After a Wild Card Weekend that failed to live up to its billing, what with all four home favorites winning by double-digits – and covering big spreads to boot – the NFL’s postseason should begin heating up in the Divisional Round.
The tournament has been cut down to the final eight title contenders, and all four games this weekend offer several storylines.
Houston is playing for the chance to host Super Bowl 51 in its home stadium, while Dallas is hoping to make it an in-state affair. Seattle can reach its third Super Bowl in four years, and New England is looking for its fourth title of the Brady/Belichick era.
Atlanta can get the playoff monkey off its collective back, as can Kansas City, and both Green Bay and Pittsburgh are riding extended winning streaks behind quarterbacks hoping to add another Lombardi Trophy to the mantle.
Seattle Seahawks (11-5-1) @ Atlanta Falcons (11-5) – Saturday 4:35pm ET
The first game of the weekend pits two NFC powerhouses who seem to secure postseason spots every year, as the Seahawks leave the nest to take on the high-flying Falcons.
For Seattle, a team that has won at least one playoff game each season since 2012, the stakes are high: a win here puts them one step away from their third Super Bowl in four years.
Atlanta, meanwhile, is back in the dance following a three-year absence, powered by the uncanny connection between quarterback Matt Ryan and wideout Julio Jones. This year the Falcons offense scored 540 points, tying them with the 1999 Rams and their “Greatest Show on Turf” for eighth all-time.
Seattle manhandled the Detroit Lions (9-8) last weekend without much trouble, holding them to just six points in the process, but Atlanta’s high-octane attack should provide a tougher test.
Despite his well-documented struggles in the postseason throughout his career, Ryan is playing the best ball of his life, and Bovada has Atlanta as 4.5-point home favorites early on.
As for each team’s chances to win it all, Bovada has Atlanta (+800) and Seattle (+900) as the fifth and sixth most likely squads to win the Super Bowl, respectively.
Houston Texans (10-7) @ New England Patriots (14-2) – Saturday 8:15pm ET
This game is making headlines due to the enormous disparity, at least in terms of public perception, between Houston and New England.
The Patriots won five more games in the regular season than the Texans, outscored them by a 441-279 margin, and barely broke a sweat while doing so. And although one would suspect that Houston’s advantage would lie in its ferocious defense, which led the league in yards allowed per game at 301.3, once again the scoreboard tells the story.
New England’s defense surrendered just 250 points all year – that’s 15.6 per game – by far the lowest totals in the league (NYG – 284 and 17.8). Houston, meanwhile, ranked a respectable 11th with 328 points allowed and 20.5 per game.
Simply put, Tom Brady is on another planet compared to Brock Osweiler, and even with Jadeveon Clowney terrorizing opposing offensive lines, Houston is simply overmatched by New England’s all-around talent.
So says Bovada, anyway, which has installed the Pats as huge 16-point home favorites. That’s the widest playoff spread since 1998, and one of the widest in league history.
In terms of Super Bowl chances, these teams are polar opposites, as New England (+180) is the overwhelming favorite and Houston (+5000) is the longest of longshots.
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-5) @ Kansas City Chiefs (12-4) – Sunday 1:05pm ET
A pair of evenly matched conference foes, playing outdoors in one of the most hostile home venues in all of sports. Pittsburgh versus Kansas City is what the NFL playoffs are all about.
The Steelers made quick work of the undermanned Miami Dolphins (10-7) last week, surging to a 14-0 head start midway through the first quarter. But with the game well in hand, head coach Mike Tomlin still had quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dropping back and throwing deep – curious play-calling that produced an injury scare after a big Cam Wake sack.
Big Ben says he’ll be “good to go,” and as one of the league’s most durable QB’s, that’s likely to be true.
Pittsburgh will need all hands on deck to compete with a Kansas City team that leads the league in every meaningful metric over a stretch that dates back to last season. Andy Reid has the Chiefs firing on all cylinders, trying to reach his first conference championship game since his days in Philly.
These teams are mirror images of one another, combining steady yet explosive offenses, grinders on D, and even special teams talent – which is why Bovada gives the Chiefs just a 1-point edge as home favorites.
In terms of winning the big one, Pittsburgh (+725) is fourth in the playoff field, while Kansas City (+900) brings up the rear aside from the Houston outlier.
Green Bay Packers (11-6) @ Dallas Cowboys (13-3) – Sunday 4:40pm ET
The schedule-makers got this one right, as Dallas hosting Green Bay has the makings of an instant classic.
The Cowboys rolled through the regular season practically unimpeded, losing only to the New York Giants (twice) in competitive games, before dropping a meaningless season finale. The surprising rookie tandem of quarterback Dak Prescott and tailback Ezekiel Elliott have earned the headlines, but Dallas is a complete team up and down the roster.
As for the Packers, the 4-6 hole they found themselves in midway through the year is but a distant memory. After QB Aaron Rodgers pledged to “run the table,” Green Bay did just that to win the NFC North, before smoking the Giants’ vaunted defense in the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.
Green Bay is riding momentum, but Dallas has a roster full of fully rested stars, so “America’s Team” has the slight 4-point edge as home favorites.
Bookmakers also like both teams to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, as Dallas (+475) trails only New England on the championship odds board, while the Packers (+550) are next up.