Alabama in the Pros

Ten former Crimson Tide standouts to appear in 2017 NFL Playoffs

Atlanta Falcons defensive end Courtney Upshaw (No. 91) celebrates a tackle against San Francisco 49ers: Dale Zanine - USA TODAY Sports

While New Year’s Day kicks off the final week of regular season action for the National Football League, the all important postseason picture is just about in place. For Alabama football, 10 of its former standouts will enter the playoffs. Each player was a member of at least one national championship squad under Nick Saban.

Donta Hightower, Cyrus Jones, Amari Cooper, Kareem Jackson and Kenyan Drake all represent the American Football Conference. Hightower and Jones helped the New England Patriots clinch an AFC East division championship with a 13-2 record. Behind Hightower, the Patriots lead the NFL in scoring defense (15.7 ppg), while being third in rushing defense (89.5 ypg) and eighth in total defense (329.5 ypg).

New England (13-2) can lock up home-field advantage with a win next week vs. Miami.

Cooper put in a second straight 1,000-yard season, amassing 1,110 yards and four touchdowns on 78 catches (123 targets). He became the second receiver in Oakland Raiders history since Jerry Rice to record back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, while aiding the team to its first playoff appearance since 2002– Super Bowl run.

With Cooper, the Raiders carry the league’s ninth-best passing offense (259 ypg), fifth-best total offense (383.2 ypg) and third-best scoring offense (27.3 ppg). Oakland stands at 12-3, holding firm to the No. 2 seed.

Defensive end J.J. Watt is the heart and soul of the Texans, but Jackson guides the secondary to having the NFL’s second-best pass defense (206 ypg). The seventh-year cornerback is on a unit that’s first in the league in total defense (305.7 ypg) and seventh in scoring defense (20.3 ppg). Houston is 9-6, landing the No. 4 seed.

As for Drake, he’s on a Dolphins’ roster that is ninth in the NFL in rushing (116.6 ypg).

Though he recorded only two touchdowns on offense, Drake’s skill set on special teams has been superb. He has 376 of Miami’s 839 kick return yards (45 percent), which is good for eighth-best in the league. His output comes on 12 attempts, including a 96-yard return for a touchdown earlier this season.

Drake’s game against Buffalo helped Miami get its 10th win and the final AFC playoff spot.

Julio Jones, Courtney Upshaw, Landon Collins, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and A’Shawn Robinson make up the National Football Conference. Despite missing two games, Jones is third in the NFL with 1,313 receiving yards and five touchdowns on 76 catches. He is the centerpiece of a Falcons’ attack that first in scoring (33.5 ppg), second in total offense (412.5 ypg) and third in passing offense (293 ypg). Defensively, Upshaw has 21 total tackles and a sack for Atlanta. The Falcons clinched an NFC South title and stand as the No. 2 seed at 10-5.

Collins spearheads a Giants’ secondary that has 15 interceptions (tied for second in NFL). He leads the group with five interceptions and 117 total tackles, including four for loss. New York is 10-5 and holds the No. 5 seed.

Like Collins, Clinton-Dix runs Green Bay as an interception machine.

The Packers have amassed 16 picks this year, tying it for third in the NFL. Clinton-Dix leads the secondary with five interceptions, while posting 73 total tackles. A loss for the Detroit Lions against Dallas would give Green Bay a shot at the NFC North division title. For now, it stands at 9-6 with the No. 6 and final playoff seed.

The Lions have been pleased with Robinson’s first season.

He’s on a roster that ranks ninth in the league in total defense (346.6 ypg) and eighth in rushing defense (98.9 ypg). Detroit is tied for fifth in first downs allowed, giving up 282. Robinson’s totaled 22 tackles, including three tackles for loss and two sacks. A victory over Green Bay would secure the NFC North for the Lions as the No. 3 seed, however, a loss drops Robinson and company to the second and final wildcard spot.

Stephen M. Smith is a senior analyst and columnist for Touchdown Alabama MagazineYou can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @Smsmith_TDALMag.

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