By Clark Judge
Talk of Fame Network
GOLD JACKET GAME OF THE WEEK
GREEN BAY @ DALLAS, Sunday, 4:40 p.m. (EST)
The weather: Rain, high of 69 (retractable roof)
The story: Dez Bryant doesn’t want to talk about his catch/non-catch in Green Bay, and can you blame him? The Cowboys lost that playoff game. They’re not supposed to lose this one unless … unless Green Bay can figure out how to neutralize Ezekiel Elliott and force Dak Prescott to beat them. Even then, there are no guarantees. But I’ll take my chances with a white-hot Aaron Rodgers in a playoff game over a rookie quarterback because experience matters in January. The advantage for Green Bay is that the Packers are a top-10 defense vs. the run (they ranked eighth, allowing an average of 4.0 yards per carry), and Dallas doesn’t have a great pass rush. The disadvantage for Green Bay is that it won’t have its best receiver, Jordy Nelson (broken ribs), and Dallas will have its best cornerback, Mo Claiborne. Plus, the game is home where the Cowboys won their last seven starts. Advice to anyone playing Green Bay: Say a Hail Mary before Rodgers throws one. He scored on Hail Marys in the Packers’ last two playoff games.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Including the regular and postseason, Green Bay won five of the past six games vs. Dallas.
(Aaron Rodgers photo courtesy of the Green Bay Packers)
(Dak Prescott photo courtesy of the Dallas Cowboys)
THREE OTHERS SUITABLE FOR HALL OF FRAMING
SEATTLE @ ATLANTA, Saturday, 4:35 p.m. (EST)
The weather: Dome
The story: Question: How much do you trust Seattle on the road? Yeah? Me, neither. The Seahawks are 3-5-1 in their last nine road games, including last year’s playoffs, and produced exactly 40 points in their last three road trips, with 25 of them vs. San Francisco. OK, so they won at Foxboro. That was huge. But it was the last time they had a pulse away from home. I don’t know what’s going on; I just know these guys need a 12th man here and are still waiting to find him. Granted, there are holes in the Atlanta defense, but that’s not the issue here. Seattle will find the end zone. But can it score enough to stay with the highest scoring offense in the league? Remember, the Falcons put up 24 on the Seahawks earlier this season and didn’t get a late pass-interference call that could have swung the game – and that was a Seattle team that included Earl Thomas. If there’s hope, it’s not in a defense that allowed 124 points in its last five road trips (a 24.8 points-per-game average). It’s in Atlanta quarterback and MVP candidate Matt Ryan. Reason: He’s 1-4 in the playoffs.
Hall of Fame worthy: The Falcons’ Devonta Freeman has four touchdowns in his last two games at home.
(Matt Ryan photo courtesy of the Atlanta Falcons)
HOUSTON @ NEW ENGLAND, Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
The weather: Partly cloudy, high of 30
The story: A friend asked me the other day if anything short of Tom Brady being kidnapped could cause the Patriots to lose, and, of course, you know the answer. Except, even if Brady were kidnapped it wouldn’t make a difference. Reason: New England beat these guys this season without him … and with Jacoby Brissett at the controls. What’s more, Houston had J.J. Watt in the lineup, and it didn’t matter. Final score:; New England 27, Texans 0. So consider this a repeat performance, only worse. Brock Osweiler starts only because Tom Savage can’t, DeAndre Hopkins has been limited in practice and there are reports that coach Bill O’Brien wants out. Then, of course, there is this: Brady is 15-3 at home during the playoffs, including 2-2 vs. Baltimore. That means he’s 13-1 against everyone else. Good luck, Brock Osweiler, and good night.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: The Patriots are 10-2 in the divisional round of the playoffs with Tom Brady, with their only home loss to the New York Jets in January, 2011.
(Tom Brady photo courtesy of the New England Patriots)
PITTSBURGH@ KANSAS CITY, Sunday, 8:20 p.m. (EST)
The weather: Ice to rain, high of 38
The story: Note the starting time. It was postponed seven hours to let the weather clear, and maybe it does. But the Steelers aren’t going away, and, basically, this comes down to whom you trust more: The Pittsburgh offense or the Kansas City defense. The Steelers are red hot, winning their last eight games, and are on such a roll that this is beginning to feel like 2008 all over again. They not only pulverized Miami last week; they scored 24 or more points in their last nine starts and put up a season-high 43 vs. the Chiefs when the two met in early October. Granted, that was three months ago when Justin Houston wasn’t in the lineup and Tyreek Hill wasn’t running wind sprints through the next secondary. But it was also when the Chiefs had Derrick Johnson to make every other tackle. The Chiefs’ offense cannot stay with Roethlisberger & Co., but it may not have to. It’s the Chiefs’ defense and special teams that can win this game … and they just might have to.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Hall-of-Fame worthy: Andy Reid is 19-2 following byes, including 3-0 in the playoffs.
(Alex Smith photo courtesy of the Kansas City Chiefs)
OUR BEST BETS
Clark Judge – Patriots (-16). No matter what the spread is, it can’t be high enough.
Ron Borges – Patriots (-16). That’s a lot of points in an NFL playoff game … until you remember they beat them 27-0 in September with a third-string quarterback and only a cameo appearance by Gronk.
Rick Gosselin – Patriots (-16). The NFL has become a quarterback’s game. The Patriots have Tom Brady; the Texans have Brock Osweiler. The Patriots could be favored by 30, and Id still like them.
SUNDAY’S HALL OF FAMOUS
PITTSBURGH RB LE’ VEON BELL. He has eight touchdowns in his last seven games, including the playoffs.
NEW ENGLAND QB TOM BRADY. He’s the career playoff leader in touchdowns (56), yards passing (7,957), completions (738) and attempts (1,183).
GREEN BAY QB AARON RODGERS. In his last eight starts, he has 22 touchdowns and no interceptions. He is one of only four quarterbacks to have a career playoff rating of 100 or better (100.3).
DALLAS DE DAVID IRVING. In his past three games, he has three sacks, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble and two deflected passes.
HOUSTON DE JADEVEON CLOWNEY. He has three sacks, four tackles for losses, an interception and a forced fumble in his last four starts (including the playoffs).
KANSAS CITY WR TYREEK HILL. He’s the only player in league history to have three receiving touchdowns, three rushing touchdowns and three return touchdowns in the same season.
HALL OF NOTES-WORTHY
All four games this weekend are rematches from the regular season, the first time that has happened in the playoffs since 2010.
Since the NFL moved to 12-team playoffs in 1990, No. 1 seeds are 22-4 in the NFC in the divisional round of the playoffs and 16-10 in the AFC. The top seeds in both conferences won divisional round games the past three seasons.
Green Bay is 4-4 on the road in the playoffs under coach Mike McCarthy, averaging 30.4 points per game since 2006. The Packers are the only team to average more than 26 points per game on the road in the playoffs during that time.
With a victory, New England becomes the first team since the 1970 merger to appear in six consecutive conference championship games.
With 100 yards Sunday, Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown joins Larry Fitzgerald as the only receivers to produce four straight 100-yard performances in the playoffs.
Alex Smith has 11 touchdown passes and one interception in 186 playoff passing attempts. His .05 percentage of interceptions is the lowest in postseason play by a quarterback with a minimum of 150 attempts.
Pittsburgh is facing the Chiefs for the second time this year. The Steelers are 9-14 when facing non-divisional opponents for a second time in the same season.
With two sacks vs. New England, Houston’s Whitney Mercilus would set a three-game playoff record with seven.
The Patriots are the only team in NFL history to win 13 division titles in a span of 14 years.
Atlanta’s Dwight Freeney has 10 career playoff sacs, tied for third most in NFL history.
The Steelers are 4-1 in the divisional round of the playoffs with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback.