The Divisional Round of the 2017 NFL Playoffs kicks off today. Here’s everything you need to know going in.
(3) Seattle Seahawks @ (2) Atlanta Falcons
Like any playoff game, this one has some interesting storylines. Earl Thomas is out for the season with an injury. Matt Ryan tries to overcome his 1-4 playoff record and solidify his MVP campaign. Can Thomas Rawls run like he did against Detroit? Does Atlanta have enough defense?
For Matt Ryan and the Falcons, this season was incredibly successful. Ryan finished with the second most passing yards, second most touchdowns, and the highest passer rating in the NFL this season. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined to rush for eighteen touchdowns. Julio Jones finished second in the NFL in receiving yards, and had the highest yard per catch average of anyone with at least 60 catches. This all led to the NFL’s most potent offensive attack. However, on the other side of the ball, Atlanta finished the season 25th in total defense and 27th in scoring defense, allowing over 25 points per game. Atlanta has managed to outscore most of their opponents this season. When they get 31 points in a game, they are 10-0. When they score 30 or less, they are 1-5. So, scoring 31 points appears to be the recipe for success for this Falcons team. They only managed to score 24 points when they traveled to Seattle in week six.
Russell Wilson will be playing in his 12th playoff game in this, just his fifth NFL season. At Century Link Field in Seattle, Wilson is 5-0 in the playoffs. But when you look at his numbers on the road and at neutral sites, his record is only 3-3, with one of losses coming in Atlanta. Looking at the Seahawks this season, you see a different team than what we are used to. Thomas Rawls is in for the retired Marshawn Lynch. The defense is missing players like Earl Thomas, Bruce Irvin, and Malcolm Smith. However, this is still a really good team that can beat any team on any given day. For Seattle to win, they need to force a turnover or two and shut down the Atlanta offense as best they can. The Hawks need to have balance on offense; if they run the football effectively, they will see much less of Matt Ryan.
Prediction: Atlanta 31 – Seattle 27
(4) Houston Texans @ (1) New England Patriots
In what will very likely be the least entertaining game of the weekend, New England takes on the Houston Texans. Head Coaches Bill O’Brien and Bill Bellichick are very familiar with each other. While New England is used to playing in the divisional round, this is the first time in team history that the Texans have even been this far.
Tom Brady and the Patriots are playing at home, where Brady has a 15-3 record in the playoffs. The Patriots also bring in the #1 scoring defense in the NFL this season, allowing just 15.6 points per game. Even without Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots have kept rolling through just about every NFL team they play. They enter the playoffs at 14-2, and are clearly the team to beat. There hasn’t been much to say about New England this season; they have been the most consistent team in the NFL. It would be one of the biggest upsets in recent memory if New England didn’t win this game, especially when you factor in Tom Brady playing January football in Foxborough, MA.
Houston certainly took care of business last week, and the reward was their first playoff victory in franchise history. However, they won’t be playing Connor Cook again this week. Instead, they will be going up against arguably the best quarterback-coach combo in NFL history. If they are going to come out of this game with a win, the defense has to hold Tom Brady to 20 points or fewer. The Houston offense is going to have a tough time putting up more than 21 points against the best scoring defense in the NFL. Next, Brock Osweiler and company need to protect the ball, and it all starts with a good running attack. If they can run the ball on the Patriots, that will simplify the game as much as possible for Brock. They have a chance at winning this game, but they really need to do just about everything right to win this game.
Prediction: New England 35 – Houston 10
(3) Pittsburgh Steelers @ (2) Kansas City Chiefs
The Steelers and the Chiefs have both been playoff mainstays over the last decade. However, this will be the first time they are meeting in a playoff game since 1994. Arrowhead Stadium is going to be loud for what seems to be a very intriguing, evenly-matched game.
The Kansas City Chiefs are coming off a bye last week, the first time they have had one since Andy Reid became the head coach. Historically, Reid is phenomenal coming off a bye, going 17-3 including the playoffs. The Chiefs lead the NFL in turnover margin, just as they did in 2015 as well. Alex Smith has playoff experience and the rest of this Kansas City team is hungry to avenge last season’s massacre in the playoffs, courtesy of the aforementioned Patriots. The big question leading up to this game is going to be health. We know Derrick Johnson is out, but can Justin Houston play? If so, how effective can he be? They are going to need all the pass rush they can get this week, as Big Ben has only been sacked 18 times this season, including the playoffs. Not having Johnson will hurt this already weak running attack.
For the Steelers, the name of the game is keep on playing the way they have for the last two months. Their eight-game winning streak has been fueled by the Killer B’s of Big Ben, Antonio Browm, and LeVeon Bell. However, this Kansas City defense is going to be too good to exclusively rely on those three players to get the win. The Steelers win and lose with their offensive line. When they are playing well, giving Ben time to throw and Bell room to run, the Steelers are incredibly tough to stop. On defense, if they can rush the passer like they did against the Dolphins, it is going to be tough for the Kansas City offense to get into rhythm. If the Steelers play the way they have for the past eight games, they should win. However, Arrowhead is arguably the toughest place to play in the entire NFL.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 27 – Kansas City 21
(4) Green Bay Packers @ (1) Dallas Cowboys
Talk about a classic matchup between two of the best franchises in NFL history. The Packers and the Cowboys: that is all you need to hear. From Lambeau Field two years ago, to the classic matchups of the 60s and 70s, this is a historic NFL rivalry. The flash of Dallas vs. the small town Packers.
Dallas has been the most consistent and dominant team over the course of 17 weeks. The NFL MVP of 2016 should be the Dallas Cowboys offensive line. While Zeke and Dak have certainly been solid on their own, the play of this offensive line (which includes former Badger Travis Frederick) is what makes this good team a potentially great team. If you were to look at the numbers for the defense, you would see some fairly promising statistics. However, it is pretty widely accepted that their defense is leaky and prone to giving up big games to some teams and players. With that being said, if Dallas can run the ball effectively like they have all season, then they will be able to keep Aaron Rodgers off the field. It will be interesting to see if anything with this team changes now that it is the playoffs. Will the rookies start to look like rookies? Probably not, but this game is unpredictable.
For the Packers, this game is all about getting on top early, and trying to force Dallas away from their game plan. A turnover for the Green Bay defense would go a long towards building that early lead. The Green Bay secondary is depleted and they will be without Jordy Nelson. However, this team is riding a seven game win streak, and Aaron Rodgers hasn’t thrown an interception since November. In addition, the Packers have a solid run defense, finishing the regular season eighth in the NFL. Back in October when the Cowboys traveled to Green Bay, the Packers committed four turnovers and they only lost by fourteen. If Green Bay wants to leave Dallas victorious, they need to limit turnovers.
Prediction: Green Bay 30 – Dallas 27