If you were bored to death by Wild Card weekend don’t worry you were not alone. After 14-plus hours of watching mediocre playoff football–all of which were home team blowouts–one message became deafeningly clear. It’s all about the quarterback in January. In each of the four games last weekend the better quarterback one the game. There was no greater evidence of this than the Texans and Raiders game where Brock Osweiler was the superior for the first time all season. To Osweiler’s credit it was the best he has looked as a Texan, but will run into the buzzsaw Tom Brady this week. Eli Manning played the best of the four losing quarterbacks, but was helpless due to his receivers not holding on to the ball and Aaron Rodgers on a career-defining run.
As we head into the Divisional round it’s important to remember the lesson of last weekend and apply it. Picking Brady over Osweiler is a gimme, but the other games are virtual toss ups. Ben Roethlisberger vs. Alex Smith will compete with Russell Wilson vs. Matt Ryan as the best duel of the round while Rodgers looks to take out another NFC East quarterback on his collision course to Houston. Rookie Dak Prescott and the Cowboys will have to continue to be the anomaly they have been this season to stop A-Rod and the red-hot Packers. Let’s take a look at what is in store this weekend as we look to get some watchable football. Home teams are in CAPS.
FALCONS (-4.5) over Seahawks
Let’s apply what we learned right off the bat. Russell Wilson looked great last week against the Lions. The grain of salt you can take with that performance is that the Lions defense allowed a mind numbing 70-percent completion percentage this season. The Falcons defense is certainly not the best, but they are damn sure better than that. What allowed the Seahawks to have such an easy day at the office was the fact that they were at home and Thomas Rawls was able to shred the Lions to pieces. Rawls ran for 161 yards on 27 carries last weekend which allowed the passing game to open up and after that happens it’s usually over especially in Seattle. The defense looked good as usual, but yet again the grain of salt in their performance was Matthew Stafford’s injured throwing hand and Theo Riddick’s absence.
When the Falcons take the field Sunday they will be completely healthy. The Georgia Dome has been great to Matt Ryan his whole career (48-22 record at home) and would like to send his favorite field out in style. His MVP season was a nice touch, but a win in what could be the final game played at the dome would be ideal. Ryan will have all the help he needs to do just that. Julio Jones figures to be as healthy as he has been since the start of the season and will have a bone to pick with the Seahawks. When these two met in Seattle earlier this year the Falcons were poised to win, but the referees missed a crucial pass interference call where Julio was being mugged downfield. Julio has already made it a point to mention heading into the game so expect the refs to be extra attention to that this time around. If Ryan has trouble picking apart the secondary Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are more than capable of carrying the load.
Prediction: Seahawks 23, Falcons 28
Texans (+16) over PATRIOTS
Relax. If you think Tom Brady is losing this game please jump out of the nearest window. The Patriots will certainly win this game, but it is inhumane to spot a team more than two touchdowns. This year’s Pats have been true to the teams we have seen throughout the Brady-Belichick era, but without Rob Gronkowski their firepower on offense isn’t the same. Had they drawn any other defense I would consider going with the Patriots. The Texans defense is on a hot streak at the moment and should at the very least force Brady to earn every point he scores. Without Gronk look for the supporting cast of Julian Edelman, Martellus Bennett, LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis to carry the load. Lewis has been money since his return late in the season and has proven to be valuable when in the lineup. So valuable that the team has won every game Lewis has played.
Stopping that trend will be difficult, but Jadaveon Clowney and the Texans defense are one of the few units that can pull it off. Last week was relatively easy against a banged up Raiders team. Connor Cook was not much of a threat and the run game was not as effective without left tackle Donald Penn. That doesn’t change the fact that Clowney did whatever he wanted last week. He was stuffing the run and rushing the quarterback, even getting an interception. Clowney will have to put on a similar performance for the Texans to avenge their embarrassing 27-0 defeat in Foxboro earlier this year. The key contributor to that loss was Brock Osweiler who looked like a highschool kid playing his first varsity game. If he throws one pass over 25 yards this week that is one more than he threw the last time. To his credit Osweiler had his best game last week and threw deep to DeAndre Hopkins (who caught the ball. Hell of a concept right?). If Osweiler can carry that confidence over to this week the Texans have a puncher’s chance.
Prediction: Texans 17, Patriots 31
Steelers (+1.5) over CHIEFS
The theme for Sunday is momentum. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have gotten all the attention during their seven game win streak, but the Steelers have quietly won eight in a row themselves. They dispatched of the Dolphins last week as Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown continued their warpath against opposing defenses. The Dolphins defense did not have a prayer stopping Brown (eclipsed 100 yards and 2 TDs in first half) or Bell (ran for 167 yards and 2 TDs) as the Steelers tossed up 30 with ease. The offense has never been the problem with the Steelers, it has been the defense. Matt Moore was able to move the ball on them which is a red flag, but they were able to generate turnovers when they needed them. Similar to the Packers defense the Steelers defense is either getting you to make mistakes or getting run over.
If the Chiefs are going to run over the Steelers defense it will be because of Tyreek Hill. The star of the league’s second half of the season, Hill has turned into the most problematic gamechanger this side of Odell Beckham Jr. Whenever Hill is on the field he is a mismatch, with his speed on a completely other level than everyone else. Other than Hill Alex Smith will have his reliable target Travis Kelce. The Chiefs tight end does it all for the offense–blocking on run plays or serving as the team’s de facto number one receiver. When he’s playing well the Chiefs are usually winning. On defense Eric Berry has been a ballhawk and Justin Houston’s return has brought the swag back to the front eight. This will be a much more competitive matchup than their meeting in Pittsburgh was (Chiefs lost 43-14 in Bell’s season debut), but in the end I trust AB and Bell more than the Chiefs stopping those two monsters.
Prediction: Steelers 31, Chiefs 28
COWBOYS (-4) over Packers
Sometimes it’s good to go against the grain. After spending the first half of the season shitting on Aaron Rodgers and the Packers the masses have christened them the hottest team in the league. Coming in hot off a Rodgers guarantee and six wins in a row the Packers locked horn with a superior Giants team. Had the Giants offense executed properly the Giants would probably be in this game. Yet Odell Beckham had his worst game, the Packers hung around and Rodgers threw a hail mary at the end of the first half (a flip of karma from 2011’s Eli hail mary to end the first half). In the second half Rodgers led a charge as the Packers stomped on the Giants’ neck and clinched their seventh straight win in their final home game of the season.
The key takeaway the Cowboys should have gotten from the Wild Card tilt was letting the Packers hang around. If you are going to cool off a hot offense you have to keep him off the field. Keeping the opposing offense off the field happens to be the Cowboys’ bread and butter. If Ezekiel Elliott and that offensive line can control the trenches–no easy task given the Packers rank 8th against the run versus 31st against the pass–life will be easier. Dak Prescott can help the run game by doing his job in the passing game. The Packers’ weak spot is in the secondary and Dez Bryant should have a big day. Thus far Dak has been able to capitalize on bad defenses as long as he hasn’t been under pressure. If Clay Matthews is held in check Dak should have plenty of time to find the open man and put more pressure on the Packers to stop the pass.
Prediction: Packers 24, Cowboys 31
Last Week: 1-3