Jan. 18, 2017
NFL Divisional Playoffs
The NFL Division Round begins this weekend. All four matchups are rematches from earlier in the season. Interestingly, all four teams that were the hosts in the regular season are now the road teams this weekend.
Seattle at Atlanta (Saturday, 4:35 PM EST, FOX): these two teams met in Seattle at midseason. The Seahawks won the Week 6 meeting 26-24, on a controversial no-call of a possible pass interference. This week could be more of the same: a tough, tight game with its share of big plays. Matt Ryan is playing the best ball of his career. Taylor Gabriel has emerged as a weapon opposite Julio Jones. Atlanta's two-headed ground attack is tough to stop. Add an improved defense and special teams play and that's a recipe for a deep playoff run. For the Seahawks, Russell Wilson is clutch in the postseason. Thomas Rawls is tough to stop. And Paul Richardson had a breakout game vs. Detroit. While the Hawks' defense isn't quite what it once was, it's still formidable. They will make enough stops to keep the game close. This has the recipe for an instant classic. In the end, Wilson's clutch play will prove to be too much for Atlanta. Seattle moves on to the NFC Championship Game. Seattle 27, Atlanta 24.
Houston at New England (Saturday, 8:15 PM EST, CBS): this has the makings of an interesting game. For only the fifth time in postseason history, the team with the #1 scoring defense and the team with the #1 overall defense meet. Tom Brady gets rid of the ball super quickly. In order to win, the Texans have to force Brady and the Patriots into mistakes and turnovers. Therein lies the rub. Brady gets rid of the ball quickly and decisively and is very rarely sacked. The receivers know their routes inside and out. Houston has the underwhelming Brock Osweiler at the helm. Yes, he did play the game of his life last week, but he was at home and up against a very flawed defense. Osweiler is going up against a defense coordinated by a coach that literally studied rockets. (Matt Patricia, the Patriots' defensive coordinator, has a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering. Why he's not a head coach by now is an anomaly, but that's for another blog.) The Patriots' defense hounds, harasses, and goads Osweiler into some huge mistakes. New England sends Houston on an extended fishing trip. New England 34, Houston 17.
Green Bay at Dallas (Sunday, 4:40 PM EST, FOX): Dallas won the Week 6 matchup at Lambeau 30-16. They gashed Green Bay's improved defense to the tune of nearly 200 yards on the ground. If Dallas can have similar success, they limit the Packers' possessions, further putting pressure on their offensive unit to score points. Green Bay will be without Jordy Nelson due to a couple of fractured ribs he suffered in the Packers' win over the NY Giants last week. (One has to wonder how healthy Nelson will be moving forward; he is getting older and more injury-prone.) It's hard enough to play Dallas completely healthy; not having Nelson makes the Packers' job a lot more difficult, despite being the hottest team in the league right now. While Aaron Rodgers is playing amazing football, the Cowboys' pass rush will seek to neutralize him. With Mo Claiborne back for the Boys, he helps neutralize Rodgers. I see the Cowboys' stout ground game as too strong for the Packers, and they end up hosting the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game. Dallas 31, Green Bay 20.
Pittsburgh at Kansas City (Sunday, 8:20 PM EST, NBC): this game was originally scheduled for a 1 PM EST start, but due to the ice storms hitting the Kansas City area, the game was moved back to its current starting time. Strangely enough, it favors Pittsburgh's strong running game. LeVeon Bell is a FREAK. He is a true game changer. He is a threat every time he touches the ball. Ditto Antonio Brown. The Chiefs' defense has a tough task ahead of them. Not having Derrick Johnson makes that task even tougher. Defensively, the Steelers are led by the ageless wonder, James Harrison. This time, he has a better supporting cast than in recent years. The Steelers have to find a way to slow down Tyreek Hill, perhaps the fastest player in the NFL. Hill has emerged as a legitimate weapon for the Chiefs on offense and on special teams. Alex Smith must make sound and smart decisions, and not turn over the ball. The Chiefs' offense must limit the number of possessions the Steelers' offense has. That means very few or no three-and-outs every time the Chiefs offense has the ball. The time of possession battle must be won by the Chiefs. However, I see the Steelers winning the turnover battle in this game, including forcing a turnover deep in Chiefs territory and giving Ben Roethlisberger a short field to work with. Bell and Brown each make a big play. The Steelers advance to Foxboro to play the Patriots. Pittsburgh 35, Kansas City 24.