The Dallas Cowboys answered nearly every question put before them during the regular season as their gold dust twins Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott led them to the NFC East title and the No. 1 seed in the conference.
The playoffs are a different story. When the Green Bay Packers come to AT&T Stadium on Sunday afternoon, regular-season accomplishments will be nothing but ancient history, and the Cowboys will have to prove they can play at the highest level in a win-or-go-home scenario.
Prescott had a remarkable rookie season in which he completed 67.8 percent of his passes, threw for 3,667 yards with 23 touchdowns and four interceptions. In addition to those impressive numbers, Prescott passed the eye test with flying colors as he played with poise throughout the season, and his decision-making process was excellent.
Still, his assignment this week will be formidable, because Aaron Rodgers has been at the top of his game during Green Bay's current seven-game winning streak (six regular-season games and one postseason). Rodgers is coming off a four-touchdown, 362-yard performance against the Giants, and he is brimming with confidence.
|Divisional Playoffs: Schedule and Predictions|
|Matchup (with seeding information)||Date||Time (ET)||TV||Point Spread||Prediction|
|Seattle (3) at Atlanta (2)||Jan. 14||4:35 p.m.||Fox||Atlanta (-4.5)||Atlanta|
|Houston (4) at New England (1)||Jan. 14||8:15 p.m.||CBS||New England (-15)||New England|
|Pittsburgh (3) at Kansas City (2)||Jan. 15||1:05 p.m.||NBC||Kansas City (-1)||Pittsburgh|
|Green Bay (4) at Dallas (1)||Jan. 15||4:40 p.m.||Fox||Dallas (-4.5)||Green Bay*|
|*-Packers cover spread, Cowboys win game|
|OddsShark; Silverman predictions|
While the status of star wideout Jordy Nelson (multiple broken ribs, per Ryan Wood of USA Today Network-Wisconsin) has not been determined, the Packers have a couple of other game-breakers in Randall Cobb and Davante Adams. The Packers have also gotten some much needed help from their running game. Converted wideout Ty Montgomery is fairly elusive, while ex-Seahawk Christine Michael runs each attempt as if the game depends on it.
The Cowboys have a major advantage at running back where Ezekiel Elliott has become the game's most productive player at that position. Elliott has run for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns, and he excels at breaking tackles and picking up sizable gains. Once he gets into the open, Elliott has the speed to cause havoc for the Green Bay defense.
The Cowboys are 4.5-point favorites in this game, according to OddsShark. We expect Prescott and Elliott to handle the pressure and the Dallas defense to play well enough to contain Rodgers and prevent him from having a huge day. The Packers will keep it close, but a late field goal by Dan Bailey will give the Cowboys a narrow win.
The New England Patriots appear to have the ideal divisional playoff matchup against the fourth-seeded Houston Texans.
While Houston handled the Oakland Raiders with relative ease in their wild-card matchup, the level of competition goes way up this week. Unlike Oakland's Connor Cook, Tom Brady is not the Patriots' third-string quarterback. He is perhaps the best that has ever played the game, and he is itching to get New England back to the Super Bowl.
The Patriots have a slew of weapons on offense, including running back LeGarrette Blount, wideout Julian Edelman and tight end Martellus Bennett. All three can come through in the clutch, and the supporting cast of skill position players is deep and talented.
The offensive line, which struggled in last year's postseason, has played superbly since the return of veteran offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.
The Texans have the top-ranked defense in the league in yards allowed, and they are loaded with talented players like Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, Benardrick McKinney and Brian Cushing, but they can't be expected to shut down Brady & Co.
The big issue for Houston is on the offensive end, because quarterback Brock Osweiler has been a major disappointment. While he played well enough against the Raiders to secure the victory, his decision-making has been poor, and his accuracy has been an issue. The Patriots have the No. 1 scoring defense in the league, and they should be able to shut down the Houston offense.
New England is a strong 15-point favorite, and it's difficult to see the Texans keeping it close. They would need to have a plus-three or greater turnover advantage to have a chance, and that's unlikely to happen.
Houston nose tackle Vince Wilfork believes his team can rally from the underdog role.
"I think last night we saw a game in Alabama-Clemson, these so-called experts had Clemson as the underdog," Wilfork told Mike Reiss of ESPN.com. "In '07, the experts had the New York Giants as underdogs. Both of those teams went on to win -- the Super Bowl [Giants] and national championship [Clemson]. So it goes to show you what these experts know."
On top of those major discrepancies, the Texans perform poorly on special teams, and the Pats are likely to take advantage of that weakness. New England wins and covers the huge spread.
The Pittsburgh Steelers appear to have an excellent chance of advancing to the AFC title game even though they go on the road to play the Kansas City Chiefs.
Pittsburgh is an explosive team with the best QB-RB-WR combination in the league. Ben Roethlisberger is a top-five quarterback, while Le'Veon Bell is one of the best running backs and Antonio Brown is without peer as a wideout.
The Chiefs were in over their heads when they went to Pittsburgh in Week 4 and dropped a 43-14 decision. While a lot of time has passed, we don't see a huge difference here.
Yes, the Chiefs have home-field advantage, a somewhat improved defense and an explosive rookie in Tyreek Hill, but none of that may be enough to combat the Steelers' Big Three.
Additionally, the Pittsburgh defense is playing better than it did at the start of the year, and while that unit will make some mistakes on occasion, they are one of the hardest hitting teams in the league.
The Chiefs are narrow one-point favorites, but we see the Steelers winning and advancing to meet the Patriots in an epic AFC Championship Game.