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  • Following a clunker of a wild-card weekend, hopes are high for the divisional-round games... well, most of them (sorry, Texans-Patriots). Will the favored home teams roll again, or can the Seahawks and Texans come through with some upsets?
By Chris Burke
January 12, 2017

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.

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A closer look at Day One of the divisional round:

Four-Man Front

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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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