Jan. 8, 2016
by Chase Gage
Four games down, seven to go. Only the Cowboys, Falcons, Patriots, Chiefs, Seahawks, Texans, Steelers and Packers remain in contention for the Lombardi Trophy.
NFC Divisional Round: 3 Seahawks at 2 Falcons, Jan. 14, 3:35 p.m. CT
The Seattle offense found their groove in the Wild Card round. Running back Thomas Rawls set the Seahawks postseason single-game rushing record with 161 yards (they used to have this running back named Marshawn Lynch, you might have heard of him) and Russell Wilson finished with 224 yards and two touchdowns. Though it was not their highest-scoring effort, they posted a 26-6 victory in a game that they dominated on both sides of the ball. They will be playing on the road against the Atlanta Falcons who have won their last four games and seven of their last nine. The Falcons finished the season at 11-5 but were just a few points away from a much better record. The Falcons lost to the Chargers by three in overtime, lost to the Chiefs by one and lost to the Seahawks by two. Speaking of…
These two teams met in mid-October in Seattle. The Seahawks stormed out to a 17-3 halftime lead before Atlanta put on a show in the third quarter. The Falcons scored 21 unanswered points to start the second half to take a 24-17 lead. However, Seattle answered with a touchdown to cut the lead to one. The Seahawks then kicked the game-winning field goal with less than two minutes to play to take the lead for good.
The Falcons will be looking to avenge their road loss with a home playoff win. The Seahawks are trying to get back to the NFC Championship after falling short in the divisional round last year to the Panthers. The Seahawks had back-to-back Super Bowl appearances in 2014 and 2015 and are on the hunt to make it three out of four. The Seahawks leave Atlanta with a win and will need just one more to advance to Super Bowl LI.
AFC Divisional Round: 4 Texans at 1 Patriots, Jan. 14, 7:15 p.m. CT
The Texans defense put on a clinic against the short-handed Raiders on Saturday. Rookie quarterback Connor Cook of the Raiders had a tall task in his first career start. Oakland struggled to produce any offense in the absence of quarterback Derek Carr.Cook only completed 18 of his 45 pass attempts for 161 yards. He threw one touchdown paired with three interceptions. Oakland was also only able to produce 64 yards on the ground. From a strictly statistical standpoint, the Texans offense was not much better. Quarterback Brock Osweiler actually completed less passes (14) than Cook but also had 20 fewer attempts. He finished with 168 yards and a touchdown. Houston outgained the Raiders on the ground by 59 yards but averaged less per rushing attempt. The difference in this game was the Texans defense forcing turnovers. Even without JJ Watt, this defense looked like the best in the NFL. That’s a scary thought.
Now the Texans will be facing the biggest giant in the NFL over the last two decades: The New England Patriots. Not to mention, this is a January game in Foxborough, which is usually a losing formula for opposing teams. Tom Brady is 15-3 at home in the playoffs since he made his playoff debut in 2002. Brady is without a doubt one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game and is arguably the best ever (I’d put him in the top 3 for sure, but my opinion doesn’t matter). With Brady at the helm, the Patriots have made six Super Bowl appearances and won the Lombardi Trophy four times, the third-most by any NFL team.
However, that is all in the past. This is a new season but it has been a great one in New England. The Patriots finished with the best record in the NFL (14-2) despite Brady missing the first four games due to suspension. During that span, the Patriots went 3-1 (including a 27-0 win against Houston) behind quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett. When Brady returned, the Patriots went on a four-game winning streak before losing to the Seahawks. Since that game, the Patriots have won seven games in a row. Despite missing four games, Brady finished the regular season with 3,554 passing yards and 28 touchdowns with only two interceptions. In fact, the Patriots had more starting quarterbacks this season (3) than total interceptions (2).
The Texans have had a great year for their organization. Reaching the second round of the playoffs is no easy feat. However, their season will come to a close when they make the trip to Foxborough. As long as Brady is the quarterback for the Patriots, they are the team to beat in the entire NFL, not just the AFC. Brady is nearly unstoppable at home, especially in the playoffs. Look for him to have a big game as the Patriots roll the Texans and get one step closer to winning a fifth Super Bowl in 15 years (one every three years isn’t too shabby).
AFC Divisional Round: 3 Steelers at 2 Chiefs, Jan. 15, 12:05 p.m. CT
The Steelers dominated from start to finish in their Wild Card game against the Dolphins. They jumped out to a 20-3 lead after scoring on their first three offensive drives thanks to touchdowns of 50 and 62 yards from Antonio Brown and a one-yard rush from LeVeon Bell. Bell broke the Steelers postseason rushing record set by Franco Harris, finishing with 29 carries for 167 yards and two touchdowns. The Dolphins had turnovers on three consecutive offensive drives, with the first coming on the last drive of the first half in the red zone when quarterback Matt Moore fumbled. The Dolphins received the second-half kickoff, but Moore fumbled again on that drive. The next time the Dolphins had the ball, Moore threw an interception. Miami tried to make a comeback late but ended up losing 30-12.
The Steelers and Chiefs met earlier this season (Oct. 2), with the Steelers winning 43-14 at home behind Roethlisberger’s five touchdown passes, two of which were to Brown. Pittsburgh took a 29-0 lead into halftime and turned it into a 36-0 lead by the end of the third quarter. Expect a much closer game this time around. Since that game, the Chiefs are 10-2.
Roethlisberger is considered questionable after their win over the Dolphins, which could drastically change this game. However, Big Ben has stated that he will play. When the Steelers are healthy, they may be the team to beat in the AFC.
I believe Pittsburgh will win a close game on the road. Don’t underestimate the Chiefs, but the Pittsburgh offense might be the best in the NFL right now. Alex Smith is 2-4 in his career in the playoffs, and likely falls to 2-5 when the Steelers come to town next week.
NFC Divisional Round: 4 Packers at 1 Cowboys, Jan. 15, 3:40 p.m. CT
This game may very well produce the Super Bowl LI champion. The Packers may be the hottest team in the NFL. They are on a seven-game winning streak. During that span, Aaron Rodgers has thrown 19 touchdown passes and zero interceptions. However, the Cowboys have been consistently great all season. Dallas finished the season with the second-best record in the NFL at 13-3, but one loss was in Week 17 when Dak Prescott played a very limited role and Ezekiel Elliot did not play at all. One could argue that these are the two best teams in the NFC (sorry Seahawks and Falcons).
Green Bay is fresh off of an impressive first-round victory over the New York Giants. The New York defense kept them in the game for a while, but offensive mistakes (several dropped passes including one in the end zone, a late fumble by Eli Manning, etc.) gave Green Bay the breathing room they needed to take over the game. The final score was 38-13 but the game felt much closer. The Packers were down 6-0 with three minutes left in the first half before scoring a touchdown with just over two minutes left and then scoring again as time expired in the second quarter thanks to a 42-yard Hail Mary from Rodgers to Randall Cobb. Cobb finished five catches for 116 yards and three touchdowns.
The Cowboys put together a very impressive season. When quarterback Tony Romo was put on the IR before the season even started thanks to an injury in a preseason game, almost all hope was lost for Dallas. This was supposed to be their year with Romo healthy paired with rookie running back Ezekiel Elliot who had high expectations. Well, that didn’t work out. However, Dallas may have found their quarterback of the future in rookie Dak Prescott. After losing their debut to the Giants by a score of 20-19, Prescott and Elliot led the Cowboys to 11 consecutive victories. During that span, they beat the Packers, Steelers and Vikings on the road. After a second loss to the Giants (10-7), the Cowboys went 2-1 in their final three games. Elliot led the NFL in rushing with 1,631 yards despite not playing the second half of their Week 16 game and sitting all of their Week 17 game. He also managed 15 touchdowns. Prescott had an impressive season as well, throwing for 3,667 yards with 23 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
The Cowboys beat the Packers earlier in the year, but Green Bay has improved exponentially since then. Rodgers only managed one touchdown compared to three by Prescott while Elliot added 157 yards on the ground. The Packers lost four of their next five games as well, before reeling off six in a row to close out the season. So expect a totally different team to show up for Green Bay.
This will be the first playoff game for the rookie duo in Dallas, though they are not new to the big stage. Prescott played in three bowl games at Mississippi State, including the 2014 Orange Bowl. Elliot won a National Championship at Ohio State. But the NFL playoffs aren’t bowl games. Rodgers is 9-6 in the playoffs, including a Super Bowl victory in 2011. Since winning the Super Bowl in 1996, the Cowboys are 3-8 in the playoffs and have failed to win more than a single playoff game in a season. All three wins came in the Wild Card round. That changes this year. In what I believe will be the best game of the Divisional Round and maybe the best of the playoffs, the rookie sensations pull out the biggest victory the Cowboys have seen in 21 years. Expect a high-scoring game and great individual efforts from Rodgers and Elliot. “How ’bout them Cowboys?”
(…FYI, I am very nervous about this pick. I am fairly confident in the rest, but this one will keep me up at night until it finally happens.)
Check back on Monday, Jan. 16 to see what I got right and what I didn’t miss (I’m 4-0 so far, so expect me to be 8-0) as well as a preview for the Championship Round.