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NFL playoffs: Patriots will host Texans

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NewsHubThere will be a familiar feel to the NFL playoffs next weekend: Every divisional-round game will be a rematch from the regular season, the first time that’s happened in six years.
In the AFC, it’s the Houston Texans playing as huge underdogs at New England, and the Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City. In the NFC, it’s the Green Bay Packers at the Dallas Cowboys, and the Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta.
The first time around, New England beat Houston 27-0 in Week 3 with third-string rookie Jacoby Brissett at quarterback, Pittsburgh beat Kansas City 43-14 in Week 4, Dallas beat Green Bay 30-16 in Week 6, and Seattle beat Atlanta 26-24 in Week 6.
Not that those results necessarily mean much now, especially because none was more recent than October.
New England is one of the biggest betting favorites in a playoff game – a 16-point favorite – and here’s why: Bill Belichick’s Patriots have outscored protege Bill O’Brien’s Texans by a combined 54-6 in their last two head-to-head games.
As good as Houston’s top-ranked defense has been – Jadeveon Clowney’s interception set the tone for a 27-14 win over Oakland in the wild-card round – there is a world of difference between facing a rookie QB making his first NFL start (Oakland’s Connor Cook) and a three-time Super Bowl MVP (New England’s Tom Brady). And Belichick will surely dream up some schemes to bedevil Texans QB Brock Osweiler, who was held to 196 yards passing by the Patriots in their September meeting.
Osweiler lost his starting job late in the regular season, only to regain it when Tom Savage suffered a concussion in the season finale. Osweiler finished the regular season with 15 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions, and Texans averaged only 17.4 points per game – tied for 28th in the NFL. Their 279 points are the fewest by a playoff team since the Bears scored only 260 points in 2005.
STEELERS at CHIEFS: The Steelers know how much things can change over the course of a season, having already avenged a regular-season loss to Miami.
Now it’ll be the Chiefs who have a shot at redemption.
“What happened during the regular season is of little importance,” Pittsburgh Coach Mike Tomlin said.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger needed a walking boot after hurting his right foot against Miami. If he’s fine next week, it will be fun to watch him, wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell take on Marcus Peters, Eric Berry and the rest of Kansas City’s formidable defense.
On the other side of the ball, Steelers linebacker James Harrison and his teammates should be able to handle Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, but the question is how Pittsburgh’s defense and special teams will corral rookie speedster Tyreek Hill.
PACKERS at COWBOYS: That loss to Dallas nearly three months ago was part of Green Bay’s 4-6 start. But ever since quarterback Aaron Rodgers spoke about trying to “run the table,” NFC North champion Green Bay has won seven consecutive games, including 38-13 over the New York Giants in the wild-card round.
Rodgers has 19 TD passes and zero interceptions during the streak, but one question now is whether favorite target Jordy Nelson, hurt against the Giants, will be available.
Green Bay’s pass defense, shaky and beset by injuries, might not have an easy time against Dallas QB Dak Prescott, a preternaturally poised rookie who threw for three TDs in the October matchup. The No. 1-seeded Cowboys’ other first-year sensation, Ezekiel Elliott, gained 157 yards in his first game against the NFL’s eighth-best run defense.
SEAHAWKS at FALCONS: All-Pro quarterback Matt Ryan, a top MVP contender, and wideout Julio Jones lead NFC South champion Atlanta’s high-powered offense against NFC West champion Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” defense, which is missing injured safety Earl Thomas but still features Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor.
In the first meeting, Ryan threw for three TDs, while Jones finished with seven catches for 139 yards and a score. But most memorable was an incompletion on fourth down with 90 seconds left, when Sherman grabbed Jones’ arm on a deep pass but wasn’t called for interference.
It’s also worth monitoring how Atlanta’s so-so defense deals with Seattle’s offense. Falcons Coach Dan Quinn used to be Seattle’s defensive coordinator.
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