Last weekend’s NFC wild-card games gave us an impressive upset win on the road by the defending conference champions and a vintage performance from one of the league’s best-ever quarterbacks.
And the NFC divisional games offer just as many intriguing storylines. First on Saturday, the conference’s top seed — without its franchise player — host the No. 6 Falcons, on a mission to avenge last season’s embarrassing Super Bowl loss. Then on Sunday, the league’s No. 2 offence takes on the No. 1 defence in a game that could decide the host of the NFC title game (depending on how Philadelphia fares).
Here are four things to watch in the NFC divisional round:
No. 6 Atlanta Falcons (10-6) at No. 1 Philadelphia Eagles (13-3)
Saturday 4:35 p.m. ET
Nick Foles and the Eagles’ offensive strategy
Nothing has come easy for the Eagles offence since Carson Wentz went down with a season-ending injury: Philadelphia couldn’t mustre more than 220 total yards in its final two games of the season, turned the ball over four times and was shut out in Week 17.
The play of backup-turned-starter Nick Foles has been particularly concerning for the NFC’s No. 1 seed, completing fewer than 47 per cent of his passes for one TD, two interceptions and a 48.2 rating in Weeks 16 and 17.
So how can the Eagles — the first No. 1 seed ever to be home underdogs in their first playoff game — overcome their offensive woes and beat the surging Falcons?
Run the football and control the clock.
Philadelphia lost the time-of-possession battle in both of their final two games of the season, and ran the ball 21 and 18 times, respectively. That’s far too few with Wentz on the sidelines and LeGarrette Blount (4.4 yards per carry) and Jay Ajayi (5.8 yards per carry) in the backfield.
If we look to the regular season for examples, twice the Eagles surpassed 200 yards rushing — in Week 4 versus the Chargers (214 yards) and Week 11 against the Cowboys. In those contests, Philly rushed the ball 42 and 32 times, respectively, and had more than 39 minutes of possession against Los Angeles. Doug Pederson should attempt a similar strategy against the Falcons.
Getting Ajayi and Blount involved in Saturday’s game early and often will be the key to victory, but against this Atlanta defence it will be easier said than done…
High-flying Falcons defence
The Falcons boasted one of the league’s best defences over the final five weeks of the regular season, and carried that momentum into Los Angeles with an impressive wild-card win over the Rams last Saturday.
Atlanta held the NFL’s highest-scoring offence to a measly 13 points.
The Falcons are giving up just 84.4 yards on the ground over the last five games, which could spell trouble for an Eagles offence whose struggles we’ve already noted. Even if Philadelphia keys in on running the ball this weekend, more stellar play from the Atlanta rush defence could mean Foles will have to win the game through the air, something the Falcons will likely be banking on.
No. 4 New Orleans Saints (11-5) at No. 2 Minnesota Vikings (13-3)
Sunday 4:40 p.m. ET
No. 2 offence vs. No. 1 defence
The best game of the weekend features New Orleans’ second-ranked offence against the Vikings and the league’s top defence, a treat NFL fans have rarely been treated to.
While history doesn’t favour New Orleans, it’s hard not to like what the Saints are doing right now. In Drew Brees, Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, New Orleans have four of the NFL’s most dangerous weapons.
And this team can beat you in so many ways. An offence that leaned heavily on the running game provided by Kamara and Ingram all season long was bottled up by the Carolina Panthers last weekend to the tune of just 41 rushing yards.
No big deal. Just put the ball in the hands of a future Hall of Famer.
On the flip side, Minnesota’s regular-season defensive numbers are mind-boggling: 15.75 points per game (1st), 275.9 yards per game (1st), 13 pass TDs allowed (1st), 192.4 pass yards per game (2nd), 83.6 rush yards per game (2nd).
In eight home games, the Vikings are surrendering less than 250 total yards per game, holding opponents to an average of just 55 yards on the ground, and haven’t given up more than 19 points in a single contest — ironically those 19 points were scored by New Orleans in Week 1.
“Defence wins championships” is a sports cliche for reason, and there’s every reason to believe the Vikings have the backbone to win a title. But you can bet Drew Brees and Co. will pose a stiff challenge on Sunday.
Can Case Keenum keep rolling?
While the Vikings defence is top-notch, it’s been no surprise after being a top-six unit last season. The real shocker in Minnesota has been the play of its backup quarterback, Case Keenum, and the success of the Vikings offence after losing two opening-day starters in Sam Bradford and rookie running back Dalvin Cook.
The offence hasn’t skipped a beat, however, since losing two key contributors in September. Keenum, a career backup/Rams bridge QB, has found an incredible rapport with receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, and leads a Vikings offence that ranked 10th in points scored and 11th in total yards in 2017.
The 29-year-old quarterback threw 13 more TDs (22) than his previous season-high (9), won seven more games as a starter than his previous high (4), and ranks among the NFL’s best at the position.
But how will he respond to the pressures of the post-season? Keenum has never suited up in a playoff game, let alone battled against a future Hall of Famer with the potential of making the Vikings the first team to ever play in a Super Bowl at home hanging over he and his entire team.
Keenum has had a career year and turned critics into believers in just five short months, but all of that will mean very little if the Vikings fail to record a post-season win after such a remarkable year.