2017 NFL playoffs – Big question for all eight divisional-round teams

NFL


Twelve has become eight, and starting next week, we will start cutting the NFL playoff field in half until the commissioner hands someone the Lombardi Trophy in Minneapolis on Feb. 4.

In this next round, the big guys join the fight, as the four teams that earned first-round byes will host the four teams that won on wild-card weekend. Home teams tend to do quite well in this round — over the last six years, they are 18-6. But two road teams won in this round last year, the Packers in Dallas and the Steelers in Kansas City, so anything can happen.

With that in mind, we look ahead to the divisional-round matchups with one big question for each of the eight teams.

Go to: Resetting the bracket | Schedule and full coverage


AFC

The Jaguars’ quarterback saved his day with 88 rushing yards in Sunday’s 10-3 victory over Buffalo, but it’s startling to look at the box score and see that he had one more rushing yard than he had passing yards (87). Watching the game, it was clear the Jaguars weren’t comfortable asking Bortles to try anything that might lead to a turnover, and they hung on for dear life with their defense. While they beat the Steelers 30-9 in Pittsburgh in Week 5, two of their four touchdowns that day were on interception returns, and the Steelers’ offense hadn’t yet found its stride. Jacksonville can play defense with anyone, and it’s fair to expect Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown (if Brown is healthy enough to play) to not have their best days. But it’s also fair to assume they’ll score more than the three points the Bills scored Sunday against Jacksonville (or the nine Pittsburgh scored in Week 5). Can the Jaguars manufacture enough offense to outscore a rested Steelers squad?

For a team on a bye, the Patriots sure did find themselves all over the news last week thanks to Seth Wickersham’s story on the tension among quarterback Tom Brady, coach Bill Belichick and team owner Robert Kraft. With any other team, this type of controversy would raise legitimate questions about the team’s ability to handle it and still play a playoff game. The Patriots are not just any other team, so you figure Belichick finds a way to turn this into a motivational tool and/or take out his anger on the Titans. But if the tension does affect their preparation or performance, then you’ll really know something unusual is going on at Patriot Place.

So shaken are the Steelers by the number of recent playoff runs that have been done in by injuries to Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown that they made Roethlisberger and Bell healthy inactives for their regular-season finale — even though they had the bye week secured and still technically had a shot at the No. 1 seed. The priority was making it to this week with those guys healthy, and mission accomplished there. The remaining question about the “Killer B’s” is Brown, who left Pittsburgh’s Week 15 game with a serious calf injury and hasn’t played since. Can he go in this one? If so, will he be his usual self?

Assuming another week without running back DeMarco Murray, the Titans will once again want to lean on Derrick Henry in the run game. Henry ran for 114 yards in the second half of Tennessee’s stunning comeback victory in Kansas City on Saturday, averaging 3.8 yards per carry after contact and dominating an overmatched Chiefs defense. The Patriots were a middle-of-the-pack run defense this year, but it’s still hard to imagine that the Titans can afford to fall behind by 18 at the half for the second week in a row. Henry will have to do in the first half against New England what he did in the second half against Kansas City if the Titans have a chance to keep the game under control and steal one in Foxborough.


NFC

Over the final eight weeks of the regular season, only four teams — the Patriots, Vikings, Chargers and Eagles — allowed fewer points per game than the Falcons’ 17.88. Atlanta improved that average in a wild-card matchup in which the Falcons allowed just 13 points to a Rams offense that averaged a league-leading 29.88 points in the regular season. Philadelphia was the league’s third-highest scoring offense in the regular season, and thus, another potentially stiff test (though more on that in a second). Obviously, it helps when you have 37 minutes, 35 seconds of possession on offense, as Atlanta did Saturday. But while the Falcons’ offense doesn’t look as explosive as it did this time last year, they can win playing ball-control and keeping teams out of the end zone.

The Vikings have a smothering defense, high-end receivers, a versatile run game and a quarterback playing the best football of his life. Yes, that quarterback is Case Keenum, and you don’t associate him with quarterbacking greatness. But this isn’t a three-week hot streak. Keenum has been one of the best quarterbacks in the league this year, and assuming he keeps it up, the Vikings could be the most complete team in the NFC. They’re two wins from being the first team ever to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium.

New Orleans Saints: Will they run it or throw it? Does it matter?

The Saints were fifth in the NFL in rushing yards per game and fifth in passing yards per game in the regular season. Carolina seemed to focus Sunday on the stellar Saints running back tandem of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, and Drew Brees responded by shredding them for 376 yards while Ingram and Kamara combined for only 45. Minnesota has the best defense in the league, but it’s not as if Carolina’s defense is some pushover. The Saints are as versatile and balanced as any offense we’ve seen in a while, and they will be a tough out.

Philadelphia Eagles: Is the rest of their roster good enough to overcome the quarterback problem?

The quarterback problem is, of course, the season-ending injury that starter Carson Wentz suffered in Week 14. Nick Foles threw four touchdown passes in his first game as the starter in Wentz’s place. But Foles and the offense struggled badly in the final two games, and there’s legitimate concern about whether the offense can get it done without Wentz picking up every third down. The Eagles should be able to lean on their run game, their very good offensive line and their tough defensive front to win a playoff home game or two. But they don’t appear to be the frightening offensive juggernaut they were when Wentz was healthy.



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