Every Wednesday, Dan Hanzus combs through the expert findings of the NFL Media Research Department to share nuggets (also known as "nugs") that fascinate, frighten or change him on a fundamental level. This is the Divisional Playoffs edition of High-Flying Adventures In The Research Notes.
EVERYONE IN PHILADELPHIA IS TERRIFIED OF NICK FOLES RIGHT NOW
The Eagles might be the first No. 1 seed in the history of the NFL playoffs that can accurately play the "Nobody Believes In Us!" card. With Carson Wentz, the Eagles were a clear favorite in the NFC. Without him, they appear lost. That was more or less confirmed for many in the football cognoscenti when Nick Foles cratered in the final two weeks of the regular season. Foles completed fewer than half his passes in that stretch, averaged 4.2 yards per attempt (Sub Gabbert Zone!) and posted a passer rating south of 50. It was bad enough to completely erase the good vibes engendered from his four-touchdown debut against the wretched Giants in Week 15.
Compounding matters is the Falcons defense, which is playing its best ball of the year. As colleague Chris Wesseling noted on a recent episode of the Around The NFL Podcast, a notably less explosive offense isn't the only key difference between this year's Falcons and last year's NFC champs. They also have a better, more balanced defense, which we saw on shining display in last weekend's shutdown of the previously high-flying Rams.
Atlanta's defense allowed 30 or more points in seven instances last season, culminating in their crushing loss in Super Bowl LI. They've allowed 30 points just once this season. None of this feels like good news for Foles or the Eagles, who will need to flip the script to avoid a painful winter of "What if?" regret.
CAN THE JAGUARS HANDLE THE STEELERS' FIREPOWER?
That right there might be the difference in the game on Sunday. The team that wins that tag team match probably wins the game.
Though I disagree with his opinion, there is merit to colleague Gregg Rosenthal's take that Ben Roethlisberger is the most trustworthy signal-caller remaining in the playoffs. Wrote Gregg: "Roethlisberger has the best mix of electric current play and playoff experience of any quarterback left."
There's no questioning Roethlisberger has been on point in the second half of the season. He's probably been the best quarterback in the league since his five-pick meltdown against the Jaguars in Week 5. I'll even give him a pass for his crushing game-ending pick against the Patriots in Week 15 since the arcane NFL rulebook wiped out a deserved touchdown pass on the previous play.
The real question to me in this matchup is whether or not Roethlisberger will have the real Antonio Brown at his disposal. Brown is practicing in full after missing most of the last three games with a torn calf muscle. If Brown is Brown, I think the Steelers have another productive day. But that's a big "if" at this moment.
TOM BRADY IS OLD ... BUT WILL HE PLAY OLD THIS MONTH?
Let's start with a reminder that I (more or less) accurately predicted this potential dumpster fire:
On paper, this looks like a dreadful matchup if you're a fan of competitive, unpredictable playoff football. If you're a Patriots fan, you've become accustomed to non-competitive, predictable results over the past 17 or so years, and it will be difficult to imagine the level of hubris that will be emanating from the well-lubricated faithful in Foxborough on Saturday night.
That said, Tom Brady being 40.5 years old is a worthy subplot to track this weekend. Let's pull out one of the juiciest behind-the-scenes nuggets from Seth Wickersham's bombshell report on discord along Patriot Way (emphasis mine):
The criticism has continued this year, as Brady has been hit a lot and battled various injuries. Atypically, he has missed a lot of practices and, in the team's private evaluations, is showing the slippage of a 40-year-old quarterback even as he is contending for MVP and is as deadly as ever with the game on the line.
The numbers back up this report. Brady's numbers were phenomenal this year, and he'll likely win a third MVP trophy because of it. But he was a league average quarterback in the season's final month. If that falloff was the result of injury or general wear-and-tear on a middle-aged man's body, will a bye week be enough to repair the damage? We'll find out soon.
SAINTS' OFFENSE VS. VIKINGS' D IS THAT GOOD FOOTBALL STUFF
Last week, we wrote in this space that Drew Brees was still the X factor for the Saints' offense even in a season where Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram re-wrote the record book as a running back tandem. How disheartening must it have been for the Panthers to hold Kamaragram to less than 70 yards of total offense and still lose the game? It happened because Brees has been locked and loaded as the best backup plan in the NFL since September. Brees is still The Man, and what physical skills he's lost with age have been counteracted by a genius-level intellect for the position.
The Vikings are a great story, and it feels like we're overdue to have a team play a Super Bowl in its own building, but Brees is hard to pick against right now. If the Vikings move on against this incredibly well-balanced Saints team, it's hard to imagine anyone stopping them in the NFC.
Until next week ...