After terrible wild-card games, Super Bowl chase...
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Jan 11, 2017  |  Vote 0    0

After terrible wild-card games, Super Bowl chase really begins this weekend

Hamilton Spectator

After four lopsided games decided by a total of 76 points during a forgettable opening weekend of the NFL playoffs, the pretenders are eliminated. (Who knew the New York Giants would be in that group?) The post-season field is down to the real contenders (plus the Houston Texans).

When the most notable developments on a playoff weekend are a Florida excursion by a group of wide receivers the previous Monday, and a coach's late-game decision to leave his star quarterback on the field in a runaway, it isn't football at its most dramatic.

So it's on to the conference semifinals and the promise of better games. Here's a look at the matchups:

Texans at Patriots

The Texans know plenty about how things work in New England with Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.

Houston's coach, Bill O'Brien, is a former Patriots' offensive co-ordinator. The Texans' defensive co-ordinator, Romeo Crennel, was one of Belichick's top coaching lieutenants during the most glorious of the glory days. Linebackers coach Mike Vrabel and special teams co-ordinator Larry Izzo were Patriots standouts as players.

But having knowledge of the inner workings of the Patriots and actually being able to put it to use are two different things.

The Texans have the defence to be competitive Saturday night in Foxborough, Mass. Houston ranked first in the league in total defence during the regular season. Its defence dominated the Oakland Raiders and their rookie quarterback, Connor Cook, in Saturday's opening-round playoff victory. But facing Brady and the Patriots is a far different matter.

O'Brien is sticking with Brock Osweiler at quarterback after Osweiler, benched late in the regular season but forced back into the lineup when Tom Savage was sidelined by a concussion, gave a steady performance against the Raiders. Most importantly, Osweiler avoided major mistakes and let the Houston defence do its thing. But more will be needed against the Patriots. Osweiler would have to do more than simply not lose the game; he would have to help win it. And that's probably not happening.

It's difficult to envision anyone going to Foxborough during these AFC playoffs and knocking off the Patriots.

It's next to impossible to envision the Osweiler-led Texans doing it.

Steelers at Chiefs

If only coach Mike Tomlin had gotten quarterback Ben Roethlisberger off the field Sunday with the Pittsburgh Steelers' victory over the Miami Dolphins well in hand, the talk now would be all about just how great the Steelers' offence is whenever Roethlisberger, tailback Le'Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown are on the field together.

But Tomlin, for some reason, didn't do it. Now the question will be to what extent he ends up regretting that. Minor mistake or season-ending blunder?

Roethlisberger hurt his right ankle on a second-to-last offensive play by Pittsburgh on which he threw an interception. He had his foot in a walking boot afterward but vowed to be in the lineup Sunday in Kansas City against the Chiefs.

That is believable. Roethlisberger's history is that he plays through injuries. He also has a reputation, justified or not, for dramatizing injuries. So it is reasonable to think that he will be on the field this weekend. But the issue will be how effective he'll be able to be.

The Pittsburgh offence was clicking from the outset against Miami, as the Dolphins failed to show up at chilled Heinz Field with the appropriate playoff intensity. The Miami defence offered little resistance to the Steelers' brilliant offensive triumvirate.

That reinforced the notion that the third-seeded Steelers, not the second-seeded Chiefs, are the most significant threat to the Patriots in the AFC.

Things will not be easy for the Steelers in Kansas City. The Chiefs have a tremendous secondary led by cornerback Marcus Peters and safety Eric Berry. They have pass rushers, led by Dee Ford, who can bother Roethlisberger. They have the big-play capabilities of rookie wide receiver Tyreek Hill on offence and special teams, giving them an element of explosiveness that previous Chiefs teams did not possess.

This is a true toss-up. But the quarterback advantage, with Roethlisberger over Alex Smith even factoring in Roethlisberger's iffy ankle, allows the Steelers to move on to Foxborough.

Packers at Cowboys

The Packers' triumph Sunday over the Giants in Green Bay was convincing. It also may have been costly to the Packers if wide receiver Jordy Nelson's rib injury limits the Green Bay offence.

The Cowboys should be rested and ready after coach Jason Garrett successfully walked the tightrope of keeping his foot on the accelerator while also attempting to avoid major injuries during the final stages of the regular season. Quarterback Dak Prescott, tailback Ezekiel Elliott and wide receiver Dez Bryant should be able to do just about whatever they want against this Green Bay defence. The key for Dallas will be the soundness of left tackle Tyron Smith's knee after he exited the second-to-last game of the regular season and sat out the finale.

The Packers have a reasonable chance, of course, given the level at which quarterback Aaron Rodgers is playing. He made a very good Giants' defence look bad. Facing the Dallas defence is a step down from that. Even Rodgers's Hail Mary completions aren't all that shocking any longer, given the regularity with which they occur.

But Nelson's injury is significant, and Rodgers won't have enough help to bring the Cowboys' magical season to an end.

Seahawks at Falcons

The Seahawks beat the Detroit Lions by the deceptively lopsided score of 26-6 Saturday night in Seattle. The Seahawks only led 10-6 entering the fourth quarter, and that was even after getting the benefit of several egregiously missed calls by the officials along the way.

Now it's on to Atlanta, and the Seahawks must play far better if they're going to have a chance. They were only 3-4-1 on the road during the regular season.

The Falcons were the NFL's highest-scoring team during the regular season and some regard Atlanta's quarterback, Matt Ryan, as the league MVP front-runner. But the Falcons have vulnerabilities on defence. They do have a top-tier pass rusher in Vic Beasley, who led the NFL in sacks. And they can generate turnovers. But they're not likely to stop an offence in its tracks.

The Seahawks have a chance if they can run the ball with tailback Thomas Rawls, if quarterback Russell Wilson and his receivers do their part, and if their defence can be at its championship-calibre best even without injured safety Earl Thomas. But that is a lot that must fall into place. The Seahawks have not demonstrated this season that they can be reliably counted on to play consistently at a high level.

Yes, they can win in Atlanta. But the guess here is that they won't.

The Washington Post

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