Wow! Did you catch the Wildcard games this past weekend? I am sure you heard about the chaos that ensnared half the games -- between the slugfest of the Steelers, Bengals, and sobering ending for Viking's fans at the foot of Blair Walsh. Excitement and heartbreak go hand-in-hand this time of year.
This brings our attention front and center for the second round. The big time, MVPs, future Hall of Famers, freshly rested units that sit licking their chops as the Wildcard winners scramble to lick their wounds and bandage injuries with hopes of surviving to play one more down.
Every team on this list has played for a Super Bowl in the past 15 years. In fact, there are nine Lombardi Trophy recipients with rings to match their fingers. The Patriots have hoisted four under the leadership of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady (NE), Aaron Rodgers has 1 (GB), Russell Wilson 1 (SEA), Peyton Manning has 1 (DEN), and Ben Roethlisberger 2 (PITT). Carolina and Kansas City are not without some Championship pedigree themselves, as coach Ron Rivera won a title with the Bears in 1985, and Kansas City coach Andy Reid's tenure in Philadelphia culminated with four consecutive trips to the NFC Championship and a Super Bowl loss to the Patriots.
All of that is just history; this is a new day, which I am sure is the mantra for motivation in each locker room. Let's dive in to see what to look out for. By the way, we throw up predictions for fun, so please do not be a hater if you trusted me as a gambling resource; we will not be reimbursing your losses and, besides, we did go 3-1 outright last week, so put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Saturday January 16th:
Kansas City Chiefs @ New England Patriots
We would like to take a small moment for thanking the Houston Texans for making the play-offs because that is about all we can do after Kansas City dismantled them. The Chiefs defense battered the ragtag Texans line, forcing hurried throws that promptly led to turnovers and points. Justin Houston's return, along with fellow end Tamba Hali, bodes well for the streaking Chiefs. It is also the key to disrupting New England's spread attack offense. Tom Brady thrives when he has time to survey the coverage before tossing darts to whomever is playing wide out because they usually pick up cast-offs and tell them to catch Brady's passes. The lone exception is Rob Gronkowski, who may or may not be a real life alien put on Earth to catch touchdowns and run over defensive backs.
The Patriots will have slot receiver Julian Edelman coming back from injury. The slot position is crucial for spacing defenses out by creating mismatches for opposing linebackers who usually can't keep up in coverage. Kansas City safety Eric Berry, it should be noted, is in remission after battling cancer last year and has returned to All-Pro form and had an interception last week; he will need to keep up to form. The Chiefs are hoping wide receiver Jeremy Maclin is ready to go after suffering a knee injury that kept him sidelined after playing against the Texans. The head coaches, as mentioned above, are facing off for the first time since they squared off in the Super Bowl, while Andy Reid was leading the Eagles and nothing would give him greater joy than to vanquish the Patriots. Let's hope those footballs are properly inflated, the Patriots spies lay off Kansas City's signals, and no officiating errors spoil what should be a great game.
Prediction: New England 24 - Kansas City 17
Green Bay Packers @ Arizona Cardinals
Green Bay rounded back into form with a steady running game and surgical passes by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who discount double checked his status as the best signal caller in the game. They will need it as they travel to Arizona, whose defense is a notch above the Washington defense they just faced. These two teams faced off earlier in the year -- Arizona ran away from the Packers 31-8 -- and it is a rematch from the Cardinals run to the Super Bowl in 2009. The last game was the highest scoring game in play-off history, ending with Rodgers being stripped sacked and the Cardinals winning 51-45 in overtime. Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer is seeking his first play-off win since 2005 when he was playing in Cincinnati. Palmer completed his first pass in that game, a 66 yard strike to the late Chris Henry, but defensive lineman Kimo Von Oelhoffen slid into his stationary leg and tore all ligaments in his knee. Since then, he's had a falling out with the Bengals, who traded him to NFL Siberia in Oakland, only to have him land in Arizona, which has resurrected Palmer back to the cusp of elite. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and company will stretch Green Bay's defense, under head coach Bruce Arians' offensive schemes. Rodgers will need to discount double check the Cardinals' stout defensive line, otherwise history may repeat itself.
Prediction: Arizona 28 - Green Bay 24
Sunday January 17th:
Seattle Seahawks @ Carolina Panthers
The Seahawks are a 25 yard shanked field goal from watching this game back at home, much to the chagrin of the Minneapolis region. Surviving to play another day is what it is all about though, and Russell Wilson's improvisational skills never hurt either. The Carolina defense is no joke, though, led by Defensive Player of the Year candidates Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Josh Norman. Norman will matchup with Seattle wide out Doug Baldwin, while Davis and Kuechly will take care of anything five yards and in past the line of scrimmage. They are truly a dynamic set of linebackers who can match up in pass coverage and slam the door on any thoughts you have of running the ball. A spy package for Wilson is usually a necessity, with his elusive pocket mechanics, but the duo's speed allow Carolina to keep the majority of their base packages.
Seattle's Legion of Boom defense will have to come up with a way to slow Superman impersonator, Oikos Greek Yogurt-eating quarterback Cam Newton. Newton is the frontrunner to take home the NFL MVP award -- deservedly so with the monumental season he is having. A banged up James Stewart will force the Panthers to rely on TE Greg Olsen and the ragtag group of underwhelming wide outs. Safety Kam Chancellor will be tasked to hem Olsen up but has struggled all year at doing just that. The two did play this season: a game which saw Seattle give up a fourth quarter lead and lose 27-23. It is also a rematch from last years play-offs, which saw Seattle defeat the Panthers.
Prediction: Carolina 17 - Seattle 13
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Denver Broncos
If you watched the Steelers' gift-wrapped win over the Cincinnati Bengals, the Bengals having committed two personal foul penalties with 30 seconds left, you know they are banged up. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's shoulder and Antonio Brown's concussion protocol are pivotal for the Steelers. The quarterback, wide receiver combination are Pittsburgh's only hope of truly standing up to Denver's top-ranked defense. Backup Landry Jones looked ineffective (at best) last week, and Denver's edge rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware will eat an indecisive quarterback for lunch -- that is, if the Steelers wide outs can get past cornerback Aqib Talib and safety TJ Ward.
Oh, and we haven't even gotten to the fact that a well-rested Peyton Manning is retuning to his starting role. While Manning is busy with humming the Nationwide insurance jingle, selling pizzas with Papa John, and appearing in roughly 85% of all commercials during the NFL telecast, his plantar fasciitis seems to be fully recovered. With his extensive knowledge, the greatest quarterback in NFL history is striving for one more ring to add to his extensive list of NFL records. If Ben or Brown are out, Pittsburgh will need a voodoo doll from Pizza Hut to get past Denver in the mile-high air, despite the fact that, the last time they played, Pittsburgh defeated the Broncos in their own place.
Prediction: Denver 28 - Pittsburgh 10