Rematches light up NFL divisional round
Falcons, Texans, Chiefs, Packers seeking revenge
We’re down to eight teams after four division winners advanced through the wild- card round of the NFL playoffs.
Here are quick thoughts on story lines to watch in next weekend’s four divisional playoff matchups, all rematches of games played in the regular season.
FIGHT FIRE WITH FIRE
Led by NFL MVP candidate Matt Ryan, the Atlanta Falcons scored 71 points more than any other team this season. ( Context: the Falcons’ 540 points matched the St. Louis Rams’ high mark when they had “The Greatest Show on Turf.”) The Seattle Seahawks still have one the NFL’s best and most talented defenses, as they showed in Saturday’s 26- 6 shutdown of the Detroit Lions. The first matchup went back and forth Oct. 16, with Seattle rallying to beat the Falcons 26- 24 in the final minutes. The last playoff meeting was wild, too: a 30- 28 Falcons victory Jan. 13, 2013. Atlanta lost the NFC Championship Game the next week to the San Francisco 49ers and missed the playoffs for three seasons; the Seahawks won the Super Bowl the next year and have become a perennial contender. Falcons coach Dan Quinn is in his second season after a stint as defensive coordinator for the Seahawks under coach Pete Carroll.
Another mentor- mentee matchup: Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots vs. Bill O’Brien’s Houston Texans, whose top- ranked defense led a 27- 14 romp Saturday against the quarterback- chal- lenged Oakland Raiders. The Texans are 1- 7 against the Patriots and haven’t really been competitive in two matchups since former Patriots assistant O’Brien arrived: a 27- 6 loss last season and a 27- 0 defeat Sept. 22 in which Patriots rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett made his first NFL start. Tom Brady is back to oppose Brock Osweiler, who was a spectator for the Denver Broncos’ AFC Championship Game win against the Patriots last January after losing his job to Peyton Manning. That didn’t stop Osweiler from getting $ 37 million guaranteed from the Texans as a free agent, and he’ll sure need to earn his money in this one.
BANGED- UP BEN?
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was in a walking boot after Sunday’s 30- 12 wild- card rout of the Miami Dolphins. He’ll play through just about anything. But it’ll be worth monitoring how much ( if at all) Roethlisberger’s foot and ankle bother him against the Kansas City Chiefs, who are one win at Arrowhead Stadium away from their first AFC Championship Game since the 1993 season. Chiefs fans surely remember being in this spot: after the 1995 season and in 1997 and 2003. They had a first- round bye each of those years before losing in the divisional round, a streak coach Andy Reid’s crew will try to end. The Chiefs will need to start a lot faster than they did in the first meeting: a 43- 14 Steelers rout Oct. 2 in Pittsburgh in which Kansas City trailed 29- 0 at halftime and Roethlisberger threw five touchdown passes, including two to wideout Antonio Brown.
The Dallas Cowboys haven’t gotten past the divisional round since the 1995 season. Their most recent playoff trip ended in the famous “Dez caught it” game against the Green Bay Packers two years ago. The Cowboys’ run to a 13- 3 record and the NFC’s No. 1 overall seed has seemed special, spurred by rookie sensations Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott. But what happens when the Dallas defense has to take on red- hot Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, who just throttled the New York Giants 38- 13 for their seventh win in a row? This isn’t the same outfit the Cowboys handled 30- 16 on Oct. 16 at Lambeau Field. It’s quite a test for young Prescott, making his first playoff start opposite a two- time NFL MVP playing at as high a level as Rodgers. Prescott has answered most every test, though, and he has a lot of help around him. Keep an eye on the status of Packers star receiver Jordy Nelson ( ribs).
Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott led the Cowboys to a 13- 3 regular- season record and the NFC’s top playoff seed.