Good news, Panthers, Cardinals, Broncos and Patriots fans: The top two seeds have pretty much had their way with things in the NFL’s divisional round the past four seasons. Each year from 2011 to 2014, three of the four No. 1 and No. 2 seeds have won their playoff openers and advanced to the conference title games. But the exceptions to that trend might give pause to folks in Denver and Carolina, whose teams enter this weekend as the top seeds in the AFC and NFC, respectively.
Since the start of the 2011 playoffs, only four divisional round home teams have lost: The Broncos were a No. 2 seed last year but lost at home to the Colts. Denver was the No. 1 seed in 2012 but lost at home to the Ravens in overtime. Carolina lost its playoff opener at home to San Francisco as the No. 2 seed in 2013. And in 2011, No. 1 Green Bay, which was 15–1, as the Panthers are now, lost in blowout fashion (37–20) at home to the No. 4 seed Giants, the eventual Super Bowl champions.
If form holds, who’s going to be the one highly regarded team to see its wildly successful season end prematurely this weekend? Chances are No. 6 seed Seattle is the favorite to pull the upset, with the two-time defending NFC champs playing with a little house money after advancing thanks to that gift of a Blair Walsh missed 27-yard field goal attempt in Minnesota last Sunday. But Denver has to be a little nervous, too, feeling that the No. 6 seed Steelers are capable of playing far better than they did in squeaking past Cincinnati last Saturday night.
And how can you count out the fifth-seeded Chiefs, taking their 11-game winning streak into Foxborough, or the suddenly resurgent Packers, who seemingly got their swagger back with a 35–18 win at Washington in the wild-card round? Green Bay has a rematch with Arizona, and you know what they say about the difficulty of beating a good team twice in the same season.
Now on to this week’s picks....
• Last week: 2–2; Season: 162–98 (.623).
• Best pick in wild-card round: Seattle 26, Minnesota 16 (Actual score: Seahawks 10–9).
• Worst pick in wild-card round: Washington 29, Green Bay 23 (Actual score: Packers 35–18).
Here’s a stat that blows my mind: Since the Chiefs last made the AFC title game, in the 1993 season, with Joe Montana as their quarterback, the Patriots have reached 10 AFC championship games, including the past four in a row. I like the Patriots’ chances to make it 11 such appearances in that 22-year span, but Kansas City could be a very difficult matchup for New England. The Chiefs have that speed pass rush ability, and that could give Tom Brady fits behind a patchwork Patriots offensive line. If Julian Edelman is healthy enough to play his usual chains-moving role and give Brady his favorite safety valve, New England’s offense should be in decent shape, although tight end Rob Gronkowski’s right knee needing a cortisone injection on Thursday is worrisome to Pats Nation. Eleven years ago, Bill Belichick’s Patriots bested Andy Reid’s Eagles in the Super Bowl, but will the man they call Big Red get his revenge wearing red?
The Packers came out of their 17-point win at Washington with some restored confidence and a quarterback who looked and played like the Aaron Rodgers of old. Rodgers talked this week about all the pressure now being on the favored Cardinals, and to a degree that’s true, because the onus is always on the teams that play at home this weekend after their first-round byes. But to a degree it might be a case of whistling past the graveyard for Green Bay, because both teams know this pairing was a mismatch in favor of Arizona when they met in Glendale in Week 16. The Packers will hang around to make this one far closer than the regular-season meeting, but for the fifth consecutive year, their playoff run will end short of the Super Bowl. Arizona will take care of business on both sides of the ball and advance to its first NFC title game since the 2008 season, when it beat Philadelphia and moved on to the Super Bowl.
Quite the draw for the 15–1 Panthers. Seattle has always been a handful for Carolina, and now the Seahawks can ride into Charlotte on the momentum of surviving last Sunday’s near-death experience in the arctic upper Midwest. The Panthers haven’t played a ton of quality teams this season, so their dominance could be a little deceiving. Their road win over the Seahawks in Week 6, after trailing by nine in the fourth quarter, is when Carolina really started looking like a Super Bowl contender. I expect Cam Newton to use Greg Olsen to great effect against a Seattle defense that often gets tormented by tight ends, and to put on an MVP-level performance at home in what should be a frenzied atmosphere. I think it’ll take all day to push Pete Carroll’s proud champions out of the Super Bowl tournament, but Carolina will get it done and its magical season will continue.
Given that teams quarterbacked by Peyton Manning have logged an astounding nine one-and-dones in the playoffs, how can you discount the Steelers’ chances to pull the upset, sending Denver to a third playoff-opening loss in the four-year Manning era? But with receiver Antonio Brown (concussion) missing this game, running back DeAngelo Williams (ankle) almost certainly out for a second week in a row and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger perhaps limited by his throwing shoulder injury, how can you like Pittsburgh’s chances against that strong Broncos defense? I honestly did not foresee Manning being the healthiest quarterback in a playoff game this month, but that is quite possibly the case. No matter which of these teams scratches out a win and gets to next Sunday’s AFC title game, I don’t think I’ll be banking on it getting any further.