Atlanta Falcons (-3) at Philadelphia Eagles: Of the past 23 Super Bowl runners-up, only 13 even made the playoffs the following season. And of those 13 clubs, 11 were gone after the divisional round, so history is not on the side of the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons this week. Nevertheless, the Falcons showed some strong play on the defensive side of the ball in last week's wildcard win over the L.A. Rams, who featured the top scoring offense in the NFL.
Despite being the top seed in the NFC, the Eagles are hardly prohibitive favorites to win it all due to starting QB Carson Wentz, who was in the midst of an MVP caliber season before his Week 14 knee injury, being lost for the season. While backup Nick Foles made some plays in the remainder of that week 14 contest vs. the Rams as well as had a solid start the following week against the NY Giants, he was (to be charitable) very underwhelming the final two games of the regular season. As such, expect heavy doses of running backs LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi against an Atlanta defense which is vulnerable against the run (4.1 Yards Per Carry allowed).
In the end, the Falcons will likely key on the Eagles' running attack, thus forcing Foles to beat them. Hard to see Foles being capable of such a thing.
Atlanta 20 Philadelphia 14
Tennessee Titans (+13-1/2) at New England Patriots: An average Titans squad rallied from down 18 points at halftime on the road last week to defeat the Kansas City Chiefs 22-21. Their reward? The defending Super Bowl champions.
No doubt the Pats have received endless questions this week regarding the story of cracks developing in their dynasty wall. Whether Seth Wickersham's piece is true or not is irrelevant. There aren't many pro sports teams I know of who can completely eradicate distractions and laser focus on the next game.
New England 31 Tennessee 14
Jacksonville Jaguars (+7) at Pittsburgh Steelers: This is a rematch of a Week 5 contest where the Jags went into Pittsburgh and crushed the Steelers 30-9. Jacksonville intercepted Ben Roethlisberger five times (two went for touchdowns) while their offense generated 231 yards rushing. With Jaguars QB Blake Bortles still struggling, Jacksonville will need a similar effort running the ball to have a chance this game.
It appears Steelers All Pro WR Antonio Brown will return this week after suffering a torn calf muscle last month. Brown had 10 receptions for 157 yards against Jacksonville in their October matchup. If the Steelers don't turn the ball over and feature stud RB Le'Veon Bell against a defense in the bottom five of the NFL in terms of yards per rush allowed, they should roll.
Pittsburgh 30 Jacksonville 20
New Orleans Saints (+5) at Minnesota Vikings: These two teams faced off on the opening Monday night of the 2017 season, a game which the Vikings won handily. However, the Saints are markedly better since that game as is the Vikes' top ranked defense.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Vikings have lost their starting quarterback (Sam Bradford), tailback (Dalvin Cook) and left guard (Nick Easton) since week one. Nevertheless, backup QB Case Keenum has put up very good numbers in 14 starts with over 3,500 yards passing, 22 TDs, only 7 INTs and a career high 98.3 QB rating. And the Vikes have found a nice balance in the backfield with RBs Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon.
Speaking of running backs, the Saints feature the first RB duo in NFL history to rack up 1,500 yards total offense each in Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. That said, the two had only 68 yards of offense combined in last week's victory over the Carolina Panthers. For most teams that would be a problem, but then most teams don't have a Hall of Fame quarterback who is still playing at a high level. In his 11th season with New Orleans, QB Drew Brees, who turns 39 on Monday, threw for at least 4,000 yards for the eleventh consecutive year. He also sliced up Carolina's defense last week with 376 yards passing and a pair of touchdowns.
As a Vikings fan, I felt that the Saints would be the toughest draw for my favorite club among the NFC field. Now the Vikes get a crack at 'em. The difference in this game will be the Vikings' defense. They're healthy, well rested and ready to prove that their #1 ranking is not a fluke.
Minnesota 24 New Orleans 21
Against the Spread: 3-1
Straight Up: 3-1