The Road to Super Bowl LI

Who will vie for the Lombardi Trophy at NRG Stadium in Houston?

HOUSTON – Who will battle for the Vince Lombardi Trophy when the Super Bowl returns to the Lone Star State on Feb. 5, 2017?

After three rounds in the NFL Playoffs we finally have our two competitors - the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons.

Follow along with KHOU.com, KHOU 11 Sports and USA Today Sports as we bring the latest on the Road to Super Bowl LI.

SCHEDULE

 

Wild-card round

SATURDAY, JAN. 7

No. 4 Houston Texans 27, No. 5 Oakland Raiders 14

No. 3 Seattle Seahawks 26, No. 6 Detroit Lions 6

SUNDAY, JAN. 8

No. 3 Pittsburgh Steelers 30, No. 6 Miami Dolphins 12 | Box score

No. 4 Green Bay Packers 38, No. 5 New York Giants 13 | Box score

Divisional round

SATURDAY, JAN. 14

No. 2 Falcons 36, No. 3 Seahawks 20

No. 1 Patriots 34, No. 4 Texans 16

SUNDAY, JAN. 15

No. 4 Packers 34, No. 1 Cowboys 31

No. 3 Steelers 18, No. 2 Chiefs 16

Conference championships

SUNDAY, JAN. 22

NFC: No. 2 Falcons 44, No. 4 Packers 21

AFC: No. 1 Patriots 36, No. 3 Steelers 17

Super Bowl

SUNDAY, FEB. 5

Super Bowl LI (NRG Stadium, Houston): Falcons vs. Patriots, 5:30 p.m., Fox

HELPFUL LINKS

COMPLETE COVERAGE: Super Bowl LI in Houston

TRAVELERS: Visitor's Guide to Houston

EVENTS: Party Guide to Super Bowl LI

GETTING AROUND: Parking and transportation guide for Super Bowl LI

SUPER BOWL LI

PREVIEW

Three things to know: Patriots vs. Falcons Super Bowl LI preview

A preview of the Super Bowl LI matchup between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons:

When: Sunday, Feb. 5, 5:30 p.m. (FOX)

Where: Houston's NRG Stadium (retractable roof)

Line: Patriots by 3

Injuries: Falcons WR Julio Jones has dealt with a chronic toe issue over the last two months. It cost him two regular-season games and practice time last week, but he should be fine with two weeks before the Super Bowl. Several prominent Patriots are battling aches and pains, including WR Danny Amendola (ankle), TE Martellus Bennett (knee), LB Dont'a Hightower (knee), WR Chris Hogan (thigh) and WR Malcolm Mitchell (knee). But all should be ready to play.

History: The Patriots are 7-6 all-time against the Falcons but, since 2001, have won all four meetings with Tom Brady at the helm by an average of 10 points.

1. Something's gotta give: New England surrendered 15.6 points per game in the regular season, fewest in the NFL. However Atlanta scored a league-best 33.8 per week, and its 540 total points tied for eighth best all-time. The Falcons have even hit an extra gear in postseason with 80 total points in their wins over the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers.

2. The QB question: Brady's four-game Deflategate suspension to start the season may have cost him a third league MVP award (Ryan will almost certainly take home the hardware). But "TB12" is far more focused on how he finishes this campaign than how he began, and one more victory might finally settle the debate about who's the greatest of all time if he can become the first quarterback to earn five Lombardi Trophies.  But for Matt Ryan it's all about the next postseason game — the one that could finally bring some ice to the ring finger of the Boston College alum and perhaps permanently elevate him as one of the league's best.

 

 

3. Coming-out party: The Super Bowl stage can convey mega-stardom beyond football, especially for non-quarterbacks. New England TE Martellus Bennett has the ability and (more importantly) personality to have a breakout performance. Still, the Patriots have long been defined by Brady and coach Bill Belichick, and it will probably take something like Butler's unforgettable pick in Super Bowl XLIX to garner part of the spotlight. Conversely, many Americans will be getting a fresh introduction to the Falcons, who played only two prime-time games in 2016. Ryan is hardly a household name outside of Atlanta. Jones and RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are well known in fantasy circles, but are rather anonymous to the public at large. The Falcons also have terrific young defenders like Keanu NealDeion Jones and NFL sack leader Vic Beasley. You can bet some new media darlings will surface as well as an unexpected hero (and/or goat), who will be immortalized between the lines.

 

 

CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS

GAME RECAPS

PITTSBURG STEELERS 17, NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS 36

Patriots outpace Steelers in AFC Championship Game romp

Fireworks cracked overhead. Tom Brady slipped on an oversized parka the Internet made fun of and sat on the bench, doling out all the fist bumps that came his way. The fans here, as the Jumbotron showed recording artist Jon Bon Jovi dancing in owner Robert Kraft’s suite, belted out Livin’ On A Prayer.

This was all during a TV timeout with 2:44 still left to play in the third quarter, but by this point, they were merely waiting on formalities.

The New England Patriots were on their way to the seventh Super Bowl of the Brady-Bill Belichick era.

 

 

The Patriots thumped the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday night in the AFC Championship Game 36-17 to secure their date in Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons on Feb. 5 in Houston. It will be New England’s NFL-record ninth trip to the title game.

Brady carved apart Pittsburgh’s secondary, throwing for a postseason career-high 384 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. This marked Brady’s ninth postseason game with at least three passing touchdowns, tying Joe Montana for most in NFL history.

The Steelers could not generate a pass rush, and New England’s offensive line gave Brady ample time to throw.

 

 

During New England’s first touchdown of the game – a 16-yard dart to receiver Chris Hogan in the back of the end zone – Brady bounced around the pocket long enough for him to scan the field, go through his progressions, and find a wide-open Hogan, who had slipped past Pittsburgh’s zone. After that, it didn’t get much better for Pittsburgh.

The Steelers stuck with a defensive strategy predicated on playing zone coverage. They also rushed three defenders for a good chunk of the game. This put pressure on the secondary to hold their assignments for long periods of time and forced them to make plays. They didn’t.

Hogan was left uncovered on several big plays. He caught nine passes for 180 yards, a Patriots postseason record, and two touchdowns. Fellow receiver Julian Edelman caught eight passes for 118 yards and added another score.

 

 

The Patriots exploited the scheme, and skewed their attack heavily toward the pass. Through three quarters – the point at which the game was pretty much wrapped up – the Patriots had run the ball only 16 times for 31 yards. That compared to Brady’s 36 passing attempts during the same period.

The Steelers were without star running back Le’Veon Bell for most of the game, as he sustained a left groin injury late in the first quarter and was determined to be questionable to return. He did come back, for one carry in the second quarter, but left the game immediately after.

GREEN BAY PACKERS 21, ATLANTA FALCONS 44

Falcons dismantle Packers in NFC Championship Game rout

The most memorable sound in the final football game at the Georgia Dome was a chant, reverberating through every square inch of this old stadium.

“MVP! MVP! MVP!” chanted Falcons fans, from the first moment Matt Ryan jogged through the tunnel one last time, through the last seconds of the fourth quarter as the Atlanta Falcons quarterback helped make the last game here the most memorable.

Ryan threw for four touchdowns and rushed for another touchdown in a 44-21 win over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game, sending the Falcons to Houston for Super Bowl LVI. It is their first trip to the Super Bowl since the 1998 season.

 

 

“We’ll be ready,” said Ryan.

This sort of offensive explosion from the Falcons offense wasn’t exactly unexpected, not after Ryan and the Falcons dismantled the vaunted Seattle Seahawks defense last week in the divisional round and after averaging nearly 34 points per game in the regular season.

“We played great today in all three phases,” Ryan said. “We knew going against Green Bay and Aaron (Rodgers) that it’s never over.”

What was a surprise was the way the Falcons defense made sure the game never turned into the anticipated shootout.

The Falcons shut out the Packers in the first half Sunday, forced two turnovers and flustered Aaron Rodgers with well-timed blitzes. Even with the return of No.1 receiver Jordy Nelson, the hottest quarterback in the NFL was still no match for what looks like the NFL’s complete team.

 

 

Much of that is a credit to Ryan, the favorite to win the NFL’s MVP award which will be announced on the eve of the Super Bowl. Voting was completed weeks ago, but his performance in the NFC Championship Game only bolstered his case.

Ryan’s most emphatic throw might have come after his 14-yard touchdown run, as Ryan celebrated by drilling the ball off the Falcons’ logo on the wall behind the end zone as he was swarmed by his teammates.

Yes, this game clearly meant something for Ryan, who had been plagued by questions about his play in big games throughout his career, including four years ago, when the Falcons squandered a 17-point lead after Ryan through two second-half interceptions in a NFC Championship Game loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

But what makes Ryan a real threat to lead the Falcons to their first Super Bowl title in two weeks is the cast of offensive players around him. Few offenses in recent memory have had such diversity – with a scary pair of running backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who combined for a modest 71 rushing yards against the Packers – and a deep stable of receivers. Julio Jones is certainly and deservedly the star, which he emphasized Sunday with 180 yards and two jaw-dropping touchdowns, but Ryan connected with seven other Falcons for at least one pass.

The Falcons’ offensive diversity should be a model for the Packers, whose eight-game winning streak is over after the team became too one-dimensional around Rodgers.

The Packers rushed just 13 times – including four scrambles by Rodgers, who was the leading rusher with 46 yards. Rodgers threw three touchdowns, even while playing behind an offensive line that lost three players by the fourth quarter and had to use a defensive tackle at guard, but those scores were too late to make the game competitive.

 

PREVIEWS

GREEN BAY PACKERS at ATLANTA FALCONS

A preview of the NFC Championship Game matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons:

When: Sunday, 2:05 p.m. (FOX)

Where: Atlanta's Georgia Dome

Line: Falcons favored by 4

Injuries: Falcons WR Julio Jones left Saturday's divisional playoff win early, still coping with the foot and toe issues that cost him two games late in the season. The Packers hope to have WR Jordy Nelson back after injured ribs prevented him from playing Sunday.

1. Ball control: It's a testament to two offenses that like to sling it that both also manage to be so careful with the ball. Torrid Packers QB Aaron Rodgers has fired 24 TD passes against just one interception (thrown Sunday) since Nov. 20. Green Bay has committed just two turnovers during its eight-game winning streak. Atlanta's 11 giveaways during the regular season were tied for fewest in the league, just one coming during their current five-game hot streak. Neither team coughed up the ball during the Falcons' 33-32 win when the clubs met Oct. 30, so any mistake with a Super Bowl berth on the line is bound to be magnified.

2. High-flying birds: The Falcons scored 540 points in the regular season, tied for eighth most in NFL history. And they're even better at home, where they've averaged 35.1. MVP frontrunner Matt Ryan, who was nearly as surgical as Rodgers down the stretch, had little problem carving up Green Bay in Week 8 (288 yards, 3 TD passes, 129.5 QB rating) despite a quiet day from Jones (3 catches, 29 yards) and absence of dynamic Tevin Coleman, whose 13.6 yards per reception led all running backs in 2016. A battered Packers defense — S Morgan Burnett is the latest casualty — is likely to struggle against a quarterback who is so locked in (Ryan has passed for 1,469 yards, 14 TDs, zero INTs and has a 131.8 rating during the Falcons' winning streak) and has an array of weapons at his disposal, even if Jones remains limited.

3. Building blocks: Offensive line play is sure to be a major key for both clubs. A huge part of Atlanta's success is rooted in its front five, the only quintet in the league that started all 16 games together this season. But Rodgers also lines up behind a sterling wall, including David Bakhtiari, rated as the best pass-blocking tackle this season by the analytics website ProFootballFocus. Bakhtiari's ability to negate NFL sack leader Vic Beasley could be crucial in keeping this offense rolling against an Atlanta defense that's otherwise highly susceptible against the pass.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

A preview of the AFC Championship Game matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots:

When: Sunday, 5:40 p.m. ET (KHOU 11/CBS)

Where: Gillette StadiumFoxborough, Mass.

Line: Patriots favored by 4½

1. Strength on strength: During Pittsburgh’s nine-game winning streak, the offense has excelled. Behind the QB-RB-WR trifecta of Ben RoethlisbergerLe’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown, the Steelers have scored an average of 25.9 points since Week 11. New England’s defense, meanwhile, may not wow you with star power, but it led the NFL in the regular season in scoring (15.6 points per game allowed). Specifically, the matchups between Patriots corner Malcolm Butler and Brown, and linebacker Dont’a Hightower and Bell are worth watching.

2. Rematch with one Big (Ben) tweak: Don’t put too much stock in New England's 27-16 Week 7 victory played in Heinz Field. Roethlisberger suffered a torn meniscus the week before against the Miami Dolphins and underwent a minor procedure to fix the issue. Backup Landry Jones started in his place, and the Pittsburgh offense just wasn’t the same.

3. Emerging X-factor: With tight end Rob Gronkowski out for the remainder of the season after undergoing back surgery, running back Dion Lewis has emerged as New England’s toughest matchup problem for opposing defenses. Against the Houston Texans in the divisional round, he became the first player in postseason history to score touchdowns on a kick return, a reception, and a rush in the same game. Lewis is shifty, quick and probably can’t be left in man-to-man coverage. Pittsburgh, however, has very athletic inside linebackers in Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons, so the Steelers should be able to get creative in their game plan against Lewis.

DIVISIONAL ROUND

GAME RECAPS

PITTSBURGH STEELERS 18, KANSAS CITY CHIEFS 16

Steelers stave off Chiefs, will face Patriots in AFC Championship Game

Hope you’re a fan of field goals.

The Pittsburgh Steelers converted half a dozen to score all their points and book their trip to the AFC Championship Game in an 18-16 victory Sunday night against the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Steelers now travel to Foxborough, Mass., to face the conference’s No. 1 seed Sunday in the New England Patriots. The Patriots beat the Steelers 27-16 in Week 7, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missed the game as he recovered from surgery on his torn meniscus.

 

 

Steelers place kicker Chris Boswell drilled all six of his field goal attempts (22, 38, 26, 45, 43, 43), setting an NFL record for most all time in a single postseason game.

If there’s one thing that prevented the Steelers from blowing this game wide open in the first half, it was their lack of execution inside the red zone.

In the first two quarters, Pittsburgh failed to convert on all three of its trips inside the 20. Instead, it settled for field goal after field goal.

After Kansas City scored a touchdown on its opening series, however, the next three drives spanned only 11 plays for 29 yards. The result? Two punts and an interception. Only 4:24 of game time ticked off the clock.

Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell gained 170 yards on 30 attempts. Roethlisberger completed 20 of his 31 passes for 224 yards. He did not throw a touchdown, but tossed an interception to Chiefs safety Eric Berry.

The Steelers outgained the Chiefs in the first half by a margin of 275-106. They led by only five points at the half.

 

 

The Chiefs scored a touchdown late in the fourth quarter on a 1-yard Spencer Ware rush, but a holding call erased a two-point conversion and the ensuing attempt fell incomplete.

GREEN BAY PACKERS 34, DALLAS COWBOYS 31

Aaron Rodgers, Packers topple Cowboys to advance to NFC Championship Game

Green Bay Packersquarterback Aaron Rodgers’ midseason declaration that his team would “run the table” was merely a correctly predicted push to the NFC North title for a then-struggling 4-6 team.

Now, it might as well include a march to the team's fifth Lombardi Trophy.

Rodgers zipped a 35-yard pass to tight end Jared Cook with 3 seconds remaining Sunday, setting up Mason Crosby’s game-winning 51-yard field goal in a 34-31 victory over the Dallas Cowboys that moved the Pack one win from a Super Bowl berth.

 

 

“We’re just going to enjoy this game, enjoy the heck out of it," said Rodgers.

Green Bay moves on to next weekend’s NFC Championship Game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome.

 

 

Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes, to tight end Jason Witten and receiver Dez Bryant, to help the Cowboys rally from a 28-13 third-quarter deficit. Bryant’s touchdown and the ensuing two-point conversion tied the game 28-28 with just over four minutes remaining.

That was more than enough time for Rodgers to lead the Packers on two more field goal drives. Crosby nailed a 56-yarder to take a 31-28 lead with 93 seconds to go, but the Cowboys answered with a 52-yarder from Dan Bailey 58 seconds later.

But Rodgers' laser to Cook, who just managed to get both feet down before tumbling out of bounds proved the game's key play.

“I tried to put it in a good spot," said Rodgers. "He made a hell of a catch.”

Crosby’s game winner at the gun just narrowly passed inside the left upright.

"That was one heck of a football game to be a part of," said Packers coach Mike McCarthy. "I just can't say enough about my football team's resiliency."

The wild finish was just what the NFL needed after a postseason that had been void of competitive games thus far. The playoffs’ first six games were all decided by at least 13 points.

Sunday featured Rodgers at his finest, even without star wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who missed the game with a rib injury.

Rodgers, who finished the game with 356 passing yards, threw his first interception since Nov. 13 in the fourth quarter. He was nearly picked off again by Jeff Heath only to have it erased by a defensive holding penalty on Barry Church.

Rodgers’ late magic stunned an AT&T Stadium crowd that was re-energized by Prescott’s stellar second half. The rookie threw for 302 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. Fellow rookie and NFL rushing king Ezekiel Elliott ran for 125 yards. But for all the excitement they brought to a magical season that included the NFC East title and the conference's top playoff seed, their youthful exuberance was no match for Rodgers' experience on this day.

HOUSTON TEXANS 16, NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS 34

Patriots struggle early, but pull away for easy win over Texans

The Houston Texanshung around into the third quarter, but even though they battered Tom Brady, and even though they capitalized on uncharacteristic New England mistakes, the Patriots prevailed — again — in the postseason.

New England used three touchdowns from Dion Lewis to defeat Houston, 34-16, in Saturday’s divisional round game to stamp their ticket to the AFC Championship Game and will host the victor of Sunday’s game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs.

 

 

The Patriots set an NFL record — since the 1970 merger — for consecutive trips to conference title games with six.

New England led from start to finish, and built an early 14-3 lead behind a pair of first-quarter touchdowns from Lewis — one via a 13-yard reception and the other on a 98-yard kickoff return.

In consecutive possessions, however, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw a tipped-pass interception intended for receiver Michael Floyd, Lewis fumbled a kickoff return, and New England went three-and-out.

The Texans closed the gap to a four-point margin, thanks in large part to an unrelenting pass rush, but New England pulled away in the second half.

Brady finished 18-for-38 for 287 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

His two picks matched his regular-season total, despite throwing 432 passes in 12 games.

 

 

Lewis became the first player in NFL history to record a rushing touchdown, a receiving touchdown, and a kick return touchdown in a postseason game.

The Texans, meanwhile, needed their offense and quarterback Brock Osweiler to play a near-perfect game. He didn't. Osweiler finished 18-for-38 for 287 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS 20, ATLANTA FALCONS 35

Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons' offense too much for Seattle Seahawks

The defense that has bailed out the Seattle Seahawks so many times over the past five years couldn’t save them here Saturday.

Not against the speed of the Atlanta Falcons, whose deep arsenal around NFL MVP candidate Matt Ryan put on a show in a 36-20 triumph that thrust this dynamic young team into the NFC championship game.

Depending on the outcome of Sunday’s other divisional playoff, the Falcons will either go on the road next week to face the Dallas Cowboys or host the Green Bay Packers, with a spot in Super Bowl LI on the line.

The Falcons hadn’t been to the playoffs since the 2012 season, when they beat Seattle here in another divisional-round game and lost the title game the next week. Since, the Seahawks have been a powerhouse – winning a Super Bowl, going to another and reaching the divisional round again last season – while the Falcons bottomed out, changed coaches and rebooted.

On Saturday, the Falcons had mounted touchdown drives of 75, 99 and 75 yards by early in the third quarter. They netted over 400 yards. Ryan was 26-of-37 passing for 338 yards and three touchdowns. Eight players caught passes, including Julio Jones, who had six catches for 67 yards and drew a holding penalty with Seahawks star Richard Sherman covering him extensively before leaving with a foot injury that will bear monitoring this week.

Atlanta’s defense did its part, too, using its speed and quickness off the edges to expose Seattle’s young tackles. Cornerback Brian Poole laid a memorable hit on Seahawks quarterback Russell WilsonRicardo Allen intercepted a desperation heave by Wilson in the fourth quarter and rookie linebacker Deion Jones got another pick late on a ball ripped from Luke Willson’s hands.

Now the Falcons are one win away for their first Super Bowl trip since the 1998 season. On Saturday, they sure looked like they belong here.

PREVIEW

GREEN BAY PACKERS at DALLAS COWBOYS

When: Sunday, 3:40 p.m. (FOX)

Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

Line: Cowboys favored by 4

THREE THINGS TO KNOW

1. A different kind of wild-card weekend: The Cowboys cruised — relatively easily — to the best record in the NFC. However they enter the playoffs with some unknowns. Rookies Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott became the new faces of the franchise overnight, but the postseason crucible will provide a significant hurdle, especially against a playoff-savvy and red-hot team like Green Bay. The defense has again been stripped of suspended DE Randy Gregory, a blow to Dallas' 26th-ranked pass defense. CB Morris Claiborne's anticipated return from a groin injury should be a welcome addition. But he's bound to be rusty and perhaps tentative against a high-powered Packers passing game orchestrated by QB Aaron Rodgers, who will exploit any weakness.

 

 

2. X-factor: Obstructing NFL rushing champion Elliott will almost surely be the focus of Green Bay's defense, which must try and keep Dallas from dominating time of possession on Rodgers' behalf. That should mean more opportunities for WR Dez Bryant. Though he's battled injuries while adjusting to life without Tony Romo over two substandard seasons (by Bryant's standards), he remains an elite playmaker who can easily exploit man-to-man coverage. In the Cowboys' playoff dress rehearsal in Week 16, it appeared Bryant and Prescott were finally developing chemistry, hooking up for a pair of scores. And expect Bryant to carry extra motivation following his infamous non-catch at Lambeau Field two years ago, a "drop" that basically ended Dallas' season.

3. No dodging Rodgers: Immersed in a zone similar to the one he parlayed into a championship run six years ago — one that successfully concluded in Dallas' building in Super Bowl XLV — Rodgers has been virtually unstoppable. After throwing for 362 yards and four TDs in Sunday's beatdown of the New York Giants, he's compiled this gaudy stat line during the Pack's seven-game winning streak: 2,029 passing yards, 19 TDs, 69.6% completion percentage, 121.7 passer rating. He hasn't been intercepted since Nov. 13.

 

 

However he was merely mortal (294 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) in Green Bay's Week 6 loss to the Cowboys at Lambeau. Though Rodgers has been torching all comers lately, it will certainly help if he can keep the offense from falling into a 14-point second-half deficit and being rendered one-dimensional, which is what happened in the October matchup. That could be a challenging task if WR Jordy Nelson (ribs) can't play and/or if an erratic Packers defense can't do its part.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS at KANSAS CHIEFS

When: Sunday, 11:05 a.m. (NBC)

Where: Arrowhead StadiumKansas City, Mo.

Line: Chiefs favored by 1.5

THREE THINGS TO KNOW

1. Home cooking? As intimidating as Arrowhead can be, the Chiefs have lost their past four home playoff games and haven't won in front of their faithful fans in postseason since the 1993 season. But it's hard to believe they won't have a significant advantage. A Pittsburgh offense that tends to be far less effective on the road anyway will also have to overcome the ear-splitting din, and a change of venue can only help after the Steelers dismantled the Chiefs 43-14 at Heinz Field in Week 4.

2. Hill's thrills: A middling Kansas City attack has been augmented lately by rookie WR Tyreek Hill, who's scored a touchdown of at least 68 yards each of the past four weeks. He is a threat through the air, on jet sweeps, and especially on special teams, where he's scored three times on returns. Pittsburgh must respect Hill's elite speed, and that will only open up the field for all-pro TE Travis Kelce, WR Jeremy Maclin and the running game, which is augmented by QB Alex Smith's ability to operate outside the pocket.

3. Pitt's triplets: Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, WR Antonio Brown and RB Le'Veon Bell showed just how dangerous they could be in their first-ever playoff game together. Big Ben found Brown for 50- and 62-yard TD passes in the first quarter of Sunday's wild-card win over the Miami Dolphins.

 

 

Bell, making his postseason debut and playing for a new contract, took over from there, adding two scores on the ground along with 174 yards from scrimmage. The trio was even more dominant in the October blowout of the Chiefs, with Roethlisberger passing for 300 yards and five touchdowns (2 to Brown) while Bell racked up 178 yards from scrimmage. However it must be noted that Big Ben has been ordinary, at best, on the road in 2016 (9 TDs, 8 INTs, 59.4% completion rate, 78.4 rating) and must now also overcome an ankle injury suffered against Miami.

HOUSTON TEXANS at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

When: Saturday, 7:15 p.m. (CBS)

Where: Gillette StadiumFoxborough, Mass.

Line: Patriots favored by 15.5

1. History lesson: The Texans have never won in the divisional round and were blown out at New England in their most recent appearance four years ago. The Patriots haven't failed to reach the AFC Championship Game in the last five postseasons and are 10-2 in the divisional round under Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. These teams have met each of the past two seasons with New England sweeping to a 2-0 record by a combined score of 54-6. Houston's coaching staff — Bill O'Brien, Romeo Crennel and Mike Vrabel are all intimately familiar with Belichick and Co. — failed to find an effective game plan in a 27-0 Week 3 loss that included three turnovers and a typically poor performance from QB Brock Osweiler (24-for-41, 196 yards, INT).

 

 

 2. Clown question: Former Patriots stalwart Vince Wilfork has said the best player on Houston's top-ranked defense is DE Jadeveon Clowney, and Wilfork was including J.J. Watt in his assessment. Clowney showed why in the wild-card round, collecting an interception and two batted passes while applying steady pressure on the pocket. Tom Brady, who was suspended for the teams' September meeting, has to be wary of the No. 1 overall draft pick from the 2014 draft, not to mention several other Houston defenders — OLB Whitney Mercilus, ILB Benardrick McKinney and CB A.J. Bouye to name a few — who would probably receive far more acclaim on a higher-profile team. However Brady should have more targets to choose from with WR Danny Amendolacoming back from an ankle injury, and recently acquired WR Michael Floyd proving he's ready to play a larger role.

3. Brock and roll: The season-long struggles Osweiler experienced became readily apparent in Week 3, his first loss as Houston's starter. He's coming off one of his most efficient performances in the wild-card win and appeared to trust his eyes more while also making a more concerted effort to feed WR DeAndre Hopkins. But the Texans can bank on Belichick trying to eliminate Hopkins and RB Lamar Miller (107 total yards in Week 3) as options while making Osweiler look for far less-reliable weapons. Hoping rookie WR Will Fuller or TEs C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin can punish the league's stingiest scoring defense is wishful thinking. Osweiler will have to find a way to get Hopkins or Miller heavily involved and probably hope for a few takeaways from his defense or a splash play or two on special teams for the Texans to have a prayer.

 

 

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS at ATLANTA FALCONS

When: Saturday, 3:35 p.m. (FOX)

Where: Atlanta's Georgia Dome

Line: Falcons by 3

1. Seattle's big test: The Seahawks survived their first playoff game without free safety Earl Thomas. But their upcoming matchup will be a massive test for a secondary that is still trying to figure out how to play without its star center fielder. With a powerful running game and deep-threat wide receivers, the Falcons have the type of offense that could really expose the Thomas-less Legion of Boom. The pressure will be on Thomas’ replacement, Steven Terrell, to not get caught out of position.

2. Jones vs. Sherman, Part II: Get ready to relive the Week 6 matchup between Falcons receiver Julio Jones and Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, and the infamous non-call against Sherman on a deep ball for Jones late in the fourth quarter. Replays showed Sherman grabbing Jones' arm, but he was not flagged for pass interference on a play that could have put Atlanta into field-goal position in a game Seattle eventually won 26-24. But this matchup is bigger than just that one play. Jones had seven catches for 139 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting, and it will be interesting to see if the Seahawks once against assign Sherman to shadow Jones all over the field and how Thomas' absence will impact matters.

3. Focus on Ryan: Falcons QB Matt Ryan was named first-team all-pro last week ahead of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, making him the front-runner to win the MVP award in a few weeks. Ryan earned his all-pro nod based on his ridiculous regular season (4,944 yards, 69.9% completion rate, 38 touchdown passes, 7 interceptions, league-best 117.1 passer rating). But it would certainly quiet his naysayers if he can finally find some playoff success. He has just one postseason win in five playoff appearances — against Seattle, coincidentally, in 2012 — and needs to prove he can shine when it really counts to garner even more respect.

Best of NFL Playoffs: Cheerleaders

WILD CARD WEEKEND

GAME RECAPS

Best of NFL Wild Card Weekend: Giants at Packers

GREEN BAY PACKERS 38, NEW YORK GIANTS 13

Aaron Rodgers heats up, slings Packers past Giants in wild-card win

Aaron Rodgers didn't let a slow start in Sunday's wild-card game derail the Green Bay Packers' postseason.

Rodgers shook off early struggles to throw four touchdown passes, three of which went to Randall Cobb, and rally the Packers to a 38-13 win over the New York Giants. He finished with 362 yards on 25-of-40 passing.

Green Bay advances to face the top-seeded Dallas Cowboys next Sunday. The Atlanta Falcons will host the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday in the NFC's other divisional matchup.

Rodgers was largely stonewalled in the first half before the Packers' final two drives. But he found Davante Adams on an 8-yard touchdown and then uncorked a 42-yard Hail Mary to Cobb in the back of the end zone to put the Packers up 14-6 at halftime.

 

 

Packers coach Mike McCarthy came under fire after Green Bay was stuffed on a fourth-and-inches run on its own 43-yard line. Eli Manning found Tavarres King for a 41-yard touchdown two plays later to cut the Packers' lead to one, but Rodgers connected with Cobb on a 30-yard scoring strike on the ensuing drive.

 

 

Cobb then tied the franchise and NFL record for touchdown catches in a playoff game when he hauled in his third on a 16-yard catch. Rodgers also tied his career playoff high with his four touchdowns.

New York struggled to keep pace with Rodgers after he broke out. Wide recevier Odell Beckham Jr. struggled with drops throughout the game and finished with just four catches for 28 yards.

Best of NFL Wild Card Weekend: Dolphins at Steelers

PITTSBURGH STEELERS 30, MIAMI DOLPHINS 12

Steelers torch Dolphins in wild-card win, will face Chiefs next

One playoff game, one franchise record.

That sums up the essence of Le’Veon Bell’s postseason debut, as the versatile Pittsburgh Steelers running back ran roughshod over the Miami Dolphins to spark a 30-12 rout.

With 167 yards on 29 carries, including two touchdowns, Bell broke the single-game franchise postseason rushing mark by Franco Harris that stood for nearly 42 years. Harris rushed for 158 yards against the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX in 1975.

 

 

Bell, sidelined by injuries during the playoffs following his first two seasons, waited a long time in his own right for the chance to make a mark on the postseason. He hardly wasted the opportunity after Antonio Brown provided the Steelers with a two-touchdown lead within the first nine minutes of the game – on catch-and-run TD jaunts of 50 and 62 yards – to allow Pittsburgh to spend the rest of the afternoon at Heinz Field squashing Miami’s attempts to make a game of it.

Pittsburgh avenged a 30-15 Week 6 loss at Miami to set up another rematch in the AFC divisional playoffs at Kansas City next Sunday. The Steelers hammered the Chiefs 43-14 in Week 4.

In blasting Miami, the Steelers put the clamps on running back Jay Ajayi to go with a timely barrage of big plays. Ajayi, who stung Pittsburgh for 204 rushing yards in October, managed just 33 yards on 16 carries on Sunday against an active, fast, sure-tackling defense. The big plays came with Miami drives thwarted by two Matt Moore fumbles on sacks deep inside Steelers territory.

Bell, meanwhile was the steadying force for an offense that effectively chewed the clock while its running back moved the chains ... and set a new standard for the record book.

Best of NFL Wild Card Weekend: Lions at Seahawks

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS 26, DETROIT LIONS 6

Seahawks regain bruising offensive identity in wild-card win over Lions

The Seattle Seahawks spent so much of the regular season trying to find an offensive identity, and it was a struggle at times, with injury after injury to quarterback Russell Wilson, a green offensive line and inconsistent running game.

But just in time for the playoffs, the Seahawks seem to have finally found that identity, and it turns out, it’s almost exactly the same as the old one.

The Seahawks team that beat the Detroit Lions 26-6 in the wild-card round of the NFC playoffs had a vintage Seahawks feel. If they’re going to make another deep playoff run, they’ll need to do it with a run-first offense, just like they were for all those years with Marshawn Lynch, and let all those rushing attempts set up big passing plays.

Seattle rushed for 177 yards Saturday night against Detroit, including 161 and a touchdown from second-year tailback Thomas Rawls, who is finally looking like the true successor to Lynch, who retired after last season.

Lynch has made sporadic appearances in Seattle this season, showing up at CenturyLink Stadium for an occasional game, or dropping in on his former teammates at their training facility in Renton. He stopped by to talk to Rawls late last month. Rawls said Lynch just wanted to make sure Rawls’ "mind was right" as he headed into his first playoff game. Rawls suffered a broken ankle late last season and missed Seattle’s two postseason games.

His 161 yards was a season high, and a vast improvement over the past three games, when he had just 56 total yards on 37 attempts.

"We wanted to run the ball. We wanted to do it on the ground," Rawls said. "We wanted to stay true, and that’s exactly what we did and showed."

The Seahawks have had big offensive games before this season, but rarely has Seattle had the balance or consistency it found against the Lions.

"I’m telling you, that’s the game we’ve been looking for," head coach Pete Carroll said.

Having the constant threat of a running game will only aid Wilson, who threw for 224 yards and two touchdowns against the Lions. His first touchdown came on a 2-yard fade route to receiver Paul Richardson, who made one of the most spectacular one-handed catches of the season. Wilson’s second touchdown, caught by Doug Baldwin, was actually a mistake. Baldwin ran the wrong route and stole a touchdown that should have gone to teammate Jermaine Kearse.

 

 

"I feel terrible about it," Baldwin said.

But none of the chunk passing plays would have been possible without Rawls’ running. On the second-quarter drive that ended with Richardson’s touchdown, the Seahawks rushed the ball on eight consecutive snaps, including a fourth-and-one conversion by Rawls. The decision to run, and run and run again was made by offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell — and supported enthusiastically by the rest of the team.

"Everything runs through our run game," Baldwin said. "When Thomas Rawls is doing that, they can’t help but put another safety in the box and then that gives us one-on-one matchups on the outside. You saw Paul Richardson take advantage of it. Jermaine, myself. We had a lot of opportunities in the passing game because of what Thomas was doing on the ground."

Best of NFL Wild Card Weekend: Raiders at Texans

HOUSTON TEXANS 27, OAKLAND RAIDERS 14

Texans' defense shuts down Raiders for wild-card playoff win

They harassed him, they puzzled him, they intercepted him, and the Houston Texans’ defense smothered the Oakland Raiders and rookie quarterback Connor Cook.

Oakland snapped a 13-year streak without a postseason appearance, but the Raiders stumbled Saturday evening in their wild card round game against the Texans, 27-14, because of Houston’spass rush, downfield coverage, and third-down dominance.

And as either the New England Patriots or the Kansas City Chiefs loom in the divisional round next week, Houston showed that its defense is the unit on which its playoff future rests.

The mindset?

“It don’t take much,” defensive end Jadeveon Clowney told reporters after the game. “Just line up and hit them in the mouth.”

Clowney intercepted a pass inside Oakland’s 10-yard line to set up the first Texans' touchdown and finished the game with one tackle and two passes defended.

 

 

“It was huge,” Raiders running back Latavius Murray said of Clowney’s interception. “Coming out and opening up that drive that way, to give them the short field like that, it was obviously a big play for them.”

Despite not recording a sack, Clowney consistently rushed the passer and helped open up lanes for other Texans defenders. Linebacker Whitney Mercilus sacked Cook twice, and nose tackle D.J. Reader added one.

Cook, a rookie fourth-round pick, made his first career start in place of Derek Carr, who broke his leg Week 16.

Cook could never settle into a rhythm and completed only 18 of 45 passes for 161 yards, 1 touchdown, and 3 interceptions.

Houston stacked eight and nine defenders in the box for the majority of the game, daring Cook to make plays. The Texans stifled Oakland’s running game to only 64 yards, something they learned from their Week 11 loss to the Raiders in Mexico City.

“We were going to play our defense,” defensive end Antonio Smith said. “We knew their best chance to beat us was the run, because that’s what they tried to come out and establish in the first game, and we pretty much shut them down until the fourth quarter.”

Added Clowney: “We slapped them in the first game, and it got away in the fourth quarter.”

Houston restricted the Raiders to only two of 16 third-down conversions and forced Oakland to punt 10 times.

“We’re just trying to show the world that we’re good on defense,” cornerback A.J. Bouye said.

PREVIEW

NEW YORK GIANTS at GREEN BAY PACKERS

When: Sunday, 3:40 p.m. (FOX)

Where: Green Bay's Lambeau Field

Line: Packers (-4.5)

Injuries: Giants --  DE Jason Pierre-Paul (core muscle) is listed as questionable, but didn't practice all week and almost surely won't suit up. Packers -- FB Aaron Ripkowski (shoulder) questionable, CB Quinten Rollins (neck, concussion) and RB James Starks(concussion) are out and T Bryan Bulaga (abdomen), WR Randall Cobb (ankle), LB Nick Perry (hand), CB Damarious Randall (knee), LB Joe Thomas (back), C J.C. Tretter (knee) and FB Aaron Ripkowski (shoulder) are all questionable.

THREE THINGS TO KNOW

1. Familiar foe: Giants coach Ben McAdoo spent eight seasons as a Packers assistant, six as tight ends coach and the last two as Aaron Rodgers’ quarterbacks coach. He helped the Packers win a ring during Super Bowl XLV. And in Week 5 this season, Green Bay hosted the Giants and beat them 23-16. But the Giants stunned the Packers in the 2011 divisional round 37-20 en route to their last Super Bowl title. So these two teams are very familiar with each other.

2. Championship QBs: Between Rodgers and Giants quarterback Eli Manning, they own three Super Bowl titles, so experience in big-game situations isn’t an issue. But Rodgers is currently performing at a much higher level. He has played himself into the MVP race after throwing for a league-best 40 touchdowns versus only seven interceptions for a hot team that's won its past six games. Manning has plenty of talent, but he hasn’t been as sharp as usual. But one thing New York has to like? In his career, Manning has won both his playoff games at Lambeau, including the 2007 NFC Championship Game.

3. Expensive D: All that money Giants general manager Jerry Reese spent to lure defensive linemen Damon Harrison and Olivier Vernon, and cornerback Janoris Jenkins has proven to be well spent. The Giants are allowing only 17.8 points per game. And after a slow start, the pass rush has been ferocious, generating eight sacks in the last four games. Rodgers may be playing the best at his position in the league right now, but New York’s defense will be his toughest test yet. This might be the matchup that decides the game.

MIAMI DOLPHINS at PITTSBURGH STEELERS

When: Sunday, 12:05 p.m. (CBS)

Where: Pittsburgh's Heinz Field

Line: Steelers (-10)

Injuries: Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill (knee) isn't ready to play, and top CB Byron Maxwell (ankle) is doubtful. For Pittsburgh, S Robert Golden (ankle), TE Ladarius Green (concussion) and LB Vince Williams (shoulder) are all questionable.

THREE THINGS TO KNOW

1. Playoff rookies: The Dolphins are making their first postseason trip since 2008 under first-year head coach Adam Gase, so inexperience could be a factor. QB Matt Moore, now in his ninth season, has never taken a playoff snap, either. However Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell will also be making his playoff debut after injuries sidelined him for Pittsburgh's postseason runs the previous two years. Bell, a dual threat when rushing the ball or catching it, will be expected to make a significant impact against a Miami defense that has given up a ton of yards this season.

2. Jay train: After starting 1-4, the Dolphins' season took off in conjunction with the emergence of RB Jay Ajayi, who reeled off the first of his three 200-yard rushing efforts this year in a 30-15 Week 6 victory over the Steelers in South Florida. However there has been a feast-or-famine element to Ajayi, who has been held to fewer than 80 rushing yards 11 times and must once again crack a staunch Pittsburgh run defense that has had few other lapses this season.

3. Opportunity knocks: The Steelers have won just one playoff game since the start of the 2011 season. But in an AFC playoff bracket significantly depleted by starting quarterback issues, Ben Roethlisberger and Co. could emerge as the most formidable challenger to the top-seeded New England Patriots. Big Ben is 11-6 all-time in postseason, but most of his success occurred with the help of a historically staunch defense. Roethlisberger will be backed by Pittsburgh’s best D since previous coordinator Dick LeBeau departed, but he'll likely need to shake his inconsistency from the season's second half — the struggles started when he injured a knee in the October loss at Miami — and effectively trigger a talented offense if the Steelers are to finally build their Stairway to (Lombardi Trophy No.) Seven.

DETROIT LIONS at SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

When: Saturday, 7:15 p.m. (NBC)

Where: Seattle's CenturyLink Field

Line: Seahawks (-8)

Injuries: Detroit -- C Travis Swanson (concussion) is out. LB DeAndre Levy (knee), T Riley Reiff (hip), WR Andre Roberts (shoulder) and ) are questionable, but participated in practice the entire week. Seahawks -- DT Tony McDaniel (concussion) and RB C.J. Prosise (shoulder) will be inactive.

THREE THINGS TO KNOW

1. Sleepless in Seattle: The Seahawks enjoy what is currently the best home-field advantage in the NFL. CenturyLink Field requires a long flight and welcomes visitors with ear-splitting decibels that are known to cause false starts among near-deaf offensive linemen. The Seahawks have won their last nine home playoff games and have never tasted postseason defeat in Seattle under Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson. But the Lions aren't likely to be intimidated. They lost in Seattle 13-10 during a Monday night game in 2015 but were victimized by an officiating error when Seahawks LB K.J. Wright deliberately (and illegally) tapped the ball out of the end zone with less than two minutes to go. Seattle was erroneously awarded possession and ran out the clock.

2. Seahawks 2.0: Though hosting the wild-card round may give Seattle fans comfort, there are plenty of unknowns to consider with their team. This will be the first playoff game FS Earl Thomas has missed since he was drafted in 2010, and the Seahawks' usually formidable secondary will be vulnerable against a quarterback like Matthew Stafford, who has the arm strength to strike deep. This will also be the first time Wilson will be under center for a home playoff game without RB Marshawn Lynch behind him. Long reliant on a strong running game, Seattle struggled in 2016, failing to rush for at least 100 yards 10 times. Wilson can certainly carry this offense — provided he's not besieged behind vulnerable pass protection.

3. Lions tamed? For all of the Seahawks' issues, history is on their side. Detroit hasn't won a playoff game since 1991. The Lions' last postseason road win occurred in — wait for it — 1957. Offensively, Detroit's running game is almost non-existent. Defensively, the Lions are quite vulnerable through the air, partially because they struggle to generate adequate pressure — though pass rushers like Ziggy Ansah and Kerry Hyder should be able to exploit Seattle's tackles. Still, Stafford will probably have to pitch a nearly perfect game to even give his team a shot.

OAKLAND RAIDERS at HOUSTON TEXANS

When: Saturday, 3:35 p.m. (ESPN)

Where: Houston’s NRG Stadium

Line: Texans (-3.5)

Inactives: Raiders: Derek Carr, Nate Allen, Antonio HamiltonDonald PennVadal AlexanderJihad Ward, Branden Jackson. Texans: QB Savage, CB Rice,  ILB Simon, ILB Bullough, G Walker, WR Williams, DE Kamalu

THREE THINGS TO KNOW

1. New quarterbacks: Both teams are making late-season adjustments at quarterback. Houston is turning back to Osweiler, who was previously benched for Savage in Week 15. But Savage suffered a concussion in the regular-season finale and now will only serve as a backup if he clears the league's protocol. For the Raiders, the quarterback switch is the second in as many weeks. Rookie quarterback Connor Cook will become the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to make his first start in the playoffs. Matt McGloin suffered a left shoulder injury in the regular-season finale while filling in for MVP candidate Derek Carr, who suffered a broken fibula in Week 16. Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said McGloin could be healthy enough to be back up Cook on Saturday.

2. Mack vs. Clowney: In 2014, the Texans made Jadaveon Clowney the No. 1 overall pick. But maybe they should have taken Khalil Mack instead. While Clowney has finally emerged this year after two injury-plagued seasons, Mack has already developed into one of the NFL’s best pass rushers and is a leading candidate to win defensive player of the year. With questions on offense for both teams, this is a chance for both pass rushers to have big days – and their teams are certainly counting on it. Clowney could capitalize with Penn out.

3. O’Brien hot seat: The Texans are seeking some playoff redemption after a 30-0 blowout loss to the Kansas City Chiefs at NRG Stadium last year. That flop, combined with the failure of Osweiler, has put plenty of pressure on head coach Bill O’Brien. It’s rare that a coach gets fired after consecutive playoff appearances, but the Texans might be at the point where change could come with another early postseason exit.

 

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