Hands down, this is the greatest weekend of the NFL year. Four crucial games with the eventual Super Bowl winner somewhere in the mix.
This year’s final eight have a collection of starting quarterbacks that are among the best the round has ever seen. I haven’t figured out a good way yet of combining the colors to account for people who accomplished multiple feats, but we have a table below (click it to enlarge) to show their accolades. I think 1993 is the best competition for this year. The 2015 group includes four future HOF locks, three MVP winners (about to be four), five Super Bowl winners and four No. 1 overall picks (one in each game).
Of course, Ben Roethlisberger enters this week on shaky ground with the shoulder injury. Tom Brady did not have a stellar second-half finish this year (59.8%, 6.96 YPA, 89.7 PR, 4-4 record with a dropped game-ending INT vs. Giants). Alex Smith 2.0 is still Alex Smith 2.0. Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning had their worst seasons as starters, and you really don’t know what to expect from either this weekend. Cam Newton, Carson Palmer and Russell Wilson all thrived with their best season yet in 2015. But collectively for their careers, this is a fascinating group of quarterbacks.
All the road teams won last week, but you tend to favor the home teams in the divisional round. However, there has been at least one road upset in every year since 2005.
Seasons where three home teams lost in the divisional round (2): 1971 and 2008
Seasons where two home teams lost in the divisional round (12): 1976, 1977, 1979, 1980, 1984, 1987, 1995, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010
Seasons where zero home teams lost in the divisional round (9): 1973, 1974, 1988, 1990, 1991, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2004
Kansas City at New England
Some probably think the key to winning in New England is to outduel Tom Brady in a high-scoring game. Historically, that has not been the case. Brady has only lost 16 home games in which he played to completion since 2001. The key ingredient to a win is defense as the Patriots were held to 21 points or less in 14 of those 16 games. Brady played below average in the majority of these games.
Do the Chiefs have the defense to make this one of these games? I think so, but I would feel more confident if Justin Houston was healthier. There is talent at every level for the Chiefs, but this team is so dependent on takeaways and field position. You don’t expect to get many takeaways from the Patriots, who had a league-low 14 giveaways with never more than two in any game. Pressure is a great equalizer however, and the Chiefs don’t have to blitz to get it. When the Chiefs don’t blitz, they have forced QBs into a league-low 37.7 QBR. When the Chiefs get pressure, QBs have a 3.8 QBR, second-worst in the league. Pressure is going to be crucial in this one, which is why the return of Julian Edelman is so key. He’s the safety valve for Brady, someone who can easily catch 8-10 balls and fight for YAC most receivers don’t get. However, he hasn’t played in two months and who knows what we’ll be getting from him today. There is also the case of Rob Gronkowski’s surprising injuries this week. He is questionable and the Chiefs have done a great job against tight ends all year. James White has done a very good job of replacing Dion Lewis’ contributions in the receiving game, but the Chiefs rarely let receiving backs do much damage against them. Those are the three areas the Patriots like to throw the most, but the Chiefs seem to have a solid answer at each level.
I don’t expect the Patriot offense to be razor sharp. It hasn’t been for half a season as the injuries piled up, and don’t forget the OL situation. In the last 9 games, NE’s offense has not topped 28 offensive points. Surprisingly, the 28 came in that home loss to the Eagles, but we know the Eagles won that thanks to three return touchdowns. You don’t ever expect that, though the Chiefs know a lot about non-offensive scoring this year. It has been crucial to their 11-game winning streak, a streak I question the competition from, but a win here would be extremely impressive regardless of the Patriots finishing 2-4 down the stretch.
While the Chiefs have won 11 in a row, the Patriots are 11-0 in the playoffs against a new opponent and 10-8 in a rematch since 2001. The last meeting between these teams of course was early in 2014 when the Chiefs routed the Patriots, but I don’t think that game plays a factor here. It was too long ago with many different players.
Not to keep going back to that weird Philadelphia game, but the Eagles broke NE’s streak of 94 consecutive home wins when leading by 8+ points at any time. Regardless, you still don’t want to fall behind in Foxboro, and the Chiefs are not an offense built to come back. A good start is going to be key, as is winning that turnover battle (hell, Eagles lost that too). The Chiefs are a good candidate to win that TO battle since their differential is +14 this year.
Alex Smith has not thrown for 200 yards in any of his last six games, and that might suit the Chiefs okay if they are running the ball well and playing with the lead. However, I think he needs to make some more plays in this one, even if it’s with his legs. Andy Reid needs to get creative with jet sweeps and zone-read in this one. Spencer Ware has looked like KC’s best back, though he too has been banged up this week. I think the Chiefs can replace Jeremy Maclin better than most teams could replace their No. 1 WR, just because they don’t throw as much as other offenses. Maybe Maclin plays, but it is hard to see him being productive with a high ankle sprain. Travis Kelce has to play a huge game and rookie Chris Conley must step up. That’s why I think a smart running attack is going to be key to this offense. You’re not going to expect Smith to throw for 300 yards today with this cast against an underrated defense fully capable of carrying the Patriots to a win here with their own sacks against a conservative QB. You don’t think Belichick can figure out a way to take away Kelce and pounce on the leftovers? That’s why turnovers and field position are likely to be the decisive factors. If you feed the Chiefs great opportunities, they take advantage with a very efficient red-zone offense.
Unless Edelman is a bust in his return and Gronkowski is really ineffective, then I think the Patriots will do just enough to get by here in a low-scoring game.
Green Bay at Arizona
While I don’t expect this to look like the 38-8 Arizona win from Week 16, I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid that “the Pack is back” after beating lowly Washington. Aaron Rodgers still averaged a Joey Harrington-like 5.83 YPA last week and has lost Davante Adams, who played one of his best games this year. This game goes as the Green Bay offensive line goes. All the sacks and fumble-sixes from the last game ended that one in the third quarter. You expect better protection with a different lineup this time, but that Arizona defense is still great even after the loss of Tyrann Mathieu, who did not play in Week 16. If Eddie Lacy and James Starks can get going, then we should have a competitive game, but I just don’t trust the GB running game against this front.
Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer are seeking their first playoff win. The Week 17 loss to Seattle was shockingly bad from this team, which was arguably the best in the league heading into that game. Sure, it was a game they may not have necessarily approached with 100% will to win with starters for 60 minutes, but Seattle owned them by halftime. Now with a bye week to stew, Arizona enters this week in a weird position as the only team without a recent playoff win under its belt. Palmer’s only bad game this season was in Week 17 as I voted him the league MVP for his amazing consistency. He’ll need to rebound here and I think he will. His receivers are healthy and David Johnson has been a great addition as the workhorse back. Chris Johnson’s injury was a blessing in disguise. The Cardinals should bring great balance to this game and can beat you in multiple ways. Short of Rodgers turning in a classic performance, I’m not sold Green Bay can outscore this offense.
If you punch the Packers in the mouth early, they’re not a team likely to get back up. I think Arizona accomplishes that and advances to the NFC Championship Game.
Seattle at Carolina
There may have been a difference of 5 wins between these teams in the regular season, but I still think the Seahawks have the better coach, better quarterback and better overall roster. Does that translate to a victory with Carolina having the bye and not having to travel after playing in the freezing cold last week? Not sure about that, but it should be close again as these teams have played tough, close games since 2012. Sure, the 31-17 final in last year’s playoffs looks lopsided, but Carolina had the ball in a 17-10 fourth quarter in that one. With Seattle, you just cannot expect to ever blow that team out as it has an NFL-record 87-game streak of being at least within one score in the fourth quarter.
This does not feel like your usual matchup of highest-scoring offense vs. highest-scoring defense. Maybe it’s because Carolina started the season with a great D/not as great O and Seattle ended the season with great O/great D. Both teams have been scoring a lot more since the midseason point, but Seattle’s defense got stronger while we saw some more cracks from Carolina, especially against the pass after suffering some defensive back injuries. I think Russell Wilson, who seems destined to play in close playoff games every time, can make some big plays here to his wide receivers. Backyard football may be the strategy again, because I don’t see the Seattle OL holding up well against Carolina’s rush. Marshawn Lynch is expected to return, but he really has not had a good season. I would be surprised if he had a big game as the offensive load is going to fall on Wilson here. Jonathan Stewart is also expected back for Carolina, but I think the Seahawks can contain that part of Carolina’s offense. The bigger question mark is Newton’s rushing, which you know he’ll go all out for with the season on the line. Then again, Newton has rushed for 24-42 yards in his five meetings with Seattle (1 TD), so they have contained the big plays. I don’t expect Ted Ginn Jr. to do much in this one, especially if lined up with Richard Sherman.
The X-factor seemingly is Greg Olsen. Not only is he Carolina’s leading receiver, but the tight end position has just been a weakness all year for Seattle, ranked 26th in DVOA. The crazy part is Kam Chancellor’s return did not fix that problem and he’s been beaten by the likes of Olsen and Tyler Eifert this year, and he essentially gave up game-losing plays to tight ends in Minnesota last week had the field goal been good. Olsen does disappear at times this season, though that’s really just a factor of Carolina being a run-heavy offense. I can’t imagine he won’t be a significant part of this game plan, though don’t you think Seattle knows that by now? Olsen did most of his damage in the fourth quarter of Carolina’s win in Seattle this year, a game the Seahawks led 23-14 before blowing a 4Q lead for one of five times this season. This has been a multi-year problem with the Seahawks with the defense losing it late. Newton can certainly get hot and do it to them again, which is why you fully expect a 60-minute game out of this one.
Seattle has better special teams, a unit that seems to pull horseshoes out of its ass based on some of these playoff endings, though this game will probably end with Steven Hauschka missing a chipshot field goal to pass on the NFC curse again like last year.
Pittsburgh at Denver
This was my preview at FO this week, so please check out that epic beast there. The injuries to Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger really suck, because we might not see a better matchup all year than the Pittsburgh offense vs. Denver defense. Last time, the Broncos were down three safeties. You get those guys back, take away Brown and Williams, and Denver’s defense should do much better at home here. I don’t really know what to expect from Peyton Manning and the offense, but playing a careful game would be wise. If this defense is as great as people have been saying all year, then they absolutely have to take care of these wounded Steelers at home. Brown was such a high-percentage receiver for Ben.
You might be able to get some big plays from Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton, but the consistency is not going to be there like it was with Brown. And it’s still an unknown just how far Roethlisberger can throw the ball, or what will happen after he takes some hits on it.
I went 3-1 last week, though the scores left a lot to be desired.
- Patriots over Chiefs, 20-13
- Cardinals over Packers, 31-20
- Seahawks over Panthers, 23-20
- Broncos over Steelers, 23-16
- Week 1: 10-6
- Week 2: 6-10
- Week 3: 14-2
- Week 4: 11-4
- Week 5: 9-5
- Week 6: 8-6
- Week 7: 10-4
- Week 8: 10-4
- Week 9: 8-5
- Week 10: 4-10
- Week 11: 9-5
- Week 12: 8-8
- Week 13: 11-5
- Week 14: 10-6
- Week 15: 11-5
- Week 16: 9-7
- Week 17: 8-8
- Wild Card: 3-1
- Season: 159-101 (.612)