After four road playoff wins on Wild Card weekend, it’s safe to assume anything can happen in these crazy playoff games. That said, it’s also fairly safe to assume the home teams will have a better showing this weekend. With so much on the line, it’s important for these teams to identify any matchup advantages they can exploit and keep going back to the proverbial well until it runs dry. As we enter the divisional playoff weekend, here are key components to every matchup.
Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots
The Patriots blew a chance at homefield advantage by losing four of their last six games, including two in a row. After starting the season 10-0, the Patriots have struggled to perform at a high level. It’s been the combination of a serious rash of injuries and spotty play in all phases, but it’s worth noting that they’ve only been able to put up a total of 30 points in the last two weeks with their usually highly potent offense. The Chiefs, on the other hand, are riding an 11 game winning streak which includes a 30-0 road playoff win in Houston. It’s also worth noting the Chiefs pounded the Patriots the last time the two teams played last season in Kansas City 41-14. Right now it looks like two teams going in two different directions.
On paper this is a very strong Patriots offense (3rd in scoring, 6th in yards) going up against a very strong Chiefs defense (3rd in scoring, 7th in yards), but the matchup tilts in favor of the Chiefs based on recent form. Tom Brady will have to play at a very high level in order to give the home team a chance. This game will be won based on who wins the battle when the Patriots have the football. Expect the Chiefs to play tough, smart, conservative and without mistakes on offense. The game will be there for the taking for the Patriots offense if they can handle one of the best and hottest defenses in the league.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos
Surviving that playoff game against the Bengals has left the Steelers very wounded and vulnerable. There are questions as to whether they will even have the benefit of Ben Roethlisberger and/or Antonio Brown in this matchup. The job of beating the Broncos in Denver was already complicated enough with their two best offensive players healthy, but they may have to face the league’s best defense without one or both. That’s not even mentioning DeAngelo Williams and Le’Veon Bell who are also out. The Steelers are so banged up it begs the question of how they’ll even be able to cross midfield, let alone score points.
The Steelers are a gritty bunch, though, and at this stage you can never count them out. Because the matchup is so skewed in favor of the Broncos given the injuries, it will be critical to level the playing field with extra possessions. It may seem obvious to say a team needs to win the turnover battle to succeed, but even that may not be enough for the Steelers. Getting turnovers is critical to giving the Steelers any chance – but there will be opportunities. The Broncos will be very tempted to pass on the Steelers given that they are ranked 30th in the NFL against the pass. But with Peyton Manning back in the starting lineup, it should be noted he finished second in the NFL in interceptions with 17 despite only starting 9 games. There will be game defining opportunities on both sides of the ball in Bronco passing situations.
Seattle Seahawks at Carolina Panthers
What makes the Seahawks so dangerous in this matchup is that in some ways they don’t even deserve to still be in the race. If Blair Walsh could just hit the most routine of field goals, we’re not even talking about them. At the same time, when you give a team that’s had that much recent success new life, they’re usually poised to take advantage of it. There’s got to be a certain feeling of invincibility in Seattle right now (Super Bowl ending notwithstanding). The Panthers, on the other hand, haven’t looked quite as impressive of late defensively. Their last 5 games have included giving up 38 points to the Saints, 35 points to the Giants, and a loss to the weak Atlanta Falcons who crashed and burned in the second half of the season.
The Panthers may not have the luxury of holding the Seahawks to a low point total, especially when you consider the recent form of Russell Wilson. The Seahawks have gone 7-1 in their last 8 games and are every bit as hot as the Panthers. Wilson during that span has had 25 touchdown passes and 2 interceptions. Much of that passing success has been the explosion of Doug Baldwin after injuries to Jimmy Graham, Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls forced the offensive focus to shift to him. For that reason, the Doug Baldwin vs. Josh Norman matchup is really one to watch. Norman has had a breakout season that has made him an outside candidate for the Defensive MVP award.
With that said, the Seattle defense going up against MVP hopeful Cam Newton is just as intriguing. Newton had mixed success in the matchup between the two teams earlier this season (269 yards passing, 1 touchdown, 1 rushing touchdown, 2 interceptions), but he led the Panthers to the game winning touchdown inside 2 minutes. The Panthers will need an MVP type performance from their best player against the 2nd best defense in the NFL.
Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals
Aaron Rodgers is of course the X factor here. The Cardinals are clearly the better team and the Packers lack the talent around Rodgers they’ve had in years past, but Rodgers is good enough to win a game all by himself. The absence of Tyrann Mathieu, who is out for the season, is also a huge development in this matchup. That’s a player that is critical to Arizona’s success in general, but even more so against an elite pass first team like the Packers. Aaron Rodgers against the Cardinals secondary is what you’ll want to watch.