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Ten biggest winners and losers from NFL Divisional Round

Brock Osweiler was one of the biggest NFL free agency misses from last year

After a boring first weekend of playoff football, the NFL Divisional Round provided us with a bit more excitement, especially on Sunday.

The Atlanta Falcons thrashed the Seattle Seahawks to get the weekend started, with Matt Ryan putting forth a tremendous performance against a depleted Seahawks secondary. On the opposite side of the coin, Brock Osweiler threw away any chance the Houston Texans had of beating the New England Patriots Saturday night.

Sunday afternoon provided the best entertainment of the postseason thus far when the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys went down to the wire. Aaron Rodgers showed why many believe he should be the league MVP in a riveting performance to help Green Bay edge Dallas for a three-point win. Then the Pittsburgh Steelers eked out a win on the road against the Kansas City Chiefs in a game that wasn’t nearly as exciting but that did keep us on our toes until the end.

Despite just the four-game schedule, there were plenty of winners and losers to sort through. These are the 10 that made our cut.

Winner: Matt Ryan shreds Seattle’s defense in blowout win

The Atlanta Falcons didn’t do a whole lot of running early against Seattle’s defense in their 36-20 blowout win Saturday. Then again, they didn’t have to, as Matt Ryan was on fire at home throwing darts all over the field.

The Seahawks clearly missed free safety Earl Thomas in this game. They were helpless to keep Atlanta’s many receivers from finding open spaces down the field. By halftime, Ryan had already gone for 190 yards on 15-of-20 passing with two touchdowns an no interceptions. It was at that point Atlanta led by two scores.

Ryan and his receivers just kept pouring it on throughout the second half as well. Julio Jones, who caught the first touchdown of the game for Atlanta (watch here), absolutely abused All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman until he re-aggravated his toe injury in the third quarter.

In the end, Ryan did something we haven’t seen since Pete Carroll took over back in 2010.

Ryan completed at least one pass to eight different receivers. He ended up finishing with 338 yards passing.

Jones, breakout star Taylor Gabriel and running back Davonta Freeman combined on 14 catches for 218 yards, while Mohamed Sanu and Tevin Coleman both caught touchdown passes to make their impact felt.

It was a signature game for Ryan, who very well could end up with the NFL’s MVP award for his season-long excellence in 2016.

Loser: Early Seattle special teams’ failure causes irreparable damage

Newly acquired return specialist and NFL legend Devin Hester turned back the clock Saturday in Atlanta, making moves we haven’t seen in years. Unfortunately, a couple of huge returns early in this game were called back because of penalties by the Seahawks coverage unit.

It started on the game’s opening kickoff. Hester received it five yards deep into his own end zone and returned it out to Seattle’s 26-yard line — a 31-yard return that was negated because of holding. Instead of starting in comfortable field position, the Seahawks were forced back to their own 11-yard line. Thankfully, that first drive ended in seven points for Seattle.

After adding three points in the second quarter to lead by three, Hester put on an amazing show on a punt return that went 80 yards to Atlanta’s seven-yard line (watch here). But as you might guess based on the tenor of this portion of the article, that return was called back on a holding penalty that had nothing to do with the return.

Instead of going up by six or 10 points, Seattle’s offense ended up ceding two points when Russell Wilson tripped into his own end zone for a safety.

From there, Atlanta slowly took the game over as momentum shifted following this series of events. The Falcons scored a field goal shortly afterwards to take the first lead of the game. It then put up another touchdown before halftime to lead by nine points and then owned the second half. They ended up winning by 16 points, even after a late Seahawks touchdown which was set up by Hester, who broke off a 78-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter.

Now, we’ll never know what would have happened in the alternate universe where the Seahawks weren’t flagged for holding on Hester’s big punt return in the second quarter. But we do know that Seattle is a front-running team that had to get away from its game plan as Atlanta started pulling away in the wake of that early (and pointless, we might add) holding penalty.

Winner: Aaron Rodgers redefining what “the best” means

Absurd. Preposterous. Otherworldly. Nobody’s that good. These were just a few of the ways people around the NFL community reacted to the throws and plays inside and outside the pocket made by Aaron Rodgers Sunday in Dallas.

His outrageous play heading into Sunday’s game against the Cowboys has been well documented. During Green Bay’s previous seven games (all wins), he had thrown 17 touchdowns and no interceptions, and his last interception happened all the way back to the middle of November.

He’s been impossible to game plan against, because no matter what teams have done to combat Green Bay, Rodgers has had the counter. Bring more guys on pressure, he’ll torch you deep or run wild against man coverage. Drop more guys into coverage and he’ll pick you apart.

All this was on display Sunday against Dallas. And it started immediately, with Rodgers leading three straight touchdown drives to open the game, throwing for 200 yards while completing passes of 34, 32, 26, 16 and 14 yards.

The Cowboys were reeling. And even after Dak Prescott and the offense bounced back with a tremendous performance in the second half, Rodgers continued to make play after play after play that defied logic and that kept the Packers one step ahead.

Displaying pinpoint accuracy while on the run and under the gun, he had our mouths agape throughout the contest.

Then when the game was on the line with seconds remaining, he did this.

This throw couldn’t have been any better, and neither could the catch by tight end Jared Cook, who had a really good game. On top of that, it wasn’t even an actual play call, as Rodgers told his receivers where to go, like you’d do when you were a kid in your back yard (more on that here).

Rodgers finished with 356 yards on 28-of-43 passing with two touchdowns and one interception. What he accomplished Sunday, going into the game without Jordy Nelson (who could play next weekend in Atlanta), without a real rushing attack and an offensive line that continually got beat in the second half shows his genius as an NFL passer.

He’s on a totally different level right now. As good as others have been, including Matt Ryan, they are all a step below.

Loser: Brock Osweiler throws winnable game away 

The Houston Texans were the better team for much of the night Saturday in Foxborough. Defensively, they harassed Tom Brady relentlessly, forcing him into his worst game of the season. Lamar Miller ran the ball hard, DeAndre Hopkins and Co. fought for every inch of turf they could claim.

Yet the Texans lost to the New England Patriots, 34-16. And they lost primarily because of the play of one man — $72 million dollar man, quarterback Brock Osweiler.

Osweiler’s performance was historically inept.

Finishing with 198 yards on 23-of-40 passing with one touchdown (after a turnover in the first half that set Houston up near the end zone) and three second-half interceptions, each worse than the last.

He averaged just 4.9 yards per attempt, and the 40-plus attempt, sub-200-yard game was his fourth of the season, a figure that is even worse considering no NFL passer since 1950 has more than two such games in a single season, including the playoffs.

The longest pass Osweiler completed Saturday night was 19 yards to Hopkins. His interceptions were predictable for those of us who’ve been watching him stink up the joint all year, yet nevertheless nauseating.

His careless mistakes absolutely sunk any chance Houston had of winning, despite the defense making Brady look like a mere mortal. They also made it crystal clear that the Texans have no choice but to bite the bullet and absorb the $25 million cap hit it’s going to cost to either cut him or give him the RG3 in Washington bubble wrap treatment in 2017.

Winner: Le’Veon Bell continues to amaze

After a phenomenal regular season in which he put up video game numbers almost every week he was a participant, Le’Veon Bell has raised his game to another level in the playoffs.

The Pittsburgh Steelers running back put up 167 yards on the ground in the Wild Card round and did a bit better Sunday night against the Kansas City Chiefs. Rushing for 170 yards on 30 carries, he was the engine that kept the offense running on a night in which Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t on top of his game.

Here’s a little information that puts what Bell has accomplished into some serious perspective.

In an era that features more big passing than ever before, what Bell is doing now is quite astounding. And the way he’s doing it is pleasing to the eye, to boot. Featuring a unique running style that highlights patience over everything else, Bell’s ability to wait for his hole, then pounce on his opportunities makes him the premier running back in the NFL right now.

Factoring in what he can do in the passing game, and it’s hard to say he’s not the best all-purpose back since Marshall Faulk. He’s also the biggest reason the Steelers are moving on to the AFC Championship Game to face the New England Patriots.

Loser: Early mistakes ultimately led to Cowboys’ downfall

The first part of Sunday’s game against Green Bay wasn’t pretty for Dallas, which found itself in a 21-3 hole midway through the second quarter.

Dropped passes on very catchable balls from Dak Prescott forced punts, and penalties were a problem early, especially one in particular. One that had most of us scratching our heads for a minute because it was something we’d never seen before.

Cowboys receiver Brice Butler thought he was going to be on the field. As the Cowboys huddled up (sort of), he milled around the edges of said (sort of) huddle before heading to the sideline after being waved over by coaches. Apparently, that’s “unsportsmanlike conduct” and a 15-yard penalty.

Now, as ridiculous as this rule is, it’s clear the Cowboys did not have their ducks in a row for this play. That was the basic tenor of the game early for Dallas, which appeared to be in over its head before Dak Prescott, Ezekiell Elliott, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley and Co. woke up and made it the best game of the weekend.

Unfortunately, going up against the hottest quarterback in recent memory in Rodgers, these mistakes cost Dallas the chance to continue playing this postseason.

Winner: Atlanta’s defensive line owned Seattle’s offense

Russell Wilson’s body must look like one large bruise after the constant beating he took against the Falcons Saturday (watch him get laid out here).

Absorbing seven hits while running for his life, Wilson was only sacked three times, which speaks to his wizardry at avoiding the rush. He was pressured about half the time he dropped back to pass and played better than his final stat line indicates. He finished with 225 yards on 17-of-30 passing with two touchdowns — one on the first drive and one late when the game was already decided — and two interceptions.

Both interceptions were thrown at the end of the game. The first had nothing to do with Wilson, as tight end Luke Wilson had the ball ripped out of his hands. The second was a result of pressure at the end of the game as Wilson attempted a desperation heave to make something happen.

While Wilson struggled to find receivers down the field late, his running game was non-existent. Thomas Rawls, the hero of last weekend’s big win in Seattle, was held to just 34 yards on 11 carries. Wilson actually led the Seahawks in rushing, most of it coming on scramble drills as he ran for his life.

Before the playoffs began, we highlighted Seattle’s offensive line as a huge area of weakness. That most certainly was the case in this game, especially after guard Germain Ifedi was injured early. Regardless of the reasons for the failure to execute, Seattle’s woes on offense can also be directly attributed to the outstanding play of the big guys up front for Atlanta.

Loser: Chiefs hold Steelers without a touchdown, still lose

The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t score a single touchdown at Arrowhead Stadium Sunday night. The Kansas City Chiefs scored two. Yet the home team is going fishing while the visitors are headed to New England for the AFC Championship game.

This is something that hasn’t happened in a long time.

Kansas City’s bend-but-don’t break defense did all it could to thwart Ben Roethlisberger and Co., and it most certainly wasn’t Big Ben’s best night. He finished with just 224 yards and an interception on 20-of-31 passing. Le’Veon Bell was brilliant but also couldn’t break through for a score, finishing with 170 yards on 30 carries.

The only scoring by Pittsburgh came off the foot of Chris Boswell, who drilled all six of his attempts through the uprights on a chilly night in Kansas City. Yet the 18 points he scored were enough to win the game, for a number of reasons.

First off, we’re still trying to figure out how Andy Reid continues to treat timeouts like cheap disposable tissue paper. He had no recourse to stop the clock late after Pittsburgh converted a first down with roughly two minutes remaining. Tick, tick, tick went the clock.

Secondly, we’re baffled at Reid’s play calling in this game. Despite a rushing game that averaged well over four yards per attempt, the Chiefs ran it just 14 times all night. Meanwhile, Alex Smith threw the ball 34 times, gaining 172 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

For a team that secured the No. 2 seed in the AFC, the Chiefs sure looked awful Sunday night. With two weeks to prepare for this game, the game plan was disjointed and confused, and players made too many mistakes throughout. As impressive as they were all year, the Chiefs were just as uninspiring in this game, allowing the Steelers to advance despite a lackluster showing of their own.

Winner: All Dion Lewis does is score touchdowns, apparently

Heading into the Texans game, Patriots running back Dion Lewis had played a minimal role in New England’s success this season. He had barely played, touching the ball just 81 times all year for 377 yards from scrimmage and had no touchdowns to his credit.

So it’s easy to understand how Houston perhaps underestimated the impact Lewis would have in the game.

The impact he provided was felt early, too, when Lewis scored the game’s first touchdown on a 13-yard swing pass from Brady. Then it was felt again when, after a Texans field goal, he went 98 yards to pay dirt, breaking the team record for longest kickoff return in the postseason.

Later in the game Lewis added a one-yard rushing score in the fourth quarter for the hat trick and a place in NFL history.

Interestingly, it wasn’t the three touchdowns that were on Lewis’ mind after the game. He lamented his two fumbles, one of which was lost and led to a touchdown for Houston.

“I feel like this is my worst game ever, actually,” Lewis said after the game, per Nora Princiotti of the Boston Globe. “Just putting my team in a bad position. I don’t think this is my best game,” Lewis said after the 34-16 victory. “I’m just disappointed I put my team in jeopardy so I’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Clearly, staying hungry isn’t going to be a problem for this young man. He was the difference in the game for a Patriots team that, other than taking advantage of Osweiler, was overmatched for much of the game.

Loser: Cowboys’ late-game clock management leads to inevitable result

Let’s be clear. In no way is this about Dak Prescott or the Dallas offense. But what happened on the final offensive possession of the game for the Cowboys was inexcusably poor game management by head coach Jason Garrett and equally poor play calling by offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.

Heading into their final drive with 93 seconds remaining on the clock, the Cowboys did two things wrong.

First, they didn’t run the ball one time with Ezekiel Elliott. Not a single time. The same running back that put the Pittsburgh Steelers away late in the fourth quarter earlier this year with a 32-yard game-winning touchdown under similar circumstances, down by one point (watch here).

Yes, Prescott made some clutch throws to move Dallas into Green Bay territory. We won’t begrudge the coaching staff for those first two passes. But then, with 47 seconds left on the clock, at their opponent’s 40-yard line, Dallas had Prescott spike the ball, stopping the clock. That was the second huge mistake.

There was still time to run the ball, thus running the clock down a bit before settling for a field goal to tie the game up at 31-31. But instead, the Cowboys called two more passing plays. The first was a successful seven-yard throw-and-catch by Prescott to Cole Beasley, who stopped the clock again and put the ‘Boys in field-goal range.

They still had two timeouts remaining at this point, mind you. Running the ball, if a field goal was an acceptable outcome, was the only logical move to make. They could have still used a timeout to stop the clock if that was necessary. But that didn’t happen. Instead, they left 35 seconds on the clock, which had this scribe thinking just one thought.

That proved prophetic, as Rodgers engineered a quick six-play drive that spanned 43 yards and set up the game-winning field goal. And it very well could have been avoided if Garrett and Co. had simply made better decisions down the stretch.