by Paul West
After a Wild Card round in which all four home teams lost for the first time ever (and..ahem…yours truly went 4-0 in predicting the games), the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs is upon us. All four games have intriguing subplots, and it could be argued that three of the four games could go either way.
Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots, Saturday 1/16/16 4:35pm EST
The Kansas City Chiefs pounded the Houston Texans in the Wild Card round, and they appear to be clicking on all cylinders. Alex Smith had his usual understated but effective game, spreading the ball around and showing off his running speed when he needed to. He missed an early home run throw, but was otherwise on point. Spencer Ware led the running game, using his size and speed to chomp out 67 yards on the ground along with a five-yard run into the end zone. Jeremy Maclin left with a leg injury after only 29 yards receiving, which left Travis Kelce as Smith’s primary target; the athletic but streaky tight end came up big, catching crossing routes and downfield throws and even working in a screen pass. Kelce ended the day with 128 yards on 8 receptions, and showed the upside that some of his past highlights have suggested. Meanwhile, the Chiefs’ defense terrorized Brian Hoyer and the Texans all game. They recovered a Hoyer fumble and had four interceptions, including a diving pick by cancer survivor Eric Berry. When it was all said and done, the Chiefs had won their 11th game in a row with a 30-0 shutout of the Texans in their own dome.
The New England Patriots are limping into the postseason. They went into Week 17 with a chance at the top overall seed in the AFC; instead, they ended the regular season with a thud, losing 20-10 to the Miami Dolphins. Slash-and-dash slot receiver Julian Edelman has missed time with a broken foot, and freakish tight end Rob Gronkowski has missed time with an injured knee among a laundry list of ailments. Future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady has been hassled and harassed, struggling to keep the offense running despite a rash of Patriots injuries. He finished the Miami game with 134 yards passing, and he himself has been dealing with a bothersome knee. The Patriots would appear to be the proverbial sick man of the AFC, except that Brady and head coach Bill Belichick have a way of making enough adjustments to at least be dangerous.
The Chiefs have an aggressive and formidable pass rush, and Brady, never particularly mobile, has lost some of his in-pocket shiftiness; New England’s currently dicey running game and musical-chairs offensive line will leave Brady vulnerable to constant pressure. Edelman and Gronk both have lower-body injuries (worse still, a bad back was just added to Gronk’s laundry list of injuries), which could limit their explosiveness and make it easier for Berry and the Kansas City secondary to blanket them while Justin Houston and company close the pocket. On offense, the Chiefs will rely on a rushing attack that finished sixth in the NFL despite losing Jamaal Charles to a knee injury. Ware, Charcandrick West and the speedy Knile Davis (who returned a kickoff 106 yards for a touchdown in the Wild Card game) will go against the Patriots’ ninth-ranked run defense.
X-factor: Chris Conley. After Maclin’s departure, Chris Conley‘s role in the offense increased. His only catch was a 9-yard touchdown reception on a fantastic throw by Smith, but the Turkish-born rookie out of Georgia has the size and explosiveness to make a difference. If Maclin isn’t able to play this week, Conley will need to be a threat; otherwise, New England’s defense will be able to clamp down on Kelce and stack up against the run. Even if Maclin can play, chances are he’ll be somewhat limited, meaning Conley will still be called on for an expanded role.
Prediction: 20-13, Chiefs. Adjustments or not, the Chiefs’ defense will wreak enough havoc to allow their run game to control the clock and keep the ball out of Brady’s hands. Kelce will have another good game, and Maclin or Conley will turn a seam route into a home run.
Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals, Saturday 1/16/16 8:15pm EST
The Green Bay Packers advanced through the Wild Card round with a 35-18 victory in Washington, but questions still abound about their threat potential. The offensive line has struggled all season, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers has seemed hassled and off-kilter as a result. Dangerous slot receiver Randall Cobb has had a hard time creating space in the absence of elite receiver Jordy Nelson, and the rest of the receiving corps has been underwhelming. Tight end Richard Rodgers has been a strong red zone target at times, and returning veteran James Jones has given his quarterback a trusted go-to in different situations but no longer is a true game-breaker. Running back Eddie Lacy has battled injuries and ineffectiveness, and James Starks is an interesting dual threat but like Jones, he doesn’t generally take over games.
The 13-3 Arizona Cardinals ended the season in disappointing fashion, getting thumped 36-6 by the Seattle Seahawks. But they’re still considered a real threat to emerge from the NFC, as they have a strong defense and one of the league’s most explosive offenses. Quarterback Carson Palmer managed to stay healthy all season, and he made the most of it, throwing for 4,4671 yards and 35 touchdowns this season. Future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald led a receiving crew that was balanced and explosive, with John Brown and J.J. Nelson as the home run threats and and also included veteran Michael Floyd. Tight end Jermaine Gresham, while not prolific this season, is another capable receiver, and rookie running back David Johnson caught 36 passes for 457 yards and 4 scores. Johnson also ran for 581 yards and 8 scores, emerging as a pleasant surprise after Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington were lost to injuries. Meanwhile, the Arizona defense has at times been one of the league’s toughest. Despite losing cornerback Tyrann Mathieu to a season-ending knee injury, Arizona’s defense ranked fifth overall and Patrick Peterson deserves consideration as the league’s best shutdown cornerback.
The Packers and Cardinals met earlier this season, in a lopsided Week 16 game in which the Cardinals secured a playoff bye with a 38-8 win. Both teams are downplaying the importance of the earlier meeting, in which the Cards sacked Rodgers eight times and returned two of his fumbles for touchdowns, but it’s not hard to imagine the Packers being eager for revenge.
X-factor: David Johnson. David Johnson led the league in yards from scrimmage from Week 13 onward, and when he’s leaking into throwing lanes, he adds to the Cardinals’ impressive receiving depth. If he can be effective on the ground as well as catching passes, the Packers could have a long day on defense. Against last year’s Packers, that might have meant a shootout; this year, it might mean another blowout.
Prediction: 34-20, Cardinals. Even if Rodgers and the Packers offense can get into some kind of rhythm, it’s hard to imagine them keeping up with Palmer and his attack. Arizona’s playmaking defense should account for at least one turnover, and that should be the difference.
Seattle Seahawks at Carolina Panthers, Sunday 1/17/16 1:05pm EST
Despite barely escaping their Wild Card game against the Minnesota Vikings, the Seattle Seahawks are still widely regarded as a serious threat to make it back to the Super Bowl. Quarterback Russell Wilson is coming off of perhaps his best regular season to date, a season in which he threw for 4,024 yards and 34 touchdowns, achieving a spectacular 110.1 QBR (quarterback rating). Emergent top receiver Doug Baldwin didn’t have a huge game, but he did make key plays and he did catch the Seahawks’ first touchdown to keep the game from getting out of hand early. And the Seahawks’ running game might be getting a booster shot, as Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch has returned to practice after missing time due to sports hernia surgery. His status is still very much in doubt–and even if he returns, the Seahawks still have their persistent offensive line woes to worry about–but Lynch’s presence alone can keep the Panthers’ defense from selling out against the pass. But aside from Wilson, the Seahawks’ biggest constant is their defense. The “Legion of Boom” secondary, led by Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, anchors a top-down defense that ranked first in the league in both scoring defense and rushing defense while ranking second against the pass.
The Carolina Panthers didn’t lose their first game until the season was nearly over, and they finished at 15-1. They led the league in points per game and were second in rushing yards, and do-it-all quarterback Cam Newton was the driving force on offense. Running back Jonathan Stewart rushed for 989 in 13 games, while Newton was second on the team with 636 rushing yards–and led the team with a whopping 10 rushing scores. The one-man show feeling was slightly diminished by the contributions of elite tight end Greg Olsen, who had 77 catches for 1,104 yards and 7 touchdowns. And Ted Ginn, Jr. was the team’s second-leading receiver with 44 receptions and 739 yards, but he also accounted for 10 receiving touchdowns. The Panthers are a run-first team, but Ginn is capable of going deep on almost any play and Newton’s improved command of the passing game has been a big part of the team’s success. On defense, Luke Kuechly anchors a crew of linebackers that has the collective athleticism to keep Wilson honest as he extends the play and runs the point on one of the most effective scramble-drills in the league. Josh Norman is a physical cornerback who occasionally goes over the top but is capable of creating headaches for opposing receivers.
The Panthers and Seahawks are two teams with similar designs. Wilson, despite only being a year older, is the more seasoned of the two quarterbacks; he’s also the bigger threat from the pocket. Newton, despite the year he’s having, has only played three postseason games in his career and hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2014. His big-game inexperience could make him crack under pressure at the wrong moment, especially if Sherman and company blanket his limited receiving corps and frustration sets in. Wilson’s wealth of big-game experience, along with his ability to stay cool under fire, might be the difference if the game stays close.
X-factor: Jonathan Stewart. Stewart won’t need to run for a lot of yardage, but if the Seahawks are able to bottle him up early, it could disrupt the Panthers’ rhythm on offense. This would allow the Seahawks’ defense to concentrate on collapsing the pocket, and keep things close enough to strike late.
Prediction: 17-14, Panthers. This one might go down to the wire, and it looks like the weekend’s biggest crapshoot. It’s felt like the Panther’s year, and they will squeak this one out at home.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos, Sunday 1/17/16 4:40pm EST
The Pittsburgh Steelers escaped a close, chippy game against the Cincinnati Bengals last weekend, but they came away far from intact. Elite receiver Antonio Brown was concussed on their final drive, on a late head shot by committed cheap-shot artist Vontaze Burfict; Brown has been ruled out for this week’s game. Burfict was also the player whose sack injured Ben Roethlisberger‘s throwing shoulder, causing him to miss an entire drive and rendering his status questionable for this week; the sack looked like a legitimate football play, although video has since surfaced that appears to show Burfict dropping a knee on Roethlisberger’s shoulder as he got up. Veteran running back DeAngelo Williams, who had surprised many this season with 907 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, will miss another game this week with the foot injury that’s been an issue since the end of the season. The defense is a shadow of its former self, and ranked 30th in the league this season against the pass; the offensive line has been riddled by injury. On the bright side, the Steelers were 5th against the run, which bodes well against a Broncos team that’s shifted its focus toward the ground game.
The Denver Broncos have seemingly been in flux all season, but they’ve just kept on ticking. When future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning struggled mightily due to nagging physical ailments, throwing 17 interceptions compared to 9 touchdowns, the unheralded Brock Osweiler took over capably. Osweiler’s signature moment came in a thrilling Sunday night game against the then-undefeated Patriots, in which he battled the Denver show and threw a go-ahead touchdown with 1:09 left in regulation. The Broncos won in overtime, and Osweiler was officially on the map. They continue to use a hot-hand approach at running back, with C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman sharing time. The Broncos also have the league’s top-ranked defense, led by linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware and anchored over the top by cornerback Aqib Talib. Receiver Demaryius Thomas is big and talented and had 1,304 receiving yards this season, but is also prone to mysterious drops and prolonged outages; Emmanuel Sanders, once known simply as a speed merchant, has emerged as the team’s most versatile receiver.
Because of the Steelers’ current state of decimation, a matchup that should have been exciting now threatens to be the weekend’s lone dud. Without having to worry about Brown, a versatile matchup nightmare who’s arguably the best receiver in the league, the Broncos’ defense will try to tee off on the Steelers’ patchwork pass protection. Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton are both solid up-and-coming receivers, but neither is the sort of game-breaking talent that can make up for the loss of the team’s leading rusher and their leading pass catcher.
X-factor: Peyton Manning. One thing that could make this interesting: in a move that some have found head-scratching, the Broncos have declared Maning this week’s starter. If he struggles to get the ball downfield, it could provide the Steelers with a sense of momentum; if he turns the ball over, it could give the Steelers the extra possession or two. Of course, he could show up refreshed from the layoff and pick apart the Steelers’ vulnerable secondary.
Prediction: 27-17, Broncos. If Peyton can protect the ball, the Steelers likely won’t have enough possessions to overcome their loss of firepower. Big Ben will make something happen, as he always seems to, and Bryant and Wheaton will step up admirably–but it probably won’t be enough.