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Saturday, 14 January 2017

NFL Divisional Round Play Off Picks 2017 (January 15-16)

It was the favourites who dominated the Wild Card Round of the Play Offs last week and that does mean the best seven teams, and Houston, are left on the road to the Super Bowl.

The Divisional Round will be described as the best weekend of the NFL season in most articles you read about these games and I don't disagree in any way. One of the four games this weekend doesn't look very competitive on paper, but the other three are intriguing and it is going to be very interesting to see the last four standing at the end of this weekend.

It is a weekend that will be longer than anticipated after the Kansas City-Pittsburgh game was moved back from the expected 1pm Kick Off time to 8:20pm on Sunday as poor weather conditions are being forecasted for the Arrowhead and surrounding areas.

The picks went 2-2 last weekend after both Saturday ones were successful and the two Sunday picks going down. That was disappointing, but I hopefully can make up for it in the Divisional Round as the games begin to run down on this NFL season with just seven left to decide the Super Bowl winner.

Seattle Seahawks @ Atlanta Falcons Pick: There are plenty of people out there who are not only picking the Atlanta Falcons to win this game, but to win in a very impressive manner. They came into the Play Offs as the Number 2 Seed in the NFC and the best Offense in the NFL according to the statistics are facing a Seattle Seahawks team who have plenty of experience, but some serious injuries to deal with.

This looks a really good way to open up the Divisional Round of the Play Offs with Atlanta hosting this game on Saturday in what could be the final home game in the Georgia Dome before moving to their new home next season. The Falcons have the leading contender for the MVP award at Quarter Back, but Matt Ryan has to show he can bring his regular season form into the post-season having gone 1-4 in the Play Offs.

There will be some pressure on Ryan because he might not be able to have the balanced Offense that has helped Atlanta become one of the leading Offenses in the NFL this season. Both Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have been able to establish the run for Atlanta in their games, but the Falcons are going to find it difficult to get that aspect of their game going against the Seattle Seahawks who have been strong on the Defensive Line all season.

The Seahawks are healthy up front so will believe they have the team to take away Freeman and Coleman, while the Linebackers are capable of getting to those Backs when they are catching the ball out of the backfield. Leaving Ryan in third and long spots will make it tough for the Falcons when you consider the pressure they can get up front in obvious passing conditions.

However, in saying all that, the injury to Earl Thomas which will keep him out of this contest is huge, while the other Safety, Kam Chancellor, has been banged up down the stretch. Losing those two players have made the fearsome 'Legion of Boom' significantly weaker and Ryan has the players to make some big plays away from Richard Sherman and get after DeShaun Shead who has given up some big plays.

Julio Jones should be healthier with the bye week behind him and I do think Atlanta can make some big plays in this one which will have to be matched by the Seattle Seahawks.

The Seahawks would have been encouraged by the running of Thomas Rawls in their big win over the Detroit Lions in the Wild Card Round, but being on the road is a big test for this experienced squad. Seattle have had the benefit of playing a lot of their Play Off games at home since Russell Wilson arrived, but they are only 2-2 in road games in the post-season and one of those wins was thanks to Blair Walsh inexplicably missing an easy Field Goal against them for Minnesota last season.

Rawls is going to be huge for Seattle in this one as they have been inconsistent in running the ball. He does look to have a good match up in this one against the Atlanta Defensive Line which has struggled all season and has given up 5.4 yards per carry over their last three games. This is clearly a weakness for the Falcons, but my concern has to be that Rawls and the Seahawks Offensive Line have been inconsistent to the point that only two weeks ago they struggled to run the ball against a porous San Francisco Defensive Line.

Running the ball will mean controlling the clock and keeping Matt Ryan and his powerful Offense on the bench and keeping them from building up a rhythm. It also means Seattle can employ play-action passes down the field to Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham against a Secondary that has had some difficulties, while also negating the Atlanta pass rush or at least slowing them down against the Offensive Line problems Seattle have had.

It is difficult to know with certainty that Seattle can run the ball as well as they did last week, but I think this is a good match up for them to do that. It will be so important to their chances of winning this game, but I also think Atlanta will have success moving the ball against a Secondary that is not as strong as ones that Seattle have had in the past.

Atlanta should be motivated having believed they should have won the regular season between these teams up in Seattle when they were controversially not given what looked a clear pass interference on Jones by Sherman. However Ryan hasn't played that well in the post-season yet, even if his sole win was at home against Seattle, and I think the struggles to run the ball will mean Seattle have a chance to keep within this number.

Some have the Falcons winning easily, but I think it might be a closer game than they do. It feels Seattle will have a chance of covering in most situations here and Russell Wilson has gone 12-4 against the spread as the underdog in his career. Turnovers will be huge in the game, but I will take the points on the experienced Seahawks to find a way to stay with the Falcons even if they do end up on the losing side.

Houston Texans @ New England Patriots Pick: The Number 1 Seed in the AFC, the New England Patriots, were always going to receive a favourable game in the Divisional Round of the Play Offs when Derek Carr went down with an injury for the Oakland Raiders in Week 16. The Patriots were resting last week in the Wild Card Round knowing they would be hosting either the Oakland Raiders, Houston Texans or the Miami Dolphins in the Divisional Round.

It is the Houston Texans who are going to be the visitors to Foxboro and the Texans will have to win two road games if they are going to be the first team to play in a Super Bowl held in their home Stadium. That looked a long shot before they beat the Raiders, and the layers haven't changed their mind by offering the biggest line in the NFL Play Offs in almost twenty years.

You have to understand where the oddsmakers are coming from after noting the Houston Texans were beaten in this Stadium 27-0 in the regular season and that was against a New England Patriots team that didn't even start Tom Brady. Brock Osweiler started that game and had a really hard time, but he is back at Quarter Back for the Houston Texans after Tom Savage suffered an injury in Week 17 and Osweiler is going to need a lot of help.

The money Houston gave him in the last off-season is the ultimate case of buyer's remorse and Osweiler might be the worst starting Quarter Back in the NFL. Bill O'Brien was a former Offensive Co-Ordinator for the Patriots and has been considered a solid Quarter Back whisperer, but even he has been fed up with Osweiler and admits his job as Head Coach of the Houston Texans is far from secure.

For Osweiler there is an issue of being much poorer on the road than he has been at home and he won't be able to lean of Lamar Miller this week to run the ball and help him out. The Texans have not been that strong running the ball and face a New England Defensive Line who are as stout as any in the NFL which means all the pressure is on the Quarter Back who has had a tendency to stare down Receivers.

The New England Secondary is under-rated too and I can't see Osweiler helping Houston score too many points in this one. The Patriots can get some pressure up front and Osweiler will be unlikely to have DeAndre Hopkins open too many times as Bill Belichick will look to game plan the Receiver out of this one and force the Quarter Back to look elsewhere in a bid to move the chains.

This all means Houston have to hope the Defensive and Special Teams units can make some big plays for them if they are going to earn one of the biggest upsets this century in the Play Offs. The Texans do have a very good Defensive unit even in the absence of JJ Watt on the Defensive Line and one of the keys has been able to stop the run and then use very strong coverage to prevent teams hurting them down the field.

LeGarrette Blount is the kind of big Running Back that can wear down teams the longer the game goes on, but Tom Brady will need to use the quick passing game to try and keep Houston off balance. That will ensure the Houston pass rush is not able to disrupt this game as much as they can while also preventing the Secondary from using the pressure up front to turn the ball over.

Even without Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady has found a way to keep the chains moving and I do think he will have his successes in this one. This won't be a huge statistical game from Brady, but he will do enough for New England to score enough points to win this one fairly comfortably, while it wouldn't surprise me if the Patriots do have a couple of Defensive scores once Osweiler is chasing this one.

This is a huge number and I can see people taking the Texans out of principle with the Patriots needing at least three scores just to get over the points. However I do think New England can do that with a Defense that can shut down Osweiler and the Offense and the Patriots have won their last two games against Houston by wide margins.

Big spreads in the NFL Play Offs are not common and there have only been three bigger numbers since 1985, but it has to be noted that all three favourites covered in those occasions. I do think the New England Patriots are focused enough to not allow Houston to stay too close in this one and I am going to back the favourites to win big as they silence the Texans Offensively for much of the evening.

Green Bay Packers @ Dallas Cowboys Pick: How long do you think it is going to take the broadcasters to mention the infamous Dez Bryant non-catch when the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers last met in the Play Offs in 2015? That is still something that rankles for the Cowboys fans and Bryant himself, but all talk of revenge has been thrown out of the window as Dallas look to make use of the Number 1 Seed in the NFC.

Regardless of who they were going to play in the Divisional Round, the Cowboys were very much aware that they would be going up against a dangerous and live opponent this week. The New York Giants have beaten Dallas twice in the regular season, but they might have been the better opponent for the Cowboys than the hot Green Bay Packers who have a long a winning run behind them.

Aaron Rodgers has looked like the Quarter Back that the NFL has become accustomed to seeing in their seven game winning run compared with earlier in the season when he didn't look up to his previous standards. When Rodgers is playing at this level he might be the most dangerous player in the NFL, although Green Bay won't have Jordy Nelson after an injury in the Wild Card win over the Giants.

There are still some talented Receivers for Rodgers to work with, but Nelson's experiences would have been important against a Dallas Secondary who have Morris Claiborne back after injury had knocked him out of much of the regular season. Claiborne had been playing at a high level when injury struck so his return could be very important for a Cowboys team who have been bending but not breaking this season.

The Dallas Defensive Line have been able to stop the run effectively so Ty Montgomery could be restricted early in this game until Rodgers can loosen the Defense with his passes. The Cowboys also have a pretty effective pass rush which could be boosted by a returning DeMarcus Lawrence, although getting to Rodgers has proved difficult in recent games with the Quarter Back being able to scramble around the pocket and then either make a play with his legs or find a Receiver who can uncover themselves from coverage.

Rodgers is playing so well that it is hard to see how Dallas will contain him and so it might be up to their two star Rookies to show they can perform in the Play Offs to stay with the Packers.

Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliot have both been very, very good this season and they form a new set of triplets with Dez Bryant for the Dallas Cowboys. The Offensive Line deserve a lot of credit too and I have little doubt the Cowboys can establish the run in this one much like they did when playing at the Green Bay Packers in the regular season. While the Packers statistically have some decent numbers against the run, the eye test says it will be tough for them to contain Dallas and I expect Elliot to get loose for some big, powerful runs.

Dallas have to run the ball well because it opens things up for Prescott, who is capable of running himself from the Quarter Back position. Prescott has proved he can be tough to take down even when the pressure is in front of him and the Green Bay Secondary have some holes that he can exploit with throws down the field out of the play-action. The Packers can get some pressure up front, but their Defense has to try and make some turnovers to keep some of the pressure off of Rodgers who may have to match the scoring the Cowboys do.

Of course you can never tell how Rookies will react in the Play Offs and that is perhaps where some of the intrigue in this game is. The oddsmakers don't seem to worry having placed the Green Bay Packers as a big underdog and I can't have Aaron Rodgers in that position with the way that he is playing at the moment. Rodgers can help the Packers score plenty of points in this one and the key to the outcome may be which Defense can rise up and force Field Goals rather than allowing Touchdowns.

I really like how the Dallas Cowboys have played in the regular season and the week off has gotten them a little healthier but that also means the starters haven't really played competitive football since the First Quarter of Week 17. Against a hot Green Bay Packers team, Dallas might take a little time to get into rhythm and I do think this is going to be a very close game.

That makes the points being given to Aaron Rodgers as an underdog look very appealing and I like the Green Bay Packers with the points.

Pittsburgh Steelers @ Kansas City Chiefs Pick: There is an ice storm heading to the Kansas City area which means the decision has been made to move this game from the original 1pm Eastern Time slot to an 8:20pm Eastern Time kick off. Regardless of the move in time, it is going to be cold, it is going to be wet and the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers will be getting ready to compete in what is expected to be the closest game of the weekend if the oddsmakers are to be believed.

That has been shown up by the point spread released for this game as the Chiefs and Steelers are close to a pick 'em for this Divisional Round game. Pittsburgh are off an impressively easy win over the Miami Dolphins in the Wild Card Round, but the play of Le'Veon Bell has been the inspiration for their success.

The conditions expected at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday night suggests Bell is going to be a key figure for the Steelers in this one. He had a huge game in the snow at the Buffalo Bills towards the end of the regular season and I expect Bell is going to be handed the ball many times in this one. That's not a bad game plan anyway considering how the Chiefs Defensive Line have struggled to stop the run and Bell keeping the Steelers in third and manageable would be huge in this one.

It would mean the fierce and rested Kansas City pass rush is going to be slowed down if Bell is able to run the ball effectively, while also meaning Ben Roethlisberger can choose the spots in which to take his big shots downfield to Antonio Brown. Big Ben took a bad hit at the end of the Miami game which left him in a walking boot and his health concerns have to be taken into consideration, although it looks like that was a precaution than anything deeper to worry about.

The Chiefs Secondary have allowed some big plays so if Roethlisberger is healthy I would expect him to make some big plays. However he has been a little inaccurate with his passing down the stretch and this Kansas City Defensive unit have been able to turn the ball over which could be critical in a game that looks so close on paper.

While the Steelers will be looking out for the health of their Quarter Back, Kansas City hope Spencer Ware has used the bye week to be fully prepared to take the bulk of the carries at Running Back for Kansas City. The Steelers Defensive Line just put the clamps down on Jay Ajayi for the Miami Dolphins, but it might be a little more difficult against the Chiefs who won't have a back up Quarter Back and have a healthier Offensive Line than the Dolphins had.

Alex Smith has positive Play Off experiences to call upon from the past and he has been well protected when passing the ball which is aided by the short passes he does like to throw. Tyreek Hill has given Smith a Home Run threat that has to be accounted for as he can line up in a number of positions on the field and Smith can also run the ball to escape pressure up front which the Steelers will bring.

Smith has to look after the ball when he is throwing it and rely on a Defense and Special Teams that have made big plays for the Chiefs all season. He has shown in the past that he can do that and this feels like a game that the Chiefs can win behind a Quarter Back that has taken a lot of criticism throughout his career.

You simply cannot discount how good Andy Reid is in preparing his team coming out of a bye week. In his Head Coaching career he is now 16-2 following a bye week, but even more impressive is that Reid has gone 3-0 in the Divisional Round when earning a bye through the Wild Card Round. I can see Reid having the perfect game plan in place and the home team is 7-1 against the spread in the last eight games in the series between these two teams.

Those three wins in the Divisional Round of a bye for Reid have come against top 10 Offenses too so I can see him helping to put together enough to have success on both sides of the ball. On a personal level I would like the Steelers to win as the team most likely to beat the New England Patriots before the Super Bowl, but my head says the Kansas City Chiefs will do enough at home to win and cover in this one.

MY PICKS: Seattle Seahawks + 5 Points @ 1.91 Paddy Power (2 Units)
New England Patriots - 15 Points @ 1.95 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Green Bay Packers + 5 Points @ 1.91 Sky Bet (2 Units)
Kansas City Chiefs - 1.5 Points @ 1.91 William Hill (2 Units)

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