What Have We Learned From Divisional Weekend of the 2016 NFL Playoffs

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Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (12) celebrates his touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks during the second half of an NFL football divisional football game, Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Here is What Have We Learned from Divisional Weekend of the 2017 NFL Playoffs, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.


  • High-scoring Falcons to host Packers in NFC title game- Matt Ryan and the high-scoring Falcons offense will have one more game in the Georgia Dome after all.

    The Falcons will host the NFC championship game next Sunday against Green Bay. The Packers beat Dallas 34-31 in Sunday’s divisional playoff game.

    Ryan continued his hot streak of turnover-free passing in leading Atlanta to a 36-20 win over Seattle in Saturday’s first divisional game.

    The MVP candidate threw for 338 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions against the Seahawks. It was Ryan’s fifth straight game without an interception, leading to a five-game winning streak for Atlanta. He has 14 touchdown passes in that span.

    Ryan and the NFL’s top-scoring offense impressed cornerback Richard Sherman and the Seahawks.

    “They do a lot of things well,” Sherman said. “The quarterback gets the ball out, he doesn’t turn the ball over, so that will do it.”

    Ryan was in top form in leading Atlanta to a 33-32 home win over Green Bay on Oct. 30. He completed 28 of 35 passes for 288 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

    The Falcons (12-5) have leaned on Ryan and their balanced offense in their pursuit for the second Super Bowl appearance and first championship . Ryan kept the offense moving against Seattle even as All-Pro Julio Jones aggravated a toe injury.

    Jones spent much of the second half on the sideline, but still had a game-high six catches for 67 yards and a touchdown in his highly anticipated matchup with Sherman.

    Jones’ status will be closely watched this week. He missed two games this season with the sore toe. He still finished second in the NFL with 1,409 yards receiving on 83 catches, including six for touchdowns.

    Coach Dan Quinn said Saturday that Jones’ injury was “no concern at the moment” but acknowledged “it’ll be sore.”

    Added Quinn: “I anticipate him being ready to rock next week.”

    Jones was not available for postgame interviews, adding to speculation about the severity of the injury.

    Ryan has a large list of targets behind Jones. He completed passes to eight receivers against the Seahawks.

    Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for seven catches for 102 yards, including a 14-yard scoring catch by Coleman.

    “The ability for them to add another receiver to our offense has been critical for us. It really has,” Quinn said.

    Coleman had 11 carries for 57 yards. Freeman had 14 carries for 45 yards and a touchdown. Seattle coach Pete Carroll said Atlanta’s run game wasn’t overwhelming, but it was effective.

    “They didn’t run for a lot of yards today but they ran well enough,” Carroll said.

    “They ran with authority, I thought. It was a very impressive component. Somewhere in the fourth quarter, they were pounding us pretty good and we couldn’t stop them.”

    Receivers Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel each had four catches.

    The NFC championship game will be a dramatic final bow for the Georgia Dome. The facility, the team’s home for 25 years, will be demolished as the Falcons move into their new $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the 2017 season.

    The Falcons regularly play before sellout crowds, but they rarely open games with the stands full as fans battle Atlanta traffic. On Saturday, most in the crowd of 71,155 were there well before the opening kickoff.

    Late in the game, with the win a certainty, fans chanted “MVP! MVP!” for Ryan.

    “From the opening kickoff, the dome was rocking,” Ryan said. “That’s got to be as loud as it’s ever been in here.”

    Ryan’s reward is another home game with a Super Bowl berth on the line.


  • I’ll have the usual: Patriots advance to AFC title game– Short nights and short offseasons.It’s the Patriot way.

    New England has advanced to the AFC championship game for a record sixth year in a row and the 11th time in 16 seasons. With one more win, the Patriots (15-2) would play in their seventh Super Bowl since 2001.

    To find out who was still in their way, they had to wait for the Pittsburgh Steelers to beat the Kansas City Chiefs 18-16 on Sunday. That’s also something they’ve grown accustomed to in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era.

    “It was a long night — or a short night, however you want to look at it,” Belichick told reporters on Sunday, about 13 hours after beating the Houston Texans 34-16.

    “We have people on our staff that work on our next opponent, just like we always do. This one’s a little tougher because we’re working on two teams instead of one, but they’ve just worked harder and gotten it done.”

    Brady completed 18 of 38 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns in the divisional-round victory over Houston, but he also threw two interceptions — as many as he had all season.

    Dion Lewis had three touchdowns — one running, one on a pass reception and a 98-yard kickoff return — but fumbled another return and helped the Texans stay in the game.

    So the Patriots don’t have to look too far to find things to work on this week.

    “There are some things I could do a lot better on, protect the ball. I put my team in jeopardy,” said Lewis, who is the first player in the Super Bowl era to score on a run, catch and kickoff in the playoffs. “We have a lot of work to do. We made a lot of mistakes. I’m glad we got a win, but in order to advance next week, we’ve got to play a lot better.”

    Brady was also focusing on improving.

    “I think we’ve just got to learn from it,” he said. “It was a lot of things, and then when you add our poor execution on top of that, then you add our turnovers on top of that, it doesn’t feel great because we worked pretty hard to play a lot better than we played.

    “I give them a lot of credit, but we’re going to have to play better on offense. We expect to go out and have a good week and try to fix the things that we saw tonight, and then try to play better next weekend.”

    Brady, 39, overcame his four-game “Deflategate” suspension to propel himself into the Most Valuable Player discussion while throwing for 28 touchdowns in the regular season and just two interceptions — the best ratio in NFL history. He has not missed the playoffs in a healthy season since 2002, and his 11 appearances in the conference title game is a record for any player.

    Saturday’s win gave Belichick the record for coaching appearances in a conference championship, his 11th, breaking a tie with Dallas’ Tom Landry.

    “It’s really a testament to this organization,” said New England defensive back Duron Harmon, who had one of three interceptions of Houston’s Brock Osweiler.

    “The work we continue to put in, how hard the coaches continue to push us. It’s just a testament, it’s very rarely done, and I’m just excited to be a part of something like this because there’s not too many places that win like this.”


  • Bell carries Steelers into AFC title game in New England– Le’Veon Bell deftly danced his way through the teeth of the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night.Next, he’ll carry Pittsburgh Steelers off to New England.

    With his amusingly patient, maddeningly effective running style, Bell followed up a stellar wild-card effort against Miami with 170 yards rushing at Arrowhead Stadium. He kept churning for first downs when the game was hanging in the balance, helping the Steelers persevere for an 18-16 victory.

    Next up is Tom Brady and the Patriots with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line.

    “It’s going to be fun. It’s definitely a showdown game for us,” Bell said. “It’s going to be another hostile environment, going against Tom Brady, one of the best quarterbacks ever to do this.”

    Then again, Bell is becoming one of the best running backs to do this.

    He had four consecutive 100-yard-plus efforts late in the season, including a 236-yard outing against Buffalo. He followed with 167 yards rushing against the Dolphins before causing all kinds of heartburn for the Chiefs, who always seemed to be where Bell was just a moment ago.

    Just about the only thing missing from his line Sunday night was a touchdown.

    The Chiefs kept stiffening in the red zone, and held the Steelers to a playoff-record six field goals by Chris Boswell. But that turned out to be enough on a night when Kansas City struggled to get into any kind of offensive rhythm, and the Steelers were able to ride Bell to victory.

    “It’s just football, man. You wish you could score more points,” Steelers offensive lineman David DeCastro said, “but obviously it’s nice if you can have Boswell put points on the board every time.”

    The Steelers and Patriots will be meeting in the playoffs for the first time since January 2004, when New England rolled through Ben Roethlisberger and Co. in the AFC title game. They went on to beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl two weeks later.

    “They’re the team to beat,” DeCastro said. “We’re going to have to play a perfect game to win.”

    NO BEN LAST TIME: When the Patriots beats the Steelers 27-16 on Oct. 23, Roethlisberger was sidelined with a left knee injury. With Big Ben in sweats on the sideline in Pittsburgh, backup Landry Jones was 27 of 49 for 281 yards with a touchdown and an interception in his third career start.

    Since Roethlisberger joined the Steelers, they are 3-7 against New England overall, losing their only playoff matchup. They are also 1-4 at Foxborough, the win coming when Tom Brady was hurt in 2008.

    Roethlisberger is 3-1 in AFC championship games, though, and 2-1 in Super Bowls.


  • Green Bay’s win over Dallas seen by average of 48.5M on Fox– Green Bay’s 34-31 win over Dallas was seen by an average of 48.5 million on Fox, the most-viewed NFL divisional playoff game ever.The game Sunday had a 26.1 rating and 46 share, the network said Monday, the highest-rated NFC divisional game since 1997. The rating is the percentage of television households tuned to a program, and the share is the percentage watching a telecast among those homes with TVs on at the time.

    Pittsburgh’s 18-16 victory over Kansas City, shifted to prime time Sunday night because of bad weather, was seen by 37.4 million people on NBC and its digital platform, including 37.1 million on the network.

    Atlanta’s 36-20 win over Seattle on Saturday received a 16.2/32 on Fox and was seen by an average of 28.7 million on Fox, down 10 percent from New England’s win over Kansas City on CBS in the comparable time period last year.

    The Patriots’ 34-16 victory over Houston on Saturday night had an 18.2/31 on CBS, which said total viewers were not yet available.


  • Chiefs head into offseason with plenty of questions looming– Eric Berry lingered a little longer than the rest of the Kansas City Chiefs after pregame warmups, soaking in as much of the atmosphere of Arrowhead Stadium as he could Sunday night.After a frustrating, disheartening 18-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers a few hours later, the star safety was among the last to step into the showers.

    He was among the last to get dressed. He was among the last to walk out of the red-carpeted locker room and head up the concrete tunnel.

    It made perfect sense.

    It might be his last time doing any of it.

    Berry played this past season on the franchise tag, a one-year deal worth more than $10 million, after he failed to reach an agreement on a long-term contract.

    And after possibly the best season of his career, Berry stands to make a whole lot more than that in free agency, raising the possibility that he might be dressing in some other locker room next season.

    It’s just one of many crucial roster decisions facing the Chiefs after one of the best seasons in recent memory.

    Sure, the loss to the Steelers in the divisional round of the playoffs will leave a sour taste in their mouths, but it came after a 12-4 regular season and an AFC West title.

    Then there was the moxie they showed against Pittsburgh on Sunday night.

    The Chiefs struggled offensively, committed a slew of penalties and generally made life easy for the Steelers.

    But they still drove downfield for a touchdown in the final minutes, only for a 2-point conversion to be wiped out by a penalty and another chance at it coming up empty.

    “Sometimes things don’t go your way,” Berry told a small group of reporters who stuck around to speak to him. “You’ve got to pay attention to the little details, especially in the playoffs.”

    Now, the Chiefs enter a potentially crucial juncture for the franchise, which still has not been to the AFC title game since 1994. Here are some of the key decisions facing them:

    POE MAN PAID: Also reaching free agency is big nose tackle Dontari Poe, a former first-round pick whose uneven play has made his future in Kansas City a big question. If the Chiefs work out a deal to keep Berry, it almost certainly means that Poe’s career with the Chiefs is over.

    WHAT ABOUT SMITH: Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith has etched his name in the Kansas City record book in a number of categories in just four seasons, but some wonder whether he can take the franchise to the next level. He threw for just 172 yards with a touchdown and a pick against Pittsburgh.

    Smith still has two years remaining on his contract, but cutting him becomes much less expensive after this season. The question then becomes: Is there anybody worthwhile to replace him?

    “Everybody is running through their head on what they could have done differently,” Smith said Sunday night. “That’s just the nature of losing. You’re going to do that. It’s going to play some mind games with you. I think, obviously, when you get away from it for a little — you get removed — you have to set your sights on, ‘What do we need to do moving forward?'”

    WHAT ABOUT JAMAAL: The Chiefs’ running game, led by Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West, struggled much of the season. That made not having Jamaal Charles on the field even more glaring.

    The four-time Pro Bowl running back played briefly after having surgery to repair a torn ACL in his right knee, but persistent pain in both of his knees sidelined him again. He had operations to clean up both of the injuries late in the season and expects to be back next season.

    But will the Chiefs pay him $7 million next season, the final year of his contract, or cut ties with one of the most beloved players in franchise history?

    “I can’t answer those questions,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “It’s too early.”

    DRAFT TARGETS: The Chiefs kept trying to plug holes in the linebacker group all season, especially after losing Derrick Johnson to a ruptured Achilles tendon. That position becomes one of their biggest targets in the draft, along with help at running back, wide receiver and in the secondary.

    WHO MAKES THE DECISIONS: While Reid has another year left on his contract, general manager John Dorsey’s deal expires after this season. Rumors have circulated that Green Bay might be interested in bringing him back, but would the Chiefs let him walk given all his success?

    “The finalization hits your right between the eyes,” Reid said Monday. “You know, I don’t want to get away from the fact that the guys on the team had a good year. The organization had a good year. At the same time we have to take care of business and improve as we go forward here.”

  • Texans left with QB questions after divisional playoff loss– The Houston Texans overcame the loss of J.J. Watt to reach the divisional round of the playoffs.But mistakes by Brock Osweiler doomed Houston in a loss to the New England Patriots and leaves questions about whether he’ll be the starter next season.

    The Texans signed Osweiler to a $72 million contract in the offseason in hopes of upgrading the position after Brian Hoyer accounted for five turnovers in a 30-0 loss to Kansas City in the wild-card round of the playoffs last season.

    Instead of being the answer to their longtime woes at quarterback, Osweiler struggled throughout the season and was benched before returning for the postseason.

    He was turnover-free in a wild-card win over the Raiders before throwing three interceptions in the second half on Saturday to allow New England to pull away for the 34-16 victory .

    Less than 48 hours after the loss, coach Bill O’Brien wasn’t ready to make any proclamations about who will start next season or say if Osweiler will have to compete with Tom Savage for the job.

    “Before I talk about those types of things, I have to evaluate it myself,” he said. “I have to talk to our coaching staff and get their input, our personnel people and get their input. I wouldn’t be a good head coach if I stood up here and told you, ‘Hey, this is what we are planning to do.'”

    O’Brien also refused to discuss whether the Texans would consider drafting a quarterback in April after Osweiler threw more interceptions (19) than touchdowns (17) this season.

    “We’re so far from — absolutely so far removed from even answering that question … we evaluate everything we do. Then we get with the personnel people,” O’Brien said.

    “We talk about all the things we need to do to improve — coaching, playing, everything. So that’s not even a question I can begin to answer.”

    EARLY CHANGE: While the Texans need more time to decide on what to do with Osweiler, they made a big decision on offense on Monday afternoon when they announced that offensive coordinator George Godsey wouldn’t return next season. The Texans said they and Godsey “mutually agreed to part ways.”

    Godsey was in his second season as offensive coordinator after working as quarterbacks coach in his first year with the team in 2014.

    His work came under fire this season as Houston’s offense ranked near the bottom of the league behind the struggles Osweiler.

    Godsey called the plays at the beginning of the season, but O’Brien took away his play-calling duties and began calling them himself in late September after the offense failed to move the ball consistently.

    STRONG DEFENSE: Houston finished ranked first in yards allowed in the regular season despite losing Watt to season-ending back surgery after just three games.

    “The future looks bright,” outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus said. “We’ve got a great group of guys who stepped up their game this year and did a great job for us to be in the position we were in. To have J.J. back next year is going to be great. He’s going to add that much more.”

    The unit received a boost from a breakout season by defensive endJadeveon Clowney . The top overall pick in the 2014 draft shook off two injury-filled seasons to finish the regular season with 16 tackles for losses, 17 quarterback hits and six sacks.

    He continued his strong play in the postseason when he joined Watt as the only defensive linemen in franchise history to get an interception in a playoff game when he grabbed one against the Raiders to set up Houston’s first touchdown. His big season helped him morph into a leader for the group.

    “When you have success on the field, you’re able to instill more of your personality in the locker room,” O’Brien said.

    “I think you guys got a chance to see that this year. The guy’s a great guy. Loves football, loves his teammates, loves playing, plays hard.”

    READER IS READY: Houston got another solid season from nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who was in his second year with the Texans after spending 11 years with the Patriots.

    Wilfork is contemplating retirement , but the Texans should be OK at the position if he does hang it up because of the development of rookie D.J. Reader.

    Reader, a fifth-round pick, appeared in every game this season with seven starts.

    “D.J. Reader is one of the better young defensive linemen I’ve been around in the NFL,” O’Brien said. “He’s tough. He’s built low to the ground. He’s hard to move. He’s got good pass rush skills.”

    LOOKING AHEAD: Despite the tough end to the season, O’Brien is encouraged by the progress the team made this season.

    Houston won its second straight AFC South title and its win over the Raiders was the team’s first playoff victory since 2012.

    “I’m very proud of this team,” O’Brien said. “This team fought hard … when you lose in the playoffs, it’s a terrible feeling … it’s an empty feeling. Give a lot of credit to the Patriots, they executed better than we did (but) we can build on it.”


  • Disappointing end, promising future for Prescott-led Cowboys– Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is more convinced than ever that his rookie quarterback can play at the highest level.And that the Cowboys were good enough to maybe win the Super Bowl this season with Dak Prescott and fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott.

    But another Super Bowl shot will have to wait for another season after an impressive Prescott-led comeback came up just short in the NFC divisional playoff game against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, who won 34-31 on a game-ending field goal Sunday.

    “I know now that this team was capable of playing all the way through this thing, and even with rookies in key spots I know now we were ready to have a win,” Jones said. “We didn’t. That’s very real. … It hurts, it really hurts.”

    After the Cowboys were down 21-3 midway through the second quarter, their largest deficit in a season when they won 13 games and were the NFC’s top seed, Prescott threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Dez Bryant.

    Prescott, who replaced injured veteran Tony Romo in the preseason, threw two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter. After finding Bryant again , Prescott powered through the middle for the 2-point conversion that tied the game at 28.

    Then came an exchange of long field goals only 58 seconds apart after the two-minute warning before Rodgers and the Packers got one more shot, and set up Mason Crosby’s 51-yard field goal.

    Asked about his emotions, Prescott responded, “I think as low as they could get at this point. This is a terrible feeling.”

    Prescott threw for 302 yards while becoming the first rookie in the Super Bowl era with three TD passes in a playoff game. After his lone interception in the third quarter, the Cowboys responded with one off Rodgers. Elliott ran for 125 yards.

    With the loss, the Cowboys (13-4) have now failed to make it past the divisional game in their nine playoff appearances since winning their most recent Super Bowl 21 seasons ago.

    “Once we put that behind us, I think there’s nothing but good things looking forward in what this team can do,” Prescott said.

    Prescott had an 11-game winning streak during the regular season, and kept the starting job after Romo was ready to return from the back injury he suffered in the third preseason game.

    Jones wasn’t yet ready to address the future for Romo, a starter for 10 seasons.

    “We’ll obviously look at what we’re doing. We won’t do it tomorrow. We won’t do it the next day,” Jones said. “We’ll be looking at where we are relative to Tony and relative to other players, but not tonight.”

    The Cowboys almost became the third team in the Super Bowl era to win in the playoffs after trailing by 15 points in the fourth quarter.

    The first was Dallas in 1972, when Hall of Famer and two-time Super Bowl champion Roger Staubach rallied the Cowboys for a 30-28 win over San Francisco.

    After Mason Crosby kicked a tiebreaking 56-yard field goal for Green Bay with 1:33 left, Prescott was ready for another shot.

    “He didn’t blink. He didn’t do anything but lead, as well as play, in a way that you can win championships,” Jones said.

    All Prescott thought about were the two-minute drills that end Thursday practices.

    “I don’t think about what this means, what this exact drive means, just concentrate on each and every play coach called,” he said.

    Prescott had two completions for 35 yards to the 40 before spiking the ball to stop the clock. After a 7-yard catch by Cole Beasley, Prescott’s third-and-2 pass was knocked down at the line.

    Dan Bailey then kicked his third field goal, but Rodgers — the Super Bowl MVP when the Packers became champions in the same building six seasons ago — still had 35 seconds. His scrambling 36-yard pass to a toe-dragging Jared Cook on the sideline set up the winning kick.

    “It was a great game all the way around, just hate to be on the losing end,” Prescott said. “These are games I dreamed of as a little kid of playing, and plan to play in many more of them.”



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