It’s divisional weekend in the NFL as the top four seeds enter the play-offs following a week of rest to do battle with the victors of the wildcard round, writes Karl O'Shaughnessy.
The eight teams taking the field this weekend know they are now only two victories away from securing their place at Super Bowl LI (or 51 if you're not Roman) in Houston, Texas on 5 February.
The action gets underway on Saturday at 9.35pm Irish time as the Seattle Seahawks travel to the Georgia Dome to face the in-form Atlanta Falcons.
The Falcons boast the second-best offence in the NFL. Led by nine-year veteran quarterback Matt Ryan, who has had his biggest season to date throwing for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns, the Falcons topped the NFC South with an 11-5 record.
The Seahawks defence will have their work cut out. Not just with quarterback Ryan, but also with running back Devonta Freeman, who rushed for over 1,000 yards in the regular season for the second year running, and elite wide-receiver Julio Jones, who grabbed over 1,400 passing yards and six touchdowns - second only in the NFL to Indianapolis Colts’ receiver TY Hilton.
Seattle make the trip to Atlanta following a regular season that ended with a 10-5-1 record and followed it up with a comprehensive 26-6 wildcard victory over the Detroit Lions last weekend.
Running-back Thomas Rawls was the catalyst for victory as he rushed for 161 yards, his best return of the season.
In previous years, the Seahawks navigated the play-offs to Super Bowl berths off the back of some powerful running from Marshawn Lynch and comparisons are already being made in some quarters to Rawls’ performance last weekend. Whether Rawls can channel his inner “Beastmode” again remains to be seen.
Perhaps more important to Seattle’s success in recent years has been quarterback Russell Wilson, who notched up his eighth playoff victory last weekend against the Lions.
Wilson now holds the all-time NFL record for most wins by a starting quarterback in his first five seasons in the league, ahead of such notable adversaries as New England’s Tom Brady and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger.
Despite Seattle narrowly beating Atlanta 26-24 back in October, many experts are picking the Falcons to have too much at home this time around against the Seahawks but it’s a brave call to completely write off a Pete Carroll-coached Seattle, particularly in win-or-bust play-off football. This should be an intriguing game to kick-start the divisional round.
Later that night (1.15am Sunday Irish Time), the Houston Texans continue their efforts to reach a “home” Super Bowl as they travel to Gillette Stadium in Foxboro to face the New England Patriots.
These two sides last met during the regular season at the same venue back in September when the Pats, without suspended star quarterback Tom Brady, shut out the Texans 27-0.
The Patriots boast the fourth best offence in the NFL while the Texans are ranked 29th overall.
However, it’s the number-one ranked Texans defence, which holds the key to success for Houston on Sunday and perhaps further down the road, with Denver’s ultra-defensive Super Bowl victory last year lingering as a beacon of hope for Texans fans.
One man familiar with the Broncos success last season is quarterback Brock Osweiler, who will lead the Texans at Gillette Stadium this time around.
Osweiler watched from the sidelines as Peyton Manning’s backup at Super Bowl 50 and will be more aware than most of the old adage that “defence wins championships”.
Osweiler has endured a difficult time since moving from Denver to Houston in the off-season in a big-money deal.
He was amongst the bottom four for interceptions thrown this season and ranked 27th in the league for touchdowns scored amongst quarterbacks.
In 2016, Tom Brady saw his 201st win.— NFL (@NFL) January 13, 2017
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On the other hand, legendary Patriots quarterback Brady ranked seventh for touchdowns in the NFL, in spite of the “deflategate” suspension that saw him miss the first four weeks of the season
Texans’ running-back Lemar Miller had over 1,000 yards rushing this season while the Patriots’ LaGarrette Blount did likewise as well as lead the league with 18 scoring touchdowns.
New England at home is a difficult proposition for any team and in playoff football it’s an even bigger mountain to climb with the experience that Pats coach Bill Bellichick has in the playoffs.
However, nothing is impossible in the NFL, and if the Houston defence can get their offence back on the field without giving up too many points, they’ll certainly have an outside chance of pulling off what would be the shock of the weekend.
Sunday evening’s action kicks-off at 6.05pm Irish time as the Pittsburgh Steelers make the trip to Arrowhead Stadium to take on the Kansas City Chiefs.
These two faced each other back in October in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers cruised to a 43-14 victory.
Steeler’s quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for five touchdowns on the day. Two of those went to elite wide-receiver Antonio Brown, who finished the regular season ranked second for scoring touchdowns.
Roethlisberger and Brown, along with running-back Le’Veon Bell, were instrumental in Pittsburgh setting up this divisional matchup as they brushed aside the Miami Dolphins 30-12 in the wildcard round.
Bell ran for 167 yards with two touchdowns while Brown had 124 yards and two touchdowns in a dominant display.
Roethlisberger appeared at the post-match press conference with a walking boot on his right foot but it appears that he avoided major damage and will be under-centre for the Steelers this weekend.
The Chiefs come into the Divisional Round with a 12-4 record and as champions of the competitive AFC West division, where they finished first ahead of the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos.
Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith has run a fairly middle-of-the-road offence this season but there are weapons there that can hurt the Steelers, notably tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin.
Kansas City are renowned for having one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL and it is a difficult stadium for opposing teams to call plays in.
The Chiefs have lost their last four play-off games in front of their own fans though, and Pittsburgh will relish the opportunity to inflict more misery on the home fans.
The Steelers hold the record for the most post-season wins in NFL history, but they’ll have to be better on the road than usual to add win number 36 to the list in Kansas.
Could this be the first playoff win at home for the Chiefs since 1993? It is sure to be an interesting and noisy encounter.
Sunday’s final game sees Aaron Rodgers lead the Green Bay Packers to Texas to face Dak Prescott’s Dallas Cowboys at 9.40pm Irish times.
Dallas finished the regular season with an impressive 13-3 record to top the NFC East while Green Bay topped the NFC North with a 10-6 record.
Green Bay had a sluggish start last weekend against the New York Giants in the wildcard round at Lambeau Field, but quarterback Rodgers' inspired 'Hail Mary' touchdown right before half-time proved the shot-in-the-arm that the Packers needed as they marched on to a resounding 38-13 victory.
The Packers had less than 100 yards from their ground game last week and most expect another aerial assault from them in Dallas this weekend with wide receivers Devante Adams and Randall Cobb being the main targets once again.
Rodgers has helped Green Bay to seven straight victories, throwing 19 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He is on the kind of hot streak that championships are built on.
Dallas, like Houston, are hoping to reach a home-state Super Bowl in early February and will fancy their chances of winning out at home throughout the play-offs.
Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott has kept veteran Tony Romo on the sidelines this season, even after his return from injury, and has thrown for 3667 yards and 23 touchdowns.
As a measure of how much of a big deal Prescott’s holding of the quarterback position within the team is, he will become the first rookie quarterback in franchise history to start a playoff game for the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.
Rookie running back Ezekiel Elliot has also taken the NFL by storm this season rushing for over 1600 yards and scoring 15 touchdowns in the process.
When these two sides met back in October during the regular season, with the Cowboys dominating the Packers 30-16 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, it was Elliot who had his second highest output of the season, rushing for 157 yards. On home turf, he will fancy his chances to better that in the playoffs.
These two famously last met in playoff football back in 2014 when the Packers overcame the Cowboys 29-24.
That game is probably best remembered for a controversial referee call which resulted in Dallas having a catch by wide receiver Des Bryant, which would have given them a fourth-quarter lead, deemed incomplete.
Would anyone be surprised to see Bryant rewrite the script this weekend and lead Dallas to victory?
With so many plotlines, this one is already shaping up as potentially the game of the weekend and one that should not be missed.
The winners of each divisional game will face their conference rivals next Sunday for the right to represent the AFC or NFC Conference at the Super Bowl.
Saturday 14th January
Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons 21:35 (Sky Sports)
Sunday 15th January 2017
Houston Texans at New England Patriots 01:15(Sky Sports)
Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs 18:05 (Sky Sports)
Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys 21:40 (Sky Sports)