NFL Divisional Round Lookahead: Health concerns loom large

If you are a scrutinizer of coaching adjustments, this is the playoff weekend for you. Not only is the Divisional Round of the playoffs considered the top weekend in football, but this season provides three rematches from the regular season -- the Packers and Cardinals played just three weeks ago, so that has the most potential significance -- and the fourth is a rematch of a game that proved to be a seminal moment from last year for the defending Super Bowl champions.

This is also an ode to continuity. Seven of the eight teams playing this weekend were in the playoffs last year, too, with Kansas City the lone exception. And after every road team won in Wild Card Weekend for the first time in history, this weekend is likely to offer greater comforts of home. The Divisional Round provides the most meaningful home-field advantage of any round of the postseason in the four major U.S. sports leagues, with a winning percentage of 73.0 for home teams. Since 2010, just six road teams have won in the Divisional Round.

These are the games that will determine the NFL's final four:

This was the matchup that provided such a beatdown of the Patriots, 41-14, that it inspired "on to Cincinnati." Things have gone much better since for the Pats -- they are an NFL best 25-6 after that loss to the Chiefs and, oh yes, won the Super Bowl.

Still, one issue that the Chiefs exposed last year remains a concern for New England right now: the ability of the offensive line to protect Tom Brady, who threw for just 159 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in that game last season. The Patriots have started 13 different offensive line combinations this season, with Brady getting sacked 38 times. The Chiefs' defense is still a force -- since Week 7, when the Chiefs' 11-game winning streak began, it is the league's top scoring defense, allowing just 11.6 points per game and over the last 13 games, it has averaged 3.2 sacks per game. The big differences from last season's game to watch: Jamaal Charles, who scored three touchdowns for the Chiefs, is out. (The status of receiver Jeremy Maclin, who hurt his ankle last week, is unclear but he did not practice early in the week.)

For the Patriots, their biggest challenge is their health, and it -- and Belichick's attempt to get rest for some of his top players heading into the playoffs -- contributed to the Patriots' skid in losing four of their final six games of the regular season.

With their top two running backs on injured reserve, the Patriots have the 30th-ranked running game. But the critical injury was to receiver Julian Edelman, who is expected to return from the broken foot that cost him the last seven games of the regular season. Without him, the offense averaged 10 fewer points per game. It's worth keeping an eye on tight end Rob Gronkowski, who also missed practice time this week with a knee injury. He is expected to play, though, and if he is anything close to normal, he is, well, Gronk.

The Patriots rarely lose at home, but this game will be a test of how well they have healed during the bye week and whether Maclin can even play against the Patriots' underappreciated defense.

This is the game this weekend where the past is most likely to be prologue. The Cardinalsannihilated the Packers just three weeks ago, sacking Aaron Rodgers eight times and allowing just 178 yards of offense.

The Packers' offensive line might look a little different from that game if left tackle David Bakhtiari returns, but that won't alleviate all the pressure from the Cardinals' aggressive defense, which blitzes on 44.5 percent of all opponents' passing plays. Rodgers only ranked 24th against the blitz in the NFL this season, with a passer rating of 82.4 (the worst figure vs. the blitz of his starting career). The other issue for the Packers' offense is the failure of its receivers to get separation against most defenses. Washington played them softer, allowing an offensive renaissance for the Packers, but that won't be the case from the Cardinals. Patrick Peterson allowed a 45.6 passer rating in coverage this season, tops in the NFL among cornerbacks with 50-plus targets against them.

And it's difficult to imagine how much the Packers can improve in such a short time with their secondary matching up against the Cardinals' excellent group of receivers. Look for running back David Johnson to get more work this go-around, too. He had just nine rushing attempts in the regular-season game but averaged 18 carries and 88.4 yards per game since he took over the starting job in Week 13, and the Packers' defense is vulnerable to the run.

So why do the Packers have hope? Because they looked much more Packers-like against Washington in the Wild Card Round than they have looked most of the 2015 campaign, exploding for 35 points after having the worst offense of the Rodgers era during the regular season. The running game, in particular, came alive in the second half with 124 yards.

And because Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer has never won a playoff game.

Despite already being 4-0, the Panthers were finally taken seriously when they traveled to Seattle in Week 5 and beat the Seahawks 27-23. That game also exposed an early concern about the Seahawks' defense, when Cam Newton led the Panthers on two 80-yard touchdown drives on the Panthers' final two possessions of the game, capped off by the game-winning, 26-yard touchdown catch by Greg Olsen, highlighting the issues the Seahawks have had with defending tight ends.

The rematch will pit the league's top scoring offense (Carolina, in a statistic that still seems surprising, averages 31.3 points per game) against the top scoring defense (Seattle, to the surprise of no one, allows just 17.3 points per game). The Seahawks played four games against top-five scoring offenses this year, though, and went 2-2 while allowing 25.5 points and 401 yards of offense per game.

But let's get real. All anybody wants to see is Russell Wilson vs. Cam Newton. In the last seven games of the regular season, Wilson and Newton combined for 49 touchdowns (44 passing) and just two interceptions. And one of them has led all quarterbacks in rushing yards in each of the last three seasons. Expect the Seahawks to use plenty of read option and rollouts to get Wilson on the move. Newton will have to move, too, if the dominant performance of Seattle's front four against the Vikings is any indication of how they will play here.

The Panthers, obviously, had an extraordinary season. But it is difficult to count out the resilient Seahawks, who looked spent when they had a spell of fourth-quarter collapses early in the season, only to be revived in the second half and then to come back from down by two scores to the Vikings. And now it appears they could be getting back Marshawn Lynch.

Yes, the Steelers beat the Broncosjust four weeks ago, but so much has changed. Peyton Manning is healthy and will start instead of Brock Osweiler. Ben Roethlisbergeris not healthy, but will still almost certainly try to play. And Antonio Brown, who scorched the Broncos' secondary for 16 receptions for 189 yards and two touchdowns, will not play at all. Did you think it was possible we would get to the playoffs and Manning's health would not be the most pressing matter?

Roethlisberger separated his shoulder against the Bengals and, while he returned to the game, he could not throw the ball very far. An absent Brown just exacerbates that problem. Injuries to those two are devastating because it takes away what makes the Steelers so dangerous -- their big-play, downfield attack.

How much of a break is that for Denver? Only one quarterback threw for at least 300 yards against the Broncos this season, and Denver's defense only allowed more than 30 points in one game. Both came against the Steelers. If Roethlisberger does struggle to throw deep, expect the Broncos' top-ranked defense to stack the box to stop the run (DeAngelo Williams has been ruled out), putting the game in Roethlisberger's hands.

Pittsburgh's defense allowed a franchise-worst 271.9 passing yards per game this season, although the Steelers have allowed more than 20 points just once in their last six games. The game might not wind up in Manning's hands anyway. The Broncos would prefer to run the ball and C.J. Anderson is averaging 6.4 yards per carry since Week 8.

Manning's foot will still be a topic of conversation, though. He played just one half in the final game of the regular season and hasn't played a full game since Week 9. He looked comfortable and his arm seemed stronger after that extended rest, but if he struggles or wears down, the Broncos could have another problem. Osweiler missed practices this week with a knee injury. Might Trevor Siemian have to back up Manning? NFL Media's Ian Rapoport reported on Friday that, barring a setback, Denver's still planning on having Osweiler available.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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