By Jason Keidel
WFAN host Mike Francesa has long said the second round of the NFL playoffs is the best pure weekend of football every year.
It’s hard to argue with that. While Wild Card Weekend has its share of talent and temerity, the Divisional Round features the final eight teams, the best eight teams. The prior week just peels away the pretenders from the contenders.
And true to form, we’ve got four fine games over two days. Well, three great games and the Patriots vs Texans. Let’s take a look…
Seattle Seahawks (11-5-1) @ Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
Saturday, January 14, 4:35 p.m. ET
Atlanta has the home-field advantage and the point spread in their favor. Seattle has the playoff pedigree. Atlanta has the leading candidate for NFL MVP in Matt Ryan, who is 1-4 in the playoffs. Seattle has Russell Wilson, who is 8-3 in the playoffs.
How often will Richard Sherman face arguably the toughest cover in the sport — Julio Jones? That matchup alone is worth the price of admission. Pete Carroll would be wise to keep Sherman draped over Jones. During their October matchup, Jones caught four passes for 99 yards and a TD against cornerbacks not named Sherman.
And while Seattle is not the same ornery and dominant defense they were a year or two ago — especially without stellar safety Earl Thomas — they still boast the league’s third-best scoring defense (18.3 PPG). They will need every bit of it against the Atlanta’s top-ranked offense, which averaged 33.8 points per game.
The Falcons are the picture of balance, ranking third in passing and fifth in rushing, while Seattle’s defense ranks eighth and seventh, respectively.
Though the Jones-Sherman matchup beams from the marquee, perhaps Atlanta’s secret weapon may make the difference. Taylor Gabriel, Atlanta’s iteration of Tyreek Hill, has seven touchdowns on just 54 touches (according to SI.com). To counter Gabriel and the Falcons’ volcanic running game, the Seahawks will rely less on Sherman and more on the understated but very potent linebackers K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner, who combined to register an astounding 26.5 percent of the team’s tackles.
These teams played earlier in the season, a 26-24 decision in favor of Seattle. The game ended on a very dubious call — or non-call — when Sherman clearly yanked Jones’s arm on a pass deep downfield. No flag. No win. Atlanta is looking for payback.
There’s just something about Seattle. Maybe it’s their defense. Maybe it’s Russell Wilson. Maybe it’s the overdue emergence of Thomas Rawls. Maybe it’s all three.
Houston Texans (10-7) @ New England Patriots (14-2)
Saturday, January 14, 8:15 p.m. ET
This is the only game in which the result is in little doubt. Depending on the sports book, the home-team Patriots are favored by 15 or 16 points. And under Bill Belichick the Patriots have won five playoff games by at least 17 points.
Texans head coach Bill O’Brien learned his NFL wares at the altar of Belichick. O’Brien left New England to coach in college, which he used as a funnel to the NFL. But it’s a stretch to say he has the inside scoop on the Patriots. If that were true, all of Belichick’s coaching minions would see similar success. So far, no one has.
Houston may have the leagues’ top-rated defense, but New England’s defense has allowed the fewest points. You can decide which stat is more salient. It doesn’t hurt that the Pats have Tom Brady, who will stand alone with five Super Bowl rings if his Pats can win three more games.
The Patriots have owned home-field advantage five times under Brady and Beclichick. They reached the Super Bowl four times. If someone is going to buck that trend, it likely won’t be Brock Osweiler. The good news is the Texans won’t have to travel to see the Super Bowl, since it’s being played in their stadium. They just won’t be a participant.
Green Bay Packers (11-6) @ Dallas Cowboys (13-3)
Sunday, January, 15, 4:40 p.m. ET
The Packers have the other offense that puts some fright in opposing defenses. Especially when you consider the sizzling streak Aaron Rodgers is on. Not only did the Packers drop 38 on the best defense in the NFL (Giants), Rodgers also hasn’t thrown an interception in two months.
During the latest broadcast of Inside the NFL, Phil Simms said that Rodgers was the best pure thrower the sport has ever seen. Some of us have been saying that for years. If you’d like some proof, just turn on your television. If you’d like some stats, consider Rodgers has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes, for 2,029 yards, 19 TD, 0 INT and a pyrotechnic passer rating of 121.7 during the Packers’ seven-game winning streak. (Over their last eight games, Rodgers has 22 TD and still 0 INT.) Rodgers has also gone eight straight games with zero picks and 200 yards, while completing 60 percent of his passes, the second longest streak in history. The longest streak belongs to… Aaron Rodgers.
Folks love to laud Tom Brady over making mediocre players look sublime. But is Rodgers really flanked by Hall of Famers? Randall Cobb, Davante Adams and Ty Montgomery are hardly Jerry Rice, John Taylor and Roger Craig. Jordy Nelson, who is legit, was just ruled out for Sunday’s game.
Dallas has flipped the football orthodoxy on its head. With a rookie QB-RB tandem leading the way, the Cowboys were 13-2 before sleepwalking through a loss to the Eagles in the final game of the regular season. Dallas leads the league in rushing yards and time of possession. In this age of epic passing games, the Cowboys are decidedly old-school, true to their smash-mouth, NFC East roots, as the only NFL team to run the ball more than they throw it.
Not only is Green Bay on fire, but the Cowboys were already ranked 26th in pass defense. And now they are without suspended DE Randy Gregory. Rodgers doesn’t need any help to shred the best defenses in the sport. Dallas has one of the worst. No team in NFL history has ever won a playoff game with rookies as their leading rusher and passer.
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-5) @ Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)
Sunday, January, 15, 8:20 p.m. ET
Two teams emerged from Wild Card Weekend with a heavy offensive arsenal, strong enough to get pundits aboard the bandwagon. The Steelers are one of them.
With Pittsburgh’s big three — Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell — fresh off their first playoff game together, the Steelers’ offense has to have defensive coordinators reaching for the Rolaids. All three looked fabulous in last week’s 30-12 win over the Miami Dolphins.
The Chiefs had a fabulous regular season, somewhat masked by the Patriots and the injury to Raiders QB Derek Carr. If Chiefs fans want some comfort, take it in Andy Reid, whose record as NFL head coach is 19-3 after a bye week. Add to it the Arrowhead home field and the fact that Big Ben has thrown nine touchdowns and eight interceptions, with a passer rating of 78.4, on the road this year. (He has 26 TD, 9 INT, and 102.8 passer rating at home.)
Forget the 43-14 beating Pittsburgh put on Kansas City in Week 4. The teams are different now, and that game was at Heinz Field. When the Chiefs play at home, their defense ranks first in turnovers per drive, seventh in points per drive and eighth in opponents’ total QBR. Also, all-world LB Justin Houston didn’t play in the first game. He’s here for the rematch.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is catching some criticism for leaving Roethlisberger in the Miami game too long, as Big Ben tweaked his ankle on his final pass, when the Steelers had already sealed the game. Roethlisberger has shown he can play through almost any injury.
To a man, Kansas City has the most complete roster in the NFL, and former players say there isn’t a more ornery road game than one played at Arrowhead, where the Steelers visit this Sunday. If this game were to be played in Pittsburgh, or even on a neutral field, it would be hard to pick against their potent offensive trinity. But it won’t be. And Kansas City has this emerging gridiron nuke named Tyreek Hill.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.