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Divisional Round Playoff Preview

AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

New England (-15) vs. Houston

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: New England 2nd; Houston 26th
PLAYER PRODUCTIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: New England 2nd; Houston 19th
TURNOVER MARGIN: New England 3rd (+12); Houston T27th (-7)

The last 3 playoff games that have started after 6 PM EST in Foxboro, MA ended with the Patriots winning 45-7 (2014 AFC Championship vs. Indianapolis), 43-22 (2013 Divisional Round vs. Indianapolis), and 45-10 (2010 Divisional Round vs. Denver). Yikes. This is a huge number so New England can afford few if any slip ups if it is to cover. But Tom Brady has thrown just 2 interceptions all year so the Texans should not expect any help from the Patriots. On the road against better-than-average pass defenses, Houston QB Brock Osweiler has yet to produce north of the JaMarcus Cable. Unless the Texans D delivers a monster game, New England should start fast and then turn it on late to win by 3 scores.

QC's Guess: New England SU & ATS

Kansas City (-1.5) v. Pittsburgh

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Kansas City 16th; Pittsburgh 7th
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL: Kansas City 16th; Pittsburgh 6th
TURNOVER MARGIN: Kansas City T1st (+16); Pittsburgh T9th (+5)

This is a classic matchup of a team that wins by dominating the turnover battle and special teams versus a team that wins by dominating play design. When the Steelers crushed the Chiefs, 43-14, in Week 5 in Pittsburgh, KC's Tyreke Hill had yet to emerge as the most dangerous big-play maker in the AFC. (Odell Beckham holds that title in the NFC.) Hill is a force now and the shaky Steelers secondary cannot let him or TE Travis Kelce ignite the crowd with long TDs. QB Alex Smith has been here before. In 2011, he took a similarly constructed San Francisco team to the playoffs and bested Drew Brees and the high-powered Saints in a divisional round shootout. That 49ers team also had a deep threat at TE (Vernon Davis), but nobody as versatile or dangerous as Hill, so it could happen again. The Steelers have been operating like a well-oiled machined for over a month. Pittsburgh as won the design battle decisively in 5 of their last 6 games. In the one game they did not, Le'Veon Bell gashed Buffalo for over 200 yards on the ground. KC has struggled against the run without injured LB Derrick Johnson and has not recorded a sack since Week 14 against Oakland. The perception is the Chiefs' pass rush has been missing only since Justin Houston started resting the last 2 weeks of the season, but the reality is that since mid-season KC has only gotten after the opposing QB against Denver's sieve-like line. The biggest worry in backing Pittsburgh--particularly on the road--is that you have to factor in at least one WTF interception from Ben Roethlisberger. As long as Ben can limit himself to one head-scratcher (and it's not a pick-6), the Steelers should be able to pull this one out. But it probably will be an all day job.

QC's Guess: Pittsburgh Steelers SU and ATS

NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

Atlanta (-5) vs. Seattle

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Atlanta 1st; Seattle 10th
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Atlanta 1st; Seattle 7th
TURNOVER MARGIN: Atlanta T4th (+11); Seattle 16th (+1)

Atlanta is just 3-5 ATS at home and, more troubling, has given up 30 or more points in 5 of those games. In another game (Kansas City) the Falcons yielded 29 points (although 9 of those points came against the Atlanta offense). Seattle's Thomas Rawls got rollling in the wild-card round against Detroit, but for the Seahawks to have a chance to win, Russell Wilson needs to get hot and bomb the Atlanta secondary like Jameis Winston, Cam Newton, Phil Rivers, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees did in the Georgia Dome. When the Seahawks have fallen behind, their below average pass protection has collapsed and Wilson has been both unproductive and turnover-prone. The Falcons have plenty of firepower to start quickly and make Seattle play from the rear. As @fbgchase has pointed out, Matt Ryan has finished almost as many drives with a TD (58) as he has with a turnover or punt (59). In the teams' first meeting in Seattle, Ryan directed 3 straight Q3 TD drives of at least 75 yards. But a Ryan fumble gave the Seahawks a TD and a ghastly Q4 interception set up a field goal. If Ryan avoids those mistakes this time around, the Falcons should fly to the win and the cover. If not, Matty Ice will be left out it the post-season cold in the last NFL game in the Georgia Dome.

QC's Guess: Atlanta Falcons SU and ATS

Dallas Cowboys (-4.5) vs. Green Bay

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Dallas 4th; Green Bay 24th
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Dallas 4th; Green Bay 28th
TURNOVER MARGIN: Dallas T9th (+5); Green Bay 6th (+8)

QC concedes that coaching stats underrate Dallas. The Cowboys are underrated because they run the football with Ezekiel Elliott so consistently. In 11 of their 16 regular season games, the Cowboys ran the ball at least 30 times (and 29 times in one other game). In contrast, the team that led the NFL in rushing, Buffalo, ran the ball at least 30 times in only 8 games. The ever-present threat of a 5-yard or 6-yard gain by Elliott makes life for Dak Prescott so much easier, particularly on 1DN. As a result, Prescott averaged just a tick under 8.0 QCYPA, which is not what the Packers' fragile and thin secondary wants to see. To make matters worse, Prescott ran for an NFL-best 6 TDs making him a deadly dual threat in the red zone. Green Bay counterpart Aaron Rogers also is lethal in the red zone because he can use his legs to either buy time or dash for the pylon. Still, in the wild-card round, Giants' DC Steve Spagnuolo kept Rodgers well under control and sacked him 5 times by bringing a very late rusher from the secondary to chase Rodgers down. QC bets Dallas DC Rod Marinelli paid attention and with a fully healthy secondary he might incorporate some of those same tactics into the defensive game play. For the first 11 games of the season, Marinelli's pass rush was non-existent. But since Week 13, opposing passers have lost more than .5 yard per attempted pass against the Cowboys. That figure would rank in the top 5 of the NFL over the entire season. Including their wild-card win over New York, Rodgers has lifted Green Bay to a cover in 7 of its last 8 games. But the Packers have seen no more than 27 rushing attempts in any of those games. Look for Dom Capers' units to see at least 8 to 10 more rushing attempts than that on Sunday and Zeke, Dak and company to pull away in Q4 to win comfortably.

QC's Guess: Dallas Cowboys SU and ATS

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