And now there are eight. Following this weekend’s NFL ties, which saw the home team triumph on each occasion, the match ups for the divisional playoffs have been confirmed as the 2016 NFL season edges towards a climax.
Up first on Saturday were the Oakland Raiders away to the Houston Texans. Having been in imperious form for much of the season and with Khalil Mack (the ‘one man wrecking crew’ of American commentator’s dreams) and Derek Carr on form, it appeared that the Raiders would not have to compete in Wild Card weekend at all, being likely to finish as the number two seed in the AFC. That was until Carr broke his fibula against the Indianapolis Colts in week sixteen. The Raiders then lost to Denver in the final game of the regular season, allowing divisional rivals Kansas City to overtake them, condemning Oakland to a difficult tie in Texas. And so it proved. With Connor Cook handed his first competitive start, the Raiders were comprehensively outplayed by a Houston team likely to be demolished by the Patriots next weekend.
Next up were Detroit at Seattle. With a fearsome home record, the Lions were always going to be up against it in the Pacific Northwest and Seahawks fans weren’t disappointed, with their team finishing 26-8 winners at CenturyLink Field. For Detroit, in their first play-off game since 2014, and having not made the divisional round since 1991, this was another major disappointment as their defence was unable to handle explosive running back Thomas Rawls who made 161 yards in the game.
The early game on Sunday was played out at Heinz Field, as the Steelers overcame the Dolphins 30-12. With Ryan Tannehill unable to play, Matt Moore was forced into the starting jersey for Miami, who found their star running-back, Jay Ajayi, marked out of the game by an aggressive Pittsburgh defence. The Dolphins poor disciplinary record also came back to haunt them as Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell turned the screw, scoring four touchdowns altogether.
Rounding off the weekend was the NFC clash between the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants at Lambeau Field. Despite taking an early lead, the Giants were unable to hit star receiver Odell Beckham JR in the early exchanges, and suffered the consequences as Aaron Rodgers, the artful dodger in the pocket, exploited a defence bereft of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie by throwing two touchdown passes in the last three minutes of the first half. Eli Manning responded by throwing a touchdown to Tavarres King in the third quarter, but the Steelers hit back with three further touchdowns before time elapsed.
And so on to the Divisional Playoffs next weekend. Seattle travel to Atlanta to play the Falcons on Saturday afternoon, followed by the Texans at the Patriots. On Sunday, the Steelers look to best the Chiefs in Missouri while the Packers face the number one seed in the NFC, the Dallas Cowboys. From these games, the Patriots appear odds on to beat a limited Texans offense, but each of the other games should be competitive, with the performances of play-off rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott being crucial to the Cowboys’ chances of progressing. In Kansas City, the head to head between Bell and the Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill should make for a fascinating spectacle, whereas in Georgia, it will be up to Matt Ryan and Julio Jones to see if the Falcons can avenge the 24-26 loss to the Seahawks in Week 6.