NFL playoff previews: talented Chiefs to upset Patriots and Manning to spur Broncos
We all have dreams. For some people, that dream might entail winning the lottery. For Rams defensive end Chris Long, to make it on to a local news broadcast as a person buying lottery tickets. Happily for him, but even more so for us, dreams sometimes come true.
But perhaps your personal dream involves winning an online predictions game? If so, then you’ve come to the right place. I can tell you that a whopping 49 people called all four games correctly in our Pick The Playoffs contest on wild card weekend, which is way too many to list up here, but I will post the overall standings in the comments section imminently.
Until then, it’s time to make your picks for the divisional round.
Kansas City Chiefs @ New England Patriots (Saturday 4.35pm ET/9.35pm GMT)
Cast your mind back to 29 September 2014. The Chiefs have just blasted the Patriots 41-14 in a game so lopsided that many of us struggled to make sense of it. if we were witnessing the beginning of the end of Tom Brady and New England’s era of dominance (but hey, ).
Bill Belichick and so did his team, guffawing all their way to another Super Bowl triumph. With hindsight, the lesson from that September game was not that the Patriots were slipping, but that Andy Reid has some good ideas for how to undermine them.
So you can believe Belichick when he says that these opponents present a “big challenge”. You can know that Brady is speaking from bitter experience when he praises the Chiefs’ ability to “force you into a load of bad football”. You can certainly buy that described Kansas City as the “worst possible opponent” for New England.
It’s not just that the Chiefs beat them so handily last time out. It’s not just that they are riding an 11-game winning streak, or that they demolished the Texans 30-0 last week. In the end, what will make the Patriots wary is simply the fact that the Chiefs are a talented, well-coached football team. One that runs the ball effectively, comes after you on defense and owns the second-best turnover ratio (+14) in the league.
The bookmakers make New England a five-point favourite, and understandably so. This team is 14-3 at home in the playoffs with Brady at quarterback. The injury situation, furthermore, looks favourable.
A wildcard bye gave the Patriots time to get healthier, and Julian Edelman is scheduled to return, although Rob Gronkowski missed practice Thursday with a knee injury. The Chiefs are still sweating on Jeremy Maclin, Tamba Hali, Justin Houston and Spencer Ware – each of whom has missed practice time since playing in the win over Houston. Such uncertainty makes me wary of picking the upset. But I’m doing it anyway.
Chiefs to win
Green Bay Packers @ Arizona Cardinals (Saturday 8.15pm ET/Sunday 1.15am GMT)
Some will call this a foregone conclusion. It is only three weeks since the Cardinals obliterated Green Bay 38-8 in Glendale, recording as many sacks of Aaron Rodgers as their opponents did points. There is a line of thought that says this gap is too wide to be bridged.
And perhaps it is. But then again, perhaps not. Did we not just watch the Vikings, beaten 38-7 by the Seahawks last month, come within one fluffed field goal of overturning the same opponents on wild card weekend? Granted, the second game was played in far more challenging weather conditions, but these were still the same teams.
The Packers have always been a resilient group under Mike McCarthy. They are one of only two teams – along with the Patriots – to have made the playoffs in each of the last seven years. Rodgers has endured a trying year amidst an offense decimated by injury, but in rallying the team from an 11 point deficit to rout Washington last weekend, he reminded us of why it is always unwise to write him off prematurely.
With all that being said, Arizona still have reasons to feel confident. No quarterback can orchestrate a victory when he’s lying flat on his back. If the Cardinals’ pass rush is even 50% as productive as it was in the last meeting, that would still be a significant upgrade on what Washington managed.
Green Bay are hopeful of having starting left tackle David Bakhtiari back in their line-up for the first time since week 15, which would be a major boost. I do think that this game is going to look drastically different to the previous meeting, and likely will be decided by one score. But I am still inclined to give the edge to the home team.
Cardinals to win
Seattle Seahawks @ Carolina Panthers (Sunday 1.05pm ET/6.05pm GMT)
It was a victory in Seattle last October that gave us the first real hint as to how good this Carolina team could be. Sure, they were already 4-0 before their trip to CenturyLink Field, but back then so were the Atlanta Falcons. It was one thing to beat up on mediocre teams, as the Panthers had to that point, quite another to overcome a 10-point fourth quarter deficit and defeat the reigning NFC champions on their own patch.
Cam Newton won over a few doubters that day, demonstrating that he had the composure to drag his team across the line in a hostile setting. It was a first big step on the way to establishing himself as the frontrunner to be named as this season’s MVP.
Voting for that award has already closed, so his performance in the postseason will not affect the outcome. But that does not mean he has nothing left to prove. Newton’s critics still argue that his postseason performances have been underwhelming thus far in his career. In three playoff games he has turned the ball over seven times, his only win arriving against an Arizona team featuring Ryan Lindley at quarterback.
It is possible that Newton might not need to play the starring role for his team to win this weekend. Carolina’s defense is formidable, and the only Seahawk who consistently found holes in it during that first meeting – Jimmy Graham – is unavailable. Even the potential return (far from guaranteed, at this stage) of Marshawn Lynch should not be overstated. The Panthers held him to a measly 54 yards on 17 carries the last time they met.
On the other hand, this is not the same Seahawks offense that we saw back then. with the best series of performances in his career, and he did it by spending more time in the pocket. He remains a brilliant freelancer – as we saw on the broken play that became a vital 35-yard gain against the Vikings, but he has more ways to hurt a defense than he did in October.
With the forecasts calling for temperatures of around 50F, the Seahawks’ new aerial assault is unlikely to be disarmed by the weather – as occurred in Minnesota. And if this were to become a higher-scoring game than anticipated, I might favour the team and the quarterback who have been here and done it before.
Seahawks to win
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Denver Broncos (Sunday 4.40pm ET/9.40pm GMT)
Gary Kubiak did his best to nip any controversy in the bud, naming Peyton Manning over Brock Osweiler as his playoff starter more than a week ahead of time. But is a quick decision necessarily the right decision? Manning did a solid job as he returned to the field and rescued a win against the Chargers in week 17, but he has still not thrown a touchdown pass since November.
Would it not be fairer to give Brock Osweiler this chance after he steered Denver into the playoffs in the first place? Can we really blame injuries alone for Manning’s 17 interceptions in nine games to start the year? Then again, how could we overlook the fact that the Broncos went 7-2 in that stretch?
Overwhelmed by all these questions, local media seem to have given up altogether – of fourth-graders to offer a definitive verdict instead. The truth is that there might not be a right answer in this instance, since both quarterbacks’ performances have been imperfect. But with Osweiler missing practice due to a knee injury this week, Manning’s simple availability to prepare is a significant mark in his favour.
Either way, the Broncos might find themselves in a healthier position than Pittsburgh, for whom Ben Roethlisberger is hoping to start but presumably only if the team’s coaching staff can find enough duct tape to hold him together. This has been a bruising year for the Steelers signal caller, and even if he does make it through to Sunday he might have to do without top target (and, y’know, the league’s best receiver) Antonio Brown – who is working his way through the NFL’s concussion protocol.
There was optimism earlier in the week that DeAngelo Williams might at least return at running back, but that has receded in recent days. With all of these players healthy, I might have backed Pittsburgh, my preseason Super Bowl pick, to pull off another road win. But with so many key figures ailing, this feels like a bridge too far.
Broncos to win
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