Despite the NFL’s best record and top scoring offense, Cam Newton and the Panthers have so much to prove. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Last Week: 4 – 0 – 0
Playoffs: 4 – 0 – 0
Saturday, January 16 (4:35PM ET)
Chiefs at Patriots
I don’t know what’s happening up in Patriots land, but it can’t possibly be beneficial to their pursuit of back-to-back Super Bowl titles. Chandler Jones showing up to a police station shirtless? Rob Gronkowski at the hospital for treatment on his knee? Gronkowski’s back is now a problem? Bill Belichick has a black eye? The Patriots are supposed to be the quiet go-about-your-business “onto Cincinnati” team, not an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”
I’ve been extremely confident the Patriots would win this weekend. Now I have doubts. Is Julian Edelman really as healthy as they’re telling us? He’s the key to that offense. He opens up Gronkowski down the seam. When Tom Brady is in trouble, he knows where to find Edelman. Edelman was on pace to have the best season of his career before an injury sidelined him after nine games.
While we’re discussing injuries to wide receivers, Jeremy Maclin’s high ankle sprain is a big problem for Kansas City. Even if he plays, Maclin won’t be a real threat. A high ankle sprain means no cutting and limited east/west functionality. Maclin will essentially run go route after go route. Maclin’s limitations will allow New England to smother Travis Kelce and dare Alex Smith to beat them throwing to Albert Wilson and rookie Chris Conley, who combined for 52 receptions, 650 yards and 3 touchdowns this season. Simply put, Kansas City’s offense can’t be counted on to win a playoff game on the road against a superior opponent.
The Chiefs defense, on the other hand, is capable of stealing this game. As they did in the Wildcard round, the defense must force turnovers and make life easier on the offense via field position. Considering the poor state of New England’s offensive line, getting to Brady shouldn’t be too much of challenge for Justin Houston and Co. I think this will come down to how the Chiefs offense can manufacture points. If they get help from their defense/special teams, Kansas City should find itself in good shape. After all, this Kansas City team isn’t much different from those Ravens/Jets teams that consistently gave New England fits in the playoffs over the last half decade. I think I just talked myself into the Chiefs. CHIEFS If I were Charles Barkley; Chiefs +5
Saturday, January 16 (8:15PM ET)
Packers at Cardinals
I’ve had about enough of people crying how “lousy” the NFL product was last weekend (and the year in general). Sure, last weekend wasn’t a great display of football played at its highest level. However, what football lacks in beauty it more than makes up with intrigue. There are eight teams remaining in the NFL Playoffs. I’d argue at least six of them have a realistic hope of winning the Super Bowl three weeks from now. There are still four months left in the NBA regular season, and barring a significant injury, there are really only three teams with realistic title aspirations (four if you want to count the Thunder). That’s not an insult to the NBA. I love the NBA. It just lacks intrigue at times throughout the season.
Anyway, I’m not going to let last weekend’s 2nd half outburst change my overall opinion of the Packers. I called the Redskins a bad team incapable of beating good teams and Green Bay did what they were supposed to do. On the other hand, I wonder if Mike McCarthy has been paying attention to his offense over the last two months. Aaron Rodgers and the offense have been at their best when unleashed. Unfortunately, that’s often been because they’ve found themselves trailing in the 4th quarter, but last week Rodgers ran that 2nd half offense like they were playing from behind. The Redskins had no answer. Green Bay needs to play like the Golden State Warriors. Chaos is their friend. When everyone is exhausted and running around trying to keep up, Rodgers can dissect a defense without a real threat on the outside. It’s a long shot and it will certainly put added stress on the Green Bay defense, and it can’t be a strategy employed the entire game. However, it may be the Packers best bet to combat a defense more capable than Washington’s. I like Green Bay’s chances better than most. Let’s not forget the Packers walked into Seattle last year and had the NFC title all but won before a historic meltdown. (Sorry, couldn’t talk myself into the Packers here. I tried.) CARDINALS If I were Charles Barkley; Cardinals -7
Sunday, January 17 (1:05PM ET)
Seahawks at Panthers
The Panthers have handled themselves perfectly this season. They never changed their boisterous feathers despite backlash. When many doubted they could win in Dallas, they crushed the Cowboys. When Odell Beckham Jr. tried to assassinate Josh Norman, the Panthers didn’t turn into the Cincinnati Bengals. When the Panthers finally lost in Week 16, they responded with a blowout in Week 17. This week, with the two-time defending NFC champions coming to town, the Panthers haven’t been brash or unnecessarily cocky. They’ve been realistic and focused. “Got to beat the best, to be the best,” was the overwhelming sentiment pouring from the Carolina locker room. Too many teams go in the other direction when facing this situation. They get bold and brash to portray fearlessness when really it does little to boost a team’s confidence and often galvanizes the opponent instead.
Despite a 15-1 season, the Panthers still somehow have the most to prove. Many see Arizona as the favorite to win the NFC. The Patriots are the most popular pick to win the Super Bowl. Vegas only made Carolina a 2 point favorite this week. Considering they’re playing at home, that essentially makes the Panthers the underdog. Though they undoubtedly have the toughest draw of the Divisional Round, I’d be the most shocked if the Panthers lose. PANTHERS If I were Charles Barkley; Panthers -2
Tangent: Outside of Tom Brady, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton were the best quarterbacks in the NFL this season. Wilson elevated the Seahawks offense to a potent unit despite injuries to Jimmy Graham, Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls. Cam Newton took an offense many predicted to be dismal and made it the NFL’s top scoring offense. I’m not going to go as far as calling Wilson and Newton underrated, but they’re certainly underappreciated. Both Wilson and Newton play with a loose, free-styling mentality. They embrace chaos. They love giving back to their communities. Wilson visits a local hospital to spend time with sick kids on a weekly basis. Newton is beloved in Charlotte more so for his off the field contributions to the community than he is for his stellar play. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are stern businessmen on the field. They’re more likely to yell at a teammate than smile. I won’t pretend to know what they do in their free time, so I won’t say they don’t do anything for their communities, but they certainly don’t do anything as publicly as Wilson and Newton. I say this because as a parent, I’d want my son to emulate Wilson and Newton more than Brady and Manning. Life should be fun. Life should be about giving to others. End Tangent.
Sunday, January 17 (4:40PM ET)
Steelers at Broncos
Antonio Brown is out. DeAngelo Williams will play injured if he plays at all. Ben Roethlisberger’s shoulder only hurts when he releases the football. Those are three really, really BIG problems for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh will already be facing the NFL’s top defense. Doing so without the NFL’s best playmaker is a devastating blow. I just don’t see how the Steelers muster enough offense to win without a heroic effort by Roethlisberger or a dominant ground game from an already injury depleted running attack. I originally had Pittsburgh winning this game when the playoffs started because I didn’t trust Denver’s offense. Now I don’t think it’ll matter. BRONCOS If I were Charles Barkley; No Line Yet
If I were Charles Barkley…
Last Week: 2 – 2 – 0
Playoffs: 2 – 2 – 0