Un­der­dogs out to bite favourites

Ti­tans, Jaguars aim to show they’re the real deal in AFC

The Standard (St. Catharines) - - SPORTS - BARRY WIL­NER THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The gen­eral be­lief is there are four con­tenders for the Su­per Bowl in the NFC, two in the AFC.

Let’s see if Ten­nes­see or Jack­sonville can prove that the­ory wrong this week­end.

Both AFC South rep­re­sen­ta­tives are sig­nif­i­cant un­der­dogs, the Ti­tans at New Eng­land on Satur­day night, the Jaguars at Pitts­burgh on Sun­day. For weeks, it’s been pre­sumed Steel­ers vs. Pa­tri­ots will de­cide who goes to the Su­per Bowl from the con­fer­ence.

The Ti­tans and Jaguars want to have their say.

“They’re the champs and th­ese are the types of teams you’ve got to beat if you want to be the champs,” says Ten­nes­see coach Mike Mu­larkey, who is 0-5 against the Pa­tri­ots. “You’ve got to beat th­ese teams at their place.”

Jack­sonville al­ready has done that, rout­ing the Steel­ers at Heinz Field 30-9 in Week 5.

“We did beat them the first time, so to have all the con­fi­dence com­ing out of there is in­ter­est­ing,” Jaguars DT Ma­lik Jack­son says. “They got a bye week, so they’re prob­a­bly feel­ing re­ally con­fi­dent. We’ll see Sun­day.”

Ten­nes­see (10-7) at New Eng­land (13-3)

All the num­bers favour the Pa­tri­ots ex­tend­ing their record of con­sec­u­tive ti­tle games reached to seven. They are, by far, the more ex­pe­ri­enced side: 14 Pa­tri­ots play­ers have played at least 10 play­off games. That’s more such play­ers than the 11 other 2017 play­off teams com­bined (13). Tom Brady has a 6-1 ca­reer record against the Ti­tans, throw­ing for 13 TDs and one in­ter­cep­tion. He’s 11-2 in 13 divi­sional-round games since 2002 and has com­pleted 316 of 509 passes for 3,700 yards and 28 TDs in those games.

And amid re­ported tur­moil in­volv­ing Brady, owner Robert Kraft and coach Bill Belichick, the quar­ter­back isn’t likely to lose fo­cus.

“We do what we al­ways do. We show up to work and try to do the best we can do,” the All-Pro quar­ter­back says. “We know there’s a lot at stake and I think ev­ery­one’s put a lot into it. It doesn’t re­ally mat­ter what hap­pened out­side of this fa­cil­ity.”

Ten­nes­see has lost six in a row to New Eng­land, but comes off a stir­ring sec­ond-half rally at Kansas City from 18 points down, the largest post-sea­son come­back on the road in the Su­per Bowl era.

Jack­sonville (11-6) at Pitts­burgh (13-3)

Ben Roeth­lis­berger had the worst game of his ca­reer in that Oc­to­ber loss to the Jags. Pitts­burgh lost only once af­ter that, at home to the Pa­tri­ots in a game that de­cided the AFC’s top seed.

While Roeth­lis­berger prob­a­bly will play far bet­ter than that, the big­gest chal­lenge for Jack­sonville could be stop­ping Le’Veon Bell in the run­ning game. The Jaguars ranked first stop­ping the pass, but 21st against the run.

“I feel great, es­pe­cially not play­ing th­ese last two weeks, not go­ing to (train­ing) camp ear­lier in the year,” Bell says. “I can’t com­plain. I like where I am. This is the fresh­est I’ve ever been go­ing into the playoffs so we’ll see how it goes.”

Pitts­burgh also gets back re­ceiver An­to­nio Brown, like Bell an All-Pro this sea­son.

Jack­sonville needs far bet­ter pass­ing from Blake Bor­tles. He gained more yards run­ning than throw­ing vs. Buf­falo in the wild-card round.

At­lanta (11-6) at Philadel­phia (13-3)

Al­though Philly is the No. 1 NFC seed, the Fal­cons are favoured. Part of that owes to At­lanta’s im­pres­sive work in win­ning at the Los An­ge­les Rams last week. Part has to do with the Fal­cons nearly win­ning the Su­per Bowl last Fe­bru­ary.

And part has to do with Nick Foles be­ing the Ea­gles’ quar­ter­back in­stead of the in­jured Car­son Wentz.

Foles, though, has had some suc­cess in Philadel­phia.

“It’s just go­ing out there and play­ing and stay­ing in the zone and trust­ing my in­stincts,” Foles says. “I’ve played this game a long time. There’s a rea­son I’ve been able to do what I’ve been able to do. When I play my best and I’m most com­fort­able, I just go out there and play.”

By con­trast, At­lanta’s Matt Ryan has a passer rat­ing of at least 100 in five straight post-sea­son games, tied for the sec­ond-long­est streak in league his­tory. Only Joe Mon­tana had a longer string with eight.

New Or­leans (12-5) at Min­nesota (13-3)

Min­nesota eas­ily han­dled New Or­leans in the sea­son opener, eons ago in NFL terms. The Vik­ings had a dif­fer­ent quar­ter­back then in Sam Bradford. Case Keenum has put to­gether a superb stretch of games since re­plac­ing the in­jured Bradford.

The Saints’ RB tan­dem of Mark In­gram and rookie Alvin Ka­mara wasn’t quite in place yet, ei­ther. And the New Or­leans de­fence didn’t come to fruition un­til Week 3.

Min­nesota’s D is bal­anced from front to back, so how Drew Brees deals with it could be the de­cider here.

“There’s no doubt about it,” Vik­ings de­fen­sive co-or­di­na­tor Ge­orge Ed­wards says, “you have a first bal­lot Hall of Fame quar­ter­back that does an ex­cel­lent job of go­ing out and ex­e­cut­ing their game from week to week. Our work will be cut out for us keep­ing them con­tained and hope­fully giv­ing them some things that can cause them some prob­lems.”

STEPHEN B. MOR­TON/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The Jack­sonville Jaguars will need a strong per­for­mance from quar­ter­back Blake Bor­tles if they want to up­set the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers this week­end.

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