For the first time in what seems like a decade — wait, it IS a decade actually — the divisional round of the AFC playoffs will commence without the two teams that have made a mockery of the AFC for two decades. For the first time since 2009: No New England Patriots. No Pittsburgh Steelers. Have we finally turned the corner? I wouldn’t get too comfortable, and just say, “Enjoy it while it lasts.” And that doesn’t mean we are devoid of stellar matchups with juicy storylines.
On the NFC side, well, who would’ve thought that it would be the conference with a little less of a fresh feeling? After all, a couple of old-school powerhouses in San Francisco and Green Bay got the byes, and the Seahawks are back to their old tricks.
Here’s a fun stat while we’re at it: Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson each have nine playoff wins entering their matchup Sunday. They each have more than twice as many playoff wins as the other six starting QBs combined this weekend.
Alright, now that you’ve heard my massive exhale over the potential death of the Patriots’ dynasty and another lonely January in the Steel City, let’s jump into some picks:
Last week: 3-1
Reg. Season: 25-20
Overall: 28-21 (57%)
Minnesota at San Francisco (-7)
Don’t get me wrong, I really do like the 49ers and what they’ve done this year. But I’m suddenly feeling like Minnesota’s win in New Orleans last week might not have been a fluke. The Vikes really outplayed the Saints the whole way through, and the Saints weren’t some lucky, random, 13-3 team. A healthy Dalvin Cook and Adam Thielen (debatable this week after a mid-week ankle injury in practice) make this Minnesota team much more dangerous than the one that limped into January with a couple of season-ending home losses. The 49ers’ secondary has been very vulnerable of late, and Jimmy Garoppolo is always good for one interception a game (at least) and, alas, it is also his first playoff start. This feels like a good spot for the Vikings to at least hang tough throughout. Pick: Vikings.
Tennessee at Baltimore (-9.5)
How could America not fall in love with Derrick Henry and the Titans after what they did to the Patriots last week? Well, it’s a harder sell this week, for Ravens fans at least. Both teams feature great rushing attacks, and Baltimore could be without Mark Ingram. But my instinct is that the Titans might have just played their Super Bowl against New England, and aren’t ready for a rested Ravens juggernaut with something to prove after a disappointing one-and-done finish last year. Pick: Ravens.
Houston at Kansas City (-9.5)
This one is easy, right? I mean the Texans were lucky to win last week. The Chiefs’ defense is better. The Chiefs are hot, and Houston has never played in an AFC championship game. Cue Chris Berman saying, “THAT’s….why they play the game.” Houston has already won in Kansas City, a 31-24 Week 6 triumph over a healthy Patrick Mahomes, and I have to believe almost feels like it’s playing with house money after winning a game against Buffalo it no business winning. If nothing else, the Texans should hang around a while. And the Chiefs, despite winning their first home playoff game last year since 1993, are no strangers to letting down the Arrowhead faithful in January. Pick: Texans.
Seattle at Green Bay (-4)
I’m so tempted to go with Seattle, if for no other reason than I’m getting tired of this team and that it just always seems to hang around. But the Hawks lost two home games to end the season and barely eked out a win against a 9-7 Eagles team playing with a 40-year-old backup QB. The Packers are the team no one seems to be talking about, and that makes them dangerous. Aaron Rodgers, Aaron Jones, and a really solid defense at Lambeau Field in January? I’ll go with the home team to exorcise the demons of that miserable 2014 NFC championship game meltdown against these same Hawks. Pick: Packers.