Kansas City Chiefs @ New England Patriots (Saturday, 9:30pm)
The Chiefs enter this intriguing Divisional Round matchup looking to extend their unbeaten run to 12 games, however will have to beat a New England Patriots side fresh from their first round bye.
New England’s defence has been at the heart of their success throughout much of this season, recording 49 sacks in the regular season- second only to the 52 made by the Denver Broncos. Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith was sacked 45 times throughout the regular season and sits in third place in the list of most sacked quarterbacks, therefore he will have to be at his sharpest to avoid a tough day at the hands of defensive end Chandler Jones.
Bill Belichick could see quarterback Tom Brady’s favourite receiving target Julian Edelman return from injury, which will be a huge boost considering how the Patriots sit 30th out of 32 in the list of team rushing yards throughout the regular season. Edelman could line up against Kansas City cornerback Marcus Peters who defended 26 passes in the regular season- more than any other cornerback. Peters also made the joint most interceptions with eight.
The injury to star receiver Jeremy Maclin could prove to be a huge blow for the Chiefs. He led for the Chiefs in the regular season with 87 receptions, 1,088 receiving yards and eight receiving touchdowns. New England’s home advantage and the possible return of Edelman in addition to the presence of the always dangerous Rob Gronkowski could see the Patriots over the line.
Prediction- Patriots win
Green Bay Packers @ Arizona Cardinals (Sunday, 1:15am)
The matchup between the Packers and Cardinals is a tough one to call. Arizona recorded a convincing 38-8 win when these two sides met in week 16, sacking Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers eight times in the process.
The Cardinals will still, however, have memories of their humiliating 36-6 loss to the Seattle Seahawks a week later.
Green Bay looked very strong in their 35-18 wildcard win against the Washington Redskins however their offensive line will have to protect their experienced quarterback, who remains their best chance of winning. The Packers will have to replicate their second half display against the Redskins in which they rushed for 124 yards having made only 17 yards in the first half. Running backs Eddie Lacey and James Starks will have to be on top of their game from the start in order to give the Packers a different dimension to Aaron Rodgers’s passing.
Running back David Johnson will also be important for the Cardinals. He can do everything, he can run through tackles, shake off tackles, return kicks and has the speed and strength to make him a worry for any defensive line.
In addition to Johnson’s rushing ability, the Cardinals obviously have quarterback Carson Palmer, who sits 4th in the list of most passing yards in the regular season with 4,671. His link up play with wide receiver Michael Floyd will be something the Packers have to stop. Floyd reeled in six catches for 111 yards when these sides met in week 16.
All arrows seem to point to a Cardinals win. Arizona’s defensive end Calais Campbell and outside linebacker Dwight Freeney made 2.5 and three sacks, respectively, against the Packers last time out and will be too much for JC Tretter who will most likely feature as a left tackle and right tackle Bryan Bulaga.
Seattle Seahawks @ Carolina Panthers (Sunday, 6:05pm)
A tale of two quarterbacks. Two of the leading rushing quarterbacks in the NFL lead their teams out against one another. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson was third for most rushing yards by a quarterback in the regular season with 553 while Carolina’s Cam Newton sat top of the same list with 636 yards.
The pair were also extremely close when it comes to touchdown passes in the regular season, with Wilson making 34 and Newton making 35.
Seattle will be keen to take full advantage of their remarkable wildcard win against the Minnesota Vikings, gifted to them by Blair Walsh’s field goal miss for the Vikings in the last minute of play.
The sides met in week six when the Panthers beat the Seahawks 27-23, before Seattle went on to win 8 of their last regular season games after a slow start to the campaign.
Seattle’s Michael Bennett enters the game having made 10 sacks in the regular season while fellow defensive end Cliff Avril enters with 9 under his belt. Both will be crucial if the Seahawks are to win as they have to stop Carolina quarterback Cam Newton from playing the rushing game he has been praised so highly for.
They have to force him to try and beat their defence in the air and give safety Earl Thomas the opportunity to battle with Panthers tight end Greg Olsen. Olsen received 77 catches for 1104 yards and seven touchdowns in the regular season which is a record not too dissimilar to Seattle’s top receiver Doug Baldwin, who made 78 catches for 1069 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Elsewhere on the pitch, Panthers receiver Ted Ginn will also have to be at the very top of his game to help out his quarterback and build on his 10 touchdowns so far this season.
As for the Seahawks, their focus has to be on stopping the rush of Cam Newton as well as ensuring Greg Olsen can’t get into the game.
Prediction- Seahawks win
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Denver Broncos (Sunday, 9:40pm)
Lots to talk about when it comes to this Divisional Round matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers, who enter the game on the back of a brutal wildcard affair against the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Denver Broncos.
Will Ben Roethlisberger stay fit? The Steelers quarterback left the field last week for treatment to a shoulder injury however still managed to return and finish the game against the Bengals. Pittsburgh will be desperate to see him declared fit for Sunday’s game, while they will also hope that wide receiver Antonio Brown will recover both mentally and physically from the concussion he sustained from Vontaze Burfict’s blind side hit on him last weekend.
Another huge talking point is how well Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning will do in his first start since the injury that saw Brock Osweiler take his place for some time.
There has been a huge focus on both teams achieving a balance in their offensive play if they want to win this game. The Steelers were successful with their balanced work against the Bengals, making 31 passes and 28 rushes, recording 240 passing yards and 167 rushing yards.
The same can be said for the Broncos. They made 293 passing yards and 210 rushing yards in their week 17 win over the San Diego Chargers.
Not only do the Broncos have to focus on stopping Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, they must also turn a focus towards young running backs Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint, who look to be worthy replacements for DeAngelo Williams. Wide receiver Martavis Bryant will also be a danger to the Broncos after he showcased his talent with a remarkable touchdown catch against the Bengals last week.
It is worth noting that the Steelers have held five of their last six opponents to under 20 points, with the one game in which they didn’t being against the Broncos. Manning’s experience rather than his ability might be more valuable in this game and is probably why he has been chosen to start over Osweiler. It is up to him to bring in the likes of wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.
Pittsburgh linebackers James Harrison and Ryan Shazier will be a worry for Manning, which is why the Broncos quarterback needs his side’s running game to remain strong throughout.
On the other side, Ben Roethlisberger’s injury could affect his passing and might stop him from throwing the deep passes that have been so successful for the Steelers.
Prediction- Steelers win