The Super Bowl LII champ is …? NFL Insiders predict the playoffs

The Super Bowl LII champ is …? NFL Insiders predict the playoffs

Before the NFL playoffs began, we asked 11 of our ESPN NFL Insiders — one for each playoff game — to fill out a bracket predicting how each matchup would turn out, from wild-card weekend through Super Bowl LII.

Well, after a wild-card weekend with two upsets, the bracket was upended, so we asked those same 11 ESPN NFL Insiders to pick each matchup again heading into the divisional round. We ended up with a new Super Bowl prediction.

Teams had to receive a majority of our Insiders’ votes to move on to the next round. Here’s how the bracket ended up, with the cases for chalk — and upsets — from our group of experts:

Divisional round | Conference championships | Super Bowl LII

DIVISIONAL ROUND

Prediction: Patriots (11 votes) over Titans

The case for chalk: Let’s not overthink this. The Titans were outscored in the regular season; the Patriots finished with a point differential of plus-162, tied for best in the NFL. Tennessee’s defense is solid, especially against the run, but it will have trouble stopping a passing attack that averaged 276.1 yards per game this season. — Mina Kimes, senior writer

The case for a Titans upset: Two things need to happen for Tennessee to pull off a Foxborough Miracle: Tom Brady needs to turn the ball over (in the Patriots’ final five games, he threw five picks), and Titans running back Derrick Henry must repeat his wild-card performance. Luckily for Henry, the Patriots have struggled to stop the run, allowing 4.71 yards per rush, the second-worst rate in the NFL. — Kimes


Prediction: Steelers (11 votes) over Jaguars

The case for chalk: The Steelers are the hottest team in the league. They’ve won 10 of their past 11 games, and the only loss in that stretch required one of the most controversial replay reviews of the season to break against them. Since the Jaguars beat the Steelers 30-9 in Pittsburgh in Week 5, the Steelers have averaged 27.9 points per game — more than all but four teams in the league. The only opponent that has ever won two games in Pittsburgh in the same season is the Jaguars, but that was 10 years ago. And this year’s regular-season victory was three months ago, at a time when the Steelers weren’t clicking the way they are now. Rested and relatively healthy, Pittsburgh’s offense will be tough for Blake Bortles & Co. to match. — Dan Graziano, national NFL writer

The case for a Jaguars upset: Having won at Heinz Field in Week 5, the Jags won’t be scared. And while they probably can’t expect to intercept Ben Roethlisberger five times and run two of them back for touchdowns again, Jacksonville has been able to limit almost every quarterback this season. It allowed a league-low average of 169.9 passing yards per game and held opposing quarterbacks to a league-low 40.1 Total QBR. There’s no team this side of Minneapolis with a better chance of making a game low scoring and ugly enough to steal it from Pittsburgh, even if Antonio Brown is back. — Graziano


Prediction: Falcons (9 votes) over Eagles

The case for chalk: This game marks the first in NFL history in which a No. 1 seed is the underdog in the divisional round. The reason? Nick Foles, who has completed only 55 percent of his throws and is averaging an ugly 5.0 yards per pass attempt since Carson Wentz went down with a torn ACL in Week 14. The Falcons, meanwhile, are a better team than their 10-6 record suggests. The defending NFC champions rank in the top 10 in both offensive yardage and defensive yardage allowed. Four of their six losses were by six or fewer points. The balanced Falcons will advance to the NFC title game. — Mike Clay, NFL writer

The case for an Eagles upset: Injuries to Jason Peters, Jordan Hicks, Darren Sproles and Wentz have taken their toll, but the Eagles’ roster is still loaded with talent. A terrific front seven led by Fletcher Cox has held opposing teams to a league-low 79.2 rushing yards per game, and the secondary play has been better with Ronald Darby back. If the defense can stymie an Atlanta offense that has struggled to score touchdowns as of late (eight during its past six games) and Foles can get the ball into the hands of playmakers Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz, Nelson Agholor and Jay Ajayi, the Eagles certainly could win. — Clay


Prediction: Vikings (7 votes) over Saints

The case for chalk: These teams met in Week 1 this season, but relying on what we saw then is largely a fool’s errand. In some ways, however, that Vikings’ win encapsulates what I believe will be their winning formula on Sunday: neutralizing the Saints’ running game, which was contained to zero rushing attempts of 10 or more yards; extending drives; and slowing the Saints’ red zone offense. Minnesota was the NFL’s third-best red zone defense this season in terms of touchdown percentage allowed. The Vikings’ balanced roster and dominant defense will catapult them to the NFC Championship Game. — Field Yates, NFL Insider

The case for a Saints upset: The Minnesota offensive line surge was a catalyst for the team early in the season, though injuries — including placing guard Nick Easton on injured reserve — impacted the group down the stretch. The Saints’ offense has long generated the most headlines in New Orleans, but it’s well-established that New Orleans’ pass rush is now a dominant force. Disrupting Case Keenum and stressing the Vikings’ second-level pass rush through an ability to incorporate the running backs in the passing game can catapult New Orleans to victory. — Yates

CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS

Prediction: Patriots (9 votes) over Steelers

The case for chalk: The Patriots will look to take away Antonio Brown with double coverage. We know it’s coming. And New England also can mix its run fronts to limit Le’Veon Bell. Plus, after Rob Gronkowski tore up the Steelers’ secondary for 168 yards on nine receptions in Week 15, the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady can lean on the tight end’s matchup ability and man-coverage beaters (picks/crossers) to target the middle of the field. The basic idea here is to erase the Steelers’ top weapon and move the ball with tempo and execution on offense to advance to the Super Bowl. — Matt Bowen, NFL writer

The case for a Steelers upset: Challenging the Patriots’ wide receivers at the line of scrimmage is a must. Pittsburgh has to disrupt the timing of the short-to-intermediate route tree, while bringing interior pressure to move Brady off the spot in the pocket. That’s the blueprint to slowing down New England’s passing game, while stealing some extra possessions. On offense, it’s on Steelers wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster if the Pats have a safety hovering over the top of Brown all day. In Week 15, Smith-Schuster caught six balls for 114 yards; he can be that explosive-play target for Ben Roethlisberger, with Bell seeing a big workload (25 to 30 touches) to close out the upset win in the fourth quarter. — Bowen


Prediction: Vikings (7 votes) over Falcons

The case for chalk: The Vikings can out-Falcon the Falcons. In the teams’ Week 13 matchup, the Vikings possessed the ball for 34:02 — via 27 designed runs and a modest average of 5.3 air yards per throw. And in All-Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes, the Vikings demonstrated an effective tool to defend receiver Julio Jones (two catches, 24 yards). In short, they have an answer for all of the Falcons’ challenges. — Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer

The case for a Falcons upset: The Vikings’ long (if unrelated) history of unlikely postseason endings, most recently Blair Walsh‘s missed 27-yard field goal in 2015, is a helpful reminder of the potential for haywire outcomes. If the Falcons can get Jones open for a big play or two, they could bridge what appeared to be a small gap between the teams in Week 13. — Seifert

SUPER BOWL LII

Prediction: Patriots (6 votes) over Vikings

The case for chalk: The Patriots’ coach-quarterback combination and opponent-specific game plans are the best ever, especially in big moments. New England’s use of Rob Gronkowski and a dynamic rotation of running backs will give Tom Brady the coverage tells he needs to beat a defense that lines up the same a fair amount. — Mike Sando, senior NFL writer

The case for a Vikings upset: Getting after Brady usually requires disrupting him with pressure up the middle. The Vikings are well-equipped to do this with Mike Zimmer’s trademark A-gap blitzes. They’ll also be playing in their home stadium and could have the crowd on their side. Minnesota also has a chance to be the more balanced team in terms of offense and defense, whereas New England has struggled on defense at times. — Sando

Published at Sat, 13 Jan 2018 18:31:33 +0000

Legendary broadcaster Keith Jackson, 89, dies

Keith Jackson, who was widely regarded as the voice of college football by several generations, died late Friday night, his family said. He was 89.

Jackson, who retired in 2006, spent some 50 years calling the action in a folksy, down-to-earth manner that made him one of the most popular play-by-play personalities in the business.

“For generations of fans, Keith Jackson was college football,” said Bob Iger, chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company. “When you heard his voice, you knew it was a big game. Keith was a true gentleman and a memorable presence. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife, Turi Ann, and his family.”

Jackson got his start on the radio in 1952, broadcasting Washington State games, but went on to provide the national television soundtrack for the biggest games in the most storied stadiums. His colorful expressions — “Whoa, Nellie” and “Big Uglies” among the many — became part of the college football lexicon.

He was credited with nicknaming the Rose Bowl “The Granddaddy of Them All” and Michigan‘s stadium “The Big House.”

“That big smiling face, and just the thrill and the love he had for doing college football,” Bob Griese told SportsCenter when asked what he’d remember about Jackson, his longtime broadcast partner whom he started working with in 1985.

“He did it for a long, long time. … He never intruded on the game. It was always about the kids on the field. Never, never shining the light on himself. And that was one of the things that I most admired about him.”

In 1999, Jackson was awarded the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame Gold Medal — its highest honor — and named to the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame, the first broadcaster accorded those distinguished honors.

Jackson began calling college football games for ABC Sports when it acquired the broadcast rights for NCAA football in 1966. He also worked NFL and NBA games, 11 World Series and LCS, 10 Winter and Summer Olympics, and auto racing. In addition, he traveled to 31 countries for “Wide World of Sports.”

Among his broadcasting accomplishments, Jackson was the first play-by-play voice of Monday Night Football when the program debuted in 1970. He called Bucky Dent’s home run against the Red Sox in 1978 as well as Reggie Jackson’s three-homer game in the 1977 World Series.

His Olympics highlights include Mark Spitz’s record seven gold medals in the 1972 Games and speedskater Eric Heiden’s five golds in 1980.

Jackson announced he would retire from college football play-by-play after the 1998 season but ended up continuing with ABC Sports. He walked away for good in May 2006, telling The New York Times he was finished “forever.”

“I am saddened to hear the news of Keith Jackson’s death,” USC athletic director Lynn Swann, another broadcast partner of Jackson, said in a statement Saturday. “Keith covered games I played in and we worked together at ABC Sports for decades. Every step of the way, he shared his knowledge and his friendship.

“Not just the voice, but the spirit of college football. My heart and prayers go out to his wife and children on this day and I thank them for allowing so many of us to have shared in Keith’s life.”

His final game ended up being the 2006 Rose Bowl, the thrilling national-title showdown between USC and Texas that saw Vince Young and the Longhorns prevail over the Trojans and their two Heisman Trophy winners, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, with 19 seconds remaining.

Other memorable college football moments with Jackson on the play-by-play call included the 2003 Fiesta Bowl (Ohio State vs. Miami), Kordell Stewart’s Hail Mary in the 1994 “Miracle at Michigan,” Desmond Howard’s “Hello Heisman” moment in 1991 for Michigan, and “Wide Right I” and “Wide Right II” in the Florida State-Miami rivalry.

He was inducted into the American Sportscasters Hall of Fame in 1994, and he received the Amos Alonzo Stagg Award from the American Football Coaches Association.

Jackson was born on Oct. 18, 1928, in Roopville, Georgia — near the Alabama state line. He spent four years in the Marine Corps before attending Washington State and graduating with a broadcast journalism degree. He worked at the ABC affiliate in Seattle, KOMO, for 10 years, including conducting the first live sports broadcast from the Soviet Union to the United States in 1958 with his radio call of a University of Washington rowing victory.

He became sports director of ABC Radio West in 1964 and was a freelancer for ABC Sports until becoming part of its college football announcing crew.

The National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association named him the National Sportscaster of the Year five times, among other honors.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Published at Sat, 13 Jan 2018 16:05:43 +0000