2016 NFL Playoffs: Keys to Victory for Each NFL Team in the Divisional Round
Following a weekend that put the "wild" in Wild Card Round, we are down to the final eight clubs that are looking to hoist the Lombardi Trophy on February 7.
For the first time ever, four road teams won NFL postseason games in the same weekend. Now, that task gets far tougher for the Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers as they face their respective conferences' well-rested No. 1 and 2 seeds.
When it comes to winning this weekend, what should we look for from each club? We have zeroed in on eight keys, one per team, to focus on during the divisional-round action.
Note: Win-loss records include this year’s postseason.
Kansas City Chiefs: Takeaways
One of the big reasons the Kansas City Chiefs have managed to string together 11 consecutive wins following a 1-5 start has been their defense.
Not only has Andy Reid’s squad made marked improvement from a year ago when it comes to stopping the run, but the ability to force opponents into costly mistakes has also taken a turn for the best.
And if the red-hot Chiefs are to knock off the New England Patriots in Foxborough, they will not only need to make quarterback Tom Brady uncomfortable but come up with a few handouts from the defending Super Bowl champions.
Of course, that’s easier said than done when you’re talking about a Patriots club that turned over the football a league-low 14 times.
Speaking of 14, that’s the number of takeaways the Chiefs managed in 16 games in 2014. This season, it’s been quite different. Kansas City forced 29 turnovers during the regular season and five more in its Wild Card Round 30-0 shutout of the Houston Texans.
New England Patriots: WR Julian Edelman
Julian Edelman is back.
Does that mean the New England Patriots' once-potent attack is ready to return to its early-season form?
Despite all their injuries, constant lineup changes and an offensive front that’s had its assorted troubles as well, only the Carolina Panthers (500) and Arizona Cardinals (489) scored more points than the Pats (465) this season.
Still, there’s reason for concern this weekend as the defensive-minded Chiefs head to Foxborough. But the return of productive wideout Edelman, who sat out the final seven games of the season with a broken foot, should help matters dramatically.
Per Mike Reiss of ESPN.com, Edelman was seen “cutting and accelerating at practice” on Monday and appears ready to play.
“I’m kind of my worst enemy when it comes to that, trying to over-push things,” Edelman said Monday, per Reiss. “We’ve had our staff work with me to keep me from hurting myself. So I think we’ve handled it pretty decent.”
In the team’s first nine games this season, the savvy wide receiver caught 61 passes for 692 yards and seven touchdowns. In those contests, the Patriots averaged 33.7 points per game and reached the 30-point mark six times. Without Edelman, Bill Belichick’s club managed only 23.1 points per outing and scored at least 30 points just once during its 3-4 finish.
Green Bay Packers: WR Randall Cobb
The Green Bay Packers started the 2015 season in impressive fashion and ended it in depressing form.
After a 6-0 start, the Packers lost six of their final 10 games. Mike McCarthy’s club dropped its final two contests—a lopsided loss at Arizona (38-8) followed by a 20-13 home setback to the Minnesota Vikings that cost Green Bay its recent reign atop the NFC North.
Last week at Washington, the Packers fell behind the Redskins 11-0 in the second quarter before waking up and outscoring them 35-7 the rest of the way. Aaron Rodgers overcame an early safety to throw for 210 yards and two scores, and the Green Bay ground game rolled up 141 yards.
The player who seemed to jump-start the Packers’ attack was wide receiver Randall Cobb, and perhaps not in the way you would expect. The former Pro Bowler caught just three passes for 38 yards and one touchdown. But he also ran the football five times for 24 yards and proved to be a nice change of pace from running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks.
Arizona Cardinals: RB David Johnson
What do we make of Bruce Arians’ NFC West champions the last two times they took the field?
One week after manhandling the Green Bay Packers in Glendale, 38-8, the Arizona Cardinals were pushed around in the same building by the visiting Seattle Seahawks, 36-6.
Now they must deal with the Pack once again, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Co. look like they’re back. The team rallied for a 35-18 victory last week at Washington, with all of its points coming in the game’s final three quarters.
Three weeks ago, the Cardinals’ pass rush sacked Rodgers eight times and returned two of his fumbles for touchdowns. But what can we expect from an Arizona defense that is down a few good men at the moment? According to Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic, outside linebacker Alex Okafor and defensive end Cory Redding won’t be available for the rest of the postseason, and the team is already without safety Tyrann Mathieu.
That could mean a bigger role for the Cardinals' ground attack, one that could keep the defense off the field and also take advantage of a Green Bay defense that ranked 21st in the NFL against the run this season. Rookie running back David Johnson frustrated the Packers in more ways than one in Week 16, running nine times for 39 yards and a touchdown and catching three passes for 88 yards.
Seattle Seahawks: Offensive Line
The two-time defending NFC champions escaped with their football lives last week in frigid Minnesota.
That being said, it’s on to Carolina for the Seattle Seahawks, who pulled out a 10-9 victory over the Vikings and now get ready to face the Panthers for the fourth time in two years and the second straight season in the playoffs.
The catalyst during the team’s current 7-1 stretch has been quarterback Russell Wilson, who, despite last week’s performance at Minnesota, has thrown 25 touchdown passes and just two interceptions in his last eight games.
It has also helped that the fourth-year quarterback has been sacked only 16 times in his last 10 games—a stark contrast from earlier in the season when he was dropped a combined 31 times in the club’s first seven contests.
The Seahawks’ offensive front must now deal with a Carolina pass rush that totaled 44 sacks—the sixth-highest total in the league this season.
Carolina Panthers: Defense
For the first time since the Green Bay Packers lost just once in 2011, a team has won at least 15 regular-season games.
The Panthers flirted with perfection this season even though they were far from perfect at times. However, Ron Rivera’s club cruised to a third straight NFC South title, led the NFL in scoring with 500 points, ranked sixth in the league in total defense and came up with an NFL-best 39 takeaways.
Now, that defense must come up with a big effort against a Seattle team that has gotten the best of the Panthers more times than not since 2012. Over the last month or so, we have seen the Carolina defense look a little vulnerable. The Panthers allowed only 32 offensive touchdowns in 16 games, but 12 of those scores came in their final five games. Meanwhile, the team allowed 38 and 35 points, respectively, in wins over the New Orleans Saints and New York Giants.
Of course, in between was a shutout of the Atlanta Falcons. We may not be sure which Carolina defense shows up this week against one of the hotter passing attacks in the league these days. If Rivera and Co. are headed to Santa Clara in a few weeks, they had better see the best of this defensive unit.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Defensive Pressure
The unsung hero for the Pittsburgh Steelers in last week’s emotional 18-16 victory at Cincinnati was an offensive line that paved the way for 167 yards rushing against a Bengals defense that ranked seventh in the league against the run.
But this week, with an offense surrounded by uncertainty regarding the quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger), star wide receiver (Antonio Brown) and veteran running back (DeAngelo Williams), defensive coordinator Keith Butler and his unpredictable unit must step to the forefront in this rematch with the Denver Broncos.
As for Roethlisberger, Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has the latest on the star quarterback, who hopes to be ready but is also realistic:
I don’t want to be out there if I hurt the team. If you can’t throw the ball 25 or 30 yards down the field, you’re hurting your team. I don’t think we’ll put ourselves in that situation. If we can, any way possible, pain medicine whatever it is, if I have to be in pain the next day, then I’ll deal with it. ... We’re going to do everything we can to get it as stable as we can. We’ll see what kind of pain we can deal with on Sunday.
Four weeks ago, the Steelers rallied from a 27-10 deficit for a 34-27 victory thanks mainly to the combination of Roethlisberger and Brown. The veteran signal-caller threw for 380 yards and three scores (two interceptions), while Brown hauled in 16 passes for 189 yards and two scores. The 34 points were the most allowed by the Broncos this season.
It would be surprising to see a combined 61 points by these teams on Sunday. And the Steelers, who have totaled 51 sacks and 34 takeaways in 17 overall games this season (up from 34 sacks and 22 takeaways in 17 games a year ago), need to put their offense on a short field as much as possible this weekend.
Denver Broncos: Running Game
While veteran quarterback Peyton Manning is primed to return to the starting lineup this week for the Denver Broncos, Gary Kubiak’s club will only go as far as the ground game and the league’s top-ranked defense will take it.
Two weeks ago against the San Diego Chargers, the prolific signal-caller entered the game after his team had already committed five turnovers. But while some may have been expecting Manning to go in and do what he used to do best, he spent most of his time handing off the football. By game’s end, the Broncos had rolled up a season-high 210 yards rushing.
Manning would finish the game with 69 yards passing, but his presence provided an emotional boost for the AFC West champions. And this week against the Steelers, the Broncos need to employ a similar game plan to what they employed against the Chargers.
That won’t necessarily be easy with the Steelers ranking sixth in the NFL in rushing defense this season. Still, when these clubs met in Pittsburgh four weeks ago, the Broncos did manage to run for 104 yards on 25 carries. Look for a tag-team effort from C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman while Denver’s top-ranked defense attempts to do the rest.