NFL Divisional Playoffs: Everything You Need to Know for Saturday's Games

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJanuary 16, 2016

NFL Divisional Playoffs: Everything You Need to Know for Saturday's Games

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    The 2015-16 NFL postseason is underway, and we're another step closer to knowing which two teams will compete for the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl 50. 

    We're a week into the playoffs, and with all four road teams winning on Wild Card Weekend, we can assume the weaker teams have been weeded out. Now we have two days' worth of divisional-round games that feature the league's four highest-seeded teams and four teams that have made it through the first stage of the gauntlet.

    Saturday brings us an afternoon contest between the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots, along with an exciting matchup pitting the Green Bay Packers against the Arizona Cardinals for a nightcap. 

    Both of these games have the potential to be epic. Here's everything you need to know about them.

The Teams

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    New England Patriots (AFC's No. 2 Seed)

    The defending Super Bowl champions spent much of the regular season looking like they were again the best team in the NFL. However, a continued flood of injuries took its toll on the New England Patriots, who backed into the AFC's second seed by losing four of their final six games.

    The Patriots should be a healthier team after spending the first week of the postseason on a bye, but there are still injury concerns. According to Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston, star tight end Rob Gronkowski is dealing with both back and knee issues.

    New England will be hoping the overall talent remaining on the team will be enough to get back to winning ways since the squad's banged-up roster looks vastly different than it did at the beginning of the regular season. Pro Football Focus rated the Patriots second in defense and sixth in offense. 

    Kansas City Chiefs (AFC's No. 5 Seed)

    There probably isn't a hotter team remaining in the postseason than the Kansas City Chiefs. They rattled off 10 consecutive wins to finish the regular season and opened the playoffs with a 30-0 beatdown of the Houston Texans.

    Kansas City is primarily built around its defense. It is rated fifth in overall defense and fourth in pass coverage by Pro Football Focus. However, there is talent on the other side of the football, as well. 

    Veteran quarterback Alex Smith leads a group that averages 25.3 points per game. Of course, the unit will be hampered if top receiver Jeremy Maclin can't go Saturday. Maclin suffered an ankle sprain against the Texans, though the injury initially looked to be much worse. According to BJ Kissel of the team's official site, Maclin was a limited participant in practice late in the week.

    Arizona Cardinals (NFC's No. 2 Seed)

    The Arizona Cardinals are probably the least surprising team that will take the field Saturday. Why? Well, the Cardinals managed to win 11 games a year ago despite only having starting quarterback Carson Palmer available for six of them.

    Palmer was available for all 16 games this year, which is a big reason why Arizona's second-ranked offense averaged 30.6 points per game. Of course, this is one of the more balanced teams in the postseason, so its talent isn't limited to the offensive side of the ball.

    Pro Football Focus ranked the 13-3 Cardinals fourth overall, and they are fifth in total defense (321.7 yards per game allowed). If it is firing on all cylinders, Arizona will be extremely difficult to knock off.

    Green Bay Packers (NFC's No. 5 Seed)

    The Green Bay Packers are probably the most up-and-down team remaining in the postseason. They won their first six games of the season but went 4-6 after that. Those six losses included two straight to end the season.

    The Packers, though, seemed to find their rhythm again against the Washington Redskins on Wild Card Weekend. They stormed back from an early 11-0 deficit to win convincingly, 35-18. The win appeared to mark the return of the talented Green Bay team we saw when the regular season began. 

    The Packers don't dominate in any one area, but they are an extremely balanced team that can do enough on each side of the ball to win. Green Bay ranks 15th in scoring (23 points per game) and 12th in scoring defense (20.2 points per game allowed).

The Games

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    Who: Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots

    When: 4:35 p.m. ET

    Where: CBS

    Saturday's early matchup pits the hottest team at the end of the regular season against one that faltered down the stretch. Yet the Patriots—the guys who stumbled—shouldn't lack confidence. 

    New England is a year removed from a Super Bowl victory and has had a week to rest and prepare for the game. In Tom Brady, the team also has a quarterback who has the skill and experience to exploit any opposing defense. 

    However, the Chiefs have a defense that matches up well with Brady and the Patriots offense, which averages 29.1 points per game. Kansas City recorded 47 sacks in the regular season and another three in its wild-card game against the Houston Texans. That pass rush will be going up against a New England line that is rated just 31st in pass blocking by Pro Football Focus.

    If the Chiefs can exploit this matchup, they should have a solid chance of pulling off a road upset. However, Kansas City will also have to make plays against a Patriots defense that is dangerous in its own right.

    Pro Football Focus rated New England second in the league in defense, and the Chiefs are a mere 24th in offense.

    What: Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals

    When: 8:15 p.m. ET

    Where: NBC

    The Packers may have gotten back on track last time out against the Washington Redskins, but they are going to face an entirely different challenge in the divisional round. The Cardinals can inflict damage on either side of the football and are led by a quarterback who should provide the Green Bay defense with a much stiffer test than the one it faced a week ago.

    In fact, Carson Palmer is rated first overall among quarterbacks by Pro Football Focus. This is a spot higher than the Patriots' Brady and eight spots above Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Yet Rodgers is the one in this game with a Super Bowl victory under his belt. Palmer is still looking for career playoff victory No. 1. Does this put the pressure in Palmer's corner? Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians doesn't believe so.

    Arians recently said the following of the situation, per Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

    The pressure is only something you feel if you're not prepared I'm betting he's going to be really prepared. ... I'm sure he's going to be excited. My job is to not let him get too excited.

    He's obviously more than just a quarterback. He's the leader of the football team and our guys rally around him. He's a very calming player.

    The reality is the pressure in this game is squarely on Green Bay. The Packers are playing on the road and will have to answer a prolific offense. It should be fun.

Biggest Questions

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    Which Packers Team Is Going to Show Up?

    The Green Bay Packers have shown inconsistencies throughout the season, especially on offense. This is a team that produced 30 or more points on five separate occasions, including the playoffs, but it is also one that produced a maximum of 17 points in six other games.

    Green Bay lost its final two games of the regular season by a combined score of 58-21 but then rebounded to throttle the Washington Redskins 35-18. These inconsistencies lead us to believe Saturday's late game will hinge on which Packers team emerges.

    It was the bad Green Bay that waltzed into Arizona in Week 16 and suffering an embarrassing 38-8 loss. If this Packers team shows its face Saturday, Green Bay is not going to earn redemption.

    If, however, the Packers team that beat both the Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks by 10 points appears, then we could have a competitive game on our hands. 

    Can New England's Offensive Line Hold Up Against Kansas City?

    Aside from injuries (and also in many ways because of them), the biggest weakness of the New England Patriots this season has been pass protection. Quarterback Tom Brady was sacked 38 times in the regular season and was hit and rattled even more often.

    According to Pro Football Focus, Brady faced pressure on 235 of his 670 dropbacks during the regular season. More than a quarter of those pressures resulted in a sack or a throwaway by Brady. 

    On Saturday, Brady and Co. will face a Kansas City Chiefs defense that has produced 50 sacks this season, including the playoffs. This could become one of the most important factors in the contest because slowing Brady is probably Kansas City's best path to victory.

    The good news for New England is Brady tossed 15 touchdowns with just three interceptions when under pressure in the regular season. Stopping him is easier said than done.

    How Much of an Impact Can Julian Edelman Have in His Return?

    One of the reasons why Brady and the Patriots struggled down the stretch is that top wide receiver Julian Edelman was lost in Week 10 with a foot injury, which required surgery. 

    Edelman is set to make his long-awaited return Saturday. 

    "I'm going to go full throttle regardless," Edelman said, per Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston. "If it goes, it goes.

    "I'm kind of my worst enemy when it comes to that, trying to over-push things. We've had our staff work with me to keep me from hurting myself. So I think we've handled it pretty decent."

    However, it's fair to wonder just how effective Edelman can be against a talented Chiefs defense. According to former NFL physician David J. Chao, the converted Kent State quarterback is likely to be about 90 percent through his recovery at this point.

    Perhaps a more relevant question is whether Edelman at 90 percent will be enough to provide Brady with an additional playmaker and move defensive attention away from tight end Rob Gronkowski. If so, Kansas City could find itself facing a passing attack similar to the one that won the Super Bowl a year ago. 

Stats to Know

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    8

    Postseason games in which New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has thrown at least three touchdown passes. Only San Francisco 49ers great Joe Montana (nine) has more in the Super Bowl era. 

    6

    Career postseason receiving touchdowns by Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Two more would give him a franchise record.

    11.2

    Average points per game allowed by the Kansas City Chiefs defense over its past six games, including the postseason. Kansas City pitched a shutout against the Houston Texans to open the playoffs.

    5

    Postseason games in which Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has thrown at least three touchdown passes. Rodgers is tied with Brett Favre for the most such games in Super Bowl-era team history.

    9

    Career postseason touchdown receptions by Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. If he can snag one Saturday, he'll move into a tie for third-most in NFL history.

    0

    Postseason wins by Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer. The veteran signal-caller is in his 12th NFL season but has never tasted playoff victory.

Who's Favored?

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    Here are the odds for this weekend's games, via Odds Shark.

    Odds for Divisional Weekend
    Game Time (ET) Away Team Home Team Favorite
    Saturday, 4:35 p.m. Kansas City New England New England -5.5
     Saturday, 8:15 p.m. Green Bay Arizona Arizona -7
     Sunday, 1:05 p.m. Seattle Carolina Carolina -2.5
     Sunday, 4:40 p.m. Pittsburgh Denver Denver -7.5

Matchups to Watch

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    Chiefs Secondary vs. Rob Gronkowski

    When he's on the field, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski often looks like a man among boys. In fact, the 6'6", 265-pound pass-catcher often plays like one too.

    Despite missing one full game and part of another, Gronkowski led all tight ends in the regular season with 1,176 yards receiving. He also produced 11 touchdowns with five receptions of at least 40 yards. He didn't lose a fumble, either.

    Gronkowski is Tom Brady's go-to target, and he essentially makes the New England offense hum. We've talked about the pass rush being a factor for the Kansas City Chiefs, but if they cannot contain Gronkowski, it's going to be difficult to close on Brady before he can get rid of the ball.

    Kansas City has a top-tier safety in Eric Berry, but Gronkowski is typically too big and too fast for any one safety or linebacker to cover. Doubling him may well be required. If the Chiefs can slow Gronkowski, they can limit the quick-strike capability of the Patriots.

    Considering Kansas City possesses a pass-coverage unit that is rated fourth overall by Pro Football Focus, this should be a fun matchup. 

    Patriots Secondary vs. Travis Kelce

    The defensive strategy for the Patriots will, in many ways, mirror that of the Chiefs. This is because Kansas City has its own talented tight end in Travis Kelce.

    Though Kelce might not be as dominant as his New England counterpart, he is certainly close. The 6'5", 260-pound Kelce finished the regular season with 875 receiving yards and five touchdowns. In the wild-card game against the Houston Texans, he racked up 128 yards on eight receptions. 

    Kelce is regularly a centerpiece of the Chiefs offense, and he'll look to have an even bigger role with receiver Jeremy Maclin at less than 100 percent. Slowing Kelce will be the Patriots' key to limiting the Kansas City passing attack.

    And like the Chiefs, New England possesses a strong and efficient pass-coverage unit. Pro Football Focus rated it second overall. Between Kelce and Gronkowski, this is likely to be a tight end-oriented game.

    Packers Pass Rush vs. Cardinals Offensive Line

    On Saturday night, the Green Bay Packers are going to have the challenge of trying to stop one of the league's most potent passing attacks. Their best chance of doing so is to put pressure on Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer.

    Palmer is a virtual statue in the pocket. Yes, he has enough athleticism to scramble into the end zone for a slow-man touchdown if given an open lane, but he isn't going to do more than shuffle away from pressure in the pocket. Russell Wilson, he is not. 

    According to Pro Football Focus, Palmer was pressured 240 times in the regular season. Those pressures resulted in 25 sacks, 16 throwaways and five interceptions. This means pressure on Palmer results in a sack, throwaway or turnover 19.2 percent of the time.

    Green Bay produced 43 sacks during the regular season and another six against the Washington Redskins last time out. They can get to the quarterback. Arizona's offensive line? It's only rated 29th in pass blocking by Pro Football Focus.

    If the Packers defense gives Palmer time in the pocket, he's going to slice it apart. If Green Bay can bring the heat, however, it can force Palmer off his game and toward mistakes.

Injury Report

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    Kansas City Chiefs 

    Though it initially appeared that wide receiver Jeremy Maclin suffered a serious knee injury—perhaps even a torn ligament—he escaped the wild-card game against the Houston Texans with only a high ankle sprain. The Kansas City Chiefs have officially listed Maclin as questionable. Linebacker Tamba Hali (knee/thumb), linebacker Justin Houston (knee), running back Spencer Ware (ankle) and receiver Albert Wilson (hamstring) are also questionable.

    Offensive linemen Mitch Morse (concussion) and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (concussion) are out.

    New England Patriots

    The New England Patriots have officially ruled out guard Tre Jackson with a knee injury. A total of 12 players—including tight end Rob Gronkowski (knee/back), receiver Danny Amendola (knee), tight end Scott Chandler (knee), receiver Julian Edelman (foot) and defensive end Chandler Jones (abdomen/toe)—are listed as questionable.

    Quarterback Tom Brady (ankle), offensive lineman Josh Kline (shoulder), receiver Brandon LaFell (foot) and safety Devin McCourty (ankle) are probable.

    Green Bay Packers

    The Green Bay Packers have officially ruled out wide receiver Davante Adams with a knee injury. Tight end Andrew Quarless (knee) is also out. Cornerbacks Sam Shields (concussion) and Quinten Rollins (quad) are listed as questionable.

    A number of players, including defensive tackle Mike Daniels (hamstring) and running back Eddie Lacy (rib) are listed as probable.

    Arizona Cardinals

    Defensive tackles Josh Mauro (calf) and Frostee Rucker (ankle) are officially listed as questionable for the Arizona Cardinals. Linebacker Markus Golden (knee), guard Mike Iupati (shoulder) and quarterback Carson Palmer (finger) are probable.

Expert Picks and Predictions

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    Here are picks and predictions for the divisional-round games from Bleacher Report's panel of NFL experts:

    NFL Playoff Predictions: Bleacher Report's Expert Consensus Divisional Picks

    NFL Playoff Predictions: Bleacher Report's Consensus Divisional Projections

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