The Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs is widely regarded as the most beautiful buffet of pro football games every year. After the road team won every game last week, each home team is favored this week. Here’s a pithy, statistical look at all the games this weekend.
Kansas City Chiefs (12-5) at New England Patriots (12-4)
The Chiefs are among the nicest narratives in the NFL, reeling off 11 wins after a 1-5 start. But their two regular-season wins against winning teams came against Landry Jones and a hobbled Peyton Manning, who got benched after four first-half picks. And last week they vanquished the 9-7 Houston Texans, who have a turnstile under center.
The Patriots are, well, the Patriots, and seem to have their mail forwarded to this round of the playoffs. The Pats and the Los Angeles Rams (1973-1979) are the only NFL teams to win seven consecutive division titles.
Statistically speaking, the teams are evenly matched. Defensively, both surrender about 98 yards rushing per game, while the Pats give up nine more yards passing. The Patriots are great at throwing the ball (fifth in the NFL) and lousy at running it (30th), while the Chiefs are great at running (sixth in the NFL) yet lousy at passing (30th).
Rob Gronkowski keeps missing practice, and no one knows how Julian Edelman will perform after missing two months from a foot injury. Kansas City also has two vital, game-time variables in LB Justin Houston and WR Jeremy Maclin.
The singular difference in this game is the New England has Tom Brady and Kansas City doesn’t. That means more than health, home field or any coaching edge Bill Belichick may have over Andy Reid.
The Patriots are looking to join John Madden’s Raiders as the only teams to make the AFC title game five consecutive seasons. Brady will make it so.
Prediction: Patriots, 27-19
Green Bay Packers (11-6) at Arizona Cardinals (13-3)
Standard logic says the Cardinals are the most balanced team in the NFL. Sounds about right. Not only are the Cardinals better and healthier than the Packers, they routed Green Bay in Week 16, 38-8.
The last team to lose to a team by at least 30 points and then beat them in the playoffs was the 2010 Jets, when they beat the Patriots in a January rematch.
Such an anomaly isn’t likely to befall the Cardinals, who were similarly suited to make a Super Bowl run last year, but lost QB Carson Palmer, and then lost his backup. Palmer has been stellar, again, throwing for 4,671 yards, 35 TDs, and 11 INTs, and was third in the NFL with a 104.6 passer rating.
Everyone seems to think Aaron Rodgers is back. But the gifted Packers QB was more a beneficiary of the Redskins’ wretched run defense than a passing epiphany. Green Bay ran the ball 23 times for 123 yards in the second half of their win in Washington.
They won’t be so lucky in Arizona, who allowed just 91.2 yards rushing per game. They will stop the run, stalk Rodgers and score more than enough. The Cardinals were second in the NFL in points scored (30.8) and passing yards (288.5) and first in total yards (408.3).
Green Bay has been out of sync, and Rodgers has been out of breath since their 6-0 start. Arizona is not the place to get well.
Prediction: Cardinals, 30-21
Seattle Seahawks (11-6) at Carolina Panthers (15-1)
It’s been exactly 10 years (Jan 15, 2006) since the Panthers won a divisional playoff game. They are 3-3 all-time in this round, and 1-2 at home. They did beat the Seahawks (in Seattle) during the regular season, 27-23. But that was well before Seattle found its football footing.
Both defenses are rather ornery. The Panthers led the league in takeaways (39) and in turnover differential (+20). Seattle’s defense ranks first in points allowed, rushing yards allowed and passing TDs allowed.
We know all about the Seahawks, who are trying to become the third team in NFL history to reach the Super Bowl in three consecutive seasons, joining the Miami Dolphins (1971-1973) and the Buffalo Bills (1990-1993).
The Panthers have the league’s best record and best player, and yet folks still question their bona fides. Count yours truly among them. While Seattle is only here by dint of Blair Walsh’s shank last week, they have been doing this for a while, and don’t have to worry about arctic climes or a cinder block for a football.
The only quarterback as hot as Cam Newton is Russell Wilson. Over the second half of the season, the two combined 44 TDs and 2 INTs. While Newton has himself to thank — and he often does — for the team’s success, the more modest Wilson has better receivers, more playoff experience and, perhaps, Marshawn Lynch behind him.
Prediction: Seahawks, 24-21
Pittsburgh Steelers (11-6) at Denver Broncos (12-4)
Ben Roethlisberger is the only QB to throw for 300 yards, and the Steelers are the only team to score 30 points against the Broncos this season. But that was before they became a walking triage. The Steelers will be without Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, and (likely) trot out a diminished Ben Roethlisberger, thanks to Vontaze Burfict.
If DeAngelo Williams joins Antonio Brown on the bench, it will be the first time in NFL history that a playoff team will play without its leading rusher and pass receiver. Add to that Ben Roethlisberger’s mangled throwing shoulder, Denver’s rabid pass rush (NFL-best 52 sacks) and the paper-thin air of the Rockies, and it’s a woeful alchemy for the Steelers.
Assuming Big Ben plays, he will have just one proven, potent wideout in Martavis Bryant, whose dedication Roethlisberger challenged just two weeks ago. TE Heath Miller is still serviceable but brittle and well into the back-nine of his career. To say Big Ben is playing with one arm is a fitting metaphor for the entire offense.
Meanwhile, Demaryius Thomas and (former Steeler) Emmanuel Sanders combined for 242 yards and three touchdowns against a porous Steelers secondary that has gotten no better since.
Notice no mention of Peyton Manning? This is the rare time the quarterback is incidental. John Elway could drop down from the executive suite, suit up and Denver should still dominate the depleted Steelers. They’ve already lost to Tim Tebow in the playoffs, so…
Prediction: Broncos, 24-13
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.