This week's playoff slate features three rematches from the regular season, including the doozy between the Seahawks and Panthers, who, yes, meet in the Divisional Round for the second straight year. Meanwhile, the one non-2015 rematch is Kansas City at New England -- the real gem of this weekend, if you ask me. It's the first game on the sked and it features the hottest team in pro football vs. the defending Super Bowl champions. Who would've thought the 2015 Chiefs could have jumped from 1-5 to 12-5? Unreal.
Real doubt lingers about whether the Packers played over their heads at Washington or have legitimately snapped out of their aerial funk. Meanwhile, the Steelers will be lucky to produce any aerial works, much less, fireworks, given the quarterback situation. All games are previewed below, with a nod toward matchups, injuries and, of course, NFL history. And, of course, feel free to share your take on any of the elimination games this weekend: @HarrisonNFL is the place.
Now, let's get to it!
Elliot Harrison went 3-1 on his predictions for Wild Card Weekend, giving him a record of 154-106 so far this season. How will he fare in the Divisional Round? His picks are below.
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, NBC
So the story of this contest, or at least what we've all heard, is that of a suddenly hot quarterback. Aaron Rodgers renewed league analysts' and fans' confidence in his ability to take over a game after his Packers distanced themselves from the home Redskinsin the final three quarters last Sunday. Underneath the strong current of The Rodgers Legend was a Green Bay secondary that held the fort time and again, enough for the Packers' front to get to Kirk Cousins six times. (Did you notice the exemplary DB work, Cheeseheads? Or was it all about the QB? @HarrisonNFL) Nearly half of Cousins' passing yards came in the fourth quarter, when Green Bay held a multi-score lead.
Are we maybe focusing too much on one quarterback in this game? Is Carson Palmer being underestimated, despite his MVP2 campaign? (MVP1 = Cam.) Palmer has been a machine going vertical this season, which is why he has 65 completions of 20-plus yards (third in the NFL), averages 8.7 yards per attempt (best among qualified QBs) and 10.7 air yards per attempt (the highest figure in the pro circuit). The young Green Bay secondary -- guys like Ladarius Gunter, Damarious Randall and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (all of whom are 23) -- will be challenged vertically quite regularly. What I love about Arizona, and specifically Bruce Arians, is the willingness to throw the deep ball early and often, thus forcing the defense to play the whole field. While I don't foresee a 38-8 shellacking, I like the Cardinals to advance to the second NFC Championship Game in franchise history. #GBvsAZ
Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET, FOX
Seahawks at Panthers is easily the toughest game to call on the Divisional Round docket. Seattle is coming off a gut-check contest that required as much intestinal fortitude as an athlete's body can handle. Carolina has enjoyed a week of rest, and will be hosting the defending NFC champs in Charlotte. Ron Rivera's group, it should be noted, hasn't lost there since November, 2014. Both teams play a physical brand of football that Olivia Newton-John certainly respects. It's mostly the prospective brutality of the defenses involved -- but also the fact that the Seahawks are the league bully and the Panthers carry the NFL's best record -- that has fans all hot and bothered about this matchup.
The most important aspect of Seahawks-Panthers is Marshawn Lynch's availability. He was a full practice participant on Wednesday, but obviously, as evidenced last week, his status remains uncertain. Let me tell you, if we had a bit more clarity on the bruising RB at publishing, the pick in this one could be different. That said, the fact that Jonathan Stewart appears to be returning to the fold for Carolina is huge -- as discussed in this week's Power Rankings.
Meanwhile, Seattle's offense has been mostly unstoppable -- even with Lynch (and Jimmy Graham) out. That doesn't mean the 'Hawks won't miss Beast Mode; the guy's averaged 91.7 rushing yards over 10 postseason games for Seattle. Please forgive me if Christine Michael doesn't elicit as much confidence. What garners football faith in Carolina -- besides Cam Newton, of course -- is the Panthers' defense over the last 11 home games. They've allowed a scant 16.5 points per game while boasting a plus-13 turnover differential. Throw in the fact that Riverboat Ron's D was tops in takeaways this season, and it gets harder to pick the Seahawks. Carolina advances. #SEAvsCAR
Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, CBS
Denver wins, and not solely because the Steelers are so banged up. The Broncos did lose to this group a few weeks back, but bear in mind that game was at Heinz Field. Making adjustments at the line, and getting wideouts in mismatches, will be much more difficult for Pittsburgh with the Mile High crowd going nutso. Given that Ben Roethlisberger's shoulder probably sounds like the shuffling of ice cubes after a 7 Up pour, this matchup could be brutal for the Steelers. Von Miller is Von Miller. DeMarcus Ware, who's suffered from knee and back issues in the second half of the season, just enjoyed a nice extra week of rest. So if I were Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, I'd dare Roethlisberger to try and throw deep with that bum shoulder. Play man coverage underneath, and a little of that two-deep zone jazz, and don't worry about him running. (Like he does that anyway.)
On a different note, Steelers-Broncos has been a sneaky-good playoff series over the decades. The Orange Crush were one of the few teams to derail the Steelers in their domination of the mid-to-late '70s (back in 1977, to be specific). In 1984, Pittsburgh got payback by upsetting Denver in the Divisional Round. The Steelers almost pulled off an upset again in 1989 against a Broncos team that ended up in the Super Bowl. (Tim Worley fumblaya!) How about Elway-to-Sharpe on third down in the 1997 AFC Championship Game at Three Rivers? Or Tebowmania taking down Dick LeBeau's defense in OT on Wild Card Weekend? All of those games were fantastic. In other words, NFL history is cool. #PITvsDEN
Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET, CBS
Call it a Stephen Gostkowski kinda game. That's not a bad thing, as he is the top kicker in pro football. (Dan Bailey and Justin Tucker are hopping on Twitter right about...now!) These two teams present the best of both worlds regarding the bye/non-bye conundrum. Everyone suspects a team like the Patriots would want that darn off week. Agreed. Health is of primary concern for the entire receiving corps, particularly tight end Rob Gronkowski. Meanwhile, the hottest team in pro football doesn't want to let the playoff meal get lukewarm. I've heard many players say that as nice as it is to get the time off, many of the ailments these guys are dealing with won't fully heal without a month off. So, both the Pats and Chiefs are in the best situation for their situation.
The meat and potatoes of this matchup really boils down to the meat-and-potatoes guys: the Patriots' O-line. They have started a different group multiple times, and thus the offense struggled late in the year (especially sans Julian Edelman). How they fare against a now-healthy Chiefs pass rush will determine the outcome of the game. With Edelman back in the fold, Tom Brady should be able to get the ball out quick to mitigate the pressure. Still, Justin Houston, Tamba Hali and Dee Ford will be a pressure cooker. (Over/under on cooking analogies in this article was set at eight. Will we get there??? Stay tuned!)