NFL divisional round: It's all about the quarterbacks
Each game features a tested vs. inexperienced pivot
Quarterback is probably the most important position in sports.
NHL goaltenders Carey Price, Matt Murray and the like may beg to differ, but how often does a weak quarterback get carried to the Super Bowl?
Last year, the Super Bowl matchup was Tom Brady against Matt Ryan. The year before, it was Cam Newton vs. Peyton Manning. 2015 featured Brady and Russell Wilson. 2014, Wilson and Manning. 2013, Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick. 2012 was Brady and Eli Manning. 2011 pitted Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers.
The point being: Only 2016 Manning was a bad quarterback hauled to the big game by an elite defence.
This weekend, each playoff game features a weathered playoff quarterback against an untested one.
If you saw these matchups before the season, you'd expect Ryan's Falcons to crush the Nick Foles-led Eagles. Brees and the Saints would run past Case Keenum's Vikings. And in the AFC, it's Roethlisberger vs. Blake Bortles and Brady vs. Marcus Mariota. Are you kidding me?
Still, there's reason for optimism for the weaker bunch, and here's betting one of them even wins.
Atlanta Falcons (-3) at Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles are the first No. 1 seed ever to begin the playoffs as an underdog. Of course, wild-card weekend saw all four underdogs cover the spread, with two winning straight up. So the Eagles can feel good about that. Plus, they've already begun their "no one believes in us" campaign, with veteran Lane Johnson saying they "got treated like the [0-16] Browns" after Carson Wentz tore an ACL.
Johnson has a point: the Eagles still boast a fearsome running game and a deadly pass rush. But that formula should sound familiar to the Falcons, who just beat a Rams team featuring Todd Gurley and Aaron Donald. And in this game, Ryan's experience and talent level will be too much for Foles and the Eagles to overcome.
Pick: Falcons win and cover.
Tennessee Titans (+13.5) at New England Patriots
The Titans overcame a 21-3 deficit last week to oust the Kansas City Chiefs, a combination of poor refereeing and Mariota's heroics. Still, Tennessee was widely regarded as the worst playoff team before last week; nothing has changed now.
The Patriots, meanwhile, were dealt some adversity when ESPN reported a rift between Brady, head coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft. You could think that would hurt their chemistry, but you would be wrong. They won the Super Bowl in the year of Brady's deflategate suspension and in the year of the spygate scandal. They feed off adversity. The Titans are their first victims.
Pick: Patriots cruise to victory and easily cover.
Jacksonville Jaguars (+7.5) at Pittsburgh Steelers
Jaguars glass-half-full take: Bortles is undefeated in the playoffs! He ran for 88 yards last week! Tyrod Taylor was limited to 17-37 for 134 yards and one interception! The defence is so good, they only need 10 points to win! They forced Roethlisberger into five picks earlier this season!
Jaguars glass-half-empty take: Bortles couldn't throw screen passes accurately last week. He only threw for 87 yards. Roethlisberger is a much better opponent than Taylor, and he'll be playing at home. The defence is elite, but good luck beating the Steelers with just 10 points. And since Roethlisberger's disaster, he's thrown 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Pick: It's too hard to see Bortles scoring enough to keep up with the Steelers, but the defence should at least keep Jacksonville close. Steelers win, but Jags cover.
New Orleans Saints (+4) at Minnesota Vikings
This is the most interesting quarterback matchup. Brees is a sure-fire Hall of Famer, and one of the best players of his generation. But his play slipped this season, with the Saints shifting toward a more screen and run-oriented offence.
Meanwhile, Keenum went from afterthought to placeholder to MVP dark horse. The Vikings run a system that plays to Keenum's strengths, and combined with their league-best defence, it produced a winning formula. That means the biggest gap between Keenum and Brees is playoff experience, with the former making his debut and the latter on his 13th playoff start.
Pick: The line is a point too high to take the Vikings against the spread, but their defence should take care of business to secure the home win.