By Andrew Holman | Sports Editor
The 2016 NFL regular season was full of many surprises with the Dallas Cowboys riding a pair of rookies to the No. 1 seed in the NFC and the Carolina Panthers imploding after a Super Bowl run just one season ago.
But 12 teams emerged from the pack of 32 and claimed this year’s playoff berths. Each team experienced their own unique ups and downs during their respective journeys, but eventually they all arrived at the same destination with a chance to bring home the Lombardi Trophy.
However, Wild Card weekend did its best to narrow down the field to the league’s elite. None of the four opening round games were all that close and the winning teams had a 19-point average margin of victory. And with the exception of the Oakland Raiders, who were derailed by Derek Carr’s injury, most people would probably agree the other three losers in the Wild Card round were long-shots to win the Super Bowl.
So now that just seven teams remain — let’s be honest, Houston isn’t a legitimate contender — one can only hope the games will becoming increasingly close and more captivating in this week’s Divisional round.
In the NFC, the Seattle Seahawks will head to Atlanta to take on the Falcons in the opening game of the Divisional round. The Seahawks defense, playing without safety Earl Thomas, will have a tough test as the Falcons posted the highest scoring offense (33.8 points per game) in the NFL this year combined with finishing second in total yards (415.8 yards per game) according to Pro Football Reference.
On the other hand, the Seahawks have allowed just 18.2 points per game this year and allowed the Detroit Lions to tally just six points in the Wild Card round. They surely won’t be afraid of Matt Ryan and the Falcons.
History says that playoff Ryan and regular season Ryan aren’t the same guy, as displayed by his 1-4 playoff record. But now a veteran of the league, expect a better day from Ryan that closely resembles his 335-yard, three touchdown performance against the Seahawks during the regular season. Ultimately, it just comes down to whether the Seahawks defense can slow down the Falcons enough to give their offense a fighting chance.
Prediction: Seahawks 31, Falcons 30
The other side of the NFC bracket features the top-seeded Cowboys hosting the red-hot Green Bay Packers who have won seven-straight games. This Packers team was pitiful in the opening few weeks of the season, but as Rodgers has improved his play, the wins have started to accumulate.
But their win streak is in serious jeopardy as they travel to “Jerry World” and take on a Cowboys team that went 13-1 against teams other than the New York Giants. But hey, the Packers just slaughtered the Giants, so they’ll beat Dallas too, right? Not so fast.
Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott may lack NFL playoff experience, but Elliott won a National Championship with Ohio State and neither guy blinked all season long when they were called into duty, so don’t expect them to shy away from the lights in the playoffs.
Prediction: Cowboys 35, Packers 24
Over in the AFC, the Patriots and Texans will play the night-cap on Saturday for a spot in the AFC Championship. While the Texans put up a solid showing against a Carr-less Raiders team, their play all season proved them to be nothing more than a mediocre football team that overpaid for a below-average quarterback.
Never take a below-average quarterback against a team with Tom Brady. Maybe if J.J. Watt was in the picture, the Texans would have a fighting chance, but without him this one won’t be close.
Prediction: Patriots 30, Texans 9
Finally, the local Pittsburgh Steelers will have to go to Arrowhead Stadium — one of the toughest places to play in football — to square off with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Earlier in the season, Pittsburgh routed Kansas City 43-14 at Heinz Field. But with a change in location and significant improvements for both teams, don’t expect this one to be so one-sided.
The player that can spin the game into the Chiefs’ favor is Tyreek Hill. Hill has found more and more ways to produce for Kansas City both on offense and on special teams. He is the most dynamic player on their roster and if the Steelers can’t keep him in check, one long punt return touchdown could prove to be the difference.
As for the Steelers, it’s pretty simple — get Le’Veon Bell the ball. Bell rushed for 144 yards against the Chiefs last game, but they also surrendered five touchdowns through the air and a multitude of big plays. So are the Chiefs going to pack the box to stop the run, or are they going to drop back and contain the passing attack? Either way, Bell can be a key weapon in the offense for Pittsburgh.
Prediction: Steelers 27, Chiefs 23