Well folks, Wild Card Weekend has come and gone and left us with little to discuss. One of the NFL’s most lopsided wild card rounds in history saw the home teams outscore the visitors 121-45. Yeah, it was really that bad. In an effort to preserve journalistic integrity and swim upstream, if you will, I predicted that a few road teams would find victory by exploiting their opponents’ few weaknesses. That worked out for about two quarters or so, and then reality kicked in and the visiting challengers got thrashed like Loki trying to fight the Hulk. Before we move on to the exciting matches in store for us this weekend, let’s look at what worked and (mostly) didn’t work last week.
- Texans vs Raiders: Connor Cook and the Raiders arrived in Houston as underdogs due to Derek Carr’s absence. Jack Del Rio, lauded all season for taking risks in big moments, clammed up like an eighth grader shoved on-stage at the winter talent show. Every Raiders drive in the first three quarters went: run, run, short pass, punt. Not a very inspiring display. In the fourth quarter it seemed like Del Rio finally realized that there was no “next week” to hold out for when he allowed Cook to start throwing down the field. The Raiders, of course, drove down the field and scored a touchdown almost immediately, leaving their fans to wonder if victory was possible had Del Rio showed confidence in Cook from the start.
- Seahawks vs Lions: This was the one game of the weekend that I predicted correctly, so kudos to me. Despite Zach Zenner’s best efforts the Detroit run game couldn’t challenge Seattle’s defense enough to ease the pass rush off of Matt Stafford. Tight coverage in the secondary and some generous calls in Seattle’s direction (ya know, like the touchdown where the refs ignored a blatant facemask call because the catch just looked so darn cool!) helped the Hawks pull away from Detroit and never look back.
- Steelers vs Dolphins: For a little while there I was getting excited that I might have correctly called a big upset. Just before halftime, with the score at 14-6, the Dolphins intercepted a deflected pass and began driving for a score. If they were able to go into halftime with a deficit of only one point knowing they would start the third quarter with the ball, I had no doubt that Miami could win. Instead, the Dolphins offensive line forgot how to block and allowed a free rusher to sack Matt Moore, causing a fumble. On the first possession of the second half, Miami again threatened to score before — you guessed it — fumbling once more. After an interception on their next possession, the game was officially over.
- Packers vs Giants: As I had predicted, the Giants defense was pitching a shutout in the first half of the contest. Green Bay’s run game was non-existent and the receivers couldn’t find any separation in the secondary. With the Giants up 6-0 after some dropped would-be-touchdowns by Odell and the Yacht Boyz, Aaron Rodgers finally got comfortable and produced a touchdown out of thin air, as Rodgers is known to do on occasion. Still, 7-6, not bad at all going into halftime. Not bad until New *Jersey allowed Rodgers to complete a 42-yard Hail Mary touchdown to Randall Cobb on the last play of the second quarter. At this point defenses have to be dedicating at least a little time to preparing for the hail mary play when facing the Packers, right? We’ve all seen this movie. But still, 14-6 wasn’t a death sentence based on how the Giants defense was playing. No, the play that doomed New *Jersey was Bobby Rainey fielding a kick-off that was heading out of bounds instead of letting it go to put the Giants on the 40 YARD LINE. Instead, they started the following drive on the 3 yard line. The Giants never climbed back into the game and we were gifted with one last Eli-face of the season.
After the generally boring slew of blowouts we were all witness to last weekend, I am especially excited about the divisional matchups. Because I mean, have you ever seen someone get into a fight and just kind of give up after taking a couple of punches to the face? It’s like in the movies when some nerdy…what’s that? You said you saw the Rousey-Nunes fight? Oh, well then you know exactly what I’m talking about! Anyway, there’s a lot to look forward to in the Divisional Round. Each game is a rematch from the regular season, but every team will probably look drastically different from the first time they and their opponents met. Atlanta boasts a better run game than the one Seattle saw, Aaron Rodgers wasn’t absolutely scorching hot when Dak and his team visited Lambeau, Chiefs playmaker Tyreek Hill has emerged in a major way since they took a sound beating from Pittsburgh, and the Patriots will be starting Tom Brady at quarterback as opposed to Jacoby Brissett with an injured thumb so…yeah good luck, Houston. To the breakdowns! (Home teams in CAPS)
FALCONS vs Seahawks, Jan 14, 1:35pm PST
When these two teams met in October, Seattle pulled off the 26-24 victory on the strength of a pass interference no-call in the waning moments of the game as Atlanta was driving for a touchdown. That’s all behind us though and this Falcons team follows a very different structure than it did that day in the Georgia Dome. Atlanta’s running back duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman rushed for only 50 total yards and 0 touchdowns in that first meeting. Facing a 17-3 deficit at halftime, the Falcons had to climb on Matt Ryan’s back as he exploded for a 21-point outburst in the third quarter. On Saturday the Falcons will seek to establish the ground attack early to alleviate some of the pressure on Ryan. Even without Earl Thomas patrolling the secondary, no team wants to depend on throwing the ball 50 times against Seattle’s defense. As great as Russell Wilson is, the Seahawks will also be looking for the run game to lead their offensive attack. In the first matchup, Christine Michael the Seahawk-turned-Packer rushed for 64 yards and two touchdowns. Last week against Detroit a now-healthy Thomas Rawls broke Seattle’s postseason rushing record with 161 yards and a touchdown for good measure. Seattle’s receivers looked superhuman against a soft and injured Lions defense, but the Hawks will need to find ways to stretch the field without speed-demon Tyler Lockett.
Defensively, Seattle will call on linebackers K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner to limit Atlanta’s dynamic backfield duo. Freeman and Coleman both have the ability to get involved in the passing game, so Wright’s range will be tested while Wagner tries to secure the middle of the field. Richard Sherman and Co. will also need to find an answer for Julio Jones, who caught 7 passes for 139 yards and a touchdown last time the two met. Without Thomas covering his back Sherman will likely find himself in plenty of one-on-one coverages against Jones while Deshaun Shead deals with the likes of Taylor Gabriel, Atlanta’s breakout receiver who thrived in Julio’s regular season absence. Russell Wilson will have no choice but to spend most of his day trying to identify pass rusher Vic Beasley, who can line up anywhere along the line and finished the regular season with 15.5 sacks and 6 forced fumbles. If Seattle’s makeshift offensive line can’t protect Wilson they’re about to get very acquainted with Beasley’s ability to take over a game. Ultimately I think Seattle’s shorthanded defense won’t be able to contain Atlanta’s multi-faceted offense in a shootout, although Seahawks pass-rusher Michael Bennett will certainly have his fair share to say about it. Falcons 37, Seahawks 31
PATRIOTS vs Texans, Jan 14, 5:15pm PST
Although this will be Houston’s second time facing New England this season, it will only be their first encounter with Tom Brady. In their earlier matchup, a 27-0 Patriots victory on Thursday Night Football, New England’s starting QB was third-stringer Jacoby Brissett. He threw for a modest 103 yards with no touchdowns while the run game and defense controlled the game. It’s safe to say that the Patriots team they’ll see on Saturday night will be a little different with the return of Brady as well as electric running back Dion Lewis, not to mention the absence of game-changing tight end Rob Gronkowski. Houston won’t be identical either, though, welcoming linebackers and defensive standouts Jadeveon Clowney and Brian Cushing back to the starting lineup after respective bouts with injury.
The return of those aforementioned linebackers makes it less than likely that Patriots back LeGarrette Blount will post another 100+ yard, 2 touchdown game, but you should expect New England to establish the run early in the game. Should they find tough sledding on the ground, the Patriots can attack Houston’s defense seven ways to Sunday with their hydra-like aerial weapons. Where one head is cut off, two grow in its wake. Take away leading receiver Julian Edelman, and all of a sudden Danny Amendola and dash-cam star-turned-Patriot Michael Floyd are working defenders on the sideline. Should Amendola and Floyd have trouble getting open, Brady can attack the seam deep with Chris Hogan. Oh, and don’t forget pass-catching backs James White and Dion Lewis who can run routes out of the backfield like an extra set of receivers. Silly me, I almost forgot to add in Martellus Bennett, New England’s other tight end that can block like a lineman and catch like a wide receiver. Houston safeties Andre Hal and Quintin Demps will certainly have their hands full trying to limit this death-by-a-thousand-cuts offense. Brady won’t even have his favorite rookie target, Malcolm Mitchell, at his disposal on Saturday. Despite Mitchell earning Brady’s trust and contributing four touchdowns this season something tells me the quarterback will be just fine in his NFL-record 32nd postseason game.
The Texans aren’t exactly devoid of talent on offense, either. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who tallied just 4 catches for 56 yards on 8 targets in the last meeting, has the ability to turn any reception into a safety-burning touchdown no matter where he is on the field. Don’t be fooled though, the real key to Houston’s offense is running back Lamar Miller. Miller rushed for 73 yards and a touchdown last week against the Raiders, but will need to find more success in New England if the Texans want to control the clock and keep Brady off of the field. If Houston is going to have a chance at upsetting these Patriots they’ll need the performance of a lifetime from swamp monster/linebacker Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney set the tone against Oakland, intercepting Connor Cook’s first pass and giving Houston confidence early on. He’ll need to reach into his bag of tricks once again in order to stop Tom Brady, whose thrown only two (read: 2) interceptions over the entire regular season. I see Houston fighting valiantly, but eventually being swept away by the inexorable tide that is the Patriots’ postseason success. New England hasn’t played in the Wild Card since 2009, and has gone 6-1 in the Divisional Round since 2010. Plus, I didn’t want to say anything, but have you ever seen Brock Osweiler play football? It doesn’t look all that different from me playing football, and I’m a PE teacher with a gut. Patriots 28, Texans 17
COWBOYS vs Packers, Jan 15, 1:40pm PST
When surging rookie QB Dak Prescott led the Cowboys into Lambeau in week 5 it was the perfect marquee matchup to show the country that his success was no fluke. Prescott threw for 247 yards and three touchdowns as the Cowboys went home with a 30-16 victory over the Pack. Not one to be left out of a party, Ezekiel Elliot hung 157 rushing yards on Green Bay’s defense. They looked right at home in one of the NFL’s most historic stadiums. Aaron Rodgers passed for 1 touchdown and 1 interception while receiving a measly 65 yards from then-starting running back Eddie Lacy.
Sunday’s edition of the Packers will look very different from October, starting with the loss of star receiver Jordy Nelson who was injured in the team’s Wild Card victory over the Giants. Rodgers will lean on Randall Cobb and breakout star Devante Adams to fill in the void left by Nelson and his 14 touchdowns. Even without Nelson this Dallas defense is a favorable matchup for Green Bay as it has struggled against the pass all season. Sean Lee and the Cowboys linebackers will make it very hard for late-season signee Christine Michael and converted receiver Ty Montgomery to find any room to run, so Rodgers will have to be at his very best on Sunday. Tight end Jared Cook will be a key factor for Green Bay in this matchup, whether or not he can find space in the middle of the field will dictate how often Rodgers will have to extend plays with his feet in order to find open receivers down the field. The suspension of Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory will make life a little easier for Rodgers, but he will still have to be efficient down the field in order to beat Dallas safeties J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church, who intercepted the Packers signal caller when they saw each other last. Dallas’ defense will also get a boost from the return of Morris Claiborne; the team’s solid cornerback has been out for much of the season.
Julius Peppers and Clay Mathews may have run amok through the Detroit offensive line last week, but they’ll now face the #1 ranked unit in the NFL which will present a completely different set of challenges. Travis Frederick, Tyron Smith, and Co. guided the Cowboys run game to an average of 149.8 yards per game, good for second-best in the entire league. Green Bay forced pressure on Eli Manning by holding the Giants run game to just 70 total yards, but don’t expect them to find the same success against Ezekiel Elliot, the NFL’s rushing leader (as a rookie). Dak Prescott is no sitting duck either, rushing for 282 yards and 6 touchdowns of his own this season. If the Dallas duo can assert themselves on the ground and set the tone for the game it will open up plenty of room for Prescott to connect with Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, and the always-open Cole Beasley in the passing game. Were the game at Lambeau I might think differently, but I feel confident that Dallas’ rookie stars will march on towards rewriting history. Cowboys 33, Packers 28
CHIEFS vs Steelers, Jan 15, 5:20pm PST
Kansas City’s matchup with the Steelers was moved to a later time because of an apparent incoming ice storm which is honestly just completely baffling to me. I was born and raised in San Diego, what the hell is an ice storm? I’ve spent of time in the Midwest during winter-time and never have I encountered an ice storm. The way I see it that’s just next-level commitment from the hosting city to give their team every possible advantage. Arrowhead Stadium has held the league’s record for loudest fans and now they’ve upped their game by somehow controlling the weather and summoning absolutely atrocious conditions in an attempt to slow down Le’Veon Bell and I, for one, respect them for it. People of Kansas City, I tip my cap to you.
When the Chiefs visited Heinz Stadium in October they received a 43-14 drubbing courtesy of a Big Ben masterclass – he threw five touchdowns. Alex Smith added two touchdowns of his own, but not until the fourth quarter when the game was well out of reach. Based on the explosive Pittsburgh offense we saw last week against Miami I wouldn’t say a similar result is impossible, but there are key differences in the Chiefs team that make it very unlikely.
I won’t beat around the bush here, folks, it’s time for us to have the talk. That’s right, we need to sit down together and be honest about Tyreek Hill. Kansas City’s electrifying swiss army knife did everything under the sun for the team this season. Hill recorded 593 receiving yards, rushed for 267 yards, and added 976 return yards, scoring 9 total touchdowns after coming on strong in the second half of the season. Hill was rewarded for his efforts by being selected to the Pro Bowl and named the return man for the AP’s All-Pro First Team. His ability to score from anywhere on the field on any play makes him a constant threat that defenses have to account for. Oh, and did I mention he runs a 4.2 40 yard dash? The man is an Olypmic sprinter, for goodness sake! And let us not forget about Kansas City’s reality TV star and part-time tight end, Travis Kelce. Kelce has spent the last few years validating all of the people who have compared him to World’s Best Tight End Rob Gronkowski (that’s his full name, don’t blame me). This season Kelce caught 85 passes for 1,125 yards and added 4 touchdowns just for fun. The success that Matt Moore had throwing deep against this Steelers defense, he threw for 289 yards while being sacked five times and committing three turnovers, is a good omen for Alex Smith and his big-play receivers.
Before I hand the Lombardi to the Chiefs before they’ve even taken the field let’s go back to those three turnovers Moore committed last Sunday. Miami couldn’t account for linebacker duo Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree when Pittsburgh brought various blitzes, which happened on just about every other play. Moore’s two fumbles were caused by Shazier and Dupree either barreling unblocked into Miami’s backfield or taking a lineman by surprise so that fellow linebacker Stephon Tuitt could. Shazier and Dupree harassed Moore all day, each recording two quarterback hits and forcing hurried passes many more times. Dupree’s free hit on Moore before halftime nearly knocked the quarterback out of the game (but don’t worry, Moore only missed one play and totally didn’t have a concussion). Shazier also collected an interception by faking a blitz and then hiding in coverage, taking away a pass meant for a receiver streaking towards the sideline.
However, Ben Roeslithberger is no perfect specimen either. His tipped pass-turned-interception in the second quarter almost allowed the Dolphins to climb back within one point of Pittsburgh. Big Ben also had multiple passes either batted down or tipped just out of reach of nearby defenders. He’ll now face the NFL’s leader in turnovers and turnover margin, the opportunistic Chiefs defense that turns tipped passes into touchdowns. Kansas City’s secondary led by All-Pros Eric Berry and Marcus Peters will be a great physical matchup for Antonio Brown and Pittsburgh’s receiving corps. Relentless pass rusher Tamba Hali will chase Ben out of the pocket whenever he should drop back while stalwart nose tackle Dontari Poe will attempt to cancel Le’Veon Bell’s regularly scheduled magic show. This should be a great contest between two evenly-matched teams, but in the end I think Roeslithberger will make a critical mistake that Pittsburgh can’t afford. Chiefs 31, Steelers 24
Wow, I got a little carried with that last game, didn’t I? What can I say, I get to talking about good defense and it just makes me all hot and bothered. Next thing you know its 300 words later and…here we are. Anyway, I hope you feel a little more informed after reading this article, and if you don’t, feel free to let me know very loudly @4thandGyas on Twitter. Now get out there and watch some football!