SERIES HISTORY: 17th all-time meeting, second in the postseason. The Seahawks lead the series, 10-6. Atlanta beat Seattle 30-28 in the divisional round of the 2012 NFC playoffs. The Seahawks rallied from a 20-0 deficit to take a 28-27 lead with 31 seconds remaining, only to have Matt Bryant kick a 49-yard field goal with eight seconds left. Russell Wilson's 385 yards passing in the playoff loss are still the most in his career. The Seahawks beat the Falcons 26-24 in October.
KEYS TO THE GAME: This will be the second meeting this season after the Seahawks' controversial 26-24 victory at home in mid-October when cornerback Richard Sherman, who had imploded on the Seattle sideline earlier, wasn't called for a late pass interference on Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones.
"We felt like we had a chance to win that game. Calls didn't go our way," said Falcons second-year outside linebacker Vic Beasley, who led the NFL with 15 1/2 sacks. "Things could've went a different route, so we're looking forward to this opportunity."
Not having to go back to Seattle is certainly an advantage for the Falcons, who went 4-0 down the stretch in winning the NFC South and got a first-round bye when the Seahawks lost three of their final six games.
The Seattle defense, which ranked third in the NFL in points allowed at 18.3 per game, suffered a major blow with the loss of safety Earl Thomas, and Matt Ryan and the Falcons led the NFL with 33.8 points per game.
The Seattle offense found its missing ground game in a 26-6 win over Detroit last week, with Thomas Rawls rushing 27 times for 161 yards -- a team playoff record.
Dan Quinn, in his second season as Falcons coach, was the defensive coordinator during Seattle's two trips to the Super Bowl. He has downplayed that storyline, though, and is thankful he already has faced the Seahawks.
"I'm glad that game got out of the way," Quinn said. "Let's hope through the years we battle a bunch of times against them. I sense that will be the case."
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Falcons WR Julio Jones vs. Seahawks CB Richard Sherman. Jones caught seven passes for 139 yards against Seattle in October. Atlanta managed to keep Jones away from Sherman by formation, but the Seahawks could elect to play more man-to-man defense this time around with Sherman on Jones often.
--Seahawks TE Jimmy Graham vs. Falcons linebackers. Graham had six catches for 89 yards in Seattle's first meeting with Atlanta. The Falcons' defense has been particularly susceptible for opposing tight ends all season and Graham could have another big day.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Seahawks RB C.J. Prosise. Prosise has missed seven games since suffering a fractured scapula in mid-November. Prosise accounted for 234 yards and a touchdown in his final six quarters before being injured and provides a dual threat that could come in handy if he is healthy.
FAST FACTS: Seattle is in the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, looking for its third Super Bowl appearance in the past four years. Seattle has won seven of its past nine postseason games and has won a playoff game in each of the past five years. ... Coach Pete Carroll is 9-4 (.692) in the playoffs with Seattle. ... Seahawks QB Russell Wilson has 64 career wins (including the postseason), the most by a quarterback in his first five seasons. ... The Seahawks had four players selected to the Pro Bowl: DE Cliff Avril, DE Michael Bennett, CB Richard Sherman and LB Bobby Wagner. ... The Falcons won the NFC South and advanced to the postseason for the first time since 2012. They are 4-3 at home in the playoffs in franchise history. ... Atlanta coach Dan Quinn spent four seasons with Seattle (2009-10, 2013-14), including the 2013 and 2014 seasons as the team's defensive coordinator. The Seahawks advanced to the Super Bowl in both seasons, winning Super Bowl XLVIII. ... Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan led the NFL with a 117.1 passer rating, the fifth-best mark in league history. ... Atlanta had six players selected to the Pro Bowl: LB Vic Beasley Jr., K Matt Bryant, RB Devonta Freeman, WR Julio Jones, C Alex Mack and Ryan.
PREDICTION: This game likely hinges on Seattle's ability to run the ball, something the Seahawks have not done well this season. Without that control factor, they seem likely to lose a shootout to Ryan and Co. -- at the end, of course.
OUR PICK: Falcons, 30-27.
SERIES HISTORY: Ninth meeting in the series, including postseason. Patriots lead, 7-1, including 1-0 in the playoffs. This marks the second time New England has hosted Houston in an AFC divisional playoff game; the Pats won 41-28 at Gillette Stadium during the 2012 season. The most recent matchup came in Week 3 this season, when rookie QB Jacoby Brissett led a 27-0 shutout of the Texans in a Thursday night battle in New England. The Patriots have scored at least 27 points in seven of eight meetings, winning five by two scores or more.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Bill O'Brien knows all about how tough the Patriots are at this time of year. That's why the former New England offensive coordinator knows what his Houston Texans are up against.
"It's a big challenge. It's a team that has done it year in and year out," O'Brien said. "Last week was only this organization's third playoff win. We've got a big challenge ahead of us."
History, and the oddsmakers, are both against the Texans, a 9-7 division champion that disposed of the quarterback-less Raiders in last weekend's wild-card game. Houston has never won in Foxborough, lost 27-0 in New England -- with Tom Brady out -- in September and has lost the last two games by a combined 54-6. They're also a warm-weather team playing in the cold night air.
The Texans do bring the league's No. 1 defense into this game, but the Patriots have allowed the fewest points.
Back in Week 3, Jacoby Brissett was the New England quarterback and J.J. Watt played his final game before season-ending back surgery. The Texans fumbled away two kickoffs and saw Brissett run for a 27-yard touchdown.
Now, Brady will run the potent Patriots offense, which should be bolstered by the return of Danny Amendola, who missed four games with a sprain ankle.
Brady finished a record-setting season with 28 touchdown passes and just two interceptions as the Patriots set the record for fewest picks thrown (two) in a season. The Patriots have outscored their last three opponents 92-20, with Brady and Co. in high gear.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Patriots LT Nate Solder vs. Texans DE Jadeveon Clowney. Houston's former No. 1 overall pick has been healthy and productive this year, helping the team deal with the loss of J.J. Watt. Clowney moves around the front and can make plays in a variety of ways, as shown by his impressive interception on a screen pass against Oakland last weekend. Solder has had a solid year but it has come with ups and downs. He must win battles with Clowney to ensure that the freakish athlete doesn't spearhead a colossal upset by getting after Tom Brady.
--Texans RB Lamar Miller vs. Patriots LB Dont'a Hightower. Miller had an average first season in Houston, rushing for a little more than 1,000 yards, averaging four yards a carry and scoring five touchdowns. He had 31 carries against Oakland for a mere 73 yards and a score. New England's run defense was impressive down the stretch, tied for No. 3 in the league. Hightower is the man in the middle of it all as the Patriots look to stop the run and put the pressure on the Texans' lackluster passing attack.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Patriots FS Devin McCourty. The Pro Bowl safety is the key force in terms of communication and avoiding big plays in the back end. One of the few ways the Texans might be able to challenge New England as the heavy underdog would be big plays in the passing game to speedy receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller. McCourty can't -- and likely won't -- allow that to happen.
FAST FACTS: Houston advanced to the divisional round with a 27-14 win over Oakland last week. The Texans, who led the NFL in total defense (301.3 yards per game), limited the Raiders to 203 yards. ... Houston LB Whitney Mercilus had two sacks and three tackles for loss in last week's victory. He has five sacks and six tackles for loss in his past two playoff games. ... Texans DE Jadeveon Clowney, who was selected to his first Pro Bowl, had an interception last week to set up a touchdown in his first career playoff game. ... New England won its eighth consecutive division title, the longest streak in NFL history. The Patriots are the only team in NFL history to win 13 division titles in a 14-year span. ... New England QB Tom Brady has 22 playoff wins, the most in NFL history. Brady is also the NFL postseason leader in completions (738), attempts (1,183), yards (7,957) and touchdown passes (56). ... The Patriots had four players selected to the Pro Bowl: Brady, LB Dont'a Hightower, safety Devin McCourty and special-teamer Matthew Slater.
PREDICTION: Brady is on a mission, and the Texans don't have the weapons to stop him and the Patriots from reaching their record sixth straight AFC title game.
OUR PICK: Patriots, 31-13.
THE SERIES: 42nd meeting. Dallas leads 21-20, including 4-3 in the playoffs. Dallas won the earlier meeting this season, 30-16. Green Bay won the last playoff meeting, 26-21 in 2014. Dallas won the last playoff meeting in Dallas, 38-27 in 1996. The Cowboys are 4-1 against the Packers in the playoffs.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Cowboys led all teams in the NFC with a 13-3 record and have home-field advantage until the Super Bowl. But the Packers are peaking, having won seven straight.
Fresh off a 38-13 dismantling of the New York Giants in the wild-card round at Green Bay last weekend, the fourth-seeded Packers believe the continuity of playing every week can make a difference.
"They were off this last week, and they're hosting the game (Sunday), so there's extra pressure on them as the No. 1 seed to win," Rodgers said. "And, we're coming in with a lot of confidence and riding the streak. We're feeling good about the way we've been playing."
The Packers also are motivated to avenge a surprisingly lopsided 30-16 loss to the Cowboys in Green Bay three months ago.
Led by the rookie tandem of quarterback Dak Prescott and halfback Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys ran over and away from the Packers, who played from behind after giving up a touchdown in the game-opening series. Elliott accounted for 157 of Dallas' 191 rushing yards, and Prescott threw for three touchdowns.
The Packers are bracing for more of Elliott in the rematch. He led the NFL with 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground, averaging a robust 5.1 yards per carry. The Cowboys ranked second in the league with an average of 149.8 rushing yards.
While the Packers can't bank on No. 1 receiver Jordy Nelson being able to play a week after he was knocked out of the first-round game with cracked ribs, coach Mike McCarthy is wary of Dallas' premier pass catcher. Dez Bryant didn't play in the first meeting Oct. 16 because of a knee injury.
"This is a complete offense," McCarthy said. "They attack you all over the field -- formation, personnel, scheme. And, the ability, really starting with that run game, moving the quarterback around, it creates one-on-one opportunities (on the outside), and Dez is a big challenge."
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Packers OLB Clay Matthews vs. Cowboys LT Tyron Smith. Matthews is the Packers' best pass rusher. He had a sack and forced fumble against the Giants in the wild-card round. Smith is the best left tackle in the league but has been slowed all season by a back injury and missed the season finale with a sprained knee. He will play but will have to be at his best to keep Matthews off quarterback Dak Prescott.
--Packers WR Randall Cobb vs. Cowboys CB Orlando Scandrick. Cobb caught five passes for 116 yards and three touchdowns in the wild-card playoff win over the Giants. His presence will be even more important with Jordy Nelson not expected to play against the Cowboys. Cobb excels out of the slot, where he will draw Scandrick. Scandrick is playing his best football of the season after a slow start during which he battled hamstring injuries and plantar fasciitis. The key for Scandrick is limiting Cobb after the catch and getting him on the ground.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Packers CB LaDarius Gunter. In part because of attrition, Gunter has emerged as Green Bay's most dependable cornerback. The second-year pro primarily shadowed New York Giants standout Odell Beckham Jr. in the Packers' lopsided victory in the wild-card round last weekend. Beckham managed only four catches for 28 yards in 11 targets. Next up for Gunter is Dez Bryant. The Cowboys didn't have an injured Bryant available when they came to Green Bay in mid-October. That didn't matter because the Cowboys pulled away for a 30-16 win, thanks in part to a number of coverage breakdowns by Gunter.
FAST FACTS: The Packers have won seven consecutive games, outscoring opponents 223-125. ... Packers QB Aaron Rodgers passed for 362 yards and four touchdowns last week in a win over New York. He has a 100.3 career postseason passer rating, making him one of four quarterbacks in NFL history to have a 100 rating (minimum 150 attempts). ... Green Bay WR Randall Cobb caught five passes for 116 yards and tied the NFL postseason single-game record with three touchdown catches. ... The Packers had three players selected to the Pro Bowl: S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, OG T.J. Lang and Rodgers. ... Dallas has qualified for the postseason 32 times, tied with the Packers and Giants for the most in league history. ... Dallas is the only team in NFL history to have a rookie pass for 20 touchdowns (QB Dak Prescott, 23) and a rookie rush for 15 touchdowns (RB Ezekiel Elliott, 15) in the same season. Prescott's 13 wins are tied for the most by a rookie QB in NFL history, and his 104.9 passer rating is the highest by a rookie. Elliott led the NFL with 1,631 rushing yards, the third-most by a rookie. ... The Cowboys had five players selected to the Pro Bowl: C Travis Frederick, OG Zack Martin, OT Tyron Smith, Prescott and Elliott.
PREDICTION: Rodgers is right. The Packers are hot and the Cowboys haven't done anything notable for weeks. The Cowboys were swept this season by the Giants, who couldn't keep up with the Packers. That's all we need to know.
OUR PICK: Packers, 30-20.
HISTORY: 32nd meeting, second in postseason. The Steelers lead, 21-10. The Chiefs beat the Steelers 27-24 in overtime in a 1993 AFC wild-card game at Arrowhead Stadium. Pittsburgh is 10-7 in Kansas City, but the Chiefs won the last meeting, 23-13 in 2015.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Chiefs were hammered 43-14 in Pittsburgh in October, and they are determined to back up their No. 2 seeding by paying back the visiting Steelers.
Le'Veon Bell ran for 167 yards and two touchdowns last week in the Steelers' blowout of Miami. It was a record-setting rushing performance in Pittsburgh postseason history. Back in October, Bell put up 144 yards on 18 carries against Kansas City.
"He has a unique style about him -- that delay to get to the line of scrimmage," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "It's been effective for him. He's really the only one that does it, so it's unique. The obvious thing is you have to contain him and take care of your gaps."
Pittsburgh is riding a nine-game winning streak and an AFC North title with more than just Bell. Wide receiver Antonio Brown was among the league leaders in catches (106), yards (1,284) and touchdown receptions (12). Ben Roethlisberger threw five touchdown passes to four receivers against the Chiefs in October.
The Chiefs can test the Pittsburgh defense with big plays from wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce. Over Kansas City's last six games, Hill and Kelce have scored seven touchdowns and contributed 45 percent of the offensive yards (470 of 2,150).
"He is as dynamic as any tight end in football right now," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Kelce. "He is a matchup issue -- too athletic for linebackers, too big and strong often times for secondary people. Hill's contributions have evolved since we played them. Now, he is very much a part of their routine offensive attack. He is an impactful guy and his speed and bursts are unique."
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell vs. Chiefs LBs Ramik Wilson, Terrance Smith, D.J. Alexander and Justin March-Lillard. It may take all four of those linebackers to slow down Bell, the engine of the Pittsburgh offense. He's a threat as both a runner and receiver, leading the AFC with 1,884 scrimmage yards in 12 games. The Chiefs' linebackers must find ways to fill the gaps and keep Bell bottled up behind the line of scrimmage as he seeks a running lane. An experienced offensive line will make that difficult; but, to have a shot at winning the game, the Chiefs inside 'backers can't allow Bell to average the 5.8 yards per carry he posted last Sunday against Miami in an 18-point Pittsburgh victory.
--Chiefs OLs Mitch Morse, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Zach Fulton vs. Steelers LBs Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons. Kansas City must find a way to stay balanced on offense. The running game must be available and effective for the Chiefs to win. That inside blocking trio must also handle the Steelers defense's blitz schemes. Timmons and Shazier were the leading tacklers for Pittsburgh and combined for six sacks, 17 pressures and five interceptions. In the regular-season game between the teams, K.C. ran for just 87 yards, but 46 came on a Spencer Ware run. On the 17 other carries, the Chiefs gained 41 yards.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Chiefs WR Jeremy Maclin. In the second half of the season, tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill produced big plays and touchdowns. Barely showing up was Maclin, the team's highest-paid receiver after signing a five-year, $55 million deal before the 2015 season. In the second year of the deal, Maclin caught just 44 passes for 536 yards and two touchdowns over 12 games, the least productive of his seven NFL seasons. A significant groin injury cost him five games in the middle of the season. In his absence, Hill got more and more playing time. With Pittsburgh's defensive focus falling on Hill and Kelce, there should be openings for Maclin against a mediocre secondary.
FAST FACTS: Pittsburgh defeated Miami 30-12 last week, the Steelers' NFL-record 35th postseason win. Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell rushed for 167 yards and two touchdowns, the most rushing yards in a postseason game in club history. ... Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger threw touchdown passes of 50 and 62 yards to WR Antonio Brown in the wild-card win. Brown is the only player in NFL history to score two 50-yard touchdowns in the first quarter of a playoff game. ... Pittsburgh had five players selected to the Pro Bowl: OG David DeCastro, C Maurkice Pouncey, Roethlisberger Bell and Brown. ... The Chiefs, who have won 10 of their past 12 games, clinched the AFC West for the first time since 2010. ... Kansas City QB Alex Smith has a 0.5 interception percentage (one interception, 186 attempts) in his postseason career, the best mark in NFL history (minimum 150 attempts). ... Chiefs rookie WR/KR Tyreek Hill is the only player in NFL history to record at least three receiving touchdowns (six), three rushing touchdowns (three) and three kick-return touchdowns (three) in a season. ... Kansas City had four players selected to the Pro Bowl: FS Eric Berry, TE Travis Kelce, CB Marcus Peters and Hill.
PREDICTION: The Steelers' Big Three looks unstoppable, and the Steelers have momentum and matchups in their favor. Plus, the cold won't bother them.
OUR PICK: Steelers, 27-20.