NFL Playoffs on Sling: Green Bay Is Peaking, But Their Road to the Super Bowl Goes Through Dallas; Steelers Battle Chiefs; Seattle Soars Into Atlanta
Seattle Seahawks (11-5-1) vs Atlanta Falcons (12-4)
4:35pm ET on FOX
In the span of three hours, Seahawks receiver Paul Richardson put together a highlight reel, running back Thomas Rawls had his best day of the season, and Doug Baldwin grabbed a hold of every ball within an arm’s length of him, as Seattle beat the Detroit Lions 26-6 in the opening round of the playoffs. Midway through the 2nd quarter, Richardson wrapped an arm around his defender for a one-handed basket catch – despite a flag for defensive pass interference – in the end zone for the first score of the game. He would again overcome pass interference to make another one-hander in the 4th quarter to move Seattle into Detroit territory. Four plays later, Baldwin would a make a circus of his own, somehow trapping the ball between his hand and his butt as he fell to the ground. A couple plays later, Baldwin intercepted a pass in the end zone that had been intended for teammate Jermaine Kearse for the final score of the game. But it was Rawls who was the MVP, breaking tackles and juking defenders all day on his way to 161 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries, forcing the Lions defense to stay honest, and giving Russell Wilson enough time to work. Wilson completed 23 of 30 for 224 yards and a pair of touchdowns, though he was sacked 3 more times. Detroit managed just 231 total yards, as the Seattle defense wouldn’t let them get anything started, and the Lions hampered their own chances with a few too many dropped passes.
The Atlanta Falcons have spent the off weekreading all the glowing pieces about how they’ve got the best offense in the NFL, as they led the league in points (33.8), yards per play (6.7), and per-drive scoring rate (52.6), and tied for fewest turnovers (11). Ty Schalter at FiveThirthyEight.com credits much of the success to the acquisition of center Alex Mack, who in addition to bringing all kinds of intangibles, has seen the Falcons rushing game go from 1,606 yards to 1,928 yards, and yards per carry jump from 3.8 to 4.6. When you’re suddenly running the ball that much more efficiently, you’re gonna have a lot more freedom to let it fly, and QB Matt Ryan has made the most of it. Ryan’s enjoyed career-best marks in completion percentage (69.9), yards (4,944), touchdowns (38), interceptions (7), yards per attempt (9.3), passer rating (117.1) and QBR (85.3). Julio Jones had another Hall-of-Fame resume-building season, and Devonta Freeman again had 1,000 yards on the ground as well as 450+ receiving, but the big difference in the Falcons receiving corps was the addition of depth in the form of free agents Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel. Sanu caught 59 passes for 653 yards and 4 TDs, and Gabriel pulled in 35 catches for 579 yards and 6 TDs, giving Ryan a lot more options, while also forcing defenses not to cheat on Jones. With so many options at his disposal, Ryan was bound to find someone open. This could prove a huge problem for the Seahawks, whose secondary has been weakened by the loss of safety Earl Thomas. But the Falcons give up a ton of yards and points, especially against the pass, where the Seahawks are strongest, and their best defensive player, Vic Beasley, is struggling with a shoulder injury.
Pittsburgh (12-5) vs Kansas City (12-4)
1:05pm ET on NBC
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ three-headed monster bared all its fangs against the Dolphins, as Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown led the Steelers to a 30-12 victory and the next round of the playoffs. Big Ben hit on 13 of 18 passes for 197 yards and 2 TDs, Bell ran for 29 times for 167 yards and 2 TDs, ad Brown pulled in 5 passes for 124 yards and 2 TD in a game that saw the Fish fall behind by 14 points in the first 9 minutes. Roethlisberger did thrown a pair of picks, but one was on a pass off his receiver’s hands, and then other was late in the 4th, when the game was in hand, and he was being lazy. The Steelers defense turned in another crushing performance, sacking Miami QB Matt Moore 5 times, and opening the 2nd half by having the Dolphins go fumble, interception, 4-and-out on the first three possession, though they did allow Moore to complete 29 of 36 for 289 yards. Miami also killed themselves with penalties, as they got a little aggressive after Moore took a massive hit from Bud Dupree that earned him a flag and 15 yards for unnecessary roughness.
The Kansas City Chiefs took full advantage of Oakland QB Derek Carr’s broken leg to take control of the AFC West and earn themselves a week off ahead of Sunday’s showdown with the Steelers. The time off was much needed, as leading rusher Spencer Ware (921 yards, 3 TDs on 214 carries) is nursing some inured ribs, #3 receiver Jeremy Maclin suffered a sprained ankle in the season finale against the Chargers, and Justin Houston (4 sacks in 5 games this season) missed the last 2 games with a bum knee. Maclin is the biggest question mark, while Ware and Houston should be good to go. QB Alex Smith finished strong this season, completing 21 of 28 for 264 yards, 2 TDs and an interception in a 37-27 win over the Chargers, but this team lives and dies with its defense, which allowed just the seventh-fewest points in the league, despite giving up the ninth-most yards. They did by leading the league in turnovers with 33, taking the ball away from opponents on 16% of their possessions. They are more susceptible to the run than the pass, giving up more than 120 yards per game on the ground.
Roethlisberger had one of his best games ever against the Chiefs in October, completing 22 of 27 for 300 yards and 5 touchdowns, while Bell racked up 144 yards on just 18 carries. Assuming Roethlisberger’s ankle is OK, the Steelers are peaking at just the right time, and pose the biggest threat to the Patriots in the AFC.
Green Bay (11-6) vs Dallas (13-3)
4:40pm ET on FOX
Like the Steelers, the Green Bay Packers are putting it all together when it matters most, last week winning their seventh in a row, this one over the New York Giants, 38-13, in the NFC Wild Card round. After completing 25 of 40 for 362 yards and 4 TDs, Rodgers has now thrown 19 touchdowns and zero interceptions over his last 7 games. The Giants were in control for most of the first half, leading 6-0, though the were stung by an Odell Beckham Jr drop in the end zone midway through the 1st quarter, and on the very next play an Eli Manning pass that squirted through the hands and off the chest of Sterling Shepard. But it all came crashing down with in the last 4 minutes, as Rodgers completed a 31-yarder to Davante Adams to set up a 5-yard TD pass to him two plays later. After forcing the Giants to go 3-and-out, Green Bay got the ball back, got to midfield with 6 seconds on the clock, whereupon Rodgers unleashed a hail may that inexplicably found its way to Randall Cobb in the back of the end zone to make it 14-6 at the half. Green Bay would score two more quick TDs in the 4th quarter, the key play coming when Clay Matthews sacked Eli Manning, forcing a fumble, and then laid a hit on the Giants Paul Perkins to beat him to the ball and recover it the Green Bay 45. It was an ugly misplay by Perkins, who forgot one of the first rules of football: go until you hear the whistle.
Two months ago, this matchup would’ve looked like a laugher: the 9-1 Dallas Cowboys vs the 4-6 Packers. But the Packers haven’t lost a game since, while the ‘Boys have dropped a pair, though one was the season finale with nothing on the line, and several starters taking a rest. When these two teams faced each other in October, the Cowboys came out on top 30-16, riding huge performances from Dak Prescott – 18 of 27 for 247 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT – and Ezekiel Elliott – 157 yards on 28 carries. But that was a long time ago, back before Clay Matthews was healthy and Aaron Rodgers was clicking. Prescott and Elliott have been great this season, and should continue to put points on the board against Green Bay, but Dallas D is another story. Yes, they’ve held foes to just 19.1 ppg, fifth-best in the league, but they’re secondary has been soft, allowing 4,376 yards and 25 touchdowns vs just 9 interceptions.
Dallas was dominant all season – when they weren’t playing the Giants – but it’s hard to bet against a guy playing as well as Rodgers has been playing.
Watch the NFL Divisional Round of the playoffs on FOX and NBC on Sling Blue in select markets