Black Quarterback: 2017 Divisional Round Preview and Picks
By Brandon Simmons
Falcons vs. Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles were one of the brightest and most surprising teams this season, thanks to the play of quarterback Carson Wentz. However, Wentz went down in the game against the Los Angeles, suffering a season-ending injury to his ACL. Since then, the high-flying Eagles haven’t seem to be missing a beat, going 2-1 at the end of the year and securing the homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. But will it be enough against the Atlanta Falcons team with their QB and all their offensive weapons on hand.
It’s very possible that the defense will be on the forefront for these two teams for this game. The Eagles defense has been a very unrecognized part to this season’s ride. They finished the year 5th in the league overall and 4th against the run. This a unit a little more consistent than what the Falcons put on the field on the defensive end, but the latter has been hot as of late. In the regular season finale, they held the Carolina Panthers to just 10 points and in last week’s Wild Card win over the Los Angeles Rams – the league’s highest scoring team – they held them to a mere 13 points and got 3 sacks out of it.
The problem with the Eagles will not be their defense, but rather what their offense can do, especially with quarterback Nick Foles under center. Foles came in to replace Wentz when he got injured and went 2-1 in the starting role. It was the season finale against the Cowboys that Philly was shutout in the 6-0 loss. That was their last, which was roughly 2 weeks ago; but Atlanta has still been staying heated while on the move. They have been staving off playoff elimination for about a month now, so they are about as ready for the Eagles or any team at this moment; especially at the quarterback position. Foles last started as a quarterback for the Eagles before he was traded to the Rams in 2014. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has obviously been in his spot for a while and has not missed a stepped these past few weeks. It has been too long since the Eagles played a meaningful game and their urgency might not catch up with the loaded Falcons in time. Atlanta will take this game on the road.
Titans vs. Patriots
Let’s cut to the chase: This game is all about what can the New England Patriots can get together for a gameplan and how well they can execute it. It means nothing that the Tennessee Titans overcame a 18 point deficit to beat the Kansas City Chiefs, because there were a wide range of factors that contributed to that; factors that will not be presented to the Titans on Saturday night. Even with all of the controversy surrounding New England’s behind-the-scenes drama right now, it still might not slow down the Patriots. Tennessee will already be without running back Demarco Murray, which leaves Belichick only a task of getting a way to stop quarterback Marcus Mariota.That will most likely be the key for them to win this game actually because the Patriots are trash against mobile quarterbacks. After that, Patriots QB Tom Brady is just going to continue to be Brady and grab this win.
Jaguars vs. Steelers
This is going to be an interesting game to watch because of the matchup between the Jacksonville Jaguars defense and the Pittsburgh Steelers offense. These two teams have already played earlier this year and it ended in a 30-9 win for the Jaguars. The game left both teams at 3-2, but the Steelers got charged up after that. They went on a 10-1 rampage after that loss, including an 8 game win streak, then secured the number two spot in the playoffs. The Jaguars were not as successful, but they still finished the season strong, winning their division and fielded one of the toughest defensive units in the league this at number 2 overall, and first against the pass.
The first game was so long ago, that it might not a good representation of what these two teams are now. Of course, they were both 3-2 at the time, but the Jaguars were playing like they were on their way up while many worried about how the Steelers would reach the postseason. Also, in that game, Jacksonville’s defense was the star. The number one pass defense gave up 301 yards to Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger but also held running back Le’veon Bell to just 47 yards rushing. However, 157 of those passing yards went to Steelers wide receiver Antonio Bryant off of 10 catches, who will also be coming back from a calf injury to play this weekend. But here is literally a flipside to this scenario. The Steelers defense held Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles to a pedestrian 8/14 for 95 yards, an interception and 2 sacks, but gave up 231 yards rushing, which included 181 from rookie running back Leonard Fournette.
When you consider how strong the Jaguars defense was against the Steelers in that first game, it’s hard to give them the advantage, but Pittsburgh is just too good this time of year. They are way better than what the Jaguars are doing on offense. Last week, Bortles threw for 87 yards and a touchdown, but he was also sacked twice. A surprising number is he was the leading rusher with 88 yards, while Fournette had 57. Lightning will not strike twice for the Jaguars because the Steelers offense will strike first and often this time around. Expect Pittsburgh to take this one away, but maybe with a little bit of a fight.
Saints vs. Vikings
The final game of the weekend will be another one focused on the matchup. The New Orleans Saints offense is going to have to put on a show against the number one ranked Minnesota Vikings defense. The Vikings continued to amaze on the defensive side of the ball on all phases and it’s kind of masked the fact they have been playing with “backup” quarterbacks for the last 2 seasons. At the beginning of last year, Minnesota quarterback Teddy Bridgewater suffered a knee injury that sidelined hime all of last season and up until he made an appearance this year. The Vikings had QB Sam Bradford last year, but he got injured this season and they acquired career backup QB Case Keenum in a trade with the Los Angeles Rams. Keenum has played a career year this season and it’s helped keep the defense off the field and fresh. It’s important that the Vikings get their rest against one of the greatest quarterbacks in the past 20 years.
There are anchors to both sides of these marquee units. It goes without saying that Saints quarterback Drew Brees is the cornerstone of this offense. Just look at last week’s Wild Card win against the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers held the Saints to only 41 yards rushing, but Brees hid that shortcoming by throwing for 376 passing yards. Saints head coach Sean Payton trusted his QB to let him throw the ball on 4th and short, even though it ended up as an interception. But the Vikings defense is not trying to hear about one man leading the pack while there are quite a few individuals who have been holding it down all season. Vikings defensive end Everson Griffin is 4th in the league with 13 sacks while safety Harrison Smith has been somewhat of a ball hawk with 5 interceptions.
The bottom line is this: The Vikings will win based on how strong their defense can play and keep Brees off the ball; that will be the key. Their offense is ran by a backup QB, similar to the Eagles right now; but Keenum has been starting for almost all of the season, so he’s pretty comfortable in this system. It also helps he has a deep threat in Vikings wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. The Saints defense has improved this season but they are just not that improved to overcome getting worn down. Minnesota’s defense will provide their offense plenty of opportunities to score and move on to the next round.
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