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The NFL Division Playoff Games to Watch (and skip) This Weekend

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imrsfrontThe NFL’s wild-card weekend gave us three rather blah contests and another

(Packers-Giants) that was competitive for about a half until Aaron Rodgers unleashed the Hail Mary fury and sent New York into an offseason of boat talk and questions about just how much time Eli Manning has left.But we’ve moved on, and the second round of the playoffs hopefully will give us some more competitive, compelling matchups. Last year’s divisional games, for instance, all were decided by either six or seven points, and while there were two double-digit victories in the 2014-15 postseason, one of them was an 11-point Indianapolis win over Denver in which the visiting Colts were 9.5-point underdogs. Upsets are fun and should be encouraged.

With that in mind, here’s how we’re ranking this weekend’s division games in terms of watchability and presumed competitiveness, in descending order.

All times Eastern. All point spreads taken Wednesday morning from the consensus lines at VegasInsider.com. All picks made for entertainment and humor reasons only (3-1 last week, though!).

[Neil Greenberg’s Fancy Stats picks, division-round version: Patriots to cover that big number]

4. PATRIOTS (-16) VS. TEXANS

Time, TV: 8:15 p.m. Saturday, CBS.

As you can see from the point spread, one of the biggest in NFL playoff history, the presumption here is that this one isn’t going to be close, and there are lots of reasons to assume this to be true. The Texans have never won in New England, losing their four games there by a combined 101 points. One of those games was a 27-0 Patriots victory in Week 3, back when Tom Brady still was suspended and Jacoby Brissett was New England’s quarterback. There’s also the not-insignificant matter of Houston’s offense, which hasn’t shown any sign that it will be able to keep up with the Patriots on the scoreboard, and its miscues on special teams: The Texans fumbled away two kickoffs in the regular season meeting against New England, leading to 14 Patriots points. One of those fumbles was by rookie Tyler Ervin, who fumbled two punt returns in last weekend’s playoff win over the Raiders (both were recovered by Houston, however). The Texans’ defense is quite stout, yes, but it shuts down a Raiders offense that was without its top two quarterbacks, a Pro Bowl offensive lineman in injured left tackle Donald Penn and, eventually, starting center Rodney Hudson, who left the game with an injury. Apart from tight end Rob Gronkowski, who’s been more or less out since mid-November, the Patriots are at full strength and rested off the playoff bye.

— Since 2000, favorites of at least 16 points have gone just 12-22-2 against the spread.

— With Tom Brady at quarterback, the Patriots are 22-9 straight-up in the playoffs but just 14-17 against the spread.

Against-the-spread pick: Texans.

T-2. FALCONS (-5) VS. SEAHAWKS

Time, TV: 4:35 p.m. Saturday, Fox.

Here’s what people remember about Seattle’s win over Detroit in the wild-card round last weekend: The Seahawks’ offensive line, ranked as one of the worst in the league in the regular season, cleared the way for running back Thomas Rawls to rush for 161 yards and a score, and Seattle scored a 20-point victory over the Detroit Lions. Here’s what people already have forgotten: The Seahawks’ led just 10-6 entering the fourth quarter and pulled away thanks in part to Detroit miscues (dropped passes, untimely penalties, etc.). Nonetheless, Seattle will need a similar recipe to beat Atlanta, which has had its issues defending the run this season but did well in the teams’ regular season meeting, holding the Seahawks to 72 rushing yards (Christine Michael, who is no longer on the team, had 64 of them, 21 coming on one carry). Led by potential MVP Matt Ryan at quarterback, the Falcons put up historic numbers on offense against a fairly tough schedule: In six games against the Broncos, Seahawks, Cardinals, Chiefs and Buccaneers (twice) — all teams ranking in the top 13 in DVOA pass defense — Atlanta averaged 30 points per game, with Ryan throwing for a combined 13 touchdowns and just three interceptions.

— With Russell Wilson at quarterback, the Seahawks are 12-4 ATS as underdogs.

— With Ryan at quarterback, the Falcons have gone 0-5 ATS in the playoffs.

Against-the-spread pick: Falcons.

T-2. CHIEFS (-1.5) VS. STEELERS

Time, TV: 1:05 p.m. Sunday, NBC.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger caused a stir following last weekend’s win over the Dolphins when he showed up to his news conference in a walking boot, the result of a hit he took while dropping back for a pass with the Steelers up 30-12 in the fourth quarter (related: why was he doing that?). But he’s said all week that the injury wasn’t serious and he was spotted at practice Wednesday walking without a limp, so it appears he’ll be fine against a team he torched for five touchdown passes in Week 5. Running back Le’Veon Bell didn’t find the end zone in the Steelers’ 43-14 win, but he still averaged eight yards per carry and finished with 144 rushing yards. On the flip side, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith is just 2-3 in his playoff career as a starter, but the losses have come by an average of 3.7 points and he’s compiled a 99.1 passer rating in the postseason (only Bart Starr, Kurt Warner, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees have a better playoff rating), with 11 touchdown passes and just one interception. Smith threw the ball 50 times in the regular season matchup against the Steelers, but that was mostly the result of Pittsburgh jumping to a lead that was 22-0 in the first quarter and 36-0 by the fourth quarter.

— Under Coach Andy Reid, the Chiefs are just 13-18 ATS at home.

— With Roethlisberger at quarterback, the Steelers are 10-5 ATS in the playoffs (3-1 ATS as an underdog).

Against-the-spread pick: Steelers.

1. COWBOYS (-4.5) VS. PACKERS

Time, TV: 4:40 p.m. Sunday, Fox.

Finally, the main event, a matchup that should have Fox executives drooling because of the TV rating it’ll likely draw. In one corner, the Cowboys, their resurgence fueled by two stud rookies and with a fresh truckload of new bandwagon fans. In the other, the Packers and Aaron Rodgers, who over his last eight games has thrown for 22 touchdowns and zero interceptions but will probably be without top wide receiver target Jordy Nelson, who busted two ribs against the Giants last weekend. Randall Cobb, however, is back to full strength and had a three-touchdown performance against New York. Rodgers didn’t have an exceptional game in the teams’ regular season matchup — a 30-16 Cowboys win in Week 6 — but that was during the time of the season when Green Bay wasn’t running the ball well with Eddie Lacy, who’s been replaced by Ty Montgomery and Christine Michael with good results. Dallas’s much-lauded offensive line took a hit in Week 16 when left tackle Tyron Smith sprained his medial collateral ligament against the Lions, but he returned to practice on Wednesday; his health could be crucial if Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and Co. want to get going against a Green Bay defense that’s allowed 13 points or fewer in four of the seven games on the Packers’ current winning streak.

Source: Washington Post

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