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Sunday, June 17, 2018

10 keys to watch for NFL divisional weekend

Nick Foles

A strange and unusual wild-card weekend gives way to the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, with the league’s best teams entering the fray after their bye weeks. The pressure is really on now, and there are lots of factors that will go into who advances to the final four of these playoffs.

Here’s a look at 10 important factors to watch during the weekend’s games.

1. How will the Eagles utilize their Nick Foles-led offense?

It would be fair to say that the Eagles haven’t exactly looked encouraging with Nick Foles under center. He struggled heavily against the Oakland Raiders and looked no better in the season finale against Dallas. The Atlanta Falcons have a strong defense, so Foles will have his hands full any way you look at it. Ultimately, that Carson Wentz injury could end up being the difference between playoff success and failure for Philadelphia.

2. Which defense will reign supreme in Philadelphia?

The Eagles and Falcons boast two of the NFL’s best defenses, and whichever one performs the best may well win the game for their team. Atlanta shut down the Los Angeles Rams during the wild-card round. Their elite run defense could really hamstring a Foles-led Philadelphia offense. The Eagles are no slouches in this department either. If anything, their defense was underrated because many were focusing on Wentz’s excellence during the regular season. The defensive side of the ball is probably where this game will be decided.

3. ESPN may have given a big gift to the New England Patriots

Even if ESPN’s deep dive into the behind-the-scenes dysfunction of the New England Patriots is completely and totally accurate, it’s also probably the best thing that could have happened to the team. This is an organization that is at its best with a chip on its collective shoulders. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are probably very mad right now, and nothing could have united them better than an inflammatory story about their relationship on the eve of the playoffs. They may well raise their game after this. The Tennessee Titans may be the first victim.

4. Two Patriots coordinators may be looking to impress

Both Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have been tipped to be leading candidates for the various head coaching positions around the league, which could put a unique twist on Saturday night’s contest. Bill Belichick won’t tolerate anything less than laser focus, but it’s fair to say teams with vacancies could be watching closely to see how both McDaniels and Patricia handle themselves against the Titans. An underwhelming performance from either of their units probably won’t cost them a job, but if they can tune out the noise and look good doing it, it will only help them.

5. The Steelers’ chances could hinge on Le’Veon Bell

Though the Jacksonville Jaguars have one of the league’s leading defenses, much of the damage they’ve done has come in pass defense. While their run defense isn’t awful, it certainly lags behind the secondary, and that could be a problem when they come up against Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell. He’s one of the NFL’s very best running backs, and after an injured LeSean McCoy racked up four yards per carry against the Jaguars, a fully healthy Bell may be a huge problem for them. It could even be the difference in the game.

6. Is Antonio Brown as healthy as everyone thinks?

The Steelers sure seem to believe that Brown, who missed Pittsburgh’s final two games of the season with a partially torn calf muscle, will be fully healthy and good to go for Sunday. Perhaps he will be. He certainly seems like a sure bet to play. That said, he hasn’t seen game action in nearly a month, and being thrown into a very tough matchup with Jalen Ramsey isn’t exactly a soft landing. Brown may well be fine, but we won’t really know until we see him play and assess his ability to impact this game.

7. How competent will Blake Bortles be, and will it be competent enough?

Bortles ran for more yards than he threw for against the Buffalo Bills — 88 to 87, if you’re counting. While that worked just well enough in the playoff opener, the Pittsburgh Steelers will represent a sterner test in more ways than one. They’re better all around than the Bills, meaning Bortles might have to score more points against a tougher defense. Jacksonville’s defense is good enough to give Bortles a chance, and he may not even have to be great to win, but he may have to be better than he was against Buffalo.

8. How will Case Keenum handle his first career playoff start?

It’s difficult to be a starting quarterback making a playoff debut, no matter how much of a veteran you are. Keenum has been around the block in the NFL, but this will be his first ever postseason appearance. He’ll be up against a very strong Saints team as well. This game may come down to how well Keenum handles the pressure. He’s at home, his team’s stadium is hosting the Super Bowl, and expectations are high from a long-suffering fanbase used to playoff disappointment. If he wilts, it’s over. If not, Minnesota’s dream may well be alive.

9. Can Drew Brees still handle the league’s elite defenses?

Brees certainly looked competent enough against the Carolina Panthers, but the Vikings could be an entirely different animal. Minnesota’s elite defense overwhelmed the Saints in the regular season opener, and Brees will be on the road in this one, too. Brees obviously has plenty of experience picking apart the league’s best defenses, but this should be a big test of his ability. He’s still getting it done just shy of his 39th birthday — he’ll have to look about ten years younger than he actually is if he wants to get past this test.

10. The Vikings must fend off the ghosts of playoffs past

The Atlanta Falcons are probably the only team left in these playoffs that can argue they’re fighting against history more than the Minnesota Vikings are. This is a team that has entered the playoffs with high expectations before, only to see it scuttled. There was Brett Favre’s interception against these very Saints in the 2009 NFC Championship, there was Blair Walsh’s chip shot miss against the Seattle Seahawks in 2016, and there was the infamous Gary Anderson miss in the 1998 season. No pressure, Kai Forbath. With Minnesota hosting the Super Bowl this year, there’s even more incentive than usual, and arguably more pressure. Bad things have happened to the Vikings in the past at this point of the season, and they’ll have that hanging over them until they break through.

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