Carolina Panthers

NFL divisional round matchups fully set

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AP Images

NFL divisional round matchups fully set

NEW ORLEANS — Drew Brees passed for 376 yards and two touchdowns, and the New Orleans Saints held off Carolina's late comeback bid to seal a 31-26 victory in their NFC wild-card game on Sunday.

The Panthers had a first down on the Saints 26-yard line with 58 seconds left, but heavy pressure by All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan a couple plays later induced an intentional grounding penalty on Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, making it third-and-25 on the Saints 34 and a required 10-second runoff left 22 seconds on the clock.

After an incompletion in the end zone on third down, Vonn Bell sacked Newton on a safety blitz, ensuring the Saints (12-5) swept all three meetings with Carolina (11-6) this season, in addition to winning their first playoff game in four seasons.

"We wanted it more," Jordan said. "I mean they've been to their Super Bowl, let `em go to another one next year. We want our run."

Brees' touchdowns went for 80-yards to Ted Ginn and 9 yards to tight end Josh Hill. Fullback Zach line and running back Alvin Kamara each ran for short touchdowns, the latter set up by Michael Thomas 46-yard reception.

Thomas caught eight passes for 131 yards on a day when the Saints needed the passing game to compensate for a ground game that struggled to get going.

Helped by the presence of tight end Greg Olsen -- who did not play in the teams' previous two meetings -- Newton marched Carolina into Saints territory more often than not. But the Panthers stalled four times from inside the New Orleans 25, settling for four field goal attempts on those drives, one of which kicker Graham Gano surprisingly missed (see full recap).

Jaguars beat Bills in ugly, sometimes unwatchable game
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Blake Bortles put together one decent drive all day, doing as much with his legs as his arm, and the defensive-minded Jacksonville Jaguars eked out an ugly and sometimes unwatchable 10-3 victory against the Buffalo Bills in an AFC wild-card game Sunday.

In the postseason for the first time since January 2008, the third-seeded Jaguars (11-6) advanced to play at No. 2 seed Pittsburgh next week.

The sixth-seeded Bills (9-8) will head home after ending the longest, current playoff drought in North American professional sports.

Bortles was a big reason Jacksonville won the game and a big reason it was so close.

This was far from a passing clinic. It was more like a painful exercise in overcoming poor passing.

Bortles was off most of the day, misfiring short and long, but made up for it with 88 yards rushing. He scrambled for a long first down run after fumbling the ball late, prompting a Bills assistant to slam a clipboard and eliciting a huge grin from Bortles (see full story).

Eagles now know 1st playoff opponent

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USA Today Images

Eagles now know 1st playoff opponent

There will be a battle of the birds in Philadelphia next weekend. 

With the sixth-seeded Falcons' 26-13 win over the Rams Saturday night, they earned a trip to Philly to play the top-seeded Eagles in a week. 

The Eagles will host the Falcons next Saturday at 4:35 p.m. at the Linc on NBC. 

Because the Eagles were the top seed, they get to face the lowest remaining seed, which will be the Falcons. Had the Falcons lost, they would have faced the winner of the Saints and Panthers. 

But the Falcons it is. 

Atlanta went 10-6, securing the second and final wild-card spot in the NFC this season. They lost to the Bills, Dolphins, Patriots, Panthers, Vikings and Saints this season. Five of those six were playoff teams. 

And this is the same Atlanta team that should have won the Super Bowl last season before blowing a 28-3 lead to Tom Brady and the Patriots. 

Atlanta had the eighth-best offense in the NFL this season, averaging 364.8 yards, but was just 15th in scoring, averaging 22.1 points. The Falcons averaged 249.4 through the air and 115.4 on the ground. They were pretty balanced. 

The Falcons' defense gave up just 19.7 points per game this season, eighth-best in the NFL. They were ninth against the run and 12th against the pass. 

The Eagles and Falcons didn't face each other in 2017, but they did in 2016. The Eagles beat the Falcons, 24-15, on Nov. 13, 2016, at the Linc. In that game, the Eagles held the Falcons to 303 total yards of offense and just 11 first downs. The Eagles held the ball for over 38 minutes. 

The Eagles have faced the Falcons three times in the playoffs. They’ve only faced the Cowboys more — four times.

In 1978, they lost a wild-card game to the Falcons, 14-13, at Fulton County Stadium, with the one-point differential coming when Mike Michel missed a PAT. Michel was the Eagles’ punter and was only placekicking because the Eagles didn’t replace kicker Nick Mike-Mayer when he got hurt late in the season. That was Michel’s final NFL game.

The other two meetings with the Falcons had happier endings.

In 2002, the Eagles hosted the Falcons in a conference semifinal game and won 20-6 on Bobby Taylor’s pick-six off Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. Donovan McNabb threw a 35-yard TD pass in the fourth quarter to James Thrash. 

And in the 2004 NFC Championship Game, McNabb threw two touchdown passes to tight end Chad Lewis, who suffered a season-ending foot injury on the second one, which turned a 10-point fourth-quarter lead into a clinching 17-point lead with 3 1/2 minutes left.

The Falcons were 3-8 in franchise history in road playoff games before Saturday night's win. 

Who comes to Linc next week? Gunner has his picks

Who comes to Linc next week? Gunner has his picks

Derrick Gunn makes his wild-card weekend picks.

Titans at Chiefs, Saturday, 4:20 p.m. on ESPN/ABC
What an up-and-down season it has been for the Chiefs. They started 5-0, then lost six of their next seven before rallying to win their final four. The Titans struggled to reach the second season, losing three of their last four. Hard to figure out Tennessee, which beat Jacksonville twice this season but came up small against the likes of Arizona and San Francisco. The Titans' run game is taking a severe hit. DeMarco Murray is out with an MCL tear, which means Derrick Henry will get plenty of work. The Chiefs will try to get running back Kareem Hunt going against the Titans' fourth-ranked run defense. Alex Smith will look for explosive wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce. The Titans have the capability to pull off the upset, but it won't happen. Andy Reid wins at home.

Pick: Chiefs

Falcons at Rams, Saturday, 8:15 p.m. on NBC
What a track meet this could be. Playoff-proven Matt Ryan vs. up-and-coming Jared Jared Goff. Both teams' running attacks can take over a game — Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman on one side and Todd Gurley on the other side. Both teams are loaded with pass catchers. Ryan will have to get rid of the ball quickly before a potent Rams' pass-rush attack (48 sacks) can get to him. A season ago, this Falcons team stormed into the playoffs, but this season it had to win its final game to get in. The Falcons have playoff experience on their side. But the Rams' top-ranked scoring offense (29.9 points) will put too much pressure on them.

Pick: Rams

Bills at Jaguars, Sunday, 1:05 p.m. on CBS
The Bills have the league's sixth-best run game, but that was because of LeSean McCoy, who, unfortunately for Buffalo, is dealing with an ankle injury. McCoy is hoping for a miraculous healing by Sunday but isn't making any promises about his availability. The Jaguars have a sledgehammer in their backfield in Leonard Fournette. The key for both teams is the quarterback play. Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor and the Jags' Blake Bortles aren't playoff tested. Without McCoy, Taylor is severely handicapped going against the Jags' second-ranked defense that's No. 1 vs. the pass (169 yards) and leads the league with 33 interceptions. Both QBs are prone to make mistakes, but Bortles has a better supporting cast on both sides of the ball. Jags get the W at home.

Pick: Jaguars

Panthers at Saints, Sunday, 4:40 p.m. on FOX
It's the third time these NFC South foes will meet this season. The Saints made it a clean sweep in the regular season. The key to watch is the Panthers' third-ranked run defense (88.1 yards per game) vs. the Saints' backfield duo of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. In the regular season, the Saints ran for 148 and 149 yards on Carolina. The Panthers' defense is third in the league with 50 sacks but got to Drew Brees only three times in the two previous meetings. Cam Newton has to come up big for his team to have a fighting chance. They say it's hard to beat a team three times in the same season, but not in this case. The boys down in the Bayou get the job done and earn a date with the Eagles at the Linc.

Pick: Saints