Photo: Keith Allison via Flickr.com
Saturday, Jan. 14
Seattle Seahawks (11-5-1) at Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
The Seahawks demonstrated something last weekend that they haven’t all season — a dominant run game.
Thomas Rawls ran for 161 yards, reaching the 100-yard plateau for just the second time this season. It was also only the third time Seattle had a 100-yard rusher all year.
That poses an interesting matchup against a Falcons defense that ranked 17th this season in yards allowed on the ground (104.5 ypg), especially because Seattle might get C.J. Prosise back this week.
But the “matchup to watch” is unquestionably Matt Ryan‘s high-flying offense against a Legion of Boom that will be without Earl Thomas.
These teams met in Week 6 and Ryan lit up Seattle’s secondary for 335 yards and a trio of touchdowns, one of which went to Julio Jones who led both teams with 139 receiving yards.
And that was against a defense with Thomas.
Seattle won that game 26-24, but it was in Seattle before the Falcons had truly found themselves as a unit.
Russell Wilson performed well last week against the Lions, throwing for 224 yards and a pair of touchdowns which helped him finish with a 119.3 passer rating, and he will need similar numbers to beat the Falcons.
The concern is if he can outduel Ryan offensively, because as good as Seattle’s defense was last weekend, they haven’t been nearly the same unit on the road.
Seattle will give the Falcons a game, but Atlanta should have enough firepower, and more rest, to seal a spot in the conference championship game.
Q’s Pick: Falcons, 34-24
Houston Texans (10-7) at New England Patriots (14-2)
Of all the games so far this postseason, this one seems to be the first that has clear indications of a blowout.
For the sixth time in franchise history, the Patriots are the No. 1 seed in the AFC and they aren’t a team to mess with when earning that distinction. Four of the first five times, the Patriots have ended up in the Super Bowl, twice they have won it.
New England hasn’t lost this season since the Seahawks upset them at Gillette Stadium back on Nov. 13, and they haven’t lost a home playoff game since the 2012 postseason.
OK, Tom Brady and company are the top dogs, we get it.
Can Houston really keep up with this team?
Well, the Texans have never won a game at Gillette Stadium, and when they tried visiting earlier this year they were dismantled, 27-0.
They will also be playing in sub-30 degree temperatures, a bit of a culture shock after beating the Raiders in their cozy dome last weekend.
The only thing Houston seems to have on their side is their defense.
Their secondary was the second-best in the league this season, allowing only 201.6 yards per game through the air. If they want to win they will have to shut down Tom Brady, something very few teams have ever been able to do.
Brock Osweiler will has his confidence back and that bodes well against an average New England secondary, but Lamar Miller might struggle against a Patriots run defense allowing fewer than 89 yards per game on the ground (3rd).
It would take a tremendous mixture of perfection from the Texans and imbalance from the Patriots for Houston to pull off what would be one of the biggest upsets in modern NFL postseason history.
Q’s Pick: Patriots, 31-20
Sunday, Jan. 15
Green Bay Packers (11-6) at Dallas Cowboys (13-3)
When these teams met in Week 6, Dallas demolished the Pack at Lambeau Field, beating Green Bay, 30-16, while dominating on both sides of the ball.
Don’t expect such a blowout this week.
The Cowboys have been a good team all season but the Packers had yet to find themselves when that matchup occurred.
As of now, Green Bay is riding a seven-game winning streak and proved to the Giants last weekend that they are a legitimate threat in the NFC.
But one of their biggest complications this weekend has nothing to do with Dallas.
It’s wondering how their offense will respond without Jordy Nelson, who was ruled out of this matchup with a pair of broken ribs.
Nelson, one of the premiere receivers in the game, scored 14 touchdowns this season and finished with more than 1,200 receiving yards, racking up at least 100 yards in a game five times.
His absence leaves pressure on Aaron Rodgers to rely on Randall Cobb and Davante Adams, among others, to penetrate a Dallas secondary that has been below average at stopping quarterbacks this season.
But Dallas has been sneaky good at stopping the run game, leading the league by allowing only 83 yards per game on the ground. If Dallas can stop the run game and rush Rodgers into poor throws, they will have a big advantage.
On the other side of the ball, Green Bay is tasked with slowing down Ezekiel Elliott, who rushed for 157 yards when they played earlier this season, and Dak Prescott, who threw for 247 yards and three touchdowns in the same game.
The Packers run defense is solid so they have a chance against Elliott, but the secondary is still questionable and gave up nearly 300 yards to Eli Manning last weekend excluding a number of dropped balls from Giants’ receivers that weren’t well defended.
Prescott needs to figure out how to get the offense going through the air in the event that Elliott can’t get anything going on the ground.
Don’t sleep on Rodgers and the Packers though — unlike the Cowboys, they’ve been in the postseason many times before and know what to expect.
Prescott and Elliott are still rookies so mistakes are bound to happen.
Still, Dallas seems to have a more complete, reliable, and healthy team right now and they should win what could turn into an instant classic.
Q’s Pick: Cowboys, 26-23
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)
Weather concerns pushed this game back to primetime following the Cowboys-Packers game, but this is another one that could come down to the wire.
The Steelers are led offensively by Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell and the Chiefs have to figure out how to keep them from compiling yardage.
That’s been an issue for Kansas City this season.
The Chiefs defense allows 247.4 yards per game through the air (18th) and 121.1 yards per game on the ground (26th).
So how have they been able to win 12 games this season?
Turnovers and points allowed.
The Chiefs defense had a league-high 33 takeaways this season and their plus-16 turnover differential was tied for the highest in the league. They also tend to make stops when they matter most as they are one of only seven teams in the league allowing 19 points or fewer per game.
The high-yardage they allow is like playing with fire, though, especially against an offense as explosive as Pittsburgh’s.
If the Chiefs can’t get those turnovers or big stops, the Steelers could put up the same numbers they put up against the Dolphins last weekend.
On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh’s defense has improved since the start of the season, but is still considered average statistically in most major categories.
They will be tasked with stopping Tyreek Hill, a do-it-all First Team All Pro in his rookie season.
Hill is the only real difference-maker the Chiefs have on the offensive side of the ball, besides Travis Kelce, so stopping him would force Alex Smith to open up a passing game that only averaged 233 yards per game through the air.
The Chiefs can win this game, but the Steelers have been playing so well as of late I think Pittsburgh should be the first team this postseason to win on the road.
Q’s Pick: Steelers, 27-23
Last Week’s Record: 4-0
Postseason Record: 4-0
Regular Season Record: 165-89-2