NFL playoffs, division round previews: Packers-Cowboys, Steelers-Chiefs

NFC: Packers (11-6) at Cowboys (13-3), 4:40

TV/radio: Fox; 102.5-FM

Line/OU: Cowboys by 5½; 52

Eighth meeting in playoffs, with Cowboys leading 4-3. Packers won last playoff matchup two years ago 26-21 in game famous for Dallas WR Dez Bryant's catch that wasn't. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett was backup QB when Dallas won three straight playoff games vs. Green Bay in 1990s. Cowboys won two Super Bowls in that stretch. Packers, Cowboys tied with Giants for most playoff appearances (32). Green Bay averaging 30.4 points per game on road in playoffs since 2006, most in NFL in that span. Coach Mike McCarthy has nine playoff wins, tied with Vince Lombardi and Mike Holmgren for most in club history. Aaron Rodgers has four TD passes in each of past three games, 19 with no interceptions during seven-game winning streak. He's one of four QBs with career postseason passer rating of at least 100. WR Jordy Nelson led NFL with 14 TD catches but is out with rib injury. Packers RB Ty Montgomery, former wideout, has 206 rushing yards, two TDs in past two on road. LB Clay Matthews has 11 career postseason sacks, tied for fifth most since 1982. Cowboys, with four straight losses in division round, seeking first NFC title game appearance since 1995 season. Dallas 11-3 in home division games but lost last one to Giants in 2007. Dak Prescott is first rookie QB to start playoff game for Cowboys. Won 13 games, tied with Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger (2004) for most by rookie in NFL history. Ezekiel Elliott led league with 1,631 yards rushing, third best ever for a rookie. Prescott and Elliott are third rookie QB-RB starting tandem in playoffs in Super Bowl era. Both previous were in 2012 season, with Colts (Andrew Luck/Vick Ballard) and Redskins (Robert Griffin III/Alfred Morris). Both lost. Bryant has 67 career TD catches, second in franchise history. Since 2012, he leads NFL with 52 TDs receiving. DLs DeMarcus Lawrence, Terrell McClain, Tyrone Crawford, Cedric Thornton should be available after sitting out regular-season finale, mostly as precaution.

AFC: Steelers (12-5) at Chiefs (12-4), 8:20

TV/radio: NBC; 102.5-FM

Line/OU: Chiefs by 1½; 44½

The game was scheduled to kickoff at 1:05 but changed to a night game because of an expected ice storm. Second postseason meeting after Chiefs (Joe Montana at QB) beat Steelers 27-24 in wild-card round in 1993 season. Chiefs have not won home playoff game since. Steelers and Chiefs have combined to lose once since Nov. 20. Steelers scored franchise record 22 first-quarter points in win over Chiefs in October. Le'Veon Bell set Pittsburgh playoff record with 167 yards rushing in win over Miami last week. Bell ran for 144 yards vs. KC in October in first game after three-game suspension. Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley was Chiefs head coach last time Kansas City hosted playoff game in 2010 season. QB Ben Roethlisberger will tie Mel Blount and Terry Bradshaw (19) for most playoff games in Steelers history. Roethlisberger threw five TD passes to four different targets against Chiefs in October. Chiefs have lost four straight home playoff games, three in division round. Coach Andy Reid has 11 playoff wins, second to Patriots' Bill Belichick (23) among active coaches. Chiefs All-Pro CB Marcus Peters had six interceptions, one behind Chargers' Casey Hayward for NFL lead. Chiefs' Travis Kelce led all TEs with 1,125 yards receiving this season. Alex Smith averaged 262 yards passing in five playoff games, three with Kansas City. He has thrown 11 TD passes against one INT. Rookie WR Tyreek Hill has 10 TDs since Week 10, most in league over that span, and made All-Pro team as punt returner.

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NFL Playoffs 2017: TV Coverage and Predictions for All AFC, NFC Divisional Games

Saturday marks the renewal of the NFL's playoff bracket, which features eight believable champions ready to overcome familiar foes in an effort to reach conference title games.

Based on the odds out of Las Vegas, some teams seem more believable than others, but the NFL playoffs have taught fans time and again to never underestimate a team left standing.

Saturday's slate features both the biggest spread of the round (Houston at New England) alongside perhaps the most unpredictable (Seattle at Atlanta). Sunday features the closest spreads thanks to Dallas hosting Green Bay and Kansas City hosting Pittsburgh, with the NFL pushing back the latter matchup due to weather concerns.

Let's take one final look at the bracket information before kickoff.

NFL Playoffs: Divisional Round

GameDateTime (ET)TVPoint SpreadPrediction
Seattle at AtlantaJan. 144:35 p.m.FoxAtlanta (5)ATL 30-24
Houston at New EnglandJan. 148:15 p.m.CBSNew England (-16)NE 35-17
Green Bay at DallasJan. 154:40 p.m.FoxDallas (-4)GB 23-20
Pittsburgh at Kansas CityJan. 158:20 p.m.NBCKansas City (-1.5)KC 24-20
Author's predictions, OddsShark

It's hard to complain about a rematch here when the Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons get together.

Fans know the deal—this comes down to Matt Ryan's elite offense against Richard Sherman's defense. Back in Week 6, Ryan, in the middle of an MVP-worthy campaign, almost had his Falcons do the unthinkable by winning in Seattle.

The team wound up losing 26-24, but the result gives insight into the player who could decide the rematch outright—Atlanta's Taylor Gabriel.

Atlanta struggled running the ball, gaining 52 rushing yards, and Julio Jones was the only receiving target able to catch more than five passes while dueling with Sherman. At the time, Gabriel hadn't been incorporated into the offense much.

Maybe this was the turning point for Atlanta's coaches. Gabriel went on to receive five or more targets in six of his next eight games, scoring six touchdowns.

Sherman can't cover two wideouts on his own, so Gabriel's ability to produce when called upon could decide the game.

Could it be anyone else?

The Houston Texans took a 27-0 loss to the New England Patriots early in the season despite being fortunate enough to catch the Patriots while Tom Brady served his suspension.

Hence the gaudy spread.

Embattled Houston quarterback Brock Osweiler went 24-of-41 for 196 yards and one interception in that loss. At the time, it was easy to think Osweiler was simply struggling with his new team, yet he went on to lose his job later in the season, albeit briefly.

Osweiler was back under center against the Oakland Raiders in the first round, throwing for just 168 yards and one score.

New England has made a hobby of bullying quarterbacks this year, ranking 12th against the pass (237.9 yards allowed per game) and first in points allowed (15.6). If Osweiler can't put up a few touchdowns while trying to keep pace with Tom Brady, he'll help oddsmakers look quite smart.

Expect someone else?

One could classify Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell as an X-factor, but it would feel like taking a shortcut. Ditto for Ben Roethlisberger, though he does struggle on the road.

But Kansas City Chiefs wideout Tyreek Hill personifies the definition. He scored one touchdown against the Steelers in a 43-14 loss in Week 4.

One only has to look at a 30-27 overtime victory against the Denver Broncos in Week 12 to see Hill's importance; he caught a touchdown, ran for another and took a kick return back for a score, carrying the Chiefs on his back.

The Chiefs, incredible home-field advantage or not, might need a similar performance from Hill based on how strong the Pittsburgh offense has looked down the stretch.

Whether Hill is able to impact the game in all phases or disappears might dictate whether the Chiefs can score a win at home.

In a game featuring Aaron Rodgers and electric rookies such as Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott, it sounds odd to call Jared Cook, a player with 377 yards and one touchdown over 10 games, an X-factor.

Alas, Cook's rather large (6'5", 254 lbs) presence changes the complexion of the Green Bay offense.

Cook himself hasn't done much damage this year. But the Green Bay Packers won eight of the team's 10 games when he suited up. Coincidentally enough, he didn't play in Week 6 when the Dallas Cowboys beat the Packers rather easily 30-16 at Lambeau Field. Rodgers only threw one touchdown with one interception.

Cook is more important than ever in this rematch, as the Packers announced they won't have Jordy Nelson on the field.

How Dallas responds to Cook being on the field for the rematch might influence how much damage Rodgers can do while seeking revenge.


Cowboys' Jerry Jones looking over shoulder at past NFL playoff failures

Imagine if there were two Jerry Jones eccentrics calling the shots.

Double the hype. Double the pressure. Double trouble. Triple the cash flow.

Two Jerrys.

One is optimistic, flowing as a forward thinker. The other is pessimistic, a bit haunted by the past.

“If we think we’re going to play the Green Bay team we played in the sixth game, we’re foolish,” the flamboyant owner of the Dallas Cowboys told USA TODAY Sports.

In the first NFC divisional playoff game in these parts in nine years, Dallas will host a Green Bay Packers team that it manhandled, 30-16, at Lambeau Field in Week 6. The setup reminds Jerry about the last time the Cowboys earned a No. 1 seed. They had swept the regular-season series against the New York Giants in 2007, but were bounced with an upset loss to New York in the divisional playoffs.

“There’s just a little of me that thinks we thought we had New York sized up because we had beaten them twice,” Jones reflects.

During an extended lunch on Friday at the team’s new headquarters, Jones’ mood alternated when pondering this moment for his emerging team – invigorated by rookie stars Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott -- against the backdrop of history. That’s natural enough, with his experience offering perspective.

“I’ve been keenly aware, keenly defensive, edgy, or any human reaction you want to call when you’re not getting to where you want to go, when you aren’t meeting your goal,” says Jones, who franchise has just three playoff victories since the end of the Super Bowl glory years of the ‘90s.

“Any way you say it, it doesn’t bother me. If it looks like I’m pressuring somebody, if it looks like I’m pressuring the coach, pressuring the players, that’s the least of my worries.”

With coach Jason Garrett pushing the right buttons, the Cowboys are a top seed for a reason, fueling a rather special time for Jones. On top of the Cowboys’ rebound from last season’s 4-12 disaster, Jones is a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame class to be selected next month and his grandson, John Stephen, quarterbacked Highland Park High School to a Class 5A state championship, winning the crown at AT&T Stadium, of all places.

But now the NFL playoffs have arrived, with a fine line separating destiny from heartbreak.

“Up until right now, this year I’ve watched the success unfold in amazement,” said Jones, mindful of the long odds that Prescott, a fourth-round rookie, would supplant longtime franchise quarterback Tony Romo. “But I’ve not thought until now that any time we walked out there it was do or die.

“So this is a lot different. You really do read the negative to yourself. If we don’t win, what am I going to do next Tuesday? What am I going to be doing next Wednesday?”

Another playoff loss that lingers: the 1994 NFC title game (before Elliott was born) at Candlestick Park, when the Cowboys quickly fell behind, 21-0. They fought back to make a game of it, but in the end had their chance to become the NFL’s first three-peat Super Bowl champion extinguished.

Jones points to that loss and the divisional playoff loss against the Giants as two rare cases where he’s shed tears over defeats, because he thought those Dallas teams could win it all.

Ok, back to the future: Who makes sure the buff Cowboys, 13-3, won’t be overconfident on Sunday?

Jones bristles.

“Green Bay’s helped us out,” maintains Jones, mindful of the zone where Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has resided during a seven-game winning streak. “We’re going against the hottest team. So in terms of any overconfidence issue, Green Bay has thwarted that train of thought. Everybody in here knows it’s a different dynamic.”

Back to the past.

“Look at 21 points down in 5 ½ minutes at San Francisco,” Jones says, “against a team that I thought we were better than …”

It’s fitting that in the season Jones moved his team to a glitzy new home, dubbed The Star (with the sprawling retail zone that surrounds it still under construction), that a revised version of the team has been constructed – and powered by the rookie stars as faces of the future.

The Star is like a museum. The artifacts, signage and photos presented throughout that place provide constant reminders about the rich history and culture of a franchise that has won five Super Bowls – albeit zero in 21 years.

Yes, it’s been a while since the Cowboys won three Super Bowls during a four-year span in the 1990s.

“It doesn’t register with me, the numbers of seasons, because I know how many other teams have the same frustrations,” Jones said. “And so I don’t recognize a count, like 19 to 1, that you didn’t get to the Super Bowl. Maybe it’s the optimist in me. Maybe I just can’t go there.

“I don’t look at an aggregation of years as that long since we’ve had that kind of success,” he added. “I look at specific teams where we had the opportunity to get there and blew it.”

The pessimist in Jerry knows. Maybe that’s why he’s watched that playoff loss against the Giants from nine years ago at least 15 times – “Totally and completely,” he says – and most recently within the past month. That must be like some self-torture.

Longtime diehards remember. During the bye week beforehand, Romo and Jason Witten went to Cabo San Lucas. After bringing him off the bench all season as the closer, the Cowboys decided to start Marion Barber III at running back. Then the offense was further doomed by dropped passes, including Patrick Crayton’s gaffe in the end zone.

But hey, that was a long time ago. Just four current players, including Witten and Romo, were on that 2007 squad. When the Cowboys lost that divisional playoff, Prescott was 14 years old. Elliott was 12. Maybe they watched it on TV.

“In my mind, that’s not that far back,” Jones contends.

Regardless, it has taken nine years for the Cowboys to get back to hosting a divisional playoff game. That nothing is promised beyond that in the make-or-break playoffs is something on which both Jerrys – the optimist and the pessimist – will agree.

“You don’t need a reminder of the suddenness,” Jones said. “It’s like every series is like the seventh game of the World Series.”

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