The best week in the NFL season is upon us.
The NFL playoffs started last week with a nice little appetizer, but this weekend — the divisional round — we really get into the main course. Sure, the conference championships and Super Bowl represent the cream of the crop, but the divisional round gives us a higher level of competition than the wild-card round and we get football on both Saturday and Sunday.
As always, NESN.com’s Mike Cole, Ricky Doyle and Andre Khatchaturian are back to make their picks against the spread. Before we get to the picks, though, here’s how they did last week.
Mike Cole: 2-2
Ricky Doyle: 3-1
Andre Khatchaturian: 2-2
Seattle Seahawks at (-5) Atlanta Falcons, Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET
Mike: Falcons. Seattle just is a different team on the road, and the Seahawks’ pass defense without Earl Thomas has been a bit of an issue. Atlanta, at home, had the NFL’s best first-quarter offense, averaging 11.5 points per first quarter at the Georgia Dome. I think the Falcons get another quick start here, and if they do that, they’ll be able to take away Seattle’s biggest potential strength: its running game. If Atlanta puts the Seahawks in a position where they have to throw the ball 40 to 50 times, that should expose Seattle’s offensive line issues and make it a long day for Russell Wilson.
Ricky: Seahawks. Seattle’s rushing attack, led by Thomas Rawls, sure looked formidable against Detroit, and that’ll be huge this week as the Seahawks look to control the clock and keep the ball away from the Falcons’ high-powered offense. Fortunately for the ‘Hawks, Atlanta allowed 4.5 yards per carry this season, which ranked 26th in the NFL. On the flip side, Seattle allowed an NFL-best 3.4 yards per carry, so the Seahawks’ defense has the ability to make the Falcons’ offense one-dimensional.
Andre: Falcons. Matt Ryan and the Falcons boast the best yards per play differential in football and also have an underrated defense led by Vic Beasley, who recorded 15 1/2 sacks this season. The Seahawks offensive line hasn’t been all that great this season, allowing 42 sacks — most among all playoff teams, so Wilson had better be careful. The Falcons also surprisingly have a plus-11 turnover differential, one of the highest marks in the league. Meanwhile, the Seahawks have a minus-5 differential in the last seven games.
Houston Texans at (-15) New England Patriots, Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET
Mike: Texans. As I said on “The Spread” this week, there are some similarities between this game and the Patriots’ divisional-round loss to the Jets at the end of the 2010 season, when New York came in as a 9.5-point underdog after being throttled by New England earlier in the season and won. The Patriots should win this game, but there’s certainly a path for Houston to make it a contest. If Houston can get Lamar Miller going and slow down the game, they can at least keep it competitive. Houston definitely has the personnel to make Tom Brady uncomfortable, too. And that’s just a lot of points, man.
Ricky: Texans. I fully recognize the Patriots are rolling. And it wouldn’t shock me if Matt Patricia makes Brock Osweiler’s life a living hell and New England coasts to victory, as many expect. But that’s just soooo many points to lay in an NFL game, let alone an NFL playoff game. Plus, Houston’s top-ranked defense is, as Brady put it earlier this week, “damn good,” even if yards allowed isn’t necessarily the best barometer. The first few minutes of this game should be a good indicator as to how the night’s going to go for both teams.
Andre: Texans. The Patriots were 13-point favorites at home against the Los Angeles Rams in December. The 15-point spread is massively inflated, just like the Patriots’ statistical numbers on defense, which have ballooned because of their easy schedule. Here are six of the last seven quarterbacks they’ve faced: Matt Moore, Bryce Petty, Trevor Siemian, Jared Goff, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Colin Kaepernick. Sure, Brock Osweiler is no world beater, but the Texans had the second-highest time of possession this season, thanks to Lamar Miller running the ball well and their defense keeping opponents off the field quickly.
Pittsburgh Steelers at (-1.5) Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET
Mike: Chiefs. Ball protection is pivotal this time of the year, and now you’ve got a Pittsburgh team that’s turned the ball over 10 times in its last six games. Meanwhile, the Chiefs led the NFL in turnover differential. Another important aspect in the playoffs? Special teams. No one’s better than KC in that area, and Mike Tomlin said just this week that his team needs to do a better job in that facet of the game.
Ricky: Steelers. It’s weird to say, but Ben Roethlisberger being banged up could be a blessing in disguise for Pittsburgh’s offense, which typically finds itself in trouble when No. 7 tries to do too much. The Chiefs’ run defense has been somewhat of an issue this season, and that problem was exacerbated when linebacker Derrick Johnson went down with a season-ending injury. The Steelers need to feed Le’Veon Bell — the best running back in football — early and often, and don’t be surprised if Antonio Brown again shines by picking up big yardage after the catch on short and intermediate routes.
Andre: Chiefs. Roethlisberger enters this game having thrown eight touchdowns and eight interceptions over the last five games. I think there might be something physically wrong with him that’s hindering him from playing at his highest level. Turning the ball over that often isn’t going to fly against a Kansas City team that has won 22 of its last 27 games and boasts a league-best plus-16 turnover differential.
Green Bay Packers at (-4.5) Dallas Cowboys, Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET
Mike: Packers. Aaron Rodgers is the best football player on the planet at the peak of his game, and he’s getting points here. That alone should be the reasoning. The Packers’ defense is cause for concern, but it’s not like the Cowboys are the ’85 Bears. We saw Rodgers (mostly without Jordy Nelson) carve up the supposedly vaunted Giants last week, and now he gets a much more favorable matchup against a defense that ranked 31st in completion percentage allowed and 24th in opponent passer rating. The Cowboys still will get theirs and probably should win this game, but if it’s a shootout, it probably will be close, so I’ll take the best player on the field and the points.
Ricky: Cowboys. Yes, picking against Rodgers scares me to death, especially after I suggested last week that the Giants could be the biggest hurdle the Packers face en route to the Super Bowl. Yet here I am, picking the Cowboys, who are giving points. And it’s because I think the Packers’ injuries are going to catch up to them. The Cowboys have the running game to control the clock and keep the ball out of Rodgers’ hands, and their secondary is as healthy as it’s been all season with cornerback Morris Claiborne returning this week.
Andre: Packers. The Cowboys have allowed the second-highest completion percentage this season. That’s not a good stat when you’re getting ready to go up against Rodgers. Ezekiel Elliott likely will have a huge game, but Rodgers’ dominance might force the Cowboys to rely a lot on Dak Prescott, who didn’t perform well in his second meetings against opponents this season. Prescott failed to crack the 200-yard mark in his second game against Washington, threw two picks and had a 45 percent completion percentage against the Giants and completed just four passes out of eight attempts in limited action against the Eagles. He’s a rookie, after all, and I think the Packers’ hot defense will slow him down.
Thumbnail photo via Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports Images