NFL playoffs 2018: What to watch for in the Divisional Round

Y’all know how I feel about quarterback play. If you have a better quarterback, you tend to win. Football can be that simple. The Divisional Round this weekend is headlined by the quarterbacks who are proven and those who aren’t.

The proven quarterbacks — Tom Brady, Big Ben, Drew Brees, and Matt Ryan — have all been there, and three of the four have won a Super Bowl. They all face unproven commodities under center this weekend: Marcus Mariota, Blake Bortles, Case Keenum, and Nick Foles.

Seems easy enough to pick winners this weekend, but there are other factors to look at for success, too.

The Eagles should let Nick Foles take shots downfield against the Falcons

Let’s start with the Saturday afternoon contest in Philadelphia. The Eagles are home underdogs against the Falcons, the first time a No. 1 seed has been an underdog in the Divisional Round. The reason is clear: Nick Foles.

You can read my write-up on what the Eagles need to do with Foles, but the key for them is Doug Pederson. The conventional wisdom is when you have a backup quarterback with a strong run game and a good defense, you play it safe with the route concepts. However, I think Pederson needs to scheme up some shots for Foles.

This is Pederson’s first shot in the playoffs as a head coach, and he’s had two weeks to figure out ways to push the ball downfield. They don’t need multiple shots, but just a few to get the offense some chunk plays. Also, scoring a touchdown early will lift the anxiety off the Linc and that place will be rocking.

The Falcons’ key to victory this weekend is Julio Jones. Julio is a beast in the playoffs, with 104.7 receiving yards per game. Last weekend against the Rams, Matt Ryan’s passer rating was 139.2 when targeting Jones.

The Eagles have a top-notch rush defense but are suspect in the back end, especially evident as the season went on. They allowed Eli Manning and four backup wide receivers to pile up over 400 yards of passing. They got beat on a sweet double move against the Raiders for a touchdown on Monday Night Football. The Eagles will try shutting down the Falcons run game, because that is what they do. That’s why Ryan needs to have a connection with Jones to win this game.

How the Eagles can succeed without Carson Wentz

The Titans need to harass Tom Brady

The Titans are major underdogs in New England this weekend. If they want to win, they need to hit Tom Brady. Brady has been hit at nearly a career-high rate this season. Last season, his sack percentage was just 3.4 percent. This season, he’s been sacked on 5.7 percent of his plays.

The Titans will need a HUGE game from Jurrell Casey, their stud defensive tackle. Getting pressure up the middle is always the way to go with Brady. Casey will have to win one-on-one battles, and the Titans defensive coordinator, the famed Dick LeBeau, will have to scheme up ways to get Casey great matchups.

The Patriots are excellent on offense, as we all know. But they aren’t as good on defense. They are the classic “bend but don’t break” defense, giving up a ton of yards (29th in the NFL) but not many points (fifth). While the Titans aren’t anything special on offense, they still have Mariota. Mariota can make plays with his legs that other quarterbacks can’t make. The X-factor for the Patriots will be pass rush discipline and making sure they rush the passer but keep Mariota in the pocket.

Can Ben Roethlisberger get revenge against the Jaguars?

The first game on Sunday is between the fighting Blake Bortles and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Jaguars won last weekend with Bortles throwing for 87 yards. Yikes. Bortles also threw for 95 yards when the Jags beat the Steelers in Week 5 when the defense forced five Big Ben interceptions.

That style of game isn’t happening again.

However, the Jaguars can still hamper the Steelers’ passing attack, which has been second in the NFL since that Week 5 loss. The Jaguars need their secondary to play up to potential. When Big Ben is facing a No. 1 passing defense, he’s 1-3 in the playoffs, with four touchdowns, 11 interceptions, and a passer rating of 69.8.

If Case Keenum keeps playing like he has this season, the Vikings will head to the NFC Championship

The best game of the weekend should be the Saints at Vikings. The Vikings dominated the Saints in Week 1, but that game is way, way, way in the past. It’s a brand new season and I can’t wait to watch this game.

While the Saints have actually played defense this season, and played it well, they will always be an offensive team first. When their offense is moving, their team is moving. The Saints have a new left guard this weekend with Andrus Peat out for the season with a broken ankle. Senio Kelemete is taking that spot, and the Saints will need him to perform well.

However, the one to watch for the Saints this weekend is Ted Ginn Jr. The Saints’ No. 1 WR, Michael Thomas, should be matched up against the Vikings’ best corner, Xavier Rhodes. That means the Saints will need a big game from Ginn Jr. against Trae Waynes. The Vikings can stop the run and harass Brees, so the Saints must exploit the matchups they can.

The Vikings played excellent this season. They probably haven’t gotten the credit they deserve. And that’s because of Case Keenum, one of the unproven quarterbacks. Keenum has played better than ever this season under offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. This weekend, they need Keenum to play like he has all season. If Keenum can do that and not revert back to the Keenum from his first few seasons in the NFL, then the Vikings win. And if that happens, then I think the Vikings will finally get the credit they deserve heading into the NFC Championship Game.

This weekend should have some excellent games, and I can’t wait to watch them. If you have any comments, hit me up on Twitter, @geoffschwartz.

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