The Divisional Round. So many folks feel that this is the best weekend of the entire NFL season.
While this isn't the space where we would typically discuss this kind of topic, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention how hard this will be on the fans in the San Diego area. As an NFL historian and purist (for lack of a better word), I don't love it, either. Franchise relocation is generally not good for the perception of a sport -- period. And as someone who works in Los Angeles, I am not sure how the Chargers will be received by the mixed stew of sports fans that live here. Much has been made of all the things to do in L.A., and the failure of having two teams here in the '80s and '90s. My fear is that the difference between the organization's needs and what city leaders in San Diego were willing to offer will only lead to indifference from Angelenos.
Now, let's get to it!
Elliot Harrison went 3-1 on his predictions for Wild Card Weekend, giving him a record of 173-85-2 thus far this season. How will he fare in the Divisional Round? His picks are below:
Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, FOX
Amazingly enough, the all-time series between these two franchises is knotted at 17 wins apiece. Included in those 34 games are seven postseason affairs, of which the Cowboys are one up on the Packers. The legacy of this matchup is incredible (see: video just above), with this bout simply adding on to what is a deep-dish slice of NFL history. Also worth noting: The Cowboys walked into Lambeau earlier this season, ran through the Packers defense and flew home. Both teams are slightly different this time around: Green Bay is one of the hottest teams in football, while Dallas played that Week 6 game with a still-inexperienced Dak Prescott and no Dez Bryant.
OK, so let's look forward. What matters Sunday? Much of what counted in October. The Packers' run defense had better slow down Ezekiel Elliott and that Cowboys ground attack. Green Bay came into the first meeting allowing less than 3 yards per carry. Then Dallas outrushed the cheeseheads 191-78. Being that successful means the Cowboys control the clock, limiting Aaron Rodgers' touches. If the Packers go 0-fer -- like on their first four drives versus the Giants -- they won't get 8-10 more possessions to compensate. I like Rodgers against the Dallas secondary, but Jordy Nelson's probable absence sure doesn't help. (UPDATE: Mike McCarthy announced on Friday that Nelson will indeed miss Sunday's game.) Also, with Mo Claiborne back at corner and Dallas' pass rushers having rested legs -- hello David Irving, who was a force in the earlier meeting -- can Rodgers get enough time (in terms of protection and number of drives) to put up enough points? The guess here is no, but that's why they play the games.
Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET, NBC
Stop Le'Veon Bell. Not trying to just state the obvious here, but that's the stark reality of this situation: If the Chiefs can't do that, they will, in all likelihood, lose the game. We've seen Ben Roethlisberger have terrible games on the road, but when Bell produces, Pittsburgh's still viable. Look at last month's game in Buffalo, when Roethlisberger was awful (zero touchdowns, three picks), but Bell rushed for 236 yards and three scores in the Steelers win. Bell led the NFL in scrimmage yards per game, which went largely unnoticed with the emergence of David Johnson and Ezekiel Elliott. Second-and-4, third-and-2 -- that kinda down-and-distance prevents the K.C. pass rush from being a major factor. In order to thwart Bell, and win the field-position tussle, Kansas City ILBs (sans Derrick Johnson) must come up big. Safety support is a must, which could mean guys like Eli Rogers and Jesse James do sneaky damage off play-action.
You can count on one hand how many games since Y2K were better than the 2012 Divisional Round matchup between these two teams. That was Russell Wilson's rookie year -- and he will once again be hugely important in this showdown. More important than Thomas Rawls? Probably not. If Rawls and the Seahawks play clockball to counter Atlanta's explosive offense, then the limited pitches for Matt Ryan will play into Pete Carroll's hands. More important might be Richard Sherman's ability to travel across the formation with Julio Jones, or else limiting possessions could mean little. Sherman covered the Falcons comet 25 times during their midseason meeting (a narrow Seahawks win), including on one infamous pass play at the end.
Another key: Whether or not the remainder of Seattle's secondary can play up to snuff versus the Falcons' other receivers -- namely Taylor Gabriel, who really came on late in the season. DeShawn Shead makes Seahawks fans panic. He must hold down his side of the fort. Matt Ryan played like an absolute stud this year, and he will find the windows if open. Methinks his pass protection will hold its own. If Ryan struggles, though, it will be up to Alex Mack and Co. getting out in space and neutralizing Bobby Wagner. Then Devonta Freeman gets loose, and Atlanta heads to Dallas for the NFC Championship.
Interesting matchup -- or call it an interesting anomaly -- between these two teams on Saturday night. Texans at Patriots marks just the fifth time in postseason history that the NFL's No. 1 scoring defense meets the league's No. 1 total defense. How about this for historical analytics? The top scoring defense in such matchups has won every time. Makes sense. Every coach I've ever spoken to on this subject laments that the league still quantifies -- rather, qualifies -- the premier defense by yards allowed, not points. Steve Mariucci's hair unparts when he gets fired up about it. Of course, New England paced everyone in points allowed this season. I say "of course," but then wonder in the next breath how many people actually think of Matt Patricia's unit as being more effective than the groups in Denver, Seattle or even Minnesota.
Houston's defense must generate New England mistakes, despite the fact that Tom Brady gets rid of the ball quickly. If Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus create disruption -- not necessarily sacks, but tipped balls and interceptions (see: Clowney's thievery of Connor Cook) -- the Texans have a chance. That said, I fully expect LeGarrette Blount to get 15 to 20 carries, keeping that Texans front honest. The Patriots allowed 15.6 points per game this season, and I don't see a Brock Osweiler-engineered attack surpassing that mark. #HOUvsNE