Jesse Pantuosco (@JessePantuosco): Alright, let’s give the playoff wheel another spin. Last week we said goodbye to the Redskins, Vikings (poor Blair Walsh), Bengals and Texans. This week the clock will strike midnight on four more teams. So which four will survive the Divisional Round?
All four road teams advanced in last week’s Wild Card. This week I think we’ll see the opposite happen. In the first game, I’m going with New England to take down Kansas City. The Chiefs were surgical in last week’s win over Houston but the Pats rarely lose at Foxboro and the return of Julian Edelman should give New England a huge boost offensively. Injuries to Jeremy Maclin and Spencer Ware will only make it tougher for the Chiefs to pull off the upset.
In the night game Saturday, I’m all about Arizona. The Cardinals smoked Green Bay in Week 16 and even though the Packers are coming off an impressive win over Washington, I think they’re the weakest team remaining.
Pittsburgh’s offense won’t be the same without Antonio Brown and I have real doubts about Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to throw downfield with his shoulder injury. Given those factors, I think the Broncos will win pretty easily on Sunday, setting up one last Tom Brady/Peyton Manning showdown in the AFC title game.
The one game I’m torn on is Seattle/Carolina. The Panthers needed a miracle last drive to beat the Seahawks in Week 6. This one should go down to the wire again but I’m picking the more complete team in Carolina. The Seahawks’ offense will have to be much sharper this week after barely showing up against Minnesota. If they come out flat again, Luke Kuechly and Josh Norman will be sure to make them pay.
That’s enough out of me. Where do you guys stand on the four Divisional games?
Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield): For the NFC games, I'm taking Arizona (by a mile) and Carolina. Green Bay doesn't match up well on either side of the ball with the Cardinals. I really thought Seattle would take care of Minnesota last week -- I got lucky -- but Carolina is the more complete team on both sides of the ball. I like the Panthers to get it done.
The Steelers-Broncos game is super interesting to me. Peyton Manning hasn't played well in over a year while the Steelers’ offense is completely decimated. I would have gone with Pittsburgh in a road upset if Brown were healthy but now I’m not sure. Finally, I think New England takes care of Kansas City. I just don't see an Alex Smith-led team (possibly without Jeremy Maclin) going into Foxboro and pulling out a win. I do think the game will be fairly close on the back of the Chiefs’ stout D.
Evan Silva (@evansilva): Pretty much agree across the board with Graham's takes on the Divisional Round. I like the Broncos over the Steelers, whose defense is average and whose quarterback may not be able to push the ball downfield. I'm on all the favorites this week. Chalky and boring I know, but they're the better teams.
Jeff Brubach (@Jeff_Brubach): Seattle and Arizona are my picks in the NFC. I think Arizona wins comfortably and Seattle should top Carolina. When Carolina beat Seattle earlier this year, the Seahawks were without Bobby Wagner and Cary Williams was starting but they still managed to keep a lid on Carolina's offense for three quarters. I think the NFC West's best will face off in the NFC title game.
In the AFC, I like Denver to advance, as their defense is too good and it looks like Ben will be shorthanded on Sunday. I think New England advances as well, but I think that game could be awfully close with Kansas City's defense playing so well.
Patrick Daugherty (@RotoPat): I have very little feel for New England/Kansas City. Both teams have some critical guys banged up. I think what it's coming down to for me — if Gronk plays, the Pats win. If Gronk sits, I think the Chiefs defense will smother a Patriots offense dealing with an injured Tom Brady. For the Saturday nightcap, Green Bay looked like a completely different team last week. They're not going to get railroaded like they did in Week 16 ... but they're still not going to win. Just not enough weapons to keep up with the Cardinals at home, though the Birds could get a scare put into them if they don't generate enough pressure. Their pass rush is extra banged up right now.
Sunday, there's almost no one I'd pick to beat the Seahawks right now, but I think the 15-1 Panthers will. They're essentially the rocked up version of the 'Hawks, and they have so much on the line. This is Cam Newton's time to take that final step. I think he'll do so in a home game that starts at 10:05 AM PST for the Seahawks. In the afternoon, the Broncos are ripe to be upset, but a Steelers offense with biblical injuries isn't going to be up to the task on the road against the league's best defense, which has gotten a lot healthier with the bye week.
Raymond Summerlin (@RMSummerlin): I do not see Steelers at Broncos or Packers at Cardinals being competitive. The Packers’ offense came to life somewhat against a bad defense last week, but, as has been the case in most of their “good” offensive performances in the second half of the season, it was driven by the running game. Arizona has the second best run defense according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA, and Eddie Lacy was stuffed last time minus one long run in garbage time. The Cardinals are unlikely to get the same pressure as last time with the Packers’ offensive line back at full strength, but they should still be able to stifle Green Bay’s attack. For the other contest, I just do not see how a team with a banged-up quarterback who is missing perhaps the best receiver in the league, the best running back in the league and the most effective backup running back in the league is going to move the football against the best defense in the league.
The other two games are more interesting. I still believe the Chiefs are overvalued, but the Patriots might be as well. The offensive line is still bad, we cannot be sure Julian Edelman will be 100 percent and the running game is nonexistent. If Rob Gronkowski does not play – and perhaps even if he does – the Chiefs have the bodies in the secondary to shut down Edelman, and they have a rotation of pass rushers who can make life difficult for Tom Brady. That said, I have no faith in the Chiefs’ ability to move the ball on offense against a great front seven, which means we are likely looking at a game decided by big plays and fluke touchdowns. Those are difficult to predict.
Seahawks at Panthers is easily the premier game of the week. With Marshawn Lynch and Jonathan Stewart expected back, both teams come into the game relatively healthy and, last week’s sub-zero game aside, playing near their peak. The story of this game when the Panthers have the ball will be Seattle’s ability to deal with Greg Olsen. Cover 3 is vulnerable down the seams, and Seattle is 26th against tight ends according to DVOA. If Olsen gets going, the Panthers can use combination routes with Olsen and Ted Ginn to put pressure on the defense deep and create big plays, which they have done effectively all season.
For the Seahawks, the game might come down to Russell Wilson’s willingness to stay inside the offense. A zone-based team with athletic linebackers, the Panthers set up perfectly to keep Wilson in the pocket and from making big plays with his legs. That will not be an issue if Wilson stays on time in the offense like he did over the second half of the season, but if he starts to freelance too much it will likely disrupt the flow. The integration of Lynch into this new offense will also be critical, as will his ability to play effectively, something he struggled with even before his injury.
The game should be close, but ultimately the Seahawks have more questions and are playing on the road. Both factors push me to the Panthers.