacksonville offense and whether it can have more balance than it had last week. Can Blake Bortles hit receivers when they're open? That will certainly be crucial. Another big key will be Pittsburgh's ability to stop the hard running of Leonard Fournette.

    Jacksonville should supplement Fournette and the offense in general with some designed runs for Bortles. He's a better runner than a passer, and calling some of the power runs and draws we often see from Cam Newton would add a new dimension to the ground attack. Running Bortles more might be Jacksonville's best approach to winning.

    Jacksonville's defense is the most talented in football, for my money. The thing is that the Jags don't have a lot of variation in their scheme. They basically say: "Hey, we're going to play a couple of defenses. We don't care that you know what we're playing. We're just that good that we're going to stop you anyway."

    That's what the Jaguars did the last time these two teams met in October.

    The one problem with Jacksonville's defense is that it has struggled against the run at times. The Jaguars have countered in recent weeks by playing more straight-up fronts and utilizing fewer stunts and twists at the point of attack. Playing sound run defense will be their defensive key to this game.

    It doesn't matter if Antonio Brown is 100 percent—and I don't think he will be. The Jaguars will be able to contain Pittsburgh's passing attack. It's going to largely fall on Le'Veon Bell and the Steelers' running game to move the ball. Bell is special, the Steelers offensive line is great at setting up the run and line coach Mike Munchak will add some wrinkles to the running game.

    Ultimately, I don't think Jacksonville can win unless it makes one or two game-altering plays on defense—like pick-sixes or strip-sacks that set up red-zone opportunities. Now, the Jaguars defense is certainly capable of making these types of plays, but this isn't something I'm willing to count on.

    I'm going with the team that is more complete and has the quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger with extensive playoff experience.

    Prediction: Steelers 20, Jaguars 10

New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings

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    When: Sunday at 4:40 p.m. ET (Fox), U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis

    The Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints battled in Week 1, but that doesn't matter. It might as well have been back in 2014, that was so long ago. Both teams have changed dramatically since then, so there isn't much to take from the first meeting.

    One thing to keep an eye on is the Saints offensive line. Andrus Peat is done for the playoffs. He's one of the best guards in the NFL, and many of New Orleans' big runs this season have come with him leading the way.

    Still, the Saints offense against the Vikings defense is going to be a clash of titans. These are two of the most exciting units in football, and there's immense talent on each side.

    The Vikings defense will play aggressive man-to-man coverage at times, which leads me to believe Drew Brees will find room to make some big plays downfield. The Vikings will also put a lot of guys at the line of scrimmage at times, which will open up opportunities for big Saints runs. Regardless, this is going to be one of the biggest tests the New Orleans offense has faced all year because there isn't a real weakness on Minnesota's defense.

    The Panthers did some things to slow down Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram in the wild-card game. I expect the Vikings to pick up on those things this week.

    The Saints defense is also aggressive. It can make some big plays, but it will allow them too. The Carolina Panthers definitely didn't have a ton of trouble moving the ball last week. However, I like that New Orleans plays this style of defense. It isn't going to die a slow death. It's going to end a drive quickly, or it's going to allow a quick score. Either way, the offense is going to get back on the field and stay in rhythm.

    The Minnesota offense is more balanced than Carolina's, though—the Vikings can throw deep and run the ball inside and out—and so is the defense. That's going to be the big difference between last week and Sunday. I'd expect another high-scoring game, but the Saints will come out on the wrong end this time around.

    Prediction: Vikings 27, Saints 24

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