Eagles

Divisional round predictions as NFL playoffs heat up

Divisional round predictions as NFL playoffs heat up

Derrick Gunn makes his divisional round predictions.

Falcons at Eagles, Saturday, 4:35 p.m. on NBC
The defending NFC champion Falcons backed their way into the playoffs, and then last weekend made an impressive postseason showing on the road against the Rams. But this isn't the high-powered Falcons' offense that averaged 33 points per game in 2016. In 2017, with basically the same personnel, it struggled to average 22 points. But the difference this season, the Falcons' defense has played better. The team's front seven is on the small side, but fast. The secondary is aggressive and well versed in man-to-man coverage. 

The jury is split on Nick Foles and whether he can handle the postseason pressure or not. The Falcons' D is not stout against the run. The Eagles have the necessary stable of backfield horses and need to establish a ground game early and stick to it. Go north and south against the Falcons, not lateral, which plays to their defensive speed. Doug Pederson needs to shorten up the passing game to keep the heat off Foles. Jim Schwartz's guys up front have to get to Matt Ryan to make him as uncomfortable as possible and keep Ryan from finding Julio Jones.

When the Falcons have scored 20 or more points this season, they're 11-0 (including the playoff win over the Rams). When they've been held to 17 points or less, they're 0-6. The Linc will be rocking. The Eagles feel disrespected that they're the underdogs. This should be a knockdown drag-out brawl. When the dust settles, look for the Eagles to still be standing.

Pick: Eagles, 23-17

Titans at Patriots, Saturday, 8:15 p.m. on CBS
An impressive wild-card comeback win by the Titans at Kansas City. The Patriots are heavy favorites but don't underestimate the fight in the Titans. They beat Jacksonville twice this season and pulled off a shocker over the Chiefs. Titans RB DeMarco Murray will miss a third straight game because of an MCL tear, but Derrick Henry is capable of a heavy workload. Henry ran for 156 yards on 23 carries vs. K.C. Tennessee can run on the Patriots' 29th-ranked defense, but scoring is another matter. The Pats give up only 18.5 points per game. New England will be hard-pressed to find success trying to run against the Titans' fourth-ranked run defense, but that's OK because Tom Brady and his top-ranked offense live through the air. The Titans have been a great story, but the defending Super Bowl champs will write the final chapter to Tennessee's season.

Pick: Patriots

Jaguars at Steelers, Sunday, 1:05 p.m. on CBS
Back in Week 5 of the regular season, the Jaguars sent a message to the rest of the league that they were for real when they rolled over the Steelers — which included picking off five Ben Roethlisberger passes. After that embarrassment, the Steelers went on to win 10 of their final 11 games. I can't wait to see Antonio Brown back on the field, going against arguably the best cornerback tandem in the league in Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. Jacksonville's rugged second-ranked defense will have to be at the top of its game to slow down the Steelers' offense. Blake Bortles is a limited quarterback and that will be the Jags' demise against the blitzing Steelers. The Jags' defense can only keep the Steelers' O from scoring for so long, and without getting much help from its offense, Jacksonville will have a long disappointing flight home.

Pick: Steelers

Saints at Vikings, Sunday, 4:40 p.m. on FOX
New Orleans has come a long way since its season-opening loss to the Vikings, but so has Minnesota. What's not to like about the Vikings' No. 1 defense (275.9 yards per game allowed; No. 2 vs. the run at 83.6 yards per game; and No. 1 in scoring defense at 15.8 points per game)? Drew Brees will need RBs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram to loosen up the Vikings' defense in the run and pass game. Both RBs tallied over 1,500 yards of total offense this season. Vikings QB Case Keenum has had a phenomenal season — 67.6 completion percentage, 22 TDs, seven INTs. The Vikings' defensive front will apply the pressure, but Brees has been dropped only 21 times this season. So many scenarios could play out in this one, but the Vikings are tough to beat in their home (7-1 home record). They will successfully defend their turf.

Pick: Vikings

The pick-six that 'everyone down Broad Street heard'

The pick-six that 'everyone down Broad Street heard'

Patrick Robinson was talking a little trash with some Eagles teammates before the NFC Championship, so when he came up with an interception, he sort of had to back it up.

“Two hours before the game, I was like, 'When I get a pick, I'm not going out of bounds,'" Robinson said. "When I got it, I was running down the sideline, and I was like, 'No, I definitely can't go out of bounds,' so I just cut it back upfield.”

The end result was a 50-yard return for a touchdown — a play that served to energize the Eagles, the home crowd and an entire fan base during the 38-7 win over the Vikings (see Roob's observations).

“I don't think it just pumped up the offense," Nick Foles said. "I think it pumped up the whole City of Philadelphia. I think everyone down Broad Street heard that.”

Not only did Robinson's pick-six tie the score at seven in the first quarter, it shifted the momentum in the Eagles' favor permanently.

There was an uneasy feeling over Lincoln Financial Field after the Vikings marched straight down the field on a nine-play touchdown drive. A penalty on the ensuing Eagles punt improved Minnesota's field position, while a conversion on third-and-long moved the offense close to midfield. Nothing was going right.

"We had to make a play because they drove right down and scored," Chris Long said. "If we didn't have believe in ourselves and a little toughness, you might've thought, 'Oh, man, it's gonna be a long night.' I know some people probably thought that watching on TV or whatever, but we know what we're capable of as a defense.

“On us, on defense, we had to go out and make a big play and create a turnover.”

Long did exactly that. The 32-year-old pass rusher beat the protection and reached Vikings quarterback Case Keenum mid-throw. The result was a pass that came up woefully short of its intended target — what Robinson described as "an easy pick."

Far less simple was the return. Robinson began by running down the sideline with a convoy of Eagles defenders. Then, with precious little room to maneuver and a promise not to run out of bounds, he cut all the way across to the opposite side of the field, outracing the remaining Vikings players to the pylon.

It was a runback worthy of a certain Eagles All-Pro punt returner.

“Pat, man, he was unbelievable out there," Long said. "He was like Darren Sproles with the ball.”

Robinson was happy to play the part, at one point directing fellow cornerback Ronald Darby to throw a key block that ultimately allowed him to get into the end zone.

“A lot of times you get a pick, there's always one guy that slips through the pack and gets a guy who has the ball," Robinson said. "But this time, all our guys were running hard and trying to make blocks for me.”

For a team that's leaned on home-field advantage all season long, winning nine games in their own building, you better believe that play came at a critical juncture in the contest.

"It got the crowd into it," Malcolm Jenkins said. "Defensively, that first drive, we were kind of uncharacteristic in the run game, missing tackles, just kind of leaky and unsettled. Once we got that, we evened the score back up, it was, 'OK, that was our restart.'

“The crowd is into it. Our offense got going. Defense started getting stops. That was a huge play in the game.”

Doug Pederson's 'tricks up his sleeve' keep coming

Doug Pederson's 'tricks up his sleeve' keep coming

A few hours before the Eagles played the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game Sunday night, the Jaguars doled out a free lesson about being timid in the playoffs.

The Jaguars were clinging to a 14-10 lead when they got the ball back with 55 seconds left in the second quarter, with two timeouts, on their own 25. Head coach Doug Marrone had Blake Bortles take a knee twice, happy to head into the locker room with a slight lead.

You know what eventually happened. The Patriots hung around and came back to win (see story). They'll see the Eagles in the Super Bowl (see Roob's observations).

Watching that scenario unfold, plenty of Eagles fans were probably thinking if the Eagles were in a similar situation, "Doug Pederson would never stay safe like that," and they'd be right. Because the Eagles were faced with a situation like that … and Pederson didn't play it safe.

In the first half of their 38-7 romping over the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game (see breakdown), the Eagles got the ball back with 29 seconds in the first half, when they already had a 21-7 lead. So they marched down the field to kick a 38-yard field goal.

The aggressive Pederson never let his foot off the gas (see report card).

"I just told myself before the game I was going to maintain the aggressiveness in this ballgame," Pederson said. "Listen, it was, a: you win, you keep playing. You lose, you're going home. I didn't want to go home and regret any decision."

Perhaps no play exemplified Pederson's aggressive nature more than the flea flicker early in the third quarter that yielded a 41-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith and put the Eagles up 31-7.

The Eagles had their foot on the Vikings' throats and Pederson gave the signal to step down.

"We love it," said Nick Foles, who admitted he couldn't remember ever running a flea flicker before. "I think he just has such a great feel for the game. He played quarterback and he's coached for a long time. He can feel it."

The flea flicker was a play the Eagles just started practicing and they ran it just a few times during practice this week. Pederson said they used it against the Vikings because they saw opportunities to exploit them down the field. Pederson was dead on.

Rookie Corey Clement was the running back who took the handoff and then pitched the ball back to Foles. After the game, he thanked his position coach Duce Staley for allowing him, a rookie, to be in that situation.

What was Clement thinking when the play got called in?

"S---, I'll do it," Clement said. "You just don't flinch."

After Clement tossed the ball back to Foles, the quarterback unleashed a deep pass to Smith down the sideline. Smith redeemed himself after an earlier drop and hauled it in.

"I didn't know they were going to call it," Smith said. "Coach P has some tricks up his sleeve."

Pederson has had tricks up his sleeve all season. While he hasn't necessarily run gadget plays like the one he pulled out Sunday night, he has been somewhat of a mad scientist when it comes to play-calling. Last week, offensive coordinator Frank Reich described Pederson's play-calling style as "unorthodox."

A week after putting together a gem of a game against the Falcons, Pederson seemingly coached circles around Mike Zimmer and put together a game plan that helped Foles lead his team to the Super Bowl (see story).

One thing is for sure: Pederson is aggressive. And it seems like his entire team feeds off of it.

"I think they do. I hope they do," Pederson said. "Because I've got a lot of trust in them and I think they've got a lot of trust in me that I'm going to make the right decision. It ultimately comes down to the players on the field. But I do believe they feel that. As long as I'm doing it and the decision is right by them and I'm not putting them in a bad situation, then, yeah, I think they feed off of it and start believing in that."