(Image Credit ESPN.com)
I saw the film “Concussion” the day before the NFL Playoffs began. Perhaps that wasn’t good timing after suffering through watching that debacle unfold in Cincinnati last Saturday night where both Pittsburgh and the Bengals seemed more intent on head-butting than heading in the direction of Super Bowl 50. The less said about that the better here but I did want to note in case you were not aware…the officiating crew for that fiasco were the same people who let these two squads swing away at each other in the very same venue in Week 14, a contest that resulted in multiple fines thereafter. The NFL is always consistent with fining people after games…not so much interested in ejecting people during games…maybe they should look into that…and how they select officiating crews. In fact that crew was ranked fourth among all NFL crews in not handing out “behavior” penalties in the regular season.
By the way, if you dismissed seeing the film because it’s “just another football movie” perhaps rethink that. It is part love-story, a tale of professional and private courage…but admittedly you will quickly understand why the invention of football would never have come with approval of the medical community for some very basic, sound, easy-to-digest reasoning.
So…last weekend for the first time in Wild-Card Weekend history all four road teams won. We shall move forward keeping in mind in Divisional Round Weekend history only 14 of the prior 44 Wild-Card road winners managed to win a second time on the road and get to the Conference Championship Round.
Anything can happen…it’s that kind of year. Nothing can be taken for granted. (I’m looking at you, Minnesota Vikings fans. That was a very cold way to lose…temperatures notwithstanding)
First up this weekend we get Kansas City (12-5) visiting New England (12-4). The forecast currently calls for some rain, some falling temps…you know, New England weather in January.
Kansas City has won seven of the ten games they’ve played on the road this season – six of those were against playoff teams. KC has won eleven games in a row. KC led the AFC in turnover differential, a +14. KC finished third in the NFL in scoring defense. Counting last weekend’s 30-0 win against Houston the Chiefs have given up more than twenty points in only one of their last thirteen games. They are built for post-season success in that they run the ball, play tough D and take the ball from the opponent. Very logical to like KC here.
But their star WR Jeremy Maclin has a sprained ankle that may not let him get on the field and may hamper him even if he does…while New England has a number of key players on both sides of the ball who had an extra week to heal from their injuries…who weren’t around as the Patriots stumbled towards the regular-season finish line.
New England was third in the league in scoring. QB Tom Brady has, like fellow signal-caller Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, had to play behind a mind-numbing number of offensive line combinations. At times towards season’s end the Patriots seemed to be resorting to a “chuck and duck” like the Packers have been for most all of their season. The loss of RB’s LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis really, really hurt this squad. The Patriots can’t run the ball well. New England has become, like Green Bay, one-dimensional on offense. But know this…they still manage to not give the ball away and that is what feeds KC’s defensive success.
I rarely go back to a prior year to look for signs or think one year removed has a thing to do with another. But do you recall sixteen months ago when the Patriots went to Kansas City and got crushed 41-14? Everyone pronounced New England and Tom Brady done – he was actually pulled from the game. Then they won the Super Bowl. The Patriots still around this season, wounded or not, have to be super-motivated to win this game.
Under Head Coach Bill Belichick at home in the post-season New England is 14-2. Logic might say KC, magic rolls with NE.
I believe in magic here.
WINNER – NEW ENGLAND
Next it’s off to the dome in the desert as Green Bay (11-6) visits Arizona (13-3)…the Cardinals having defeated the Packers during Week 16 in the same locale to the tune of 38-8. Arizona scored a couple of TD’s on strip-sack fumbles from Rodgers in that game. They had nine sacks overall. And…it was just one week after losing the centerpiece of their defense when Tyrann Mathieu, the “Honey Badger,” blew out an ACL. This week off has allowed several key Cardinals starters to get healthy.
Rodgers and WR James Jones were both in a cocky, “I told you so” mood after their win in Washington last weekend. They apparently decided lighting up one of the worst defenses in the league means the “Pack Is Back.” The offense still primarily consists of taking the center snap and Rodgers scurrying about, looking for which schoolyard route someone got open on.
The Packers, like New England, are one-dimensional on offense. The line is atrocious – I think it will be worse than it was in the first meeting – and any running game they generated against Washington was…against Washington.
Green Bay’s defense? Not so hot. They have been better than in prior years but are like many defenses rush-dependent. Sometimes the blitz wins…sometimes the blitz blows up in your face.
Arizona’s offense? The NFL’s best. Their defense? Fifth best…they are really solid. If they protect QB Carson Palmer and run the ball efficiently…the Packers will be defenseless on defense.
WINNER – ARIZONA
The next day it’s off to Charlotte to see a team who has been in the last two Super Bowls, Seattle (11-6), visit Carolina (15-1). The weather at present looks like a chance of showers with temps in the mid-40’s. I am sure Seattle, unhappy at having to travel cross-country for a second week, will be quite happy with “warm” weather. (Everyone was “purple” with cold in Minnesota during that win over the Vikings…)
Carolina has won eleven games in a row at home. They defeated the Seahawks in Seattle back on October 18th by 27-23. TE Greg Olsen caught the game-winner from QB Cam Newton with 32 seconds remaining…capping a comeback after the Seahawks had outplayed the Panthers for the first three quarters. The Panthers are expecting both RB Jonathan Stewart and WE Ted Ginn Jr. to play – Stewart has missed the last three games with a sprained foot; Ginn missed last week with a knee injury. They have been the team’s playmakers outside of Olsen…and Cam of course.
Seattle should have all eleven starters ready to go on their star-studded defense for a change…a D that has only given up one touchdown in their last six road contests. But Carolina’s defense doesn’t have to take a backseat to the Seahawks…the Panthers led the entire NFL in turnover differential, a net of +20. One key player that will be missing is Carolina’s DB Charles Tillman who blew up an ACL in the Panthers’ regular-season finale.
Seattle might have a key player missing also…as the story out of Seattle last week was confusing at best. Star RB Marshawn Lynch took most all the first-team reps before last week’s game in Minnesota but then decided his abdomen, or the rest of him for that matter, wasn’t good to make the trip. Perhaps playing in the third-coldest game in NFL post-season history wasn’t a selling point. Maybe the forecast for Charlotte will be more to his liking but it remains to be seen how effective he would be or if HC Pete Carroll would trust him at this point.
Besides, this team is in “Wilson Mode” now, not “Beast Mode.” Seahawks QB Russell Wilson pulled off another spectacular play last weekend to help Seattle survive and advance…but a missed chip-shot field goal didn’t hurt either. Wilson has indeed been awesome in the second half of the season. Cam Newton’s year…the first QB in NFL history to throw at least thirty TD passes and rush for more than 500 yards in one season. He’s put this team on his back all season, much like Wilson has with Seattle since mid-season.
Carolina is averaging 33 points a game at home this season. Haven’t lost a game there. I wonder how they will react in a close contest. This comes down to Wilson vs. Newton for me…against those rough, tough defenses.
One thing that nags at me about Seattle…as in the first meeting with Carolina this season… they blow fourth quarter leads. They’ve actually had the lead at some point in sixteen of their seventeen games this season in the final period. That’s more than a pattern…that’s a problem. Especially against a team that has lost once…and already beaten them in similar fashion on their own field.
WINNER – CAROLINA
And speaking of surviving and advancing we will end the Divisional Round wondering what toll that MMA match in Cincinnati last weekend took on Pittsburgh (11-6) as they visit Denver (12-4).
The forecast now calls for sunny skies and temps in the high thirties. At altitude, will Pittsburgh’s suspect defense have the same attitude…yet ground all the stupidity during and after the whistles from a week ago? The Denver defense can be a very, very testy group also. The Broncos are already mad at Pittsburgh for something that happened during their December 20th, 34-27 loss in Pittsburgh when Steelers C Cody Wallace allegedly targeted the head of Denver DB David Bruton Jr. after a play’s result was already determined. I’m not saying we have another bloodbath on our hands like Pittsburgh-Cincinnati but watch early on to see how feisty these teams are. One note about that Steelers win over the Broncos in mid-December in Pittsburgh…Denver did have a 27-13 lead at the half. That was with Brock Osweiler as their signal-caller…
The Broncos have QB Peyton Manning back after sitting out several weeks with his foot issue. The Steelers have QB Ben Roethlisberger back after sitting out a few minutes of last week’s win over the Bengals with his shoulder issue.
Speaking of injuries, was Steelers WR Antonio Brown actually concussed at game’s end? Bengals DB “Pacman” Jones doesn’t think so. He says Brown winked at him as the medical personnel were helping Antonio away. Is actually-injured Pittsburgh RB DeAngelo Williams ready to go with a foot injury that has kept him sidelined and, if so, how effective will he be against Denver’s stout defense?
Denver has won eight games by seven points or fewer. Three of their wins were in overtime. They wouldn’t have gotten the top-seed otherwise. They are used to playing games close to the vest.
I dislike Pittsburgh defense, which must have a highly-effective pass rush (common theme) to cover up a woeful secondary. A veteran like Manning will be able to get the ball out quickly and take advantage but this is his first start in a couple of months and accuracy wasn’t exactly his calling card when healthy. They will therefore need a balanced attack. They might not even need that much offense. The Denver defenders have allowed the fewest yards in the NFL and had the most sacks and we know Roethlisberger takes a lot of sacks even when healthy.
With his injury Big Ben will likely be as much of a “statue” as Manning and that means neither team will have a deep game, relying on short passes and breakaway plays. I have seen Roethlisberger try to jump-start their offense with brief pass routes since people started to take the deep ball away from Pittsburgh late in the year. I have not been impressed. I’m not even sure he can throw a deep ball now after last week’s injury so his arm may be as “short” as Peyton’s…another equalizer between the QB’s there. Pittsburgh’s alleged awesome offense hasn’t been so awesome aside from that second-half comeback in December at home against…Denver.
But the Steelers are beat up, the Broncos not-so-much…and the fans should be “Mile High” in Denver.
WINNER – DENVER
Will all four home teams win considering how close these games should play out?
Maybe taking all four teams at home is my easy way out?
An easier, safer prediction might be none of these games should be easy for the winners.
Whomever is going to advance one step closer to opening for Coldplay will earn their way…especially this weekend…the hard way.