The Philadelphia Eagles are in a curious position. After dominating the NFC for the first three-plus months of the season and earning the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, the Eagles come into the game filled with doubt.
A late-season injury suffered by second-year quarterback Carson Wentz has left the Eagles scrambling to find their offensive swagger. Backup Nick Foles took over after Wentz suffered a torn ACL, and after a decent first start against the New York Giants in Week 15, the Eagles’ offense slowed to a halt in the final two weeks of the season.
The Eagles had an extra week of practice to see if Foles could get back on track, but while Philadelphia head coach Doug Pederson was conducting practice and trying to find answers, the Falcons played one of their best games of the year and defeated the Los Angeles Rams 26-13 on the road to earn a spot in the divisional playoffs.
Not only are the Falcons playing well, they are the defending NFC champions who are motivated to get back to the Super Bowl and right the wrong they suffered at the hands of the New England Patriots a year ago. Atlanta is a three-point favorite over Philadelphia, according to OddsShark.
They have the weapons to get there, as Matt Ryan can light up the scoreboard with his accurate passing, and he has a crew of stars on his side, led by running back Devonta Freeman and wide receiver Julio Jones.
In addition to those stars, Tevin Coleman also runs with speed and power, while Mohamed Sanu is a dangerous No. 2 receiver.
The Eagles need Foles to step up so they can get the most out of running backs LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi and wideouts Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor.
Jeffrey is hoping he can repeat the success he had with Foles against the Giants. “Me and Nick had a great game against the Giants,” Jeffery said, per Matt Lombardo of NJ.com. “Oakland didn’t go so well, but that’s part of the game. Some games you’re going to have some good ones, sometimes you’re not, as long as we get the ‘W,’ that’s all that matters.”
If there is any hesitation when the Eagles have the ball, the Falcons have the weapons, skill and motivation to win another road game.
Saturday, January 13
NFC: Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles, 4:35 p.m. ET (NBC, NBC Sports Live)
Prediction: Falcons defeat Eagles, 31-17.
AFC: Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots, 8:15 p.m. ET (CBS, CBS Sports Network)
Prediction: Patriots defeat Titans, 33-10.
Sunday, January 14
AFC: Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers, 1:05 p.m. ET (CBS, CBS Sports Network)
Prediction: Steelers defeat Jaguars, 27-13.
NFC: New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings, 4:40 p.m. ET (Fox, Fox Sports Go)
Prediction: Vikings defeat Saints, 28-21.
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The Patriots and Steelers are big favorites over the Titans and Jaguars, respectively.
New England is a 13.5-point favorite over Tennessee, while Pittsburgh has a 7.5-point edge over the Jaguars, according to OddsShark.
It’s difficult to see either of the underdogs staying in contention into the second half. The Patriots may have some internal difficulties to contend with involving owner Robert Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, but they are almost certain to be focused on Saturday night.
The legacy of the Patriots is playing well during the postseason, and there is usually no stopping Brady as he fights to get into the AFC title game.
On the other hand, the Titans were quite erratic this year, and they had lost three games in a row going into the season finale. They needed to win that game to get into the playoffs, and they were successful against the Jaguars at home. They also made a solid comeback to beat the Kansas City Chiefs on the road in the Wild Card Game.
However, the Patriots don’t let opponents off the mat when they get them down, and it doesn’t seem likely that things will change against Marcus Mariota and the Titans.
The Steelers will be at least as motivated as the Patriots, and perhaps more so. Pittsburgh suffered a 30-9 home defeat at the hands of Jacksonville in Week 5, but the Jaguars don’t have the offensive firepower to match the Steelers.
Ben Roethlisberger threw five interceptions in that first matchup, and he also knows how to perform in big games. He also is surrounded by two of the best skill-position players in the league in running back Le’Veon Bell and wideout Antonio Brown.
Brown has been back at practice this week after suffering a calf injury in Week 15, and he has not suffered any setbacks. He was a full participant in Thursday’s practice, per Josh Rowntree of KDKA.
While the Jaguars have a powerful defense led by the combination of pass-rushers Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue (26.5 sacks combined), the Steelers have too much firepower.
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The final game of the weekend between the Saints and the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis may be the most competitive.
The Saints have a well-balanced offense, as Drew Brees no longer has to do everything himself. He has a pair of dangerous running backs in Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara.
In addition to the ground attack, Kamara on the screen pass has become one of the most dangerous plays in the New Orleans playbook.
The Saints are a good match for the Vikings, but Minnesota has the top-ranked defense in the league and home-field advantage.
Minnesota quarterback Case Keenum has been running the offense since replacing injured starter Sam Bradford in Week 2, and he has completed 67.6 percent of his passes with a 22-7 TD-interception ratio.
Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs have stepped up to become a dependable duo, while Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon have given the Vikings a solid running attack.
This could be a game that is decided late, and the Vikings are not going to miss out on this opportunity. Minnesota wins and advances to the NFC title game.