With trips to the conference championships at stake, the divisional round features the best teams from the regular season in action after the first-round bye, along with teams that are riding a wave of momentum following a wild-card round victory. This always makes for some terrific matchups. In this NFL Divisional Round preview, I will give you some insight on each game.
5 Green Bay Packers (11-6) vs. 2 Arizona Cardinals (13-3)
When: Saturday, January 16, 7:15 CST
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona
Where To Watch: NBC
In the Packers 35-18 victory over Washington, many saw what has been called a resurrection of the Packers’ offense. Rodgers only got sacked once, and he found open receivers quickly, while dominating the ground with the run game. With one of his receivers Davante Adams out and a much better defense in Arizona, it can be agreed that he will not have as easy of a time this weekend. It was only three weeks ago that in Arizona the Cardinals dominated Green Bay, sacking Rodgers eight times and not allowing a single point until the garbage minutes of the third quarter. What that offense and the team as whole have coming in is confidence. As been noted historically, the Packers relish being the heavy underdogs on the road, and that game in Washington gave Rodgers something he hasn’t really experienced much this season, and that is enjoyment. That can go long way when being a heavy underdog, especially for a quarterback, the leader of the team whose psychology and emotion can carry a team very far. The Packers will look to ride that going into Arizona.
There is not a more complete team in these playoffs than the Arizona Cardinals. Their offense, which ranks near the top in points and yards, is led by MVP candidate Carson Palmer, who is looking to win his first playoff game in his 12-year career. His weapons also include the experience of receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and the speed of John Brown. They also have a running game behind an emerging star in rookie David Johnson who has eight touchdowns and is averaging almost five yards a carry. What makes Arizona so with their high powered offense is their defense, which ranks in the top 10 in all of the league’s defensive categories. Led by superstar cornerback Patrick Peterson, they don’t allow big passing plays, heavily blitz opposing quarterbacks, and rack up turnovers. Many are considering the Cardinals as heavy favorites to win the NFC even after getting blown out 36-6 at home to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 17. Was this a chink in the armor of the Cardinals? Only this first game of the playoffs will answer if this team is complete.
Prediction: Green Bay 38 – Arizona 35: I honestly believe somehow, someway the Packers will win in my NFC upset. I haven’t seen a Packers’ playoff team that has rode the wave of momentum just from one win, since 2010 when they won the Super Bowl. Not 2011, not 2012 or 2013 against San Francisco, and not even last year against Seattle. The 2010 comparisons are way too similar: Divisional Round, heavy road underdogs to the NFC favorite (Atlanta). That 2010 offense was also very banged up, especially the line, while the defense was up against a high powered offense in the Falcons. I do think they will ride that again against Arizona. Watch for how Rodgers reacts to the Cardinals’ pass rush and the Packers’ defense’s ability to create turnovers.
6 Seattle Seahawks (11-6) vs. 1 Carolina Panthers (15-1)
When: Sunday, January 17, 12:05 CST
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, North Carolina
Where To Watch: Fox
A missed field goal from 27 yards from Blair Walsh is what made Seattle advance to the divisional round. Alright, they did come back being down by nine, in below zero weather in Minnesota, but most kickers would have made that field goal to give the Vikings the victory. Going into the playoffs many viewed the Seahawks as the most dangerous team and while their defense showed that last week, grant it was against a lacking Viking offense, it was their offense behind Russell Wilson that so many especially noticed that could barely do anything in the frigid conditions. This will not happen in Carolina, even against their vaunted defense, because the conditions will be much warmer and star running back Marshawn Lynch is returning to the lineup. Expect that high-powered passing and running attack offense behind Wilson, even if Lynch doesn’t have a big game. Look for more points to be scored than last week in Minnesota.
Here they are, the NFL’s best team record-wise. Carolina was undefeated until Week 16 and much of that can go to quarterback Cam Newton, who is the front runner to win the MVP award. This year he has been unstoppable leading the number one scoring offense in the league, all without their best receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, who tore his ACL prior to the season. This is because his ability to make stars out of average receivers in Jerricho Cotchery, Ted Ginn Jr., rookie Devin Funchess and one of the best tight ends in the league Greg Olsen. In only his fifth year in the league, Newton is already considered one of the greatest rushing quarterbacks in history, and he and running back Jonathan Stewart make up the league’s second best rushing attack. What has remained constant for Carolina over the last couple years is their defense. Linebacker Luke Kuechly is once again looking like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, but it has been the emergence of cornerback Josh Norman that has put this defense on the map, as he is also looking like a DPOY candidate. Because of the lack of depth and weapons on offense, many believe the Panthers are going to be one-and-done in the playoffs, but Cam Newton will look to prove them wrong in his quest to advance to the NFC Championship game for the first time in his career.
Prediction: Carolina 28 – Seattle 24: The Seahawks as a whole have improved very much since these two teams met in week six, but I think the result will be the same. I do not think Wilson’s top target Doug Baldwin will have much success against Norman. I also think Newton will continue to dominate opposing defenses, no matter who how good they are, because this year he is that unstoppable. Watch for Norman vs. Baldwin and Newton vs. Seattle’s front seven.
5 Kansas City Chiefs (12-5) vs. 2 New England (12-4)
When: Saturday January 16, 3:35 CST
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts
Where To Watch: CBS
With eleven straight wins, most of them in dominating fashion, it is hard to fathom that Kansas City is entering this game as underdogs but they are. Like most of the season, it was their defense that carried them to victory last week in Houston, allowing zero points, but their offense also fared well, scoring 23 of their 30 points against the Texans’ very good but banged up defense. In that win, the Chiefs lost top receiver Jeremy Maclin, who is unlikely to play this week, but even without the high scoring, the Chiefs offense does not turn the ball over much and does not beat itself often. Defensively, the Chiefs frustrate opponents by simultaneously being able to blitz the quarterback and cover receivers down the field.
The defending Super Bowl Champions are entering this year’s playoffs on a limp. Even quarterback Tom Brady, who is having another MVP caliber season, is limping after injuring his ankle in Week 17’s loss to the Miami Dolphins. The best tight end in the league, Rob Gronkowski was hospitalized this week with knee and back injuries and is questionable for the game. If there is one team that knows how to win, especially at home, in the playoffs, it’s the Patriots. If there is one thing that can really lift the Patriots offensive struggles, it’s their defense, especially against Kansas City. They must not allow the Chiefs to dominate the clock and scoreboard if they want to give New England any chance of advancing.
Prediction: Chiefs 21 – Patriots 20: In my AFC upset, I think the Chiefs defense will be too much for Tom Brady and the Patriots. New England’s offensive line has been banged up all year which is blood in the water for the Chiefs while Marcus Peters and Eric Berry has been playing lights out coverage. When all is said and done, I think Kansas City will get their run game going and tight end Travis Kelce will get his touches to ignite the passing game enough. Watch for Alex Smith without Jeremy Maclin and Tom Brady vs. the Chiefs’ defense.
6 Pittsburgh Steelers (11-6) vs. 1 Denver Broncos (12-4)
When: Sunday January 17, 3:40 CST
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver, Colorado
Where To Watch: CBS
Like the Patriots, Pittsburgh is entering the divisional round on a limp after beating the Bengals in a physical game in Cincinnati. Receiver Antonio Brown will not play as he hasn’t passed the league concussion test following a vicious cheap shot from Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will play, but with a banged up shoulder. Because of this, the Steelers other receivers, such as Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey, must step up if they want a chance to beat the Broncos. Their defense will also have to give the offense a chance, especially with Denver’s offensive struggles. The Steelers will face a challenge in Denver’s defense, but if their own defense can shut out Peyton Manning, Pittsburgh can very well advance.
How is Peyton Manning going to play? This is the question that probably no one would have thought of asking during this quarterback’s legendary career, but this has not only been the biggest question for Manning but the Broncos team as a whole. Playing in only two-thirds of the team’s games, Manning leads the league in interceptions and has been out due to a bad foot. His play this season can very much be a signal for the end of his career. Even with problems at the quarterback position, the Broncos are the one seed in the AFC due to the play of their defense which ranks in the league’s top five in every category, as well as the late season play of backup quarterback Brock Osweiler, who led the team to a 5-2 record in Manning’s absence. Due to his freshness and playoff experience, Manning will get the start and those questions will be asked throughout the game depending on how he plays. Like all season, Denver’s defense must carry the team, rushing the banged up Ben Roethlisberger and take advantage of the absence of Brown.
Prediction: Broncos 23 – Steelers 17: I think Manning will do enough to ensure the Broncos do not lose on the offensive side of the ball. I also think the Steelers’ injuries are too much to take on the top Broncos’ defense. Watch for how Payton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger plays.