We’re down to eight, after four division winners advanced through the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs.
Some quick thoughts on storylines to watch in next weekend’s four divisional playoff matchups – all rematches of games played in the regular season:
Another mentor-mentee matchup: Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots against Bill O’Brien’s Houston Texans, whose top-ranked defense led a 27-14 romp over the QB-challenged Oakland Raiders on Saturday. The Texans are 1-7 all-time against the Patriots and haven’t really been competitive in two matchups since the former Patriots assistant O’Brien arrived: a 27-6 loss last season and a 27-0 shutout Sept. 22 in which Patriots rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett made his first NFL start. Now Tom Brady is back to oppose Brock Osweiler, who was a spectator for the Denver Broncos’ AFC championship game win over the Patriots last January after losing his job to Peyton Manning. That didn’t stop Osweiler from getting $37 million fully guaranteed on a free-agent contract from the Houston Texans, and he’ll sure need to earn his money in this one.
Fight fire with fire
Led by NFL MVP candidate Matt Ryan, the Atlanta Falcons scored 71 points more than any other team this season. (Context: the Falcons’ 540 points matched the St. Louis Rams’ high mark when they had “The Greatest Show on Turf.”) The Seattle Seahawks remain one the NFL’s best and most talented defenses, as they showed in Saturday’s 26-6 shutdown of the Detroit Lions. The first matchup went back and forth Oct. 16, with Seattle rallying to beat the Falcons 26-24 in the final minutes. The last playoff meeting was wild, too – a 30-28 Falcons victory on Jan. 13, 2013. Atlanta lost the NFC championship game the next week against the San Francisco 49ers and hasn’t won a playoff game since; the Seahawks won the Super Bowl the following year and have become a perennial contender. Falcons coach Dan Quinn is in his second season after a stint as defensive coordinator – for the Seahawks under coach Pete Carroll.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was in a walking boot after Sunday’s 30-12 wild-card rout of the Miami Dolphins. He’ll play through just about anything. But it’ll be worth monitoring how much (if at all) Roethlisberger’s foot/ankle bother him against the Kansas City Chiefs, who are one win at Arrowhead Stadium away from their first AFC championship game since the 1993 season. Chiefs fans surely remember being in this spot: after the 1995 season, and 1997, and 2003. They had a first-round bye each of those years before losing in the divisional round – a streak coach Andy Reid’s crew will try to end. The Chiefs will need to start a lot faster than they did in the first meeting: a 43-14 Steelers rout on Oct. 2 in which Kansas City trailed 29-0 at halftime and Roethlisberger threw five TD passes.
The Dallas Cowboys haven’t gotten past the divisional round since the 1995 season. Their last playoff trip was snapped by the famous “Dez caught it” game against the Green Bay Packers two years ago. This run to a 13-3 record and the NFC’s No. 1 overall seed has seemed special, spurred by rookie sensations Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott. But what happens when the Dallas defense has to take on red-hot Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, who just throttled the New York Giants 38-13 for their seventh straight win? This isn’t the same outfit the Cowboys handled 30-16 on Oct. 16 at Lambeau Field. Quite a test for young Prescott making his first playoff start opposite a two-time NFL MVP playing at as high a level as Rodgers. Prescott has answered most every test so far, though, and he has a lot of help around him. Keep an eye on the status of Packers star receiver Jordy Nelson (ribs).