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2017 NFL playoffs: Player scouting reports and game predictions

In order to get a feel for what the playoff teams do well, ESPN's NFL Nation reporters asked a number of players, coaches and team personnel for their anonymous thoughts on each team. Here's what they had to say.

SATURDAY

Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles, 4:35 p.m. ET | PickCenter

ATLANTA FALCONS

What's different about the Falcons' offense compared to last season? "They're really trying to establish the run game with the wide zone. They have two very good running backs, powerful backs that can get downhill quick. I would say they're more predicated toward the run. Matt Ryan seemed to have a little more free range to get the passing going [last year]. Now with [Tevin] Coleman and [Devonta] Freeman, they're definitely trying to establish the run game a tad more than we've seen in years past."

How do you take Ryan out of his game? "He's not the type of guy that likes to get hit. If you can get after him early, that'll get him rattled. We know they like to run a lot of two-man routes, so there's going to be more protection. Wherever their singles are, those are the guys that have to win."

What's the best way to attack the Falcons' defense? "You have to get them off-balance. You've got to slow down those pass-rushers … with screens, with draws, with an established running game and then hit them with the play-action. If not, you're working right into what they're game planning for. It's the same thing throughout the whole league. Pass-rushers are highly paid for a reason: to sack the quarterback. If you don't stop what they do best, you're just playing right into their trap."

Prediction: The sixth-seeded Falcons understand their track back to the Super Bowl will be all on the road, and things got off to a good start with last week's 26-13 win over the Los Angeles Rams. The Falcons won that game, in large part, because they controlled the clock by sticking to the run game, which allowed them to possess the ball more than 15 minutes longer than the Rams. Maybe the same formula could work against top-seeded Philadelphia, but the Eagles led the league in run defense during the regular season, allowing just 79.2 yards per game. Run game aside, look for Matt Ryan to find some opportunities down the field with Julio Jones, speedster Taylor Gabriel, and perhaps tight end Austin Hooper. Jones' recovery from a right ankle injury shouldn't hold him back. He's averaging 104.7 receiving yards per game in seven career playoff games, the highest average of any player in NFL history [minimum five games]. Falcons 24, Eagles 20 -- Vaughn McClure, Falcons reporter

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

On how to blitz Nick Foles: "We felt like we wanted to get pressure in his face, so we'd get up in the A- and B-gaps against him. That was our plan of attack, and it got him off his spot. He's the kind of guy who likes to hit his back foot, and the ball is coming out most of the time. He's fairly athletic for being a quarterback, but not on par with a guy like Carson Wentz. He can be mobile, but he's still a guy that does his damage in the pocket and a guy you want to get off his spot."

On how to stop Nelson Agholor in the slot: "With him being in the slot a lot more this year, you have to be patient against him because he has so much more room and a lot of field to use. They did that well with him, too, using a lot of the field. And you have to be aware of his make-a-play ability. Once he gets his hands on the ball, he can take it the distance. He's explosive, and the way they use him, there are a lot of different route concepts he can do. The biggest thing is to limit his yards after the catch. If he does get you, you want to make the tackle. If you miss and he gets going, it's hard to catch him."

On how to combat the Eagles' front seven: "They tackle the running back on the way to the quarterback. So they have a defensive line that will really rush up the field. If you can protect and hold them off, it will negate some of what they want to be about. I think draws and screens can help because they are rushing so hard up the field that hopefully you can slow them down or get them to chase up the field and go over their head on a screen or a draw. Stay in manageable third downs where you can get the ball out quickly so you don't have long dropbacks to where they can pin their ears back and rush. You have to use a good snap count to keep them guessing so they can't tee off and come a million miles an hour, knowing when the ball is being snapped. If you can run the ball, that helps, but I don't know many teams who can do that. You want to run the ball, but you don't want to waste plays. You want to be selective with your runs because if you're getting to second-and-10 every time on the run, you might as well scrap it."

Prediction: The Falcons are 11-0 this season when they score 20 or more points, and 0-6 when they don't. The Eagles' defense, which finished fourth in points allowed (18.4) and first against the run, has to put the clamps on Devonta Freeman, Julio Jones and a the rest of the talented Atlanta attack. The Philly crowd noise should help in those efforts. The recipe on offense is to lean on a fresh Jay Ajayi and put backup quarterback Nick Foles in favorable situations. He will have to make a key play or two to win the game. You never know which version of Foles you'll get from week to week, but the bet here is he bounces back from a couple of rough outings to close the regular season and performs well enough to push the Eagles into NFC Championship Game. They are the first No. 1 seed to enter its opening playoff game as an underdog and are hot about it. Philly is ready to let off some steam. Eagles 23, Falcons 17 -- Tim McManus, Eagles reporter


Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots, 8:15 p.m. ET | PickCenter

TENNESSEE TITANS

On how to make Marcus Mariota one-dimensional: "Make him be a true quarterback. Mariota is such a good runner that the key is to make him use his arm. He can throw the ball, but teams have a better chance of beating him if they can keep him contained in the pocket. To do that, guys have to stay in their rush lanes. A lot of times when players rush, the easiest thing to forget is not to rush past the passer. When that happens, their lineman can push you past, and Mariota can step up and take off running."

On the key to attacking the Titans' defense: "The Titans have a strong front seven, so the key is to control them. If you can get bodies on them, give the quarterback some time and get to the second level, you have a better chance of beating them. In the running game, you have to get north and south running the ball if you want to have success."

Prediction: The Titans are knocking on the door as an unknown to become the established AFC playoff contenders, and we'll soon see how far the gap is between them and the Patriots. The game plan isn't a secret: Control time of possession, run Derrick Henry, get pressure on Tom Brady, and win the turnover battle. Tennessee has been loose this week, like a team with nothing to lose, but accomplishing all those things won't be easy. Tennessee is among the bottom three in the NFL in defending receiving running backs, which could mean Dion Lewis is an even bigger headache than Rob Gronkowski. The Titans have the fight to take this one deep into the fourth quarter, but they'll need a moment of the ages from Mariota to pull off the upset. Mariota has his teammates believing. The Patriots probably will force his arm, not his legs, to beat them. Closer than the experts think, but not quite there. Patriots 30, Titans 22 -- Cameron Wolfe, Titans reporter

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

On how to pressure Tom Brady: "I don't think blitzing is the answer. I think he picks up blitzes well, moves side-to-side in the pocket better than anybody in the league. So the best way is to pressure up the middle. I think a lot of guys put more speed in the inside. They move the defensive ends to 3-technique, do a little speed package. They try to get that inside pressure because once he moves in there, he's deadly. It's about speed up the middle and getting him off that spot initially, because he'll reset and still throw it."

On stopping the running game led by Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead: "They just make such great adjustments. In the first half, you think you got them bottled up. But then they'll put a jet sweep on it, so it moves everybody's gap. They also try to confuse the nickel cornerback, and then everything gets confused from there. They're very good knowing if you're in man or zone coverage, knowing what gap you got. They try to manipulate that. The best way is just playing man-to-man, staying in your gap. But when you play man-to-man, it means somebody is man-to-man on Rob Gronkowski, so they'll throw that little counter pass where they fake the run and dump it to him. It seems like he's open every time."

On containing the vertical threat with speedy receivers such as Brandin Cooks, Phillip Dorsett and Chris Hogan: "Just knowing their best routes. Cooksie loves the post. When they see you in off-coverage against Cooks, they love the double moves. Dorsett loves the straight go route. If they see you in press on Dorsett, they'll throw the fade ball just because they know he's all speed. Kenny Britt is a deep threat also; they like to just throw the ball up to him, whatever team he's played on. It's just limiting them and containing them. I don't think you're going to stop all of the deep balls, but just containing them to a few a game would be good."

Prediction: How close the game ultimately is will be contingent on Patriots turnovers, as New England has a 143-15 regular-season record in Bill Belichick's coaching tenure when it has a positive turnover differential. When the Patriots had one of their most unexpected playoff upsets, a 28-21 loss to the Jets in the divisional round on Jan. 16, 2011, turnovers were a big part of what led to the result. The Titans had a minus-4 differential in the regular season (21 takeaways, 25 giveaways), and while the playoffs are truly a one-game season, history says the Patriots -- who had just 12 giveaways in the regular season -- will take care of the ball. Patriots 34, Titans 17 -- Mike Reiss, Patriots reporter


SUNDAY

Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers, 1:05 p.m. ET | PickCenter

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

On best ways to block Calais Campbell: "He works in their system really well. You have to be strong and get your hands on him. What he's going to try to do is try to get you off-balance so that he can pull you down. You have to stay balanced and be aggressive with him if you expect to have a chance. If you're leaning, he's already got you beat. You have to play with good technique and be aggressive with him."

On whether Blake Bortles is better than his win-loss record: "You see a significant difference out of him this year. It really helps that he has a very good running game that forces defenses to be honest in their schemes. And the defense leads the league in so many categories that they're capable of giving Blake a shorter field to work with. You have to give him credit: He's made some throws that you haven't seen out of him in years past. He's grown as a quarterback. The thing you see out of him this year is that he's not f---ing it up as much this year, like he has in the past. Look at what he did against a damn good Seattle defense [268 yards, two touchdowns] while being without some of [his] best receivers throughout the season."

On what makes Leonard Fournette an impact player as a rookie: "He's talented as hell. He obviously works at it. He has a great defense behind him that often helps get them leads, which means that allows the Jags to feed Fournette. He's powerful, he's fast. He has all the attributes you want in a running back. You don't expect him to be as fast as he is. You watch him on film, and you see him break away from people. He has a quick twitch. He looks like a powerful back. He has all the tools. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. He's hard as hell to bring down."

Prediction: Though the Jaguars intercepted Ben Roethlisberger five times in the October meeting and Roethlisberger said he wanted another shot at the defense, this game is really about the Jaguars' offense. Bortles threw only 14 passes in the first meeting and is coming of a playoff victory over Buffalo in which he had more yards rushing (88) than passing (87). That's not going to get it done against the Steelers, who are the highest-scoring team in the NFL since Week 11. The Jaguars are going to have to put up points and with the running game struggling (backs gained just 62 yards on 23 carries versus the Bills and the Jaguars averaged 75 yards per game in the last two regular-season games) it's going to fall on Bortles to make a bunch of plays in the passing game and not turn the ball over. He has been hit and miss with that all season. Steelers 20, Jaguars 14 -- Mike DiRocco, Jaguars reporter

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

On what makes Antonio Brown the best receiver in NFL: "He is just crafty. Of course, he's fast, he's quick, he's got good hands. But I think what makes him good is his route running, his ability to separate. He can get in and out of his breaks really well. That makes him who he is."

On why nobody has been able to figure out how to solve Le'Veon Bell’s style: "I think it's just a combination of guys that are around him and their O-line. I think that him and his O-line have a good continuity. The O-line does a good job of staying on blocks … and he can kind of dance back there and find the holes. There's good chemistry between them."

On how to exploit the secondary's sudden vulnerability to the big play: "They're a solid defense. Usually they pull off far and rally to the ball. I don't think they give up any more big plays than anybody else. … They're playing without [linebacker Ryan] Shazier, and that correlates to the secondary because he tells everybody what to do and makes sure even the secondary knows what to do. Whenever you miss a guy like that, your stats are going to go down some."

Prediction: The Steelers are a far different team from the one blown out by Jacksonville in Week 5. Pittsburgh is averaging 31.2 points per game over the past seven weeks during which Roethlisberger is averaging 325 yards and nearly three touchdowns per game. The Steelers' defense has allowed 10 passes of 40-plus yards in the past eight games, but Bortles doesn't have such a completion in his past seven games. Pittsburgh is eager to stop Fournette, who ran wild for 181 yards in the previous matchup, while keeping the mobile Bortles in the pocket. Steelers 27, Jaguars 20 -- Jeremy Fowler, Steelers reporter


New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings, 4:40 p.m. ET | PickCenter

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

What is the key to stopping Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram? "They're good players. They're really good players. You've gotta get your hands on them, you've gotta get them to the ground. You have to be a great tackler with them guys. … You've just gotta be on your game. You'd better be a great tackler, a great cover player, all that with them."

Who would scare you more: Ingram and Kamara or Drew Brees? "Neither scares me. But if I had to choose, I'd say Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram because they can beat you in the pass and in the run. Part of that has to do with Brees, but what they do once they have the ball is all them."

Where is the Saints' defense vulnerable? "When we played them, they were a pretty solid group. They got after us a lot of different ways. From my vantage point, they're very talented. Their secondary has improved. They're just playing with confidence right now. They're playing well. I can't say anything bad about them."

Prediction: The best thing about the Saints this year is they can win with their running game, passing game or defense. And they proved it last week when the Panthers became the first opponent to really focus on shutting down the running game and forcing Drew Brees to beat them (he gladly obliged with his best performance of the year). Unfortunately, the Vikings’ defense is good enough to stop both. They’re ranked No. 1 in both yards allowed and points allowed, No. 2 against both the pass and the run. First-team All-Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes can help nullify the Saints’ go-to receiver Michael Thomas, while first-team All-Pro safety Harrison Smith can help defend Ingram and Kamara, and second-team All-Pro Everson Griffen can provide a pass rush. This game will have to be a showcase for Saints coach Sean Payton’s game-planning greatness just like last week was a showcase for Brees. Vikings 26, Saints 23 -- Mike Triplett, Saints reporter

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

On best ways to minimize the Adam Thielen/Stefon Diggs combo: "If you play them in tight, man coverage, you've got a chance. But if you let them get into your zones, especially Thielen, that's where you run into trouble. He's so good at finding space."

On how to contain Case Keenum: "He's efficient. He's not necessarily dangerous, but he doesn't turn it over, and that's what has made him successful. He's like a poor man's version of Alex Smith. Somehow, you have to take away his athleticism because that's his best asset. You probably won't believe this, but he'd get my vote for MVP for what he's done as the third guy in there [behind Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater]. He's made himself a lot of money this season."

On how to stop Everson Griffen: "I think he's an amazing player. He actually was the top D-end I voted for [in the Pro Bowl]. I go against him twice a year. I have a lot of fun playing him. He's a great competitor. It shows on film. He not only is a very good D-end, but he plays hard, he plays to the whistle, and that's what you have to do against him. It's the only way to stop him, to not let up and keep going."

Prediction: The Vikings put extra emphasis on earning a first-round bye so they could begin their postseason quest in the building where they lost only one game this season. That’s an important asset to have going against the league’s most accurate passer with tons of playoff experience. If Brees wants to lead the Saints to the Super Bowl, he’ll have to get through the No. 1 defense in the NFL. Minnesota led the league in points and yards allowed during the regular season while holding teams to 83.6 yards rushing per game. Inside U.S. Bank Stadium, opposing teams have scored only five touchdowns and quarterbacks have been held to an average passer rating of 73.2. Keenum doesn’t have the experience Brees does in the playoffs and with this defense at his disposal, Keenum doesn’t need to put up 30 points to beat the Saints. But he needs to be aggressive early with some quick shots to Thielen and Diggs against this vastly improved New Orleans secondary. Vikings 26, Saints 20 -- Courtney Cronin, Vikings reporter

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