Falcons defense will need to step up to make Super Bowl dreams a reality

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Here is a look at all four Divisional Playoff games taking place this weekend as the quest for the Lombardi Trophy continues.

Atlanta’s offense was both visually and statistically (33.8 ppg and 415.8 ypg) dominant for much of the season. They play host to a Seattle defense that obviously has a strong pedigree, particularly in the secondary. But that dominant secondary has been exposed at times this year and was recently dealt a key injury with Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas out. Detroit couldn’t take advantage of Thomas’ absence as it was clear Matthew Stafford was not 100 percent due to a dislocated finger.

And the Lions’ offensive line was banged up and missing two starters. In the end, the Seahawks surrendered only 231 total yards. It will be a much more difficult task this weekend as Atlanta’s offense is in a far better position to successfully move the football. Matt Ryan (38 TDs, 7 INTs, 69.9% completion rate) has a host of skill position weapons and like we saw against Arizona and Green Bay, Seattle can be exposed through the air.

There are questions about Atlanta’s defense, which ranked in the bottom third of the league in a number of categories. After struggling to run the football for virtually the entire regular season, Thomas Rawls went for 161 yards against the Lions. Couple that with a fully healthy Russell Wilson and Seattle appears poised to move the ball with the type of balance we’ve seen during some of their past postseason runs. Note that all eight regular season games in the Georgia Dome went over the total.

New England dominated its regular season matchup against Houston, 27-0. Of course that thrashing came without the services of Tom Brady. Houston’s top-tier defense was strong against Oakland (203 total yards) but trying to compare a Connor Cook-led offense to the Patriots is pointless. To his credit, Brock Osweiler looked fairly competent in the win. His numbers weren’t gaudy (completing 14-of-25, 168 yards) but he avoided critical mistakes.

Perhaps another clean effort keeps Houston within striking distance in the fourth quarter. I still think it’s deserving to question New England’s defense. The Patriots lived a charmed life in terms of quality offenses and quarterbacks faced during the regular season (32nd strength of schedule). But can we really expect that soft slate to bite the defense here as Houston has by far the worst offense of the remaining eight playoff teams? The Texans also have an ugly history in the recent series in New England, 0-3 SU/ATS, 22.6 ppg margin of defeat.

Pittsburgh rolled to an easy win and cover against banged up and beleaguered Miami on Sunday. But the real story line was Ben Roethlisberger’s ankle injury that had him in a walking boot after the game. He has already declared himself good enough to play on Sunday but it is something that bears watching. Kansas City has baffled many bettors this season; outgained by a combined 396 yards but offset (and some) with an NFL-leading 33 takeaways.

The Chiefs’ “way” led to not only a 12-4 regular season record but the same impressive mark against the spread. There are some injury concerns with running Spencer Ware playing through a rib injury, linebacker Derrick Johnson out with an Achilles injury, and cornerback Eric Berry is listed as questionable with bum heel.

We’ll of course mention Andy Reid’s dominant track record off a bye week which is in effect here. Reid is 16-2 SU in his career after a bye week and that includes a perfect 3-0 SU mark in three Divisional Playoff games following a bye during his time with the Philadelphia Eagles. We saw a flood of money on the Chiefs earlier today as the line went from -1 to -2.5; no doubt some feeling that Roethlisberger’s injury could have a significant impact on his performance.

No team was hotter down the stretch than Green Bay with seven straight wins and a 6-1 ATS mark. Aaron Rodgers tossed 19 touchdowns without a single interception during that span. That includes Sunday’s impressive performance against the Giants. It took a while to get going but Green Bay’s offense finished with over six yards per play and moved the ball virtually at will in the second half.

The Giants finished the season with some of the best defensive numbers in the league (2nd-ranked DVOA) whereas Dallas was league average (17th-ranked DVOA). You also can’t help but consider the experience factor. I’m perfectly comfortable betting on teams that haven’t had a lot of recent postseason exposure (this will only be Dallas’ second trip in seven years) but rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are obviously pretty big parts of the offense. Let’s also point out that Green Bay’s secondary was without Sam Shields and Quinten Rollins last week. They weren’t threatened by the Giants’ anemic passing attack but could be here as Prescott threw for 247 yards in Dallas’ 30-16 win over Green Bay in Lambeau back in Week 6.

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