It’s down to the elite eight in the NFL, as we’ll see which teams will be playing in next weekend’s conference championship games. Here’s my preview:
Houston Texans (9-7) at New England Patriots (14-2) Sat 8:15PM ET (CBS)
The Texans defeated a depleted Oakland Raiders squad 27-14 in the wild card round.
The Texans are 1-7 against the Patriots and they’re a 16-point underdog. No doubt the only people who think the Texans have a chance are the Texans themselves and their fans. In order for them to pull off the upset, quarterback Brock Osweiler can’t turn the ball over. He also has to make sure his receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller have a chance to catch the ball. And if necessary, they have to keep feeding running back Lamar Miller the ball.
During the wild card game, the defense caught three interceptions. Linebacker Jadeveon Clowney caught one of them and was able to put pressure on Raiders quarterback Connor Cook. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph and veteran linebacker Whitney Mercillus will have to slow down the Patriots’ dynamic offense.
Speaking of the Patriots’ offense, they finished fourth overall. Quarterback Tom Brady threw for 28 touchdowns, that’s despite being suspended the first four games of the season. No Rob Gronkowski, no problem, Brady had fellow tight end Martellus Bennett and wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola to pick up the slack. Running back LaGarrette Blount was top ten in rushing, no doubt the Texans will have to keep him at bay.
For all the press the offense gets, the defense has been solid as well, finishing top ten in the league. They finished tied for third in rush defense causing 11 fumbles led by Pro Bowlers, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Devin McCourty. Defensive end Chris Long and don’t forget safety Patrick Chung will also have to prove that top ten defensive ranking.
Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4) Sun 8:20PM ET (NBC)
The Steelers defeated the Miami Dolphins easily 30-12 in the Wild Card round.
The Steelers and Chiefs met in week four, the Steelers dominated the Chiefs 43-14. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 300 yards and five touchdowns in that meeting. But Roethlisberger has a foot injury, suffered in the second to last play of the wild card game. That’s something to watch for. He’ll try to make sure his guy, wide receiver Antonio Brown gets the ball. If Big Ben’s injury becomes a hindrance, expect running back Le’Veon Bell to try and keep the chains moving.
Linebackers Lawrence Timmons and the ageless James Harrison combined for 3 ½ sacks in the wild card game. Fellow linebacker Ryan Shazier caught an interception in that game. They need to put the pressure on the Chiefs offense and slow them down.
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is 17-2 when coming off a bye. Quarterback Alex Smith has always had the reputation of being a “game manager.” He only threw for 15 touchdowns but only eight interceptions in the regular season. His top target, Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce can make some insane catches. Running back Spencer Ware has been battling bruised ribs. The versatile wide receiver Tyreek Hill, had a total of 12 touchdowns. He can catch, run, and play special teams. Look for him to get his name called multiple times in the game.
As for the Chiefs’ defense, the main question is if linebacker Justin Houston will play. He’s been nursing a knee injury. Linebacker Derrick Johnson, who led the team in sacks, is on IR, so up front could be an issue for the Chiefs. The secondary is the Chiefs’ strength with Pro Bowlers safety Eric Berry and cornerback Marcus Peters who both finished, top 15 in interceptions respectively. Expect them to take turns covering Brown.
Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1) at Atlanta Falcons (11-5) Sat 4:35PM ET (FOX)
These two met in week six, with the Seahawks edging the Falcons 26-24 in a thriller in Seattle.
The Seahawks defeated the Detroit Lions fairly easily 26-6. Quarterback Russell Wilson threw two touchdowns in last weekend’s game. His receivers Doug Baldwin, Paul Richardson, who made some crazy catches in that game, Jermaine Kearse and tight end Jimmy Graham will have to convert big plays to keep the Falcons offense off the field. Running back Thomas Rawls rushed for 161 yards in the wild card game, has earned the nickname “Baby Beast Mode.” More good news, fellow back C.J. Prosise, who’s been battling a shoulder injury, could be back, if he is, he’ll help carry the load with Rawls.
Linebacker Bobby Wagner, defensive ends Cliff Avril and Malcolm Bennett held Atlanta to just 52 rushing yards in their week six meeting. So expect the Legion of Boom to try and do the same up front. Safety Kam Chancellor will be mostly assigned to Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones, should be a great matchup.
The Falcons have had the rep of being great in the regular season but disappoint in the postseason. MVP candidate quarterback Matt Ryan, who finished number two in passing and top five in the league in touchdowns, is looking to change that. He only threw seven interceptions in the regular season. He threw for three touchdowns but was sacked four times in that week six meeting. His offensive line must keep him upright. Wide receiver Julio Jones, who finished second in receiving yards, will have to make big catches to keep their offense moving. Running back Devonta Freeman, who only had 40 rushing yards in their week six meeting will have to power through the Seahawks’ front seven. Freeman can catch the ball, too, so don’t be surprised if the Falcons use him in the slots.
There’s youth in the Falcons’ defense but it’s nothing short on talent. Pro Bowl linebacker Vic Beasley led the league in sacks. Expect him to lead the way in putting the pressure on Wilson. Linebacker Deion Jones, who led the team in tackles, will help out, too. Safety Keanu Neal leads the secondary, and they’ll be tasked to try and slow down Seattle’s playmakers.
Green Bay Packers (10-6) at Dallas Cowboys (13-3) Sun 4:40PM ET (CBS)
These two also met in week six, with the Cowboys beating the Packers 30-16.
The Packers dominated the New York Giants 38-13 in the wild card round. The win was costly though as they could be without one of quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ top playmakers, wide receiver Jordy Nelson who has fractured ribs. Rodgers will now have to rely on fellow receivers Randall Cobb and Davante Adams. Tight end Richard Rodgers may get more targets, too. We’ll see if the Packers use the running game, though versatile wide receiver Ty Montgomery is banged up and is questionable.
As for their defense, safeties Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will have to guard the Cowboys receivers. Linebackers Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews, both made big plays in the wild card round, must do the same against Dallas.
It’s been the rookies that has led the way for the Cowboys thus far. Pro Bowl rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott was the league’s top rusher and the Packers will have to slow him down, can they though is the question. Fellow Pro Bowler and rookie quarterback Dak Prescott has not let the bright lights get to him so far. He only threw four interceptions in the regular season. Sunday will be the real test. He must make sure tight end Jason Witten and Dez Bryant can make plays.
Health has been a question mark on defense, but cornerback Morris Claiborne, defensive end Demarcus Lawrence and defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford are a go. Linebacker Sean Lee will try to put the pressure on Rodgers. While Claiborne and fellow cornerback Orlando Scandrick will be challenging the Packers’ receivers, another solid match-up.
Enjoy the divisional round everyone!!!