Kansas City @ New England
The Chiefs shutout Houston 30-0 on Wildcard Weekend and a road trip to Massachusetts will not daunt them as they have won their last six games away from home and their last 11 games overall. Kansas City ranked second in defence-adjusted value over average (DVOA) and have conceded the second-least points per game, having intercepted more passes than any other team and also holding opposition quarterbacks to the lowest completion percentage in the NFL.
The defensive excellence will be welcomed against New England quarterback Tom Brady, who is one of the better field marshals at 38 years of age. Brady led the league in touchdowns thrown and ranked second in total passing yards despite injuries to key tight end Rob Gronkowski, wide receiver Julian Edelman and running back Dion Lewis. Brady and the Patriots did not play one top 5 ranked DVOA team this season and just two ranked in the top 10 and the possible loss of Gronkowski, plus the likelihood of an underdone Edelman will place significant pressure on Tom Terrific.
While the Chiefs will come in as solid underdogs, their defensive prowess and efficient offense may prove vital against a Patriots team that has stumbled through the second half of the season.
Prediction – Chiefs 23, Patriots 20
Green Bay @ Arizona
Aaron Rodgers is the reigning MVP but yet last weekend, the football world seemed to forget that was the case as the Packers entered their wildcard game as underdogs against the Washington Redskins. Halfway through the third quarter, we saw sanity prevailed as Rodgers dissected the Redskins defence as the Packers coasted to victory.
This weekend promises to be a different story as Green Bay will once again enter the game as underdogs, but rightly so as they take on the SuperBowl favourites. The Cardinals have taken all before them this season, ranking second in scoring and first in yards per game behind quarterback Carson Palmer who has had a stellar season. Throw in a defence that ranks in 3rd in DVOA and ranks in the top 10 in least yards and points per game, and the league’s best point differential and Arizona rightly go in as strong favourites.
These two teams met just three weeks ago and the Cardinals smashed the Packers 38-8 and aside from a Week 17 loss to Seattle where they rested a number of starters, Arizona have been flawless since Week 5. Green Bay rank in the bottom 10 in rushing yards conceded per game, meaning Cardinals running back David Johnson will provide a lethal alternative should Palmer not pass to prolific wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and Michael Floyd. While Rodgers will likely keep the game close for a period of time, Arizona have too many weapons at both ends of the field.
Prediction – Cardinals 31, Packers 17
Seattle @ Carolina
The two-time defending NFC champion Seahawks dodged a bullet as Blair Walsh did what he had done just once in 34 field goal attempts from within 30 yards this season…missed. In conditions more often seen in the North Pole, Seattle escaped a brutal defensive match to advance to face the number 1 seed Panthers. Carolina have answered every challenge this season, having lost their best wide receiver in the pre-season and taking a largely unknown team to an impressive 15-1 record.
Quarterback Cam Newton is the prohibitive MVP favourite and rightly so. He was the first quarterback in NFL history to throw 35 touchdowns and rush for 10 touchdowns in the same season as he led the league’s best offense to 31.2 points per game. The offense has been based on a strong running game, with Newton and running back Jonathan Stewart combining for more rushes per game and rushing touchdowns per game than any other side. Add in one of the NFL’s rushing defences and it is hardly a surprise that the Panthers have been so dominant.
However when one talks defence, the conversation starts and ends with the Seahawks. They have conceded more than 13 points just four times in their last 11 games and had a historically impressive DVOA which ranked 3rd among all teams since 1989. 4th and 5th on that list were the Seahawks of 2012 and 2013, so their defensive prowess is no shock for the team that is one terrible Pete Carroll play call away from being the reigning SuperBowl champions.
Russell Wilson has been fantastic this season and has thrown 26 touchdowns against just two intercepts in the last nine game, while Marshawn Lynch returns from injury to take some of the heat off Wilson and wide receiver Doug Baldwin. This match seems destined to be an epic contest, with the league’s best offense taking on this generation’s best defence. The Panthers have been written off all season and this may be the weekend where the doubters are silenced, once and for all.
Prediction – Panthers 24, Seahawks 23
Pittsburgh @ Denver
The Steelers capitalised on a Cincinnati Bengals meltdown to win last weekend but it has come at a cost. Arguably the league’s best wide receiver Antonio Brown has been ruled out with concussion, and while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has a shoulder injury which he may be able to carry it is highly unlikely he can be fully effective. Throw in the fact that running back DeAngelo Williams has missed games and will come in underdone and the Steelers have plenty of questions offensively.
Interestingly the Broncos are as unconvincing a #1 seed as one could imagine for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, their future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Peyton Manning has been one of the leagues more ineffective and inefficient field generals this season and has fought ongoing injury, but has been named starter ahead of backup Brock Osweiler. The move was predictable, but in a staggering turn of events Manning may not have a head-to-head advantage over Pittsburgh backup Landry Jones should Roethlisberger be ruled out. The mere suggestion that this would be the case just 6 months ago would have been cause for admittance into an asylum.
While there are a number of talented wide receivers on both sides, the injury and form clouds hanging over the quarterbacks may turn this into a battle of the rushing games. The Broncos have a mediocre rushing offense but the league’s best rushing defence led by Demarcus Ware and Vance Walker, while the Steelers rank within the top 6 in rush yards conceded per game and yards conceded per rush.
If Roethlisberger can play at even 70% of his normal output he may give the Steelers the offensive variety and enough of an edge on that side of the ball to overcome a Broncos team that has struggled to produce points and has won a touchdown or less in nine of its 12 wins this season. Their luck may well run out on their home field this weekend.
Prediction – Steelers 27, Broncos 20