Last week’s start to the NFL playoffs was underwhelming to say the least, as the average score differential for the four games was 19 points. The Divisional Round has garnered a reputation for being the best weekend of NFL football — the wildcard round has a couple “cinderella” hopefuls and maybe a team or two that, really, has no business being in the postseason; and then next week’s championships games are great but you only get two. This Saturday and Sunday, we get the four best teams in the regular season and we get last weekend’s winners. Promises to be some pretty good football. At least we hope so.
Let’s ask (and attempt to answer) the four big questions, as the playoffs dwindle down to final four.
Is it same old Falcons this postseason or is this 2016-17 version different?
As much as I want to say that we’ve been down this road before with Atlanta and I’m not going to fall for the flashy offense and the big numbers that MVP candidate Matt Ryan has put up, I can’t. I’m biting — hook, line, and sinker. This Atlanta team IS different. Put Ryan’s numbers and that third ranked passing offense aside for a minute. Look at what the Falcons do almost just as well — fifth in the league in rushing with the two-headed monster of DeVonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. So while the Falcons defense is not impressive on paper — stuck in the bottom quarter in total defense and pass defense and the bottom third in rush defense.
But hang with me for a second. In the postseason, the teams that win either can play great defense or have such sound ball control offense that their defense doesn’t have to be on the field too often. And the Falcons have that scary balance where they can light up the scoreboard through the air when they need to — and just when the safeties are dropping back and only 4 are in the box, Atlanta pounds the rock. Atlanta’s best defense is in fact their offense.
And Seattle doesn’t have the kind of offense that can keep up with Atlanta.
Atlanta 31, Seattle 16
Can Houston pull one of the biggest upsets in playoff history?
Does the simple “No” suffice here or do you want me to elaborate? Ok, well, Houston doesn’t give me much to work with. They’ve dropped their last five to the Pats and have been outscored 54-6 in their last two meetings — the most recent being the 27-0 drubbing with rookie third stringer Jacoby Brissett quarterbacking the New England offense.
Saturday night, Tom Brady will, of course, be under center and we know how most postseason games usually turn out when he’s running things. The line is 16.5 in Vegas and that’s huge — the third most lopsided spread in NFL playoff history. And I can’t see New England not covering.
New England 30, Houston 12
Is Dallas set up for a Super Bowl run or are their rookies destined to hit that “rookie wall”?
I’ve been saying it all season — it’s hard for any rookie to carry a team into the postseason in the NFL. Now, I understand the college game has changed the perception of the “rookie wall”. Decades ago, college seasons lasted 11 games — not the case anymore. So it’s not so much a matter of the amount of games, but rather the level of competition on a weekly basis that the rookies have to adjust to. For example, Zeke Elliott may play in 13 games at OSU, but he gets a couple non-conference cupcakes that he could rush for 150 yards on one leg against. Not to mention, the conference is always good for offering up a number of easy games — Zeke didn’t have to be at 100% to have great games against Illinois or Purdue or Northwestern or Rutgers or Maryland. You see where I’m going?
That doesn’t happen in the NFL. Every week is a battle and there are no cupcakes — not even Cleveland. (Well, maybe Cleveland.) You don’t get an off-week — unless you are literally off and on a bye.
So yes, I think Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are going to hit this wall; however, it doesn’t necessarily translate into the Cowboys losing. At least, it by itself won’t contribute. The bigger problem is that the Cowboys have the hottest team and the hottest QB in the NFL coming to big D. That, along with the rookie wall, will be enough to end Dallas’s season. I see Green Bay moving a step closer to the Super Bowl.
Green Bay 28, Dallas 25
Can Alex Smith generate enough offense to hang with Big Ben and the Steelers?
It’s going to take a massive effort from the Kansas City defense and their special teams to have a shot at hanging with a Pittsburgh offense that is powered by two of the best players in the entire NFL at their respective positions and a Super Bowl winning quarterback. The KC defense is good enough to do it — they’re fast, they hit, and they have a nose for the ball. And the biggest factor of all Sunday night might just be something that neither team can control — the weather. The Kansas City area is expecting a severe ice storm — that’s why the game has already been moved from its original 1:00pm start to its new primetime slot at 8:20. The weather could certainly wreak havoc on what both teams want to do, especially on the offensive side of the ball. And if one of these two teams has the defense to take advantage of the weather leveling the offensive playing field, it’s Kansas City’s.
If Alex Smith has a short field to work with and Tyreek Hill gets loose on offense or on a punt return or two, this could turn quickly. Pittsburgh has all the weapons and the look of a team poised to go in and battle the Patriots in Foxborough — a game they’re more than capable of winning. I’m just not so sure they make it there.
Kansas City 20, Pittsburgh 19
Feedback is always welcome through the website in the comments box or on my Twitter feed — @brian22goodwin.