Wild Card Weekend was—let’s be honest—a dud. The Lions were the only road team able to keep their game a one-score affair into the fourth quarter, and they wound up losing by 20.
This week has to be better.
At least the opener on Saturday, Seattle at Atlanta, stacks up on paper as a potential classic. Those teams played a memorable regular-season game in Seattle, and both look quite capable of reaching the Super Bowl on the NFC side.
The Saturday nightcap, Houston at New England, has far less appeal, if the oddsmakers are to be believed—the Patriots are better than two-touchdown favorites headed into the weekend. Bill Belichick will look no further for motivation than 2010, though, when his Patriots were about 10-point favorites against the Jets, but lost at home.
A closer look at Day One of the divisional round:
A quartet of players who could be key to Saturday’s matchups:
1. George Fant, OT, Seahawks: Add Garry Gilliam’s name, too. Both of Seattle’s offensive tackles will have to be on their games to keep Atlanta edge defender Vic Beasley in check. Beasley has an incredible closing burst when he can turn the corner, enough to make sure that Russell Wilson can’t linger long behind the line of scrimmage before making a decision. The Seahawks have to keep Beasley at bay, somehow.
2. Jalen Collins, CB, Falcons: Collins opened the year suspended due to PED use, then the Falcons waited a couple extra games before inserting him into the lineup. He was there about two weeks before Atlanta lost No. 1 CB Desmond Trufant for the season. In Trufant’s stead, Collins has had to pick up the slack. Saturday, he will spend time against the likes of Paul Richardson (off his breakthrough playoff performance) and Doug Baldwin. Can he lock them down?
3. Will Fuller, WR, Texans: It’s been a long time since Fuller turned in a big performance—Week 4 vs. Tennessee was the last time he topped 60 yards. But the speedy rookie is a downfield threat, on the rare occasions Brock Osweiler looks deep and doesn’t focus on DeAndre Hopkins. Houston might need to slip Fuller deep once or twice to help open up the Patriots’ defense.
4. Martellus Bennett, TE, Patriots: No one can replace Rob Gronkowski, but Bennett’s presence has helped New England come a lot closer to doing so than it otherwise would have. Bennett is dealing with an ankle injury himself, although he should be available Saturday. He scored a TD in three of New England’s final four games and wrapped the regular season at 12.7 yards per catch—his highest mark since he was at 14.2 as a rookie in 2008.
How much of what happened in Seattle’s wild-card round win was real? How much of it was a Detroit Lions-induced illusion?
While the Falcons were resting on a bye, the Seahawks kicked off their playoffs last week with a 26–6 win over Detroit. In that game RB Thomas Rawls, who rushed for 349 yards on a 3.2 yards-per-carry average during the regular season, broke loose for 161 yards and a 5.9 yards-per-carry clip. The Seattle defense, which had been struggling in the absence of standout safety Earl Thomas, did not allow the Lions to run a single play from inside the Seahawks’ 33-yard line.
For one night, at least, Seattle looked like a worthy Super Bowl contender. Will the same be said after Pete Carroll’s team visits the NFC South champion Falcons on Saturday afternoon?
These teams met back in Week 6, a thrilling back-and-forth affair in which the Falcons rallied from a 17–3 deficit with 17 unanswered points, only for the Seahawks to grab a 26–24 win late. (You might remember it, more specifically, for the controversial no-call on Richard Sherman as he covered Julio Jones late.) The Seahawks moved to 4–1 with that win, but they would go just 6-4-1 the rest of the way, with Thomas suffering a broken leg during a Week 13 victory over Carolina. Thomas played a significant role in Seattle’s earlier win over Atlanta—as he does every week, when healthy. Without him, the Seahawks’ secondary has been much more vulnerable downfield and over the middle.
“I think it’s a tricky thing to talk about because Steven [Terrell, Thomas’s replacement] is so principled, so disciplined,” Atlanta coach Dan Quinn, who served as Seattle’s defensive coordinator from 2013–14, said this week. “[Seahawks defensive coordinator] Kris [Richard] and the guys have done a fantastic job of understanding how to go. It’s also real that a guy of Earl’s talent, it isn’t just next man up. He’s so versatile, covers receivers, running backs, tight ends, so he’s a factor for sure.
“You can tell, for them not to allow a touchdown against a really good throwing team, I think it shows how disciplined and committed they are and how well Steven stepped in.”
Quinn’s last line there references the Seahawks’ win over Matthew Stafford and the Lions—Stafford threw for just 205 yards and was sacked three times.
The Falcons, though, are a much more consistently dangerous offense team than Detroit. Jones draws most of the attention, but Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman combined for 2,115 yards receiving this year. The Falcons’ uses of Coleman and Freeman as receiving weapons, in particular, will test the Seahawks’ linebackers and secondary.
The pass rush could be the X-factor for both teams. The Falcons allowed 37 sacks of Matt Ryan this season, while the Seahawks’ defense finished with the third-most sacks in the league (42). Meanwhile, Atlanta’s Vic Beasley notched 11 sacks after the earlier Seahawks-Falcons clash, pacing a defense that held four of its final six opponents to fewer than 20 points.
“All those guys—they don’t play like rookies, they don’t play like young guys,” said Seattle QB Russell Wilson of Atlanta’s defense, which also features 2016 draft picks Deion Jones and Keanu Neal. ”They look really experienced and they play fast, they play smart. They know where they’re supposed to be and they do a great job of it. You can definitely notice that on film.”
Wilson’s newest toy is WR Paul Richardson—the wide receiver, who did not have a catch vs. the Falcons in Week 6, turned in three brilliant catches for 48 yards and a TD last Saturday. He and Rawls together injected energy into a Seattle offense which had too often come undone this season by a suspect offensive line. If the Seahawks’ front can create holes against Atlanta like it did against Detroit, Rawls again could take charge.
But it remains to be seen if that can happen. Was last week a sign of things to come for the Seahawks?
Seattle is talented and experienced enough to win this game. At some point, though, those weaknesses along the Seahawks’ O-line and in the Thomas-less secondary are going to come to the forefront. Ryan has had an MVP season, and he will test that Seattle back line in ways Stafford was unwilling or unable to last week.
The Patriots’ first touchdown during their 27–0, Week 3 romp over the Texans came on a Jacoby Brissett run. So, yes, the setup is quite a bit different for Saturday, when Houston again visits Foxborough, this time with a trip to the AFC championship on the line.
The Texans now have to worry about one Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr., whose four-game suspension ended two weeks after Houston and New England first met this season. Brady spent the next 12 games tossing his name into the MVP conversation—he finished with 28 touchdowns to just two INTs, 8.2 yards per pass attempt (second only to Matt Ryan) and a QB rating of 112.2 (also just behind Ryan).
Brady will be without tight end Rob Gronkowski (I.R., back) for the duration of New England’s playoff run, but he has close a full complement of weapons otherwise. (WR Malcolm Mitchell, who is dealing with a knee injury, has been limited in practice this week.)
The list includes the dynamic backfield trifecta of LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis and James White. Blount rushed for 105 yards and two TDs in Week 3, although he averaged just 2.7 yards per carry outside of a 41-yard TD. After their Week 8 bye, the Texans held six of eight opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing, while limiting teams on average to 73.6 rushing yards per game.
So, while the Patriots may try to establish Blount, Bill Belichick is just as likely to dial up a spread-the-field approach that leans on Lewis and White as slashing, pass-catching options. Doing so would limit the amount of heat Brady faces from Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney.
Much of the Patriots’ plan could depend on how threatened they feel by Houston QB Brock Osweiler.
In the first half vs. Oakland last week, Osweiler threw for 146 yards and a TD as the Texans opened up a 20–7 lead. With his team milking the clock after the break, Osweiler was just 2 of 8 for 22 yards (though he did rush for a touchdown). The Texans would prefer not to find themselves in a shootout, but Osweiler should be playing with as much confidence as he’s had all season.
“He’s a big guy in the pocket,” Patriots DE Rob Ninkovich said, via the team’s website. “He can stand tall in there, he can make all the throws, and he’s also athletic so he can get out and extend plays, so as a front you have to do a great job with your pass rush integrity and understand that he’s a good quarterback in the pocket and can make all the throws.”
Osweiler and DeAndre Hopkins connected five times for 67 yards and a TD Saturday, a step up from their output most weeks during a frustrating season. Hopkins is without question the Texans’ most dangerous threat.
Despite that, the apparent preference—both from Osweiler and coach Bill O’Brien—is to lean on TEs C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin, when possible. Those two were targeted a combined nine times last week (five catches, 64 yards) as Osweiler attacked the Oakland linebackers.
“I think one thing is their tight ends are making a lot more plays now than the first time we played them,” said New England safety Devin McCourty. “The running game has really been working for them, getting Lamar Miller going and really feeding him.”
New England’s defense ranked third in rushing yards allowed this season, eighth in yards per attempt. Overall, the Patriots boasted the league’s stingiest scoring defense—they gave up 250 points in 16 games (15.6 per).
Miller topped 1,000 yards on the season, but he had to grind out 73 yards on 31 carries last week as part of Houston’s ball-control scheme in the second half. The Texans likely will need a lot more from him Saturday, if they’re to keep Brady from taking over.
Belichick, with an extra week to prepare for Osweiler? That’s at least part of why the line here is so massive. Osweiler was a lot more effective at home than he was on the road all season—he completed just 56% of his passes outside Houston. The Texans need him to be great if they’re going to pull off this upset. The QB matchup alone is so heavily skewed in New England’s favor that this game could get ugly.