Friday January 13th, 2017

Most people who follow the NFL religiously will tell you that this is the best weekend of the season. It’s the eight best teams (more or less) fighting it out over two days to reach the conference championships.

Wild Card Weekend, as we all saw last week, can fall apart quickly if the low seeds aren’t up to par, while next week, there are only two games on the docket. This is the final semi-full weekend of football until college and pro teams reconvene late in the summer.

Saturday’s action (Seattle at Atlanta, Houston at New England) could be interesting. Sunday’s matchups are just about everything football fans could ask for.

What’s on tap? Let’s break it down:

Four-Man Front

A quartet of players who could be key to Sunday’s matchups:

1. Javon Hargrave, DT, Steelers: Sean Davis’s emergence has helped reshape the Steelers’ secondary on the fly. Hargrave, taken 31 picks after Davis in the 2016 draft, has provided a similar punch up front. He’s one of the anchors up front for Pittsburgh now, and as such he’ll be a central figure in the Steelers’ efforts to make Kansas City one-dimensional by taking away the run.

2. Tyreek Hill, WR, Chiefs: Over the span of just a few games, Hill (also a rookie) blossomed from an afterthought in the Chiefs’ offense to a player defenses have to find on every single snap. He averaged 11.1 yards per carry this season, plus led the NFL in punt-return yards (592), TDs (two) and per-attempt average (15.2). He only needs four or five touches a game to make a significant impact.

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3. Christine Michael, RB, Packers: The last time the Packers won the Super Bowl, in the 2010 season, James Starks seemingly came out of nowhere to pace their ground game during the playoffs. Michael has more of a prior reputation—namely, for being a gifted player who hasn’t been able to make much of an impact—but he could be primed to follow in Starks’s footprints. He rushed for a team-high 47 yards vs. the Giants last week and provides a contrast to Ty Montgomery’s style. Green Bay will give him opportunities Sunday.

4. David Irving, DE, Cowboys: When Irving flipped the switch this season, like he did against the Packers earlier in the year, he was as disruptive a presence as the Cowboys had. He can penetrate from an inside alignment or bend the edge outside. It’s no secret that the preferred way to deal with Aaron Rodgers is to keep him corralled within the pocket, so he cannot make his on-the-run-magic. The trick is that, eventually, someone has to get to Rodgers. The Giants could not finish the job consistently enough, so Rodgers lit them up. Irving could be a key Sunday, if he turns in one of his exceptional efforts.

Arguably the most impressive performance of the Cowboys’ 13-win regular season came during Week 6, at Lambeau Field. There, the Cowboys forced four turnovers, imposed their will on the ground with 191 yards rushing and controlled the Packers from beginning to end, en route to a 30–16 victory.

For Green Bay, that result was a sign of things to come. After knocking off Chicago the following Thursday night, the Packers then would lose four consecutive games to fall to 4–6, barely clinging to life in the NFC North race.

Of course, the losing streak ended when QB Aaron Rodgers declared that his team could “run the table,” which ... well, so far, so good. The Packers will bring a seven-game win streak (counting a convincing wild-card round win over the Giants) into Dallas to close the playoff weekend.

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The main difference in the Green Bay team Dallas will see Sunday, compared to the one it handled in October, is how red hot the offense has been. Over the final seven games of the regular season, Rodgers fired 18 touchdowns to zero interceptions. He has exactly four TDs in each of the Packers’ past three games, including the playoff rout of the Giants.

It will be up to Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli to draw up a game plan that can at least slow Rodgers, if not stop him entirely.

“They just play their scheme extremely well as a whole,” Rodgers said, via the Cowboys’ website. “Guys are not making mental mistakes. They’re not voiding zones and leaving guys running all over the field. They’re going to make you go the long way and expect to force a turnover or get a big stop in the red zone to hold you to three.”

The Cowboys’ defense does not cede many huge gains, instead content to force teams to attack underneath. Even without an injured Jordy Nelson (ribs), the Packers still have several players capable of being dangerous in such fashion, led by RB/WR Ty Montgomery and WR Randall Cobb, off a resurgent performance.

Nelson’s injury is a hit, though. He caught 97 passes for 1,257 yards this season and is Rodgers’s most-trusted target—how many times have those two connected on downfield passes after Rodgers scrambled around a bit? The Packers’ offense suffered without Nelson last year, and his middling start to 2016 definitely contributed to the overall struggles of the passing game.

While the Packers deal with his absence, the Cowboys received several bits of positive injury news this week. DL Tyrone Crawford, LB Justin Durant, DE Demarcus Lawrence and CB Morris Claiborne all are expected to play Sunday, meaning the Cowboys’ defense will be extremely close to full strength.

That said, if all goes according to the Cowboys’ plan, that defense won’t have to be on the field much.

Up until they cleared the bench in Week 17, the Cowboys held the NFL’s highest time-of-possession count per game, at around 32 minutes. They fell to third on the season’s final Sunday—the Eagles, their opponent that day, just to first—but that doesn’t change their approach. The goal is to wear down the Packers defense with Ezekiel Elliott, to settle QB Dak Prescott into a comfort zone and to take a couple of shots when they’re there.

The key to it all is Elliott, who rushed for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, 157 of those yards coming vs. Green Bay. After scuffling for several weeks, the Packers’ run defense has locked back in—none of the Packers’ past four opponents have hit 100 yards on the ground.

The best back they’ve faced during that stretch? Probably Chicago’s Jordan Howard. Neither he, nor the Bears’ offensive line, is on par with what’s coming Sunday.

“[Elliott] has incredible vision,” said Green Bay linebacker Blake Martinez. “That’s the main thing that you see. He gets bottled up, and the next thing you know … (he) can jump to the left real quick, maybe (break) a tackle, and then he’s spurting through that gap instantly and he goes for 50 yards.”

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Dallas, beyond a shadow of a doubt, trusts Prescott to run its offense. It still will not want to fall into a situation whereby Prescott has to go toe-to-toe with Rodgers in a shootout.

Green Bay hopes to have CB Quinten Rollins (neck) back Sunday; ditto fellow CB Damarious Randall (groin), who left last week’s game early. Together, the Packers’ secondary will do what it can to harness a revenge-fueled Dez Bryant—his controversial incomplete catch all but sealed Green Bay’s playoff win over Dallas two years ago.

Expect Prescott to play well and Elliott to bulldoze his way up over 100 yards, like usual. However, this pick comes down to Rodgers. At some point, the Cowboys are going to have to come up with a critical stop, late, if they want to win. With or without Nelson, Rodgers is playing too well right now to let that happen.

The Steelers led the Dolphins by 18 points with 4:34 to play last Sunday when QB Ben Roethlisberger, inexplicably, dropped to throw on 3rd-and-8. He fired an interception and, more importantly, came up hobbling after a tackle by Miami’s Cameron Wake. Then, during his postgame press conference, Roethlisberger sported a walking boot.

Both Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin insist Big Ben will be all good Sunday. But if his foot injury limits him at all, the opportunistic Chiefs’ defense will be waiting to tee off.

The Chiefs forced a league-high 33 turnovers this season (18 interceptions, 15 fumbles), 21 of those coming at Arrowhead Stadium. Meanwhile, Roethlisberger’s numbers dipped dramatically outside of Heinz Field during the regular season: 70.8% completion rate, 20 TDs, five INTs, 116.7 QB rating at home vs. 59.4% completion rate, nine TDs, eight INTs and a 78.4 QB rating on the road.

Standing to make Roethlisberger’s task even more challenging is that Kansas City is expecting to have back OLB Justin Houston, who missed Weeks 16 and 17 with a swollen knee. He played just five games this season, but he is the Chiefs’ most dynamic pass rusher.

As always, whether Roethlisberger is 100% or not, the Steelers’ offense will funnel through WR Antonio Brown and RB Le’Veon Bell. Brown scored twice—two of Roethlisberger’s five passing TDs—and Bell rushed for 144 yards in Pittsburgh’s 43-14 shellacking of Kansas City in Week 4.

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“Le’Veon Bell has this unique style that everyone knows, but he’s a great back,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said this week, via K.C.’s website. “He can run through you, he can get outside you. I think you become so intrigued with his style because it’s so different than most running backs. ... Never seen anybody like that.”

While Houston may return Sunday, Derrick Johnson (Achilles) definitely will not. His absence will continue to shine a spotlight on 24-year-old Ramik Wilson, who has inherited many of Johnson’s snaps. Wilson posted a career-high 13 tackles vs. San Diego in Week 13; he may need a repeat performance if the Chiefs hope to limit Bell.

Speaking of a “repeat performance,” the Steelers wouldn’t mind another showing by their defense like the one they got earlier in the season vs. Kansas City. In the Oct. 2 matchup, Pittsburgh sacked Alex Smith four times, forced a pair of turnovers and kept the Chiefs off the scoreboard until a pair of garbage-time touchdowns.

Three of those four sacks came from Cam Heyward, who now sits on I.R. with a pectoral injury. Like the Chiefs with Johnson’s injury then, the Steelers have had to plug a hole.

They’ve done so mainly via their run defense, which (save for Cleveland’s 231-yard outing against an army of backups) has been sturdy down the stretch. Kansas City averaged 166 yards rushing per game in Weeks 15–17. For as much as they’ve shown glimpses of a more wide-open passing attack at times, behind QB Alex Smith, the Chiefs are still a team that wants to establish the run.

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It’s also a main focus to involve TE Travis Kelce as early and as often as possible. The All-Pro led the Chiefs with 85 catches for 1,125 yards this season, but he managed just 23 yards—his second-lowest output of the season—vs. Pittsburgh.

“He’s a beast,” said Pittsburgh safety Mike Mitchell of Kelce, via the Steelers’ website. “I think he’s probably the best receiving tight end in the NFL. There’s a bunch of good tight ends in the league ... but I’m talking about a receiving tight end. I think probably [Kelce] and Jordan Reed are the best as far as receivers playing that position. We’re going to have our hands full with him.”

Six other Chiefs caught at least 28 balls this season. No one other than Kelce topped 600 yards.

The line gives Kansas City the edge on home-field alone, and perhaps that’s fitting—the Steelers, at least in the regular season, were significantly less dangerous as visitors. Either of these teams is capable of knocking off New England next week (assuming the Patriots survive Houston). With Roethlisberger ailing a bit, the Chiefs have the inside track on getting that chance.

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