NFL Playoff Predictions: Bleacher Report's Expert Consensus Divisional Picks
We bore witness to a bit of NFL history being made in the 2016 Wild Card Round.
For the first time ever, all four road teams were victorious in the same playoff weekend. Whether it was in Washington, Minneapolis, Cincinnati or Houston, hometown fans went home with long faces.
So much for home-field advantage.
That's going to be a tough feat to duplicate this weekend, however. Because now the big dogs get to eat.
After taking last weekend off, the top two seeds in each conference will play host to the wild-card road warriors in this weekend's divisional round.
Will upsets keep unfolding, or is it time to break out the chalk?
For the answer to that question, we turn to the esteemed National Lead Writers and NFL Analysts here at Bleacher Report for their predictions on how the divisional round will play out.
We had a bit of history here at Bleacher Report, too.
If memory serves, since I started doing this article at the beginning of the 2014 season, there has never been a perfect week. Certainly not in the regular season. And I can't recall one in last season's playoffs...at least not until there were only one or two games to pick.
Of course, I have to write my name on my underwear so I don't forget it, so grain of salt and all.
In any event, NFL National Lead Writer Mike Freeman, who spent much of the season among the leaders in correct selections before a late swoon, hit on all four games in the Wild Card Round.
Kudos, good sir.
Gary Davenport: NFL Analyst 2-2 (2-2)
Mike Freeman: NFL National Lead Writer 4-0 (4-0)
Brad Gagnon: NFL Analyst 3-1 (3-1)
Matt Miller: NFL National Lead Writer 3-1 (3-1)
Ty Schalter: NFL National Lead Writer 2-2 (2-2)
Brent Sobleski: NFL Analyst 3-1 (3-1)
Mike Tanier: NFL National Lead Writer 3-1 (3-1)
Sean Tomlinson: NFL Analyst 3-1 (3-1)
Consensus: 3-1 (3-1)
No. 5 Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) at No. 2 New England Patriots (12-4)
When: Saturday, January 16, 4:35 p.m. ET
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts
Line: New England (-5)
If the Kansas City Chiefs were the NFL's hottest team entering the 2015-16 playoffs, then now they're... really hot?
I know. It's poetry. Pure poetry.
Not only did the Chiefs snap an eight-game playoff losing streak and win their first postseason game in over two decades, but Kansas City put forth easily the most dominant performance of the Wild Card Round, annihilating the Texans 30-0 in Houston.
As George Willis of the New York Post reported, the performance drew smiles from Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, who knows more than a little about the sting of an early playoff exit from his time in Philadelphia.
"I’m proud of the guys," Reid said. "The coaches had a nice plan and the players played their hearts out. I know how important that is. When you get to the playoffs and things don’t go well in the first round, it rips your heart out. I’ve been on both sides of that."
Of course, even in victory, there was some sting for the Chiefs. Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin went down with what appeared to be a serious knee injury in the game. While Maclin's knee ultimately checked out OK, a sprained ankle leaves Kansas City's No. 1 wideout iffy for Saturday's game.
Reid would neither rule Maclin out nor say that he'd play while speaking with reporters Tuesday, as Adam Teicher of ESPN.com relayed, instead choosing to focus on the positive:
I was happy for the kid. That’s a tough deal. I’ve got to tell you, it looked the part [of a torn ACL]. He’s been through a couple of these before so he thought that’s what it was and it looked that way on the [initial test].
But it all worked out. As we made our way back [from Houston], he didn’t have any swelling in it. The [doctors] and Jeremy were ‘Whoa, maybe this is a little something different.’ His pain started going more down to the ankle. Positive thing.’
Maclin isn't the only prominent Chiefs player who was on the sidelines Tuesday. Outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali and running back Spencer Ware were also spectators at practice, leaving open the possibility that Kansas City will be precariously short-handed as it prepares to face the defending Super Bowl champs.
Can those banged-up Chiefs travel to Boston and slay the AFC's Goliath, or will it be a fifth straight AFC title game appearance for the Patriots?
The Pick: New England Patriots (5-3)
Yeah. Like we're going to pick against a Patriots team that's 7-3 in the playoffs since 2011 and hasn't lost a postseason game at home since the conference title game in 2012.
Granted, the last time these two teams met, the Chiefs blasted the Patriots, 41-14. And Patriots head coach Bill Belichick admitted to Jimmy Golen of the Associated Press that he hasn't forgotten that thrashing: "That was a pretty dominant performance by Kansas City. We're certainly going to have to prepare and coach the team a lot better than we did that night. So that's what we'll try to do."
Of course, Darth Hoodie then simultaneously downplayed the game while adding that there are lessons the Patriots could learn from it: "A lot of time has passed there. So there are a lot of things to think about. There's been 25 games since then. A thousand plays on either side of the ball. There are some things we can take from it. There are some things that are outdated. ... It has relevance."
Of course, the Chiefs' biggest problem Saturday may well be that Belichick hasn't forgotten that thrashing. That 27-point beatdown was the second-worst defeat of his tenure with the Patriots. Pundits and talking heads dissected it ad nauseam for weeks.
Some took the opportunity to declare the Patriots dynasty done.
The Pats said otherwise in winning Super Bowl XLIX, but Darth Hoodie has a memory like a really poorly dressed elephant. Don't doubt for one moment that Belichick wants some payback for that prime-time pantsing.
Then there's the fact that while the Chiefs are banged up, the Patriots are getting healthy. Wide receiver Julian Edelman is expected to make his return from a broken foot against the Chiefs, and Edelman told ESPN.com's Mike Reiss he intends to hit the ground running.
"I'm going to go full throttle regardless. If it goes, it goes," Edelman said Monday. "There's no dipping the toe in here; it's just diving in."
The Chiefs had a great season in 2015.
That great season ends Saturday.
Chiefs: Schalter, Sobleski, Tomlinson
Patriots: Davenport, Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Tanier
No. 5 Green Bay Packers (10-6) at No. 2 Arizona Cardinals (13-3)
When: Saturday, January 16, 8:15 p.m. ET
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona
Line: Arizona (-7)
The Pack is back, baby!
I talked a lot the last couple of weeks about being able to turn it on, and a lot of you probably thought that was lip service. But we just needed a game like this to get our mojo back and get our confidence going.
It just takes one performance to get us going back in the right direction. and believing that we can make a run.
Redskins defensive back DeAngelo Hall conceded that Rodgers looked very much like the reigning NFL MVP Sunday afternoon:
He was able to adapt and make changes. Early on, we were able to get pressure on him, kind of had him flustered a little bit, but he’s one of the great quarterbacks in this league for a reason.
They just kept trucking. They kept their foot on the pedal. When you face a team like that, you just can’t give them free opportunities.
Bell also had some choice words for the many pundits who wrote the Packers off a week ago. Pundits who predicted the Redskins would send the Packers, well, packing.
Pundits like three-quarters of the panelists here at Bleacher Report, including yours truly.
"All of the social media activists, pundits and bandwagon-jumpers who contended in the days leading up to the wild-card matchup that they take Cousins over Rodgers are sorely in need of a discount double-check," Bell wrote.
See what he did there?
It just goes to show you that a lot can can change in a week during the NFL playoffs. At this time a week ago, the Packers were a disjointed football team that limped into the playoffs having lost its last two games (and the NFC North in the process).
Now the Packers, who play on while the Minnesota Vikings watch the divisional round on TV, are a dangerous football team led by arguably the league's best player. A team that appears poised to become the latest wild card to crash the conference title tilts.
The only thing standing in their way is an Arizona Cardinals team we last saw getting jackstomped at home by the Seattle Seahawks in Week 17.
The Pick: Arizona Cardinals (7-1)
Yes, the Cardinals were smacked around by the Seahawks two weeks ago.
The week before, however, it was the Cardinals doing the smacking.
The smack-ee? None other than the Green Bay Packers.
In Week 16, the Cardinals demolished the Packers, 38-8, in a game where the Redbirds defense scored more touchdowns than the Packers offense.
Of course, to hear Arizona head coach Bruce Arians tell it, the Cardinals barely escaped against Green Bay.
First, while speaking on a conference call with reporters, Arians said “that was a game where the ball bounced our way a couple times. For most of the game, it could have gone either way.”
Mind you, this was a game where Packers head coach Mike McCarthy pulled Aaron Rodgers after eight sacks in the interest of keeping Rodgers' head attached to his neck.
Then Arians told 98.7 FM in Phoenix (via Fox Sports' Tom Torrisi) that he expects a much tougher go of it when the two teams meet again Saturday night.
"It will be a different team this time around," Arians said. "They obviously got a little confidence after the way they played [against Washington], and they got some healthy offensive linemen back, which will make a big difference in the game."
I'll give Arians that; this game will be different. Tougher, even—in that Arizona probably won't put 31 unanswered points on the board to open the contest.
But the Cardinals didn't just beat the Packers a few weeks ago. They destroyed them. Dominated every facet of the game on both sides of the ball.
The Packers may be better, but they aren't that much better.
Apparently the oddsmakers in Vegas agree.
After all, as ESPN.com's David Purdum wrote, they have not only installed the Cardinals as the favorites to win this game but also as the favorites to hoist the Lombardi Trophy at the end of Super Bowl 50.
And you can't do the latter without first accomplishing the former.
Cardinals: Davenport, Gagnon, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson
No. 6 Seattle Seahawks (10-6) at No. 1 Carolina Panthers (15-1)
When: Sunday, January 17, 1:05 P.M. ET
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, North Carolina
Line: Carolina (-2.5)
There are those who would say that the Seattle Seahawks got lucky a week ago after a missed chip-shot field goal enabled them to survive against the Minnesota Vikings, 10-9, on a frigid day in Minneapolis.
Well, Andy Benoit of the MMQB is not among them. In fact, Benoit believes that last week notwithstanding, the 2015 Seahawks are a more dangerous football team than the one that represented the NFC in the last two Super Bowls:
Mother Nature and a hard-fighting Vikings defense did not allow it to be seen this past Sunday, but this Seahawks offense is the best it’s ever been. Whereas before the Seahawks often had to make it a low-scoring affair in order to beat a quality opponent, they’re now capable of outscoring one. If they fail to make a third Super Bowl run, it will be because the other NFC teams that are still standing also got better. This is the most dangerous Seahawks team yet.
Seattle's Wild Card Round win was brought about in large part because of yet another example in an ever-growing list of plays where quarterback Russell Wilson turned a busted play into a big gain. And head coach Pete Carroll told reporters that if the Seahawks are headed back to the NFC Championship Game, it will take some more patented Wilson magic:
We’ve seen so often just the magic that comes out of him sometimes. He had a number of plays (against the Vikings) where he was in trouble and he got away and did some good things. We almost made some big plays and we didn’t. But that was one that we capitalized on.
It’s a rare play, but he does stuff like that and we kind of have come to count on it, and it’s been a factor for us. Just in that little sequence of the football drive, there’s some real magic in there.
Can Wilson reach into his bag of tricks and do something no team in the NFL has done this season—beat the Panthers in Charlotte?
Or is Seattle's run atop the NFC about to come to an end?
The Pick: Carolina Panthers (6-2)
Well, according to our writers, it's that second one.
Remember, these teams played one another in Seattle back in Week 6, a game the Panthers won, 27-23.
As ESPN.com's David Newton reported, Panthers safety Roman Harper believes there's an easy explanation as to why.
The Panthers are the better team:
I’m excited about it. I’m excited about the opportunity to go up against this team. They are the co-defending champs, and we’re ready for it.
We are the better team.
I’m not going to say we’re superior or anything like that. [But] at the end of the day we’ve been the better team all year long, and we’ve got to go out there and continue to stick to who we are and when we do this we’ve been very successful.
Of course, the Panthers have a magician of their own in quarterback Cam Newton, who is the presumptive favorite to be named the 2015 NFL MVP.
In the opinion of ESPN.com's Matt Bowen, Mr. MVP would be well-served to keep doing what he's done all year long.
Throw the ball to tight end Greg Olsen:
Olsen lit up the Seahawks in Week 6 (seven receptions, 131 yards, one touchdown), as the Panthers used the tight end in a variety of ways.
Olsen was targeted twice on the post-wheel (from two different formations), he ran the dig route, the seam, the shallow crosser, etc. The point here? He's a versatile, movable piece in the Panthers' game plan. Just like we talked about above with Olsen attacking the seams, the Panthers can feature the tight end out of 3x1 alignment to get an inside matchup and also use more play action (boot) to sneak Olsen over the top of the secondary. Plus, he has the ability to line up as a receiver against Lane or even Richard Sherman and use his size to gain inside leverage (he beat both Williams and Sherman back in Week 6).
Even with the development of the Panthers' receiving corps this season, Olsen is still the key to the Panthers' passing attack, in my opinion -- especially against a zone-based defense. He's one of the NFL's most underrated pass-catching TEs and provides Newton with a reliable target at all three levels of the field.
If the Seahawks can't do any better Sunday against Olsen and Newton than they did in October, then our panel is going to be proved prescient.
And there's going to be a new king in the NFC regardless of who wins a week from now.
Seahawks: Davenport, Gagnon
Panthers: Freeman, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson
No. 6 Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6) at No. 1 Denver Broncos (12-4)
When: Sunday, January 17, 4:40 P.M. ET
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver
Line: Denver (-7)
The Pittsburgh Steelers won the battle in the Wild Card Round, but in doing so, they may well have lost the war.
Yes, the Steelers won one of the wilder and weirder playoff games in recent memory, defeating the Cincinnati Bengals, 18-16.
But when the Steelers head west to take on the Denver Broncos on Sunday, they may be without their two best players.
Wide receiver Antonio Brown, who was clobbered on an illegal hit by Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict that helped set up the game-winning field goal, is in the league's concussion protocol. And according to ESPN.com's Bob Holtzman (via Yahoo Sports' Eric Edholm), early signs point to Brown being a no-go against Denver:
Despite optimism Monday, that has taken a turn for the worse. ESPN’s Bob Holtzman reports that it's “not looking good” for Brown to be cleared for Sunday's game against the Broncos in Denver.
If Brown is out, it's a massive blow. The silver lining is that running backmight return after missing the Bengals game, but the run game was not an issue in that one. , who made a ridiculous TD catch at Cincinnati, would be the de facto No. 1 option in the case that Brown can't go.
As if that wasn't bad enough, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered a shoulder injury in the game on a sack by (wait for it) Burfict. Roethlisberger's availability appears to be more likely than Brown's at this point in the week, but even Big Ben conceded he doesn't know if he'll be remotely close to 100 percent against arguably the NFL's best defense Sunday:
I honestly don’t know. I haven’t tried to throw a football since the game, and maybe that’s not even the right thing to do right away. I’ll see the doctors and trainers tomorrow [Wednesday], we’ll evaluate kind of how I feel. If anything, maybe I can practice and hand off and still get some mental reps that way. So we’ll really just kind of see how it goes [Wednesday].
At full strength, the Steelers had garnered a reputation as the team no one wanted to play on the AFC side of the playoff bracket.
But do the Black and Gold have a shot against the conference's top seed without their two biggest offensive stars?
The Pick: Denver Broncos (7-1)
In the opinion of all but one of our writers, that would be a big fat no.
Not that this Denver team doesn't have some problems of its own, including the question of who gives the team the best chance to win under center after Peyton Manning replaced Brock Osweiler two weeks ago against the San Diego Chargers.
In the opinion of Troy Renck of the Denver Post, it's a question that really isn't a question—and one that head coach Gary Kubiak has already answered:
Coach Gary Kubiak believes Peyton Manning gives the Broncos the best chance to win. Why? He cites the improved health of his left foot, the ability to work out of shotgun and center and his experience. Manning has played in 24 playoff games, though his 11-13 record remains a blemish. If Manning can play a complementary role, trust the offense, and not turn the ball over, he is the Broncos' best option. If he forces throws or is compromised physically, then he's not. However, there is another factor at work. Brock Osweiler isn't healthy. He sprained his right knee when the Chargers' Melvin Ingram hit him on Jan. 3. I don't think he would have played if the Broncos had a game last Sunday. He still isn't close to 100 percent, and he's also dealing with a sore left elbow and shoulder. Osweiler boasts athleticism and a big arm. He deserves credit for winning big games against New England and Cincinnati. What Manning brings is the ability to diagnose plays quickly at the line of scrimmage and potential help for the offensive line by getting rid of the ball more quickly.
Then there's the matter of the cheap shot—and not the one that laid Brown out Saturday night.
When these teams met in December (a game the Steelers won in Pittsburgh), Denver safety David Bruton got his bell rung by Pittsburgh center Cody Wallace. As Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com wrote, more than one Denver player thought that hit was dirty.
And the Broncos will be looking for payback this week.
"It's not going to be anything as far as cheap or anything," said Broncos safety Darian Stewart. "We're going to get them between the lines, between the plays, the whistle. So I mean, he's going to be sore after the game. That's how I see it, man. He comes out on a screen, he better not come at [me]. I'm cutting him. That's where I'm at with it."
"I'm glad he got something. I was worried he was going to get away scot-free," Bruton said about the hit. "It happens in the game, granted. It's still cheap and unacceptable. ... You can't just be launching, especially when the guy's been down for two seconds already."
So you have an essentially full-strength No. 1 seed looking for revenge, both for the outcome of last month's game and what transpired during it.
And you have a beaten-up No. 6 seed that may well be short its two biggest playmakers.
No Ben? No Brown?
Broncos: Davenport, Gagnon, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson
All betting odds courtesy of Odds Shark.