Monday Musings: Packers-Cowboys caps sports' best weekend, NFL divisional round
Wild Card Weekend was the pits; the NFL divisionals will hit it outta the park ... well, 3 of them, anyway
The first weekend of the NFL playoffs was a big, giant dud.
None of the four games had drama at the end and most had fans heading for the exits long before that. Even the much-anticipated Green Bay Packers-New York New York Giants game faded into a Green Bay blowout. The games made the college football semifinals seem good -- and those games were awful, too.
But we're set up for a good second weekend in the NFL playoffs. The divisional round is the best weekend in sports, eight teams playing down to the AFC and NFC championship games.
There is one game with a big spread -- the New England Patriots favored by 16 over the Houston Texans -- next weekend, but the other three should be fun, well-played games.
The marquee game will be the Green Bay Packers at the Dallas Cowboys . Aaron Rodgers against the Cowboys' vaunted running game.
Bring it on. Let's hope we've already walked through the cow crap to get to the good stuff.
Now for a first look at those games:
Saturday's divisional games
NFC: Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons
Time (TV): 4:35 p.m. ET (Fox)
The skinny: The No. 2-seed Falcons had a bye, while Seattle beat up on Detroit 26-6 on Saturday. The Seahawks got back to their old formula for playoff winning: Run it and play good defense. Thomas Rawls rushed for 161 yards on 21 carries as the Seahawks controlled the clock. They will have to do that again to keep Matt Ryan and the Falcons' No. 1 offense off the field. The Seahawks beat the Falcons 26-24 in Week 6 with help from a controversial late no-call on Richard Sherman . They also met in the 2012 playoffs, with the Falcons winning 30-28 on a late field goal by Matt Bryant , but Atlanta had to rally after blowing a 20-point lead in the fourth.
Key individual matchup: Will it be Sherman against Julio Jones in man coverage? He spent a lot of time on Jones in the last meeting. Sherman traveled some with Jones, even inside in the slot, but it wasn't as if he spent the day on him. Jones had seven catches for 139 yards and a touchdown, much of it in the third quarter. But some if it came against zone coverage. Sherman also got away with the aforementioned pass interference late that could have set up the Falcons for a winning field goal.
Key unit matchup: Seattle's linebackers against the Atlanta running back. The Falcons love to use backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in the passing game, but Seattle LBs Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright have outstanding speed and can cover. That speed is a hidden key to the Seattle Cover-3 scheme.
Interesting stat: Ryan averaged 9.3 yards per passing attempt, more than a yard better than Kirk Cousins , who was second best. It's also the highest by a quarterback since Aaron Rodgers averaged 9.2 in 2011.
AFC: Houston Texans at New England Patriots
Time (TV): 8:15 p.m. ET (CBS)
The skinny: The Texans beat the Oakland Raiders 27-14 behind their stout defense Saturday to advance. But that was against Connor Cook . This is against Tom Brady and the rested Patriots. In the four games the Texans have played in Foxborough, the Patriots have outscored the Texans by an average of 37.6-12.5. The spread this week is 16, so Vegas is expecting another blowout, even if the Texans have the NFL's top-rated defense.
Key individual matchup: To beat the Patriots, you have to hit Brady. That means the big matchup will be Patriots left tackle Nate Solder against Texans pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney . Solder has had a good season, but he will face a tough challenge in Clowney.
Key unit matchup: Patriots receivers against the Texans corners. One of the keys to Houston Cougars 's defense has been the play of corners Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson and A.J. Bouye . If they can play tight man coverage to make Brady hold the ball, it could lead to a lot of pressure up front.
Interesting stat: The Patriots led the NFL in scoring defense, giving up 15.6 points per game. But they played only two teams that finished in the top-10 in scoring, and one of those was the Pittsburgh Steelers without Ben Roethlisberger . They played seven games against teams that finished ranked in the bottom 10 in scoring, including four against the bottom three (two vs. Jets, one each vs. Browns and Rams).
Sunday's divisional games
AFC: Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs
Time (TV): 1:05 p.m. ET (NBC)
The skinny: The Steelers blew out the Miami Dolphins 30-12 on Sunday behind their big three: Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown . Playing in the first playoff game together, they made big plays as the Steelers dominated. The Chiefs earned a bye as the second seed and will be a tough challenge at Arrowhead. The key is the health of Roethlisberger, who injured his ankle late in Sunday's game. If he can't play, the Steelers are toast. He said he will play, and while you never know, I expect him to play. The Chiefs have had some impressive wins, but Pittsburgh Panthers blew them out 43-14 in Week 4. The Chiefs have improved considerably since, but this will be a tough test.
Key individual matchup: The Chiefs have a Pro Bowl corner in Marcus Peters and he figures to spend a lot of time on Brown. Can he limit the big play? Brown had two touchdowns in the first quarter against Miami. The Steelers seem to feed off Brown's big plays.
Key unit matchup: Steelers offensive line against the pass rush. Kansas City has good edge rushers in Justin Houston , Dee Ford and Tamba Hali . They have to be able to get after Roethlisberger to slow down the passing game. If the Chiefs can win with their edge rushers, it will go a long way in helping them win a title.
Interesting stat: The Chiefs had issues stopping the run, finishing 21st in yards per rush at 4.4. They were also 24th in total defense. So how did they get here? They finished with a league-best 33 takeaways and scored five defensive touchdowns.
NFC: Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys
Time (TV): 4:40 p.m. ET (Fox)
The skinny: This shapes up as the weekend's most intriguing game. You have the Cowboys, the NFC's top seed, playing against a Green Bay team that has won seven straight. Aaron Rodgers has 22 touchdown passes and no picks in his past eight games. He had four touchdown passes in the Packers' 38-13 victory over the New York Giants on Sunday. The Cowboys will counter with their rookie 1-2 punch of quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott . Both have had sensational seasons, but this is their first playoff game. This might come down to the two defenses.
Key individual matchup: Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews against Cowboys tackle Tyron Smith . Matthews had a sack and forced fumble against the Giants and he will spend time in one-on-one situations with Smith, who is one of the best in the NFL.
Key unit matchup: Packers front seven against the Cowboys offensive line. To beat the Cowboys, you have to choke off the run. The Packers were eighth in rush yards per game given up, but 14th in yards per rush. They have to be able to slow Elliott to put the pressure on Prescott.
Interesting stat: The Cowboys ran the ball on 499 of their 982 plays. The total was the highest in the league and the percentage was second behind the Bills. Not surprisingly, they are the best playoff team in terms of time of possession.
More Musings from around the NFL
New York Giants
The boat trip the Giants receivers took in Miami last week didn't have anything to do with the outcome of Sunday's game. Yes, Odell Beckham Jr. dropped a sure touchdown pass and two other passes, but who's to say the trip to South Florida had any bearing on that? Nobody knows.
What we do know is that it wasn't a good look. Players can do what they want on their own time, but they should be smart. Taking a three-hour flight to Miami to enjoy time with the guys makes no sense when the biggest game of the year is that week.
Why not just wait?
I asked former Giants player Jon Beason , who works with me now at CBS Sports, if he felt the Giants players would have taken the trip if Tom Coughlin were still coach. Beason said Coughlin probably would have nipped any issues like that in the bud way back when Beckham Jr. was having fun with the kicking net.
Beckham Jr. then supposedly punched a hole in the wall after the Giants loss. That's a look-at-me move. It's also dumb since you could possibly break a hand. I like passion for the game, but if he truly cared as much as that act implies would he have taken the trip last week?
That didn't lose the game for the Giants. It's kind of funny when former coaches like Jimmy Johnson seem outraged over the trip when his former Cowboys team, as we now know, were running amok during their careers.
The talk that interim coach Doug Marrone could end up as the Jaguars next coach makes their decision to not fire coach Gus Bradley earlier in the season even more troubling. If Marrone really has a legitimate chance to be the guy, why not let him coach for more than two games to see if it can work? I think this is a case of potential overreaction to the final two games and how some things changed. Marrone is a good coach, but he was two games under. 500 with the Bills. Mike Smith was 20 games over .500 in seven seasons with the Falcons. Smith would be a better choice and I think when push comes to shove the Jaguars will realize that and hire Smith.
The Dolphins lost to the Steelers on Sunday, but they went into that game playing with house money. First-year coach Adam Gase did an outstanding job getting more out of less. The Dolphins still have a lot of issues, but they are headed in the right direction and they have the right coach. They need to get better on defense. There just aren't enough playmakers.
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