We are down to 8 in the NFL. The League’s “Elite Eight.” The games are interesting as it has a vibe of “South vs. North” in all of them. We will start in the NFC as the defending NFC champion Falcons as a #6 seed beat the Rams relatively decisively while the Saints exploded against Carolina early but nearly blew it down the stretch. The Falcons face off against the Eagles and the Saints travel to Minnesota to battle the Vikings. So let’s look at both games here.
ATLANTA FALCONS AT PHILADELPHIA EAGLES, 4:35, SATURDAY: Not often will you ever see the bottom seed be a favorite against the top seed like you see between the Falcons and Eagles. But people have really soured on Philadelphia when Carson Wentz lost. Of course, the three games after where they nearly lost to lowly New York and an underachieving Oakland team while losing to Dallas in the final week did not help matters. However, the Eagles will be playing in a loud Lincoln Financial Field that has also been a Little Shop of Horrors for Atlanta over the years (1-4 all-time), including last year when the Eagles were the only team to really decisively beat Atlanta so is it a given the Falcons roll in and beat the Wentz-less Eagles?
FALCONS WIN IF:
THEY GET TO FOLES: Obviously. He isn’t as mobile as Wentz and is inconsistent. Plus, Atlanta’s defense has been once again getting better as the weeks go by. If the Falcons pressure Foles, it may be a long day for Philadelphia.
THEY TAKE AN EARLY LEAD: What to do with a loud crowd and one that is on you like Philadelphia’s? Shut them up by getting a few early scores. And it makes Foles HAVING to pass.
THEY CONTINUE TO EXECUTE ON THE OFFENSE: Despite putting only 26 points up on the Rams and only 2 TD’s, most people believe the Falcons offense played one of their best games all year. They used their weapons very well from the running game to the passing game. Philly’s defense is nothing to scoff at, so the Falcons HAVE to be perfect like they were last weekend in Los Angeles.
EAGLES WIN IF:
THEY WIN THE TIME OF POSSESSION WAR: If you want to beat Atlanta, keep the ball away from Matt Ryan & Co. AND gas out the defense. When teams beat Atlanta, that has been the formula it seems. Which means, run the ball with success (and the Falcons have struggled on the run at times) and you can wear them out. It worked last year in Philadelphia and it may be the only thing that can work this year.
DISRUPT RYAN’S RHYTHM: Ryan, when he is on, is as good as anybody in the NFL. But if you pressure him just enough, he will be rattled and have those “blocks” in his head where he may hear footsteps and rush throws. If the Eagles do that, they can hold Atlanta down.
WIN THE SPECIAL TEAMS WARS: Average yard line start, punts, FG’s, etc. This is where the Eagles cannot give Atlanta any good field position in the games or they will hurt you. And on the other side, starting on midfield against Atlanta’s defense is a must.
MY TAKE: It is very hard to think Foles can beat Atlanta. But the Eagles defense is stout and if Foles is able to get it anywhere near Jeffery, Agholor, Ertz, they can make it a problem. However, Foles isn’t necessarily the guy I would want behind the helm to lead a playoff team and one that is a young group like Philadelphia. Atlanta is playing with a lot of poise and have that feeling of “you better bring your ‘A’ game on us because we are going to kick your butt” and that is scary for any team left in the playoffs. Philadelphia will keep the Falcons offense down a bit, but I think because of the Eagles struggles on offense with Wentz not there, it may not be enough. FALCONS 20, EAGLES 7
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS AT MINNESOTA VIKINGS, 4:40, SUNDAY: This is a rematch of the Week 1 tilt where the Vikings handled the Saints relatively easily. But those two teams are far different than what we will see Sunday. First off, Sam Bradford isn’t at the helm for Minnesota while Case Keenum is. Dalvin Cook, who shredded New Orleans in the opening week, was lost with a knee injury and veteran Latavius Murray. Adrian Peterson, who was supposed to give the Saints that added dimension to the offense from Minnesota, is long gone too and Alvin Kamara made an impact as he will garner Rookie of the Year votes, and he has mine. That said, the Saints are slowly getting more and more dinged up in the secondary while the offensive line struggled with injuries. It was no surprise after the injuries were happening last week at New Orleans, the Saints allowed Carolina to come back. And Carolina, while they were better on defense this year than last, isn’t Minnesota’s.
SAINTS WIN IF:
THEY ESTABLISH A RUNNING GAME: Easier said than done. Minnesota is ranked #2 in the league against the run and with two offensive linemen out, the Saints will have problems getting Ingram going and in that case, Kamara going. But if they can, this will be a huge jolt.
BREES DOESN’T LET ‘ER RIP: What should disturb Saints fans in that Carolina game was the fact they went into their old habits of just gun-slinging the ball like they did last week and nearly let Carolina win that game. They have to keep it balanced, even if the run game isn’t as stout. He needs to use Kamara as much as he can.
CAMERON JORDAN WREAKS HAVOC ON CASE KEENUM: The Saints will have to test Keenum’s resolve. Keenum had a great year this year but there are still questions abound if he is a truly legit QB. Jordan had an amazing year and deserves Defensive Player of the Year consideration. If Jordan causes a lot of havoc on Keenum, it will be very problematic.
VIKINGS WIN IF:
CASE KEENUM STEPS UP: Keenum silenced a lot of critics this year with his play. He’s nothing flashy for sure, but he has done what Mike Zimmer asked him to do. But now the new wave is can Keenum win a playoff game? New Orleans is dinged up on defense so the situation is set up perfectly for him to have a good game and take the Vikings to the NFC Championship.
THEY KEEP BREES ON THE SIDELINE: Take away the quick offense the Saints can do and keep them watching with the likes of Murray and Jerick McKinnon (while not as advertised like Ingram/Kamara and Freeman/Coleman, still a good duo) running the ball. The Vikings can run the ball very well (7th) and the Saints are a middle-of-the-road team with the rush defense. You can expect the Vikings to try to gas out the Saints thinning defense here.
THEY KEEP THE CROWD LOUD: The Vikings will need to get early stops on Brees to really amp up the Minnesota crowd. I don’t know if the Saints are a team that you can really jump ahead on and think “well, this is it, game over.” Not with Brees there. But they can really play with that boost from the home crowd as the Saints will be in a dome that is NOT for them. That may be more of an adjustment than a team like Atlanta where they know they are on the road and it is outdoors.
MY TAKE: Vikings fans haven’t forgotten Bounty-gate and how the Saints quite possibly injured Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC Championship on purpose. They will let Sean Payton have it Sunday. But also, the Saints are not a great team away from the Superdome and haven’t been for a while. The Vikings can really offset whatever the Saints want to do in this game and could create problems for Brees and Co. That said, you can also never count out Brees. However, I just think the Saints are getting too thin on key spots and it will take its toll in this game. Brees will get sacked more than a few times and may throw a costly INT while the Vikings will keep it on the ground. VIKINGS 31, SAINTS 20
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat