Divisional Round Preview — Saturday Games

Posted: 01/13/2017 by levcohen in Football

There are seven football games left this season. That’s pretty sad. But I think the weekend of the divisional round games is arguably the best football weekend of the year. There are still four games, which is plenty of football to watch, and the four games are always much higher-quality than the first round’s four games, when the two best teams in each conference have the week off. The Raiders, Lions, Dolphins, and Giants are all out after losing by an average of 19 points. There’s just one bad team left (the Texans), so I’m expecting (and praying for) much better games this week. With the exception of the Texans-Patriots game, I could see every game going down to the wire. Weirdly enough, the public is betting heavily on the underdogs. That’s because Green Bay, Seattle, and Pittsburgh, three very popular and successful teams, are on the road against Dallas, Atlanta, and Kansas City, who have had less success in the past. Home teams have romped in this round in the past, going 16-4 in the last five years. After a week in which all four home teams won, though, it feels like it won’t happen again. I’m pretty confident that at least one upset is going to happen. It just might not be tomorrow.

Seattle Seahawks (11-5-1, 8-9) at Atlanta Falcons (11-5, 11-5):
Spread: Falcons favored by 4.5
Over/under: 51.5
My prediction: If this game is anywhere near as good as the first one between these two teams, we’re in for a treat. Back on October 17th, the Seahawks edged the Falcons in Seattle 26-24 on Steven Hauschka’s go-ahead field goal with 1:57 left. That game was a blowout in the first half — the Seahawks led 17-3 at halftime, with the Falcons gaining just 91 yards and (MVP favorite) Matt Ryan getting sacked four times. But then Atlanta’s dangerous offense woke up, and the Falcons scored 21 straight points in the third quarter. Ryan threw for 225 yards and three touchdowns in the third quarter. Then came what was almost certainly the worst and most consequential missed pass interference call of the season, and the Falcons lost the game. If I were a Falcons fan, that game would give me confidence about Atlanta’s chances in this one. The fact that they were so competitive (and arguably were the better team) in Seattle is very encouraging. The Seahawks also had Earl Thomas that game. They don’t now, and Atlanta might be the worst possible opponent for a team missing Earl Thomas. The Seahawks have been historically great at limiting deep passes with Thomas at free safety. Ryan burned them for two 35+ yard touchdowns, but that was simply a testament to how great Ryan and the Falcons offense have been at connecting on deep passes. Consider this: In ten games with Thomas, the Seahawks allowed 7.0 yards per pass with eight touchdowns and nine interceptions. In six games without him, they allowed 7.8 yards per pass with eight touchdowns and two interceptions. They were third in DVOA against the pass with Thomas and 30th without him. That didn’t really matter against the Lions, largely because Matthew Stafford was playing hurt and was under pressure for the entire game. It will matter against an Atlanta offense that was the best in football this year. The Seahawks are going to put Richard Sherman on Julio Jones. Sherman’s a great corner, but Jones is unstoppable. In the first matchup between these teams (again, that was with Thomas’s help over the top), Jones caught seven balls for 139 yards and a touchdown. The reason Atlanta’s offense is so dangerous, though, is that they have so many weapons outside of Jones. Julio missed two games this year, but it didn’t seem to matter that much. They have Mohamed Sanu, a solid possession receiver, and Taylor Gabriel, a dynamic deep threat. They also have two tremendous pass-catching backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who are the offense’s second and third most explosive offensive weapons. I expect the Falcons to test the Seahawks deep, and I also think they’ll be able to consistently move the ball through the air as long as Ryan is protected. That really is the key. Can the Seahawks pressure Ryan like they did in the first half of that first game? Or will he have as much time to throw as he has for most of the season? Seattle has a legitimate chance to slow down Atlanta’s run game, especially since Kam Chancellor is healthy (he didn’t play in the first matchup between these teams). But as long as Freeman and Coleman can remain factors (either running the ball or catching screen passes), Ryan should have enough options to put up big numbers for a team that’s put up 28+ points in nine of the last 10 games.

On the other side of the ball, I think it’s fair to be worried about Seattle’s offense on the road. They’re averaging just 15.9 points per game away from home and are just 3-4-1 outside of Seattle. Luckily, they have as good of a matchup as they could have hoped for in the playoffs. Atlanta has one of the worst defenses in the NFL. They’re especially weak against the run, which is bad news against a running back (Thomas Rawls) who seemed to find his mojo last week against the Lions. Russell Wilson will make things happen, but he’ll only be able to keep up with the Falcons if the offensive line, which has been so bad all season, blocks as well as it did against the Lions. It’s true that Atlanta’s defense is soft, but unlike the Lions they also have a defensive difference-maker. That’s Vic Beasley, who paced the NFL with 15.5 sacks this season. Beasley has an ideal matchup against right tackle Garry Gilliam, and I expect him to wreak havoc on Wilson and Rawls.

Both teams should be able to score in this game, but I’m picking Atlanta to win. Earl Thomas’s absence will be huge in this one, as will Matt Ryan’s ability to spread the ball around. I’m not that confident in the Falcons’ inexperienced defense against Russell Wilson, but they don’t have to do that much to win this game. Falcons win 30-23.

Falcons cover
Over

Houston Texans (10-7, 8-8-1) at New England Patriots (14-2, 13-3):
Spread: Patriots favored by 16
Over/under: 44.5
My prediction: The Texans are a bad football team. I’ve been saying this all season, and I’m going to keep saying it. Ok, so they beat a team starting a rookie third string quarterback by 13 points. So what? It still took Lamar Miller 31 carries to pick up 73 yards against the #18 DVOA run defense. The Patriots are the #4 DVOA run defense. In order to win this game, the Texans are going to need Brock Osweiler to go into Foxborough and carry them to victory. Now, Osweiler was fine last week against the Raiders. He made a few really nice throws and didn’t turn the ball over. He even managed to get DeAndre Hopkins the ball five times (still not enough, but oh well). But that was at home against an Oakland defense that’s struggled all season. This is in the New England cold (24 degrees) in a hostile environment. In Week 3, the Texans travelled to New England to take on a Patriots team led by third string quarterback Jacoby Brissett. The Texans were even briefly favored before the game. They lost 27-0, as Osweiler went 24-41 for 196 yards and an interception. The Brockening is averaging 5.04 yards per attempt away from home. To put that in perspective, Matt Ryan averaged 9.26 yards per attempt this year and Brady averaged 8.88 at home. Osweiler’s 5.80 yards per attempt overall easily ranked last among qualified quarterbacks, so 5.04 is really, really, really bad.

And yet… 16 points is a lot, especially against a defense that’s been pretty hot. Bill Belichick will gameplan to stop Jadeveon Clowney, and he’ll probably succeed, but Houston has other defensive weapons and could make things at least a little difficult for the Patriots. I don’t think Tom Brady is going to have 300 yards and four touchdowns by halftime. But that’s about as far as I’m willing to go, because Brady is so good and has so many weapons. Rob Gronkowski is still out (that might come back to hurt them later in the playoffs), but Martellus Bennett is healthier, and Julian Edelman, James White, and Dion Lewis are still around (I’m predicting a big game from Lewis, by the way). The Patriots also now have Michael Floyd, a redzone target who can make big plays. And they can get four yards and a cloud of dust whenever they want with a LeGarrette Blount run.

Can the Texans win? Don’t be silly. Can they keep things close-ish? I guess, if they can string together a few successful drives (get the ball in Hopkins’ hands!) and if they can make Brady feel uncomfortable. I was going to pick the Texans to cover, but then I realized that the worst possible feeling would be picking Brock Osweiler to keep things close against Tom Brady and then looking up in the fourth quarter to see a 34-3 score. Patriots win 34-9.
Patriots cover
Under

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