NFL PLAYOFFS / DIVISIONAL ROUND
GREG COTE’S NFL PICKS OF THE WEEK
TITANS (10-7, No. 5 seed) at PATRIOTS (13-3, No. 1)
LINE: NE by 13 1/2.
COTE’S PICK: NE 31-13.
TV: 8:15 p.m. Saturday, CBS.
ESPN pulled the pin on a hand grenade and tossed it into New England’s camp this week with that (strongly denied) story alleging dissension among Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft, some of it over the trade of Jimmy Garoppolo. “Ooh, the dynasty is crumbling! Maybe the Patriots will be distracted and ripe for a big upset in Saturday’s prime-time game!” Yeah, sure. Just like Brady’s four-game Deflategate suspension kept the Pats from winning the Super Bowl last season, right? This team is as impervious to distractions as the rhinoceros is in the wild to that small bird perched on his tough hide. Sorry, Dolfans, but I give the Titans next to zero shot at beating Miami’s nemesis. Pats have won six in a row over Tennessee, which last won in Foxborough as the Houston Oilers (!) in 1993. As a head coach Mike Mularkey is 0-6 vs. New England. And the Titans will again be missing top RB DeMarco Murray here, while NE’s ground game will be fortified by the expected return of James White and Rex Burkhead. Titans safety Kevin Byard said this week his team plans to make Brady “look like Blake Bortles.” Um, good luck with that! Sidelight: This will be Belichick’s 37th career postseason game, surpassing two guys named Tom Landry and Don Shula for the most ever.
JAGUARS (11-6, No. 3) at STEELERS (13-3, No. 2)
LINE: PIT by 7.
COTE’S PICK: PIT 24-16.
TV: 1:05 p.m. Sunday, CBS.
Strange framework for Sunday’s early game. The Jaguars visited Heinz Field Oct. 8 this season and dominated, 30-9, creating for Ben Roethlisberger a living nightmare in which he threw five interceptions — two returned for TDs. And yet I have high confidence in liking Pittsburgh in this high-stakes rematch that will complete the AFC Championship Game pairing. Jacksonville’s defense especially against the pass is elite — Jalen Ramsey covering Antonio Brown will be the worth the price of admission — but the Jags’ recently struggling offense will be no match for Pittsburgh if the score gets big. Jax’s best hope is to turn this into an artless game like last week’s 10-3 escape vs. Buffalo, but I doubt it can. It is more likely that Pitt’s defense makes it a rough afternoon for Bortles than it is Big Ben struggling again the way he did three months ago. And the Jaguars’ run defense is just OK, by the way, so Le’Veon Bell could bust out big. Sidelight: Until last week, Jacksonville had not won a home playoff game since the 1999 season, the unfortunately memorable 62-7 rout of the Dolphins in what would be Dan Marino’s final game.
FALCONS (11-6, No. 6 seed) at EAGLES (13-3, No. 1 seed)
LINE: ATL by 3.
COTE’S PICK: ATL 24-20.
TV: 4:35 p.m. Saturday, NBC.
OK the AFC was the simple side of this Divisional Round. Now we get to the NFC, where there’s a legitimate argument no matter who you pick in either game. This Bird Bowl kicks off the weekend with Philadelphia the first No. 1 seed ever to make its postseason debut as an underdog — let alone a home underdog. The main reason? The steep QB drop-off from Carson Wentz, who was a strong MVP candidate before his injury, to Nick Foles. Other factors: Eagles are in their first postseason in four years and seeking their first playoff win since 2008, and Doug Pederson is the only head coach of eight still standing who is working his first career playoff game. By contrast, Falcons are reigning NFC champions, and so bettors resisted a top seed getting points and pushed the line up from an opening 2 1/2. Still, I give Philly a very strong upset shot here, especially because Atlanta has produced only eight offensive TDs across the past six games. Sidelight: ATL’s Matt Ryan has had five consecutive playoff games with a 100-plus passer rating dating to 2012, including last week. Only Joe Montana (eight straight in 1988-90) had a longer postseason streak.
SAINTS (12-5, No. 4) at VIKINGS (13-3, No. 2)
LINE: MIN by 5.
COTE’S PICK: NO 27-23.
TV: 4:40 p.m. Sunday, Fox.
This one wraps up the weekend and sets the NFC Championship Game matchup, and for me it looks like the best duel -- the one of the four I’d watch if I could ogle only one. I get why Vikes are home faves as they angle to play in the Super Bowl their city is hosting. Minny beat N’Awlins in the season opener 29-19 has a really stout defense, and Case Keenum is quietly but legitimately an MVP contender. Also, Purples enter this game healthier overall than the Fleur-de-lis. I just have a gut feeling about the Saints, though. A feeling this could be their year. Drew Brees is still elite level, as he reminded with last week’s 376-yard performance when Carolina’s defense emphasized bottling up the run and dared Brees to beat them. Now, though, Brees’ arm is festooned with a dynamic ground game in Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, plus probably the best defense he has ever had. I see that pass rush bothering Keenum. So: Upset! Sidelight: In Ingram and the rookie Kamara, New Orleans this season became the first team in 42 years to send two running backs to the Pro Bowl, since the 1975 St. Louis Cardinals did it with with Terry Metcalf and Jim Otis.
HOW THE DARTS LANDED
Forged a solid start to our NFL playoff run last week on Wild-Card Weekend. Went 3-1 overall and 2-2 against the spread. We bull’s-eyed a major upset in Falcons winning at Rams, and also correctly had Panthers covering at Saints. Did not anticipate yet another massive home choke by the gagging Chiefs. Nevertheless, after the regular season we endured -- our .609 straight-up below average and the .432 ATS our worst ever in 27 years doing this -- the start of our postseason felt like Mardi Gras. Suddenly I am on a float, being showered with beads and stuffing my maw with King cake as I sail on toward the Super Bowl!
Overall Pct. Vs. Spread Pct.
Playoffs 3-1 .750 2-2 .500
Final 2017 156-100 .609 102-137-17 .432
Final 2016 159-95-2 .626 139-109-8 .560