NFL Playoff Predictions: Expert Consensus Divisional Picks
And then there were eight.
Last week's Wild Card Round wasn't particularly wild. Not only did all four higher-seeded teams emerge with the win, but none of the games were especially close.
Now, however, the plot thickens.
This week's divisional round features the playoff debuts of the top seeds in each conference. In the AFC, that means it's time for the New England Patriots to make their annual run at the Super Bowl.
In Dallas, it's a different version of a similar story, as rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott lead the Cowboys into the playoffs after their most successful regular season in a decade.
Will the higher seeds prevail again, or will some of last week's victors carry the momentum all the way to the conference championship games?
Just as in the Wild Card Round, the NFL writers here at Bleacher Report have gathered to predict how the divisional round will play out.
Will it be more chalk or upset city?
The good news is that everyone on our panel managed to get at least three of the four games on Wild Card Weekend right. Sure, it's a small sample size, but anytime you can post a .750 "winning percentage" on NFL picks, that's a good day at the office.
Also, as a group, the panel ran the table. Four games, four correct consensus choices.
Twelve heads are better than one, it appears.
The bad news is that not many of our pundits had a great weekend individually. Only four of the 12 experts who submitted picks for the Wild Card Round (Doug Farrar, Brad Gagnon, Chris Simms and Brent Sobleski) swept the weekend's action.
That quartet enters this week's games with the narrowest of leads.
Jason Cole, NFL National Lead Writer 3-1 (3-1)
Gary Davenport, NFL Analyst 3-1 (3-1)
Tyler Dunne, NFL Features Writer 3-1 (3-1)
Doug Farrar, NFL Lead Scout 4-0 (4-0)
Mike Freeman, NFL National Lead Writer 3-1 (3-1)
Brad Gagnon, NFL Analyst 4-0 (4-0)
Matt Miller, NFL Draft Lead Writer 3-1 (3-1)
Dan Pompei, NFL Columnist 3-1 (3-1)
Chris Simms, NFL Lead Analyst 4-0 (4-0)
Brent Sobleski, NFL Analyst 4-0 (4-0)
Mike Tanier, NFL National Lead Writer 3-1 (3-1)
Sean Tomlinson, NFL Analyst 3-1 (3-1)
Consensus: 4-0 (4-0)
No. 3 Seattle Seahawks at No. 2 Atlanta Falcons
When: Saturday, January 14, 4:35 p.m. ET
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
Line: Atlanta -5
Offense vs. defense. Strength meets strength.
On one hand, we have the NFL's fifth-ranked defense in the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks rank seventh in the league against the run and eighth against the pass. It's a unit that features the NFL's leading tackler (linebacker Bobby Wagner), one of the league's leading sack artists (defensive end Cliff Avril) and arguably the best cornerback in football (Richard Sherman).
That defense is missing a key piece in safety Earl Thomas, but his absence wasn't really felt in last week's dismantling of the Detroit Lions. Wagner told Geoffrey C. Arnold of OregonLive that Thomas' season-ending injury has placed extra pressure on his teammates to step up their game.
"We're just really focusing on our game," Wagner said. "I felt like everybody was locked in and everybody was ready to play. We were able to come out and lock in and focus. We want this to carry over into the next game. I feel like we will."
That focus had better be laser-sharp on Saturday. This week, the Seahawks face an Atlanta offense that ranked second overall, third in passing and fifth in rushing. The Falcons are loaded with talent on that side of the ball, including an MVP candidate in quarterback Matt Ryan and one of the NFL's most dangerous receivers in Julio Jones.
Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn insisted the Falcons aren't going to change their strategy in preparation for the Seahawks. This is a team that's going to dance with who brought it here.
"The players here, we have a real clear vision of how we want to play," Quinn said, per Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I think that helps a bunch. We are not trying to be anything different than who we are. That process we go through to get ready, that's what this week is about to us. The phrase we use is: 'Do what we do.'"
So who's going to blink? Can a stout Seattle defense slow the high-flying Falcons? Can a young but improved Atlanta defense get timely stops when it needs them? Which team will be the first to punch its ticket for championship game weekend?
The Pick: Atlanta Falcons (9-3)
I can't speak to my colleagues' rationale (my crystal ball was recalled—something about faulty plutonium shielding—party poopers), but for me, the determining factor in this game is the same as the one that decides the success of restaurants.
Location, location, location.
In the Detroit game, we were reminded as to what the Seahawks are like at home. Seattle feeds off the raucous crowds at CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks lost all of once at home this season, a statistic that's hardly unusual for them.
It's a much different story on the road, where the Seahawks went 3-4-1 in 2016.
A quick look at the home/away splits bears this out. Last week at home, Thomas Rawls rolled for 161 yards on 27 carries. The Seahawks averaged over 110 rushing yards per game at home this season.
On the road, though, it's far more likely that we'll see the Thomas Rawls who averaged only 3.2 yards per carry in the regular season. That's because away from the Pacific Northwest, the Seahawks managed only 88.1 rushing yards per game.
On its home field, Seattle averaged over 28 points per game. On the road, that number free-falls to 15.7 points per game—almost two fewer touchdowns. In three of their eight road games, the Seahawks failed to find the end zone at all.
Those are all bad omens heading into a matchup with one of the best offenses in the National Football League.
Also, while the Seattle defense has been more consistent than the offense in 2016, the loss of Thomas was a huge blow. The Lions may not have been able to take advantage of his absence a week ago, but as Matt Ryan told ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure, the Falcons were able to attack Seattle vertically with some success earlier this season, even with Thomas on the field:
We created some big plays with Earl in the lineup, too. There's plays [sic] to be made at all times through games. One guy's not going to make it ... Earl's a great player, there's no question about that, but there will be opportunities. There always are during games. Like always, whenever we get our opportunities, hopefully we can make those plays.
On the road, this just isn't a matchup that sets up well for the Seahawks.
Seahawks: Cole, Freeman, Tomlinson
Falcons: Davenport, Dunne, Farrar, Gagnon, Miller, Pompei, Simms, Sobleski, Tanier
No. 4 Houston Texans at No. 1 New England Patriots
When: Saturday, January 14, 8:15 p.m. ET
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts
Line: New England -15
Sixteen points is quite the spread for any NFL game—let alone one in the playoffs.
In fact, per Chris Chase of Fox Sports, that opening line for Saturday night's game would have been the fourth-largest of any playoff game in NFL history, one of only two divisional-round games with a spread that robust and the biggest gap on bettor's boards in the postseason in 18 years.
Of course, it's not that hard to figure out why, at 15 points, the spread still has a steeper slope than K2. The last time the Texans traveled to Foxborough for a playoff game (2012), Houston was waxed in a contest that wasn't nearly as close as the final score.
When Houston made the trip to New England back in Week 3, it was shelled 27-0.
And that was with Jacoby Brissett under center for the Pats.
This time, the Texans will face Tom Brady. But while some view that staggering point spread as a sign of disrespect for the road team, Houston head coach Bill O'Brien insisted to Sarah Barshop of ESPN.com that "+15" won't be appearing on any locker room bulletin boards this week:
What does that matter? The only thing that matters is what takes place in between the lines on Saturday night.
So no, I don't really go too much to the Vegas betting line. I don't think that will really be a good motivational tool this week.
Our players are going to walk in here with the mindset that they have earned the right to be here and that they are looking forward to the challenge. We aren't going to talk about what went on in the past. ... It doesn't matter as it relates to Saturday night. None of that matters. The only thing that matters is how each team prepares this week in preparation for the game Saturday night.
As usual for the businesslike Pats, they aren't taking anything for granted. Brady told WEEI radio (via ESPN.com's Mike Reiss) that the past doesn't mean much where Saturday's game is concerned:
This is a day-to-day league. It really doesn't matter the last time we played them, or last year, because things change so much with the game or game plan and players. Coach talks all the time, 'It's not who you play, it's how you play.' We need to play well.
If you look at games earlier in the season against them, we played well. We shut them out. We did a lot of things that are winning football. We've done that over the course of the whole season, but none of that stuff really matters if we don't do that this week. So you put together a process and a winning formula, and then you need to go out and execute it. And if you don't execute it, you lose.
Can the Texans make playoff history and pull off an upset for the ages? Or will the Bill Belichick/Brady juggernaut roll on and host the AFC Championship Game?
The Pick: New England Patriots (12-0)
The gents in Vegas that set those point spreads don't just throw a number out there and hope it sticks. For them to set a point spread so historically thick says two things. One, they don't believe the Texans stand a snowball's chance in Foxborough on Sunday.
Two, the folks who run the sportsbooks like to hedge their bets. A spread that large indicates significant concern that no one is going to wager on the Texans without a ton of encouragement.
And with that encouragement, as ESPN.com's David Purdum pointed out, not even the mothers of the Houston players are betting on the visitors.
"We've taken almost $19,000 on New England," said Jason Simbal, VP of risk at sportsbook operator CG Technology, on Sunday. "And $196 on Houston."
OK, maybe the moms finally are, since the spread has dropped a point. Way to step up, moms.
At this point, it's probably a good idea to also mention that all three teams favored by 16 or more points in the playoffs over the last 40 years covered the spread.
There are just too many things working against the Texans. Far too many things.
The Patriots have five wins in a row over Houston, including a 27-point smackdown earlier this year led by New England's third-string quarterback. Saturday night, the Patriots will start a signal-caller who has started six more Super Bowls than the Texans have reached in the history of their franchise.
The Patriots were fourth in the NFL offensively in 2016, averaging 386.2 yards per game. The Texans were 29th, at 314.7 yards per contest. That's a difference of over 70 yards per game and well over 1,000 yards for the season.
The Patriots are offensive chess masters, constantly moving pieces on the board to gain an advantage. The Texans, under Brock Osweiler, are playing checkers—and not especially well.
Yes, the Texans had the league's top-ranked defense. But the Patriots were hardly bad defensively in 2016, ranking eighth in the NFL while giving up about 25 more yards per game than Houston.
Oh, and New England led the league in scoring defense (the only category that really matters), surrendering 15.6 points per game. The Texans checked in at 11th in that category, allowing nearly five more points per contest.
The Texans are a 9-7 (now 10-7) team that's very good on one side of the ball and very bad on the other. The Patriots are a 14-win juggernaut that's equally formidable on both sides of the ball playing in a stadium where it's never lost when leading at the half.
This game will be over at intermission, and the road to Super Bowl LI will travel through New England next week.
Texans: No one. Ab-so-lute-ly no one.
Patriots: Cole, Davenport, Dunne, Farrar, Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Pompei, Simms, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson
No. 3 Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 2 Kansas City Chiefs
When: Sunday, January 15, 8:20 p.m. ET
Where: Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Missouri
Line: Kansas City -1.5
NOTE: As ESPN's Adam Teicher reported, the start time for Sunday's AFC Divisional Round game between the Chiefs and Steelers was moved from 1:05 p.m. to 8:20 p.m. due to the ice storm expected to hit Kansas City early Sunday.
In a statement the NFL said, "Moving the game from the original 1:05 p.m. ET start time will provide local authorities more time to clear roads in the area as the weather is expected to improve throughout Sunday. The decision to make this time change was made in consultation with state and local officials as well as the Chiefs and the Steelers.''
This preview was written before that announcement.
The Kansas City Chiefs are the Rodney Dangerfields of this year's playoff field. Despite a 12-win season, an AFC West title, their third playoff trip in four seasons and the No. 2 seed in the AFC, very few people are sold on the Chiefs' chances for Super Bowl LI.
That may have something to do with the fact that the Chiefs are 1-9 over their last 10 playoff games, with the lone victory coming last season against the Houston Texans. Or it could be because the Chiefs haven't won a playoff game at Arrowhead since January 8, 1994.
That victory came over the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Kansas City head coach Andy Reid told Dave Skretta of the AP (via Fox Sports) that he expects a raucous crowd Sunday afternoon in a game where cold temperatures and the possibility of freezing rain and/or snow are forecast.
I love bringing teams in here, and now a playoff game — it was rocking and rolling that game where they set the decibel record. The ground was shaking. And I can't wait for this.
We know the fans will be here and do their part, and now we have to do our part. Rain, snow, it doesn't matter. They'll be here and do their thing, and that's exciting.
Reid is no doubt hoping for a different kind of excitement than when these teams last met. Back in Week 4, the Steelers dominated the Chiefs 43-14 in a game where Le'Veon Bell rushed for 144 yards and Ben Roethlisberger tossed five touchdown passes.
That contest may have been a one-sided affair, but Steelers tackle Marcus Gilbert told Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review he expects tougher sledding this go-round:
They probably felt a little embarrassed about how they played in all three phases. But we don't expect to see that this time around. It's playoff football, they've been really hot. We have to bring our best. Our "A" players have to play great. We need to get the job done because they will be a tough outfit.
Since that loss dropped the Chiefs to 2-2, they've peeled off 10 wins in 12 games. At least where the sportsbooks are concerned, this is the most evenly matched game of the divisional round.
So what will it be? Can a Pittsburgh team loaded with "A" players on offense make it two in a row? Or will a Chiefs team that does everything well—but nothing exceedingly well—prove the doubters wrong again?
The Pick: Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5)
There's an old adage in sports betting that states the home team gets three points. The spread for this contest sits at half that, showing just how closely matched the Steelers and Chiefs are perceived to be this weekend.
And sure enough, this vote nearly split our panel down the middle.
Five voters, including NFL National Lead Writer Mike Tanier, picked the Chiefs, with Tanier pointing to Pittsburgh's deficiencies in kick coverage as a potential factor:
Ben Roethlisberger's walking boot is a minor concern. Roethlisberger's general sloppiness lately is a bigger concern: He has thrown some inexplicable picks and almost-picks lately. Factor in the Steelers' poor kick coverage, and the Chiefs could have turnovers, big returns and crowd noise working in their favor. That will be a lot for the Steelers to overcome, no matter how well they are playing.
According to Ryan Wilson of CBSSports.com, Tanier might be on to something. Per Wilson, Big Ben's numbers away from Heinz Field this year (59.4 completion percentage, 9 TDs, 8 INTs, 78.4 passer rating) are positively Os-lousy. Wilson elaborated:
On the surface, Roethlisberger's road numbers aren't all that different than Brock Osweiler's. The Houston Texans' quarterback finished the regular season completing 59 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and a 72.2 passer rating. This isn't to say that Big Ben morphs into Osweiler 2.0 once he leaves the Pittsburgh city limits, but he hasn't regularly resembled the Hall of Fame quarterback we see at Heinz Field.
Don't get me wrong. I will not be even a little surprised if the Chiefs win this game. If an opportunistic Chiefs defense and/or special teams dynamo Tyreek Hill can give the Chiefs a score or short field, the Chiefs could easily flip all the pressure onto the Steelers—in bad weather and in front of the most hostile crowd in the AFC.
But I can't stop thinking about how the Steelers carved the Miami Dolphins to pieces last week. Or how they did the same to the Chiefs earlier this season.
The Chiefs almost have to sell out to try to stop Le'Veon Bell, who gashed Kansas City's 26th-ranked run defense for nearly 150 yards in Pittsburgh.
That means leaving their defensive backs on an island against the Pittsburgh passing game—a formula that led to five touchdowns through the air back in October.
I don't expect the Chiefs to allow 43 points again. But I also don't think they can hold up defensively against Pittsburgh's three-headed hydra of offensive superstars.
The Steelers live on, as does Kansas City's two-decade run of playoff futility.
Steelers: Cole, Davenport, Dunne, Freeman, Gagnon, Pompei, Tomlinson
Chiefs: Farrar, Miller, Simms, Sobleski, Tanier
No. 4 Green Bay Packers at No. 1 Dallas Cowboys
When: Sunday, January 15, 4:40 p.m. ET
Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Line: Dallas -4.5
The finale of the divisional round has the makings of the best game of the weekend—a duel between two of the NFL's most iconic franchises.
For the surging Green Bay Packers, it's business as usual. 2016 marks the eighth straight season in which the Packers have made the postseason. In five of those campaigns, the Pack won at least one playoff game, just as they did in defeating the New York Giants 38-13 last week.
The win continued Green Bay's huge second-half surge. As Michael Silver of NFL.com reported, guard T.J. Lang credited that surge both to the even hand of head coach Mike McCarthy and the public assurance from quarterback Aaron Rodgers that the then-4-6 Packers could run the table. Lang remarked:
When Aaron said that, a lot of people were looking at us thinking, "What are they drinking in here?" Aaron's not a guy who usually makes statements like that in the media. He usually says them behind closed doors, in a meeting, but not to the world.
For him to come out and say we could run the table, it was huge. A lot of guys needed to hear that. It gave us a lot of confidence. That, and Mike's measured approach and faith in us, really gave us the boost we needed.
Green Bay hasn't lost since, but this week brings with it the ultimate test—a trip to face the NFC's top seed in the Dallas Cowboys.
The Cowboys were rocketed to their best regular season in over a decade by an unlikely set of propellants—a pair of rookies.
But as Cowboys owner and all-around grand poobah Jerry Jones told Charean Williams of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, quarterback Dak Prescott isn't your typical first-year player.
I think Dak has had rare experience. He's had success along with the reps and the time. I think the kinds of things that veteran quarterbacks do that make them successful is what has made Dak successful — his preparation, his conscientiousness toward his work, his execution, taking it to the field, taking it to practice. I think all of those things have given him an inordinate bank of experience.
Youth vs. experience. The talent and athleticism of Prescott and tailback Ezekiel Elliott vs. a battle-tested Packers team led by two-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers.
Will the old or the new win out?
The Pick: Green Bay Packers (7-5)
Heading into the playoffs, Ezekiel Elliott told ESPN.com's Todd Archer that the Cowboys weren't concerned with who won last week's wild-card finale.
"We really don't care who we see," Elliott said. "There's not a certain team we want to play. We don't really worry about things we can't control."
Many made the argument that the Packers are actually the preferable opponent. After all, Dallas handled Green Bay with relative ease on the road earlier in the season, while the New York Giants were the only team to beat the full-strength Cowboys in 2016.
And they did it twice.
But this Packers squad isn't that same club that faltered at Lambeau in October. Over the team's seven-game winning streak, Aaron Rodgers has thrown 19 touchdown passes without an interception. He tossed four scoring strikes against the Giants last week.
Dallas cornerback Morris Claiborne said to Archer that he's aware the Cowboys defense will have its hands full Sunday.
"It's a new season," Claiborne said. "It's another game. You can't go out and rely on the same things you did the last time, but what we're relying on is just effort. Effort, going after the ball, tackling, all 11 guys to the ball, if we go out and do that on the defensive side of the ball, I think we like our chances."
Rodgers led the Packers to an official-assisted win over the Cowboys in the divisional round in 2015, and his last playoff game at AT&T Stadium was pretty good. That is, if you call being named MVP of Super Bowl XLV "pretty good."
It's hardly a runaway vote. I'm one of a large minority that doesn't see the Packers having any more success shutting down Elliott than the last time these teams met. And if Elliott rolls again, so will the Cowboys.
But seven of our 12 experts expect the Packers and their red-hot quarterback to put an ignominious end to the Dallas dream season, securing Green Bay's first playoff win at the Cowboys in half a century and vaulting the Packers on to the NFC Championship Game.
Packers: Cole, Farrar, Freeman, Gagnon, Simms, Sobleski, Tomlinson
Cowboys: Davenport, Dunne, Miller, Pompei, Tanier