Green Bay Packers (11-6) at Dallas Cowboys (13-3)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, AT&T Stadium. TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews, Chris Myers.
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.
The Cowboys had a first-round bye. And, as Aaron Rodgers was quick to note, they rested several starters to end the season, a lackluster 27-13 loss at the Philadelphia Eagles on Jan. 1.
“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 out with a rib injury. 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.
Friday Injury Report
GREEN BAY PACKERS
–Out: WR Jordy Nelson (ribs), RB James Starks (concussion), C J.C. Tretter (knee)
–Questionable: LB Jayrone Elliott (hand), WR Jeff Janis (quadricep), CB Quinten Rollins (neck, concussion)
–Questionable: CB Morris Claiborne (groin), DT Tyrone Crawford (shoulder), LB Justin Durant (elbow), DE Demarcus Lawrence (back), DT Terrell McClain (ankle), T Tyron Smith (knee), DT Cedric Thornton (ankle)
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.
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET, Arrowhead Stadium. TV: NBC, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya, Heather Cox.
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.
Friday Injury Report
–Out: LB Anthony Chickillo (ankle)
–Doubtful: TE Ladarius Green (concussion)
–Questionable: DE Ricardo Mathews (ankle), RB Fitzgerald Toussaint (concussion)
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
No players listed
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.