For many, the real NFL playoffs begin in the Divisional Round. This year, the full slate of wild-card games lacked any semblance of high drama, with each game decided by at least 13 points. The Raiders and Texans performed to our expectations; Brock Osweiler managed the game and did just enough to prevail over a clearly overmatched Connor Cook, a rookie quarterback making his first career start. Even the Green Bay versus New York tilt majorly disappointed. Eli could not recreate his 2007 and 2011 Super Bowl magic at Lambeau Field.
Now, the elite teams have rested up and wait in the wings to determine whether or not the likes of the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers are for real or just hyped-up teams that “nobody wants to play.” Will they get punched in the mouth and fall flat against stiff competition?
It is win or go home, and smart coaching will expose many good, but flawed rosters. These power rankings should set the table for a more competitive round of football. The road to the Super Bowl is rarely a straight shot; it’s littered with twists, turns, and breakdowns in the form of fluke turnovers, botched calls, and untimely injuries. Here’s where all eight teams stand heading into the 2017 NFL Playoff Divisional Round.
8. Houston Texans
Last week, Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, and the Houston defense wreaked havoc against rookie quarterback Cook in his first career start. Relentless Mercilus lived in the backfield to come up with two sacks. A shell-shocked Cook went 18-for-45, threw three picks, and took two sacks. The Raider offense went two-for-sixteen on third down and finished the game up with only 203 total yards.
The Houston offense was actually not much better. Game manager Osweiler didn’t look terrible; he went for 168 passing yards and two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing). Lamar Miller was mostly ineffective, churning out a mere 2.4 yards per carry on the ground. Still, Houston managed to come away with a 27-14 playoff win, in a boring, Choke Bowl game. From here, Houston will head out on the road to Foxborough and get blown out. Expect Bill Belichick to give Osweiler the Cook treatment.
7. Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks, as expected, blew out a reeling Detroit club in the wildcard round. Detroit came into the game as the loser of three straight before getting rocked again in front of a raucous 12th Man crowd. The Seahawks turned back the clock to Beast Mode and their glory years, feeding Thomas Rawls with 27 carries for 161 yards and one touchdown. After establishing the run, Doug Baldwin was free to go to work for 11 receptions, 104 yards, and a score in his own right.
Now, Seattle players will pack their bags and travel more than 2,500 miles to Atlanta for a matchup nightmare. Falcon outside linebacker Victor Beasley led the league in sacks this year, with 15.5, and is set to tee off on the worst offensive line left in the playoffs. Next, expect Matt Ryan to air out the football over a demoralized Legion of Boom secondary missing Thomas. Seattle figures to be in for a long day in Atlanta.
6. Kansas City Chiefs
Last year, the 2015–16 Chiefs rattled off nine straight wins, before dominating a Texans team that started Brian Hoyer at quarterback in the wild-card round. Next, Foxborough was the end of the road for these Chiefs, who were two touchdowns down for the majority of the Divisional Playoff Game. This season, the Chiefs somehow went 12-4 and won the AFC West, with an offense and defense ranked a respective 20th and 24th in terms of yardage.
The Kansas City Chiefs are a good, but not great football team. On Christmas Day, Alex Smith completed the longest pass play of the season and his career, on a tight end screen to Travis Kelce. Andy Reid’s latest version of the West Coast offense combines a stale assortment of screens and draws alongside a package of gadget plays to get Tyreek Kill the football. The Chiefs will be dead in the water, if they find themselves playing from behind at home against the high-octane Steelers.
5. Atlanta Falcons
The Atlanta Falcons quietly emerged as one of the more explosive teams in the history of football, by lighting up the scoreboard for 34 points per game. Ryan, for his part, made the leap and put up MVP-like numbers, in completing 70% of his passes for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns against only seven interceptions. Top target Julio Jones racked up 83 receptions for 1,409 yards this season, despite missing two whole games of action.
Expect the Falcons to come out with guns blazing against the Seahawks on the Georgia Dome fast track. Second-year player Beasley came into his own at linebacker and will overwhelm rookie offensive tackle George Fant. Fant actually played basketball at Western Kentucky and had never played organized football in his entire life until now. Expect the latest experiment out of rah-rah head coach Pete Carroll to crash and burn in Atlanta.
4. Green Bay Packers
Last November, the Green Bay Packers fell to 4-6, after getting blown out in Washington and dropping four straight games. At that time, head coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson shared one piping hot seat, while a flat Aaron Rodgers threw ducks into the dirt. Still, a confident Rodgers came out and signaled that Green Bay was set to run the table. The Pack, of course, won six straight games to close out the regular season.
Last week, Green Bay finally got the better of the New York Giants at Lambeau, with a 38-13 wild-card win. Rodgers is now the hottest quarterback in the game, especially after lighting up the G-Men secondary for 362 yards and four touchdowns. For the Divisional Round, Rodgers might just be the man to put in another flawless performance and steal a win in Dallas. Rodgers’ job, however, will prove to be that much harder if a banged up Jordy Nelson is not ready to go.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
Like the Packers, the Pittsburgh Steelers are filling in as the latest “team nobody wants to play” out of the AFC. The Steelers began the season as legitimate Super Bowl contenders and came out with a 4-1 record. From there, the team dropped four straight games before finally righting the ship in Cleveland. Pittsburgh did close out the regular season with seven straights wins, including two tune-up games against the hapless, 1-15 Browns.
The inconsistency out of Pittsburgh is largely due to the fact that Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown rarely took the field together. To start the year, Bell served out a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse protocol. Next, Roethlisberger was out with a torn meniscus and missed a Week 7 start against the Patriots.
Last week, Big Ben, Bell, and Brown played together in a playoff game for the first time in their careers. The Pittsburgh offense rolled the Dolphins for 367 total yards, with Bell and Brown scoring two touchdowns each. From here, Steeler Nation appears to look past Kansas City and toward another playoff showdown against Tom Brady and the Patriots in Foxborough.
2. Dallas Cowboys
For the moment of the year, Ezekiel Elliott took the handoff at the goal line against Tampa Bay, bounced the football off tackle, sprinted through the end zone, and leapt into a Salvation Army Kettle. The Dallas Cowboys rolled to a 13-3 record behind their two hotshot rookies and road-grading offensive line. America’s Team is back.
Now, the Cowboys will host a Green Bay Packers franchise that it has battled atop the NFL for generations. Bart Starr, Roger Staubach, Brett Favre, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin have given way to Rodgers, Dak Prescott, Elliott, and Dez Bryant. These Cowboys are loaded with star power — to the point where Tony Romo is relegated to wearing a headset and carrying a clipboard on the sidelines.
Still, there is no real substitute for experience. Even the Aikman/Smith/Irvin triplets got shellacked in Detroit to close out their first trip to the postseason. These young Cowboys do have a tough road ahead, with Rodgers, Roethlisberger, Brady, and their seven combined Super Bowl rings still alive and well in these playoffs.
1. New England Patriots
Like clockwork, the 2016 Patriots went 14-2, won the AFC East, and took home-field advantage through the playoffs. A fired up Brady completed 67% of his passes for 3,554 yards and 28 touchdowns, after serving out his four-game suspension for his role in Deflategate. At the same time, the New England defense was the stingiest unit in football, limiting the opposition to a mere 16 points per game.
The Patriots remain motivated to prove that their four Super Bowl titles are neither flukes nor cheating. Vegas already pegged New England as 15.5-point favorites over the Houston Texans in the Divisional Playoffs. In Week Three, the Patriots shut out the Texans 27-0, with third stringer Jacoby Brissett at quarterback. For that game, Belichick put on another coaching clinic, throwing multiple looks at Osweiler, milking the clock with LeGarrette Blount, and getting the mobile Brissett out on the edge to make plays.
Next up for the Patriots will be either Smith or Roethlisberger, who both view Gillette Stadium as their own personal House of Horrors. The road to the Super Bowl will run right through Foxborough yet again.