With all the wild card teams falling in the first week of the NFL postseason, football fans are guaranteed the best possible playoff matchups in terms of seeding.
Most of these matchups appear to be good games on paper, with one obvious stinker among the quartet of divisional round games effectively billed as rematches from the regular season.
The weekend slate opens with today’s battle between the NFC West champion Seattle Seahawks and NFC South champion Atlanta Falcons.
The Seahawks will look to avoid a slow start similar to the 31-0 halftime hole they dug themselves in their divisional round loss to the Carolina Panthers nearly a year ago, while the Falcons hope to use the game as a springboard to claim the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy. Seattle narrowly defeated Atlanta 26-24 in Week 6
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan put together arguably the best year of his career with season highs in yards (4,944) and touchdowns (38), combined with his lowest single-season interception total (seven). The nine-year veteran leads a high-powered offensive attack blessed with balance on the ground and through the air.
Atlanta’s tandem of running backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, will be tested by a stout Seattle run defense. Neither has to have a standout performance to ensure a win, but they’ll need to be efficient enough to keep Seattle’s secondary and linebackers honest.
Much like Seattle must avoid falling behind early, Atlanta shouldn’t take the foot off the gas if it builds an early advantage.
While the Falcons’ defense isn’t as flashy or as physical as Seattle’s, their pass rush has shown flashes over the course of the season, primarily due to the play of second-year pass rusher Vic Beasley, who has 15.5 sacks. The downside is Beasley’s stat line is inconsistent -- bolstered by four multi-sack performances with five single-sack games and seven games with none.
The Falcons will need Beasley’s best if they hope to pressure Seattle’s elusive signal-caller, Russell Wilson, who has thrown 10 touchdowns to one interception in the past four outings.
Ultimately, the contest will come down to how much the Legion of Boom can contain Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones and whether the attempts to limit Jones frees up opportunities for an offense that saw 13 players catch at least one touchdown.
Being able to spread the ball around and trust nearly anyone in the lineup to come away with points gives Atlanta the edge.
Final score: Falcons 30, Seahawks 23
New England Patriots 38, Houston Texans 13
This will be about as blunt as it gets. The Patriots, favored by 15.5 points going into Sunday’s contest, blanked the Texans 27-0 in Week 3 with third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett and no production from tight end Rob Gronkowski.
New England quarterback Tom Brady will quickly deflate any hope of Houston advancing to the AFC Championship Game.
Dallas Cowboys 33, Green Bay Packers 27
Assuming there’s no questions or disputes regarding whether Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant caught a football, Dallas should put together a fine showing for the hometown crowd. The Cowboys bested the Packers 30-16 in Week 6.
Granted, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has turned Hail Mary passes into an art form, but it’s a matter of time before an opposing team wins a jump-ball scenario against the Packers receiving corps -- a unit that will be without Jordy Nelson for Sunday’s game.
I envision Rodgers completing a Hail Mary touchdown to Jeff Janis to send the game into overtime, but a bruising touchdown run by rookie Ezekiel Elliott ends the Packers’ bid to run the table.
Kansas City Chiefs 20, Pittsburgh Steelers 17
It’s hard to beat watching a prime time playoff game between two evenly-matched teams slugging it out in the snow.
The Steelers boast the more potent offense, but the Chiefs have the classic bend-but-don’t-break defense capable of creating turnovers. Kansas City finished the regular season tied with the Oakland Raiders with a plus-16 turnover differential, the best margin in the league.
Barring a situation where Chiefs head coach Andy Reid makes a clock management blunder -- an issue that has plagued an otherwise solid coaching career, Kansas City’s defensive standouts, Marcus Peters, Eric Berry, Dontari Poe and Justin Houston, can neutralize Pittsburgh’s offense and avenge the 43-14 beatdown Big Ben gave them in Week 4.
Overall record: 141-98
Last week’s record: 2-2
Perfect picks: 1