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What we learned from the NFL’s Divisional Round

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The NFL Playoffs are, to say the least, unpredictable

Divisional Round - New Orleans Saints v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The Divisional Round is usually referred to as the best weekend of football. There’s four games, with typically eight great teams playing in them. We can be lenient on the meaning of “great” for this year’s crop of teams, but this weekend of football definitely did not disappoint. Three of the four games were close and the other was a master class in how to beat an inferior opponent — it was also nice there was still a chance one of those assistants would be coaching the Giants as that game was going on.

Here’s what we learned from each game of Divisional weekend/

Philadelphia Eagles 15, Atlanta Falcons 10

Philadelphia has a defense to win, but a quarterback who needs to play better

Atlanta’s 2017 offense was nowhere near the level it was last season, but this wasn’t a bad offense by any stretch. This was still an offense that ranked second in yards per drive (36.87) and seventh in points per drive (2.17) during the regular season. The Eagles defense held the Falcons to 31.2 yards per drive and 1.1 points per drive.

An MVP in 2016, Matt Ryan averaged just 5.8 yards per attempt and was sacked three times. There was some questionable play calling by the Falcons, but the Eagles put them in a place where they was never a sense of comfort in what they were doing. When a defense plays like that — something this unit can do (fifth in defensive DVOA) — there’s not much the offense needs to do in order to win the game. Considering the play of the Philadelphia offense against Atlanta, that’s a good thing.

Nick Foles had 8.2 yards per attempt and no interceptions, but boy is that statline deceiving. Despite that “efficiency” the offense put up just 15 points and the defense needed to stop Atlanta on a fourth down near the end zone to hold onto a victory. One of Foles’s “best” passes of the game was a well-overthrown ball that bounced off the knee of Keanu Neal and into the hands of Torrey Smith for a gain of 20 yards.

The Eagles tried all they could to hide Foles. His average pass traveled just 5.6 yards in the air, per Next Gen Stats, which would have been the lowest over the course of a full season by a yard. That’s not going to get it done against a better defense and an offense that’s much less likely to flounder next weekend in the NFC Championship Game.

New England Patriots 35, Tennessee Titans 14

The Patriots are still the best-coached team in the league

New England consistently has good players — you can’t get to seven straight conference championship games without them — but those players on continually put in the best position to succeed. It’s something that starts with Bill Belichick and flows down to the coordinators. There’s no better team in the league in adjusting to opponents and beating them using what they struggle against.

During the regular season, the Tennessee Titans had the 21st-ranked defense by DVOA, but they had a major split. Tennessee was the seventh-best defense against the run, but 24th against the pass. So 40-year-old Tom Brady threw 53 passes for 337 yards and three touchdowns. Those splits go even deeper. The Titans were 28th in DVOA against No. 2 receivers opposed to 11th against No. 1s, so Danny Amendola led the team with 13 targets and finished with 11 receptions and 112 yards. Tennessee was 24th against running backs in the passing game. Dion Lewis had nine catches on 10 targets for 79 yards. James White added four catches, 29 yards, and a touchdown on seven targets.

On the other side of the ball, the Titans ranked 20th in DVOA throwing the ball and eighth on the ground. New England crowded the line of scrimmage, put at least eight men in the box on 41.7 percent of Derrick Henry’s carries, held him to just 28 yards on 12 carries, and forced the Titans to go to the air to beat them. That allowed the Patriots to go all-out to stop the pass and resulted in eight sacks of Marcus Mariota.

Expect the exact opposite game plan on offense when the Patriots face the league’s best secondary with a similar plan on defense against an extremely volatile quarterback.

Jacksonville Jaguars 45, Pittsburgh Steelers 42

Jaguars players don’t think they’re an underdog, but the coaches make decisions like one

One the first drive of the game, the Jaguars showed what they needed to do to win. Jacksonville faced a fourth-and-1 from the Pittsburgh 1. Many “just happy to be here” teams in the playoffs “take the points” in that situation and kick the field goal. The Jags, though, knew in order to beat the Steelers they were going to have to score as many points as they could every chance they got, so they took the points — with another four added on. The one-yard touchdown raised the Jaguars’ win expectancy by 8.2 percent.

Jacksonville also had an offensive game plan that worked in what turned into a high scoring affair. Blake Bortles only threw the ball 26 times, but while many believed the idea would be to hide Bortles on safe easy throws, the Jaguars let him air it out — the average Bortles pass traveled over 10 yards in the air per Next Gen Stats — the anti-Foles. During the regular season, that was 7.9, which tied for the seventh-lowest mark among quarterbacks. That high-risk, high-reward strategy paid off. Bortles had a 45-yard pass to Keenan Cole that set up a three-yard Fournette touchdown run and Bortles threw for 8.2 yards per attempt overall.

These are the types of strategies that help win games against better teams like the Steelers or Patriots. They’re mostly strategies the Titans avoided the night before. Down 14-7 in the middle of the second quarter, Tennessee punted on a 4th-and-2 from near midfield, exactly a place where teams should go for it. New England took the ball on the next drive and scored a touchdown 18 plays later to take a 21-7 lead.

Teams can’t beat superior opponents like the Patriots by punting in those situations. The Jaguars know this and that should help give them some hidden advantages next weekend. It also helps that Jacksonville has a dominant defense that can flip the game on a turnover or score on just about any play.

Minnesota Vikings 29, New Orleans Saints 24

This game was an all-timer

There’s multiple micro things that could probably be taken away from this game, but even after some time has passed, they all just seem to be overshadowed by one thought; what a freaking game, man.

Minnesota jumped out to a 17-0 lead they brought into halftime, then Drew Brees happened. During the regular season, the Saints relied heavily on the defense and run game. Some thought that meant Brees didn’t have it anymore as a quarterback who could put a team on his back, even though he led the league in yards per attempt during the regular season. What the regular season strategy really did was take things off Brees’s plate so they could be put back on when they mattered most. He threw just 536 passes in the regular season, 137 passes less than he did in 2016. That’s saving about three games worth of throws in his arm. Since joining the Saints, this was just the second time Brees threw fewer than 600 passes in the regular season. The fresh arm showed up in the Wild Card round against the Carolina Panthers and in the second half against the Vikings.

The Saints came back to take a 21-20 lead, which became a 23-21 decifict, then a 24-23 lead, then off course the Vikings took the final score on one of the most amazing plays we’re ever going to get in a playoff game. As Eagles.com writer Fran Duffy pointed out on Twitter, the final play was the same concept the Eagles ran against the Giants in Week 3 to set-up a 61-yard field goal, but on this play the ball was caught by the deep receiver and the defensive mistake left no other defenders behind him.

As currently constructed, these two teams were the best of the NFC. It’s a shame they had to meet in the divisional round and not the NFC Championship Game with an immediate trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Still, the Vikings will be favored as they head to Philadelphia — the current line is (-3.5) for the Vikings on the road — and they might be the most complete team remaining in the playoffs and they’ll get a real shot of returning to Minnesota to play the Super Bowl at home.

Bonus: All hail the Slot Wheel

There’s been some big plays during the playoffs and a great number of them have come on one of my favorite routes, the slot wheel. The wheel route is a dangerous play when it’s typically run by the running back from the backfield, but using that same route concept from the slot by either the slot receiver or a back moved up to the line of scrimmage and using the outside wide receiver on an in-breaking route to clear the sideline creates one of the best openings for a passing lane down the field.

The route was featured a bit last weekend, but Pittsburgh and New Orleans used it to perfection on Sunday, using a pass-catching running back to the line of scrimmage to execute the route. Both passes became touchdowns to Le’Veon Bell and Alvin Kamara. It’s just a great route that will probably start to show up in more playbooks around the league next season.