We’re down to the elite eight in the NFL. Here’s an initial breakdown of the two Saturday divisional round matchups that will reduce that number to six…
(5) Kansas City Chiefs at (2) New England Patriots: 4:35 p.m. ET on CBS
Does momentum matter?: Because if it does, the Pats are of course in trouble. The Chiefs haven’t lost since mid-October and are coming off one of the most lopsided road playoff victories in NFL history, while banged-up New England has lost four of its last six games.
The health factor: But two weeks off might have saved the Patriots, who should be fresh with Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Sebastian Vollmer, Donta’ Hightower, Rob Gronkowski, Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty ready to go. Meanwhile, the Chiefs — who were already without star back Jamaal Charles and starting center Mitch Morse — might not have top wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. That offense could be in big trouble, and they won’t get the type of help they got from Brian Hoyer and the mistake-prone Texans.
Weird history: Not only have have these teams had a lot of players and coaches in common of late, but let’s not forget that the Chiefs supposedly brought an end to New England’s dynasty with a dominant 41-14 victory over New England at Arrowhead last season. The Pats hit a low that day but reports of their death were of course greatly exaggerated and they bounced back to win the freakin’ Super Bowl. Still, it’s fair to wonder if the Chiefs might still have New England’s number.
Matchup to watch: The Kansas City defense will have to find a way to pick on a New England offensive line that has for most of the season been in disarray. Vollmer might be back at right tackle, but he also might be rusty, and Marcus Cannon and Shaquille Mason are both liabilities. Kansas City had 45 sacks in the regular season and three more in a dominant performance against Houston. Watch for Justin Houston and Co. to go to town against that offensive line in an attempt to make things easier for a shorthanded offense.
Law of averages: It’s time for the Chiefs to lose. They won’t likely be blown out because the defense is solid and Alex Smith doesn’t make a lot of mistakes and they’re well coached. But on the road against a healthier Patriots team that has had two weeks to prepare? No way. I can’t see the Pats losing five of seven and I think Kansas City is due for a loss anyway. Patriots 27, Chiefs 17
(5) Green Bay Packers at (2) Arizona Cardinals: 8:15 p.m. ET on NBC
Rest factor: Green Bay is the only team that is being forced to play this weekend on less than six days’ rest. But in this case, that might not be such a bad thing. While the Cardinals have been forced to stew for two weeks over a 30-point home loss to the Seahawks in their season finale, the Packers are coming off a breakout performance on offense against the Redskins. If momentum matters, this short break could come in handy for Green Bay.
Breakout performance?: Yeah, that’s a weird thing to say about a team that has the highest-rated passer in NFL history and has won a Super Bowl in the last half-decade, but a sleeping giant woke up Sunday in Washington. The Pack had its best offensive output since Week 3 in a highly-efficient victory over the Redskins, with Aaron Rodgers and Co. looking more comfortable as that game wore on. Sure, Green Bay was blown out by Arizona at this very site three weeks ago, but first-game losers usually fare a lot better in rematches and the Packers have their confidence back. That’s dangerous.
Not in Maryland anymore: Still, the Redskins were an inferior, inexperienced team that won a weak division by beating up on bad opponents. The Cards are better on both sides of the ball, even without star defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, which is why they opened as favorites by about a touchdown. On paper, Arizona was much better than Green Bay on both offense and defense, and the Cards had won six of seven home games before failing to show up for that finale against Seattle (which ultimately didn’t impact the standings anyway).
Pressure might win this game: We’re looking at two of the best passers in football. Last time they met, an Arizona defensive front not known for its pass-rushing prowess took Rodgers down nine times. That amounted to 25 percent of the sacks they had all year. Can lightning strike twice? The Green Bay offensive line did a great job protecting Rodgers after an early safety in Washington, so it’ll be tough. Meanwhile, Carson Palmer is working behind a line that struggled in pass protection at certain points this season and the Packers had six sacks in their wild-card victory over the Redskins.
Did Green Bay really just flip a switch?: I just don’t believe it’s that easy. A bad Washington defense definitely contributed Sunday, and the Cards won’t be so generous on Saturday. Dating back to October of 2013, this team is 26-5 with Palmer at quarterback. It’s time they get their first playoff victory since beating Rodgers and the Packers in a shootout in 2009. Cardinals 35, Packers 34