The NFL Playoffs have reached the divisional round and the match-ups are interesting. Will the AFC see one last Manning versus Brady, or will the Steelers and Chiefs shake things up? In the NFC will the Cardinals and Panthers live up to expectations, or will veteran teams like Seattle or Green Bay meet again in the Conference Championship? Here are our predictions.
New England Patriots vs Kansas City Chiefs
Patriots: If the New England Patriots are healthy they’re always a threat at the championship, but haven’t repeated since the 2004 and 2005 seasons. Tight End Rob Gronkowski will need to continue to make a big impact, because their chances rest on his health. Quarterback Tom Brady always gives them a chance to win, despite their lackluster 2-3 record in the last five games. Six Super Bowl appearances in 13 years of the Bill Belichick era and a 4-2 record in the big game gives them an experience edge on everyone.
Strengths – Tom Brady and Coach Bill Belichick give the Patriots unmatched experience, and their defense was still in the top 10 in the NFL.
Weaknesses – The Offensive Line has been injured and shaky, they will need to will the war in the trenches against an excellent Defensive Line of the Chiefs.
Injury factor – If Tight End Gronkowski or Wide Receiver Julian Edelman, who is optimistic to play, can’t be impact players, the offense will have to rely on the playmaking ability of Danny Amendola, and a young receiveing corp, who have a combined total of four TDs this season. Tom Brady is still nursing a sore ankle and on defense Chandler Jones, who is fifth in sacks in the NFL, is still questionable.
Kansas City: Off to a 1-5 start of the season, virtually no one outside of Kansas City thought the Chiefs would be in the playoffs. Then finishing with an outstanding 10-0 run and embarrassing Quarterback Brian Hoyer of the Houston Texans last week in the NFL Wildcard Round, 30 – 0 surely has the Chiefs oozing with confidence. Before last week Kansas City hadn’t won a playoff game since Joe Montana in 1993. Their offense has become more balanced since losing their best player for the year in Running Back Jamaal Charles, but Alex Smith still has limitations in the deep passing game.
Strengths – Defense. They will have four players in the Pro-Bowl. Pass rushing duo of Justin Hoyer and Tamba Ali are menacing and will give the Pats O-line trouble. Cornerback Marcus Peters and Safety Eric Berry are having phenomenal seasons. Also Linebacker Derrick Johnson is a great player anchoring their 7th best overall Defense in the NFL this season.
Weaknesses – Alex Smith still can’t threaten the Defense with a deep ball but did move the ball very well last week. If the running game can sustain drives, Smith will continue to be productive in the mid and short-passing game, despite finishing 27th in overall offense. They will miss Jamaal Charles more than ever this week against New England, but an 11 game win streak in the NFL is no fluke.
Injury Factor – Jeremy Maclin is the only impact player, other than Charles, that will be sorely missed if he can’t play Saturday. Maclin is the biggest passing threat in the Chiefs offense, and will further limit Alex Smith’s options.
Pick: Patriots 24 – Chiefs 21
Seattle Seahawks vs Carolina Panthers
Strengths – Russell Wilson struggled against the Vikings stout defense in frigid conditions, throwing for a meager 142 yards passing, but still remains a double threat and poised in crunch-time. Seattle’s defense is coming into form, giving up the least amount of points for the season, and finished 2nd in total defense. They also held Running Back Adrian Peterson to only 45 yards last week.
Weaknesses – Minnesota showed Seattle’s offense can be corralled and, minus a horrendous Field Goal by kicker Blair Walsh, had the game all but won. Without “Beastmode” Marshawn Lynch the Seahawks will have to rely on veteran Christine Michael at running back, who had a an average 70 yards in 21 carries against the Vikings.
Injury Factor – The Seahawks can win, despite missing Running Back Lynch, if Wide Receiver Doug Baldwin can continue to be reliable in the passing game, but will miss his toughness nonetheless. Offseason acquisition Tight End Jimmy Graham and Rookie Running Back Thomas Rawls will be missed when the game gets close.
Strengths – Cam Newton is a virtual lock for the Most Valuable Player, and has become the leader of a strong Panthers team, turning an often under-achieving Ted Ginn Jr, into a decent second target behind Tight End Greg Olsen. The running ability of Newton spreads the field and makes defenses hesitate in coverage, which creates passing opportunities.
Weaknesses – The Panthers talent wise are thin at Wide Receiver with Ginn Jr, and Jerricho Cotchery. Cam will have to extend plays with his legs to help them out.
Injury Factor – Carolina will miss their starting Wide Receiver Kelvin Benjamin’s height in the passing game and James Stewart in the running game.
Pick: Carolina 30 – Seattle 17
Green Bay Packers vs Arizona Cardinals
Strengths – Aaron Rodgers. When he gets going and is in command on offense, he really can control the clock and put a defense on their heels. James Starks and Eddie Lacy did combine for over 100 yards rushing and will have to continue to help the offense stay on the field. The Packers have to play the up-tempo offense that got them going against the Redskins.
Weaknesses – Their defense is middle of the pack and was outplayed by the Cardinals in their last meeting giving up over 300 yards of total offense, but did make some timely stops against Washington. Carson Palmer will be a much tougher assignment.
Injury Factor – Jordy Nelson would help the Packers offense get off to a quicker start than they did last week.
Strength – The Cardinals quietly finished second in the NFL at 13 -3 to a really good Panthers team, and with Carson Palmer back at the helm on offense are the dark horse of the playoffs. Their defense is top-notch and David Johnson came into his own against Green Bay last outing. The Arizona secondary is dangerous, they play man to man very well and their inside linebackers can cover exceptionally. Rodgers should be under duress from the pass rush against the Cardinals. Carson Palmer will take a ton of shots deep with Wide Receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd against the Packers safeties.
Weaknesses – Experience. Carson Palmer missed the post-season last year and will have to carry over continuity from the regular-season. The Cardinals need his arm to help make plays to keep their offense on the field. Without the deep ball threat they can get beat. Their running backs are young and inexperienced as well.
Injury Factor – Carson Palmer is the biggest concern for the Cardinals. The lack of a Quarterback play is part of what cost them last year to the Carolina Panthers, he cannot get injured for them to have a chance.
Pick: Arizona 31 – Packers 13
Denver Broncos vs Pittsburgh Steelers
Strengths – The Broncos Defense won at least five games at the last play of the game, and finished first overall in total Defense. They have cornerbacks who can play man to man with Chris Harris, Aqib Talib and even Nickelback Brandon Roby. Their linebackers may be the deepest in the NFL with pass-rushers Demarcus Ware and Von Miller, while Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan play stout coverage. The Defensive line was also excellent against the run.
Weaknesses – The fact is the Broncos offense was not spectacular this year, like Bronco fans are used to. They often looked average and often out of sync in Coach Gary Kubiak’s offense. Sure the running game made strides towards the end of the season, but there is uncertainty lingering. Denver still doesn’t know which Peyton Manning will show up Saturday, and may have to insert Brock Osweiler. The Offensive-Line has been the weakest link and the Broncos need Tyler Polumbus to play well at Right Guard to keep Manning from getting hit.
Injury Factor – Demarcus Ware still hasn’t been playing well as of late and is questionable for Saturday. Peyton Manning’s health is still a question throwing for a meager 69 yards against the last place Chargers.
Strengths – The continuity Mike Tomlin has built with the Steelers showed last week as they let the Bengals self-destruct in tough victory. Ben Roethlisberger continues to extend plays with his shiftiness in the pocket and his clutch always give the Steelers a fighting chance. Surprisingly the offense ran the ball well enough despite missing Le’veon Bell. Their run defense is top five in the NFL and they only give up 19 points a game.
Weaknesses – While their run defense is stout, only the Saint and Giants had a worse passing defense, and even against an aging Peyton Manning, should struggle. Pittsburgh will have to continue to look to second year Running Back Fitzgerald Toussaint who only played five games this season and carried the ball 17 times against the Bengals.
Injury Factor – All three of the Steelers playmakers are banged up or out for the season. Roethlisberger is nursing an AC joint but remains probable, Antonio Brown is questionable with concussion symptoms from a hit at the end of the game last week, and Le’veon Bell is out for the season. Running Back Deangelo Williams still has a chance to play.
Pick: Denver 20 – Pittsburgh 17