It's prove-it time for the Carolina Panthers.
The team that rolled to 14 straight victories at the start of the season and finished with a 15-1 record has not won a lot of accolades from those who follow the NFL.
Oh, yes, they had a brilliant regular-season run, but what does it matter if Ron Rivera's team doesn't back up its outstanding regular-season play with an even better performance in the postseason?
The Panthers get started Sunday when they host the Seattle Seahawks, the two-time defending NFC champions. Seattle was not at the top of its game for much of the regular season, and head coach Pete Carroll's team could only put together a 10-6 record.
However, the Seahawks were 6-1 down the stretch, and they brought back memories of the 2013 and 2014 seasons. However, there was one big difference during that run.
It was the passing game. Prior to the second half of this season, Russell Wilson seemed like an overachiever who made the most out of his athleticism, guts and ability to come through in the clutch.
Those are all important factors, but as the Seahawks ripped off impressive win after impressive win, Wilson was throwing the ball better than he had at any point in his professional career.
Wilson fired 24 TD passes in that seven-game span and threw just one interception. These Seahawks became very dangerous on offense.
There can't be any let-up against the Panthers, who can light it up themselves behind likely MVP favorite Cam Newton. The Panthers quarterback threw 35 touchdown passes this season and tossed just 10 interceptions. He also ran as well as any quarterback, collecting 10 rushing touchdowns and running for 636 yards.
|Game||Date, Time (ET)||Point Spread||Prediction||Next Opponent|
|Kansas City at New England||Jan. 16, 4:35 p.m.||New England (-4.5)||NE||If NE wins—at Denver or vs. Pittsburgh; if KC wins—at Denver or vs. Pittsburgh|
|Pittsburgh at Denver||Jan. 17, 4:40 p.m.||Denver (-7)||Denver*||If Den. wins—vs. New England or vs. Kansas City; if Pitt. wins—at NE or at KC|
|Seattle at Carolina||Jan. 17, 1:05 p.m.||Carolina (-1.5)||Carolina||If Car. wins—vs. Arizona or vs. Green Bay; if Sea. wins—at Ariz. or at Green Bay|
|Green Bay at Arizona||Jan. 16, 8:15 p.m.||Arizona (-7)||Arizona*||If Ariz. wins—at Carolina or vs. Seattle; if GB wins—at Car. or vs. Seattle|
|*Will win game but will not cover point spread.|
Odds Shark; Silverman selections
There is heavy pressure on both teams going into this game. The Seahawks want to go to their third consecutive Super Bowl and join the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills (who both went to four straight). The pressure is even more intense on the Panthers, because they need to at least get to the Super Bowl or they will be labeled a "disappointment" or perhaps a "fraud."
Carroll and the Seahawks have proved themselves in the past, and they should play a stellar game here. However, Newton is a brilliant performer who lives to come through in the clutch.
The Panthers are 1.5-point favorites, according to Odds Shark. Look for them to take control in the fourth quarter and earn a spot in the NFC Championship Game.
If the Panthers win, they will face the victor of the Green Bay Packers-Arizona Cardinals matchup at Bank of America Stadium in the NFC Championship Game January 24. If the Seahawks triumph, they will go on the road to face the winner of the Packers-Cardinals game.
The Denver Broncos appear to have an advantage over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game.
The Broncos have the No. 1 defense in the league, and they are coming off a week of rest. No such luck for the Steelers, who come to the Mile High City in a battered and bruised state.
According to Will Brinson of CBS Sports, wide receiver Antonio Brown has been ruled out of the game because he is still undergoing concussion protocol after taking a brutal hit from Cincinnati's Vontaze Burfict in the late stages of Pittsburgh's wild-card victory.
Running back DeAngelo Williams remains out of action with a foot injury, while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's throwing shoulder is battered and bruised, and he is listed as questionable, per CBS Sports.
Roethlisberger took part in Friday's practice, and head coach Mike Tomlin tried to put a positive spin on it, telling reporters that the quarterback "did everything we asked him to."
The Broncos are hoping Peyton Manning is up to the task of leading the Broncos to a home playoff victory. Manning has been troubled by ineffectiveness and injuries this year, and he had a 9-17 touchdown-to-interception ratio this season in the 10 games he played.
Head coach Gary Kubiak will try to take the pressure off Manning with the Denver ground game, but if C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman can't get it going, Manning is going to have to trigger the Denver offense.
Manning's postseason record has never been as effective as his regular-season play. His teams have been one-and-done in the playoffs nine times in his career. He may have a difficult time leading the Broncos to a win if it's all on his aging shoulders.
But if the defense plays up to form and the running game can make a contribution, the Broncos should have enough to win. They may not cover the seven-point spread, but the Steelers are just too beaten up at this point to play their best game.
If Denver wins, the Broncos will host the winner of the Kansas City-New England matchup in the AFC Championship Game. If the Steelers win, they will go on the road to face either the Chiefs or the Patriots.