This is it. This is the weekend you’ve all been waiting for. It doesn’t get much better than the NFL’s divisional round, as the league’s Elite Eight compete for a spot in the Final Four. Call it January Madness.
While the wild-card round left most fans yawning on their couch (final scores of 27-13, 26-6, 30-12 and 38-13 will do that), the matchups in the divisional rounds — especially on Sunday — have the potential to keep you on the edge of your seat. All four home teams, and all four favorites, covered last week. Since 1990, when the NFL moved to a 12-team playoff format, No. 1 seeds in the NFC are 22-4 in the divisional round but the AFC’s top team is only 16-10. Could we be in store for another upset? The belief here is that the same thing will happen as last week, as all four home teams cover and advance to next week’s conference title games.
What makes this weekend’s matchups even more exciting is that all four games are rematches from the regular season. It’s the first time that’s happened in six years. At this point of the season, teams don’t need extra motivation, but that revenge factor can sometimes be that extra edge that pushes a team over the top (we’re looking at you especially, Atlanta and Kansas City).
The NFL saved its best game of the weekend for last, as the Packers and Cowboys face off in what could be an epic shootout. The Steelers-Chiefs tilt earlier in the day could produce the exact opposite, a grind-it-out, in-your-face old-school matchup that will make purists proud. On Saturday, you’ll be treated to an offensive exhibition thanks to Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense, and then you’ll see a familiar sighting as Tom Brady & Co. put on a show.
There are only seven games left in the NFL season, and these four are usually the best. A quick look at the remaining teams’ records against the spread (ATS) this season: Patriots (13-3), Cowboys (10-5-1), Falcons (10-6), Packers (10-6-1), Steelers (10-7), Chiefs (9-7), Seahawks (8-8-1) and Texans (7-9-1).
LOCK OF THE WEEK
(3) SEAHAWKS (11-5-1) AT (2) FALCONS (11-5), Saturday, 4:35 p.m.
TV: Ch. 5; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)
Falcons by 5; O/U: 51.5
Of the eight remaining playoff teams, the Falcons are the most underrated, while the Seahawks are the most overrated. That’s what happens when one bird team flies under the radar — only two prime-time games for Atlanta — and the other bird team soars into football fans’ living rooms all season long (five prime-time slots for Seattle). Well, everyone, get used to seeing Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and the NFL’s No. 1 offense, because they’re going to be in the national spotlight for the next few weeks. The Falcons — my pick to win Super Bowl LI — had one of the best offensive seasons in history, even though no one realized it. They scored 540 points, tied for the seventh most in NFL history, and averaged a whopping 33.8 points per game. Ryan, executing offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offense to perfection, completed 69.9 percent of his passes for 4,944 yards, 38 touchdowns to only seven interceptions and a 117.1 rating. In addition to Jones, the Falcons have receiving weapons in Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel. Atlanta also has a two-headed rushing attack in Devonta Freeman (11 TDs, 4.8 yards per carry) and Tevin Coleman (8 TDs, 4.4 ypc). Add up all of that offensive production and it’s going to be a long day for a Seattle defense that isn’t the one NFL fans have grown accustomed to watching in the playoffs. Without safety Earl Thomas, the Legion of Boom will have no answers for Atlanta’s speedsters, aka the Legion of Vroom. When these teams met Week 6 in Seattle, a thrilling 26-24 win for the Seahawks, Ryan and the Atlanta offense made big halftime adjustments. He finished with 335 yards passing and threw all three of his TDs in a 21-point third quarter. The Falcons were driving for the win, but a blatant pass interference by Richard Sherman on Jones wasn’t called. Look for Jones to have a big game, and also keep an eye on Falcons pass rusher Vic Beasley. He could feast against that Seattle offensive line and make it a long day for Russell Wilson. The Falcons will get their revenge, and coach Dan Quinn will pick up a win against his old defense as they soar into the NFC Championship Game. Falcons 34, Seahawks 17.
The pick: Falcons
(4) TEXANS (10-7) AT (1) PATRIOTS (14-2), Saturday, 8:20 p.m
TV: Ch. 2; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)
Patriots by 15.5; O/U: 44
When the Texans traveled to New England for a Thursday night matchup in Week 3, many prognosticators (including this one) figured the Patriots couldn’t possibly beat a strong defense with their third-string quarterback. Big mistake. On a short week, at home, and with Bill Belichick in charge, the Patriots should’ve been the pick. Hindsight is 20/20, and the Pats’ 27-0 win proved that you should never underestimate New England and its coaching staff. Now, after a bye week, the Patriots welcome Houston again, only this time Tom Brady and not Jacoby Brissett will be under center. There’s a reason this line was approaching the high teens. Vegas, and anyone who follows the NFL, knows this game is not going to be remotely close. Brock Osweiler, who was 24-for-41 for 196 yards and an INT in the Week 3 loss, had his moment last week, leading Houston to a playoff win against an undermanned Oakland team. The Texans have to be happy making it to the divisional round, while the Patriots’ goal every year is to win the Super Bowl. Houston was 2-6 on the road this season, and there’s NO WAY it’s going to go into New England and win. Now, can the Texans’ No. 1-ranked defense (301.3 yards per game) hold Brady and the offense down enough to cover the high number? That’s also very unlikely. Belichick will minimize the Texans’ two best players — Jadeveon Clowney on defense and DeAndre Hopkins on offense — and Brady (28 TDs, 2 INTs) will pad his stats. Expect Martellus Bennett to have a big game. New England’s defense (holding teams to an NFL-best 15.6 points per game) could outscore Houston’s offense. Lay the big number and make late dinner reservations Saturday night because this one will be over early. Patriots 34, Texans 7.
The pick: Patriots
(3) STEELERS (12-5) AT (2) CHIEFS (12-4), Sunday, 1:05 p.m.
TV: Ch. 4; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)
Chiefs by 1; O/U: 43.5
This should be the most competitive game of the week, which is why with such a small spread, it’s also the hardest game to pick. If the Chiefs win, you’ll think to yourself, “Well, they were home and they’re solid in all three phases of the game,” and if the Steelers win, you’ll say, “Well, they have such an explosive offense, they can beat anyone anywhere.” So who has the edge? First things first, playing at Arrowhead is definitely an advantage for Kansas City, but the biggest bonus is that the Chiefs — thanks to a win and Raiders loss in Week 17 — earned a first-round bye. Other than getting an extra week of rest, it’s important to note that Andy Reid is a remarkable 19-2 (regular season and playoffs) after a bye week. The Steelers, meanwhile, had a relatively easy win against the Dolphins in the wild-card round as the Big B’s — Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown — cruised in the Steelers’ eighth straight win. But the biggest “B” might have been that boot Roethlisberger wore to the postgame news conference. Wonder what Terry Bradshaw thought of Mike Tomlin’s decision to leave Roethlisberger in late in the game? It wasn’t smart, and while Roethlisberger and the Steelers can say he’s healthy all they want, it’s hard to believe he’s anywhere near 100 percent with his recent injury history. The Chiefs don’t have an explosive offense like the Steelers’, but what they lack in finesse they make up for in efficiency. Alex Smith gets the job done, and Travis Kelce has emerged as one of the league’s best tight ends. The Chiefs win with just enough offense, solid defense and extra-special special teams play. Marcus Peters and Eric Berry lead a talented secondary that can limit Brown’s big-play ability. Rookie Tyreek Hill’s return game and ability to break one for a TD whenever he touches the ball make the Chiefs a dangerous team. One last factor why the Chiefs are the play: Revenge. It’s one thing to lose to a team and then get a chance at a rematch, it’s another thing when you get embarrassed on national TV. Kansas City’s 43-14 loss at Pittsburgh in Week 4 wasn’t even that close as the Steelers led 22-0 after one quarter and 29-0 at halftime. Don’t think for a second the Chiefs haven’t been reminded of that game all week by Reid, the media and their own memories. After that loss, the Chiefs had a bye week, and won their next game, the start of a 10-2 run to end the season. After their latest bye, Reid works his magic again as a motivated Chiefs team will “eek” out a close win thanks to Hill’s returns and a late Cairo Santos field goal. Chiefs 23, Steelers 20.
The pick: Chiefs
(4) PACKERS (11-6) AT (1) COWBOYS (13-3), Sunday, 4:40 p.m.
TV: Ch. 5; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)
Cowboys by 5; O/U: 52
If you could watch only one game this weekend, this is far and away the clear choice. Must-see TV at its finest. A red-hot Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, riding a seven-game win streak, visit Jerry’s World, aka AT&T Stadium, to take on rookie sensations Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and a Cowboys team that, not including the regular-season finale when they rested starters, went 13-0 against everyone not named the Giants. The key to this matchup will be, as it has been all season, Dallas’ rushing attack. If Elliott (NFL-best 1,631 rushing yards, 15 TDs with an astounding 5.1 yards per carry) and the Cowboys’ dominant offensive line can sustain long drives, it not only will lead to Dallas points but it also will keep Rodgers on the sidelines. Dallas was fifth in the NFL in time of possession per game at 31:55, and it might need to have the ball even more than that in this one. The Cowboys’ defense is nowhere near as good as the Giants’, but they have playmakers. Jordy Nelson’s injury is a setback for Green Bay, but Rodgers still has plenty of weapons in Davante Adams, Randall Cobb and RB/WR Ty Montgomery if he’s able to go. But while everyone will focus on Rodgers’ incredible run — 22 TDs, 0 INTs in the Pack’s last eight games — Prescott shouldn’t be understimated or overlooked. He’s delivered all season, and the playoff spotlight shouldn’t faze him at home. Dez Bryant probably will be more motivated than any player on the field considering the teams’ recent playoff history. His catch/non-catch at Lambeau Field in the divisional round two seasons ago is still trending on Twitter, and you can guarantee every time he catches a pass, and especially so if it goes for a score, people will be tweeting “That’s a catch.” Expect a big game out of Bryant, and an even bigger game out of Elliott, who ran for 157 yards on 28 carries in the Cowboys’ 30-16 win at Green Bay in Week 6. That was Dallas’ first statement win of the season, proof that Prescott wasn’t going anywhere and that the Cowboys could be a contender in the NFC. Rodgers and Green Bay ran the table, as he predicted, but the run stops this week as Elliott runs Dallas to the NFC title game. Cowboys 35, Packers 27.
The pick: Cowboys
Staff picks and standings
Regular season: 136-109-11, 11-6 best bets
Playoffs: 2-2, 0-1
Falcons Patriots Chiefs Cowboys
Regular season: 129-116-11, 10-7 best bets
Playoffs: 3-1, 1-0
Seahawks Patriots Chiefs Packers
Regular season: 138-107-11, 7-9-1 best bets
Playoffs: 3-1, 1-0
Seahawks Patriots Steelers Packers
Kimberley A. Martin
Regular season: 116-129-11, 11-5-1 best bets
Playoffs: 4-0, 1-0
Seahawks Patriots Steelers Packers