A quick glance at items of interest as the NFL’s divisional playoffs commence…
Marcus Mariota. After sparking his team to an amazing comeback at Kansas City, what can the Titans quarterback do for an encore? Just beat Tom Brady. And that prospect probably is even tougher than usual, as Brady just might have a point to prove amid the reports that the Patriots’ signature icons — including Bill Belichick and Bob Kraft — are poised to implode from within. Mariota, the third-year pro, took his NFL street cred to a new level after winning his playoff debut. It undoubtedly put to rest any concerns that Mariota had significantly regressed during an injury-riddled Year 3 — and beyond that he may have saved coach Mike Mularkey’s job. It will take another Herculean effort to win at Foxborough and Mariota will need the help of Derrick Henry powering a running game that might be the best defense against TB12. And maybe Mariota can draw some juice by playing loose in a game that nobody expects he can win.
Nick Foles. Eagles coach Doug Pederson admitted that his team went into a bit of shock after playmaking quarterback Carson Wentz suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament while in the midst of a potential MVP season. A month later, the effects linger with Foles pressed to silence the doubters, including oddsmakers who installed the Eagles as the first No. 1 seed since the merger to open the playoffs as an underdog. To topple Atlanta, the supporting cast needs to keep the pressure off Foles. That means controlling the flow with the deep stable of running backs (Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, Corey Clement) and with a defense needing to keep Philadelphia from engaging in a shootout against an offense directed by Matt Ryan. Still, to win, at some point the quarterback is going to need to make a clutch throw.
Antonio Brown vs. Jalen Ramsey. The Steelers’ wizard of a receiver is set for his much-anticipated return, nearly a month since suffering a partially torn calf. Ramsey, Jacksonville’s rising star cornerback, figures to log extensive snaps in coverage and like everyone else at Heinz Field will be eager to see if Brown has come back with the same pop that allowed him to miss two game and still lead the NFL for the season with 1,533 receiving yards. One potential snag: He was ill on Friday.
Next man up
Senio Kelemete. With Andrus Peat finished with a fractured fibula, Kelemete steps in at left guard for the Saints. But this isn’t exactly a replacement coming in cold. The fifth-year veteran — versatile enough to back up at guard, center and tackle — played 61% of the snaps and started eight games this season. He, too, deserves some of the credit for clearing the holes that allowed Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara to rush for a combined 1,852 yards.
Stomach for an upset
Jaguars at Steelers. Can they do it again? No way the Jaguars will sneak up on Pittsburgh this time around, after the Week 5 drubbing best remembered for Ben Roethlisberger’s five interceptions. In Week 5, Roethlisberger threw 55 passes while Le’Veon Bell logged just 15 carries. To pull off another upset, the Jaguars defense will need to keep Bell in check. In Pittsburgh’s two playoff wins last year, Bell rushed 59 times for 337 yards. The Jags D might also be pressed to put points on the scoreboard to support the Blake Bortles-deficient offense. Can you believe that Jacksonville ranked fifth in the NFL in scoring? Well, that can happen with a defense that scored seven of the team’s 47 touchdowns — including two pick-sixes against Roethlisberger.
Did you notice?
During his first nine starts this season, Case Keenum was sacked just five times. In six of those contests, the Vikings’ improved offensive line pitched shutouts in the sack department. But that hasn’t been the case lately. Keenum, facing off against Drew Brees on Sunday, has been sacked at least twice in each of the past six games, and 17 times in total during that span.
Over the past 18 seasons, the Patriots have ranked higher in the NFL for fewest points allowed than for fewest yards allowed in every campaign except two (2007, 2015). But this season presented the biggest gap yet between those categories, as New England ranked 29th for yards (366 per game) and fifth for scoring (18.5 points per game). More striking: After allowing 32 points per game during a 2-2 start, New England (13-3) allowed 14 points per outing in the 12 games since.
Stat’s the fact
Second-year star Michael Thomas not only became the first player in Saints history to post a 100-catch season (104, 1,245 yards), he also set an NFL record for most receptions (196) over a player’s first two seasons.