Intriguing matchups ahead in divisional round of NFL playoffs

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, center, warms up with quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo, left, and Jacoby Brissett, right, during an NFL football practice, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (Steven Senne/AP)

The top-seeded New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys join the Super Bowl tournament with a golden veteran and surprising rookie leading their respective offences into the divisional round of the playoffs.

The Patriots (14-2) play host to the Houston Texans (9-7) on Saturday favoured by a whopping 16 points, but quarterback Tom Brady is taking nothing for granted with a trip to the AFC Championship on the line.

“There’s a lot of focus and attention and you’re putting a lot of concentration into each play because you’re not promised next week,” Brady, a four-time Super Bowl winner, told reporters about preparing for the defensive-minded Texans.

“We have to go earn that,” added Brady, who has been on a mission after missing the first four games of the season on a suspension stemming from the Deflategate flap of two years ago.

Houston will start backup quarterback Brock Osweiler.

Dallas (13-3), whose success and popularity from the 1960s through the 1990s earned them the nickname of “America’s Team,” will rely on a one-two rookie punch of running back Ezekiel Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott against the Green Bay Packers (10-6) on Sunday.

“It’s a big game, win or go home,” said Prescott, whose team is favoured by 4 1/2 points. “Just be ourselves. Run the ball well, pass the ball well. When it comes together we’re a really tough team.”

The Cowboys, aiming to reach their first Super Bowl in 21 years, will pit their balanced attack and sound defence against an aerial show triggered by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whose Packers have won seven straight games.

Rodgers will be without top target Jordy Nelson, sidelined by broken ribs, but even without him they outscored the New York Giants 24-7 in the second half of last week’s 38-13 victory.

The Packers-Cowboys winner meets the survivor of Saturday’s game between the Atlanta Falcons (11-5) and Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1), who are five-point underdogs.

In a game contrasting a potent offence and a hard-hitting defence, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan will try to pierce a Seattle defence dubbed “The Legion of Boom,” which is missing perennial Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas to injury.

In a virtual toss-up, AFC West champions Kansas City Chiefs (12-4) are one-point favourites against the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) on Sunday.

The Chiefs defence, with a league-leading 33 turnovers, will face two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Roethlisberger, dealing with an injured right foot, runs an explosive attack featuring running back Le’Veon Bell and receiver Antonio Brown.

Citing public safety concerns in the face of a potentially crippling ice storm in Kansas City this weekend, the NFL moved Sunday’s playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium to an 8:20 p.m. Eastern start.

The league said in a statement that changing the game time, which was originally 1:05 p.m., would allow authorities to clear roads and improve driving conditions. The worst of the freezing rain is expected to start late Saturday night and continue into Sunday morning and early afternoon.

Although snowstorms in the past have prompted the league to change the site and days of regular-season games – the Minnesota Vikings had three games affected in 2010 alone – the NFL says it believes this is the first time a postseason game has been shifted since 1932.

That year, a blizzard forced the first playoff game, between the Chicago Bears and the Portsmouth Spartans, to move indoors, to Chicago Stadium from Wrigley Field. That game, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was played on a field with altered dimensions – 80 yards long, instead of 100, and 10 yards narrower.


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