NFL Playoff Musings: The matchup that will decide each divisional game
Can the Tom Brady's line hold off the Chiefs? Can Green Bay's DBs slow Arizona's aerial attack? Who wins Greg Olsen vs. Kam Chancellor? Or Chris Harris vs. Antonio Brown?
The first weekend of the NFL playoffs is in the books with all four road teams winning, two games coming down to dramatic kicks and loads of drama, even if there wasn't loads of offense.
Now it's on to the best weekend in sports, the divisional round of the playoffs. It's four games with eight teams being whittled down to four, one step away from the Super Bowl.
Here's an early look at those four games:
No. 5 Kansas City (12-5) at No. 2 New England (12-4)
Saturday, January 16, 4:35 p.m. ET (CBS)
The Skinny: The Patriots earned the second seed in the AFC to get the bye and have this game at home. Kansas City blew out the Texans Sunday in the wild-card game, looking impressive on both sides of the ball, especially on defense.
When these teams met early last season, the Chiefs dominated the Patriots in a game that saw Tom Brady end up on the bench and Kansas City won 41-14. There was some questioning whether he should stay there. All Brady did was lead the Pats to another Super Bowl victory.
The Patriots didn't look great in the final month of this season, and the Chiefs have ripped off 11 straight victories. But this will be a tough challenge on the road against the champs.
Key matchup: It has to be the Kansas City pass rush against the New England offensive line. The Chiefs can push the pocket and have great edge rushers in Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. The Patriots have issues up front and might be without both starting tackles from the beginning of the season. Sebastian Vollmer's health bears monitoring this week.
Players on the spot: For the Patriots, it has to be tight end Rob Gronkowski. Why him? What else do they have in the passing game? They have major problems getting deep, so he has to be a factor in the middle of the field and Eric Berry is a heck of a player inside for the Chiefs at safety.
For the Chiefs, I will go with Justin Houston. These are the games that define great pass rushers. It's his job to disrupt things for Brady.
Interesting stat from last game: Brady was 14 of 23 for 159 yards, one touchdown and two picks, one for a Chiefs touchdown.
Vegas line: Patriots by 5.
No. 5 Green Bay (11-6) at No. 2 Arizona (13-3)
Saturday, January 16, 8:15 p.m. ET (NBC)
The Skinny: The Packers finally got the offense cranked up against the Redskins on Sunday and Aaron Rodgers looked like the Rodgers we expected to see. Part of the reason was they played fast. They will have to do that against the Cardinals.
The Cardinals earned the second seed in the NFC and did so in part because they blew out the Packers 38-8 two weeks ago. The Packers were awful that day on offense and the Cardinals returned two fumbles for touchdowns.
The Cardinals didn't look good in the season finale against Seattle, but I expect them to come out here and look like the team we saw most of the season. The way Green Bay played against Washington, this could be an offensive explosion.
Key matchup: Green Bay's secondary against the Arizona receivers. The Packers play two rookies in the secondary and that can be a problem. Michael Floyd had a big day against them last time, but it could easily be John Brown or Larry Fitzgerald.
Players on the spot: For the Packers, I will go with Eddie Lacy. He showed some pop against the Redskins with a 30-yard run for a score, the longest of his season. They will need him to help slow that pass rush of the Cardinals.
For the Cardinals, the pick is Carson Palmer. He has never won a playoff game in his career, which is huge. Can he get past that hurdle against the Packers?
Interesting Stat from last game: The Packers had nine sacks, including three by Dwight Freeney. The Green Bay line was a disaster.
Vegas line: Cardinals by 7.
No. 6 Seattle (11-6) at No. 1 Carolina (15-1)
Sunday, January 17, 1:05 p.m. ET (FOX)
The Skinny: Thanks to some good fortune, the Seahawks earned a trip as the sixth seed to play at Carolina, the top seed, with a miracle missed kick Sunday against the Vikings. Minnesota kicker Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field goal in the final seconds to allow the Seahawks to escape with a 10-9 victory and a trip to Charlotte.
These two are led by two of the game's best quarterbacks in Newton and Russell Wilson. But it's the defenses that will decide this game. Who can slow the other team's offense enough?
Key matchup: I think it will be Panthers tight end Greg Olsen against Seattle safety Kam Chancellor. We saw Kyle Rudolph get a big catch and a pass interference call against Chancellor against the Vikings. The last time the Panthers played the Seahawks, Olsen caught the game-winning touchdown pass on a busted coverage. Seattle has to take him away.
Players on the spot: For the Panthers, I will go with defensive end Charles Johnson. Carolina needs to get edge pass rush if they are going to make the Super Bowl run. You need that against Wilson too.
It's whoever starts at running back for the Seahawks. It could be Marshawn Lynch, who sat out Sunday's game even though he practiced last week. If not Lynch, Christine Michael would be the starter, and he did some good things against the Vikings.
Interesting stat from last meeting: Newton was 12 of 15 for 162 yards and one touchdown in the fourth quarter of the last meeting.
Vegas line: Panthers by 3
No. 6 Pittsburgh (11-6) at No. 1 Denver (12-4)
Sunday, January 17, 4:40 p.m. ET (CBS)
The Skinny: The Steelers earned the right to play the top-seeded Broncos by winning at Cincinnati with a late field goal Saturday night. The concern here is the health of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who left the Bengals game on a cart but returned and was clearly struggling to throw the ball with a shoulder injury.
There is also concern with the health of Antonio Brown, who took a shot to the head late against the Bengals. The Roethlisberger-Brown combination lit up the Broncos when the teams met in Week 15, a game won by Pittsburgh, 34-27. Brown had 16 catches for 189 yards and two touchdowns.
Brock Osweiler started that game for the Broncos, but Peyton Manning will be back under center as a starter for the first time since Nov. 15 when he suffered a plantar fasciitis injury. Manning came off the bench last week and did some good things to rally Denver past San Diego, but it was mostly handing off.
Key matchup: Brown vs. Broncos corner Chris Harris Jr. It was Harris Jr., who is going to the Pro Bowl, who spent the day on Brown. He will likely do it again if Brown can go.
Players on the spot: For the Broncos, it has to be Manning. It's playoff time. It's always about Manning come playoff time.
For the Steelers, I will go with left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. The Broncos create all kinds of trouble with their outside rushers, led by Von Miler. Villanueva has come in to replace Kelvin Beachum, who is lost for the year, and has done a solid job.
Interesting stat from last meeting: The Steelers ran for just 23 yards on 17 carries with DeAngelo Williams averaging 1.9 per rush.
Vegas line: Broncos by 6.5
A few bad Bengals spoil the bunch
The Bengals have a real problem with discipline issues. In talking with several players in the locker room following the team's implosion against the Steelers Saturday night, there is growing disconnect between some players who don't like the way some defensive players act on the field and in the locker room. They are tired of the antics of players like Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones.
"They get away with anything they want," one player said.
The player thinks it's up to coach Marvin Lewis to tighten up the locker room or risk alienating a bunch of players who do it the right way. The Bengals blew a playoff victory against the Steelers in part because they lacked discipline late in the game with two costly 15-yard penalties to set the Steelers up for a game-winning field goal.
After the game, receiver A.J. Green defended Burfict and Jones by saying that's who they are and he wants them on his team. But others were angry at the way they both let their actions get out of hand and helped cost the Bengals a victory.
"I'm not here to throw shade at anyone," quarterback AJ McCarron said. "We win together and lose together. It doesn't matter if someone lost their poise or didn't -- we win together and lose together. We need to have each other's back through this process. That's the best way to take the biggest step into next year to becoming the team we can be. If we use this time to point fingers at each other, we're taking steps back as a team, and we don't need that."
Tackle Andrew Whitworth said that this was the most talented Bengals team he's been on in his 10-year career. That's what made the loss hurt so much, he said.
"To have the game be in a situation where you have an opportunity to get a first down and win it, to go from that to what it ended up in, sucked," Whitworth said. "It's unfortunate. You work your butt off for a long time, go 12-4, have a really good football team, lose your quarterback and battle back to be where we are. I'm proud of guys for that, but it's unfortunate to end the way we did."
As defensive end Michael Johnson left the locker room, I asked him about the lost chances.
"It happens," he said. "We will be back."
It looks like Lewis is coming back, although the knee-jerk reaction Saturday night was that he shouldn't. I like Lewis. But he needs to tighten things up. You can't be buddies with your players.
Big Ben's big heart
Lost in the Bengals horrible ending was the toughness of Roethlisberger. The guy is a warrior.
When Burfict sacked Roethlisberger in the third quarter, he had to leave with a shoulder injury. He left on a cart. It didn't look good. But he came back onto the field late, and appeared ready to go into the game. He didn't.
Instead Landry Jones threw what looked to be a game-sealing interception. But the Steelers got a miracle chance when Jeremy Hill fumbled. Roethlisberger came back out and even though he could barely throw it, he led the Steelers to the game-winning field goal -- with some penalty help, of course.
"It was dire," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said after the game. "Ben and I have been together for nine years. We kind of looked at each other and said now or never."
The question now becomes whether Roethlisberger can play next week at Denver.
"I'm going to give it everything I can just like I always do," he said. "I think we play on Sunday so we have an extra day. We will get it evaluated in the next couple days."
If anybody can do it, he can.
More Musings from Wild Card Weekend:
|The hiring of Adam Gase as head coach in Miami is the right move. Gase is a bright offensive mind who will help turn Ryan Tannehill into a quality pocket passer. That's the most important thing about Miami's offseason, making Tannehill better. Gase did that with Jay Cutler this year in Chicago, and I think he can do it in Miami.|
|How does Blair Walsh miss that kick for the Vikings? I don't care if the laces are facing him or not. That's a chip shot. Make the kick. He has to hit that one, even if he made three others.|
|Tom Coughlin coaching the Eagles? It won't seem right, but he would be a good choice. At 69, he still has the passion and he's in great shape physically and health-wise.|
|The firing of coach Lovie Smith by the Bucs last week came as a bit of surprise to many, especially the timing of it a few days after the season concluded and late at night. But for anyone to suggest that offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who is the leading candidate to replace Smith, had anything to do with it, they are way off base. Koetter took the job because of his relationship with Smith and, moreover, he was having his second hip replacement surgery the night it all went down. From what I was told, Koetter was as shocked as anybody when it all played out. One more thing about the firing: It gives complete personnel control to general manager Jason Licht, which is a good thing. Smith had personnel say, and I still think the job is too big for one man. With Licht back running the show, and Koetter the potential head coach, the next step is to get a defensive coordinator. The logical guy would be former Falcons coach Mike Smith, who had Koetter as his offensive coordinator for six seasons in Atlanta. Smith interviewed with the Dolphins and will interview with the Giants for head-coaching jobs, but he might have to go the coordinator route first.|
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