The bright side of a historically lopsided Wild Card Round arrives next weekend.
Wins by Green Bay and Seattle helped guarantee a loaded and rather familiar Divisional Round. Pete Carroll and Mike McCarthy have standing reservations for the NFL's best weekend, leading their teams to the quarterfinals for the sixth time in seven tries this decade. (The Patriots have made it all seven years.)
While the blowouts preceding an entertaining Giants-Packers affair didn't make for great football, they efficiently cut the fat from this season. There were never 12 true title contenders, not even 12 "drink a few beers, squint and anything is possible" types of contenders. The eight remaining teams are all division winners. The top four MVP candidates and best offenses are left. With the exception of the Texans, these are the teams football fans should want to see.
Before breaking down the repercussions of Wild Card Weekend, let's take a quick look ahead at the Divisional Round.
Seattle at Atlanta, Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET, FOX: This is a rematch of one of the best games of the season, which provided a moment in defeat for Matt Ryan that convinced me he wasn't going away. This is a proud Seahawks defense that ranks with the great units in NFL history over a five-year stretch. Their big players all stepped up against the Lions, but this is their ultimate test: Taking down the best big-play offense in football on a fast track. The 2016 campaign has been full of great offenses laying waste to any team bold enough to wear the "best defense" crown.
Green Bay at Dallas, Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, FOX: FOX executives should be dancing in the streets with their NFC draw, especially this hypefest waiting to happen. The Cowboys proved they can win shootouts with their 35-30 victory over Pittsburgh in Week 10. It wouldn't be surprising if both teams dropped a fortyburger in JerryWorld. It's comforting to know the prospects of this game will be part of our lives for the entirety of next week.
Houston at New England, Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, CBS: The one huge mismatch on the docket is a nightmare scenario for the Texans. There is familiarity for coach Bill O'Brien and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel (both former Patriots assistants), but there is also a mismatch at quarterback in a Divisional Round game perhaps not seen since Tim Tebow visited Foxborough. At least Jadeveon Clowney gets another game in the spotlight.
Pittsburgh at Kansas City, Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET, NBC:Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley's bid for revenge against the team he coached from 2009 to 2011 should be a fascinating contrast of styles. In this offense-heavy year, these are the two most balanced teams still playing.
Storylines that deserve more attention
1)Packers running back Christine Michael gets plenty of attention, but is it ever truly enough? After a season of C-Woke hype, he now appears in line for a primary running back job, with Ty Montgomery potentially hurt. It's at least possible that Michael leads the Packers to the playoffs by taking out two teams thathave cut him. (With Aaron Rodgers playing Robin to Michael's Batman.)
2) The Giants secondary finally showed cracks late against Green Bay in large part because the front four couldn't get pressure on Rodgers. The injury to cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie limited coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's blitzes and creativity. Give all the credit to the Packers offensive line, consistently the best pass-blocking group in the league. This was true even early in the season, when Rodgers was struggling.
3) Oakland's wide receivers did rookie quarterback Connor Cook no favors Saturday. Michael Crabtree had a few drops and a costly penalty, and he failed to come down with other contested catches. The best deep throw Cook made all night was dropped by Amari Cooper, who struggled to separate against the underrated Texans secondary. Jack Del Rio needed his young stars to step up around Cook, and instead, they shrunk.
4) With all that said, it was mystifying that Del Rio stuck with Cook the entire game, with Matt McGloin available. As hopeless as the game felt, Oakland's defense kept the Raiders within two scores throughout. McGloin has been in the NFL four years and put out some promising tape as a rookie. But Del Rio asked his offensive coaches at halftime, and they talked him out of a potential change.
It was an odd move, where Del Rio talked about Cook gaining valuable experience for the future. After a "go for broke" season from Del Rio, the team felt a little too resigned to its fate after Derek Carr's injury in Week 16. McGloin's status as a free agent should not have played into the Raiders' attempts to win on Saturday.
5) How overlooked is Whitney Mercilus? I wrote 1,300 words about Clowney's greatness in Houston, and Mercilus barely got 140 characters. (Until now!) The Texans pass rusher is one of those players who is appreciated best when watched every week, which reveals he never takes a play or game off. Sack numbers don't tell the story, because he's one of the most consistent pass rushers in football.
6)Ben Roethlisberger didn't need to do much for the Steelers to score 30 points, which is a sneaky good development. He threw two interceptions in only 18 attempts against Miami and had another pass bounce off a defender for one of his 13 completions. The boot on Roethlisberger's foot will get the attention this week, but so should his propensity for throwing picks, with the Chiefs secondary on tap. Big Ben has six touchdowns and seven interceptions over the last four games of what's been a relatively erratic season for him.
"He's a peculiar leader because he's somewhat unassuming and he doesn't have a lot to say, but his actions speak volumes," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said after the game.
Narratives that were busted
1) Save the Odell Beckhampsychoanalyzing: The Giants' lack of a running game was a bigger issue than Beckham's rough Sunday in the cold. The problems that plagued this Giants offense all season, starting with the line, showed up in Green Bay. The Packers dared the Giants to run, and they simply couldn't do it. Even in one of Eli Manning's better efforts, the team scored one touchdown.
Sunday's performance followed a season-long trend. The Giants' offense could look competent for a quarter or two, but it rarely lasted an entire game. New York's final eight drives included four three-and-outs and two turnovers. This is what Ben McAdoo's offense looked like all season.
2) The Seahawks' offensive line is not comprised of useless ne'er-do-wells who recently picked up the sport with the intention of injuring Russell Wilson. Running back Thomas Rawls ran great on Saturday night, but he had some massive holes to run through against Detroit. Sure, the matchup was right against a Lions defense lacking sizzle. But the rest of the NFC defenses remaining, starting in Atlanta, hardly resemble the 2000 Ravens.
3)A convincing win by the Texans over Oakland appeared to prevent any doomsday scenario for Houston's offseason. Questions about O'Brien's future could go away for a week or possibly the year after the victory. Texans owner Bob McNair emphatically denied that he would have fired O'Brien, although a firing was never in question. The greater issue, as reported by NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport, was whether O'Brien and his agent would potentially seek to leave for one of the six vacant jobs available, with other teams monitoring his status.
Players like Clowney, ebullient after such a big win, weren't thrilled to even hear about the reports.
"I hadn't even heard that," Clowney said Saturday night. "I'm just talking about the team. The team ... we're doing good. I don't know. You just told me for the first time. I didn't know anything about it. We wanted to do win because of us. ... Out there playing for each other and trying to have fun."
4)Ryan Tannehill's injury simply didn't impact Miami's season that much. Matt Moore ran coach Adam Gase's offense as well as Tannehill, winning the games he should and losing to the true AFC superpowers. Bigger factors in Miami falling short in Pittsburgh: the banged-up, erratic offensive line, and absent members of the secondary, like cornerback Byron Maxwell, safety Reshad Jones and safety Isa Abdul-Quddus.