I Don't Want My Players Thinking

I saw a stat the other day that blew me away. I don’t remember where I saw it. It probably just flashed across the screen somewhere at the NFL Network, where I’m an analyst — my new day job. But the stat said that during my 12 years as a Pittsburgh Steeler, I had a 10–4 record in the postseason.

Now that obviously says a lot more about the team that I was fortunate enough to be a part of than it does about me as an individual, but when I heard that, I was like, Damn, for real? I basically played a whole ’nother season’s worth of playoff games in my career?

Then I saw my record in Super Bowls: 2–1.

And I smiled from ear to ear.

There ain’t nothing like when somebody introduces you and before they say your name they have to say, “Super Bowl champion.” Or in my case, “Two-time Super Bowl champion.”

I guess what I’m trying to say is, I know a thing or two about playoff football. So that’s why I’m gonna take a look at the divisional matchups and let y’all know what I’m thinking as we roll into this weekend’s games.

And Steelers fans: Don’t be scrolling down to see what I have to say about the Chiefs. Stay with me, because I’m gonna kick this off the same way the NFL is kicking off the weekend.

In Atlanta.

Seattle Seahawks vs. Atlanta Falcons

At First Glance:I’ve been getting some backlash from fans because I’ve been talking about the Falcons a lot and I haven’t been showing them much respect. They have all the talent in the world, man. They have an MVP-caliber quarterback in Matt Ryan, a wide receiver in Julio Jones who’s a complete freak (he might be the best in the game) and a handful of other offensive weapons — and an up-and-coming defense to back it all up.

But they’ve only won one playoff game since 2005, and this is their first trip back to the postseason since 2012. I talked about my playoff record (10–4) above. You know what Matt Ryan’s is?

Try 1–4.

I have plenty of respect to give, Atlanta. But you gotta earn it.

And if there’s one thing I know about the Seahawks, it’s that they come alive for January football. That’s a team I wouldn’t want to face in the postseason.

What to Watch For:
I don’t think you can quantify how much the Seahawks miss Earl Thomas. I played on a Steelers team that had who I consider the greatest safety to ever play the game in Troy Polamalu, who was injured at times throughout his career. So we were very familiar with how differently our defense operated without him.

That’s what the Seahawks are going through.

When you take the field and you’re missing a player of Earl Thomas’ caliber, it’s like trying to run an airport without the control tower. He’s the guy who sits back there and sees the whole field. He knows where everybody is and how all the moving parts are working together on both sides of the ball. He’s lining up the safeties, communicating with the cornerbacks and the linebackers, identifying plays and formations, and recognizing tendencies. He’s the guy making sure everybody is where they’re supposed to be, and doing what they’re supposed to do.

His job is something that can only be learned through hundreds of hours of film study and on-field snaps. You can’t just replace it. To a guy like Earl, it’s second nature. He can play cat-and-mouse games with quarterbacks and receivers and bait them into making mistakes. And in the playoffs, where every mistake is magnified, is where the Seahawks play their best football.

The Falcons have the weapons to exploit his absence, and it’s not just Julio Jones that Matt Ryan has at his disposal. Mohamed Sanu can also do a lot of damage as the No. 2 receiver, and Taylor Gabriel has been a pest for defensive coordinators this the season. Tack on a pair of running backs who can test Seattle’s linebackers by coming out of the backfield and catching the football, and the Falcons should be able to make some things happen on offense.

Look for Atlanta to attack the middle of the field deep in order to test Steven Terrell, the man stepping in at free safety. I think he’s a good young player.

Oct 11, 2015; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Seattle Seahawks free safety Steven Terrell (23) against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.
Oct 11, 2015; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Seattle Seahawks free safety Steven Terrell (23) against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. / USA Today Sports

He’s just not Earl Thomas.

His absence going to impact how aggressive the Seahawks can be defensively. If I’m their defensive coordinator, I don’t want my players thinking. I want them playing fast and hitting people hard.

Without Earl calling the shots, they’ll lose a little bit of aggressiveness. But I can still see them being effective.

The Seahawks’ defensive line needs to win the battle up front. Things get a little chippier in the playoffs, and more often than not, the game is won or lost at the line of scrimmage. This game won’t be any different.

You know Matt Ryan is going to test Seattle’s secondary. He’ll also look to exploit favorable matchups in the passing game when Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are matched up with linebackers. So Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril & Co. need to get to Matt Ryan, and they need to move the line of scrimmage and get penetration to stop the run.

Who’s Gonna Win?
I’m gonna keep picking against the Falcons until they prove me wrong and win a playoff game. I’ll take the Seahawks in a close one.

Houston Texans vs. New England Patriots

At First Glance:
The Patriots are just a fine-tuned, well-oiled machine. And like I said, in the playoffs it’s all about minimizing your own mistakes and taking advantage of the other team’s. And Tom Brady isn’t going to make many mistakes. When you see him in the playoffs, it’s usually a sign that your season is about to be over. He’s the Grim Reaper.

If you’re the Texans, you treat this game like you’re in the NBA and you’re playing Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant.

You have to stop Tom Brady. If somebody else beats you, so be it.

But don’t let Tom Brady beat you.

What to Watch For:
Going into Foxborough is like going into Gotham City. Thankfully, I never had to play there in the postseason. But even during the regular season, it’s a difficult place to win.

But defense travels well, and the Texans have the top-ranked defense in the NFL. Tom Brady is one of the best at dissecting defenses, getting the ball out quickly and finding open receivers. So the Texans need to get pressure with their front four. They can’t rely on the blitz. If they can get pressure with their front four and drop seven in coverage, that’s a formula for success. They need the extra bodies back there.

USA Today Sports

When you see [Tom Brady] in the playoffs, it’s usually a sign that your season is about to be over. He’s the Grim Reaper.

Ike Taylor

And they have to play fast and play instinctive. They can’t be afraid of Tom Brady. The defensive line needs to let Tom know that they’re coming, and the secondary needs to light up receivers downfield to let them know they understand playoff atmosphere. Just to set the tone.

Brock Osweiler has to sustain drives, control the clock and keep Tom Brady off the field. He has to be efficient. Because even the top-ranked defense can’t keep the Patriots down for long. The more chances you give Brady, the greater the odds of him eventually finding the end zone. It’s just inevitable.

If Brock can be efficient and orchestrate long drives and chew up some clock — and if Houston’s defense and special teams can contribute a touchdown or two — then the Texans have a real shot.

I just don’t know if Brock can sustain drives against a very underrated Patriots defense, which is playing as well as any unit in the league right now. It’s like one of those old-school Patriots defenses — the hard-hitting ones with Richard Seymour, Ty Warren and a young Vince Wilfork.

By the way, Vince is a Texan now.

Who’s Gonna Win?
Give me Tom Brady & Co.

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Kansas City Chiefs

At First Glance:
I don’t think this one will be like the 43–14 blowout the Steelers handed the Chiefs in Week 4. I think it’s going to be a lot closer than people think, mainly because the game is at Arrowhead, which is a difficult place to play.

A lot of people are going to be talking about Ben Roethlisberger’s foot, but let’s be real: Ben’s playing, and he’s gonna play well. He’s the toughest quarterback on the planet. It doesn’t matter if I’m going into a ball game or a bar fight, gimme number 7 all day.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) looks to throw a short toss under pressure from Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) looks to throw a short toss under pressure from Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins / AP Images

Ben threw five touchdowns the first time these two teams played this season. But the way Le’Veon Bell is playing right now, I don’t think you can take the ball out of his hands. So I expect him to get a heavy workload, especially on the road.

What to Watch For:
Let’s stay on Le’Veon for a minute….

He has a lot of different tools in his toolbox, but the one he uses most efficiently is his patience. When you’re a young running back, you’re taught to be decisive and hit the hole hard.

Le’Veon does the opposite.

Take a look at this play against the Dolphins, where he reaches the line of scrimmage and basically waits like an idling racecar waiting to burst off the starting line. Then, he sees the hole open up and takes exactly what the defense gives him.

He’s so good at waiting for the defense to commit. Sometimes he leans toward one gap to lure the defense in that direction, which creates a cutback lane that he can exploit. And by the time he hits that lane, it’s too late. If you’re on defense, you’re used to playing the game at 100 mph. But now you’re facing a guy who comes to a complete stop and waits to see what you are going to do before making his move. That’s a tough guy to tackle.

So if you’re looking for something to watch for in this one, just watch Le’Veon work. Because there isn’t anybody on the planet like him.

If Le’Veon is going to be the toughest guy on the field to tackle Sunday, Tyreek Hill isn’t far behind.

This kid is fast, a lightning bolt who lines up at receiver — either split out wide or in the slot. He lines up in the backfield. He lines up deep to return punts and kicks. And he’s effective in each role. Kansas City has plenty of weapons — Travis Kelce, Jeremy Maclin and a solid stable of running backs. But Tyreek is the x-factor because you never know when they’re going to use him, or how.

When these two teams met in Week 4, the Chiefs were still learning how to use Tyreek Hill. Now they know what he can do, and it’s going to be a completely new look for the Steelers’ defense.

I have a feeling that in this one, the Chiefs will go as Tyreek Hill goes.

Who’s Gonna Win?
Big Ben and Antonio Brown are gonna get theirs. They usually do. And Le’Veon is going to continue the roll he’s been on. I think the Kansas City defense will step up at home and make it a close, low-scoring game.

But c’mon, man. I’m taking my Steelers.

Green Bay Packers vs. Dallas Cowboys

At First Glance:
Nobody has been better in the second half of the season than Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.

Nobody has been better for the entire season than Dak Prescott and the Cowboys.

That’s why I love playoff football … something’s gotta give.

What to Watch For:
Everybody is going to talking about Dak Prescott and Aaron Rodgers going into this one, and they should be. Dak is playing well beyond his years and Rodgers is playing out of this world.

But let’s talk about a guy named Sean Lee.

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 26: Sean Lee #50 of the Dallas Cowboys closes in on Matthew Stafford #9 of the Detroit Lions during the second half at AT&T S
ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 26: Sean Lee #50 of the Dallas Cowboys closes in on Matthew Stafford #9 of the Detroit Lions during the second half at AT&T S / Getty Images

This one is going to be a chess match between Aaron Rodgers and Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee. I talked about Troy Polamalu and Earl Thomas being the air traffic controllers for their teams. Well, Sean Lee is the one lining everybody up on the Cowboys defense. He’s the one who studies all week so he can recognize formations and tendencies and play fast and instinctively on Sunday. I’m interested to see how Rodgers and Lee engage at the line of scrimmage, and how fast the audibles fly before the snap.

Rodgers has a tall task ahead of him because Jordy Nelson is probably going to be out with the two broken ribs he suffered last week against the Giants.

No disrespect to the Packers, but without Jordy Nelson, they have no Batman at wide receiver. Just a bunch of Robins.

Davante Adams is coming of age, and at times he has shown signs of being a capable No. 1 option. But he’s been inconsistent. Randall Cobb blew up with three touchdowns last week against the Giants when Jordy was out of the game, leading the way with three touchdowns. But he’s much more effective working out of the slot as a No. 3 option.

When Jordy Nelson missed all last season with a torn ACL, the Packers had the NFL’s 23rd-ranked total offense and 15th-ranked scoring offense.

That offense — and not the one that’s been lighting it up for the past seven weeks — is the offense we’ll likely see against the Cowboys on Sunday.

For all the talk about the quarterbacks, the running game might be the key factor for each of these teams.

The Packers’ passing game has been effective because of the growth of their running game, led by Ty Montgomery. But with Jordy Nelson out, both the passing and running game will struggle. Plus, the Cowboys have the top-ranked run defense, allowing just over 83 yards per game, so they’re not an easy unit to run on.

If the Cowboys know what’s good for them, they’ll make sure that Ezekiel Elliott has a big day. If Zeke is running all over the field, that means that Aaron Rodgers will be on the sidelines — where he can’t beat you.

Who’s Gonna Win?
I don’t think the Packers can overcome the loss of Jordy Nelson. I think the Cowboys will feed Zeke, keep Rodgers off the field and pull out a close one at home.

Ike Taylor is an NFL Network analyst. You can see Ike throughout the week on NFL Now and on NFL Total Access weekdays at 6:00 p.m. ET. You can follow him on Twitter @Ike_SwagginU.