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

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