2017 NFL Conference Championship Reactions

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons

The Confetti has cleared and the dust has settled. Two teams remain in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy. After dominating a pair of the NFL’s hottest teams, the Falcons and Patriots will meet in Houston on February 5th for Super Bowl LI. Let’s take a quick look back at how they won their respective conferences.

 

Falcons beat Packers 44-21

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Falcons quarterback, Matt Ryan (left), and receiver, Julio Jones (right), celebrate winning the NFC after defeating the Packers on January 22, 2017

There were 4 keys to the Falcons’ victory. First, they got out front early and put the pressure on Green Bay. Second, the blistering offense was unfazed by its offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s potential future with the 49ers. Third, they forced all kinds of miscues by opposing QB Aaron Rodgers. But most importantly, they won the defensive and special teams wars.

The game started off perfectly for Atlanta, as Shanahan dialed up a 13-play touchdown drive in which 7 different people had a hand at gaining yardage. Getting everyone involved and on the same page was brilliant, and it set the tone for the rest of the game. Green Bay had a nice drive to start too, but it stalled inside the 25-yard line, forcing a field goal. No problem for the ever-reliable Mason Crosby, right? Well, as I said, he had to miss sometime. As the kick sailed wide right, the fans in the Georgia Dome erupted and gave their team the momentum early. With the gifted field position, quarterback Matt Ryan and company set up their own kicker, Matt Bryant, for a field goal. He nailed it to put Atlanta up 10-0.  However, Rodgers wasn’t ready to lie down. On the next drive, he threw 5 passes to 4 different players to quickly put Green Bay in the red zone. Then, after he handed the ball to fullback Aaron Ripkowski, the ball was ripped from the ball-carrier by cornerback Jalen Collins. He would recover the fumble himself and set up a Falcon touchdown later in the drive. From there, things went from bad to worse for the Packers, as their leader on defense, Micah Hyde, injured his shoulder while tackling running back Tevin Coleman. The good news? It would force the only punt for the Falcons before the last drive in the entire game.

The half started the same way it ended for Atlanta, after going up 24-0 with touchdown after touchdown, they scored another by means of an incredible 73-yard catch-and-run by Julio Jones. From there, finally, the Packers were able to get on the scoreboard when Rodgers found Devante Adams for the 2-yard score.  The teams would trade touchdowns the rest of the way, finishing 44-21. Matt Ryan outdid himself, racking up 392 yards and 4 touchdowns. En route to a near perfect passer rating, he hooked up with Julio Jones 9 times for 180 yards. This duo is going to prove to be a nightmare for the Patriots. But if anyone is good at shutting down a team’s #1 man, it’s Bill Belichick. But more on that later. The Falcons offense performed at high levels once again, due in part to a weak Packers defense without leadership. It was an uphill battle before the game started, and without Hyde, it was nearly impossible. Atlanta did just what they needed to do by putting on the pressure early, and you can tell the Packers felt it. The best thing the Falcons did was force two turnovers in the first half… the fumble by Ripkowki and an easy pick on Rodgers extinguished all hope on the visitors’ sideline. The Falcons stuck to a flawless game plan and came out on top. Now, they face a tough test against the Patriots as they try to win the city of Atlanta its first NFL Championship, and the second trophy from any sport.

 

Patriots beat Steelers 36-17 

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Patriots Quarterback, Tom Brady, celebrates a touchdown during the AFC Championship on January 22, 2017

If you’re up to date on my posts, the game plans I laid out make it very clear why this game was so lopsided. The Patriots made sure to eliminate the Steelers’ #1 threat. After running back Le’veon Bell got hurt early in the first quarter, New England adapted and began to double-team receiver Antonio Brown. That’s something the Steelers failed to do, adapt. I said that any play the Steelers didn’t rush at least 5 men would result in a positive play for the Pats, pending a dropped pass. Not only did Pittsburgh fail to do this, they played zone! Patriots quarterback Tom Brady LOVES zone coverage. He’s known for finding gaps in defenses and putting passes right on the numbers. Occasionally, the passes would bounce off his receivers’ hands, but veteran defensive coordinator Keith Butler never moved away from this failing game plan.  The Patriots’ ability to adapt on defense helped, but the fact that they got to stay comfortable for the whole game made it easy for them to rout the Steelers at home.

After a promising drive to start the game, the Steelers held the Patriots to just a field goal. A defensive win for sure, but Pittsburgh was unable to score until Brady drove his team 80 yards for the Pats’ first touchdown. Only then was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger able to end a meticulous 13-play, 84-yard drive with a touchdown run by Deangelo Williams. Why Deangelo Williams? Le’veon Bell reportedly hurt his groin during the drive, and would not return to the game. With the Steelers’ #1 threat ruled out, the Patriots had an easy time covering the other superstar for Pittsburgh, Antonio Brown. On the ensuing Patriots possession, Belichick dialed up a flea-flicker that caught everybody off guard. Brady easily found a wide open Chris Hogan downfield for the 34-yard score. However it was still close at halftime; New England only led by a possession, 17-9.

The Steelers would fail to score again until just 2:36 remained in the game. The Patriots went on a string of touchdown-turnover runs, which apparently never got old for the Steelers. That is, while the Patriots defense had all the answers to the Steelers scoring attempts by forcing 3 turnovers, the offense was scoring at will. The Steelers never wavered from the zone defense which was proved ineffective. The only compliment for them is that they were able to hold running back Legarrette Blount to just 47 yards. But that was expected. The fact that they never put pressure on Brady was unacceptable, especially as he completed pass after pass. The inability to adapt to an obvious offensive attack in such a crucial game seems like the act of a first-year coach. For Pittsburgh’s sake, I hope they spend the offseason figuring out what went wrong. If any of you have their contact, refer them here! Anyway, Brady finished the game with 384 yards and 3 touchdowns… nearly matching Matt Ryan’s brilliant performance. But are you ready for the Cool Stat of the Day? Patriots Receiver Chris Hogan and Falcons receiver Julio Jones both caught 9 passes for 180 yards on exactly 12 targets. That’s two outstanding performances in two crucial games, and the fact that they have an identical stat line is unbelievable. They’ll look to put on a show for a much bigger audience in two weeks, when they meet in Houston to battle for Super Bowl LI.

2017 NFL Conference Championship Predictions

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It’s time to determine who’s going to the Super Bowl! Sports fans have an exciting Sunday to look forward to, as the NFL Final Four takes place in Atlanta and Foxboro. In Atlanta, two identical playing styles clash with countless storylines underneath. Up in New England, the perennial Super Bowl favorite faces another tough test, and hopes the challengers won’t be their undoing. All four teams have high powered offenses, so in this season more than ever… Defense Wins Championships. Let’s take a look at how teams can make it to the last game of the season.

 

Packers at Falcons    3:05 PM ET    FOX

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It’s not déjà vu. The Packers and Falcons played in Atlanta earlier this season. Back in October, the Falcons won 33-32 on a touchdown with just 30 seconds remaining in the game. This Sunday the scoring may be even higher, as both offenses have certainly improved from that point if you can believe it. The question is, have the defenses improved too? By the end of this game, obviously the winner will be determined by who scores the most. However, the result does not rely on the #1 and #2 offenses, but on which defense can stop them the best.

The Packers enter with an astounding 8-game win streak. Quarterback and superstar Aaron Rodgers led this team from a 4-6 record, nearly out of playoff contention, to the NFC title game. That in itself gives him a strong case for league MVP. It seems like every game he makes a miracle play that surpasses his greatness from the week before. If that trend continues, who knows what fans will get to see on Sunday. Even scarier, he may have his #1 wide receiver Jordy Nelson back in the lineup. Rodgers always distributes the ball with ease, and to add another gritty playmaker to this already dangerous offense is mind boggling. Furthermore, “running back” Ty Montgomery is coming in clutch in the red zone. While the Falcons are definitely preparing to limit the passing game, Montgomery could sneak up and score too.

So with the obligatory offense praise out of the way, the defense and special teams will be the difference. Kicker Mason Crosby came up big against the Cowboys, and he’ll likely be called on many times again this weekend. His inconsistency in the regular season seems to be behind him, but this postseason field goal streak has to end sometime. If he misses out on a key 3 points, the Packers may fall behind the 8-ball and never catch red-hot Atlanta. Unless of course, the defense slows them down. Again, there will be no stopping either team from scoring, but forcing one or two punts could be the difference. The Packers will need to disguise blitzes and hang tight on the quick receivers. Forcing Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to squeeze the ball into tight windows could be crucial. He’s not known for mobility, so expect him to try to make things happen fast if the pocket collapses. This is a huge task for Green Bay, of course, and it won’t be easy. But the suspect secondary shut down OBJ and the Giants, and outlasted the Cowboys attack. This challenge will be the toughest of all, but if they keep up their hot play and cornerback Micah Hyde continues his leadership and tenacity, the Packers could be unbeatable.

As for the Falcons, the game plan is no less challenging. Aaron Rodgers seemingly has all the answers. If you blitz, he evades pressure and throws darts downfield. If you drop back in zone, he finds gaps and can thread the needle like nobody else. If you play man-to-man, the Green Bay receiving core can make an endless amount of highlight reel catches. In other words, there’s no way to win. The Falcons will want to get in Rodgers’ head. This can be done the hopeful way or the hard way. Hopefully, Atlanta will want to try to break up passes and mess up Rodgers’ rhythm early in the game. If he’s out of his comfort zone and overthinks his throws, he could dig himself in a hole as time wears on. The hard way, and far more likely attempt, will be to stay ahead on the scoreboard. Getting the ball first and scoring will be important for both teams. If they can put the pressure on the opposing team from the onset, playing from behind can always affect a quarterback’s mindset. I believe Atlanta’s defense has more talent and more speed than Green Bay’s defense, which is a big advantage. However, the Packers have the heart and willingness to risk everything for each other, and that is a huge part of how they’ve made it this deep in the postseason. These teams will bring out the best in each other, and this game will definitely come down to who wants it more.

There’s an interesting development for Atlanta on offense. I’d like to think the 49ers read my last post, as they plan to offer their vacant head coaching position to the Falcons’ offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan. In just two years with the program, he has completely turned the team around into the #1 offense in the league. Matt Ryan is in his prime, and the chemistry is tangible between him and his speedy receivers. The back field is great too, as Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman could be elite star running backs with any team, but unselfishly split carries in Atlanta. This kind of team play wins championships. With the 49ers publicly stating the intent of Shanahan becoming their next head coach, you wonder if this chemistry will be broken for the Falcons down the final stretch. With both teams gelling so well, it’s hard to imagine. However, if Shanahan knows he’s potentially on the way out, and the players sense his mind is elsewhere, the #1 offense may fail to compete at the high level they’re used to, and thats just what the Packers need.

Packers prevail, 37-34.

 

Steelers at Patriots    6:40 PM ET    CBS9636955.jpg

This matchup of two storied franchises is equally hard to call. The Steelers come in winning a league best 9-straight. And as I’ve said before, the Patriots enter their 6th straight conference championship; that accomplishment cannot be over stated. However, they’ve only won twice in the past 5 tries, and gone on to win the trophy once. But Tom Brady knows Pittsburgh well, having beat them all four times he’s played them at home. He even beat them in Pittsburgh earlier this year, 27-16. That shouldn’t mean too much though, as Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was replaced by backup Landry Jones due to knee surgery. Also, that was back when the Patriots still had big tight end Rob Gronkowski. With two important roles changing hands, little can be taken away from the last meeting. I could go on and on about past records such as these, but let’s get to the good part.

The Steelers are arguably the healthiest they’ve ever been this late in the season. Injuries have ultimately been their undoing in past seasons, and they are thrilled to have all their stars ready to go for the biggest game of the season so far. Their biggest problem this season has been a lack of discipline. This issue already came up before the team even left Kansas City last week. During a post-game talk by head coach Mike Tomlin, star wide receiver Antonio Brown recorded a Facebook Live video that captured all of Tomlin’s private comments. He was heard saying many things, among which were to “keep quiet on social media”. He didn’t want distractions and asked his team to lay low for the week as they prepare. After Brown heard this, he continued to stream the locker room for 15 more minutes! This may not be a big deal, but there is an underlying problem when one of the best players on the team shows a blatant disregard for his head coach. Not only does he appear not to care about this private, family-like meeting, he completely disobeyed Tomlin’s message and caused a distraction that lasted all week. The Steelers have repeatedly said they will not let the incident affect them as it has already been handled internally, but just the fact that they must keep answering the media’s questions about the issue is enough. That aside, they have enough problems to deal with on the field.

The Steelers’ offense is clicking, that much is certain. The concern is the red zone scoring. Last week, after putting together many well-played drives, they failed to score a touchdown. Their main offensive goal this week is to finish what they start. Coming up with long drives is great. It demoralizes a defense and gives a team good momentum, but the best way to give it back is to settle for a field goal or turn the ball over. And that’s just what the Steelers tend to do when they get close to the goal line. Look for Pittsburgh to address this in practice this week, and watch out for an expanded playbook as they near the red zone. As for defense, the Steelers MUST rush Brady. Let Patriots running back Legarrette Blount run. Trust the secondary to cover the New England receivers man-to-man. If the Steelers do not rush Tom Brady, they will lose. Period. The only way Brady has been stopped this year, is when he’s felt the pressure from the defensive linemen. Look at Houston. The way the Texans stayed so close last week is because of the Mercilus pressure (pun intended).  As soon as they dropped back in coverage late in the game, the Patriots took over. Anytime the Steelers don’t rush 5 or even 6 men, Brady will get yards one way or another, with the exception of the occasional drops by the receiving core. Even better, the blitz will stop Blount’s progress too. The only way the Steelers have a chance to advance into the Super Bowl is to bring back Blitzburgh.

As for the Patriots, their game plan is to stop the Steelers’ #1 man. That is Le’veon Bell. He followed up his 167-yard performance against the Dolphins by breaking his own record the next week against KC with 170 yards. It’s incredible to watch his patience as he waits for holes before accelerating through the line of scrimmage. It’ll be the Patriots’ job to plug those holes for as long as possible, and get to Bell before he gets started.  I expect this to come to fruition, as Belichick has made a living at preparing his defense to stop the #1 man each week, whomever it is. So, that only leaves two Killer B’s left. If the Pats do indeed stop Bell, it takes a lot of pressure off the secondary as they focus on breaking up the Ben-to-Brown combination. On offense, just let Brady take care of business. The offensive line will need to give him time and space to work, but as long as he’s comfortable, there’s no throw he can’t complete. Don’t expect the pressure of the situation to get to him either; he has the NFL record for most playoff appearances and wins by a large margin. Many of his teammates have experience in the playoffs too, and that is always important. This game will be about keeping composure and sticking to the plan.

The Steelers are already out of rhythm with the distraction caused by Brown, but once the game kicks off, all of that will fade away. Any play while on defense that does not have 5 or 6 Steelers in the box will give an advantage to Brady and the Patriots to smoke the Steel Curtain as they’ve done in seasons past. The Patriots just need to give Brady time to work and lead the team to the Promised Land once again. Stopping Bell will be very important, and if Belichick doesn’t have his team ready for what Bell’s capable of, the Killer B’s will sting them for sure.

Patriots survive, 27-23.

2017 NFL Divisional Round Reactions

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NFL fans are still trying to wrap their heads around the action from this weekend. There were two intriguing winning performances on Saturday, for vastly different reasons. This was followed by a Sunday featuring two record-setting performances by kickers in upset wins on the road. Let’s take a look at 4 teams’ road to the Super Bowl… and 4 teams’ offseason.

 

Falcons beat Seahawks 36-20

NFL: NFC Divisional-Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons
Falcons running back, Devonta Freeman, outruns the Seahawks defenders in the NFC Divisional playoff game on January 14, 2017

If there was any question about the Falcons’ offense staying hot in the playoffs, it was answered. MVP candidate Matt Ryan played well again, throwing for 338 yards amongst 8 different receivers. Atlanta’s offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan did a phenomenal job balancing the attack between the talented running backs, while letting Ryan work his magic in between. There’s a reason he’s a top head coaching candidate for next year; I’m looking at you 49ers.

To recap, the Seahawks received the opening kickoff and had the best start one could ask for. They drove 89 yards downfield on 14 plays, while chewing up over 8 1/2 minutes of clock. After capping the drive off with a touchdown toss to Jimmy Graham, the Falcons responded with an equally impressive drive. They went 75 yards on 13 plays, held the ball for over 7 minutes, and scored a touchdown off a pass to running back Devonta Freeman. With both offenses moving the ball at will, the defensive coordinators needed to make adjustments. After the Seahawks got a field goal from Steven Hauschka, things were about to swing in Atlanta’s favor. Seattle’s defense forced a very quick 3-and-out, and the Falcons punted to legendary return man Devin Hester. He did what he does best, returning it deep inside Falcon territory. However, it would be called back due to a holding penalty, and suddenly the Seahawks were trapped inside their own 5-yard line. Two plays later, quarterback Russell Wilson got accidentally tripped by his own offensive lineman resulting in a safety. On the ensuing drive, the Falcons took the lead with another field goal, making the score 12-10 Falcons. Then, another 3-and-out for the Seahawks. Punter Jon Ryan was able to pin the Falcons at their own 1-yard line, but Ryan and company had no qualms going 99 yards for a touchdown just before halftime.

The Falcons opened up the second half with yet another long touchdown drive, this one for 75 yards. The Seahawks answered with a 62-yard drive of their own, but had to settle for another field goal. Also, without Earl Thomas, the Seahawks secondary was getting shredded by Atlanta. It’s obvious how vital his leadership had been this season, and his absence was really hurting Seattle. The Falcons put up another field goal, picked off Russell Wilson, and scored a touchdown with the good field position. Down 13-36, the Seahawks were deflated. Then, Devin Hester made what will more than likely be the last return of his career. It was a beauty, 78 yards to spark the Seahawks as they tried to claw back in the game; vintage Hester. Wilson threw a 31-yard strike to wide receiver Doug Baldwin to get within two possessions, but when he threw his second interception on the next drive, it sealed the Seahawks’ fate. Falcons won 36-20.

Kyle Shanahan deserves a lot of credit for the masterful job he’s done in Atlanta this season. Matt Ryan leads undoubtedly one of the best, most explosive units in the NFL, and they showed it again on Saturday. After the Seahawks started the game with a long touchdown drive, there was doubt that the Falcons would be able to hang with them all game. But they did that and more, seemingly ending every drive with a score. The Seahawks defense couldn’t find any answers, and when Wilson began to struggle in the second half, it was lights out. The Seahawks look forward to welcoming their defensive leader back before next season, while acquiring new talent in the NFL Draft to their already stacked roster. There was just no stopping the Falcons on Saturday. If this offense continues playing well and motivating the defense to perform like it did this weekend, the Falcons will be incredibly tough to stop. You can bet their next opponent took notice of this powerhouse.

 

Patriots beat Texans 34-16

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Patriots quarterback, Tom Brady, celebrates a touchdown in and AFC Divisional Playoff game on January 14 ,2017

Dion. Lewis. If not for him, the Patriots might have entered the offseason earlier than anybody expected. That’s right, the Patriots didn’t play anywhere near their best game, and the Texans did everything they needed to do, until they just ran out of gas in the end. I laid out the Texans game plan: keep it close and disrupt the Patriots’ momentum. They did. I also said they needed to beware because Tom Brady is the best 4th quarter QB in the game and may just pull away no matter what. He did. The good news for the rest of the league is that the Texans proved that New England is beatable.

They did it with their #1 defense yet again. After an early pass interference call, the Texans gave up an early touchdown, and everyone expected the Patriots to run away with it. However, the Texans’ offense responded with an impressive show of ball control. They ran 14 plays over an 8 minute span, but had to settle for a field goal in the end. Then, Dion Lewis returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for the score. After a Texan 3-and-out, this game was all but over, right? Well, the Houston defense sprung to life, forcing two straight turnovers that led to 10 points. After some back and forth the rest of the half, the Patriots found themselves in a four-point game as they talked things out in the locker room. This was just what the Texans wanted. They needed their defense to come up big and keep it close, and voila! The Patriots were still heavily favored, but you can bet there were some anxious fans wondering if Houston could pull off perhaps the greatest upset in playoff history.

Dion Lewis started the scoring in the second half with a rushing touchdown, his third TD of the game. On the next drive, quarterback Brock Osweiler threw an interception, and again all the viewers were ready to watch New England blow it wide open. But they didn’t. They were forced to punt after gaining only 16 yards. When they got the ball again, Tom Brady threw another uncharacteristic interception. Lucky for him, it only resulted in 3 points for the Texans. Still, they weren’t going away, down just 8. However, as I mentioned before, even if the Texans were to do everything right, odds were that Brady would pull out the win in the end. Both times he got the ball in the fourth quarter resulted in points, and the Patriots finally pulled away in the very end to win 34-16.

The final score was very misleading. Some could even argue Houston played the better game. Brady threw for under 300 yards and had 2 INTs. Obviously, you give credit to the Texans’ defense. If you weren’t impressed before, how could you still doubt them now? With defensive end JJ Watt coming back for Houston next year, it’s a wonder how anyone will be able to score on these guys. But Brady is one of the greatest football players of all time. Watching him play such a sloppy game, one where his passer rating was just 68.6, his second-lowest of the season, was odd to say the least. I don’t care who you are or who you play. That can’t happen. I said the same thing about Osweiler coming into this postseason. His lackluster passer rating was indicative of the way his team would ultimately perform. His legs might have saved him against Oakland, but he hasn’t proven anything this postseason, and you’ve got to think his starting job with the Texans is in jeopardy next year. Now, Brady is safe, but he’s going to have to get back on track if the Patriots want to get back on top. The Patriots enter their 6th straight Conference Championship! Unprecedented dominance. They’ve been there plenty of times before, so Patriots fans just hope they were caught sleeping on the Texans, and this poor performance by Brady’s offense is not a sign of things to come.

 

Packers beat Cowboys 34-31

NFL: NFC Divisional-Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys
Packers celebrate with kicker, Mason Crosby, after he hit a game-winning 51-yard field goal in the fourth quarter of an NFC Divisional playoff game on January 15, 2017

Wow. Viewers may have been getting bored after watching 6 average games to start the playoffs, in which the home-favored teams all won handily. Finally, this game lived up to the hype, and gave us an instant classic. It was veteran vs. rookie. It was experience vs. hunger. Yet in the end, it was toe vs toe. Two of the NFL’s best fan bases squared off at AT&T stadium in Dallas, and this one didn’t disappoint. There’s a lot to talk about, so I’ll try to make this recap brief.

The Cowboys started off with a field goal. An impressive opening drive by rookie quarterback Dak Prescott stalled late, but their kicker Dan Bailey is as reliable as they come. Aaron Rodgers welcomed the Cowboys back to the playoffs by scoring 3 touchdowns on the first 3 drives of the game, while the defense shut down the Cowboys’ young playmakers. Just like that, the Cowboys faced their largest deficit all season, down 21-3. As I foreshadowed, Prescott may be too young to handle the immense pressure if such a situation were to arise. His back was to the wall, the weight of an entire city squarely on his shoulders, and not a lot of hope filled the stadium. But, as I also said, he’s surprised us all before. And so once again, he strung a couple drives together resulting in a touchdown and another field goal, pulling to within a possession before halftime. Not bad at all…

Business picked up in the second half. Aaron Rodgers opened the scoring by putting together a masterful drive that resulted in another touchdown, this time a pass to tight end Jared Cook. As it seemed Prescott was about to counter, Green Bay cornerback Micah Hyde undercut Dallas receiver Cole Beasley’s route and forced Prescott’s interception. All seemed lost as surely Rodgers was poised to deliver yet again on another meticulous drive, digging the Cowboys into a deep hole. However, Rodgers made a rare mistake by under throwing a deep ball to Devante Adams, and the Cowboys capitalized with an interception of their own. This was Rodgers’ first pick in over two months. Prescott was able to redeem himself and threw 7 times on the next drive, with the last one being a wide open touchdown catch by Jason Witten. With renewed confidence, the defense stopped the Packers, and Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliot split plays effectively to string together another touchdown drive. When Prescott scrambled for the two-point conversion, AT&T Stadium erupted; their Cowboys had come all the way back to tie the game at 28-28. Then, if that wasn’t good enough, it got even more interesting.

NFL: NFC Divisional-Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys
Packers tight end, Jared Cook, catches a pass late in the 4th quarter of an NFC Divisional playoff game on January 15, 2017

 

With just over 3 minutes left, Rodgers quickly led his team into field goal range, but perhaps too quickly. When it got to fourth down, kicker Mason Crosby stared down a 56-yard field goal attempt. To make matters worse, if he missed, the Cowboys would be in excellent field position to kick the go-ahead field goal themselves. Packer fans had to be nervous because Crosby has had arguably the worst season of his career. But head coach Mike McCarthy has shown tremendous faith in him, and it was about to pay off. The 56-yard kick knuckled its way downfield and just squeaked inside the right post. Incredibly, Prescott and the Cowboys immediately got within field goal range themselves in just 58 seconds. The ever-reliable Dan Bailey punched it in, and in no time it was 31-31. With 38 seconds left and two time outs, the Packers had plenty of time to give Crosby another chance. However, after a sack, the Packers faced a 3rd-and-20 back in their own territory. Then, Rodgers did what he does best. He rolled out of the pocket and threw a rope downfield. Jared Cook miraculously adjusted and grabbed the ball while dragging his feet inbounds (pictured above). After initially ruling that the pass was incomplete, the back judge over-ruled the head linesman, and, after review, the call was confirmed. Crosby was set up for a 51-yard field goal attempt at the buzzer for the win. In doing so, he would break the NFL record for most consecutive playoff field goals. He did it…twice. Well, Cowboys head coach Jason Garett called for a timeout just before the snap on the first attempt, but Crosby was unfazed and hit it again when it counted. The Packers prevail 34-31.

Wow. Now let’s catch our breath. First of all, hats off to the Cowboys. Prescott showed tremendous poise in the face of such bleak circumstances. His leadership and composure really turned heads as he showed he is the future of Dallas football. Though this season ended prematurely, they have a lot to look forward to with plenty of postseason success to come. That said, with Prescott performing as he did on Sunday, and how he has all season, it’s time to trade longtime quarterback Tony Romo. It’ll be very hard for owner Jerry Jones to part ways with his quarterback over the years, but this is Prescott’s team now. Romo is too much money, and too talented to be a backup. This offseason is the perfect time to let him go and turn the page. There’s no reason to believe the Cowboys won’t be back in this same spot next year, and this time they will come with an extra year of experience. Perhaps a veteran talent can take Romo’s spot on the roster to provide more depth on defense as they try to extend their postseason run in 2018.

For the Packers, they move on and face a tough test in Atlanta. Both of these teams are offensive juggernauts with exploitable defenses.  Rodgers shows again and again that he is worthy of MVP with his ability to keep plays alive and place balls perfectly. Not to mention, stand-in running back Ty Montgomery got in the end zone twice on Sunday. If the Packers’ biggest problem on offense is considered solved, as they have faith in the running game, how will anyone stop them? The Falcons will certainly be up to the challenge as they carry the #1 offense in the NFL. When these two identical playing styles clash, it’s anyone’s guess who will come out on top.

 

Steelers beat Chiefs 18-16

NFL: AFC Divisional-Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs
Steelers place holder, Jordan Berry (Left), and kicker, Chris Boswell (Right), celebrate a field goal in an AFC Divisional playoff game on January 15, 2017.

To complete my perfect 4-0 predictions this weekend, the Steelers held on to defeat the Chiefs in Kansas City. Also as I predicted, penalties played a deciding role in this game, but so did Boswell’s toe. The Steelers needed all 6 of his field goals, setting an NFL record, as they never found the end zone. The Steelers had also been scouting Chiefs’ receiver Tyreek Hill, thus never letting him get a good kick return or allowing him to break open for a big game. Credit to the Chiefs though; they did an excellent job trying to utilize his speed to their advantage in different ways.

The game started with a long Steelers drive. They were able to get deep into the Kansas City red zone, but the defense stopped them there. Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin was forced to make a tough 4th-and-1 decision early. Instead of trying to force the issue, he opted for the easy 3 points. People questioned his decision after the next drive resulted in an Alex Smith passing touchdown for the Chiefs, but the Steelers answered with another field goal. And another. And another. At halftime, the Steelers had 4 field goals to the Chiefs’ touchdown. It was anyone’s game. Obviously the Chiefs’ defense was bending, but forcing the Killer B’s to just field goals was a definite win. Meanwhile, after getting opened up with an early touchdown, the Steel Curtain bounced back by forcing two turnovers and not allowing another point until the tail end of the third quarter.

Due to the defenses not allowing the opposing offense to get too close to the end zone, this game was within a possession from start to finish. Fast forward to the end of the 4th quarter, the Chiefs were down 8. They needed a touchdown and a 2-point conversion. The Steelers weren’t about to let that happen as they forced a 4th down at the 38-yard line. Wily Kansas City head coach Andy Reid had let too many close games slip away to allow him to settle for the difficult field goal. Smith converted the play and the drive continued. On the next set of downs, during a long third down, Smith went deep for the end zone. The pass was broken up, but Steelers cornerback Artie Burns committed a potentially fatal error. Yes, another 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty for Pittsburgh. The Chiefs go from a long 4th down to a 1st down inside the red zone. Steelers fans wondered if this penalty would be the one that finally ended their season. And later, inside the 10, the Chiefs still faced another 4th down. This time the field goal was much easier, but there wasn’t enough time left to realistically get the ball back… they needed to convert again. And they did. With the season on the line, the Chiefs pulled out their only 4th down conversions of the season to stay alive. After a touchdown on the next play, the game rested on a 2-point conversion. Arrowhead Stadium might have broken its own max decibel volume when Smith threw a strike to a wide open target. But wait! Flags down. There was a holding  penalty on the Chiefs, a 10-yard penalty, and they had to retry the conversion. Smith dropped back and looked for an open man. Eventually he had to throw, but it was broken up. Steelers lead 18-16, only needing a first down to end the game. When their quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found receiver Antonio Brown on the sideline for the 7-yard catch, it was over. Steelers were on their way to Foxboro and a chance to win the AFC.

The Chiefs season ends on a costly penalty. What an ironic turn of events! While the Steelers’ lack of discipline in big moments might still cost them, it was the Chiefs who fell victim this time. Offensive tackle Eric Fisher was inconsolable in the locker room afterwards, feeling as though he cost his team the game with the penalty. Teammate Travis Kelce had his back when he publicly discredited the officiating. During the post-game interview, he dropped multiple expletives to show his disapproval of the call. Nonetheless, the Chiefs end their season on another heartbreaking note as they look to regroup and rebuild for next year. If they find some offensive playmakers to match their lockdown defense, the Chiefs will easily be division champs again with a chance at redemption.

The Steelers look ahead to a daunting matchup against the Patriots. Tom Brady is 4-0 at home against the Steelers, and the rest of the team always gives Pittsburgh fits as well. This game will be incredibly interesting because two of the hottest teams in the NFL played disappointing games this weekend. Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin fired up his boys in the locker room before exiting the stadium as they prepare for the next tough road test. But Bill Belichick, head coach for New England, is a living legend. He’ll have his team ready to fight for the conference crown next Sunday. The winner will be decided by who wants it more, by who can prepare best by recovering from their offensive woes, and finding weaknesses in their opponent. You won’t want to miss either of these games.

 

Look forward to my predictions on Friday, and catch the games on Sunday:

Packers at Falcons    3:05 PM ET    FOX

Steelers at Patriots    6:40 PM ET    CBS

2017 NFL Divisional Round Predictions

 

The Wild Card round left much to be desired, but luckily the Divisional round promises to deliver. Last week, all four home teams won easily, and now face tough road tests. There’s a lot to discuss about the intriguing matchups as well as potential coaching triumphs and miscues. Not to mention, all four games are rematches from earlier in the season. I’ll put my 3-1 record on the line as I tell you what to expect this weekend. Let’s take a look.

Seahawks at Falcons    Saturday 4:35 PM ET

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In a thrilling rematch from Week 6, the Seahawks and Falcons are primed for another exciting finish. Back in October, Seattle jumped out to an early lead at home, only to surrender 21 straight points to Matt Ryan’s Falcons. However, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll was able to rally his team in the fourth quarter to squeak out a 26-24 victory. Now, on the road and across the country, the Seahawks hope to duplicate the performance. This challenge could prove difficult without standout safety Earl Thomas. The Falcons are known for their big play ability, and the last thing the Seahawks need is a depleted secondary. This will be a huge problem, and if Carroll can’t dial up some tricky defensive schemes, there’s no telling the damage Matt Ryan and Julio Jones can inflict for the Falcons. The good news for Seattle is that the duo of quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Thomas Rawls are clicking as well as ever. After a sluggish start against the Lions last week, these two exploded in the second half and are carrying some serious momentum into Atlanta. More so, the Seahawks have faced much more talent on the defensive line before. So, expect Rawls to victimize this defense. That said, the Atlanta secondary can be tough. They were some of the best in the league in 2015. This year, they’ve shown flashes of brilliance, albeit amidst some inconsistent play. If they come to play on Saturday and limit Wilson and the Seahawks to a one-dimensional attack, the Falcons will have no problems soaring into the Conference Championship. However, if Seattle keeps the hot streak going, and Wilson continues finding his targets and selling play-action, the Seahawks will be flying into the next round.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones are unstoppable. One can only hope to slow them down. Ryan is a strong MVP candidate, while Jones is arguably the best wideout in the league. With Seattle missing a key piece in their defense, don’t think these two will go easy on the Seahawks. You can even expect to see some plays where Jones draws the defense to one side, only for Ryan to throw a screen or quick slant to his other speedy playmakers. In the Falcon backfield, the duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman continue to churn out yards week in and week out. It’ll be interesting to see if one of the best and most explosive offenses in the league can carry its hot play into the postseason. Oftentimes, especially after a bye week, hot offenses cool off dramatically. If Atlanta’s offense sticks to the game plan that they’ve used all season long and shred the Seahawks defense, their own questionable defense may hardly be a factor. But if they don’t, and Seattle starts to see the Atlanta offense struggle, Carroll is one of the best coaches at exploiting weaknesses and taking advantage of missed opportunities. He’s also quite the risk taker. Atlanta better watch out for some fourth-and-short conversions. If Seattle keeps clicking and forces Atlanta on their heels all game, while not allowing too many big plays, the Seahawks could steal one on the road.

I’ve laid out many “ifs” that could happen. All of them can drastically change the course of this game. To summarize, Atlanta needs to keep their hot offense on track and try to gash a weakened Seahawks defense. The Seahawks need to limit big plays while on defense. More importantly, they can’t fall too far behind and must continue to utilize Rawls and their veteran receivers effectively. Both are easier said than done, and this game may just come down to how the bye week affects Atlanta.

Falcons win this one at home, 27-20.

Texans at Patriots    Saturday 8:15 PM ET

This rematch is very unlike the first time they played each other. Back in September, before Tom Brady came back from his 4-game suspension, the Patriots were run by quarterback Jacoby Brissett. He played stellar, and the Patriots shut out the Texans, 27-0. With Brady back, this game could get out of hand, fast. The Texans have been known for their defense. They will live and die by it. If they can’t stop Brady and the Patriot’s firepower, they will lose. That’s the bottom line. Quarterback Brock Osweiler is simply not good enough to keep Houston in the game by himself. He threw for 168 yards and a single touchdown in the Wild Card game last week against a demoralized Raiders defense. If it wasn’t for the turnovers giving them excellent field position, the score would’ve been even lower, because Osweiler couldn’t muster more than two drives longer than 53 yards. As a quarterback, that’s unacceptable this late in the postseason. The Texans will need to catch every break they can, and hope their #1 overall defense can once again live up to its ranking.

On the other side of the ball, the Patriots should only fear getting complacent. Yes, they have a high octane offense. Yes, they have a talented, ball hawking defense. Yes, they have the third largest point-spread from Vegas in playoff history. However, they can’t beat themselves and give the Texans hope. Houston’s defense is suffocating, and they will take advantage of mistakes. It just so happens that veteran quarterback Tom Brady rarely makes any. He knows where he wants the ball and how to deliver it. The Patriots’ strong, talented running back, Legarrette Blount, helps too. The Patriots hold the record for most playoff appearances in a row (tied with the Packers). They’ve also won their division all 8 years. It’s fair to say they have all the postseason experience one could ask for. Furthermore, they’re home in a chilly Gillette Stadium in which they are 7-1 in the playoffs since 2010. The only way New England loses is if they beat themselves.

The way Houston wins this game is by stopping Brady and the New England offense, all the while putting up points themselves to keep it close. If it sounds like a daunting task, it is. The Patriots have the control and just need to execute the simple plays. The funny thing is, even if the game gets close and the Patriots allow the Texans to get within reach, Brady is the best in the business at executing late fourth quarter game-winning drives. I don’t see a way the Texans can extend their season.

Patriots steamroll, 35-10.

Steelers at Chiefs    Sunday 1:05 PM ET

This game is the least likely of the four to go down the same as it did the first time these two teams played. Back in Week 4, the Steelers throttled the Chiefs in Pittsburgh, 43-14. Now, they find themselves in a loud Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, with their season on the line. The most important thing for the Steelers entering this game is health. It’s been said before, this is the first postseason that the “Killer Bs” are all playing at the same time. This is vital to Pittsburgh’s success. Although quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tweaked his ankle at the end of last week’s game, he appears to be a full-go this Sunday. Besides health, the next most important thing is discipline. I can’t say it enough. The Steelers continue to commit unnecessary dead ball penalties every week, costing them valuable yards and sometimes points. If they stop the 15-yard flags, and win the turnover battle against a raucous defense, the Steelers can easily find themselves in the next round. But it’s not that simple. The Steelers will inevitably let their emotions get the best of them. They better avoid letting minor mistakes spiral, because the KC defense knows how to take advantage. They have been some of the best in recent years at getting takeaways and forcing opponents to do what feels unnatural. In order for the Steelers to win, they’ll need to expand their playbook and be willing to stretch their comfort zone, all the while keeping their emotions in check.

For the Chiefs, the home crowd noise is a huge asset. While Roethlisberger scorched their defense for 300 yards and 5 touchdowns in the last matchup, he was at home. This season, he’s been prone to many more mistakes and poor decision making without the help of his home fans. His TD-INT ratio drops from 20-5 to 9-8 on the road, and his passer rating drops from an astounding 116.7 to a dismal 78.4, among other things. This could be a perfect storm for the Chiefs faithful. It’s true that the Steelers have a wide variety of playmakers that the Chiefs need to be watchful for, but without Roethlisberger effectively running the offense, his weapons lose their pop. If Kansas City’s red hot defense throws off Pittsburgh and allows them to defeat themselves, their only issue will be putting up a few points. Unfortunately, that has proven to be a big problem. All season the Chiefs have struggled with playmaking ability and explosiveness. Often, they rely on their defense to get a key turnover and put them in good field position. While this may or may not be the case again on Sunday, in order to extend their season, they’ll need an emerging star. I’m not buying into the hype on Tyreek Hill. He is fast, and he has made a couple deep runs with his speed, but apart from his punt returns, expect the Steelers to shut him down. They may even avoid punting directly to him as well, making him a virtual non-factor. Without the presence of any offensive spark plug, this game could come down to the first team to score 20 points wins.

The Steelers and Chiefs possess the ability to control their own fate. Kansas City should rely on its defense and try to make some plays when they have the ball. Pittsburgh needs to keep its composure and hold the Chiefs to short, quick drives, while coming up with long ones of their own. Whichever team can’t execute this game plan will fall. It seems this is the Chiefs’ game to lose, though Pittsburgh is favored by a touchdown. You won’t want to miss this one…it’ll come down to the very last drive.

Pittsburgh overcomes more penalties, wins 24-17.

Packers at Cowboys    Sunday 4:40 PM ET

Once again the Packers find themselves in the the game of the weekend. This time they head to AT&T Stadium to face America’s team. Thankfully, they will not be wearing the same uniforms they did back in Week 6 (pictured above), when they lost in Lambeau, 30-16. Both of these teams bring their own brand of offensive firepower. The Cowboys bring a young and fearless attitude, while the Packers show a poised, meticulous attack. Everyone is anxious to see which proves more effective. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers is coming off a monster game against the Giants. In what was supposed to be an even affair, Rodgers’ offense blew it open after he connected on yet another Hail Mary to his receiver Randall Cobb right before halftime. He threw for 4 touchdowns, even without the injured #1 receiving threat, Jordy Nelson. While Nelson’s inability to play this Sunday may hurt the Packers offense, Rodgers knows better than anybody how to utilize his weapons and distribute the ball with ease. Green Bay has been dealing with injuries all season, from Adams, to Cobb, to their entire backfield. It hasn’t stopped them from winning their last 7 straight games. Adapting without Nelson should be no different. Even better, the suspect Green Bay secondary held their own last week against a dangerous Giants passing game. If they can do the same against the Cowboys’ rookie quarterback, Green Bay’s win streak may extend another game.

For the Cowboys, the key is to see how their young playmakers handle this grand stage, especially after two proverbial bye weeks. The Cowboys have been under a lot of stress dealing with the age old “rest vs.  keep momentum” debate. They chose the former and it will be interesting to see if the stars can stay hot in the playoffs. It’s not impossible, as they drew a good matchup with the Packers’ inconsistent defense. Though Green Bay’s defense played strong last week, the Cowboys have the potential to exploit Green Bay just as they did in October. Rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliot have impressed even the stingiest skeptics. If they want to silence all doubters, they’ll need a win at home this weekend. This is where the inexperience comes into play. The Packers have been to 8 straight playoffs, an NFL record (tied with the Patriots). This Cowboys team is brand new, and has no such experience. Tony Romo is a veteran who will provide vital leadership from the sideline, but if these young talents don’t stay composed under the bright lights, their fairytale season could crumble before their eyes.

This has all the makings to be a thriller from start to finish. Watch for Elliot and Prescott to match Rodgers play for play. The X-factor is Dez Bryant, no pun intended. He is often emotional and lets it affect not only his play, but his team’s. If the Cowboys lose the hands of their #1 pass catcher, they could fall apart. If Dallas falls too far behind in such a pressure-packed game, the 23-year old Prescott may not be able to deal with such adversity. Worse, that’s when Aaron Rodgers loves to turn it on. However, Prescott has proven us all wrong many times before.

Packers exact revenge, 34-23.

2017 NFL Wild Card Reactions

{Originally published January 9, 2017}

There was a lot to see this past weekend as the NFL Playoffs kicked off around the country. Most notably, this was the most lopsided Wild Card weekend since 1981. Yes, the 76-point differential, on average 19 points per game, is the most of any round of its kind in just over 35 years. With such a wide scoring margin, there had to come some performances that excelled above the rest, and some disappointments. Let’s take a look.

Texans beat Raiders 27-14

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Texans Quarterback, Brock Osweiler, runs for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of the AFC Wild Card game on January 7, 2017

To open the playoffs, the Houston Texans showed the NFL why they have the #1 overall defense in the league. While the Oakland Raiders had a sputtering offense given their quarterback situation, Houston continued to make play after play, allowing just 203 yards along with 3 turnovers. They started off strong. After scoring a field goal, Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney jumped on a screen pass intended for Latavius Murray and hauled in an interception inside the red zone. Texans running back Lamar Miller took advantage by adding a touchdown on the next play putting Houston up 10-0. The Raiders would answer two drives later with Latavius Murray rushing in for the score to pull within 3. However, that would be as close as they would get. The Texans controlled field position with long drives downfield and pinned Oakland deep if they couldn’t quite get to field goal range. Along with the smothering defense, the Texans entered halftime up 20-7.

In the second half, both offenses couldn’t make a play longer than 6 yards until the 4th quarter. Then, finally, the Texans embattled quarterback Brock Osweiler put together a methodical drive culminating in a touchdown rush of his own. However, Raiders QB Connor Cook would answer on the next drive, throwing 9 passes including a touchdown throw to his favorite target, Andre Holmes. The scoring would stop there, as the Texans punted after two quick drives, and their defense picked off two more INTs from Cook.

Though it wasn’t the most offensively entertaining game, the Texans defense definitely impressed by dominating when the Raiders had the ball. It’s worth mentioning again, the Raiders were on their third string quarterback, but nonetheless, the Texans showed again that they are the #1 overall defense in the league. Both teams faced pressure coming in for their own reasons. Ultimately, in part due to the defense, Osweiler was able to take control while Cook struggled to find his footing. Clowney’s early interception demoralized Cook and the Raiders, and it lead to a quick Texan touchdown and a comfortable lead to build off of as the game went on. This confidence boost proved to be pivotal to the teams’ emotions. With the reenergized Houston defense, the Patriots would be wise to take notice of the skill of their opponent for the Divisional Round next weekend. It remains to be seen if the Texans will be able to stop arguably the best offense in the NFL right now.

Seahawks beat Lions 26-6

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Seahawks running back, Thomas Rawls, runs for a touchdown in the 4th quarter of the NFC Wild Card game on January 7, 2017

Many anticipated a blowout in the nightcap of Saturday’s slate of games. They would ultimately be correct, thanks to a phenomenal performance by Seattle Seahawks running back Thomas Rawls. However, the result didn’t come without tension for most of the game. In fact, neither the Seahawks nor the Detroit Lions were able to get on the scoreboard until midway through the second quarter. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll took a gamble by going for a touchdown on 4th and goal from the 2-yard line. It paid off when quarterback Russell Wilson looked to his right and found his receiver Paul Richardson in the back of the end zone. Richardson would make potentially one of the best catches of the playoffs, but perhaps illegal. As Richardson looked back to catch, he was blanketed by Stanley Wilson, a Lions defensive back. That didn’t stop Richardson from reaching around him to snag the ball with one hand. However, his other hand can be seen gripping the face mask of the defender, a 15-yard penalty. The referee did throw a flag, but called defensive pass interference, which was declined by the Seahawks and the touchdown stood. Lions head coach Jim Caldwell would later call out the officiating on numerous missed calls. Nevertheless, action continued. Before halftime, the sides would trade long field goals to go into the locker room with the score 10-3 Seahawks.

In the third quarter, it was more of the same. Neither offense could muster much a drive, but Detroit did get another 50+ yard field goal to get within 4. Meanwhile, Seahawks running back Thomas Rawls was piling up yardage. He eclipsed 100 yards before halftime and would finish with 161 yards on 27 carries, averaging almost 6 yards per carry. Midway through the 4th quarter, he put an exclamation on his great night by adding a burst up the middle for a touchdown to put the Seahawks up 19-6, all but putting the Lions away. If that wasn’t enough, on the next drive Wilson found two open receivers in the end zone. Baldwin hauled in the catch, and the rout was on. Seattle went on to win by a final score of 26-6.

Though for 75% of the game, it wasn’t the dominating performance we expected, the Seahawks ultimately proved to be too much for the Lions. Give Detroit credit though…playing in perhaps the toughest environment in the NFL with so much on the line, they held their own. Nobody expected an injured Matthew Stafford to come close with the scarcity of playmakers, but they hung in there and kept the game from getting out of hand. Unfortunately for the Lions, coupled with some controversial officiating, the Seahawks had too much talent and pulled away in the end. Jim Caldwell may have let some questionable calls get the best of him. It would behoove him to let the referees do their job and move forward, he can’t change their decisions, so don’t dwell on it. It was an uphill battle to begin with and piling on excuses never helps matters. In any case, the Lions’ 25 year playoff victory drought will go at least one more year.

Steelers beat Dolphins 30-12

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Steelers running back, Le’veon Bell, breaks a tackle in the AFC Wild Card game on January 8, 2017

In a rematch from Week 6, the Steelers and Dolphins game had some similar statistics. The winner scored 30, a running back put a record in jeopardy, and there was more lack of discipline. The Steelers took hardly any time to adjust to the flow of the game. On the first drive, Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hooked up with his star receiver Antonio Brown for a 50-yard touchdown. On their next drive, they would connect for a 62-yard score. Before the Dolphins knew it, they were down 14-0 early. They would answer with a 12-play drive, but it culminated in just a field goal. However, the Steelers remained hot, and their third drive ended with their third touchdown. This time it was a run by Le’veon Bell. The Dolphins answered with another field goal, but could feel their season slipping away from them, now down 20-6. On the Steelers’ final drive of the half, after completing his first 11 passes, Roethlisberger was ready to break the record for most passes without an incompletion in the first half of a playoff game. Unfortunately, on his 12th pass, he threw a completion to the wrong team.

The next Dolphin drive got interesting. The Steelers, up big and with all of the momentum, started getting scrappy. Its unclear if they were provoked by Miami players shouting, but after almost every play there would be some extracurricular activity. Luckily for Pittsburgh, the penalties thrown got offset, but this has been a continuous problem that head coach Mike Tomlin needs to get control of before it costs them another game. On one play in particular, linebacker Bud Dupree smoked Miami quarterback Matt Moore just after he let go of a pass. He would be flagged for roughing the passer, but due to the ensuing chaos of Dolphins protecting their quarterback, it would be offset by an unnecessary roughness call on the offense. Moore was forced to leave the field to undergo concussion protocol, but was cleared after a couple minutes. Just before the half, the Dolphins drove inside the 10, seemingly about to squash all of the Steelers’ momentum. But linebacker James Harrison wasn’t about to let the Dolphins back in the game. He came up with a strip sack with seconds remaining to shut the door and go into the half well in control.

To start the second half, Pittsburgh forced a fumble and an interception by linebacker Ryan Shazier. They converted this into 10 more points behind some more hard running by Le’veon Bell. After that, there isn’t much to comment on. With the game well in hand, the Steelers played conservatively. For Miami, Jay Ajayi, a key playmaker who broke 200 yards against Pittsburgh in Week 6, went down with a shoulder injury. He ended his day with only 33 yards on 16 carries. On the flip side, Le’veon Bell broke a Steeler franchise record for must rushing yards in a playoff game with 167 and two touchdowns. Behind remarkable performances by the Killer Bs, the Steelers are looking ahead to the Chiefs in the divisional round.

The Steelers were able to flip the script on Miami, avenging their 30-15 loss in October. They came in with a game plan to stop the run and it worked. When the Dolphins were forced out of their comfort zone, as they were no longer able to rely on Ajayi. As Miami backpedalled looking for ways to get the passing game going, the Steelers were putting up touchdown after touchdown. The only way Miami was going to win was if the Steelers beat themselves, and they nearly did. If the Steelers continue to commit unnecessary penalties, it will come back to bite them. Furthermore, while Roethlisberger has a knack for escaping pressure, if he gets too careless with his passes and throws more interceptions rather than taking sacks, Pittsburgh will be the ones reeling. Despite these mistakes, they got the win this time. However, the Steelers won’t leave for Kansas City unscathed. Late in the fourth quarter, Ben Roethlisberger was hit as he threw and landed awkwardly on his ankle. Postgame he was seen in a walking boot and traveling around in a cart. He insists its merely precautionary, and that he’ll be a full-go next weekend. Still, keep a close eye on his status moving forward, as it goes without saying he is a vital part of the Steelers’ attack. It will also be interesting to see how Mike Tomlin invokes discipline on his team for so many potentially costly penalties. Don’t think they’ll get away with such mistakes in a noisy Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.

Packers beat Giants 38-13

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Packers quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, celebrates after his team won 38-13 over the Giants in an NFC Wild Card game on January 8, 2017
This game started how many expected, an evenly matched slug fest. Both teams fought for every yard, and it seemed like New York had the early edge. Veteran Giants quarterback Eli Manning orchestrated drives downfield, but due to late drops by his receivers, they were forced to settle for field goals. As the half wound down, the Packers were getting nowhere. It appeared that the Giants defense was ready to stop the potent Green Bay attack. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers connected with Devante Adams for a 31-yard catch and run, scoring two plays later with the same connection from 5 yards away. It seemed like that would be it for the scoring before the half, and that the teams would have to look for more answers with Green Bay up 7-6 at the break. Then, with seconds to go, Rodgers did what he does best. As time expired, Rodgers launched a pass from the 50-yard line. It would land in the arms of Randall Cobb in the back of the end zone for yet another Hail Mary. The Packers entered the locker room up 14-6, probably even shocked themselves that they just pulled off the astounding play once again. That bomb would turn the tide in this game.

In the second half, the floodgates opened. After the Giants hooked up for a deep 41-yard touchdown to make the score 14-13, they would fail to put up another point. The Packers answered with 4 straight scoring drives to end the game, winning 38-13. Rodgers finished with an incredible 362 yards and 4 touchdowns. Randall Cobb was on the receiving end of 3 of those touchdowns and combined with Adams for 241 yards. The Packers defense was even able to force two turnovers in their shutdown of the Giants. Eli Manning falls to 8-1 on the road in the playoffs, which is still a phenomenal accomplishment. After the game, Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. allegedly was so frustrated he repeatedly ran his fist through a wall outside the grounds crew locker room, and banged his head on a door inside the Giants facilities. During press conferences, he denied any relation to the receiving core partying in Miami Beach last week, when they were celebrating their playoff birth. Now, the Giants can have as many distractions as they want; their season is over.

The Packers can now look forward to facing the NFC #1 seed Dallas Cowboys in AT&T Stadium. This will be a spectacle. Though their Wild Card game wasn’t as close as everyone thought, don’t expect the Packers to complain. Now, once again they’ll have the spotlight as the country debates if they have the firepower to knock off America’s team. If you liked watching Wild Card weekend, you’ll LOVE these divisional matchups.

Look forward to my predictions on Friday for the Divisional Round games:

Seahawks at Falcons        Saturday 4:35 PM ET    FOX

Texans at Patriots        Saturday 8:15 PM ET    CBS

Steelers at Chiefs        Sunday 1:05 PM ET    NBC

Packers at Cowboys        Sunday 4:40 PM ET    FOX

2017 NFL Wild Card Predictions

{Originally Published January 6, 2017}

The 2017 NFL Playoffs kick off this Saturday, and there are plenty of reasons to watch. Two quarterbacks battling as they make their first career postseason starts, three teams trying to reach the Super Bowl for the first time in 32 years or longer, four coaches trying to cement their legacy as a future Hall of Famer, and of course, America’s team is back. Let’s take a look at the Wild Card round.

RAIDERS AT TEXANS    Saturday 4:20 PM ET

NFL: International Series-Houston Texans at Oakland Raiders
At first glance, you see two talented defensive lines looking to get to inexperienced quarterbacks. The Texans signal-caller, Brock Osweiler, has never made a postseason appearance thanks to Peyton Manning returning for the Broncos just in time for the playoffs in 2015. The Texans subsequently signed Osweiler to an astounding 4 year, $72 million contract in the offseason. Many have claimed that they overpaid for an unproven Osweiler, as he was merely a role player for a very talented Broncos team that won the Super Bowl without his help in the playoffs. This is also proven by last year’s already suspect passer rating of 86.4 dropping to a dismal 77.2 this year. Not to mention he was benched in week 16 in favor of the backup, Tom Savage. However, when Savage went down with a concussion in week 17, it’s Osweiler’s team again. You better believe he has something to prove.

Meanwhile, the Raiders’ quarterback situation might be even worse. Derek Carr led his team to a 12-3 record seemingly out of nowhere, vaulting him up the MVP Rankings and putting the Raiders in position for a 2 seed in the AFC. Along with his elite receiving core,  the Raiders earned their first winning season since 2002. With everything going their way, the unthinkable happens. The MVP candidate dropped back to throw in the fourth quarter up big over the Colts. He would get sacked, and fracture his leg, ending his season. Backup Matt McGloin would step in and the Raiders would hang on for their 12th victory of the season. All seemed to be okay, until McGloin suffered a shoulder injury in a very meaningful game against the Broncos in week 17. Enter rookie Connor Cook. It was too late to salvage a win, or even more than a touchdown, as the Raiders lose and surrender the 2 seed, and home field advantage to the Chiefs. Now Cook, with a mere 32 minutes of NFL experience under his belt, must turn around a demoralized team in his first career start, on the road, in the playoffs. Can he handle the pressure?

You may recall Connor Cook’s last playoff appearance. No, not in the NFL, but the College Football Playoffs. His Michigan State team never scored as Alabama rolled 38-0. Don’t think he’s forgotten. But don’t think Brock Osweiler hasn’t been waiting for his shot since Manning replaced him last year. These are two motivated quarterbacks with a lot on the line.

In an defensive struggle, Raiders use their offensive weapons and prevail 20-14.

LIONS AT SEAHAWKS    Saturday 8:15 PM ET

x-1The Lions have the longest Super Bowl drought in history, never having been to the pinnacle since 1957, back when it was just the NFL Championship. Furthermore, their last playoff win came in 1991. As the 6 seed this year, it’s highly unlikely the drought ends any time soon. The Lions limp in to the postseason, losers of three straight in part due to a fractured finger of quarterback Matthew Stafford. However, with no real standout players its hard to put the blame solely on him. Fortunately, an emerging running back, Zach Zenner, could be a much needed spark plug for Detroit. With star safety Earl Thomas out for the Seahawks, look for Stafford and company try to exploit the weakened secondary. That said, the toughest test for the Lions will the famed 12th Man. Nobody wants to play in Seattle, especially in the playoffs. The fans are well known for their loud, overwhelming support of the hometown Seahawks. If Detroit doesn’t let the volume affect their play, look forward to a well played game that goes down to the wire.

The Seahawks look to return to the Super Bowl after the heart breaking loss suffered two years ago. This year’s team has talent all over their roster, despite the injury to Thomas. In fact, much of Seattle’s depth chart is the same as their previous Super Bowl run. Russell Wilson will look to utilize his many options on offense, including veterans Baldwin and Graham. He’s also a versatile dual threat quarterback that can burn teams with his arm as well as his legs. The smothering defense makes few mistakes, not to mention the boost of the home crowd. On a roll and with momentum on their side, Seattle will make it hard on Detroit to gain any kind of momentum of their own. Problems can arise if the Lions mix up play calling effectively, allowing Zenner and Stafford to work in tandem and keep the opposing defense on their heels.

All and all, The Seahawks have too much talent and momentum to lose this game. They have the support of the 12th Man, and the valuable postseason experience to pull out a win. As desperately as Detroit wants to snap the droughts, they don’t have the tools, health, or heat coming in to the playoffs to get it done this year.

Seattle cruises at home behind Russell Wilson, 31-14.

DOLPHINS AT STEELERS    Sunday 1:05 PM ET

x-2The Dolphins enter the playoffs with a 10-6 record, second in their division only to the 1 seeded Patriots. This is their best record since their last postseason appearance in 2008. Although their last playoff victory came in 2000, the Dolphins are ready to roll into Pittsburgh and beat the Steelers, just as they did at home back in October. Miami running back, Jay Ajayi, will give the Steel Curtain fits as his speed and athleticism could again prove to be too much. Also, as Ryan Tannehill recovers from his knee injury from Dec. 11, the Dolphins could be at full strength at the perfect time. If not, Matt Moore has done a solid job holding down the fort, locking up a playoff spot without too much drama. While the Dolphins look to ride Ajayi’s wheels into the divisional round, look for Pittsburgh to try to shut down the run game and force Miami to throw the ball. If the Dolphins are forced out of their comfort zone, there may be trouble in paradise.

The Steelers are red hot and fired up to prove themselves in the playoffs. Motivated by former Steeler quarterback and current FOX broadcaster, Terry Bradshaw, calling head coach Mike Tomlin “a cheerleader”, the Steelers have rallied around Tomlin winning their last 7 games to enter play. Even better, Pittsburgh was able to clinch the 3 seed after week 16, allowing their star “Killer B’s” to rest against the Browns in week 17. After pulling off an emotional walk off victory in overtime against their longtime rival, the Steelers have high spirits. Best of all, a healthy Ben, Brown, and Bell means big trouble for Miami. The Steelers will try to avoid their sometimes inconsistant play by limiting turnovers and penalties. If the Dolphins find ways to force these mistakes, and allow Ajayi to gash the defense, the Steelers may have a tough time getting things going.

This will be a back and forth game full of great plays and strategic moves. Ajayi will break the 100 yard mark again, but so will the opportunistic Le’veon Bell. Big Ben will try to avoid big hits and connect on long plays downfield, while the Dolphins try to disguise and balance their stout running game.

Tomlin shows he’s more than a cheerleader, Steelers win 34-21.

GIANTS AT PACKERS    Sunday 4:40 PM ET

x-3This is the game of the weekend. Both teams are ready for the postseason. The Giants at 11-5 have a long history of winning it all from a low seed. Two-time champion quarterback, Eli Manning, is 8-0 as an underdog. 8-0! You never count out this team that’s full of heart. This year is particularly intriguing because of the multitude of playmakers, highlighted by standout receiver Odell Beckham Jr. While his emotions may get the best of him at times, there is no denying he is one of the best in the league.  He will be ready to tear up a weak Packer defense. Meanwhile, the Giants sharp defense looks to make Aaron Rodgers escape the pocket or check down for short gains. Don’t expect them to layoff the hard hits either. Look for the Giants to make the necessary plays on offense, but if they can’t slow down Green Bay while on defense, it’ll be a long, cold night in Lambeau.

The Packers are one of the hottest teams in the NFL. Winners of 6 straight, Green Bay is flying high after clinching the NFC North last week. Aaron Rodgers proves again and again that he is one of the best quarterbacks in the league with his decision making, pinpoint accuracy, and ability to avoid sacks. A top MVP candidate, Rodgers and his many passing targets look to confuse the Giants and force coverage mistakes. Weaknesses come in the running game, and at defense. Without a true running back, it could prove to be very difficult to sell the Giants on a balanced attack. Also, the Packers must stop OBJ and try to avoid putting too much pressure on Rodgers. Luckily, Rodgers has been known to be both clutch and lucky, pulling off countless game-winning drives, even with a couple Hail Mary throws. While the Packers have home field advantage, don’t expect the cold to throw off New York.

This game will be entertaining from start to finish. Manning and Rodgers will match big play after big play. With neither team’s running game shown to be all that strong, there will be a lot of pressure on the D-lines to rush the QB and force errant throws. A key will be ball possession, allowing your defense to rest while forcing the opponent to play tight coverage every down. It’ll be a show of endurance.

Green Bay edges out New York, 28-24.