As weird as it sounds, despite all four wild-card teams advancing to the divisional round in the NFL Playoffs, these are the matchups we all were hoping for. These games feel like the best of the best: no teams who won an abysmal division, no teams who “backed in” to the postseason. This is it! The best eight teams in each respective conference. We’re blowing out our coverage for what many sports fans consider the best weekend of the year, too. Listen to the national call for each game wild-card weekend on SiriusXM NFL Radio. For home and away broadcasts, visit the SiriusXM NFL schedule.
AFC divisional games
Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots, Saturday, Jan. 16 at 4:35 p.m.
The Chiefs blew the Houston Texans out of the water in their 30-0 win in the wild-card round for the franchise’s first playoff win in 22 years. Kansas City’s defense forced five turnovers, including four interceptions. The Chiefs are the hottest team in the playoffs, coming off their 11th straight win dating back to the regular season. But this time, they aren’t facing a 9-7 team with a quarterback carousel.
They’re facing the Evil Empire. The Belichick-Brady Bunch. The defending champion New England Patriots. The first-round bye week has been good to them. In the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era, the Patriots have lost in the divisional round after a first-round bye just once. The week off also most likely helped the team’s health after suffering a slew of injuries during the regular season. Though not yet official, the Pats are optimistic about the return of wide receiver Julian Edelman, Brady’s favorite target.
New England is and has always been an efficient team with virtually no holes. The Pats had a league-low 14 giveaways so it’ll be up to the Kansas City defense, which ranked fifth with 29 takeaways, to force Brady & company to make mistakes. Alex Smith has been a solid quarterback, but he might be without top receiver Jeremy Maclin, who suffered an ankle injury in the wild-card game. If Smith is forced to rely on tight end Travis Kelce, the Patriots defense will have no problem keying in on his sole option in the passing game. The Chiefs have been good on the road, winning seven of 10 games away from Arrowhead Stadium, but that frigid New England weather can freeze a hot-streak in its tracks.
The Patriots have a little revenge factor in this game as the last time these two teams met it was a 41-14 drubbing by the Chiefs in front of a national television audience on Monday Night Football. For all Kansas City’s momentum they bring into this game, it’s just hard to bet against the Belichick-Brady tandem.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Chiefs 20.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos, Sunday, Jan. 17 at 4:40 p.m.
This game should be called the battle of the broken quarterbacks. Ben Roethlisberger is questionable after suffering an AC joint sprain and torn ligaments in his throwing shoulder in the wild-card game. Peyton Manning is starting for the first time since mid-November after a foot injury, and prior to sitting out it looked as though old age was catching up with him. This game could go a bunch of different ways depending on who’s healthy and who plays up to their reputation.
The Steelers skated out of Cincinnati with an 18-16 win after a bunch of boneheaded plays by the Bengals set them up for a game-winning field goal (and left many questioning Cincy’s Marvin Lewis should still have a job). In addition to Roethlisberger, star wide receiver Antonio Brown’s status is also uncertain after suffering a concussion. Starting running back DeAngelo Williams is also ailing with a foot injury that held him out of the last game. Pittsburgh’s defense must put pressure on Manning to keep the game close. The Steelers ranked third in the NFL with 48 sacks, and it’s important that they put hits on Manning to limit Denver’s scoring opportunities.
When these two teams met last month, the Broncos allowed the Steelers to come back from a double-digit deficit in the second half and ended up losing, 34-27. But Denver dominated the first half with Brock Osweiler throwing three touchdowns, so it is possible for Manning to have some success against the Pittsburgh defense. But will it be the vintage Manning, who can throw for 300 yards and four touchdowns whenever he wants? Or will it be the Manning who has been eliminated from the postseason after one game nine times in his career? If it turns out to be the latter, the Broncos will rely on their top-ranked defense to shut down the Steelers.
The Broncos will have to establish the running game with C.J. Anderson to open up opportunities for Manning to find receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. For the Steelers, health is their biggest question as they aren’t even sure who will be taking the snaps from under center. Both defenses might hold up early but eventually one will break, and my guess is it will be Pittsburgh’s.
Prediction: Broncos 24, Steelers 10.
NFC divisional games
Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals, Saturday, Jan. 16 at 8:10 p.m.
The Packers finally put together an all-around solid performance in their 32-18 wild-card win over the Redskins. Of course, everything must work around Aaron Rodgers for Green Bay to be successful. Against Washington, the offensive line protected Rodgers, the wide receivers didn’t drop Rodgers’s passes, and the running game didn’t die behind Rodgers. Unfortunately, it’ll be hard to get a duplicate performance against the Cardinals.
It was just four weeks ago that Arizona destroyed Green Bay 38-8. In that game, the Cardinals sacked Rodgers nine times and put a total of 12 hits on him. It’s not likely they’ll be able to get to him that many times again, but they still should see success against the Packers’ patchwork offensive line. Arizona also boasts the sixth-best rush defense in the league, which will force the ball into Rodgers’s hands. The Packers put up just 101 rushing yards in their first meeting with Eddie Lacy accounting for 60 of them and Rodgers finishing as the team’s second-leading rusher.
Arizona’s offense had a modest performance in December. Carson Palmer threw for 260 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. The Cardinals rushed for 121 yards as a team and David Johnson put up a rushing touchdown. Michael Floyd had 111 yards on six catches and was the only receiver with 100 yards or more. Green Bay’s defense will have to take away Palmer’s options to keep the game from getting out of hand.
It’s impossible to trust the Packers at this point. Despite the solid performance last week, it wasn’t much of a surprise as they were facing the 26th-ranked defense. The Cardinals should have some key players back on defense like linebacker Markus Golden and defensive linemen Josh Mauro and Frostee Rucker all expected to return from injury. Arizona dominates on defense and moves on.
Prediction: Cardinals 23, Packers 6
Seattle Seahawks at Carolina Panthers, Sunday, Jan. 17 at 1:05 p.m.
This is the obvious choice for Game of the Week. Russell Wilson vs. Cam Newton. The Legion of Boom vs. the no-nickname, no-nonsense Carolina defense. These are two fairly evenly-matched teams when they’re both on top of their games. The Seahawks are peaking at the right time and the Panthers have been great all season with a league-best 15-1 record.
Seattle wouldn’t even be here if Minnesota’s Blair Walsh didn’t crap the bed and miss a chip-shot potential game-winning field goal. The Seahawks trailed for most of the game until breaking through in the fourth quarter to eke out a 10-9 win. The weather in Carolina will be better than Minnesota’s below-freezing temperature, so the Seahawks offense could potentially get back to the form that saw it put up 30 or more points in five out of the last six games of the regular season. Wilson is no stranger to playoff deficits as he’s been able to count on some magic to carry him. It’ll be a bit tougher against the stingy Panthers defense.
Carolina has the benefit of knowing it can beat Seattle. Prior to their 27-23 comeback win on Oct. 18, the Panthers had lost to the Seahawks four straight times. That mental edge no longer exists for Seattle. Cam Newton is the favorite to be named the NFL MVP, and he will have to be at his best for Carolina to move on. Tight end Greg Olsen, who caught the game-winning touchdown in the first meeting, presents matchup problems for the Seattle secondary. Leading rusher Jonathan Stewart is expected to return after sitting out the past three games and wide receiver Ted Ginn is expected back after missing the last game. The Panthers went 8-0 at home and have an 11-game win streak dating back to last season.
The Seahawks defense must live up to its name. The Legion of Boom has to be every bit of dynamic and explosive as it has been in previous years to stop the force of Newton. The Panthers are a well-balanced team that can dominate on both sides of the ball. Still, the postseason is the time when the Seahawks shine. Until an NFC team knocks them off, it’s hard to pick against them. This should be fun.
Prediction: Seahawks 28, Panthers 24