With all four of the lower-seeded teams seizing victory last weekend in the Wild Card Round, the divisional slate is set to feature a quartet of upset-seekers.
But this is not your ordinary group of 5th and 6th seeds.
The Kansas City Chiefs have won 11 straight games, the Pittsburgh Steelers were #3 in total offense and #4 in scoring, the defending NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks boast the league’s top scoring defense for the fourth year straight and the Green Bay Packers suit up a guy by the name of Aaron Rodgers.
Nothing is guaranteed by a long shot for the Patriots, Broncos, Panthers and Cardinals – particularly when each of these clubs looked less than perfect to close out the season.
I’d be shocked to see all four of the top seeds face off in the AFC and NFC Championships like we had last January. Aside from the luxury of a week’s rest and home-field advantage, this Divisional Round features four incredibly close matchups.
Chiefs @ Patriots
New England is a team that’s been bitten by the injury bug all season long. In fact, they’ve had more injuries this season than all other 31 teams and the most of any club since 2009.
Patriots have the most injuries in the whole league. Ouch. https://t.co/gzooYah6IW
— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) January 4, 2016
For a long time, Brady and Belichick were able to mask this fact by eking out the victories but the Pats were clearly on decline towards the end of the season, losing their last two games and 3 of their last 5. Two of those defeats came at the hands of teams with losing records.
Tom Brady is money in the postseason. We all know this. But he may still be a wee bit hobbled after suffering a high-ankle sprain in week 17 versus the Dolphins, and the Kansas City Chiefs lay claim to the longest winning streak in the NFL. Confidence in red and white should be riding high after last weekend’s 30-to-zip drubbing of the Texans.
Things to watch for:
- Kicking the rust off. WR Julian Edelman, OT Sebastian Vollmer, LB Dont’a Hightower and DE Chandler Jones are all on track to return from injury and play. How well they perform could make a difference in the game.
- The Pats have run the ball poorly of late and the Chiefs feature one of the league’s top run-stopping units. Much of New England’s woes fall squarely on the offensive line, a group that will also have to contend with KC’s fearsome, sack-happy front 7.
- The potential to be unstoppable. Rob Gronkowski is without a doubt the #1 game-changing tight end in the league and nobody is as capable of taking over from the position in the NFL – except for perhaps Travis Kelce. Seriously, Kelce nabbed 128 of his team’s 190 passing yards last week and the “no name” TE is slowly turning into a superstar.
- Can Alex Smith avoid mistakes? Smith remains one of the better running QBs in the league but his success still relies more on consistent mistake-free play rather than flamboyant showmanship at the helm. Protecting possession and forcing New England to score on long drives will be key to upsetting the Patriots in Foxboro.
Packers @ Cardinals
Arizona creamed Green Bay 38-8 in week 16 but instead of this game feeling like “only yesterday”, it seems like an entire season ago and how close Saturday’s night game will be hinges almost entirely on which Packers team shows up to play.
2015 was a topsy turvy campaign for the Packers. When they looked good they looked great and when they struggled, they really struggled.
The Cardinals, on the other hand, are healthy and feature a trio of receivers in which Larry Fitzgerald isn’t even the top guy. Michael Floyd has blossomed into a true #1 WR and John Brown is perhaps the most dangerous #3 in the league. When Carson Palmer gets hot he’s got so many weapons to throw to that this offense becomes virtually unstoppable.
So as much as it looks like Aaron Rodgers “is back” I can tell you Patrick Peterson and Calais Campbell are also back… in Phoenix, waiting
— Aaron Schatz (@FO_ASchatz) January 11, 2016
Things to watch for:
- In their last meeting Calais Campbell wreaked havoc on Aaron Rodgers by busting through the line all game long. If the Packers’ line can’t slow down the beast on Saturday we could see a repeat of week 16. Even the best quarterbacks can’t complete passes lying on their backs.
- Arizona is a playoff favorite for the first time since Kurt Warner retired but they still suit up a squad that’s fairly inexperienced in postseason play. Many of the Packers have “been there before”, so to speak, and playoff experience does matter, particularly in close games.
- Eddie Lacy and John Starks combined for 116 yards with 2 touchdowns on just 24 carries against the Redskins. They’ll need to repeat this success on the ground to slow down the pace of the game and keep the high-flying Cardinals offense on the bench.
Believe it or not, MVP candidate Carson Palmer has never won a playoff game. Ever.
Seahawks @ Panthers
Cam Newton’s statement win in Seattle earlier this season came on game-winning strike to Greg Olsen where botched coverage left the TE wide open in the end zone.
And the Seahawks seemed to “specialize” in 4th-quarter collapses ever since.
Including last Sunday, when the Hawks allowed a stagnant Vikings offense to march right down the field to get into position for an easy chip-shot game-winning 27-yard field goal.
But there’s magic in this team, from Russell Wilson on down…and so it was hardly surprising when the soon-to-be-infamous “laces out” moment came to be. Seattle is a team of destiny and willpower like no other.
And while the 2014 season left fans wondering if Wilson vs. Kaepernick would become the Brady vs. Manning of the era, it appears now that Cam Newton will fill that role moving forward.
The two teams have met six times since Wilson was drafted and each and every game has been a grind ‘em out battle to the end – and let’s not forget that the last time Carolina found themselves one game from the Super Bowl, it was Matt Hasselbeck and the Seahawks who sent them packing.
— Rolling Stone (@RollingStone) January 11, 2016
Things to watch for:
- Marshawn Lynch pulled a “now you see me, now you don’t” in the Wild Card Round by practicing in full all week and then missing the team bus after suffering a setback with his abdominal injury. He should be set to return against the Panthers, as will Carolina’s own workhouse back, Jonathan Stewart.
- The two teams very much mirror one another with tough power rushers and stingy defenses, but with Newton’s size and strength the Panthers’ running attack, particularly at home, gets the edge in this one.
- Similar to the Packers-Cardinals tilt, playoff experience could make the difference in this one. Despite Carolina’s near-perfect (15-1) record they’ll need to prove they’re ready to win under pressure.
I expect this game to go down to the final possession.
Steelers @ Broncos
The quarterback controversy is over in Denver as Peyton Manning will, in fact, be given one final chance to ride off into the sunset as Super Bowl champion, just as his boss John Elway did back in the late-1990s.
Nobody knows if the decision to hand the reins back over is based on respect for the future Hall-of-Famer or if the coaching staff truly believes #18 gives the team the best chance at winning – but either way, Manning will get one more shot to prove he can win a big game in the cold.
Peyton Manning is 0-5 in playoff games in which the weather is 40 degrees or fewer. #Broncos game is expected to be 25 degrees on Sunday.
— Farzin Vousoughian (@Farzin21) January 11, 2016
But the real quarterback storyline here comes out of Pittsburgh, where Big Ben is day-to-day with a bum shoulder (sprained AC joint). He appeared incapable of throwing the deep ball in Cincinnati and to make matters worse his top target, Antonio Brown, is questionable with a concussion.
The last time these two teams met the Steelers won 34-27 as the Broncos secondary had no answer for the Pittsburgh receiving corps, but regular season wins are worth diddly-squat in the sudden-death playoff tournament.
Things to watch for:
- The theory goes that Peyton Manning is healthier than he’s been all season. Will this translate into more production and fewer INTs?
- Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier was a force to be reckoned with against the Bengals. He had 13 tackles, 2 forced fumbles and a fumble recovery to lead the defense. A similar performance would go a long way towards slowing down the Broncos offense.
- DeMarcus Ware should be back for Denver to help lead the NFL’s #1 total defense. Holding Pittsburgh to under 20 points will greatly increase the Broncos’ chances of advancing to the AFC Championship.