REGGIE HAYES: New England Patriots motivation rises, and other NFL playoff predictions

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady scrambles away from New York Jets linebacker Demario Davis (56) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady scrambles away from New York Jets linebacker Demario Davis (56) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

There are many stories yet to unfold in the NFL playoffs, yet one overrides them all. Did ESPN poke the bear and assure the New England Patriots another Super Bowl title?

The story released last week about the relationships among owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady was as fascinating as anything I’ve read this season. Anyone familiar with the personalities of those involved knows the story rings true in many aspects.

How close it comes to the truth of what’s going on in Foxborough, Mass., remains to be seen. But sports fans know how good teams often thrive when perceived to be attacked or criticized by outsiders. When you have a team with the talent, coaching and track record of the Patriots, that attack or slight could be a nice extra motivational push needed for another postseason run.

Combine the perceived persecution with the undeniable fact the trio of men at the center of the Patriots are closing in on the end of a run together, and it has the makings of a perfect storm.

Kraft, Belichick and Brady have downplayed and dismissed the story and its implications.

The most intriguing part of the story revolves around former backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. According to writer Seth Wickhersham, who talked with various anonymous sources within the organization, Belichick intended to groom Garoppolo as Brady’s successor, Brady felt threatened and Kraft ordered Garoppolo traded. Belichick dealt Garoppolo to the San Francisco 49ers. In that one scenario, you have a power struggle between Belichick and Brady, with Brady ultimately pulling the owner to his side. Kraft has denied ordering the trade. Brady denied the characterization that he was liberated by the trade.

Whether the narrative is 100 percent accurate, the Patriots felt the sting. They circled their wagons. Now they’re even more focused on another title.

The Patriots don’t need manufactured incentive to compete and succeed. But a little extra edge can’t hurt. They’re also still a very good team.

Here’s a quick glance at all four weekend games:

AFC

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS AT PITTSBURGH STEELERS, 1:05 p.m. Sunday

The Jaguars whipped the Steelers 30-9 on Oct. 8, with Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throwing five interceptions. How much has changed since that Week 5 game? Roethlisberger has only thrown seven interceptions in the 10 games he’s played since, and the Steelers won nine of those games. The Jags’ secondary remains its strength, so this could be intriguing again. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown could return from injury to add another layer to the Roethlisberger passing game. If Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles has more yards passing than running, it could be even more intriguing.

Prediction: Steelers 17, Jaguars 10

TENNESSEE TITANS AT NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS, 8:15 p.m. Saturday

Tennessee’s best approach might be to grind it out on offense, using running back Derrick Henry’s rushing ability and quarterback Marcus Mariota’s game-management skills. Control time of scrimmage, put up multiple field goals. Keeping Tom Brady off the field is, in theory, the best way to contain the New England offense. It’s also near impossible. The Titans, like most teams, will have a tough time dealing with New England tight end Rob Gronkowski, presuming he is at full health.

Prediction: Patriots 28, Titans 13

NFC

ATLANTA FALCONS AT PHILADELPHIA EAGLES, 4:35 p.m. Saturday

The Eagles are the NFC’s top seed and listed as underdogs against the Falcons. Las Vegas has Philadelphia as a 2.5-point underdog, the first No. 1 seed to be an underdog at this level of the playoffs since 1970. The uncertainty comes down to the quarterback situation, with injured Carson Wentz being replaced by Nick Foles. Foles is a downgrade, no question. Philadelphia’s saving grace will have to be its defense. Its pass rush needs to put major pressure on Matt Ryan, and force turnovers. Philadelphia will enter the game with a collective chip on its shoulder.

Prediction: Eagles 24, Falcons 21

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS AT MINNESOTA VIKINGS, 4:40 p.m. Sunday

Minnesota has the home field edge, the Vikings beat the Saints in Week 1, and the Minnesota defense allowed the fewest points per game during the regular season (15.8). I still keep coming back to the quarterbacks, Minnesota’s Case Keenam vs. New Orleans’ Drew Brees. One of those guys is going to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame some day. Brees threw for 376 yards and a pair of touchdowns last week. So that feels like the Saints have the edge. But if you look closer at Keenum, he’s been fairly terrific after being thrust into the starter’s role. He’s the second-most accurate passer (67.6 percent completions) in the NFL. Who’s the most accurate? Brees at 72 percent. This could be the most entertaining of the four games.

Prediction: Saints 31, Vikings 28

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.

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