Divisional weekend might just be my favorite footballing weekend of the year. Only the very best teams remain, weak wildcard teams that snuck into January under the false pretext of being good are now hopefully gone (looking at you, Houston?).
Divisional weekend will hopefully bring with it a better quality of football than last week’s frankly, disappointing Wildcard performances.
Fortunately, we have three excellent matchups to thrill football fans everywhere; Seattle at Atlanta, Dallas hosting Green Bay and Pittsburgh at Kansas City. The fourth matchup is certainly no 50/50 toss up, with New England hosting an overachieving Texans team.
Previewing each of these games could only be accurately done in thousands of words, so we’ll just focus on one aspect or battleground for each game.
Falcons/Seahawks: Which Seahawks O-Line will turn up? So much of the Seahawks hopes to make a deeper run into the NFC playoffs depends on the fortunes and play of their offensive line.
With the Seahawks being a run heavy team, much of their offense is grown or limited to the play of their o-line. In 2016 we’ve seen some vastly differing performances from this group. There’s been some impressive performances, notably in New England back in November and last week’s strong win against the Lions. However there’s been some shockers too, where the line has turned into a sieve, affording no protection and creating zero running lanes. Games against the Cardinals, Rams, Packers and Buccaneers were ruined because the o-lines inability to do, well anything.
Teams with dominant defensive lines and pass rushers have shown a trend of really creating the most problems for the Seahawks. However, that’s where there is good news, the Falcons don’t have a dominant defensive line or a great pass rush. They do have the regular season sack leader, Vic Beasley (15.5), who had a fantastic breakout year, but he alone accounted for almost half of the Falcons’ sacks, who ranked 16th for total sacks. In terms of run defense, the Falcons’ rank 17th, so once again not a dominant defensive strength. Based on this, the Seahawks should be able to run the ball and set up Wilson for play action.
The Falcons’ offense is the league’s best and the Seahawks’ defense hasn’t really been the 2012-2015 Seahawks’ defense this season. So it’ll be likely up to Russell Wilson, Thomas Rawls, Doug Baldwin and the offensive line to keep pace with this incredible Falcons’ scoring offense.
Cowboys/Packers: Can Zeke and Dak replicate their brilliance against Green Bay in Week 6? Going into Lambeau Field against the Packers in Week 6, rookie duo Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott put in arguably their most impressive performances of the season.
Against the then number 1 rushing defense in the league, Elliott went; 28 carries for 157 yards at 5.6 yards per carry and 0 touchdowns. Prescott’s numbers were arguably even better; 18/27 for 247 yards, 3 touchdowns and a passer rating of 117.4. Since then, Prescott has got his number receiver Dez Bryant back on board, and the Cowboys have clearly been the NFC’s best team.
Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers however are on a roll. They’ve won 7 straight and have all the momentum you could ever want heading into the second week of the playoffs. The Packers’ offense which was so maligned over the first half of the season is rejuvenated and as dangerous as anyone in the league. The Cowboys will need to be at their best in the pressure cauldron of the NFL playoffs.
Make no mistake should Dallas fall, the weight of expectation from the fans, ownership and the media will fall directly on the shoulders of young Prescott. The good news for this weekend is that the Packers’ defense is not particularly good. The run defense isn’t too shabby, but can be exploited by this brilliant Cowboys’ offensive line. The real weakness is a banged up secondary, and with time to throw, Prescott should be able to pick them apart.
The football world is watching. The pressure is real. Let’s see what these young Cowboys are made of.
Chiefs/Steelers: Who could be a hidden playmaker for both teams? We know how great the three B’s are for the Steelers, Big Ben, Bell and Brown. We know how great Travis Kelce, Marcus Peters and Justin Houston are for the Chiefs. But who are the guys who aren’t as known, but who may very well decide this games fate?
The Chiefs don’t have the big time stars nor the exposure of Pittsburgh. All of their players slide somewhat under the radar, guys like, Spencer Ware, Eric Berry and Alex Smith. A guy like Tyrek Hill and his explosive offensive and special team plays isn’t really flying under anyone’s radar.
One guy who is having a nice season is outside linebacker, Dee Ford. With Justin Houston missing most of the season, Ford has been forced into Houston’s shoes and has acquitted himself quite well. Ford leads the Chiefs in sacks (10) and quarterback hurries (17) and has found a niche role in the Chiefs’ defense. Houston will likely return for the Pittsburgh game and will take the majority of the media focus with him, leaving Ford free to do what he does best, get after the quarterback.
The Steelers are still seeking a secondary pass catching option behind the brilliant Antonio Brown, with Markus Wheaton on IR and Ladarius Green and Sammie Coates battling injuries themselves. Coates has also seemingly been beaten out by former first-rounder, Darrius Heyward-Bey for the outside receiver role. Rookie, Cobi Hamilton has emerged throughout the season with 17 catches for 234 yards and 2 touchdowns. Although not staggering stats, Big Ben likes to spread the ball around, especially if Brown is tightly covered by Marcus Peters and others, so keep an eye out and Hamilton might just make a few big time plays.
Patriots/Texans: What can the Texans do to pull off one of the all time upsets? In short, they’ll need to do everything well, in all three phases of the game. They’d also require New England to be off their game and possibly extraterritorial influences to provide some assistance here.
Back on the field however, their offensive output needs to be at a season high. There needs to be some semblance of a running game with Lamar Miller, to protect Brock Osweiler from the Patriots’ pass rush. Even still, the offense is going to fall on the shoulders of Osweiler, and he has been awful thus far.
Last weekend may have provided a possible outlet for Osweiler, throwing it down the field to DeAndre Hopkins. But they’ll need more than that offensively to trouble the Patriots. Tight ends CJ Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin have been two of Osweiler’s favorite targets and the Patriots have been vulnerable against tight ends in the past.
On defense, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus will need to have the games of their lives’. The outside pass rush is one thing, but an interior rush is arguably even more important against Tom Brady. Go and check the tape of Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe harassing Brady ceaselessly in last year’s AFC Championship Game.
The secondary and the cover linebackers will also have their plates full against the Patriots’ receivers, a receiving group with impressive depth. Edelman, Hogan, Mitchell, Amendola (returning from injury), Floyd, Bennett, White and Lewis are as tough a matchup as any offense in the league. Oh, and don’t forget the record breaking touchdown season from running back, LeGarrette Blount.