Previewing NFL Divisional Playoffs
By Zach Miller
The NFL Divisional Round is upon us at last, and what the NFL would like the common people of the world to believe is that the eight best teams in the league are about to battle it out to eventually determine a Super Bowl champion. Of course, these are by no stretch the obvious eight best teams in the NFL (hello, Green Bay and the traveling hospital that is Pittsburgh), and a few of the remaining seven contests will surely be blowouts. Nonetheless, let’s dive in and see what the matchups this weekend will bring.
Chiefs at Patriots
Call me a homer, but advanced statistics seem to be making this far more of a contest than it should actually be. The Chiefs have a stout and opportunistic defense and a ball control offense, while the Patriots have been as banged-up as any team in the league but at their best boast a fearsome short-to-intermediate passing game and a star-studded defense that can hang with any offense that does not boast an overpowering skill-position star of its own. However, Chiefs star wide receiver Jeremy Maclin will be limited, and the Patriots are primed to be as healthy as they have been in months. Without Maclin, the Chiefs rely solely on tight end Travis Kelce and the running game. The Patriots have made a living off of limiting the strengths of opposing offenses, and this game should be no exception. Expect Bill Belichick’s crew to stack the box against the Chiefs’ motley crew of running backs and throw one of their two star linebackers, presumably Jamie Collins, on Kelce. The Chiefs will have to win this game with their defense, which isn’t inconceivable. They are good at all three levels, and they create takeaways as well as any team in the league. If they can eliminate the Patriots’ already weak ground game and pressure Tom Brady into a mistake or two, they will be right in the mix for the win. However, Brady and the Patriots have shown time and time again that they can thrive against teams that get to the passer (hello, last year’s Ravens) and win with their playoff game-planning. The Pats have made enough of a habit of winning games against tough-but-untested opponents over the past 15 years that the needle swings their way in this one.
Patriots 30, Chiefs 23
Packers at Cardinals
Forgive me if I don’t buy into the newfound hype around the Packers. Yes, Aaron Rodgers can still be the player we saw last year, but having open wide receivers would certainly help, and playing a Cardinals team that played arguably the best defensive game of the season against these very Packers only three weeks ago is more than a little bit troubling. The Packers have a weakness nearly everywhere: their wide receivers are perpetually covered or dropping passes; their offensive line can become little more than a sieve against legitimate pass-rushes; their running backs spend weeks between big games, and their defense is solid but by no means a lockdown unit. Soundly beating a Washington team that hadn’t beaten a team over .500 all year is what they should have done, so it shouldn’t suddenly make them contenders. Arizona, however, has looked legitimately fantastic all year. Their offense is lethal, boasting three true studs at wide receiver and the best deep passing game in the league right now. Carson Palmer has had exactly one bad game all year, and even if it came two weeks ago, recency bias shouldn’t shadow the fact that he has been consistently magnificent. Their defense is fast, deep, and very well coached, even without star defensive back and defensive player of the year candidate Tyrann Mathieu. The Cardinals this year have been better than the Packers in virtually every facet of the game, and barring an unexpected spark from the Green Bay side, that trend will continue Saturday.
Arizona 34, Green Bay 21
Seattle at Carolina
The obvious vote for the game of the week. A reasonable argument can be made that these are the two best teams in the NFL going into this week; I will not be the one making this argument, but it exists all the same. Seattle has rediscovered its mojo recently, notably in its utter annihilation of the Cardinals a few weeks ago. While Marshawn Lynch has been out, Russell Wilson has reinvented himself as a veritable top-notch pocket passer, having one of the best and most efficient closing six weeks of the season in recent memory. The defense, while not the historic machine of years past, is still fearsome. It will be interesting to see how the team rebounds from a game which, by all measures, they were outplayed in. Heartbreaking missed kicks aside, the Seahawks are a confusing team entering this game but certainly a dangerous one. The Panthers, meanwhile, are coming off a bye but seem to be on a historic run, a Cinderella stretch comparable to many recent Super Bowl winners. They have a great defense and right now, the best quarterback in football. Most of their notable injuries should have healed by now, and the week off seems to have made people forget just how good this team has been. This game is shaping up to be a slugfest. Neither team seems to have a clear advantage over the other, coaching included, so I’m going to go with the team that seems to be destined to win.
Carolina 23, Seattle 21
Steelers at Broncos
Injuries are always a shame, but never more so than this game. A severely limited Ben Roethlisberger and an out-of-commission Antonio Brown removes the very equation that beat the Broncos in Week 15. Without Brown or Roethlisberger’s terrifying downfield aptitude, the Steelers have little chance of beating these Broncos, as limited as they are. The Broncos have a weak passing game due mainly to ineffectiveness at quarterback and inconsistency at running back, and their defense is incredible but not impenetrable. They are certainly beatable, but probably not by these beaten up Steelers, who would have a hard time even at full strength. The Steelers’ defense is probably not good enough to make a playoff run anyway, so this game seems to be a forgone conclusion with the injuries at hand.
Broncos 24, Steelers 14