Think of NFL wild card weekend like your favorite holiday — you are high off your you-know-what on good food, wine, family you never get to see, and of course, football. After the holidays, it’s back to the grind, and all the things you can’t stand about the real world.
Now that the fun and less-significant games are behind us, it’s time to face reality: the Patriots and Steelers are back, and the end of the road is near for the little guys. Jacksonville may beg to differ, and I hope they prove us wrong again, but you can start prepping your Titans eulogies now.
Still, don’t let my annual AFC saltiness deter you from the fact that I genuinely (mostly) enjoyed wild card weekend. I didn’t mind watching a rerun of my favorite tragedy, the Kansas City Chiefs attempting to win home playoff games. I’ve watched it six straight times, and I’m still on the edge of my seat each time. The Silence of the Rams was less enjoyable, as I was dejected to see wunderkind Sean McVay and his upstart club succumb to the team responsible for the most horrifying moment in NFL history last February. But Bills-Jaguars was old-school, and Panthers-Saints kept me entertained throughout.
As we move on what Chris Berman used to refer to as “the greatest weekend in professional sports,” it’s time to come to grips with reality. There will be more of the same from the Patriots, and probably the Steelers. There will be no magic moment for Nick Foles and an Eagles team that just can’t stop letting the city of Philadelphia down. And the dream of the first home-team Super Bowl could very well be dashed by a future Hall of Famer who wants one last blaze of glory himself.
Does that mean it won’t be an exciting quartet of games? Of course not. The Titans are probably going to put up a better fight than many of New England’s past divisional round foes, but then again, that’s not saying much. The Brock Osweiler-led Texans of 2016, Andrew Luck-led Colts of 2013, and Tim Tebow-led Broncos of 2011 got flattened by a combined score of 122-48. The bar hasn’t been set very high for Marcus Mariota’s club.
Before that, we’ll get our first — and likely last — look at the Foles-led Eagles. That’s because, only after giving most football fans the worst night of their life last February in Houston, the Falcons finally look like they’ve figured out how to play with a lead. A more conservative, run-based, ball-control offense has taken some heat off their young and talented defense, and Atlanta has shut down two playoff teams in the Panthers and Rams. They shouldn’t have much trouble with a listless Philadelphia offense that converts third downs about as well as the Falcons hold 25-point leads in Super Bowls.
Sunday should give us some better football. The early game provides the upstart Jags a chance to show that their Week 5 thumping of the Steelers was no fluke. According to Jacksonville cornerback Jalen Ramsey, that’s exactly what the Steelers probably thought it was. That became quite evident with the immature comments after that game by Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, who, instead of heaping praise on the league’s best pass defense for picking him off five times, created a national stir by speculating that maybe he just “didn’t have it anymore.” He certainly has it, and he’ll have a healthy Antonio Brown. Worse yet, the Jags have a healthy Blake Bortles. Jacksonville’s only hope is to get a lead and not force Bortles to, you know, make plays or something like that.
The final piece of the puzzle might be the most enjoyable to watch, and the weekend’s biggest toss-up. The Saints lost to the Vikings in Week 1, 29-19, in what turned out to be the only game that Case Keenum did not start in 2017. It was a game billed as Adrian Peterson’s homecoming, but turned out to be a Vikings uprising. A matchup of the two quarterbacks responsible for the four best passing completion seasons in NFL history did not disappoint, but unfortunately for Minnesota, there will be no Dalvin Cook. The rookie sensation rushed for 127 yards on 22 carries in his NFL debut.
The game will come down ultimately to whether the Vikings can get, and maintain, a lead. They have not often had to play from behind this year, and if they do face a deficit, it’s fair to wonder if Keenum can rally them in his playoff debut. Drew Brees is eyeing another Lombardi Trophy, and if it comes down to the quarterbacks, the seasoned veteran gets the nod.
While the usual suspects figure to win and force-feed America another one of their lopsided AFC championship affairs, if we can get a couple of competitive games, that’s probably all we can really ask for. James Harrison, with his favorite defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, on the other sideline, figures to get at least one sack. Rob Gronkowski figures to torch a Titans defense that couldn’t stop a healthy Travis Kelce. Bortles probably won’t top 150 yards, meaning Leonard Fournette will need a monster day to give the Jags a chance.
Stay tuned for my predictions, which were saved with Sunday’s games after a tough slate on Saturday.