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
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.