NFL Divisional Round Previews — Saturday

Posted: 01/16/2016 by levcohen in Football

Last week felt more like a playoff warm-up than a bonafide playoff weekend. There were a lot of ugly, bad performances, from Houston’s total goose-egg against the Chiefs (Brian Hoyer played one of the worst playoff games in NFL history), to Pittsburgh’s injury and penalty-marred win over Cincinnati, to Seattle’s lucky win in frigid Minnesota, to Green Bay’s win over Washington in a game in which neither team looked like a playoff team. The fact that all four road teams won may seem weird, but three of the four entered their respective games as favorites, so it was actually a rather predictable week (besides, of course, the manner in which the middle two games ended). I hope and expect this week, when we get to see some of the hottest teams in the league (I’m thinking of KC and Seattle) go up against the best teams in football rather than mediocre squads, to feature more “playoff football.” I think there’s an extremely intriguing game both Saturday and Sunday, and it’s no coincidence that those games include the aforementioned Chiefs and Seahawks against the two consensus best teams in the NFL for most of the season in New England and Carolina. Let’s get into tomorrow’s games.

Last week:
3-1 straight up
3-1 against the spread
4-0 over/under

My prediction: Result
Chiefs 17-12 Chiefs 30-0
Bengals 24-17 Steelers 18-16
Seahawks 21-13 Seahawks 10-9
Packers 27-20 Packers 35-18

Kansas City Chiefs (12-5, 9-8) at New England Patriots (12-4, 7-7-2):
Spread: Patriots favored by 5
Over/under: 43
My prediction: Right off the bat, we get the game that I think could turn into the best of the weekend. Normally, I would just look at the Patriots coming off a BYE going up against an Andy Reid-coached and Alex Smith-quarterbacked team with a hobbled top receiver (Jeremy Maclin) and give them an easy win. But this is not a normal Patriots team, nor is a normal Alex Smith-quarterbacked team. The Chiefs have won 11 consecutive games, and while they have largely come against vastly inferior competition, 11 straight is 11 straight, especially since the last one was one of the most dominating playoff performances in recent memory. Meanwhile, the Patriots have been decimated by injuries all year. The week off figures to have helped, but these are the Patriots, notoriously the least-likely team to share truthful injury information, so we are heading into this game fairly confused. Gronk will play, right? Will he be full strength? How about Julian Edelman, coming off a broken foot? Or Tom Brady, who suffered a high ankle sprain two weeks ago? There are a couple of things we know for sure about this Patriots offense: they have a poor offensive line, and a worse offense than any they’ve had heading into the playoffs in recent memory. And the Chiefs’ defense is probably the worst possible matchup they could have hoped for. This is a defense that has a great pass-rush, is great against short passes, and, crucially, the defense has shut down opposing tight ends all season. That’s not to say that the Pats won’t have success in the short passing game or with Rob Gronkowski, because, when everything’s clicking, they have the best short passing game and the best tight end in the league by some margin, and the best offense often beats out even very good defenses. But it’ll be a lot harder to beat this defense than it would have been against, say, the Steelers.

On the other side of the ball, the Chiefs are going to run a lot and target tight end Travis Kelce a lot. That much I’m certain of. With a hobbled Jeremy Maclin, I don’t think they’re going to have a lot of success throwing the ball down the field, although they could take a couple of shots down the field as they did last week (the shots last week were very close to working but were always a bit off). But yeah, since safety Devin McCourty won’t be 100%, Kelce will probably have success in the middle of the field, and, now that the Chiefs have made the correct decision to start Spencer Ware at running back, they should be decent on the ground too. But unless they get a few big plays either on the ground or in the air, I don’t think they’re going to score many points. Even against Houston, in a game they totally dominated, the Chiefs’ offense didn’t look all that great, as if you take away Knile Davis’s return touchdown to start the game, it would have been just 23-0.

This has all the makings of another low-scoring game, and I think it will hinge on to what extent New England’s stars are actually healthy. We have no idea whether Gronk will be 50% or 100%, and the same applies to Edelman, Brady, and most of New England’s defensive difference-makers. I’m going to take the Patriots, because I still can’t envision Alex Smith making enough plays to get this win on the road, but it could be close. Patriots win 20-17.
Chiefs cover
Under

Green Bay Packers (11-6, 10-7) at Arizona Cardinals (13-3, 9-7):
Spread: Cardinals favored by 7.5
Over/under: 49
My prediction: It’s hard to get the absolute dismantling the Cardinals dished out to the Packers just three weeks ago in Arizona. The Cardinals won that game 38-8, mercilessly getting after Aaron Rodgers and forcing sack after sack and turnover after turnover. They could have won that game by 50 points. Of course, the week after that, they lost at home by the same 30-point margin, so it’s understandable if people are hesitant to pick them here. I’m not one of those people. I still think the Cardinals have the best balance of stars and depth in the league, and I think they have the league’s best offense along with its scariest defense. I also think that the problems that have plagued the Packers all season (bad protection, no receivers who can get open, inconsistent run game) will come back to haunt them here. Yes, they beat up on Washington last week, and Rodgers looked like he got some of his mojo back, but the Cardinals are going to be a much harder team to beat. They have a much sounder secondary, and, unlike the Redskins, they’ll be able to employ both an efficient passing game and a good running game. With the weapons they have on offense (David Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, Michael Floyd), I don’t think the Packers will be able to stop them defensively, and Rodgers won’t be able to keep up on the other side of the ball. Cardinals win 27-17.
Cardinals cover
Under

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