The Wild Card round left us with a couple of memorable games (with included gut-punch losses for tortured franchises), and also a couple of blowouts. It also left us with a profitable 3-1 record in last week's picks, so let's hope that trend continues as we tackle the Divisional games.
The first 25 years of this format have proven to be fairly consistent, with home teams going a whopping 73-27 straight up. This makes sense considering that home squads secured a bye by virtue of being better over the regular season, while the extra week of rest provides a boost that the visiting squads don't enjoy.
Even as recent seasons have provided a number of Wild Card teams making runs to the Super Bowl, we can't discount this 25-year trend as we approach a week full of exciting matchups. So, again, in chronological order, here are our picks for Saturday and Sunday.
In what may be the most impressive stat of the Brady-Belichick era in New England, the Patriots have played 23 non-Super Bowl playoff games in their span, and only six of them have come on the road. Over the other 17 played at Foxborough, the Pats have gone an unparalleled 14-3. Now for the fifth year in a row, they've earned a bye week to start the postseason, a condition in which they've only lost once during this era (2010 vs Jets). This means that the Chiefs are in for a tall order, especially now that the Patriots appear to be healthy and loaded.
And yet, Kansas City remains the hottest team in the league, with a 10-game winning streak to close the season that was accentuated by a 30-0 road playoff win over the lowly Texans that now means that the Chiefs haven't lost in three months. It is also important to remember that just last season, the same Chiefs team was able to demolish the Patriots to the tune of a 41-14 thrashing that had many wondering if the end was near for Tom Brady. While that particular game was probably a worst-case scenario for the Patriots, it could also suggest that this upcoming game could be closer than it is widely assumed.
The likely loss of Jeremy Maclin deprives the Chiefs from their biggest downfield threat, but they can instead opt to go for their usual array of short passes mixed with power rushing, a formula that has taken them far in 2015. The Patriots are welcoming back Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, but their contributions are in question considering their long absences. If Kansas City finds a way to shut down Rob Gronkoski (a big if, of course), Tom Brady's targets may need to be more precise than usual. Even for a QB that thrives on a lack of turnovers, the Kansas City defense shall be hunting for interceptions and the chance of shortening up the game.
The Patriots stumbled a bit down the stretch and actually went a middling 7-7-2 against the spread for the season, while the Chiefs were one of the league´s best road underdogs. While I still see the Patriots as the better team, and one that should ultimately win, the spread seems a couple of points too large. It should be a close, entertaining game from the start.
The Pick: Chiefs +5
For Saturday's prime-time game, we have a rematch of a contest that took place just 3 weeks ago. In that game, the Cardinals demolished the Packers by a score of 38-8, sacking Aaron Rodgers 9 times, and recording 4 turnovers that translated into points. The game served as a reminder of the type of dominance the Cardinals have shown at home under Coach Bruce Arians, while also serving as proof that Arizona may be one of the toughest matchups for Green Bay. While the Cardinals were only 4.5-point favorites in the regular season contest, they are now favored by a full touchdown as the franchise seems to be in position to fight for its first-ever Super Bowl title.
After looking sluggish for the better part of the second half of the regular season, the Packers appeared to be on their way to a bad playoff loss after falling behind 11-0 to the Redskins, only for Rodgers and the defense to turn things around and produce an impressive 35-7 run to close the contest. We were duly reminded of how dangerous a team with an elite quarterback can be, and so the Packers have to hope that this run looks something like their last trip to the Super Bowl, when Rodgers caught fire at the right time. On paper, the Packers look like the weakest team left in these playoffs, and their chances of making it to the NFC title game will be severely tested by the team that finished in the NFL´s top 10 in all meaningful rankings.
Not only were the Cardinals terrifying at defense (7th overall in points allowed), and at creating turnovers (4th with a +9 margin), but they also became a top-tier offense with the help of Carson Palmer's MVP-like season. Arizona finished second in points scored and passing yards, with their wide receiving corps becoming one of the deadliest in the league. Meanwhile, the Packers at least were quite adept at stopping the pass, but they were mostly pedestrian in all other indicators. A team that has Aaron Rodgers at the helm simply can´t finish 15th in points scored and 25th in passing, but that is what the Packers just did.
Despite their statement win in the Wild Card round, I just don't see how the Packers can do enough to produce a similar performance against a rested Arizona team. Rodgers should again be heavily pressured, which is exactly what the Cardinals need to slow down the reigning MVP. The game shall be close for a while, with Arizona ultimately taking off to another big win that propels them within a game of the Super Bowl.
The Pick: Cardinals -7
In terms of pure luck, the Seahawks may be terribly lucky to even be in this spot. After Minnesota kicker Blair Walsh missed a chip-shot field goal, Seattle capped off an improbable win that saw them go scoreless for three quarters before doing just enough in the final period to take a lead. However, the end result underscores what the Seahawks were able to do in the full game, as they shut down the Vikings amid frigid conditions, limiting them to zero touchdowns and basically presenting the same dominant defense that led them to being the best team in the NFL, according to DVOA. In what may be the most anticipated game of the weekend, they get to face the almost-perfect Panthers in Carolina.
This game also represents a rematch, as these teams played in Seattle on October 18th. While the game came early in the year, it represented a turning point for the Panthers, who gained validity as a true contender after an impressive 27-23 win. The Seahawks were part of a slow start up to that point, but Russell Wilson's ascent to one of the best QB's in the league was the other half of the equation as the defense finished first in points allowed and yards allowed per game. Meanwhile, the Panthers were not that far behind, with an impressive +20 in turnover differential that fueled many wins.
Relying on turnovers may not be the way to go for the Panthers, who instead will have to trust in the leap taken by potential MVP Cam Newton, and all the facets of the game he affects. The Seahawks have had trouble defending against tight ends, so we might also expect a lot of Greg Olsen in this game for Carolina. Also, the coaching styles of Ron Rivera and Pete Carroll will be in full effect, as they are known for their aggressive styles and that should be a big part of this game, where even the tiniest detail can play a huge role in the end.
However, there is something about the Seahawks and their playoff experience that makes me think that they are the better bet. Carolina may have come close to perfection, but their roster can't compare to what Seattle can give at its best, and it will take an almost perfect game from Newton to beat Seattle's defense. I expect a tight game decided by no more than 4 points, with the Seahawks pulling out the upset to set a divisional date with the Cardinals.
The Pick: Seahawks +3
The weekend's final game gives us a playoff rematch of the infamous Tim Tebow game, in which the Broncos welcomed the new overtime rules with a walk-off touchdown to shock the Steelers. It also represents a rematch of a regular season game that took place on December 20th, in which Denver lost a 27-10 lead to ultimately lose 34-27. However, the teams that played on that day will look very different on Sunday, as the quarterback situation will loom large for both teams up until kickoff.
Peyton Manning has gotten the call to start and seek redemption for his tenuous playoff career, while Ben Roethlisberger will enter the game with a serious injury to his throwing shoulder. The status of both will be closely monitored during the entire game, with their respective backups ready to step up if it is needed. However, while the Broncos have been able to get the #1 seed despite questionable performances by Manning and backup Brock Osweiler, it is hard to see the Steelers being effective without Big Ben in full force.
The Broncos finished first in passing yards allowed and third in rushing defense, so if Pittsburgh wants to limit Big Ben's workload and focus on their ground attack, they will still face a ton of trouble in moving the ball. On the other hand, Pittsburgh's defense was also good in limiting the rush, but they finished 30th in passing defense. Even a diminished Manning should be able to exploit the Steeler defense in many ways, with short passes and play-action audibles that are bound to produce long drives and a tired Pittsburgh defense.
While the spread could change as the game approaches and Big Ben's status is more certain, I still see the Broncos as capable of covering the big number and coasting to the AFC championship game. After all, the Steelers were also fortunate to advance to this stage, and they ae the weakest link left in the AFC. This result is bound to set up what probably will be the last Brady-Manning playoff showdown.
The Pick: Broncos -7