Rick Weegman: Playoffs heat up this weekend
After a wild-card playoff week that saw little intrigue, the NFL playoffs reach what should be a much more competitive divisional round this weekend.
I don't know how the worst matchup — Houston at New England — ended up in prime time, but the other games should offer plenty of excitement.
Playoff veteran teams such as the Patriots, Seahawks and Packers, behind top quarterbacks, know how to win in the postseason, Pittsburgh has the most talented offensive trio, Dallas has the best offensive line and running game, Kansas City might have the best (non-playoff) coach and no team can match Atlanta's offensive firepower.
Picking upsets, as the Pigskin Picks standings embarrassingly show, hasn't worked well for me this year. But the only chance to move up the list is by continuing to take underdogs so here goes:
Seattle (11-5-1) at Atlanta (11-5): Seattle edged Atlanta 26-24 in October home meeting. Seahawks were seven-point favorites in that game, now are nearly a touchdown underdog. Falcons averaged nearly 34 points per game but possible MVP Matt Ryan (4,944 yards, 38 TDs) now faces one of the NFL's all-time greatest secondaries, though does so with a healthy Julio Jones in the arsenal. Seattle, anemic at running the ball during the season, counters with Thomas Rawls (franchise playoff record rushing total last week), who should be able to run wild against a porous Atlanta defense. Seattle knows how to win in the playoffs, but are just average on the road. All eight Falcons home games were over the over-under total so expect another high-scoring shootout in what could be the final game at the Georgia Dome.
Line: Falcons by 5 1/2
Rick's Pick: Falcons 30, Seahawks 28
Houston (10-7) at New England (14-2): Patriots aren't just beating opponents, they are steamrolling them. They enter this Saturday night matchup on a seven-game win streak, including five by 13 points or more. QB Tom Brady (28 TDs, 2 interceptions) set a league TD-to-interception ratio record, though New England didn't need him in a 27-0 victory over the Texans early in the season. Houston's only chance revolves around a league-leading defense and the running of Lamar Miller. Funny thing is Patriots' defense allows 4.5 fewer points per game than Texans and Miller only averaged 2.4 yards per carry in wild-card win over Oakland. Pats went 13-3 against the spread this season, so even this huge number is no obstacle.
Line: Patriots by 15
Rick's Pick: Patriots 27, Texans 10
Pittsburgh (12-5) at Kansas City (12-4): Steelers routed Chiefs 43-14 in early October and are back to playing that way during current eight-game winning streak. Their biggest question mark revolves around the health of Ben Roethlisberger's ankle. The QB says he's going to play and that gives Pittsburgh a big advantage at that position. Le'Veon Bell's slashing running style should pose difficulties for a KC defense allowing 130 yards rushing per game and 4.8 yards per carry in home games. Though Arrowhead Stadium is a tough place to win for visiting teams, you wouldn't know that by Chiefs' 1-9 playoff record since 1993. This will be a statement win by Steelers.
Line: Chiefs by 2
Rick's Pick: Steelers 27, Chiefs 17 (best bet)
Green Bay (11-6) at Dallas (13-3): Weekend's best matchup pits red-hot Packers (seven-game winning streak) and conference's best QB vs. team that went 7-1 at home and boasts the league's top two rookies. Dallas handled Packers 30-16 in October before Aaron Rodgers made his "run the table" remark. Green Bay's second-half performance last week against Giants — a team Dallas struggled with — cannot be understated. Jordy Nelson's availability is in doubt but Randall Cobb showed Rodgers has other options. Ty Montgomery's status might be more problematic as Green Bay has few other running options. The Dak Prescott-Zeke Elliott combo hasn't faltered all season, but the playoffs can be a different animal. Packers beat Dallas again in the playoffs, though no video reviews or Hail Marys will be needed.
Line: Cowboys by 4 1/2
Rick's Pick: Packers 27, Cowboys 20
Last week (season) — straight up: 3-1 (162-97-2); against the spread 2-2 (131-119-9); best bets 0-0 (11-6)