AFC divisional round game 1: No. 4 Houston Texans at No. 1 New England Patriots
Jon: The Texans’ defense has plenty of pass rushing weapons with Whitney Mercilus who leads the team with 7.5 sacks this season and Jadeveon Clowney who leads the team with 12 tackles for a loss. This defense is going to have to get after Tom Brady early and often to make him hurry into bad throws and keep the Patriots’ potent offense off the field. However, New England has been here before. Every year for the last five years actually, and they are coming off of a bye week. If the Patriots’ defense even just plays solid, and makes playoff rookie quarterback Brock Osweiler feel uncomfortable in the pocket this should be a lock for the Pats. Overall, the Pats are one week healthier to make them even more explosive and Brady is keen on completing the “one for the thumb” campaign, and the Texans are not the team who will stop this playoff push.
Christian: While the Texans and their number one defense has been impressive, the Patriots have a winning pedigree and a tendency to deal with strong defenses in the playoffs. While the supporting cast around him may be rather weak, the Patriots’ offense should be able to find enough answers to not fall behind. On the other hand, the Texans’ offense has been questionable all season has not been able to consistently produce at all this season, making it tough to trust a J.J. Watt-less Texans team.
Jaryd: The Patriots enter the game as 16-point favorites, which is the highest record for any Patriots’ squad to this date. They also enter Saturday’s game with (extra) criticism toward the lackluster quarterbacks New England has faced off against for the majority of the regular season. Well the AFC East champs might as well rack up more hate mail since they won’t face a good quarterback until the championship game. That being said, Brock Osweiler has yet to prove that he’s worth the four-year $72 million contract, and is set to start in his first ever playoff game against a veteran Patriots team. On top of that, Osweiler actually has a winning record of 1-0 against Brady during the Denver stint — but that stat in and of itself is just extra motivation for Brady to use to dismantle Houston’s defense.
AFC divisional round game 2: No. 3 Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 2 Kansas City Chiefs
Jon: At this point the two facts I am most sure of is water is wet and Le’Veon Bell is the best running back in the league. The Steelers can absolutely take advantage of Kansas City’s number 26 rushing defense to try and open up the field for Antonio Brown to do his fair share of damage to the number 19 Kansas City secondary. Ben Roethlisberger likely will not mismanage this game at all, so the Chiefs won’t have many mistakes to capitalize on. With that said, Alex Smith is shifty and Andy Reid is a seasoned playoff head coach who has had a whole extra week to plan for this game. The Steelers are going to have to find a way to keep Smith’s favorite target, tight end Travis Kelce, from getting open as well as keeping Tyreek Hill and his amazing speed out of the open field. Ultimately, I think that Pittsburg finds a way to get it done.
Christian: The Steelers have Antonio Brown and Le’veon Bell. The Chiefs are so inconsistent that they fell to the Bucs at home, and never seem to be able to blow people out of the water or win in a convincing fashion against teams they have far more talent than. The Steelers are not a team you can put into that category, which may make it tough for the Chiefs to truly gain any momentum on them, despite having home field advantage.
Jaryd: The Steelers are riding an eight-game winning streak coming into Sunday’s matchup and it appears that streak will not be broken during the divisional round. Both quarterbacks for each respective team are yet to return to the conference championship game over the past five years — with Roethlisberger’s last appearance being in 2010, and Alex Smith’s last being in the 2012 NFC Championship game as a 49er. I expect Smith to have his usual on-par or slightly above-par performance, as well as Tyreek Hill to have an absolutely monstrous game. But I think the trifecta of Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown will just be too much for the Chiefs to manage.
NFC divisional round game 1: No. 3 Seattle Seahawks at No. 2 Atlanta Falcons
Jon: The Seahawks have certainly underperformed this season on both sides of the ball, but they seemed to regain their identity late into the season and in a wild card game. Atlanta on the other hand has been lighting up the league with the number three ranked passing offense in the league with 295.3 yards per game. Julio Jones has been a fierce weapon all season long for the Falcons who also has a pretty productive running back in Devonta Freeman. The Seahawks’ defense just does not have as much boom as it used to and Atlanta is going to exploit that for the win.
Christian: The Seahawks’ defense has been one of the strongest in the league for several years. While that defense is somewhat hindered by the loss of Earl Thomas, I don’t see that deterring Seattle from stopping an Atlanta team that can be very one dimensional at times. In a battle of offense and defense, the saying goes, “offense wins games, defense wins championships.”
Jaryd: MVP-candidate Matt Ryan has experienced great regular season success by running the NFL’s number one-ranked total offense, as well as throwing for 4,944 yds and 38 touchdowns. The Falcons are extremely efficient on offense, but also rank 27th in total defense. As for Seattle, Marshawn Lynch coming out of retirement would be greatly appreciated as they rank 25th in the league in rushing yards. Seattle’s offense has been extremely average this season, and quite frankly, they rely on Russell Wilson too much to get their offense going. However, Wilson has a knack for bailing out Seattle in key situations, especially during the playoffs. Seattle’s consistency in the playoffs, as well as Atlanta’s lack thereof, will be the deciding factor in Seattle inching out a win in Atlanta.
NFC divisional round game 2: No. 4 Green Bay Packers at No. 1 Dallas Cowboys
Jon: Dallas is placing all of their playoff hopes on two rookies, quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott. They will of course have help from wideout Dez Bryant, who has an abysmal catch rate of 52 percent. While the Cowboys may run the ball very well (ranked number 3 in the league) they defend the pass horribly, ranked 26 in the league. The baddest of all bad men, Aaron Rodgers will have a field day on that secondary despite Jordy Nelson being ruled out. Davante Adams will be looking to repeat his 125 yard receiving performance against the Giants to make up for the loss and Randall Cobb and Richard Rodgers will be big factors as well. The Packers may be the wildcard in this matchup but they far outclass Dallas in inexperience in all the most important positions which is going to send Green Bay to the next round.
Christian: The table-running continues in my eyes. Aaron Rodgers is one of the most dynamic and composed QB talents to ever hit the field, and he hasn’t thrown an interception since the last loss before a six-game winning streak. Dak Prescott, as good as he has been, is still a rookie quarterback in his first playoff appearance ever. While the offensive line has been strong all year, I don’t see the defense containing Rodgers, and it would take a massive performance from another rookie, Ezekiel Elliott, in order for the Cowboys to outpace the Packers. I just don’t see that happening.
Jaryd: The Packers lit up one of the NFL’s best defenses last week, the Giants, without Jordy Nelson. They also have one of the greatest talents to ever play the quarterback position in Aaron Rodgers. That being said, I think Rodgers will have a hot start to the game and rattle the minds of Dak Prescott and crop-top loving Ezekiel Elliott. Sure, these rookies are extremely talented, but they’re also extremely inexperienced. For the most part, the Cowboys are yet to consistently play a game from behind, and that’s exactly what’s going to happen in Sunday’s matchup.
AFC Championship Game predictions
New England Patriots vs.
Jon: I foresee an absolute shootout for this game, and if you are a betting man or woman, I would take the over on the spread. Neither of the teams are playing outstanding defense but they are playing explosive offense which is going to be the difference. New England has solid back field with LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis who provide power and speed respectively, as well as more receiving targets for Tom Brady. Pittsburgh’s offense is more deadly thanks to Le’Veon Bell, however New England will probably resort to a ton of hurry up offense with all kinds of trick formations involving offensive tackles reporting as eligible which will generate just enough big play opportunities that the Steelers’ defense will not be able to stop. Patriots take this one narrowly.
Jaryd: If there’s any team that New England fans should be scared of, it’s the Steelers. Big Ben, when healthy, is no doubt one of the top two quarterbacks in the AFC, and is fully equipped and capable to dismantle even the Patriots, who allow a league-low average of 15.6 points. The Steelers aren’t exactly phenomenal when it comes to running the ball and defending the run, ranked 14th and 13th in the league, respectively—so I don’t exactly see Le’Veon Bell having a stellar game. With that in mind, I expect Roethlisberger to rely heavily on the play of Antonio Brown, as well as Brady to rely more on his backfield duo of Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount. For once, it seems like the Patriots have a solid running game, and will edge out Pittsburgh even with Gronkowski out for the season.
Myles: Tom Brady and Co. took a nice stroll through the park last week in their win against Brock Osweil(mao)-er and the Houston Texans. Though admittedly the Texans tested New England with a strong, Romeo Crennell-led defense, their offense simply lacked the necessary firepower. Now, the team has two potential matchups against opponents that are much more complete on both sides of the ball. One, the Chiefs, have, by most statistics, the best defense in the league and a surprisingly solid Alex Smith-led offense. Second, the Steelers have arguably the most dynamic three weapons on offense in the league in Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell with a solid-if-locked-in defense. In short, the matchup for the Patriots won’t be a walk in the park and, if facing Pittsburgh, I expect the ease of this playoff season for them will result in an upset loss. If facing Kansas City, the dink-and-dunking of Alex Smith and the offense to not be enough to compete with New England.
NFC Championship Game predictions
Green Bay Packers vs. Atlanta Falcons
Jon: Atlanta and Green Bay will clash in a defensive back’s nightmare since both of these teams rank in the bottom five for passing defense and both of these quarterbacks are MVP candidates. Matt Ryan is building a strong MVP case this season with his 4944 passing yards this season, but Aaron Rodgers is built for big moments. Rodgers claimed his squad would run the table, and the Packers’ locker room is all in on that bet especially since they are the underdog in this matchup. The Packers are going to meet this challenge with their best defensive performance of the season to continue Atlanta’s playoff woes.
Jaryd: I cross my fingers that I don’t end up choosing two teams that don’t make it to the championship game at all. The optimist in me has the Seahawks and Packers facing off against each other in a rematch of the infamous 2015 NFC Championship game that every Green Bay fan still has nightmares of. However, I don’t think the game will be quite as close, or sloppily played for that matter. Expect Aaron Rodgers to play lights out against a tier-two Seattle defense and finally give football fans the Super Bowl matchup they’ve been waiting for—Brady vs. Rodgers.
Myles: It should be no surprise that Green Bay got to this point considering, you know, I did pick them to win the Super Bowl at the start of this season. Thus, it should be no surprise who my pick for this game is (hint: Their quarterback is Aaron Rodgers). Therefore despite my lack of curiosity in regards to who’s going to win, I am still very intrigued by how the Packers will and how much they will win by. Rodgers and friends come into Atlanta hot off a close win against Dallas with a surprisingly potent offensive attack when compared to the early part of the season and are going up against a strong Atlanta front seven headlined by 2016 sack-leader Vic Beasley. I can see this going one of two ways: A Packers blowout or a Packers close win. Nonetheless, with the winner being so blatantly obvious, I suggest you lay those bets down early.