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Round 2 Is Full of Round 2s

All four playoff games this weekend are rematches. What can we learn from the first editions of each divisional-round matchup?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

This should be easy: The Seahawks beat the Falcons, the Patriots shellac the Texans, the Steelers destroy the Chiefs, and the Cowboys trample the Packers. All four divisional-round playoff games this weekend are repeats from the regular season, and we know what happens when these teams meet.

Well, no. Plenty has changed since the first edition of each matchup: Earl Thomas is out, Tom Brady is in, Ben Roethlisberger has left home, and Aaron Rodgers hasn’t come back to earth. There’s a lot to learn from the initial encounters, but there’s little reason to expect any of the results will look the same.

Seahawks-Falcons

What Happened Last Time?

When these two teams first met in Seattle back in Week 6 the Seahawks prevailed 26–24 with the help of a fourth-down noncall on Richard Sherman’s pass breakup on Julio Jones with 1:39 left in the game. At the time, the matchup pitted the league’s best offense (Atlanta was leading the NFL in scoring through five weeks) against one of its best pass defenses. It was a pitched battle: Seattle dominated the Falcons’ high-octane offense from the early going and took a 17–3 lead into the half, but with a furious 21-point explosion in the third quarter, the Falcons took a seven-point lead into the fourth. Seattle locked things up defensively in the final frame, took back the lead, and held on for the win.

What’s Changed Since?

The Falcons offense remained ridiculously explosive all year, as they went on to score more points than all but eight teams in the history of the league. The Seahawks, meanwhile, limped into the playoffs after losing Earl Thomas to a broken leg in Week 13. The normally fearsome Legion of Boom has been a shell of its former self without their rangy shutdown free safety. Without Thomas, the Seahawks have failed to grab an interception for five straight games (which ties a franchise record), and their pass defense numbers have fallen off of a cliff.

In the 11 games in which Thomas was on the field, the Seahawks gave up just 12 completion on 49 attempts on throws traveling 20-plus yards, surrendering 388 yards and two touchdowns, while grabbing three picks and holding opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 48.2. In the six weeks without Thomas, quarterbacks have already matched those 12 completions on deep throws, have a 108.9 passer rating, and have thrown four touchdowns to just one interception. Prior to losing Thomas for the year, the Seahawks sported an NFL-best minus-74.7 DVOA on passes to the deep middle of the field (twice as good as the next-best team) and by the end of the year, that number had swung 92 points to finish at plus-17. If it ever was in doubt, it’s not anymore: Thomas is the Seahawks’ most valuable defensive player, and they’re not nearly as good without him.

Beyond the absence of Thomas, the biggest change since the Week 6 matchup is the venue. Going from the friendly confines of CenturyLink Field to Atlanta’s Georgia Dome certainly won’t help Seattle. Matt Ryan won’t have to deal with the crowd noise or any weather factors that visiting quarterbacks typically struggle with in Seattle.

It’s hard to see Seattle doing much to stop Ryan and the Falcons offense. But if there’s any glimmer of hope for the Seahawks, it comes from the health of a handful of players that missed the first matchup with Atlanta. Kam Chancellor is back, as is pass rusher Frank Clark, who finished the year with 10 sacks. Offensively, Seattle’s a different team, too: Russell Wilson is healthy, and he recently ditched a knee brace that was clearly slowing him down. Thomas Rawls has replaced Christine Michael (now a Packer) as the Seahawks’ go-to ballcarrier, and if they can run the ball like they did against the Lions last week (38 rushes for 177 yards and a touchdown), the Seahawks will be able to keep the ball out of Ryan’s hands for long stretches. Otherwise, the result is going to be very different than it was in Week 6, too.

Texans-Patriots

Brock Osweiler (Getty Images)
Brock Osweiler (Getty Images)

What Happened Last Time?

The Patriots dominated the Texans back in Week 3, shutting a visiting Brock Osweiler and the Houston offense out in a 27–0 win on Thursday Night Football. The most damning thing about that game for the Texans was that New England dominated them without Tom Brady. Hell, they did it without their backup quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, too. Third-string rookie QB Jacoby Brissett started and was barely asked to do anything (he finished 11-of-19 for 103 passing yards while running eight times for 48 yards and a touchdown), and the Patriots still managed to beat up on the Texans.

What’s Changed Since?

Well! Tom Brady’s back, so New England is a heavy favorite, opening plus-16, which is the biggest divisional-round spread in 18 years.

This time around, the Patriots aren’t going to keep the ball out of Brady’s hands while leaning on the rushing attack and hoping to create some turnovers to score points. The Texans ranked fifth in pass defense DVOA, so while a focus on throwing the ball normally plays into their hands, it won’t against one of the best quarterbacks of all time.

While they return one generational talent, though, the Patriots will be without another. Rob Gronkowski played 14 snaps and didn’t register a catch in the first matchup, but he’s just about the best decoy in the entire league. With Gronk entirely out of the equation and the Texans able to focus elsewhere, New England’s ability to scheme up easy-to-win one-on-one looks is diminished. Now, the offense runs primarily through the wideouts and running backs, including Dion Lewis, who didn’t play the first time around, so Houston will need a totally different game plan. But the Texan will also have to figure how to stop the Patriots’ rushing attack, which picked up 185 yards on 39 attempts in Week 3.

If there’s any hope for Houston, it comes in the form of A.J. Bouye and Brian Cushing. Bouye, who had the game-sealing interception against Oakland last weekend, was a rotational player during the first meeting, and he’s since emerged as a big-time playmaker at cornerback. The return of Cushing, who was out injured in Week 3, should also help shore up the run game. Houston did have J.J. Watt for the first game, but he was playing hurt and recorded just two tackles.

Unfortunately, things will look roughly the same when Houston is on offense. Osweiler is still not very good, and the Patriots defense gave up the fewest points of any team in the NFL this year. Gone is Jamie Collins, who picked Osweiler off in the first game, and his role has been filled by a platoon of players, including Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin, Jabaal Sheard, and a few others. But Trey Flowers, who didn’t emerge as the Patriots’ best pass rusher until Week 8, can create new problems for Osweiler up front.

This game certainly won’t look like the last time these two teams met, but don’t expect the result to read much differently.

Steelers-Chiefs

What Happened Last Time?

A pair of first-quarter turnovers helped give Pittsburgh a quick 15–0 lead in the Week 4 Sunday Night Football matchup, and the Steelers never looked back en route to a 43–14 win. Ben Roethlisberger ended up with 300 yards passing and five touchdowns, and in his first game back from suspension, Le’Veon Bell totaled 178 all-purpose yards..

This game was weird for two reasons: (1) Pittsburgh had just lost 34–3 to the Philadelphia Eagles, and (2) Kansas City hadn’t lost a game by more than 16 points since 2012.

What’s Changed Since?

The main difference for the Chiefs is the emergence of Tyreek Hill. In Week 4, he caught five passes for 24 yards and a touchdown (and had a return TD called back on a penalty), but has since transformed from what looked like a speedy gadget player into a full-fledged star. In his 12 games since, Hill has caught 50 passes for 526 yards and four touchdowns while adding three rushing touchdowns, a pair of punt return touchdowns, and a kick return touchdown. Along with the increasingly diverse play of Travis Kelce, Hill has brought a new dimension to the typically conservative Chiefs offense.

For Pittsburgh, the biggest difference is that this game is in Kansas City. Roethlisberger has played significantly worse on the road this season: At home, he accumulated a 115.3 passer rating, a 71 percent completion percentage, an 8.66-yards-per-attempt average, 22 touchdowns, and seven interceptions as the Steelers went 6–1, including their victory over the Dolphins last week. On the road? A 78.4 passer rating, a 59 percent completion percentage, a 6.73 yards-per-attempt average, nine touchdowns, and eight picks as the Steelers went 5–3.

The return of Justin Houston could be a major factor for Big Ben’s play, too. The four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker has missed all but five games this year with a knee injury, but he’s racked up 21 tackles and four sacks in very limited action. Kansas City struggled to produce pressure in the first matchup, and Houston’s expected to play on Sunday.

The one thing trending obviously in Pittsburgh’s favor is its run game. Kansas City gave up 149 yards and a score in the teams’ first matchup, and now the Chiefs are without Derrick Johnson, their best inside linebacker.

Of all the games this weekend, this one seems least likely to be a replica of the first meeting.

Packers-Cowboys

Ezekiel Elliott (Getty Images)
Ezekiel Elliott (Getty Images)

What Happened Last Time?

Coming into the Week 6 matchup in Green Bay, the Packers had the no. 1 run defense in the league. They had given up just 42.8 rushing yards per game, 2.0 yards per attempt, and one rushing touchdown. Then the Cowboys ran for a total of 191 yards on 33 carries. Dak Prescott threw for 247 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception as Dallas rolled Green Bay 30–16.

What’s Changed Since?

Green Bay’s run defense never fully rebounded. The Packers finished eighth in rushing yards surrendered (1,515), tied for 10th in rushing touchdowns given up (11), and 13th in yards per carry (4.0). Meanwhile, Dallas finished with the second-ranked run game in the NFL (by DVOA, yards, and touchdowns) and Ezekiel Elliott led the league in rushing.

Of course, the major difference for Green Bay is that Aaron Rodgers is Aaron Rodgers again. Since suggesting that the Packers could “run the table” and make the playoffs following Green Bay’s Week 11 loss to Washington, all Rodgers has done is complete 70 percent of his passes with 19 touchdowns and no picks while compiling a 121.7 passer rating as the Packers have won seven straight. After watching him tear up a very good Giants defense for 362 yards and four touchdowns, the Cowboys’ middling secondary can’t be feeling too good.

This weekend, Rodgers will almost surely be missing his favorite target, Jordy Nelson, who suffered a couple of broken ribs in last week’s win. But other playmakers have shown the potential to fill Nelson’s void. Since these two teams last met, Davante Adams has turned into a touchdown-maker, catching 68 passes for 904 yards and 10 touchdowns over that 12-game stretch, tight end Jared Cook has turned into a reliable threat up the seam, and Ty Montgomery has become a running back. And don’t forget about Randall Cobb, who came back last week after missing two games due to an ankle injury to catch five passes for 116 yards and three touchdowns. Green Bay turned the ball over four times in its Week 6 loss to the Cowboys, but the Packers have coughed it up only once during the seven-game win streak

The biggest change for Dallas? Dez Bryant is back, and looking for revenge for the controversial divisional-round no-catch in Green Bay after the 2014 season. When you put it all together, the Dallas–Green Bay tilt has all the makings for an instant classic: Dez is here, the Cowboys run game looks unstoppable, and Rodgers is a superhuman. The Cowboys may be favored by four, but with Rodgers’s apparent ability to tap into the Force, anything is possible.