The general belief is there are four contenders for the Super Bowl in the NFC, two in the AFC.
Let’s see if Tennessee or Jacksonville can prove that theory wrong this weekend.
Both AFC South representatives are significant underdogs, the Titans at New England on Saturday night, the Jaguars at Pittsburgh on Sunday. For weeks, it’s been presumed Steelers vs. Patriots will decide who goes to the Super Bowl from the conference.
The Titans and Jaguars want to have their say.
“They’re the champs and these are the types of teams you’ve got to beat if you want to be the champs,” says Tennessee coach Mike Mularkey, who is 0-5 against the Patriots. “You’ve got to beat these teams at their place.”
Jacksonville already has done that, routing the Steelers at Heinz Field 30-9 in Week 5.
“We did beat them the first time, so to have all the confidence coming out of there is interesting,” Jaguars DT Malik Jackson says. “They got a bye week, so they’re probably feeling really confident. We’ll see Sunday.”
Tennessee (10-7) at New England (13-3), Saturday
All the numbers favor the Patriots extending their record of consecutive title games reached to seven. They are, by far, the more experienced side: 14 Patriots players have played at least 10 playoff games. That’s more such players than the 11 other 2017 playoff teams combined (13). Tom Brady has a 6-1 career record against the Titans, throwing for 13 TDs and one interception. He’s 11-2 in 13 divisional-round games since 2002 and has completed 316 of 509 passes for 3,700 yards and 28 TDs in those games.
And amid reported turmoil involving Brady, owner Robert Kraft and coach Bill Belichick, the quarterback isn’t likely to lose focus.
“We do what we always do. We show up to work and try to do the best we can do,” the All-Pro quarterback says. “We know there’s a lot at stake and I think everyone’s put a lot into it. It doesn’t really matter what happened outside of this facility.”
Tennessee has lost six in a row to New England, but comes off a stirring second-half rally at Kansas City from 18 points down, the largest postseason comeback on the road in the Super Bowl era.
Jacksonville (11-6) at Pittsburgh (13-3), Sunday
Ben Roethlisberger had the worst game of his career in that October loss to the Jags. Pittsburgh lost only once after that, at home to the Patriots in a game that decided the AFC’s top seed.
While Roethlisberger probably will play far better than that, the biggest challenge for Jacksonville could be stopping Le’Veon Bell in the running game. The Jaguars ranked first stopping the pass, but 21st against the run.
“I feel great, especially not playing these last two weeks, not going to (training) camp earlier in the year,” Bell says. “I can’t complain. I like where I am. This is the freshest I’ve ever been going into the playoffs so we’ll see how it goes.”
Pittsburgh also gets back receiver Antonio Brown, like Bell an All-Pro this season.
Jacksonville needs far better passing from Blake Bortles. He gained more yards running than throwing vs. Buffalo in the wild-card round.
Atlanta (11-6) at Philadelphia (13-3), Saturday
Although Philly is the No. 1 NFC seed, the Falcons are favored. Part of that owes to Atlanta’s impressive work in winning at the Los Angeles Rams last week. Part has to do with the Falcons nearly winning the Super Bowl last February.
And part has to do with Nick Foles being the Eagles’ quarterback instead of the injured Carson Wentz.
Foles, though, has had some success in Philadelphia.
“It’s just going out there and playing and staying in the zone and trusting my instincts,” Foles says. “I’ve played this game a long time. There’s a reason I’ve been able to do what I’ve been able to do. When I play my best and I’m most comfortable, I just go out there and play.”
By contrast, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan has a passer rating of at least 100 in five straight postseason games, tied for the second-longest streak in league history. Only Joe Montana had a longer string with eight.
New Orleans (12-5) at Minnesota (13-3), Sunday
Minnesota easily handled New Orleans in the season opener, eons ago in NFL terms. The Vikings had a different quarterback then in Sam Bradford. Case Keenum has put together a superb stretch of games since replacing the injured Bradford.
The Saints’ RB tandem of Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara wasn’t quite in place yet, either. And the New Orleans defense didn’t come to fruition until Week 3.
Minnesota’s D is balanced from front to back, so how Drew Brees deals with it could be the decider here.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards says, “you have a first ballot Hall of Fame quarterback that does an excellent job of going out and executing their game from week to week. Our work will be cut out for us keeping them contained and hopefully giving them some things that can cause them some problems.”
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