Divisional Round Predictions

steelers-chiefs-football-travis-kelce-arthur-moats_pg_600With wildcard weekend going to all the favorites/home teams, the slate ended up being a little more predictable than we might of hoped. With the four highest seeds in each conference playing, this is obviously where things really start to get interesting. All four of the games this weekend are matchups that already occurred in the regular season. However, there are drastic differences to the teams since those meetings which could have huge impacts in the direct outcome of these contests.

Wild card weekend results:

Straight up: 4-0

Against the spread: 2-2

Seahawks 24 Falcons (-5.5) 28: Unlike wildcard weekend, the divisional round gets to the goods right away. When these teams faced off in the regular season, it was the Seahawks who had the homefield advantage and they won a closely contested game which many think was influenced by a blown defensive pass interference call. The major difference aside from the Seahawks being on the road (where they played under .500 ball) is that they had Earl Thomas in that game who is obviously done for the season.

While the Lions were unable to get things going against the Seahawks, the Falcons (who somehow went under the radar for a historical offensive season) should be helped with their array of weapons and Kyle Shanahan’s ability as a play caller to make adjustments. To many, Matt Ryan is the deserving MVP candidate this year and this would be an opportune time to show why. While many tend to focus on just Julio Jones and who could blame them, the Falcons have had other playmakers step up on the offensive side of the ball when needed. Whether it’s Devonta Freeman or Tevin Coleman who are both capable receivers out of the backfield, Mohamed Sanu or lesser heralded wideouts like Taylor Gabriel or Aldrick Robinson, as a group those players can win in all areas of the field.

For the Seahawks, a huge aspect in this one will be if Thomas Rawls can build off his fantastic wildcard game performance. Granted, the Lions have their issues on the defensive side of the ball, but the Seahawks had been lacking a running game like that all season. If the Falcons past games are any indication,then Russell Wilson could be throwing early and often.The good news for Wilson is that with Dan Quinn at the helm in Atlanta, some of the defensive schemes thrown at him will be similar to what he has seen in practice. The Falcons will also be without corner Desmond Trufant who kept Doug Baldwin quiet in their earlier meeting. Look for Baldwin to be involved early and often. It’s really hard to pick against a Seahawks team that has shown up frequently for these moments and succeeded the past few years, but the Falcons have what it takes to get the Seahawks out of their intended game script.

Texans 13 Patriots (-16.5) 31: Despite shutting out the Texans when these teams last played, the big difference in this one is that instead of Jacoby Brissett, the Texans will be facing off against Tom Brady. Having gone from a rookie quarterback making his first career start in any NFL game let alone the playoffs in Connor Cook one week to Brady the next, you literally cannot have a bigger difference. The Texans will likely go with an approach many have tried against the Patriots in the playoffs. That’s controlling the clock and eliminating turnovers. Unfortunately for the Texans, Brock Osweiler has had his share of struggles so unless he gets things going, it’s very tough to execute.

The Patriots main goal offensively in this one will be to limit Jadeveon Clowney. While he may not be the pass rushing force everyone expected immediately, Clowney has been fantastic in defending the run and has still been very productive rushing opposing quarterbacks. Bill Belichick and staff seem to love scheming to take away an opponents best player, so don’t be stunned for the montage of Clowney constantly facing double teams along with an ensuing stat line that’s below expectations. A strong indicator of if the Patriots are executing on the offensive end will be how many touches LeGarrette Blount sees. The last two times these teams have played, the Patriots relied on him early and often with the game going as planned for them. While the Texans do have a very good defense, the task of going on the road to beat Brady and company appears to be too daunting.

Steelers 21 Chiefs (-1.5) 26: When these teams met on Sunday night earlier in the year, the Steelers won in a big way. The Chiefs had no answer for Ben Roehlisberger and the passing attack along with Le’Veon Bell who averaged a ridiculous eight yards a carry. In this one though, the biggest difference would be a banged up Roethlisberger along  with the drastic change in his splits between home and road games. In away games this season, Roethlisberger completed less than 60 percent of his passes, with nine touchdown passes compared to eight interceptions. For comparisons sake, he threw five touchdowns in the prior matchup at home against the Chiefs alone.

The good news for Roethlisberger is that along with Antonio Brown to throw to, Bell is still there to carry the load.Allowing 4.4 yards a rush attempt, this could spell trouble for the Chiefs. Bell obviously has shown a patience in his running style that is one of a kind, but factor in his receiving ability and you have a truly special player.

While the Steelers defense has seemed to improve as the season progressed, the same can be said about the Chiefs offense. Even with a more methodical Alex Smith at the helm, the offense has become much more dynamic down the stretch. This is in large part due to the emergence of rookie Tyreek Hill. Whether it’s on the ground, through the air  or returns, Hill’s world class speed gives the Chiefs a player who is a threat to score every time he touches the ball.

Pair that with Travis Kelce, the most dominant tight end in the non-Gronk category and a now healthy Jeremy Maclin, and the Chiefs have a nice foundation of weapons. That isn’t even factoring in running back Spencer Ware who is returning from injury. While he slowed down late in the season, Ware is a tough runner who can also create big plays in the passing game (averaging 13.5 yards a catch is incredible for running backs) which is just another dimension to worry about. Going against Roethlisberger and his playoff pedigree is awfully difficult, but I’m going with the Chiefs in what should be a very closely contested contest.

Packers 23 Cowboys (-4.5) 26: Here’s the matchup we (and the league) are all waiting for this weekend. Two of the more storied franchises facing off with their season on the line it can’t get much better than that. The big difference between their meeting earlier in the year (which the Cowboys won in Lambeau) is Aaron Rodgers is looking like Aaron Rodgers again. In all sports at the various levels, any athlete can get in a “zone” where things just get slower, the hoop seems larger or the incoming pitch looks like a beach ball. You can make the case that Rodgers in that mindset is the scariest thing  currently in professional sports and he has been in it for a good month and a half now.

Unfortunately for Rodgers, he will be without his top target Jordy Nelson whose absence if it got to that point would likely stretch beyond this week. With that said, the Packers need another big showing from Randall Cobb along with Davante Adams (who on a game by game basis can be drastically inconsistent) to bring his A game. At tight end, Jared Cook is an interesting player to watch as Rodgers does feel comfortable looking his way and the Cowboys have had some struggles against opposing tight ends.

The strategy most teams would take to play the Packers just happens to be what the Cowboys do every week. With a fantastic offensive line and likely rookie of the year Ezekiel Elliott seeing plenty of work, the Cowboys have the ability to not only take the air out of the ball, but do it very efficiently as well. A strong start for Elliott would make things easier for fellow rookie quarterback Dak Prescott. While Prescott has impressed throughout his entire rookie campaign, he isn’t ready for the challenge that very few are of matching Rodgers score for score in the event of a shootout.

When Prescott does throw the ball, he should see some nice matchups against a Packers secondary decimated by injury. While they were creative stopping Odell Beckham last week, the Packers will have more to worry about this week facing options such as Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley and Jason Witten. Picking against Rodgers under any circumstances (especially these) is a very difficult proposition. However, with their balanced attack and my questions regarding how the Packers defense will hold up, I’m going with the Cowboys in this one.

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