When these teams met in Week 6, the Seattle Seahawks dominated the first half at home, taking a 17-3 lead at the half. The Atlanta Falcons after beating the two teams that went to last year’s Super Bowl rallied in the third quarter to take a 24-17 lead. Seattle answered back in the fourth quarter to win the game 26-24, but it was not without controversy as Richard Sherman got away with a blatant pass interference call on Julio Jones, that would have set the Falcons up in Field Goal range with a chance to win the game as time expired.
Needless to say the Falcons can compete with the Seahawks. When the dirty birds were last in the playoffs that survived a Divisional Round battle with the Seahawks to advance to the NFC Championship Game in 2012, winning 30-28. The Seahawks since than have been the team to beat in the NFC, advancing to the Super Bowl twice before losing to the Carolina Panthers in the Divisional Round last year. The Panthers after beating Seattle of course went on to Super Bowl 50. This year’s Seahawks team enters the playoffs severely hobbled as several key players are sidelined with injuries. No loss will affect them against the Falcons more than more than Earl Thomas who had a key interception of Matt Ryan in the first meeting. Against Detroit last week the Seahawks were rather fortunate that Matthew Stafford’s injured finger hampered the Lions passing game, as they Seahawks kept them in the game until the fourth quarter. The Seahawks offense despite their 16-point explosion in the fourth, still does not appear to be that sharp, as Russell Wilson has been under pressure all season, with Seattle unable to run the ball consistently, while the offensive line struggled.
The Falcons may not have the NFL’s best defense as they allowed 30 or more points six times in the regular season. Though they played better late in the season, allowing less than 20 points in four of their last six games. On the other side of the ball the Falcons do have the NFL’s best offense, led by Matt Ryan, who according to early polling is the favorite to be the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. In his ninth season, the Falcons quarterback had a career year passing for a NFL best 4,944 yards, with a league best QB rating of 117.1, while throwing 38 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. All of which were the best in Matt Ryan’s career as he was named First Team All-Pro. Matt Ryan was helped by a terrific group of receivers, none better than Julio Jones, who gained 1,409 yards, with a career best 17 yards per reception. The Falcons are not one dimensional as Devonta Freeman had a terrific season in the backfield, rushing for 1,079 yards with 11 touchdowns.
The Falcons should have some familiarity with the Seahawks, as Coach Dan Quinn served as their Defensive Coordinator during their Super Bowl years, before taking over in Atlanta. Keeping in mind that the Falcons should have won in Seattle earlier in the year and the fact that the Falcons are healthy for the playoffs gives them multiple advantages as they play what could be the final game ever in the Georgia Dome before moving to a new stadium next season. With the Falcons offense playing at a high level them game at home and the Seahawks banged up, this one looks like a big win for the Dirty Birds.
If only the Houston Texans had an offense with a pulse, they may have a chance of pulling off an upset in Foxboro. The Texans defense is outstanding, even without three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt as Jadevon Clowney is finally healthy and showing the world why he was labeled can’t miss player when Houston chose him with the number one overall pick. Combined with Whitney Mercilus and a solid secondary, the Texans have given opposing offenses fits, as they have allowed just 301.3 yards per game the fewest in the NFL, while allowing 20.5 points per game. On offense, the Texans are giving their own fans fits as Quarterback Brock Osweiler has become the $72 million bust. The Texans hope Osweiler can rebuild his reputation by winning in the playoffs after a workman like performance in the Raiders during Wild Card Weekend. Brock Osweiler has been terrible all season, passing for 2,957 yards with 15 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in the regular season, as he was benched in December for Tom Savage. However, after Savage suffered a concussion in Week 17, the Texans were forced to go back to Osweiler.
The New England Patriots don’t have such problems as Tom Brady had another terrific season at the age of 39. After missing the first four games with the deflategate suspension, Brady set a NFL record for the best touchdown to interception ratio at 28-2, while passing for 3,554 yards as the Patriots rolled their way to a NFL best record of 14-2. Over their 16-year reign of terror the Patriots have been a next man up team, overcoming loss, injuries and retirement as Coach Bill Belichick always seems to get the most out of other team’s rejects. Even without Rob Gronkoswki the Patriots offense late in the season was machine like, scoring 76 points in their final two games. Unlike last year when they were hobbled in several key areas, the Patriots enter the playoffs this year healthy and balanced as LeGarrette Blount led the NFL with rushing touchdowns scoring 18, while rushing for a career best 1,161 yards. The Patriots has also been strong, ranking eighth in yards per game at 326.4, while allowing league best 15.6 points per game.
When these two teams met in Week 3, it was all New England as the Patriots embarrassed the Texans 27-0, using third string quarterback Jacoby Brissett. In the past 13 months, the Texans have played the Patriots twice, losing by a combined score of 54-6. The Texans have their problems all season outside of Houston, winning just two of eight games away from NRG Stadium. The Texans may be able to keep the game close for a half or three quarters, but by the fourth quarter exhausted from so many three and outs while being sparked keyed by a big turnover, the Patriots will go in for the kill and pull away for another easy win as they waltz to their sixth straight appearance in the AFC Championship Game.
It has been a longtime since the Kansas City Chiefs have played in the AFC Championship Game, last making the trip in 1993, when Joe Montana was their quarterback. Since than the Chiefs have had their share of playoff heartbreakers, ending an eight-game postseason losing streak in last year’s Wild Card round before falling in Foxboro. The Chiefs are hoping for another shot at the Patriots, but first they must get past another nemesis in the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers are a familiar foe for the Chiefs, handing Kansas City their worst loss of the season in Week 4 at Heinz Field 43-14. The game was even uglier than the score suggests. In that Sunday Night game, Ben Roethlisberger lit up the Chiefs secondary, passing for 300 yards, with five touchdowns to build a 36-0 lead heading into the fourth quarter. The Steelers also got a big game from Le’Veon Bell who rushed for 144 yards. The Steelers have played the Chiefs five times in the last six years, with the Chiefs only winning once and that was game in which Ben Roethlisberger missed in 2015 due to injury. The Steelers come into this meeting on fire, beating the Dolphins 30-12 in the Wild Card Round, for their eighth straight win.
The Chiefs have seemed to have some magic this year, with their fourth quarter miracle comeback in Denver, and their special teams enabled win in Atlanta a week later, so they have been great in some of their biggest games of the year, sweeping the Raiders to win the AFC West. Alex Smith is serviceable, but in a big game he has never been able to outmatch the true star quarterback. The Chiefs defense is solid, but the loss of Justin Houston can hurt them against a team like the Steelers. If the Chiefs are to win this game, they are going to have to do it with their special teams, which at times has been the best in the NFL with Tyreek Hill being named All-Pro with three return touchdowns. One big negative for the Chiefs is they did not capture a tremendous advantage at Arrowhead Stadium like they have in past seasons as they have split their final four homes losing to the Buccaneers and Titans late in the season.
When the Steelers are on, they can be the best offense in the NFL with Antonio Brown blowing past helpless defensive backs like he did against Miami last week while Le’Veon Bell carries the ball with power and speed. Ben Roethlisberger was seen in a walking boot after the game, but appears to be ready to play, as injuries and bumps are a normal course of action for the Steelers tough as nails quarterback. The Steelers offense appears to be clicking and the Chiefs along with their Coach Andy Reid have a history of playoff letdowns. This will just be another as the terrible towels will waive on high at the end.
The Dallas Cowboys have been one of the big stories in the NFL in 2016 as two rookies carried them to the best record in the NFC at 13-3. However, now the real test comes as they host the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Playoff Round. There is no question that Quarterback Dak Prescott and Running Back Ezekiel Elliott had terrific rookie seasons and have bright future ahead of them. Each made the NFC Pro-Bowl team, with Elliott also being named first team All-Pro, while leading the league in rushing with 1,631 yards. However, nothing they did in the regular season will prepare them for the pressure they will face Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.
The Cowboys faced the Packers earlier in the season, delivering a dominating 30-16 win at Lambeau Field in Week 6. In that game Dak Prescott was picked off for the first time in his career, ending a NFL record for consecutive pass attempts without an interception to start his career. Prescott quickly recovered and passed for 247 yards with three touchdowns, while Ezekiel Elliott pounded his way to 157 yards on 28 carries.
The Packers were going through a rough stretch at that time, losing five of six games. October and November was a rough time for Green Bay, as they struggled in all aspects of the game dropping to 4-6 as people questioned if Aaron Rodgers was getting along with his teammates while Coach Mike McCarthy appeared to be heading for the hot seat and possibly getting the axe at season’s end. The Packers though emerged from Thanksgiving weekend rejuvenated and ended the year with six straight wins to win the NFC North. The continued their strong play by crushing the Giants 38-13 in the Wild Card Round. No player has played a bigger role in the Packers turnaround than Aaron Rodgers, who was NFC Player of the Month in December, as he ended up leading the league with 40 touchdown passes.
Thinking back to Week 1, when the Cowboys lost their season opener to the same Giants could give some indications to what will happen Sunday. Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott each played well but showed some early butterflies that kept the Giants in the game as they rallied to win 20-19. If the Cowboys are to win this game, they will need a big game from Dak Prescott, since the Packers defensive strength is against the run. Prescott will need to find Dez Bryant in open spaces and make the big throws when the game is on the line. The Cowboys offensive line can dominate, and open space for Elliott, but winning the game will fall to Prescott who will need to at the very least match Aaron Rodgers. That is where the game will fall apart for Dallas, as Rodgers a former Super Bowl MVP, playing at his top-level best with no nerves and no pressure will go out and have a big day. Look for Rodgers to take advantage of the Cowboys soft coverage and approach 400 yards to win an old-fashioned shootout at AT&T Stadium.