NFL Divisional Round Preview — Will Big Ben Be Back Against the Broncos?
The NFL’s eight best teams square off in the divisional round of the playoffs this weekend. By Sunday night, we’ll know which four teams are headed to Championship Sunday:
Saturday, January 16
AFC Divisional Game: (5) Kansas City Chiefs at (2) New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.; 4:35 p.m. (ET) on CBS
How They Got Here: The defending Super Bowl champion-New England Patriots (12–4) received another stellar performance from quarterback Tom Brady and their often unstoppable offense en route to their seventh consecutive AFC East title. Only losses in their final two games prevented the Pats from clinching home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs. The Kansas City Chiefs used a 10-game winning streak to seize one of the AFC wild-card spots. KC shut out AFC South champ Houston, 30-0, last Saturday to advance to the divisional round. The Chiefs have now won 11 games in a row.
Recent History: The teams didn’t play each other this season. Kansas City routed New England, 41-14, in Week 4 of the 2014 season — a game Patriots head coach Bill Belichick used as a turning point in his team’s march to the Super Bowl last season.
Preview: The Chiefs, who were fourth in the NFL in sacks in 2015, love to pressure the opposing quarterback. Brady’s effectiveness is greatly diminished when he’s under pressure. This is the key to the game: if Brady has time, he’ll likely find tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Julian Edelman, who missed the last seven games with a broken foot, and New England should win. If Kansas City can get to Brady, they’ll continue their streak.
The Chiefs should have leading receiver Jeremy Maclin back despite the ankle sprain he suffered against Houston last week. If the Patriots defense can pressure Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith and force him into turnovers, New England could quickly seize momentum and advance to its fifth consecutive AFC title game.
NFC Divisional Game: (5) Green Bay Packers at (2) Arizona Cardinals
University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.; 8:15 p.m. (ET) on NBC
How They Got Here: The Arizona Cardinals (13–3) rode the MVP-level play of quarterback Carson Palmer and the league’s best offense to the NFC West title. They finished with the second-best record in the NFL. The inconsistent Green Bay Packers surged late in the season to nab an NFC wild-card berth. The Pack rallied past NFC East champion Washington, 35-18, last Sunday.
Recent History: Arizona routed Green Bay, 38-8, in Glendale, Ariz. in Week 16. The Cardinals sacked Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers eight times in what was the last of a nine-game win streak for Bruce Arians’ team.
Preview: Arizona thoroughly dominated Green Bay just a few weeks ago, so it’s difficult to see how the Packers could possibly have improved enough in such a short time to beat the Cardinals. Palmer and the talented receiving corps have ravaged better secondaries than Green Bay’s this season. If the Pack’s front seven doesn’t create a pass rush like it did while sacking Kirk Cousins six times last week, things could get ugly. Turnovers would help, too.
Rodgers will almost certainly have a better game than last time, especially with Arizona down two defensive starters: linebacker Alex Okafor and defensive tackle Cory Redding. Rodgers needs backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks to establish a running game that extends drives and keeps Palmer and Co. off the field.
Sunday, January 17
NFC Divisional Game: (6) Seattle Seahawks at (1) Carolina Panthers
Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte; 1:05 p.m. (ET) on FoxX
How They Got Here: The Carolina Panthers (15–1) completed one of the best seasons in NFL history in 2015, losing only to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 16. Quarterback Cam Newton likely secured a league MVP award while leading his team to the NFC South title and home-field advantage through the playoffs. The Seattle Seahawks finished strong after a 2-4 start and gained an NFC wild card spot. They edged NFC North champion Minnesota, 10-9, last Sunday thanks to Blair Walsh’s missed field goal with just 23 seconds to play.
Recent History: Newton rallied Carolina past Seattle, 27-23, at CenturyLink Field on Oct. 18.
Preview: The Panthers and the Seahawks are arguably the NFL’s best teams at the moment. This game could have easily been the NFC Championship, rather than a divisional round clash.
Cam Newton and Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson can pass over and/or run past most teams. Each QB will be challenged by the opposing defense this Sunday, especially Wilson, who was sacked 45 times in 2015 — tied for third-most in the NFL.
The Seahawks “Legion of Boom” secondary has spearheaded the team’s last two Super Bowl runs. Richard Sherman or Kam Chancellor always seem to deliver a big play in the big games. Newton must avoid the game-changing mistake that could turn this whole season into a washout for Carolina.
AFC Divisional Game: (6) Pittsburgh Steelers at (1) Denver Broncos
Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver; 4:40 p.m. (ET) on CBS
How They Got Here: Led by an aggressive defense, the Denver Broncos (12–4) won their fifth consecutive AFC West title. Even the loss of quarterback Peyton Manning for seven weeks couldn’t derail their championship hopes. Possessing one of the NFL’s highest scoring offenses, the Pittsburgh Steelers grabbed an AFC wild-card spot, then upset AFC North champion Cincinnati, 18-16, in a hotly contest game last Saturday.
Recent History: Ben Roethlisberger passed for 380 yards and three touchdowns, as Pittsburgh beat Denver, 34-27, at home on December 20.
Preview: Veteran quarterbacks Roethlisberger and Manning are key players in their respective teams’ playoff chances, however it’s not clear if either one of them can throw the ball with NFL zip at the moment. Big Ben suffered a shoulder injury in the second half of last week’s win over the Bengals. It’s not certain he’ll play against the Broncos, but if he was able to lead the game-winning drive last week, it’s unlikely he wouldn’t at least start this playoff game. Landry Jones is his backup.
The Steelers must protect Roethlisberger, Jones or whoever leads their offense against Denver. Broncos Pro Bowlers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware can change a game quickly, especially if they are dealing with an injured or inexperienced quarterback. Manning may do more handing off than dropping back for Denver, as the Broncos may seek to control the clock and use their running game against the sometimes porous Pittsburgh defense.
Remaining NFL Playoff Schedule
Conference Championship Round
Sunday, January 24
AFC Championship: 3 p.m. (ET) on CBS
NFC Championship: 6:40 p.m. (ET) on Fox
Super Bowl 50
Sunday, February 7
AFC champion vs. NFC champion | Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.; 6:30 p.m. (ET) on CBS