NFL Divisional Round: Mike Tanier's Game Previews and Score Predictions

Mike TanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 14, 2016

NFL Divisional Round: Mike Tanier's Game Previews and Score Predictions

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    It's deja vu in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs this year. 

    The Cardinals and Packers met just three weeks ago. It didn't go so well for the Packers.

    The Steelers and Broncos met just four weeks ago. It went very well for the Steelers. Then again, their quarterback wasn't defying the tenets of medical science and human anatomy just by stepping onto the field back then.

    The Panthers and Seahawks met in Week 6 and before that in last year's divisional round. If Russell Wilson and Cam Newton keep meeting like this, they are going to start seeing Roman numerals appear after their names.

    The Chiefs and Patriots haven't met in more than a year. But their last meeting was one the Patriots haven't forgotten.

    With so much recent evidence, it should be easy to determine whether a healthy Peyton Manning and a zombie Ben Roethlisberger can be enough to turn the tide in the Broncos' favor, whether the Seahawks have any late-season momentum or playoff mojo to throw at the Panthers, whether the Chiefs can repeat their Brady-killer success of last year and whether the Packers have improved enough in 20 days or so...(chuckle)...to erase memories of that humiliating...(snort)...

    Sorry, we're laughing too hard to complete this thought. Let's just get to the previews.

    As always, Game Previews are listed in the order you should read them, and all times listed on the slides are Eastern. Unless noted, all stats come from NFLGSIS.com.

Seattle Seahawks at Carolina Panthers, Sunday, 1:05 p.m.

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    Ryan Kang/Associated Press

    Newton-Wilson VI pits the NFL's best team in 2015 against the defending two-time NFC champs and one of the hardest teams to beat in the playoffs in NFL history.

    Why are you looking at that last sentence funny? Is it the Roman numerals? Do you think it's too early for Roman numerals?

    It's not too early for Roman numerals.

    This is the sixth meeting between Newton and Wilson. It's the second playoff meeting. Newton is 26 years old; Wilson is 27. Neither will be going anywhere for many years. When Tom Brady and Peyton Manning were those ages, they had only met four times and just once in the playoffs.

    Newton-Wilson is the next Brady-Manning. Get on board now.

    Newton is the Manning of the rivalry: former first pick overall, odds-on MVP candidate, famous in football circles since high school, soon-to-be pitchman for everything, the guy much of the nation loves to find reasons to hate. Wilson is the Brady, the gritty underdog who is more about wins than personal glory—the proven winner and gutsy leader who earned his way to the top.

    Wilson is also 4-1 in Newton-Wilson Bowls (it's not too soon, darn it!), including last year's divisional playoff, which cements his Brady-ness in the Brady-Manning comparison. By extension, and taking into account Sunday's Houdini performance against the Vikings, it's easy to conclude that the Seahawks will beat the Panthers by virtue of quarterback playoff magic sauce.

    There's only one problem: The Panthers are better than the Seahawks. They proved it the last time the teams met, winning 27-23 in Week 6.

    The Seahawks had everything going for them in that game. They were at home. The 12th Man contributed to three Panthers false starts in the first half. Marshawn Lynch was in Beast Mode, not Limbo Mode. Jimmy Graham was healthy and making a real contribution: eight catches for 140 yards, including a 45-yarder on a patented Wilson miracle scramble. The Seahawks threw the whole playbook at the Panthers, including a Wilson-Lynch-Ricardo Lockette flea-flicker touchdown.

    The Seahawks sacked Newton three times and pressured him consistently. They took the Panthers wide receivers completely out of the game. The Seahawks led 20-7 late in the third quarter.

    Yet, the Panthers won because Newton led three 80-yard drives, manufactured out of short passes to the likes of Jerricho Cotchery, Ed Dickson and Philly Brown and punctuated by touchdowns by Jonathan Stewart and Greg Olsen. The Panthers proved to be more versatile, resilient and capable of closing out a tight game than the Seahawks—and did it in Seattle.

    This week, the Panthers will be at home, while the Seahawks will have played in three different time and temperate zones (none of them their own) in three weeks.

    Newton-Wilson Bowls differ from Brady-Manning Bowls in many ways. The Panthers and Seahawks usually play defensive duels with final scores like 12-7 and 13-9; that 27-23 final in Week 6 was as explosive as things will ever get. Whereas Manning and Brady stand in the shotgun formation, bark orders and distribute short passes, Newton and Wilson mix pocket passes, designed runs, scrambles and ball fakes on option-flavored plays (plus some order-barking) to overcome each other's defenses.

    Wilson is still the better pocket passer of the pair, as he demonstrated during the Seahawks' five-game winning streak. But Newton has grown as a pocket passer, decision-maker and ball distributor, to the point that he is better suited to beat the Seahawks than Wilson is to beat the Panthers.

    Newton and the Panthers are unapologetic about pistol formations, fullback gives, reverses, inside quarterback runs and option meshes that last for two seconds and freeze the entire defense. The Seahawks have moved away from those tactics, but they may need them against the most disciplined defense they have faced outside of their own practice facility.

    The Seahawks used to be the super-creative team with the nasty home-field advantage. The Panthers stole that mantle this season. And by taking hit after hit while fighting for extra yards and leading his share of no-nonsense comebacks this year, Newton has shown he has a little Brady-style leader grit under his fingernails, just as Wilson flashed some Manning-esque passing stats in the second half of the year.

    Come to think of it, Newton-Wilson doesn't have the potential to be Brady-Manning. It has the potential to be better than Brady-Manning.

    Prediction: Panthers 24, Seahawks 21

Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots, Saturday, 4:35 p.m.

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Once upon a time, in a world not much different from this one, the Chiefs whupped the Patriots 41-14 on national television.

    It was just 15 months ago, not 15 years ago. The Patriots were not crippled by injuries. The Chiefs did not win because of controversial calls or blocked kicks. There was no stealth playoff tiebreaker advantage that may have prompted Bill Belichick to secretly throw the game. There was no sugarcoating what happened, so the Monday Night Massacre became a scary campfire tale for Patriots fans.

    There's a team out there that looks unassuming, but the things they can do to us...oh the things they can do to us...

    Rewatch last year's Monday Night Massacre on NFL Game Pass, and it's striking just how much of a Chiefs win that particular Chiefs win was.

    There was no deep passing at all in that game. According to the Football Outsiders internal database, Alex Smith's longest throw of the game traveled just 18 yards past the line of scrimmage. The Chiefs dressed up their runs with lots of fake reverses and misdirection. They concealed their screens and quick passes with strange formations, including a three-tight end bunch that gave the Patriots defense headaches. They managed field position exceptionally, pinning the Patriots at the 1-, 9- and 10-yard lines with punts.

    The Chiefs also forced three turnovers. That's not easy to do against the Patriots, but when you build a lead and force Brady to hold on to the ball and look for shots downfield, anything is possible.

    That's the scariest part of this campfire tale for the Patriots: The Chiefs beat them by just being the Chiefs. Brady said as much on WEEI Boston sports radio this week, expanding on his statement that the Chiefs "force you into a lot of bad football."

    "You can't really fall asleep for one play, or else it's a turnover," he said on the Dennis & Callahan Morning Show. "And if it's a turnover they turn those into points. Then you get behind and they make it a one-dimensional game and it just snowballs. That's the kind of team they are."

    The Chiefs team that beat the Patriots last September was scary. But that Chiefs team is not this Chiefs team.

    Jamaal Charles had a monster game that day against the Patriots: 92 rushing yards, 16 receiving yards, three total touchdowns. Knile Davis (107 rushing yards, including a 48-yard run) also played well, but Charles was the matchup nightmare, hiding in the slot for screens and forcing the Patriots to account for him on every snap. While Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West have played well, the Chiefs have no one like Charles.

    Dwayne Bowe also was good in that game against the Patriots: five catches for 81 yards. Jeremy Maclin (high ankle sprain) is a much better receiver at this point in his career than Bowe was in 2014 and has not officially been ruled out for Saturday, but it's hard to imagine his being much of a factor if he does play through the injury. Andy Reid has won playoff games with bad receiving corps before—he reached the Super Bowl with Todd Pinkston, Greg Lewis and Freddie Mitchell—but without Maclin (or with Maclin limited), the Chiefs may have the worst wide receiver corps in modern playoff history.

    The Monday Night Massacre was an extreme home-advantage game. The Arrowhead Stadium crowd was loud and only grew more deafening as the Chiefs seized control. The field was also a little choppy, with players on both teams (but particularly the Patriots) having trouble with their footing. Foxborough in January provides the Patriots one of the largest home-field advantages in the sports world.

    The Chiefs defense can probably force a little "bad football" from Brady (on the mend from an ankle injury) and his depleted offense. But the Patriots are pretty good at forcing some bad football themselves. And if you expect residual "distractions" to be a factor after Chandler Jones' shady-sounding medical emergency of last week, then you haven't followed the Patriots closely for the past 15 years.

    The Chiefs may have thrown a scare into them last year, but these are the playoffs, where the Patriots remain the NFL's boogeymen until proved otherwise.

    Prediction: Patriots 23, Chiefs 16

Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals, Saturday, 8:15 p.m.

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    The Cardinals are better.

    Game Previews aren't supposed to start that way. We are supposed to highlight an interesting matchup, review any recent injuries or transactions, provide an obscure or enlightening stat or two (the Cardinals had the lowest ratio of three-and-out drives to total drives in the NFL at 0.149, according to Football Outsiders!), pull a quote from the week's press conferences and perhaps tell some jokes about, say, how Jason Babin has been bouncing around the NFL as a second-rate mercenary pass-rusher for four years but will sack Aaron Rodgers three times now that the Cardinals have their mitts on him.

    We would typically add a sentence about how good the Packers looked after the first quarter in Washington last week, when they were able to achieve some run-pass balance and use uptempo tactics to force mistakes and eventually exhaust the Redskins defense. We might even wag a finger and proclaim You can never count Rodgers out or mention that left tackle David Bakhtiari could return to fortify the line that the Cardinals splintered three weeks ago.

    But the heck with all of that. The Cardinals beat the Packers 38-8 so recently that the game recording is still on our DVRs. One review of that game shows that it was a total mismatch.

    The Cardinals are faster—much faster—on both sides of the ball. They are quicker and more athletic across the roster. Their bench is deeper, even after defensive injuries. Their offense is more creative and diverse. When the Cardinals go to three or four wide receivers against the Packers, they create mismatches across the secondary. When they switch to a power formation, they win the physical battle on the line of scrimmage.

    The Packers have no wide receivers who can win one-on-one matchups against the Cardinals secondary; Davante Adams' injury in the Wild Card Round robs them of one of their few remaining X-factors. While Dwight Freeney's whirling abuse of now-benched backup left tackle Don Barclay got all the attention in Week 16, the entire Packers line had been trampled into the dust by the third quarter.

    The Cardinals have better players and, at least this year, are better coached and managed. There's probably a point to be made there about the right way to use free agency; the Cardinals get the most out of cheap veteran role players (Freeney, Babin), while the Packers act like grabbing some veteran help at a need position is like cheating on your diet at the All-You-Can-Eat Funnel Cake Warehouse.

    It would also be worth pointing out that the Cardinals got a taste of their own medicine in Week 17 from the Seahawks, except (A) this is not a Seahawks-Cardinals preview (the Seahawks are a division rival, match up better athletically, had more to play for than Arizona, etc.), and (B) the two most misleading weeks of any NFL regular season are the first and last.

    So there's no reason for jokes, deep matchup analysis, injury reports or acknowledging the other side of the argument. It's been a long season, and the Game Previews staff has to save some ammunition for the last few games.

    The Cardinals are the better team. They will win. Next slide.

    Prediction: Cardinals 34, Packers 24

Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos, Sunday, 4:40 p.m.

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    Peyton Manning, who missed six games late in the season with a foot injury before returning for a relief appearance in the season finale, gets the start for the Broncos over Brock Osweiler.

    Manning? That fossil?! Why not sign Joe Namath? Manning is a turnover wraith. Gary Kubiak is taking the coward's way out. He doesn't want to be remembered by history as the coach who benched Manning for a playoff game.

    Ben Roethlisberger, who suffered a significant shoulder injury in last week's guerrilla skirmish with the Bengals and is still on the mend from other in-season injuriesand who threw six interceptions in his final three regular-season gamesis expected to start for the Steelers.

    Man, Big Ben is indestructible. He's like Willis Reed and Kirk Gibson's big brother. You just watch: He'll be throwing the ball 40 yards on a laser line to Antonio Brown without wincing. What's that? Brown is hurt? OK, it'll be that Martavis Bryant kid. Injury reports are irrelevant to Ben Freakin' Roethlisberger!

    Hmm, there appears to be a perceptual double standard here.

    Roethlisberger has become like the office manager who refuses to delegate any authority and also refuses to ever take a sick day. The entire office operation becomes completely dependent on that person, until one day the boss is just too sick to function. Upper management is stuck either letting the boss come in and muddle through at an ever-diminishing capacity or hoping a subordinate can take over without setting the web server on fire. The top brass members usually realize then, a little too late, that they should have focused on better contingency plans back when they didn't need them.

    In other words, the Steelers' lack of confidence in Landry Jones has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. That was obvious when the Steelers went into an immediate funk the moment Jones entered the Bengals game. It's clear from the timbre of this week's quarterback conversation.

    You're our guy, Landry, if Ben wakes up Sunday with no feeling whatsoever in his right arm—and cannot learn how to throw left-handed by game time. The Steelers' hopes for an upset rest exclusively on another Wolverine-level act of mutant healing.

    The Broncos' hopes, meanwhile, rest with one of the best defenses in NFL history, the Mile High advantage and the key starters who are returning from injury. Like DeMarcus Ware. And several starters in the secondary. Oh, and a Hall of Fame quarterback who, if he proves too rickety to get the job done, will give way to a backup who earned his coaches' trust with a pair of comeback wins in overtime against playoff teams.

    Maybe Big Ben is indestructible. It's more likely that he has finally buckled from having the weight of the franchise on his shoulders.

    Prediction: Broncos 28, Steelers 17

     

    Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.