For many, this is the best weekend on the NFL calendar. Four games featuring teams that either earned a playoff bye or won a game in Wild Card Weekend.
Last week: A perfect 4-0 as all home teams won. Will that happen once again?
- Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons (-4.5): I know many are almost brazenly confident in Seattle to pull this off on the road, but I’m completely on the other side of the fence. I really like the Falcons to win, and win comfortably. Here’s why…
Vic Beasley and the Atlanta pass rush are going to be a real problem for the Seattle offensive line. Russell Wilson is fantastic at escaping, but this is where the young speed behind the Atlanta defensive front comes into play. Deion Jones, Keanu Neal and Devondre Campbell are all very swift and have grown together quite nicely as rookies. So has corner Brian Poole, who is very good in run support as well.
Atlanta’s offense was very one dimensional in the 26-24 loss in Seattle back in Week 6. They could not run against the Seahawks defense. But the Falcons run the ball much better at home, and the crowd won’t be against them. That will help Matt Ryan get them into the right play and set up play action.
This is the opponent, more than any other, which will expose just how much Seattle’s secondary misses Earl Thomas. Between the threat of the run, the dynamic ability of Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu at receiver and how well the backs catch the ball out of the backfield, they can stress even the best of safeties like Thomas.
Falcons 30, Seahawks 17
- Houston Texans at New England Patriots (-16): This one doesn’t seem to be much of a contest. The Patriots are the largest playoff favorite this century, and it’s built upon sound rationale.
The Patriots won the first meeting 27-0, a game where they started third-string rookie Jacoby Brissett at quarterback. He wasn’t very effective but the Texans couldn’t stop LeGarrette Blount, who scored twice. Houston’s offense didn’t cross midfield until late in the third quarter and couldn’t string together plays at all.
Now Tom Brady is back at the helm, though the Patriots will miss Rob Gronkowski. Houston did finish with the league’s best overall defense, allowing the fewest yards per game and first downs. If the Texans are to win here, they’ll need their three defensive All Pros to make impact plays. Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and Benardrick McKinney all made the AP second team All-Pro. If Clowney and Mercilus can force Brady into a couple of mistakes, the strong Texans secondary can capitalize.
Houston almost has to get a defensive or special teams score to even think about the massive upset. While Brock Osweiler played well against Oakland, the Patriots playoff experience and advanced preparation time figure to give him as much trouble as they did in September, when he completed less than half his passes and buckled under pressure.
Patriots 23, Texans 10
- Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs (-1.5): This is handily the hardest forecast of the weekend games. The Chiefs and Steelers could play 100 times and I suspect each would win 50.
Boiling it down to just one game comes down to a solitary battle: which team can make more big plays offensively? Pittsburgh would be the more obvious answer, what with their fantastic triplets package of Big Ben, LeVeon Bell and Antonio Brown. That’s the most dynamic triumvirate in the league.
Yet if you watched the Chiefs late in the year, you’d know they have found a way to make the splash plays too. The expanded role for rookie Tyreek Hill altered what the Chiefs offense can accomplish. He’s likely the fastest man in the league and the Chiefs have found creative ways to use him as both a receiver and gadget play weapon.
Hill’s emergence has helped Travis Kelce at tight end become even more dangerous. With Alex Smith’s mobility and less hesitancy to try and take shots, all of the sudden Kansas City can keep up in a scoring arms race. That was not true even 3 months ago, but this is a different, better offense now.
Defensively, I believe the Chiefs are less likely to make the big mistake. Pittsburgh has a lot of guys who can make plays but also a lot who will give them up. With Hill also a major factor on special teams, I’ll tenuously take the home team.
Chiefs 29, Steelers 27
- Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys (-4.5): I would feel a lot better about Green Bay’s chances if Jordy Nelson were 100%, but unfortunately he suffered some broken ribs in the Wild Card win over the Giants. As of press time it’s unknown if the star wideout, who led the NFL in touchdowns in 2016, will play but it sure seems like a stretch. That dramatically alters my forecast.
His absence, or limited presence at best, is a huge boon to the Dallas defense. Their secondary has outplayed expectations all season and now won’t have to worry about Aaron Rodgers’ primary threat. That means more focused attention on Davante Adams and also the screen and quick dumpoff game.
It was already going to be a challenge for the visitors to outscore the Cowboys. Ezekiel Elliott is a major handful at running back, and the Dallas offensive line gives him nice running lanes. Green Bay’s defensive front is better than most people think, but they’re up against a monster in Dallas.
I do think Dallas is going to show some rust with the week off. That tends to happen more on the coordination between quarterback and receiver than anywhere else, and with Dak Prescott being a rookie that only exacerbates the issue. He’s never had pressure like this on him before, and the Packers are proven playoff performers. That’s why Elliott, who carried Ohio State to a national championship with over 200 yards in each game of the 2015 CFB Playoff, is so important. He thrives in big games. He will here too.
Cowboys 33, Packers 28