Divisional Round Preview — Sunday Games

Posted: 01/15/2017 by levcohen in Football

The Falcons and Patriots both won handily yesterday, albeit in different fashions. Atlanta was efficient and impressive against the Seahawks. They didn’t turn the ball over, they forced two Russell Wilson picks, and they got good play out of Matt Ryan (26-37 for 338 yards and three touchdowns). Their offense was as advertised, and their defense held up after getting torn apart on the game’s opening drive (which took almost nine minutes). New England was sloppy and lucky to be playing against Brock Osweiler’s Texans. I mentioned yesterday that the Brockening had a horrific yards-per-attempt number on the road. It didn’t get better after it took him 40 attempts to throw for 198 yards. Brock threw three picks, Lamar Miller ran for just 3.8 yards per carry, and Houston had three drives of more than 25 yards (those three drives yielded three points). But it was only 17-13 at halftime, and the Texans got the ball in the fourth quarter down just 24-16. Why? Because the Patriots played really poorly. Tom Brady threw two picks, Dion Lewis fumbled a kick return (he did return another for a touchdown), and the offensive line allowed a lot of hits on Brady. They ended up winning by 18 points, but that’s almost entirely because they were playing the Texans. The best thing that came out of the game for the Patriots was Lewis’s return to stardom (KRTD, receiving TD, rushing TD).

Green Bay Packers (11-6, 10-6-1) at Dallas Cowboys (13-3, 11-5):
Spread: Cowboys favored by 5.5
Over/under: 53
My prediction: Neither defense is going to have much success in this game. That’s not a bold statement, but I think it’s the only place to start. Jordy Nelson’s out for the Packers, but Aaron Rodgers is still going to pretty much have his way against Dallas’s pass defense. I made the mistake of picking against Rodgers last week, and it actually looked good for most of the first half. But then Rodgers threw a Hail Mary (his third successful one in the last 13 months) to end the first half, putting the Packers, who were clearly outplayed by the Giants in the first two quarters, up 14-6. The rest is history. Rodgers got hot in the third quarter, and the Packers won 38-13 despite being without Nelson, who broke a rib in the first half. Nelson’s a great player, but the Packers have other weapons. Randall Cobb and Davante Adams combined for 241 yards and four touchdowns last week against New York’s vaunted secondary, Geronimo Allison is good enough to make an impact as Nelson’s replacement, and Rodgers has an explosive tight end to throw to in Jared Cook. Throw in Ty Montgomery, a wide receiver-turned-running back who remains dangerous out of the backfield, and Rodgers should have plenty of targets to throw to. People think that Green Bay’s running game is pretty much a non-factor, and the Packers are the fourth most pass-happy team in the NFL. But they have had some success when they have decided to run the ball, largely because opposing defenses are so focused on Rodgers. This is where Sean Lee and Dallas’s linebackers are so important. No offense puts more strain on opposing linebackers than Green Bay’s, both because they run a lot of short and intermediate routes and because Rodgers is a threat to run. Lee is one of the best linebackers in the NFL, and he’ll be key to limiting GB’s success on the ground. The Packers are pretty darn good when they’re one-dimensional, but they’re impossible to stop when they have their running game going. I expect Green Bay to try to establish Montgomery and/or Christine Michael on the ground. The Giants did a good job of stopping them early last week, and the Cowboys have to do the same today. One largely unreported plus for Dallas’s defense: Morris Claiborne, who’s missed the last nine games with a groin injury, is back. Claiborne was their best corner before he got injured, allowing just 4.9 yards per target. His return allows the rest of the secondary to return to more comfortable positions. He will likely match up frequently against Adams, and slot corner Orlando Scandrick will see a lot of Cobb. Corner/safety hybrid Byron Jones, who’s covered tight ends well, will be tasked with slowing down Jared Cook. I think those are the three matchups which will define Green Bay’s offensive success. If Dallas can come close to holding the Cobb/Adams/Cook group to a draw, I think they’ll win this game handily. The problem is that Rodgers is so good at buying time that those three will likely find ways to eventually get open, even if the coverage on them is good.

The Cowboys’ offense is also pretty darn good. They’re the most balanced team in the NFL, throwing the ball just 50.6% of the time (the Packers are at 63.7%). That’s because they have Ezekiel Elliott and the best offensive line in the NFL. When these teams played in Week 6, the Packers were considered to be a top run defense, and for good reason. They had only given up 2.2 yards per carry in the first five weeks. Then Zeke burned them for 157 yards, and the Packers’ run defense was never the same. In a game in which time of possession figures to be so important, Dallas is going to be able to run the ball. I just can’t see Green Bay slowing Zeke down. That’ll take pressure off of Dak Prescott, the rookie phenom who’s been so consistent this season. Dak will probably have a few rookie moments in this game, but it might not matter. That’s how good the o-line and the skill-position talent surrounding Prescott are. We saw in the first half of last week’s game that the Giants’ receivers were able to consistently get open. They weren’t able to capitalize, both due to drops and bad passes. Dallas will capitalize.

If the Packers have another first half like they had last week, they’re toast. The 38-13 score is a completely inaccurate representation of how that game went. The Packers are playing well right now, especially offensively, but the Giants left a lot of points on the table and the Packers scored seven on a Hail Mary and seven more on a garbage-time touchdown. The Cowboys are clearly the better team, and they should be able to control the time of possession battle at home. Still, I can’t lay 5.5 points against Aaron Rodgers. Cowboys win 31-27.
Packers cover
Over

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-5, 10-7) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4, 9-7):
Spread: Chiefs favored by 2
Over/under: 44.5
My prediction: This game was originally supposed to be at 1:00, but it was pushed back to 8:25 due to a massive ice storm. That also explains why the over/under seems a little low — it opened at 46.5 and probably would have moved up rather than down if not for the weather. Luckily, both of these teams seem well-equipped to play in the cold. Ben Roethlisberger is 22-7 in games played in freezing weather and 6-1 in the playoffs after beating the Dolphins in the cold last week. He’s big, and he has big hands and a big arm. That generally leads to more success (or rather less of a drop-off) in cold weather. And the Chiefs have played well in bad weather this year, notably beating up on the healthy Raiders in the rain early in the season.

The Steelers’ biggest advantage in this game is Le’Veon Bell. He’s quite a weapon to have, and he’s going to get the ball a lot. He carried it 29 times for 167 yards and two touchdowns last week, and I’ll be surprised if he isn’t force-fed 25+ touches again. Bell’s first game this season was against the Chiefs in a game the Steelers won 43-14 in Pittsburgh. He carried the ball 18 times for 144 yards in that one. About that previous encounter: what does it mean for this game? Probably not that much. It happened in Week 4, which is a looong time ago. These teams are both totally different now than they were three and a half months ago. That’s not to say that the Steelers’ offense won’t be able to move the ball tonight. They probably will have some success, and Bell will certainly move the chains early and often. But I wouldn’t expect another 22-27 with 300 yards and five TDs (good for a 152.5 passer rating) game from Roethlisberger.

Bell’s amazingness is a bad sign for Kansas City’s #26 run defense. But there are elements of this matchup that play to KC’s defense’s strength. They’re healthy now, with Justin Houston and Eric Berry both set to suit up. Houston has played four full games this year and has four sacks. If he’s healthy and can get after Roethlisberger, the Chiefs have a huge weapon. Another good sign for the Chiefs: Roethlisberger’s been turning the ball over. He’s now thrown seven picks in his last four games and also leads the league with 13 dropped interceptions (per Football Outsiders). The Chiefs tied for the NFL lead with 18 picks this year and generated a league-high 33 takeaways. Marcus Peters and Eric Berry are difference-makers who take the ball away and give the Chiefs easy points. That’s how they’ve won games all year, and it’s something Roethlisberger has struggled with of late. That’s why I expect Pittsburgh to be even more run-heavy than usual. Ben only attempted 18 passes last week, and two were picked. Bell carried the ball 1.6 times per Roesthlisberger attempt. That’s a ratio that was possible last week because the Steelers led for the entire game. The key for Kansas City is to jump out to an early lead and force Roethlisberger to throw it. By the way, I haven’t mentioned Antonio Brown yet. He’s really good. But for this particular matchup, I think he’s the least important of Pittsburgh’s three Bs. He’ll make a few big plays, but he’s seen the ball a lot less this year than in the last few, leading to a four year low in catches and targets.

Much like the Steelers, the Chiefs have two offensive difference-makers. Tyreke Hill and Travis Kelce aren’t as heralded (or, frankly, good) as Bell and Brown, but they’ve had a similar impact over the last couple of months. Kelce’s put up five 100+ yard games in the last seven, and he’s catching an absurd 73% of his targets. Then there’s Hill, who’s got to be the fastest player in the NFL and who can change the game with a single rush, reception, or return. Alex Smith has played in five playoff games, and he’s been really good in those five, with 11 TDs, one pick, and a 99.1 passer rating. So Smith is unlikely to turn over the football, and he’s also been a threat on the ground in the playoffs (39.6 yards per game). The Chiefs should be good for 20-26 points and very few mistakes. But the game will really be determined by what the Steelers do when they get the ball.

A few more things before I make my prediction. Andy Reid is 19-2 in his career after a BYE and 13-1 at home. I’m not saying this matters that much, but do you really want to best against that? And Ben Roethlisberger has some serious home/road splits. Since 2013, he’s averaging just 7.3 yards per attempt and has thrown 38 touchdowns against 29 interceptions in 32 road games (the Steelers are 17-15 in those games). At home, he’s averaging 8.4 yards per attempt and has thrown 76 touchdowns against 27 interceptions in 30 games (Steelers are 22-8). A few sloppy plays from Roethlisberger, who’s made his fair share of errors over the last few games, could be the difference in this game against a very fundamentally sound and healthy Chiefs team. Chiefs win 23-20.
Chiefs cover
Under

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