Christmas in January. That’s what the Divisional Playoffs are each season. The best football weekend feast of the year. This year’s smorgasbord of games is loaded with fantastic match-ups that should keep any football fan glued to their couch with a bottomless bowl of Doritos. The remaining eight teams are unequivocally the league’s top eight teams (though an argument could be made for Minnesota), which only adds to the luster of the weekend.
Kansas City Chiefs (+5) at New England Patriots (Saturday, 1:35 p.m. PT on CBS)
This may be the most intriguing game of the weekend. These two teams don’t play each other very often, and when they have, there always seems to be some sort of drama attached to it. In 2008, the Chiefs ended Tom Brady’s season with a knee injury in Week 1. Then they smashed the Patriots on Monday Night Football in Week 4 last season 41-14, prompting Bill Belichick’s memorable proclamation, “We’re on to Cincinnati.” In recent meetings, the home team has had the upper hand.
Kansas City is coming off a 30-0 throttling of an over-matched Texans team. Having won 11 games in a row, this team is riding a powerful wave of momentum into Foxboro. During the Chiefs’ 11 game win streak, they lead the league in sacks and turnover margin, including a league best 22 interceptions. This is the not-so-secret of their success. The Chiefs are prospering by harassing opposing quarterbacks, forcing them into feeding the defense with errant throws. On the other side of the ball, the Chiefs offense nurses the football, not scoring a lot of points, but also not turning the ball over. It’s been a winning recipe. However, one of the Chiefs’ key ingredients, Jeremy Maclin, is likely out of the lineup with a high ankle sprain. This will likely mean the Travis Kelce show if the Chiefs are going to generate any offense.
The Patriots sputtered out to end the regular season, losing road games at the Jets and Dolphins, while ceding home field advantage to the Denver Broncos. In their season finale, this looked like anything but a team primed for a deep playoff run. Tom Brady was nearly beaten to death by the Dolphins defensive line, which terrorized the Patriots’ mishmash offensive line all afternoon. The Patriots have been absolutely decimated by injuries, and the injuries up front on the offensive line have brought the offense to a standstill. Bill Belichick’s concise assessment of the situation after the loss to Miami: “We have a lot of work to do.” Fortunately, the Patriots have had an extra week to prepare, and are getting reinforcements with Julian Edelman returning to butter Brady’s bread in the passing game. This should open things up for Rob Gronkowski downfield. Sebastian Vollmer is returning to the offensive line, and key defensive players will be back in the lineup. The question is can the Patriots simply just turn it on in the playoffs after weeks of a lot of guys not playing together?
Keys to a Chiefs victory: Win the turnover battle, keep constant pressure on Tom Brady, forcing him into a couple of key mistakes, and converting opportunities into points. It’s that simple for Kansas City. With Maclin out, they’ll need to find other contributors in the passing game. Belichick will likely scheme to take Travis Kelce out of the game, so the next man up needs to step in and make plays. That means rookie wide receiver Chris Conley will be put to the test. It’s hero time for some unsung player if the Chiefs are going to pull this off.
Keys to a Patriots victory: Don’t feed the beast, meaning don’t turn the ball over. Tom Brady has by far the lowest interception rate in the league, throwing interceptions on 1.1% of his throws. If anyone can avoid falling victim to the Kansas City defensive onslaught, it’s Tom Brady. The Chiefs defense is not immune to giving up points if they’re not getting turnovers. The Patriots also need key guys coming off injury to shake off any rust and contribute immediately. The offensive line woes are foreboding, but having Sebastian Vollmer back at left tackle should help. Also, with the Chiefs hampered on offense without Maclin, keeping Kelce from beating them in the pass game, as well as getting pressure on Alex Smith, who was sacked 45 times this season, the third most in the league.
PREDICTION: They’re on to Kansas City! The Patriots are 8-1 at home in Divisional round playoff games in the Belichick-Brady era. They typically don’t lose when they’ve had an extra week to prepare. New England bounces back, rested and ready, and the Chiefs offense struggles to put points on the board. Patriots 27, Chiefs 13
Green Bay Packers (+7.5) at Arizona Cardinals (Saturday, 5:15 p.m. PT on NBC)
The Packers return to the crime scene of their own gruesome murder just three short weeks ago. The Cardinals left Aaron Rodgers used and abused, and kicked the Packers around like a game of hacky sack. Then Green Bay wilted at home in the season finale with the NFC North title on the line against the Vikings. No team looked more ready for their season to be over. But something happened last Sunday in Washington. Aaron Rodgers found his vintage self, the running game was dominant again, and the Packers sacked Kirk Cousins six times. Where has this team been all year?
Despite its successes in Washington, the Packers have their work cut out for them in the desert if they’re going to pull off another vintage performance. They could very well be walking back into the hornets nest for another swarming. The Redskins are horrible on defense, and the Packers ripped them apart like a Lion on a Gazelle. Arizona is a completely different animal, more of the rabid foaming-at-the-mouth kind with a lethal bite that will shred you to pieces. Even with key players out, they’re shutting teams down. Aaron Rodgers needs to hope his receivers can generate the separation they did last week, and the ground game can continue to dominate.
The Cardinals boast a passing attack of receivers that are virtually uncoverable. Fitzgerald, Brown and and Floyd have proven an impossible task for even the best secondaries, as Carson Palmer’s precision has eaten defenses alive. However, perhaps the most dangerous element of the Cardinals offense is the emergence of rookie David Johnson, who has a bruising power burst reminiscent of another beastly back, Marshawn Lynch. If he gets on a roll, there’s simply nothing an opposing defense will be able to do to contain them.
Keys to a Packers win: Pretty much anything that happened three weeks ago cannot happen this time. This means the offensive line keeping Aaron Rodgers protected, dominating on the ground, and not turning the ball over. This really is a huge mountain for the Packers to climb. But they’ve been here before an know what it takes to win in the playoffs. That bodes well for them. Defensively, it’s difficult to see the Packers being able to contain the Arizona attack. They simply must stop David Johnson. If he gets going, this game will get out of control for them. If they can rattle Carson Palmer early, force a couple of turnovers and get out to an early lead, they may have a chance.
Keys to a Cardinals win: Keeping the heat on Aaron Rodgers will likely mean the Packers offense goes back into the shell it’s been in most of the season. They also must stymie the Packer run game. Arizona will likely bring a balanced attack and look to keep the Packers spread out, then hammering the Packers late with the running game to seal the deal. Most importantly, the Cardinals cannot go into this game believing they can do to the Packers again what they did in Week 16. Overconfidence is a killer this time of year. They need to be focused on playing their best football. They’re a team that can only beat themselves. As long as they stay on the positive side of the turnover battle, and execute on offense and special teams, they’ll be moving on to the NFC Championship.
PREDICTION: This game may be more competitive than the first game, but the Cardinals will blow it open late. It’s difficult to imagine this Packers team being able to hang with this explosive Cardinals team for four quarters. Bruce Arians has this team on a mission, and they make a loud playoff statement. Cardinals 34, Packers 24
Seattle Seahawks (+2.5) at Carolina Panthers
Will be posted on Friday
Pittsburgh Steelers (+4) at Denver Broncos
Will be posted on Friday