NFL Playoff Predictions: Bleacher Report's Consensus Divisional Projections
All the cards are on the table. Everybody's all-in. Eight teams are still alive for the NFL championship, and all of them will be playing for their lives this weekend.
There's nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. The four survivors of the Wild Card Round will be traveling to the homes of the NFL's four top seeds, hoping to put together rare back-to-back road playoff wins.
The favorites, on the back of a couple of weeks off, will be taking on teams coming off huge, emotional victories. Will the home teams use the rest and atmosphere to their advantage? Or will their week off play into the hands of the red-hot road dogs?
Our eight NFL experts have been doing their homework, as always, and cast their votes for our Expert Consensus projections. Through their collective wisdom, you'll know who the divisional round's top quarterback, tailback, receiver, tight end, defender, sleeper, flop and MVP will be before the games happen.
Expert Consensus Projection: Denver Broncos pass defense vs. Pittsburgh Steelers QB—four votes
Ben Roethlisberger has torn ligaments in his throwing shoulder. Backup QB Landry Jones went 2-of-5 with an interception in relief last week. Receiver Antonio Brown was ruled out with a concussion by the team Friday. The Broncos are the NFL's No. 1 pass defense.
The math here is not hard to do. But Bleacher Report NFL Analyst Gary Davenport explained why he voted against the majority and gave the Biggest Mismatch nod to the Arizona Cardinals pass rush:
You know, it almost feels like we've been here before. Oh wait...we have been here before! In fact, it was just Week 16 when the Packers faced the Cardinals in the desert—a game the Redbirds won in a rout—a game in which the Cardinals had more sacks than the Packers did points. A game in which the Arizona defense outscored the Green Bay offense. The Cardinals so abused Green Bay's offensive line in that game that Aaron Rodgers was pulled in the interest of keeping him, you know, alive. Rodgers got discount double-wrecked eight times by the Cardinals and hit countless others. He's probably still having nightmares about the game. And Saturday night, the Freddy Krueger Kardinals are going to bring those nightmares back to life.
Others receiving votes: Kansas City Chiefs front seven vs. New England Patriots offensive line, Patriots secondary vs. Chiefs receivers, Arizona Cardinals pass rush vs. Green Bay Packers offensive line and the cold vs. Peyton Manning
Top QB Performance
Expert Consensus Projection: Carson Palmer—six votes
Palmer has been a man on a mission: coming back in record time from a 2014 ACL rupture, playing the best football of his life and leading the Cardinals to a franchise-best 13 wins.
The Packers finally showed signs of life (and, not coincidentally, a running game) in the Wild Card Round, but the Cardinals are a far different, far tougher opponent than Washington is.
The echoes here are undeniable: Palmer's career-defining season has been a storyline all year, and his Kurt-Warner-like revival in Arizona will go through one of the same crossroads. Warner's epic performance against the Packers in a 2009 Wild Card Round shootout carries a lot of weight in his legacy, and our experts overwhelmingly like Palmer to follow in Warner's footsteps yet again.
Others receiving votes: Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson
Top RB Performance
Expert Consensus Projection: David Johnson—five votes
With Jonathan Stewart of Carolina the only top-10 rusher left in the playoffs, there's a case to be made that gifted Cardinals rookie David Johnson is the scariest back still in the field.
With 1,038 yards from scrimmage, Johnson finished 42nd in the NFL—ahead of top playoff backs such as the Packers' Eddie Lacy and the Bengals' Jeremy Hill. With 12 combined rushing and receiving touchdowns, he's the kind of game-breaking back that can carry a team through the playoffs.
Further, Johnson's 599 return yards, plus one return touchdown, give him an extra dimension most of his rivals in this category don't have.
Keep an eye on NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller's selection James White: The Patriots back has a brutal matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs, but the Pats know how to win in cold weather.
Others receiving votes: Eddie Lacy/James Starks—two votes, James White
Top WR Peformance
Expert Consensus Projection: Demaryius Thomas—four votes
Denver's Demaryius Thomas is one of the most physically dominant receivers in the NFL. He puts up plenty of stats in the regular season, and this year was no exception: He finished seventh in both receptions (105) and yards (1,304), despite season-long turmoil and turnover at the quarterback position.
In the playoffs, though, Thomas finds another gear. Even when Tim Tebow was his quarterback, Thomas found ways to make game-breaking plays.
Though there's no such thing as an easy matchup at this stage of the playoffs, the Steelers are at a huge disadvantage against Thomas—they finished 30th in passing yards allowed this season. When the two teams met in Week 15, Thomas had five catches for 61 yards and two touchdowns.
He could easily top himself this time around.
Others receiving votes: Larry Fitzgerald—two votes, Martavis Bryant, Michael Floyd
Top TE Performance
Expert Consensus Projection (tie): Greg Olsen, Rob Gronkowski—three votes
This crop of playoff tight ends is extremely strong. When Kansas City's Travis Kelce isn't one of the top two vote-getters out of eight candidates, you know those two must be beastly. They are. In no particular order, New England's Rob Gronkowski and Carolina's Greg Olsen got three votes each from our NFL expert panel.
Gronkowski has produced like no other tight end and few other pass-catchers. He racked up 72 catches for 1,176 yards and 11 touchdowns in the regular season, despite missing a start to injury. His unrivaled combination of size, speed and athleticism makes him a nightmare matchup for any team, even Pro Football Focus' fourth-best coverage squad of 2015, the Kansas City Chiefs.
Olsen seems to "break out" every year, and this year was no exception. His 77 catches, 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns approached or surpassed career highs in each category, and his 14.3-yards-per-reception average was, by far, his best. Quarterback Cam Newton's breakout season has helped Olsen become as routinely dangerous downfield as he is around the sticks.
Both tight ends have difficult matchups, but each will be a huge part of his team's game plan.
Oh, and don't sleep on Kelce.
Others receiving votes: Travis Kelce—two votes
Best Defensive Performance
Expert Consensus Projection: Justin Houston—three votes
Kansas City linebacker Justin Houston is one of the most fearsome players in the NFL, second only to the Texans' J.J. Watt in sacks over the past two seasons. Coming off a knee injury that held him out of five games, Houston had three tackles (but no sacks) against the Texans. As he gets back to full strength—and, as he told ESPN.com's Adam Teicher, gets used to playing with a knee brace—he should be even stronger against Tom Brady and the Patriots.
Three of our experts like Houston to be a difference-maker in a season-defining game for the Chiefs.
Meanwhile, two preferred Von Miller and the Denver Broncos defense against the banged-up Steelers passing offense. The recipient of our Biggest Mismatch award, Miller and the Broncos pass rush will be looking to tee off on whomever's under center for the Steelers.
Panthers fans will be hoping NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller is right with his pick of cornerback Josh Norman. The All-Pro will be responsible for containing a Seahawks passing offense that exploded down the stretch.
Others receiving votes: Von Miller/Broncos defense—two votes, Cardinals defense, Clay Matthews, Josh Norman
Expert Consensus Projection: Dwight Freeney—three votes
The old man's still got it.
There's no doubt that Cardinals linebacker Dwight Freeney—once the NFL's precocious sack leader and now a 35-year-old role player—can still hassle the quarterback. With his legendary get-off and devastating spin move barely slowed by Father Time, Freeney racked up eight sacks in just 11 regular-season appearances for Arizona.
The last time the Cardinals faced the Packers, back in Week 16, Freeney exploded for three sacks against Green Bay, putting a clown suit on fill-in left tackle Don Barclay. Thanks in large part to that embarrassment, the Packers will be trying backup center J.C. Tretter at left tackle this time around (if David Bakhtiari doesn't suit up).
The results may be just as ugly.
Others receiving votes: Jermaine Kearse, Christine Michael, Richard Rodgers, Kris Richard, J.C. Tretter
Expert Consensus Projection: Aaron Rodgers/Packers offensive line/Packers offense—four votes
The reshuffled Packers offensive line pulled together a great game against an underrated Washington front seven, but the Cardinals are in a different class defensively. Arizona is ranked seventh in points allowed compared to Washington's 17th. The Cardinals rank fifth in yards allowed; Washington is 28th.
Rodgers played well in the Wild Card Round. But going up against a Cardinals secondary that finished tied for third in the NFL in interception rate, per Pro-Football Reference, will be much harder—and Palmer and the Cardinals offense have put up big numbers against defenses much stouter than the Packers'.
Rodgers and Co. did enough in the Wild Card Round to salvage a somewhat disappointing season but not enough to convince our experts that they're likely to show much better than they did in Week 16 when they lost to Arizona, 38-8.
Others receiving votes: Ben Roethlisberger/Steelers offense—two votes, Carolina Panthers, Peyton Manning
Expert Consensus Projection: David Johnson/Carson Palmer—three votes
In our expert projections, it's my policy to combine votes when practicable. Generally, I wouldn't combine a quarterback and running back. After all, MVP is an award that usually goes to either a quarterback or a running back.
But if I had left David Johnson with his two solo votes, it would have resulted in a three-way tie with Johnson, Brady and Wilson getting two votes each. That's hardly a consensus.
So with three collective votes, our experts like Arizona's offensive backfield to take the weekend's MVP over Brady, Wilson and Roethlisberger.
Others receiving votes: Tom Brady, Russell Wilson—two votes, Ben Roethlisberger