Eight biggest questions heading into NFL divisional round

Can the Packers beat the Cowboys without Nelson? (2:04)

Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman agree that the Packers can still defeat the Cowboys in the NFC divisional round on the back of Aaron Rodgers, even if they're without the services of Jordy Nelson. (2:04)

Chalk was the order of the day in the wild-card round, where all four home teams advanced without much trouble. But now we're on to Round 2 of the NFL playoffs, and this is where the heavyweights jump in.

Rested and ready after their well-earned bye weeks, the New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons and Kansas City Chiefs prepare to welcome the four wild-card weekend winners into their homes. And while some of these games look juicier than others (cough ... Texans-Patriots ... cough), at some point there's bound to be an upset on the road to Super Bowl LI.

With that in mind, here are the burning questions for each team that plays this upcoming weekend.


Which Seattle run game will show up?

The Seattle Seahawks ran for 177 yards in their wild-card victory over the Lions. In the three games prior to that, they averaged 79 rushing yards per game. In the four games prior to that, they averaged 163.8 rush yards per game. This is a Jekyll-and-Hyde offense, and the inconsistency of the offensive line means there's no way to know from week to week whether they'll be able to run it or not. The Seahawks rushed for only 72 yards in their Week 6 comeback victory over the Falcons in Seattle, but they likely need to improve if they're to beat Atlanta on the road.

Can the Falcons clamp down on defense?

There's no issue on offense, where Atlanta ranked second in total yards and first in points per game by 4.5. But when these teams met in Seattle in Week 6, the Falcons couldn't hold a 24-17 fourth-quarter lead. The defense has definitely made progress as the season has gone along, with NFL sacks leader Vic Beasley Jr. leading a rejuvenated pass rush that should be able to tear up Seattle's patchwork offensive line. If that's the case, and they get another fourth-quarter lead, the Falcons should be in better shape to hold it -- especially at home.

Will the Packers have Jordy Nelson?

And if not, can they overcome his absence? Nelson's return to full health after missing the 2015 season with a knee injury is a big reason for the Green Bay Packers' second-half surge. The offense struggled without him all last season and won't function at its best if he can't take the field. The Packers will need a lot more from Randall Cobb, who was finally healthy enough to play Sunday, and guys such as Geronimo Allison. But they'll have to change key parts of their offensive game plan, since Nelson and Rodgers have a trust level that goes beyond anything he has with any of the other options.

Can the Cowboys keep Aaron Rodgers off the field?

Dallas was the second-best team in the regular season in average time of possession at 31:54 per game. The Cowboys were second in the league in rushing yards at 149.8 per game. There's no secret about what they want to do. They will try to control the ball and the clock and limit the amount of time Rodgers and the red-hot Green Bay offense spends on the field. Rodgers knows this. He made mention of it in his postgame news conference Sunday night. The Giants, who ranked 29th in the league in rushing offense this season, gained only 70 yards on the ground Sunday in Green Bay. Dallas should be able to do much better, and it'll need to if it wants to protect its defense from Rodgers' wizardry.


What has changed for the Texans since the Patriots crushed them?

The Houston Texans had the league's best defense in the regular season, allowing 301.3 yards per game on average. In Foxborough in Week 3 against a Patriots team starting Jacoby Brissett at quarterback, the Texans allowed only 282 yards ... and still lost 27-0. Part of that was due to their three turnovers, but the Texans didn't look as if they belonged on the same field as New England that night. And the Pats have upgraded a bit at quarterback since Week 3, in case you hadn't heard. Houston has to figure out a way to get to Tom Brady -- a task that's tougher than it was last January because of the way the Patriots' offensive line is playing. But any breakdown of this game has to start with this simple question: What has changed between these two teams since Week 3 that could possibly make a 27-point difference?

Can New England's defense play at a championship level?

Picking a team besides the Patriots to win the AFC title feels like picking the sand to hold off the ocean. So coming up with a question for New England wasn't easy. "How many will they win by?" "Will Tom Brady need to play in the second half?" "Should the Texans even go to the game?" These were among the questions considered here and rejected. So before you start yelling and screaming about how the Patriots had the league's best scoring defense by more than two points: I know. I just feel that if there's an analytical point to be made about a potential January weakness, it's on the defensive side of the ball. The Patriots were just 16th in the league with 34 sacks. They had only 13 interceptions and 23 total takeaways -- both middle-of-the-pack numbers. Their defense has shown the ability to limit offenses when they've played the Jets, Dolphins and Bills. And Houston was by far the lowest-scoring of the NFL's playoff teams this season. So consider this a bigger-picture playoff question about the Patriots: Can they make enough game-changing defensive plays over a three-game stretch to beat the likes of Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Dallas and Atlanta and win another Super Bowl?

Is this what the Steelers were always supposed to look like?

The Pittsburgh Steelers were a popular preseason Super Bowl favorite, but injuries, suspensions and the building of the Steelers' defense made for some tough times in 2016. They head to Kansas City winners of eight games in a row, and their offense is clicking behind the seemingly unstoppable tandem of Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. This has people wondering if maybe they were right about the Steelers in the first place. The only playoff teams Pittsburgh has played during its current streak are the Giants and Dolphins, but the Steelers beat them by a combined score of 54-26. If they can add a road victory over the Chiefs to the streak, they might turn out to be worthy of their preseason hype after all.

What can the Chiefs expect from Justin Houston?

Kansas City's defense will need to be at its best to deal with the Steelers' offense, and Houston is the Chiefs' best player. He wasn't fully healthy in last year's playoffs, and it cost the Chiefs against New England. Houston missed the final two games of the regular season, but there's optimism in Kansas City that he'll be good to go for the playoffs. The question is: How close can he be to 100 percent? The Chiefs are good enough to win without him, and they've done plenty of that over the past 15 months. But Houston is their biggest defensive difference-maker, and their chances of making a deep run could rest on his health.