Who’s moving on to the final four?
Editor’s note: We’re bringing back the prediction feature for the NFL Playoffs. To see how we fared last week, click here. A quick reminder of how this works: We’ll take a look at each game on the NFL Playoff schedule, focusing on a player to watch, a key stat, relevant history, and finally some predictions. I’ll probably be wrong more often than I’m right, but you can guarantee I’ll talk much more about the correct calls than the bad ones. Them’s the breaks
One week into the NFL Playoffs, we’re all a week older, and hopefully one week wiser. So what did we learn from last week’s contests?
We learned it’s not a very good idea to make a spectacle of yourself before your first career playoff game from Odell Beckham. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell taught us that it’s good to have more than one weapon in your arsenal in January. The Seahawks and Texans reminded us that home field advantage matters quite a bit and Brock Osweiler showed us that like dogs, every bad QB has his day.
We also learned that perhaps we shouldn’t take gambling man Tom Dragani so seriously when he’s not picking against the spread, since he and I are basically flipping a coin, that Matt Tardiff may have something to his stat-based picks, and that Tim Culverhouse has dumb luck on his side, as the Chin Music Men went 1-3, 2-2, and 4-0, respectively, in the first round of picks.
But the NFL is the ultimate what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, so without further ado, let’s dive in and see if we can’t use that extra week of wisdom on some better picks in the NFL Divisional round.
Seattle Seahawks vs. Atlanta Falcons (ATL-4.5)
Saturday, January 14, 4:35 PM, Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia
Key Player: Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Maybe he deserves it, but Matt Ryan will almost certainly not be taking home the NFL MVP Trophy this year. Unfortunately for Matty Ice, despite his A+ season at a position that typically garners the award, there were two other QBs (three if you count Derek Carr) that outshined him this season, and two of the biggest names in the game to boot in Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers (more on those two later.)
But, while Ryan won’t be adding to his individual trophy case right now, he’s got a chance to pull off something that might be even cooler. He may not have the 2016 MVP title when it’s all said and done, but he can add his name to the list of athletes (mainly NBA players) who have proven they should have won the MVP award with a scorched earth performance in the playoffs.
So will this be the beginning of Matt Ryan’s true rise to greatness? If history is any indication, probably not.
According to the fine folks at Football-Reference.com, Ryan is 1-4 in his playoff career, and his throwing stats aren’t much better. While his completion percentage is a fine-enough 66 percent, he’s thrown seven INT’s in the postseason, compared with just nine TDs.
Don’t sharpen your pitchforks quite yet Falcons fans—there’s reason to be hopeful. Ryan’s completion percentage is reassuring, and he probably has the best team around him he’s ever had. Devonta Freeman has been a stud for the better part of two seasons now, Julio Jones is as good as any receiver in the playoffs not named Antonio Brown, and Mohammed Sanu and the late-surging Taylor Gabriel round off a talented receiving corps, giving him much better options than he had in the other five playoff games.
But those weapons can only catch the balls Ryan throws, and he’ll have to be on the top of his game against a top notch defense.
Key Stat: 3 TD’s allowed per game, Atlanta Falcons
Last weekend’s game between the Giants and the Packers should be a reminder to their NFC brethren of the importance of touchdowns in the playoffs.
Thanks to several successful New York drives that sputtered in enemy territory, the Giants took a six-point lead into the final five minutes of the first half and an eight-point deficit into the intermission, instead of finding a way to score at least enough points to be even with the Packers at halftime. The Giants squandered their best chances of the game during those sputtering drives in the first half and lost the game as a result.
That doesn’t bode well for the Falcons, who gave up more touchdowns than the average in their woeful division, their conference or the league, and more points than all but four teams. Holding teams to as few points as possible is crucial in the postseason—there are no more bad teams on the schedule, and defenses won’t be able to keep these higher-end offenses off the board entirely, so bending and not breaking often means winning and not losing.
If the Falcons want their big regular season to pay off when it counts, they’ll need to keep the Seahawks out of the end zone.
Recent History: Seahawks 26, Falcons 24, October 16 in Seattle
So our fist game of the NFL Divisional weekend is a rematch of a regular season contest, albeit in a different venue. So what can we take from that?
First off, it’s important to note that venue changed. We covered Seattle’s home dominance and road woes in Monday’s piece, and they won’t have the comforts of home cooking in this one, which should decrease their odds of repeating in the postseason.
But outside of the venue, there’s plenty we can take from this game. These were considered to be two strong teams when they met in October, and that perception hasn’t changed. Their strengths haven’t changed much either—Atlanta is still a high-powered, high-flying offensive juggernaut looking to win in a shootout, and Seattle is the same defensive specialists we’ve come to known and love to hate over the years. There’s a good chance Seattle can handle Atlanta this week as they did in October.
One change to note, however, and it’s a big one. While it didn’t seem to affect the unit in their win over Detroit in the Wild Card, Earl Thomas is still absent from the defense. Atlanta’s weapons, as we listed above, are much more intimidating than Detroit’s group, and it will be tougher for Richard Sherman and co. to account for Thomas’ absence.
Chin Music Pod Picks: Matt Tardiff (ATL), Tim Culverhouse (ATL), Tom Dragani (ATL),
Brendan’s Pick: Seattle Seahawks 20, Atlanta Falcons 17
Even with Seattle playing in another bird’s nest, even without Thomas, I like Seattle in this game. At the end of the day, I just don’t have enough faith in Matt Ryan to think he can topple this defense when it counts.
I’ve been an anti-Ryan zealot for a few years now, so maybe it’s my bias creeping out, but I’m not even so sure he’ll have a bad game on Saturday. More likely, he’ll just be contained rather than overwhelmed. But if he does look like the Matty Ice of old in the playoffs, Atlanta won’t even have a fighting chance.
The bigger concern in this one to my eye is the defense. Seattle’s attack may not be a world-beater, but it features a star QB in Russell Wilson who has gotten it done in these situations previously, along with, if last week was any indication, a newly revitalized running game. That’s going to be too much to handle.
Give me the Seahawks in a lower-scoring affair that plays right into Seattle’s hands talons
Houston Texans vs. New England Patriots (NE -15.5)
Saturday, January 14, 8:15, Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts
Key Player: Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans
If the Houston Texans have any chance of taking down the big, bad New England Patriots, their fortunes start and end with the defense. And, while the whole unit is tenacious (and the NFL’s best this year), they’ll need a specific and special effort from pass rusher and Vine star Jadeveon Clowney.
Before this season, Clowney, while not a total bust, seemed like he may not have been worthy of the hype and #1 pick status he assumed after his time at South Carolina, highlighted by the hit heard round the world.
This season, forced to anchor the Texans pass rush while JJ Watt recovers from another injury, Clowney has stepped up his game, beginning to look more worthy of his high draft slot. Then, he made his presence felt last week, picking off a pass deep in Raider territory that would lead to a touchdown.
If Houston wants to win in Foxboro, Clowney will need to be even more fearsome. Brady’s only weakness seems to be throwing under duress, a situation he’s very adept at avoiding. Clowney will need to lead a charge by Houston’s defensive front and be in Brady’s face repeatedly if they have any hope of slowing down the favorites.
Key Stat: 2 INT’s thrown, Tom Brady, New England Patriots
Here’s how good Tom Brady is—most football fans and observers agree the best way of stopping the Ugg model is to keep his supermodel face in the turf all game. It’s how the Giants beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, and it’s a formula other have tried to follow since.
But even his weakness isn’t really a weakness. Brady has an 84.9 passer rating under pressure, good for fifth in the NFL. Even the part of his game that could still use some work is among the best in football!
Unfortunately for the Texans, even with the top defense in football, it will be nearly impossible to stop Brady. Gronk may be gone, but it hasn’t seemed to matter as of late, mainly thanks to the addition of TE Martellus Bennett. They’ll need to find a way to knock him off his game and create turnovers, giving Brock Osweiler easy opportunities for points.
But that won’t be easy. Brady threw the fewest picks of any passer with at least 200 completions this year and threw the ball to the other team less often than plenty of guys with fewer completions. He’s even safeguarding the ball better as he ages, with a lower interception rate in 2016 than in any year in his career, and a growing touchdown percentage.
Tom is terrific at always keeping the Patriots in the game and giving them a chance to win because he rarely makes a back-breaking mistake. The Texans will need to force one of those mistakes if they hope to win this one.
Recent History: Patriots 27, Texans 0, September 22 in Foxboro
I’m not sure if there are even very many Texans fans who thinks their team will win this game, and a Week Three matchup between these two sides gives the best evidence as to why. Even without Tom Brady, the Patriots handled the Texans with ease—imagine what the scoreline might look like with the QB in the game.
Granted, Osweiler has had time to develop, and after last week, hopefully, see his confidence increase. Gronk won’t be terrorizing the Houston secondary, and Jamie Collins won’t be there to keep the Texans off the board, so this isn’t a perfect rematch.
But 27 points is 27 points, and a shutout is a shutout. The first instance in this matchup, also played in New England, should give no hope to Houston fans, and this one may not even be so close.
Chin Music Pod Picks: Matt Tardiff (NE), Tim Culverhouse (NE), Tom Dragani (NE),
Brendan’s Pick: Patriots 30, Texans 10
I was tempted to be the lone foolish soul to pick against the Patriots, if only because of my hate for the team and their fans, and my enjoyment of trolling those same fans by down-talking their team. But even I couldn’t come up with a convincing reason to pick the Texans.
Yes, the Texans defense is best in the league—but don’t forget that they played six games against the Colts, Jaguars and Titans, not exactly fearsome offense. And while New England’s defense may be its weak link this year, it should have no problem stopping the Brockening from keeping up with the juggernaut on the other side of the field.
Sorry Houston, but if I were you, I’d start praying. You’re going to need more than a miracle to win this week.
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Kansas City Chiefs (KC -2)
Sunday, January 15, 1:05, Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri
Key Player: Antonio Brown
We focused on Le’Veon Bell in last week’s column, so let’s give Brown his due here, and after last week, we may have to give him even more than that.
Brown’s stats last week were impressive enough just printed on the box score. Two TDs on more than 100 yards of receiving is about as good as it gets for a receiver in January. But if you watched the game or caught some of the highlights, you’ll know that somehow, someway, Brown’s performance was even better than his stats indicated.
Neither of Brown’s TD’s – each of started on his own side of the field – were aired out bombs or mouth-dropping throws from Ben Roethlisberger. On the first, Brown did his best (regular-season) Odell Beckham impression, turning a 10-yard slant into six points before taking a screen pass to the house on the next drive.
Matched up against a Chiefs D that was the definition of average against the pass this season (15th in pass TD’s allowed) while being strong against the run (5th in run TD’s allowed) Brown should have another impressive performance this weekend.
Key Stat: +16 turnover differential, Kansas City Chiefs
Alex Smith is rarely discussed among the league’s best QB’s, and that’s probably fair. But there is one thing the University of Utah graduate is among the best at, and that’s protecting the football.
Smith threw an interception just seven times this year, better than all but a handful of elite passers. Pair that with the defense’s ability to get turnovers of their own, and Kansas City has a pairing that often leads to success in the playoffs. If you can keep the other team from working with a short field or easy opportunities to score while your defense can give your offense those opportunities, you’re going to win more games than not. It may not be rocket science, but that’s football.
The Chiefs were especially adept at pouncing on errant passes, tied for the lead league with 16 INTs, and Roethlisberger has been shaky at times this year, as Pittsburgh is middle of the road in interceptions thrown while almost never losing a fumble, so the secondary will have to be ready to make a steal if the Chiefs want to parlay their biggest advantage into a win.
Recent History: Steelers 43, Chiefs 14, October 2 in Pittsburgh
Chiefs fans, take a deep breath, a stiff drink, and forget this game ever happened. Pittsburgh fans, savor this and use it to convince yourselves this one is in the bag.
There really are few other conclusions to be drawn about the beat down the Steelers handed out in October to the Chiefs. While Sammy Coates, the Steeler’s leading receiver by yards that game, seems to have entered the witness protection program, Brown was a huge factor in that game on the scoreboard, tallying two TD’s, and the Chiefs will have to find a way to keep him from doing that again?
There is some good news for Chiefs fans, however. For one thing, the Chiefs look like a much better and more competent team now than they did then, reeling off 10 wins in the following 12 games as they road to an improbable division title. That game was also played at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field rather than at the fearsome confines of Arrowhead Stadium.
Need one more thing, Kansas City faithful? James Harrison of the Steelers this week said he didn’t know the two teams faced off last year. Maybe the Steelers have just forgotten everything they’ve ever learned about the Chiefs.
Chin Music Pod Picks: Matt Tardiff (KC), Tim Culverhouse (KC), Tom Dragani (KC),
Brendan’s Pick: Steelers 24, Chiefs 17
History won’t repeat itself in the score line, but the Steelers will go home happy once again. The Sunday games, at least to my eyes, are where the more intriguing matchups are this weekend, and it starts here.
The teams almost seem to play into each others’ strengths, the Steelers with plenty of weapons on offense, and the Chiefs with the ball-hawks to neutralize them. But I’m taking Pittsburgh.
I think, like head coach Mike Tomlin seemed to do last week, the Steelers will rely on a more conservative game plan with plenty of runs and short passes designed to produce a run after a catch, which should help reduce turnovers. If Big Ben can keep his mind right and avoid putting his team in a dangerous spot, I think they have more than enough talent on offense to outpace the Chiefs.
Especially when you consider Pittsburgh’s defense. It may not be as strong as it once was, but rumors of its demise have so far, proved to be fairly exaggerated. The Steel Curtain defense is 10th in points allowed, and 12th in yards allowed—neither of those are eye-opening rankings, but it speaks to the simple truth about the Pitt D-it’s still very good, above average, if not great.
I think a good but not great defense and a great offense takes the win in this one.
Green Bay Packers vs. Dallas Cowboys (DAL -4.5)
Sunday, January 15, 4:40, AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas
Key Player: Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
If I could name the Cowboys offensive line a collective “Key Player” I probably would, but that doesn’t really work with this column’s gimmick, so we’ll throw the spotlight on running back Ezekiel Elliott.
Elliott is a good bellwether for the Cowboy’s play on the line, and signs have been positive throughout the year. Dallas ran for the second most yards of any team this season and was second in rushing touchdowns, showing just how talented the O-Line can be, and how good Elliott can be when his lineman give him the right holes to run through.
Elliot and co. will need to be good again on Sunday. If there’s anything the Giants proved in their loss last week, it’s that you don’t want to give Aaron Rodgers too many opportunities to hurt you. For the Cowboys, the best way to do that is going to be to keep the ball out of Rodgers’ hands altogether, and there’s no better way to do that than with the running game.
Dallas had the third-highest average time of possession in 2016, and they’ll need to keep the ball out of the hands of the team right behind them, their opponents this weekend in the Green Bay Packers, if they plan to move on to the NFC Championship.
Key Stat: 260 passing yards allowed per game, Dallas Cowboys
This is why Dallas will need to protect the ball and keep the clock running on Sunday. The Cowboys’ Achilles heel is unquestionably their defense in this one, as the offense should be more than equipped to matchup with the Green Bay defense.
And during the season, the passing game was that defense’s Achilles heel—they were 26th in passing yards allowed a game at the number above, and just about average in passing TD’s allowed with 25.
Dallas’ defense has been dominant against the run, with the team finishing with the fewest rushing yards allowed and the third fewest rushing TD’s allowed in 2016. Their passing defense will need to rise to that level on Sunday against the NFC’s best QB in Aaron Rodgers, no matter what the status of #1 receiver Jordy Nelson happens to be.
Recent History: Dallas 30, Green Bay 16, October 16 in Dallas
Even if you don’t remember this one off the top of your head, you should have been able to guess the result, as Dallas’ twin losses came against a team the Packers have beaten twice this season, the New York Giants.
The original loss to the Cowboys would drop the Packers down to .500, although they would win one more game before starting their infamous slide during the middle part of the season. This was when the whispers that Rodgers and his crew could be losing a step or starting to come apart at the seams—those whispers would turn to shouts in three weeks’ time, and now everyone denies even thinking Rodger might be done.
Dallas did what the Giants couldn’t in their matchup against Green Bay, scoring a first down in each of the first two-quarters on the way to building a 20-6 lead by the end of the third quarter, forcing Rodgers to have to fight back in this one. The rookie combination of Elliott and QB was Dak Prescott was lethal in the first contest, as the pair combined for more than 400 yards and three touchdowns.
The solace for Packer fans (and Cowboy haters)? Rodgers had a pretty big contest of his own that day, going 31 of 42 for 294 yards and a TD. If he can step that performance up even a little, it could be rough going for Dallas.
Chin Music Pod Picks: Matt Tardiff (GB), Tim Culverhouse (GB), Tom Dragani (GB),
Brendan’s Pick: Green Bay 24, Dallas 21
This is the closest matchup of the week, even closer than Sunday’s AFC contest. The Packers are the hot team, surging and looking literally unbeatable over the last seven games, while the Cowboys have been the steady leader, going 14-2 in the regular season and taking the NFC’s top seed without much of a struggle.
I’ll take the hot team, but really, my pick comes down to Aaron Rodgers. There are so many ways that #12 can beat you—he’s quick enough to scramble, his ability to extend plays is legendary, and he has the best arm in football, bar none.
My money is on Rodgers lining up late under center, down by less than a touchdown with just a couple of minutes left on the clock, trying to work his late-game magic one more time. That should be a scary situation for the Cowboys, who just don’t have the horses to keep up with Rodgers, especially with the game on the line.
If Dak Prescott wants to do what Tony Romo never could, he needs to follow the blueprint that Dallas used to win the two team’s first matchup. Score points early, get the Packers on their heels, and never let them enough room to get back into the contest.
Against a red-hot Rodgers, that’s a tall order, one that’s probably too tall for the other Dallas Stars.
ChinMusicPod NFL Playoff Standings so far:
Tim “Hot Takes” Culverhouse- 4-0
Matt “Stat” Tardiff- 3-1
Brendan “Editor in Chief” Murray – 2-2
Thomas “Culture” Dragani: 2-2
Follow Brendan on Twitter @MurraySpotTalk for more on the NFL Playoffs, and check back to ChinMusicPod.com each Thursday through the postseason for more predictions. Thanks to Tim Culverhouse for helping to edit this monstrosity and to GraphIQ for their open-access graphics.