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NFL Divisional Round Preview: Which Teams Will Advance?

Dallas Cowboys v Green Bay Packers
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Only eight teams remain alive in the NFL postseason. Here’s a preview of the divisional round playoffs:

Saturday, January 14

NFC Divisional Playoff: (3) Seattle Seahawks at (2) Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta Falcons v Seattle Seahawks
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Georgia Dome, Atlanta | 4:35 p.m. (ET) on Fox

How They Got Here: The NFC West-champion Seattle Seahawks (11-5-1) advanced to the postseason thanks to their defense and the play of quarterback Russell Wilson. They used the same combo in last Saturday’s 26-6 demolition of the Lions in the wild-card round, and also showed off a formidable running attack featuring Thomas Rawls.

The Atlanta Falcons (11-5) used a high-powered offense featuring quarterback Matt Ryan, receiver Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman to run away with the NFC South title and earn a bye into the divisional round.

History: The Seahawks edged the Falcons, 26-24, in Seattle on October 16. The teams have only met one other time in the playoffs, a 30-28 thriller won by Atlanta at the Georgia Dome in the 2012 postseason.

Outlook: The Falcons have several favorables in this game: an extra week of rest, home field advantage and a seemingly unstoppable offense. What they don’t have: the Seattle defense. If the Falcons can protect Ryan, who was hit eight times in the first half of the teams’ first meeting, and control the tempo, they can win this game. Atlanta’s huge rally in the second half of the October game showed that the Seahawks defense isn’t impenetrable, but it will take work. Cornerback Richard Sherman wants to lock down Jones in the worst way.

If the game stays close, it’s hard to bet against Wilson vs. the Falcons’ defense. The Seattle quarterback always seems to extend plays long enough to get his team down the field in the fourth quarter. The Atlanta defense has to contain Rawls and keep Wilson from making game-changing plays.

AFC Divisional Playoff: (4) Houston Texans at (1) New England Patriots
Houston Texans v New England Patriots
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Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass. | 8:15 p.m. (ET) on CBS

How They Got Here: The New England Patriots (14-2) are always here. Despite the four-game suspension handed out to quarterback Tom Brady at the beginning of the season for his role in ‘Deflategate,’ the Pats captured their eighth consecutive AFC East title and showed that they are still an NFL win machine. They tore through their schedule unscathed other than losses to the Bills and Seahawks.

The AFC South-champion Houston Texans (10-7) rode the NFL’s best defense to the playoffs. Pro Bowl pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney led the team to an easy 27-14 win over the injury-plagued Raiders in an AFC wild-card game last Saturday.

History: New England mauled Houston, 27-0, on Sept. 26 with third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett under center in place of Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo. The teams have met only once before in the postseason, with the Pats winning, 41-28, in the 2013 playoffs.

Outlook: With quarterback Brock Osweiler leading Houston’s offense against the stout Patriots defense, this game should be an easy one for New England, right? Well, the only two teams to stop the Pats this season have featured aggressive defenses, and that’s the key to the Texans’ chances. If Clowney and Co. can pressure Brady and stop the run, they can slow this game down and make it close.

More than likely though, Brady will find a way to beat the Houston defense and put them in an early hole. That’s bad news for the Texans, because they really can’t be counted on to get the score into the 20s. A Brady turnover or a LeGarrette Blount fumble could change everything, but those are unlikely: the Pats were third in the league in turnover margin.

Sunday, January 15

NFC Divisional Playoff: (4) Green Bay Packers at (1) Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys v Green Bay Packers
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AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Tex. | 4:40 p.m. (ET) on Fox

How They Got Here: Thanks to the inspired play of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers (11-6) won their last seven games, claiming the NFC North title and drubbing the Giants in last Sunday’s NFC wild-card game, 38-13. There is no hotter team in the league.

Bolstered by the play of rookies Ezekiel Elliot and Dak Prescott behind the league’s best offensive line, Dallas (13-3) steamed through the league on the way to the NFC East title. Included in their gaudy record was an 11-game win streak during which they seemed unbeatable.

History: The Packers committed four turnovers as Dallas beat Green Bay, 30-16 on Oct. 16. This will be the eighth time the teams will have met in the postseason. The Cowboys have won four of the seven previous meetings, but lost the last one in the 2014 playoffs.

Outlook: This should be a fantastic game. The defenses will be tested. Can Green Bay stop Elliott and force the nearly mistake-free Prescott into turnovers? Their playoff lives depend on it. Rodgers is in a historic groove, but a little pressure from the Dallas front seven could change everything.

Play-makers like the Packers Ty Montgomery and Davante Adams and the Cowboys’ Dez Bryant and Jason Witten could seize the spotlight and get their team to the championship game. Plenty of pundits might tell you that this IS the NFC title game. It’s hard to argue the point.

AFC Divisional Playoff: (3) Pittsburgh Steelers at (2) Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City Chiefs v Pittsburgh Steelers
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Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City | 8:20 p.m. (ET) on NBC

How They Got Here: The Pittsburgh Steelers (12-5) shook off a few early season stumbles to win the AFC North title with a seven-game winning streak at the end of the regular season. Behind huge days for Pro Bowlers Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh crushed Miami, 30-12, in last Sunday’s AFC wild-card game.

Blessed with a ball-hawking defense and the play-making abilities of returner/runner Tyreek Hill, Kansas City (12-4) played consistently good football for most of the season. The Chiefs nabbed the AFC West title with two wins over Oakland.

History: Behind five touchdown passes from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers crushed the Chiefs 43-14 on Oct. 2. The teams have only met once before in the playoffs, a 27-24 Kansas City overtime win during the 1993 postseason.

Outlook: Pittsburgh is extremely hot. The Steelers are scoring at will and grinding down opponents on both sides of the ball. If they stay turnover free, it’s hard to see a scenario where Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown don’t just outscore Kansas City, much like the October game.

The onus will be on the Chiefs’ defense to stop the attack and allow Alex Smith and the offense a chance to control the ball and eat up yards and clock. If the score stays in the teens and 20s and Big Ben coughs up the ball, Kansas City has a shot.

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