NFL Wild-Card Blanket: First look at compelling divisional round matchups
- Wild-card weekend may have been a flop, but fear not: There are some excellent games awaiting us next week. Here's what to expect.
What a forgettable wild-card weekend. Four games, four blowouts. Sure, there were some memorable moments, from Jadeveon Clowney’s interception and Paul Richardson’s one-handed grabs, to Antonio Brown running wild and Aaron Rodgers completing (another) Hail Mary, but on the whole, the weekend was a dud. There's no need to look back at those games, because the best weekend of NFL football awaits in the divisional round. We should have great matchups in three of the four games, while the Patriots will get their usual second bye week against the overmatched Texans. It's time to look at what awaits, Blanket Coverage-style:
Seahawks at Falcons
(Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET)
Go crazy, folks
Richard Sherman vs. Julio Jones worth price of a ticket: There should be nothing standing in the way of Pete Carroll and Dan Quinn giving us that great matchup. (What, is Carroll going to match Jones with DeShawn Shead? Good luck with that). Sure, Jones usually plays on the opposite of Sherman’s favored left CB spot, but this time around (Seattle beat Atlanta 26–24 in Week 6) the Seahawks don’t have FS Earl Thomas to thump receivers over the middle. Seattle can’t afford for Jones (who had seven catches for 139 yards the last time the teams met) to start going off in this game again.
Seahawks can run on Falcons: Seattle barely had a running game during the regular season, but busted out for 177 rushing yards against the Lions. That doesn’t mean the Seahawks suddenly have their Super Bowl mix with Thomas Rawls playing the Marshawn Lynch role (Detroit had a terrible defense), but they should be able to keep it rolling against a Falcons defense that was 29th against the run, according to FootballOutsiders.com’s efficiency ratings.
Falcons need a plan for Michael Bennett: Before leaving the Week 6 matchup early with an injury, Bennett was basically unblockable with six total QB pressures. Bennett has the potential to wreck game plans.
Slow your roll
Seattle defense isn’t back yet: Just because the Seahawks held the Lions to six points on Saturday night doesn’t mean Seattle is back to dominating on defense. Detroit finished the season with four straight losses for a reason: Matthew Stafford’s finger could no longer overcome his team’s lack of a running game, weapons and defense. The Seahawks are still the same team that had their pass defense fall of the table after the loss of FS Earl Thomas. And the Falcons are just the team to exploit it, with coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s brilliant game plans, a diversified running game, the accuracy of QB Matt Ryan and just the kind of targets that can expose the Seahawks’ limitations in coverage with FS Steven Terrell, CB DeShawn Shead and nickel CB Jeremy Lane.
Falcons D is mostly terrible, but CB Collins one to watch: Atlanta has seen some of its defensive players improve over the season, and CB Jalen Collins has come on the strongest. His length fits Quinn’s Seattle-defense perfectly, and he’ll be a problem in coverage. Seahawks WR Paul Richardson might have to make a few more one-handed grabs in this one when he gets matched up with Collins.
Texans at Patriots
(Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET)
Go crazy, folks
Texans have no chance to beat the Patriots: It was a short week on a Thursday night, but the Patriots still beat the Texans 27–0 in Week 3 with third-string QB Jacoby Brissett playing with an injured thumb that landed him on injured reserve. This time New England has Tom Brady and LB Donta’ Hightower in the lineup. The Patriots will take away Texans RB Lamar Miller and make Brock Osweiler beat them. It’s not happening at Gillette Stadium in the postseason. The Texans’ defense has the ability to frustrate Brady a bit, but even the Texans know that at some point Brady will get things figured out. The Texans have not beaten one QB that’s even near the class of Brady.
Clowney, Mercilus best edge tandem in the playoffs: With (some) apologies to Justin Houston and Tamba Hali in Kansas City, Texans OLBs Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney are the most fearsome tandem of edge pass rushers in the postseason, and they’re both in their primes. They are lethal on the edge against the run and the pass. Look for the Patriots to use a lot of inside zones away from those players, and to run at them at the point of attack. Plus, Tom Brady gets the ball out so quickly much of the pass rush will be negated.
Patriots RBs will be a factor: The Texans’ defense is very good, but they’ve had some issues with good run-first teams (Titans, Broncos). The Texans’ ILBs of Brian Cushing and Broderick McKinney are good players overall, but they don’t run very well. Look for the Patriots to try to keep the Texans in the base defense and get the RBs matchup against linebackers.
Slow your roll
Osweiler was good vs. Raiders, different challenge awaits: There is definitely something to be said about a player getting a mental break and seeing the game from a different place when he’s struggling. And that seems to be the case with QB Brock Osweiler after his benching. He seemed to play with more poise and timing within the offense. Maybe Osweiler learned something watching now-injured Tom Savage. But that was against the Raiders, who no one is fearful of outside of OLB Khalil Mack. Now Osweiler gets to take on a rested Patriots defense with a Bill Belichick/Matt Patricia gameplan against a familiar opponent and scheme. Good luck.
Patriots have No. 1 scoring defense but…: …they played the easiest defensive schedule (vs. the worst offenses) according to FootballOutsiders.com’s efficiency ratings. The biggest weakness on the Patriots’ defense is in the intermediate-to-deep middle of the field. They are very conservative with their safeties, and if LB Dont’a Hightower is playing near the line to stuff the run, that usually leaves Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin in the middle of the field. Both can very much beexposed. But will Osweiler have the guts to pull the trigger?
Steelers at Chiefs
(Sunday, 1:05 p.m.)
Go crazy, folks
Tomlin put Roethlisberger/Steelers at risk: I get not wanting to sit your quarterback too early in case of a comeback, but after the Dolphins failed on a two-point conversion (leaving them trailing by 18 points), and then failed to recover an onside kick, Roethlisberger should have been removed from the game with 5:55 remaining. Instead, he stayed in the game and attempted a pass on 3rd-and-8 (instead of handing off), injuring his right ankle on an interception to the point where he needed a walking boot after the game. How many times are the Steelers going to be shorthanded in the playoffs because of injuries? You finally have Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown healthy for the same postseason game and you push your luck? Mike Tomlin needs to be the adult in the room and tell Roethlisberger to sit in that situation. If he’s not as sharp against the Chiefs, we’ll know why. You can blame Tomlin.
Alex Smith and Andy Reid are on the spot: Reid and Smith have racked up a ton of regular-season victories in four years together (43), but they don’t have a ton of postseason success (1–2 record). There aren’t any excuses here if they don’t deliver a victory against the Steelers. They’ve had a week of rest and time to game plan. They’re at home in Arrowhead Stadium, where the forecast calls for a wintry mix and temperatures in the 30's. Reid and Smith need to deliver a victory or the chatter about them being overrated and only good in the regular season will only get louder. Reid must have a good game with game and time management. And Smith has to throw the ball down the field and not just take the checkdowns this time against the Steelers. Smith isn’t going to beat Ben Roethlisberger dinking and dunking down the field. The Chiefs have to make big plays in the pass game, something they struggled with during the regular season.
Slow your roll
Steelers didn’t serve notice to AFC: The Chiefs and Patriots aren’t suddenly quaking in their boots because the Steelers beat the Dolphins 30–12 at home in frigid temperatures on Sunday. A) Because of injuries, the Dolphins can’t stop anybody at this point. They gave up 24 to the 49ers, 38 to the Ravens (who stink on offense), 23 to the Cardinals, 31 to the Bills and 35 to the Patriots at the end of the season. Maybe 50 points would have been impressive. B) Everyone’s well aware that the Steelers are very potent with Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown all in the lineup. No one is surprised when they are effective. And C) The Steelers’ defense wasn’t all that impressive against an average Miami offense that moved the ball fairly well (305 yards, 43% third downs) but shot themselves in the foot with mental errors. Everyone knows the Dolphins are fairly easy to beat if you stop their rushing game. The Patriots did the same thing the week before.
We won’t get Antonio Brown vs. Marcus Peters: As opposed to a likely Julio Jones-Richard Sherman matchup, we won’t get the pleasure of watching two of the best at their positions, Steelers WR Antonio Brown and Chiefs CB Marcus Peters, go head to head much in this one. Peters only plays left CB, and Brown usually lines up on the left side. They didn’t see much of each other in the Week 4 matchup (Steelers won 43-14).
Toss out Week 4 Steelers blowout win: Pittsburgh destroyed Kansas City 43–14 in Week 3, but much has changed. The Steelers were coming off an embarrassing 34–3 loss to the Eagles and had to respond. The Steelers no longer have DE Cam Heyward, who had three sacks. The Chiefs won’t have to play CB D.J. White much, who really struggled in the matchup. OLB Justin Houston is expected to be available for this game. And in Week 3, WR/RB Tyreek Hill and TE Travis Kelce were mere accessories in the offense and now they’ve become the main weapons.
Packers at Cowboys
(Sunday, 4:40 p.m.)
Go crazy, folks
These Packers are dangerous: It’s one thing to blow out weaker teams (like the Texans, Seahawks and Steelers did). That’s called doing what you’re supposed to do. It’s quite another thing, however, for the Packers to destroy the Giants 38–13 at Lambeau Field. That Giants defense is one of the best in the league with some great players on all three levels. And the offense has a two-time Super Bowl winner at QB with great weapons in WRs Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard and Victor Cruz. And after being dominated for a quarter-and-half and without WR Jordy Nelson (ribs), the Packers offense and defense stuffed the Giants in a proverbial locker. It was a hugely impressive performance, and the Cowboys should be a little worried going into this matchup.
Cowboys' ground game will be the difference: The Packers held the Giants RBs to just 16 carries for 59 yards (3.7 average), but that wasn’t a surprise because the Giants haven’t been able to run the ball all year. Since the Packers didn’t have to fear the run, they were able to concentrate on coverage and held Eli Manning to a 72.1 passer rating. For the season, the Packers have been mediocre against the run, but they’ve had trouble with teams that like to have their offense go through the running game (Dallas: 191 rushing yards; Titans: 154; Washington: 151; Texans: 123; Seahawks: 136). Dallas has the best running back/offensive line combination in the NFL, and the Packers will have a tough time limiting RB Ezekiel Elliott (157 yards on 28 carries in Week 6). Green Bay will have to place additional resources into stopping the run, and that leaves a leaky secondary very susceptible to big plays.
Slow your roll
Forget the Cowboys’ Week 6 victory: Dallas went into Lambeau on Oct. 16 and completely dominated in a 30–16 victory. Anything the Cowboys wanted to do on offense (without Dez Bryant), they did. And Aaron Rodgers was largely frustrated by a defense that didn’t have CB Orlando Scandrick. However, that was when the Packers started struggling on offense and with defensive injuries. Including that game, the Packers lost five of six games. They are far from that team any longer with Rodgers posting a 121.7 rating during the team’s seven-game winning streak.
Rookies, shmookies: Yes, Cowboys QB Dak Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliott are rookies, but only technically. They’ve just played an entire NFL season, with many appearances on national television. They beat the Packers at Lambeau and the Steelers in Pittsburgh. They played incredibly intense games against the Giants (twice), Washington (twice), Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Maybe the Super Bowl might be a different story because that’s an entirely different experience, but Prescott and Elliott are plenty ready for the playoffs and likely won’t show any jitters.