NFL Divisional Playoffs Preview: Patriots, Cards, Panthers, and Broncos move on

By Joe Hawkes-Beamon

After a 4-0 record last weekend in the wild card round, I can pat myself on the back for accurately picking that Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Green Bay would win, but the divisional round is a whole different animal.

Oh yeah, it was the first time in NFL history that all four road teams won in the wild card round.

With three of the four games rematches from the regular season, there is a chance that all four games are going to come down to the wire. The teams that can execute in crunch time, limit the bone-head mistakes, and penalties will have the greatest chances of playing in next week’s conference championship games.

In the divisional round this weekend, it will be the home teams that will protect their turf with impressive victories and move one step closer to Santa Clara and Super Bowl 50.

Kansas City Chiefs (11-5); 5th seed at New England (12-4); 2nd seed –  Saturday 4:35 p.m. ET/1:35 p.m. PT – CBS

The divisional round is kicked off with Kansas City again, but this time the Chiefs are flying to Foxborough to take on a Patriots team fresh off a bye week.

Kansas City has been the hottest team in football, winners of 11 straight after destroying the Texans 30-0 in Houston last Saturday’s AFC wild card game. It was Kansas City’s first playoff victory in 22 years.

Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce was a difficult cover for the Texans, finishing the game with eight catches for 128 and provided quarterback Alex Smith with a reliable receiver.

Smith’s top playmaker, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, is dealing with a high-ankle sprain and is a game time decision. Should Maclin play, he will draw the attention of Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler, who was voted to his first Pro Bowl team this season.

Kansas City does have a solid running game with Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, who racked up 67 rushing yards. Those two will be heavily involved in the game plan as the weather in Foxborough calls for rain, which makes Kansas City’s running game that much vital if they have a chance to knockoff New England. Ware is dealing with an ankle injury as well, but should be ready to go.

The last time Kansas City played New England, the Chiefs thumped the Patriots 41-14 at Arrowhead last season, prompting talks that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was old and it was time for him to retire.

Brady, who finished the regular season with 36 touchdowns and a 102.2 passer rating (his best numbers in four seasons), should have his full compliment of targets in tight end Rob Gronkowski, and wide receivers Danny Amendola, and Julian Edelman at his disposal.

All three players missed time during the regular season, but New England continued to find ways to win games, but are entering the playoffs with a 2-4 record, the worst six-game record under head coach Bill Belichick to end the season.

Brady was sacked 38 times in the regular season, third-worst in his career. Kansas City has one of the best pass rushes in the league, finishing with 47 sacks, which was two behind New England’s defensive unit.

Kansas will have to provide pressure on Brady and force him to be uncomfortable in the pocket. If you allow Brady to have time to survey the field, he will find the open man and will hurt you.

“Any time you can get to the quarterback and put pressure on him, or make him uncomfortable in the pocket, you can create turnovers,” said Kansas City linebacker Justin Houston this week. “Every week that’s our plan, that’s our goal: Dominate every snap.”

Kansas City forced 29 turnovers this season after just mustering 13 last season. Rookie cornerback Marcus Peters finished tied in the NFL with Bengals safety Reggie Nelson with eight interceptions.

The player to watch for New England is defensive end Chandler Jones, who was hospitalized last Sunday for a “medical emergency.” Jones did apologize to his teammates and coaches Thursday for what he termed as a “stupid mistake” on his part.

Jones recorded 12.5 sacks this season, which was fifth in the league.

The Chiefs look to snap a five-game losing streak in New England, but it’s really tough to pick against Belichick and the Patriots when they’ve had two weeks to prepare.

Chiefs 21 – Patriots 30

Green Bay (10-6); 5th seed at Arizona Cardinals (13-3); 2nd seed –  Saturday 8:15 p.m. ET/5:15 p.m. PT – NBC

In Week 16, Arizona hammered Green Bay 38-8, in which the Cardinals registered nine sacks. The game got out of hand very quickly as the Cardinals held the Packers to just 178 yards of total offense, which was their second-worst offensive output this season.

In addition to the nine sacks, Arizona’s defense scored two touchdowns as Green Bay’s offensive line had no chance at protecting quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Green Bay found themselves down 11-0 in a NFC wild card game last week to Washington, before waking up and pulling away from the Redskins 35-18.

One player who really wanted to get another shot at the Cardinals is Rodgers, who was sacked eight times on Dec. 27.

“We kind of felt like this was a possibility to be able to go back after that loss,” said Rodgers per the Packers’ official website. “We’re coming off, obviously, a big win, and in (the Cardinals’) last game they got beat by a lot. So it’s going to be a more competitive game, I bet.”

Arizona got ran out of its own building by NFC West rival Seattle 36-6 in Week 17 to close out the regular season.

Carson Palmer, Arizona’s 36-year-old signal-caller, will attempt to win his first career playoff game for the third time. Palmer set franchise records for a quarterback in passing yards (4,671) and touchdown passes (35). The 13-year veteran leads a Cardinals’ offense that finished first in the league in total yards per game (408.3) and second in points per game (30.6).

In the Dec. 27 meeting, Palmer finished 18 of 27 for 265 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and was sacked twice.

Green Bay’s defense harassed Washington’s quarterback Kirk Cousins, sacking him six times.

Cousins is definitely not Palmer, but Green Bay’s defensive coordinator Dom Capers will need to neutralize Palmer and prevent him from getting the ball to wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald (109 catches, 1,215 yards, 9 TDs), John Brown (65 catches, 1,003 yards, 7 TDs), and Michael Floyd (52 catches, 849 yards, 6 TDs).

Rookie running back David Johnson, who has stepped in nicely for injured starting running back Chris Johnson (no relation), combined for 127 yards receiving and rushing and a touchdown against the Packers this season. Johnson finished the season with 13 total touchdowns and could prove to be the difference maker for Arizona.

The game will be closer than it was in Week 16, but the Cardinals are tough at the University of Phoenix Stadium this season (7-1) in what could be a Saturday night spectacular.

In their previous playoff meeting in 2009, Rodgers threw for 423 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception, but it was the forced fumble and recovery by then-Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby for the game winning score that prove to be the difference in Arizona’s 51-45 overtime victory.

That was Rodgers’ first playoff start.

Packers 27 – Cardinals 33

Seattle (10-6); 6th seed at Carolina Panthers (15-1); 1st seed –  Sunday 1:05 p.m. ET/10:05 a.m. PT – FOX

This is the marquee game of the weekend in my eyes. Two teams that are so evenly matched with two outstanding quarterbacks and defenses that will hit you in the mouth.

In all honesty, Seattle has no business even playing this weekend.

The Seahawks’ season were brought back from the dead after Minnesota’s kicker Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field goal that would’ve won the game, but held on to a 10-9 victory on the road in Minnesota in last Sunday’s NFC wild card game. Seattle is looking to advance to the NFC Championship game for the third straight year, but will need to put up a herculean effort if they are going to get passed Carolina.

Let’s not forget it was Carolina who went to Seattle last year in the divisional round and lost to the Seahawks 31-17, en route to Seattle’s second straight Super Bowl appearance.

This season, Carolina enacted a bit of revenge when they traveled to Seattle again in Week 6 and beat the Seahawks in a gritty, 27-23, come-from-behind victory. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton threw two first-half interceptions before leading Carolina back from a 13-point deficit in the second half, and hitting his favorite target in tight end Greg Olsen for a 26-yard touchdown catch down the middle of the field with 32 seconds remaining in the game.

Newton, who is one of the favorites to win the league’s MVP award, especially with being the only quarterback in NFL history to throw for 30 touchdowns and rushing for 10 touchdowns, completed 20 of 36 passes for 269 yards. Newton also racked up 30 yards rushing and a touchdown.

After the game, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said that game was “one of the bigger victories we’ve had since I’ve been here.”

Panthers safety Roman Harper recently said that Carolina is “the better team.” “We need to go out and show confidence in who we are and the things we have done all year – and don’t shy away from the pressure.”

“After we played them, (in Week 6), we said “We’ll see you again in the playoffs,” Josh Norman, the Panthers’ Pro Bowl cornerback told Carolina’s official website.

Boy, I can’t wait for this game!

Carolina would make a huge statement in knocking off Seattle. Carolina hasn’t been to the NFC Championship game since 2005, where they lost at Seattle 34-14.  Many believe Seattle are peaking at the right time.

Dealing in the frigid conditions of Minnesota where the temperature was below-zero, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson completed 13 of 26 passes for 142, one touchdown and one interception.

Wide receiver Doug Baldwin caught five passes for 52 yards and a touchdown. Baldwin had a breakout season, finishing with 78 catches for 1,069 yards and 14 touchdowns. Seattle’s top receiver should see a lot of Norman, who can get under a wide receiver’s skin with his trash talking and suffocating-like cover skills.

Running back Marshawn Lynch is expected to play this week after not making the trip to Minnesota last week. Lynch should provide Seattle with a much needed running game to take a little of the pressure off of Wilson.

Seattle’s top-ranked run defense (81.5 yards per game)was on full display last week, holding NFL rushing champion Adrian Peterson to 45 yards on 23 carries.

One thing is for certain, there will be a streak that will come to an end Sunday, either Carolina’s 11 game home winning streak, or Seattle’s franchise record six game road playoff win streak – which includes last week’s victory in Minnesota.

Its a toss up, but Carolina looks like the time is now for them to take the next step.

Seahawks 17 – Panthers 20

Pittsburgh (10-6); 6th seed at Denver (12-4); 1st seed –  Sunday 4:40 p.m. ET/1:40 p.m. PT – CBS

With quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hampered by a shoulder injury and will be limited Sunday and wide receiver Antonio Brown out with a concussion, there is no way that Pittsburgh is going to travel to Denver and take out the Broncos Sunday to close out the divisional round.

Denver’s secondary is much healthier now than it was on Dec. 20 where Roethlisberger completed 40 of 55 passes for 380 yards and three touchdowns, and Brown caught 16 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns, all season-highs for any opponent against Denver’s tough defense.

Denver did record two interceptions and three sacks off of Roethlisberger in the Week 15 encounter.

Roethlisberger is the only quarterback to throw over 300 yards against Denver this season.

“We got lucky the first time,” said Roethlisberger via the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. “We made plays, they had guys injured, we were at home. It’s not going to be that easy (again).”

Pittsburgh slipped by AFC North rival Cincinnati 18-16 last Saturday in an AFC wild card match up. The Steelers were aided by back-to-back Cincinnati penalties in the fourth quarter that setup kicker Chris Boswell’s 35-yard game winning field goal in the closing seconds of the game.

Denver will start quarterback Peyton Manning in Sunday’s contest. Backup quarterback Brock Osweiler completed 21 of 44 passes for 296 yards and three touchdowns, but this will be Manning’s show.

Wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders combined for 15 catches, 242 yards and three touchdowns on Dec. 20, gives Manning the necessary targets to exploit a Steelers’ defense that ranks 30th in the NFL in passing defense yielding 271.9 yards per game this season.

Denver has won eight of their last 11 meetings against Pittsburgh at Mile High, including a 29-23 overtime thriller in a AFC wild card game on Jan 8, 2012 behind a Tim Tebow 80-yard touchdown pass to Thomas.

Steelers 21 – Broncos 35

Stats provided by Elias Sports Bureau, NFL.com,  and STATS LLC.

 

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