The Wildcard weekend certainly lived up to its name and now the Divisional Playoffs have been set. Here is a quick preview of this weekends games.
Taking away one of Tom Brady’s favorite targets presented further damage to a New England Patriots offense that has been dealing with injuries to its line for most of the season.
Julian Edelman’s return is coming at the perfect time, but protecting Brady still might be an issue against a Kansas City Chiefs defense that has been stellar during its winning streak.
New England looks to advance to its fifth straight AFC championship game and snap Kansas City’s 11-game winning streak when they meet in the divisional round Saturday in Foxborough.
Edelman has missed the last seven games because of a broken foot suffered against the New York Giants on Nov. 15. He caught seven touchdowns as New England averaged 33.6 points in the nine he played before the Patriots averaged 23.1 without him.
Bill Belichick’s team dropped four of its final six after winning its first 10 and managed just 196 total yards – its fewest since 2010 – in a 20-10 loss at Miami in the regular-season finale.
“I think the more dependable, consistent players that are out there, the better our offense is going to be. (Edelman’s) been one of them for as long as he’s been here,” Brady said. “Depending on what he can do we’ll try to find ways to integrate him.
“Whoever’s out there we’re going to have to have confidence in. There’s no next week, so we’re going to have to do everything you can do to be out on the field and help us win.”
That includes lineman Sebastian Vollmer, who sat out against the Dolphins after being carted off the field with a leg injury in an overtime loss to the New York Jets on Dec. 27.
Brady has been sacked 38 times this season – the third most of his career – behind a line that has been hurting for a good portion of the season. That may not bode well against the Chiefs (12-5), who finished fourth in the league in sacks with 47 – two behind New England, which ranked second.
Kansas City has overcome a 1-5 start behind a defense that has allowed an average of 296.2 yards during the winning streak and forced five turnovers in last week’s 30-0 rout of Houston in the wild-card round that ended a 22-year drought without a playoff win.
The Chiefs forced 29 turnovers in the regular season compared to 13 all of last year, which included six interceptions. Rookie Marcus Peters tied for the league lead with eight this year and had another in the wild-card game.
”Any time you can get to the quarterback and put pressure on him, or make him uncomfortable in the pocket, you can create turnovers,” linebacker Justin Houston said. ”Every week that’s our plan, that’s our goal: Dominate every snap.”
The Patriots haven’t lost three in a row since a four-game skid in 2002, but the Chiefs aren’t going into this matchup believing New England is any less dangerous just because it’s going through a bit of a slump.
Brady’s 102.2 passer rating and 36 touchdowns passes were his best marks in four seasons and came despite Rob Gronkowski (one game), Danny Amendola (two) and Edelman all missing time.
“Bill’s a friend, he’s a heck of a football coach. Tom Brady is unbelievable. And the job they’ve done there, the accomplishments they’ve had, they’ve made history,” coach Andy Reid said. ”We look forward to the challenge of playing them. That’s what this is all about.”
The Chiefs dealt with their own scare when leading receiver Jeremy Maclin left with an injury last week. It appeared to be serious at first, but Maclin since has been diagnosed with a mild high-ankle sprain and is on track to play.
Alex Smith relied heavily on Travis Kelce, who finished with eight catches for 128 yards. He also praised the efforts of Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, who have helped make up for Jamaal Charles’ absence.
Ware finished with 67 yards rushing and a touchdown against the Texans. He’s dealing with a sprained ankle but is expected to be ready by Saturday.
“Ultimately, it comes down to those two guys,” Smith said. “Obviously, I think everybody knew it was a big deal when Jamaal went down and rightfully so. (They’re) making the plays in the game and then building off of that, getting the confidence that you know you can do it at this level.”
The Chiefs’ offense ranked 27th with an average of 331.2 yards per game, but it looked much better in a 41-14 win over the Patriots in last year’s meeting – the second-worst loss of the Belichick era. New England doesn’t anticipate that happening again, especially since it appears Chandler Jones should be ready to go.
Jones, who ranked fifth in the league with 12 1/2 sacks, was hospitalized Sunday for an undisclosed medical issue. The Patriots were mum on specifics, and Jones has participated in practice this week.
”The fact that they haven’t lost in so long, it’s not like you can go to a game and say `This is how this team defeated them.’ That just doesn’t exist,” Belichick said. “So we’ve got to figure out a way.”
This will be the first postseason meeting between the clubs. The Chiefs have lost all five meetings in New England since last winning there in 1990.
However, the three players that powered that attack may not be available or at least limited for the postseason rematch, and the Broncos’ secondary is far healthier this time around.
With their quarterback, top receiver and running back on the mend, the Steelers visit the top-seeded Broncos on Sunday in an AFC divisional-round game.
Pittsburgh (11-6) is the only team to reach 30 points versus Denver and posted the highest yardage total of the season against the Broncos with 377 in a 34-27 victory Dec. 20. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 380 yards and Antonio Brown finished with 189 receiving – also both season highs for Denver opponents.
“We got lucky the first time,” said Roethlisberger, the only quarterback to throw for 300 yards against the Broncos in 2015. “We made plays, they had guys injured, we were at home. It’s not going to be that easy (again).”
Especially if Roethlisberger and Brown can’t play. The Steelers advanced with a stunning late rally in an 18-16 win at Cincinnati on Saturday, but the price was high as both players suffered injuries that have clouded their availability.
Roethlisberger hurt his shoulder late in the third quarter on a sack by Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, and Brown took a shoulder to the head from Burfict while trying to make a leaping catch with 22 seconds left – the first of back-to-back Cincinnati penalties that helped set up Chris Boswell’s winning field goal.
Roethlisberger – who returned for Pittsburgh’s final drive – said Tuesday on his radio show that he’s dealing with torn ligaments and a sprain in his right shoulder. Brown is in the NFL’s concussion protocol.
“We will just kind of take it day-by-day, but probably hour-by-hour really,” Roethlisberger told the team’s official website. “I will take a lot of mental reps, get in there and do my rehab and treatment and everything the doctors say to strengthen it and get back.”
With running back DeAngelo Williams a longshot to return from a right foot injury that kept him out of the playoff opener, Pittsburgh’s third-ranked offense is in danger of missing its top three weapons as the club looks to reach the AFC championship game for the first time in five years.
Brown, an All-Pro, torched a Broncos secondary that was without safeties T.J. Ward, Darian Stewart and Omar Bolden for 16 catches and a pair of touchdowns last month while ending Chris Harris Jr.’s 35-game streak without giving up a touchdown. He had seven catches for 119 yards against the Bengals, his highest total in six career playoff games.
“We want those guys to be there,” Denver cornerback Aqib Talib said of the injured Steelers. “If we didn’t want them to be there, that means I’d want A.B. to be messed up. That’s a good dude, a good family dude. We don’t want him to be messed up.”
Denver (12-4) will have Peyton Manning starting under center for the first time since Week 10, when reports surfaced he had a partially torn plantar fascia in his left foot after a dismal start to the season. Manning relieved an inconsistent Brock Osweiler in a 27-20 win over San Diego in the regular-season finale, going 5 of 9 for 69 yards to spark an offense that had scored seven points in the first half.
Manning will have Demaryius Thomas and former Steeler Emmanuel Sanders as targets. The pair combined for 242 receiving yards and three touchdowns in the first matchup with Osweiler throwing to them.
Perhaps more importantly, the Broncos should have a completely healthy secondary. With Ward and Stewart back for the final two weeks of the regular season, the Broncos held the Bengals and Chargers to a combined 393 passing yards.
That group might have a bit more motivation due to a hit from Steelers center Cody Wallace on Denver safety David Bruton Jr. last month. Two plays after breaking his fibula, Bruton was speared by Wallace. The seven-year veteran was later placed on season-ending injured reserve.
“No, it’s not going to be anything as far as cheap or anything,” Stewart said. “We’re going to get them between the lines, between the plays, the whistle. So, I mean, (Wallace is) going to be sore after the game. That’s how I see it, man. He come out on a screen, he’d better not come at (number 26, Stewart’s jersey). Shoot, I’m cutting him.”
The Broncos have won eight of the last 11 meetings with the Steelers in Denver, including a 29-23 overtime victory in a wild-card game Jan. 8, 2012 in which Thomas scored in the extra period on an 80-yard pass from Tim Tebow.
After getting knocked from the playoffs by the Seahawks in this round last season, the Panthers can show their victory at Seattle in October was no fluke and prevent their nemesis from reaching a third consecutive NFC Championship game Sunday.
Carolina didn’t have any statement-making wins before facing a huge hurdle in Week 6, visiting a Seahawks team which had won nine straight home games and 28 of 30 – including the playoffs. Cam Newton capped a rally from 13 down in the second half by hitting Greg Olsen on a 26-yard touchdown pass with 32 seconds remaining for a 27-23 win, one which fifth-year coach Ron Rivera called “one of the bigger victories we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
It clearly boosted the confidence of a Panthers team which went on to win its first 14 games and posted by far the best regular season in franchise history at 15-1.
Seattle also responded in strong fashion, winning eight of 10 to close the regular season before last week’s fortunate 10-9 wild-card win in Minnesota.
At least one member of the Panthers feels they are superior to Seattle, which has reached the past two Super Bowls and knocked off Carolina 31-17 in last year’s divisional round.
”We are the better team,” safety Roman Harper said. ”We have to go out and show confidence in who we are and the things that we have done all year – and don’t shy away from the pressure.”
The pressure is squarely on Newton for this one. The MVP candidate has one interception in his last eight games but has seven turnovers in three career playoff games, committing three in last year’s loss at Seattle. His only playoff win came a week earlier, but that was against an Arizona team down to its third-string quarterback.
Newton had two more interceptions against the Seahawks in October but keyed the second-half comeback, finishing 20 of 36 for 269 yards. He also rushed for 30 yards and a score.
Before that win, Carolina was held to an average of 11.8 points during a five-game losing streak in the series. Unlike last year’s playoff matchup, though, this time the Panthers are coming off a first-round bye and have the home-field advantage.
“We realize we’ve got to do this on the road and if we want to do something really special, it’s going to take an incredible run here,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “… We’re going to do everything we can to see if we can slow them down and find a way to move the football against a great football team.”
Carolina hasn’t been to the NFC title game since a 34-14 loss at Seattle after the 2005 season.
Both Harper and cornerback Josh Norman called it “fate” that the Panthers are getting the Seahawks again.
“After we played them (in Week 6), we said, ‘We’ll see you again in the playoffs,'” Norman told the team’s official website. “It’s cool. Fate gives you these chances to prove yourself worthy.”
It seemed like fate when Minnesota’s Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field-goal attempt with 26 seconds remaining to allow Seattle to advance, and that came after Adrian Peterson’s fumble set up Steven Hauschka’s go-ahead, 46-yard field goal. The Seahawks overcame a 9-0 deficit in the fourth quarter, sparked by Russell Wilson’s three-yard TD pass to Doug Baldwin.
Wilson had a tough day in below-zero weather, completing 13 of 26 passes for 142 yards – his fewest since October 2014. He had just his second interception in eight games, a stretch during which he has 25 touchdown passes as his chemistry with Baldwin has grown.
Baldwin has 52 receptions for 766 yards and 13 touchdowns over that span. Now he’s likely to draw plenty of attention from Norman, a physical, trash-talking All-Pro corner.
“Doug is an explosive guy,” Norman said. “He makes plays whenever he can and he’s a try-hard guy. He does everything he can to beat the defender. I like guys like that.”
While Norman helped hold Baldwin to three catches for 23 yards in October, Seattle tight end Jimmy Graham had eight for 140 but remains out with a groin injury. Wilson threw for 241 yards and a score with no INTs but was sacked four times, and Carolina led the NFC with 44 sacks.
Though Marshawn Lynch hasn’t had much success against that defense, Seattle surely would like to have him back. Lynch hasn’t played since Week 10 with an abdomen injury, still listed as day to day after ruling himself out last weekend despite practicing in full all week.
”This is his first surgery and it happens to be right in his core and you all know having watched him, you all know what kind of runner he is and the lateral things he does with his body they’re so abrupt and so sudden he needs to feel he can do those things,” Carroll said.
Lynch had 54 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries versus the Panthers earlier this season and has never topped 85 yards in seven games against them despite averaging 17.3 carries. Carolina ranked fourth in the league against the run at 88.4 yards per game.
The Seahawks were No. 1 at 81.5 yards and held Peterson to 45 on 23 carries, but they gave up a season-worst 135 rushing yards to Carolina. Jonathan Stewart ran for 78 and two TDs that day and will return after missing the last three games with a foot injury.
Top wideout Ted Ginn Jr. (leg) and starting safety Kurt Coleman (foot) also will be back after sitting out the regular-season finale. Defensively, though, the Panthers must rely on fill-in cornerbacks Robert McClain and Cortland Finnegan after Charles Tillman and Bene Benwikere recently suffered season-ending injuries.
While the Panthers have won 11 consecutive home games, Seattle has won a franchise-record six straight on the road – including last week’s win.
The Seahawks are trying to join Green Bay (1965-67), Miami (1971-73) and Buffalo (1991-93) as the only teams to reach three straight Super Bowls.
Following the winningest regular season in franchise history, the Cardinals host the motivated Packers in Saturday night’s NFC divisional matchup.
Arizona extended its winning streak to nine with a 38-8 home rout of Green Bay on Dec. 27. It recorded more sacks (nine) than points allowed and held the Packers to 178 yards – their second-lowest total of the season. The Cardinals also scored twice on defense in one of their most dominant efforts of 2015 and perhaps Green Bay’s worst.
But after the Packers overcame an 11-0 deficit to win 35-18 at Washington in Sunday’s wild-card round, the Cardinals’ eyes were opened.
“We know Aaron is probably licking his chops wanting to play us again,” cornerback Jerraud Powers, who took a Rodgers fumble back seven yards for a TD in December, told the Cardinals’ official website.
The Packers signal-caller wasn’t as colorful in his description of the rematch, but no less confident.
“We kind of felt like this was a possibility to be able to go back there after that loss,” said Rodgers, who was sacked eight times and threw for 151 yards at Arizona. “We’re coming off, obviously, a big win, and in (the Cardinals’) last game they got beat by a lot. So it’s going to be a more competitive game, I bet.”
Green Bay scored 14 more points at Washington than it did in losing the previous two games to the Cardinals and Minnesota.
”It’s huge for us,” said Rodgers, who threw two TDs without an interception, was sacked once and backed by 141 yards from the running game. ”We needed a game like this to get our mojo back and get our confidence going.”
Though personnel issues still linger on the offensive line and receiver Davante Adams (knee) likely won’t play, coach Mike McCarthy is similarly confident.
“We’re no underdog going to Arizona,” he said. “I don’t care what people think or how we’re picked or things like that. We’re going out there to win, and we expect to win.”
The Cardinals are ready for the challenge.
”We believe that if we play our game,” receiver Larry Fitzgerald said, ”we can beat anybody.”
A franchise-record 13 wins gave Arizona the West Division title, the second seed in the conference and a first-round bye. With Carson Palmer injured and third-stringer Ryan Lindley under center, the Cardinals lost 27-16 on the road to Carolina in last season’s wild-card round.
However, they’re 4-0 at home in the postseason and beat Green Bay 51-45 in overtime in their most recent meeting in the desert during the 2009 season. Rodgers threw for 423 yards, four TDs and an INT in his first playoff start but was sacked and lost the ball, with Karlos Dansby picking it up and running 17 yards with for the winning score.
Rodgers has enjoyed much more postseason success since, and the Cardinals expect to get his best. They also expect to play better than they did in a 36-6 home defeat to Seattle in the regular-season finale.
With its playoff position locked in, Arizona had little on the line. Coach Bruce Arians didn’t make anything of an outcome that ended that nine-game run.
”We had a very great stretch and now I see the same thing in their eyes,” Arians said. ”There’s something to play for. There’s something to prepare for, just like we did for nine weeks.”
After setting franchise records with 4,671 passing yards and 35 TDs, the 36-year old Palmer tries a third time for his first playoff win. He leads a team that ranked first in total offense at 408.3 yards per game and second in scoring at 30.6 points.
Palmer was 18 of 27 for 265 yards with two TDs and one INT against the Packers last month.
“He’s extremely excited and raring to go,” Arians said.
The Packers sacked Palmer twice, but recorded six against the Redskins.
“(Defensive coordinator Dom Capers) always had good outside pass rushers, and inside guys now that are very disruptive,” Arians told the Packers’ official website. “Then you’ve got to handle the fire zones, too. It’s a challenge.”
Arizona’s Michael Floyd caught six passes for 111 yards and 1,000-yard receivers Fitzgerald and John Brown each scored against Green Bay. Rookie running back David Johnson had 127 rushing and receiving yards and scored one of his 13 TDs in that contest.
“Guys just can’t wait to be in our home stadium (Saturday),” Powers said.
Fellow starters linebacker Alex Okafor (toe) and defensive tackle Cory Redding (ankle) are out for the rest of the postseason due to injuries. Redding returned a fumble 36 yards for a TD against Green Bay.
Veteran Jason Babin was brought in to help replace Okafor, who apparently suffered a non-football related injury during the off week.
”It’s real tough,” linebacker Sean Witherspoon said of losing a player with the team not playing. ”You didn’t plan for that at all. It puts our (general manager) and our coach in a bind.”
The Cardinals won’t feel sorry for themselves.
“(Green Bay) will be better (than last time),” linebacker Markus Golden said. “And we will be ready.”
Previews provided by; AP