Over the last six weeks of the regular season, Aaron Rodgers threw exactly 200 passes, completing 142 of them, or 71 percent. Over the same period, Sam Bradford finished off a record-setting season in completion percentage, finishing with 71.6. The difference? Bradford averaged seven yards per attempt for the season; Rodgers averaged 8.34 for those games, a number he bested in the wild card round, when he averaged 9.05 per attempt in bitterly cold weather against a secondary considered by many to be among the league’s best.
When Rodgers is going—as he is now—he doesn’t just give the Green Bay Packers a chance to win against any opponent, he gives them a chance to curb-stomp the entire league. Green Bay lacks a running game and its defense ranks 23rd in weighted DVOA, yet no team in its right mind wants to see the Packers walking through their doors. No matter how good your pass rush, Rodgers can evade it by performing Fred Astaire’s tap dancing routine, stepping up, then back, then wheeling around to a side, then resetting to find the inevitably open receiver. No matter how good your secondary, Rodgers will beat it by finding the smallest hole and exploiting it until the rest of the defense gushes like Niagara Falls. What is a Hail Mary to the other 31 starting quarterbacks in the league is as simple as a 3-yard slant to Rodgers. His game is so elegant that it almost feels out-of-place for Troy Aikman or Cris Collinsworth to broadcast Packers games. Perhaps FOX should consider putting Clyde Frazier in the booth instead.
So, how do you stop—or even fathom stopping—the unstoppable force? Well, opposing defenses have been handed a gift in Jordy Nelson’s injury. Nelson isn’t just Rodgers’ most-trusted target; he’s also the only Packer receiver to have success consistently over the past few years. Though Green Bay managed fine without him in the second half last week, Nelson’s absence was a key factor in the offense’s stagnation for much of last season. Mike McCarthy has built the offense in such a way that things only get creative if necessary. The offense itself isn’t tough to prepare for, and without Nelson, Randall Cobb has to carry the load. Despite that, opposing defenses still have to play at a near-perfect level to best Rodgers. This week, the key for Dallas is its pass rush. If they can’t frequently pressure Rodgers with 4-man rushes and keep a strong contain, preventing him from moving around in the pocket, the secondary’s going to break down eventually.
There’s also the necessity to play at that high level for all 60 minutes. The Giants played as well as you could ask them to play for 29 minutes on Sunday. Then, they gave up a Hail Mary, went into the locker room demoralized, and came out looking half-dead. Make any mistake, let up for just a second, and Rodgers will make you pay.
On to the games.
Divisional Round Picks
Vegas Insider’s consensus lines are used. Home teams listed in CAPS.
FALCONS -5 over Seahawks: The Seahawks are a flawed football team and it’s going to show in this game. They adjusted some parts of their running game last round to compensate, but the fact of the matter is that the success of those adjustments has more to do with Detroit’s defensive line than any sudden improvements on Seattle’s end. If they keep those adjustments—and there’s no reason not to—there’s still going to be a lot of dependence on Thomas Rawls to create space for himself in the run game. Grady Jarrett has played good run defense up the middle all year for Atlanta, though the rest of their line has to play better than usual. That being said, for everything Vic Beasley or Brooks Reed lacks in run defense, George Fant and Garry Gilliam lack in run blocking ability.
Seattle has a chance to win in run blocking, but in pass blocking, the field is tilted against them. If the rest of the season is any indication, Vic Beasley is going to eat Gilliam’s lunch and I don’t love George Fant and Germain Ifedi’s chances against Dwight Freeney and Jarrett either. The Seahawks do have advantages over Atlanta’s secondary, but those advantages are narrow. The Falcons are 9th and 10th in DVOA against #1 and #2 receivers, but Doug Baldwin has to like his chances in the slot against Brian Poole. And despite Deion Jones’ success in coverage—Atlanta is 11th in DVOA against tight ends—Jimmy Graham may be too much for the rookie to handle.
However, the offensive line is going to be such an issue in pass protection that Russell Wilson may not have enough time to find any of these receivers with consistency. Sure, Wilson is capable of extending plays and creating things with his feet, but he’s been much more of a pocket passer this year, with just 72 rush attempts (down from 103 last year) and an ankle injury that has slowed his movement. Wilson got rid of his brace last week, but I wouldn’t expect a ton of zone reads or scrambling given that, over the past two weeks, Wilson has just five rushes for one yard.
On the other side of the ball, the Falcons can expose Seattle’s post-Earl Thomas defense in a way Detroit just couldn’t. Matthew Stafford’s finger had a much larger effect on his play than I realized, but no such impediment exists for Matt Ryan, who is currently the favorite to win the MVP. Their pass defense has been leaky at best since Thomas’ injury and now they have to stop Julio Jones. Seattle is an average team against #1 receivers according to DVOA, and Jones went for 139 yards the first time these two teams played (before Thomas’ injury). Presuming Richard Sherman follows Jones—something he’s done more over the past two years—Seattle will constantly be struggling to match up with Taylor Gabriel. Gabriel ranks first among receivers in DVOA and 24th in DYAR—DeShawn Shead is going to struggle against him.
I suspect the Seahawks will do a nice job combating Atlanta’s run game as they’ve been among the top teams in run defense all year, but I don’t see them getting much pressure on Matt Ryan. Ryan Schraeder’s 87.2 PFF grade is 12th among tackles, which represents one of the toughest matchups Cliff Avril has had all year. It’s going to be most interesting to see what Atlanta does against Michael Bennett, but I suspect we’ll see Alex Mack and Andy Levitre double him on most plays. This would leave Jake Matthews alone on the edge against Frank Clark, but that prospect is likely better than having Bennett work against just one lineman on the bulk of his snaps. If that plan holds up—and I think it will—Ryan will have all the time he needs to work the ball downfield.
I don’t have a ton of faith in Atlanta’s defense, but it should be good enough to hold up here—especially if the offense is giving it a lead to work with. This could stay close, but I expect the Falcons to set the pace and keep it throughout.
PATRIOTS -16 over Texans: The silver lining of this game is that we don’t have to watch Connor Cook again. The downside is that the Texans don’t have much better of a chance than Oakland would have. Houston wins games with dominant defensive performances and an offense that does just enough, but neither of those things are feasible against the Patriots. Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, their two best players against Oakland, face infinitely tougher matchups this week. Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon are both top-10 tackles by PFF grading and the Patriots are sixth in adjusted sack rate.
Perhaps the only matchup that looks good for Houston’s defense is A.J. Bouye against either of New England’s outside receivers, but even that comes with the caveat that Julian Edelman and Martellus Bennett aren’t playing from the outside. Neither is Dion Lewis, and the Texans are 29th in pass defense DVOA against running backs.
Moreover, the Patriots are seventh in special teams DVOA; Houston is 32nd. Special teams was a key factor in New England’s beat down of Houston back in Week 3, when the Jacoby Brissett embarrassed the Texans in primetime. Now, the Texans won’t be ceding field position to Jacoby Brissett, they’ll be seeding field position to a white-hot Tom Brady.
With Brock Osweiler under center, I don’t see how they can compete with Brady and co. Houston’s run game has struggled all year—it ranks 27th in DVOA—and the Texans may have to abandon the run early on anyway. Force Osweiler to make plays—especially against a tough secondary featuring Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Devin McCourty—and he turns into a blubbering mess of interceptions and inaccurate passes. Throw in an underrated pass rush—Trey Flowers has seven sacks and 14 hits this year, per NFL GSIS, and Chris Long hasn’t been half-bad either—and I just can’t see how Houston can even fathom moving the ball with any kind of consistency. If the Patriots are the Super Bowl contender they’ve looked like all year, this game is going to be over by halftime.
CHIEFS -1.5 over Steelers: The Chiefs remain the only team in the AFC that can challenge New England for supremacy and I love them against Pittsburgh this week. Their biggest obstacle on Sunday is going to be Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers’ running back has been immaculate at times this year—every time you think he’s being tackled for a loss, he practically teleports forward. Kansas City’s run defense is their biggest issue defensively—they rank 26th in run defense DVOA—and Bell will get his keep on Sunday. However, Justin Houston’s presence will at least make things tougher for the running back and ultimately, the Steelers still need to throw the ball and the Chiefs are more than capable on that front.
Kansas City ranks seventh in pass defense DVOA and their secondary presents problems for a Steelers’ receiving corps without much depth beyond Antonio Brown. Of course, Brown himself has to be covered as well, but Marcus Peters has proven himself able to match up against the league’s best. Even so, the Chiefs will need their safeties and linebackers to act as impenetrable safety nets when Brown inevitably finds space. Eric Berry, Ron Parker, Ramik Wilson and Daniel Sorensen are arguably the most important players in the game for this reason, but there’s reason to believe they’re up to the task. Berry and Parker form one of the best safety tandems in the league, Wilson has filled the Chiefs’ inside linebacker gap as well as anyone could have hoped—his 82.2 PFF grade ranks 20th at the position—and Sorensen has turned into a playmaker at the dime back position.
There’s also the elephant in the room: Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been playing all that well of late. It’s not just the interceptions, though he’s thrown seven in his last four games, it’s also plays the defense isn’t making. The Dolphins dropped more than one pick on Sunday early enough in the game that things may have changed as a result. Even as the Steelers romped to a 14-0 lead, it had more to do with Brown’s yardage after the catch then the relatively easy throws Roethlisberger was making. Kansas City’s defense isn’t going to wilt in the pathetic manner Miami’s did—it’s going to be a lot tougher to get big plays against them. Even if they can run the ball, the Steelers are going to have trouble in the passing game.
Couple this with a disadvantage in special teams and there’s major trouble on the horizon for Pittsburgh. The Chiefs rank second in special teams DVOA and the Steelers are exactly league average. That spells a field position disadvantage that becomes all too important if Pittsburgh can’t make their trademark big plays in the passing game.
On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh’s defense may be outmatched. No team has had an answer for Tyreek Hill yet and I don’t suspect the Steelers—whose slot corner, William Gay, is 32 years old—will be the first to keep up with Hill’s blazing speed. There’s also the issue of Travis Kelce. The Chiefs have been more aggressive (though still not to the degree I’d like) in letting Kelce run free over the seam this year. Pittsburgh has matched up fine against tight ends this year, but they don’t have anyone with the physical ability to keep pace with Kelce—especially in the red zone, where their defense has thrived.
The Chiefs’ offensive line, while not star-studded or awe-inspiring like, say, Dallas, has been a consistent, steady presence all year, not unlike Alex Smith. Pittsburgh’s defensive line ranks 19th in adjusted sack rate and a middling 14th in adjusted line yards. Don’t expect them to win up front either. In fact, those matchups could spell a good game for Spencer Ware, whose inconsistency has been one of the most frustrating parts of Kansas City’s year. Throw in Alex Smith’s heightened aggressiveness—his ALEX is 0.4 this year!—and the Chiefs are able to attack Pittsburgh all over the field. That defense has weak spots—Ross Cockrell and Artie Burns aren’t particularly reliable on the outside and Lawrence Timmons is a flat-out liability in coverage at this point in his career.
Don’t be fooled by Pittsburgh’s victory last week over a backup quarterback and a Miami team that felt lucky to be playing January football. There are cracks in the façade—and the Chiefs are going to bring the whole thing down.
Packers +4.5 over COWBOYS: The Cowboys’ defense has been the biggest question surrounding the team all year, but no one has been able to expose it. Despite Dallas ranking a middling 17th in defensive DVOA, just one team—the Steelers—has scored 30 points on them all year. That is going to change on Sunday.
The simple fact of the matter is that no team is slowing down Aaron Rodgers right now. Whether Jordy Nelson plays or not—and I don’t think he will—Rodgers is just too good. The Giants threw different looks at him, played airtight coverage and stopped the run. It worked for 29 minutes before the floodgates opened and Rodgers nearly hung 40 on the league’s second-best defense by DVOA. Dallas’ secondary is the best part of its defense not named Sean Lee. With Nelson likely out, there isn’t a matchup they shouldn’t win in the secondary. But Rodgers is just too good.
He’s going to have time in the pocket—Green Bay has matchup advantages across the board on the offensive line, most consequentially at right guard where T.J. Lang should be able to handle David Irving—which means he’s going to create. If Green Bay can win at the line of scrimmage, it’s going to open up their run game as well, forcing Dallas to play a dangerous game with its linebackers. One mistake from Anthony Hitchens or Damien Wilson and Rodgers is going to pounce.
Dallas is going to move the ball as well, just as they have all year—including against the Packers. Green Bay’s injury problem at cornerback isn’t going away anytime soon and they just cannot slow down players like Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley. Damarious Randall has struggled all year—his PFF grade is a miserable 43.9—and Micah Hyde is ill equipped to play in the slot. Don’t expect a pass rush either. Green Bay ranks sixth in adjusted sack rate, but you can count the times Dallas allows pressure on one hand. The Packers’ best chance is to have Julius Peppers rushing off the defensive left—against Doug Free—on the occasional third down, but any sort of regular pressure isn’t happening with a 4-man rush. I doubt the Packers blitz much either given their cornerback situation.
Ezekiel Elliott is going to have his usual holes to run through as well. Mike Daniels may be able to get inside against Ronald Leary, but Dallas can run in any direction with great success. They rank sixth in adjusted line yards running to the left end, second running to the middle, sixth running to the right tackle and 10th to the right end. To stop the run against them, you need to be able to plug every gap—not just one or two—and the Packers cannot do that.
I think this is going to be the closest game of the weekend. Both teams are going to move the ball and either one of them could end up winning. I’m not sure who that’s going to be, but I am sure that this is going to be close.
Last Week: 2-2-0
All stats are from pro-football-reference.com, footballoutsiders.com or profootballfocus.com unless otherwise noted.