Week 1 and the Super Bowl aside, this is the most anticipated weekend of all for NFL fans. After the January madness that was wild-card weekend — all four road teams winning for the first time — the divisional round is arguably the best weekend of football as the league’s Elite Eight face off with a chance to reach the NFL’s Final Four.
Three of this weekend’s matchups are rematches from earlier in the season, so that adds an extra story line to a divisional round that isn’t lacking on drama.
While a pair of five seeds and six seeds moved on in both conferences, I think their runs will end this week. The Panthers, Cardinals, Broncos and Patriots are the picks to advance to next week’s championship games, but will they cover? Let’s break down the divisional round.
CHIEFS AT PATRIOTS, 4:35 p.m.
TV: Ch. 2; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)
Patriots by 5; O/U: 41.5
Three teams have had winning streaks of at least 10 games this season. Two of them are playing in this game. It’s the red-hot Chiefs, winners of 11 straight, against the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots in what I think has the potential for a thriller. The Pats, who started 10-0, finished on a 2-4 slide, including a Week 17 loss at Miami that cost them home-field advantage. They still secured a first-round bye, which they definitely needed considering all their injuries. Julian Edelman, who hasn’t played since Week 10, should be back, and that’s good news for the Patriots. With him, they were 9-0. Without him, they were 3-4. Speaking of first-round byes, it kind of felt like the Chiefs had one, too. They never had to sweat in Houston last week after that opening kickoff return for a touchdown. The Chiefs have one of the game’s best pass rushes and should be able to get to Tom Brady. But with Edelman back, Brady can return to the short passing game that fueled New England’s hot start. I think this will be close in the fourth quarter, so I like the idea of taking the points with a live underdog, especially a Chiefs team that I think can make a legit run at a Super Bowl. In the end, though, I have to lean toward the Pats. Brady and Edelman make enough plays to eke out a win, but Alex Smith and the pesky Chiefs keep it inside the number.
The pick: Chiefs (Patriots 23, Chiefs 20)
PACKERS AT CARDINALS, 8:15 p.m.
TV: Ch. 4; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)
Cardinals by 7; O/U: 50
Good news for the Packers: They won a playoff game last week. Bad news: They had to watch game tape from that Week 16 debacle in Arizona again. The one in which Aaron Rodgers was sacked eight times, and the Cardinals returned two of his fumbles for touchdowns. If you were to just base the rematch off that first game, Arizona already would be planning for the NFC Championship Game. But this is the NFL, and as we saw last week with the Seahawks and Vikings (38-7 Seattle the first time, 10-9 the second time), things can change in a hurry. Teams adjust. They correct mistakes. Will this game be closer? Of course. Will the Packers win? No. Arizona, in my opinion, is the best all-around team in the league, and my pick to win Super Bowl 50. I just think Carson Palmer has too many receiving weapons, and the emergence of rookie running back David Johnson pushes them to the next level. I’ll take Bruce Arians’ offensive mind with two weeks to prepare over a Packers team that, despite last week’s impressive win, did not fare well on the road this season against the league’s elite teams. Especially against the Cardinals.
The pick: Cardinals 34, Packers 24
LOCK OF THE WEEK
SEAHAWKS AT PANTHERS, 1:05 p.m.
TV: Ch. 5; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)
Panthers by 2; O/U: 44
This is the game everyone was hoping to see, and now here it is. You can thank Vikings kicker Blair Walsh for that. The Panthers will never admit it, but you’ve got to believe they’d rather have faced the Redskins-Packers winner than a team with as much Super Bowl experience as the Seahawks have. This is a Week 6 rematch, won by Carolina at Seattle after Cam Newton completed two — yes, two! — 80-yard drives in a fourth-quarter comeback. This was the biggest game on the Panthers’ schedule, because it gave runaway MVP Newton his signature moment, and showed the rest of the NFL that the Panthers were a real contender. Too bad I didn’t buy in earlier, continuing to doubt the Panthers until later in the season. I’ve heard nothing but Seattle picks this week, but I don’t see it. I think Newton and the Panthers, despite being 15-1 and the NFC’s top seed, have something to prove here to all the doubters. That extra week off definitely helped Jonathan Stewart, and his presence in the running game will be a big difference. Seattle’s offense was colder than the weather in Minnesota last weekend, and the temperature probably was a big reason for that. Still, I’m not confident it it as good as they were in the previous two Super Bowl runs. Newton, Greg Olsen (who caught that winning TD [pass in the Week 6 win) and the Panthers already know they have what it takes to beat them. Last year, Carolina got to the playoffs with a losing record, and lost at Seattle in the divisional round in what turned out to be a closer game that most expected. Now, everything is flipped: Carolina has the NFL’s best record, is playing at home . . . and I expect it to continue its near-perfect season with a convincing win.
The pick: Panthers 30, Seahawks 17
STEELERS AT BRONCOS, 4:40 p.m.
TV: Ch. 2; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)
Broncos by 7; O/U: 39.5
A lot has changed since these teams’ Week 15 meeting at Pittsburgh, a wild comeback by the Steelers against Denver’s dominant defense. For starters, Peyton Manning is the starter again in Denver. Ben Roethlisberger, in what has been a trend for the Steelers all season, is nursing another injury and may or may not play. I’m sure he will, but he won’t be 100 percent, and that is something you strongly have to consider if you want to back the Steelers in this spot. Do you really feel comfortable taking them knowing that on any play, Roethlisberger is one hard hit from DeMarcus Ware away from being knocked out? I don’t trust Landry Jones, and neither should you. Antonio Brown also is dealing with an injury, and the Steelers likely won’t have DeAngelo Williams again, either. If all three were healthy, I would not only endorse a Steelers cover but an outright win. But I just can’t do it here with all these question marks. Also, it just feels as if we are destined for another Brady-Manning AFC Championship Game. Unlike the 34-27 Steelers win over the Broncos this season, I think this game will be low scoring. Denver’s ‘D’ will adjust and limit Pittsburgh’s big plays. Manning, with an extra week to get even healthier, knows this is probably his last chance at a second Super Bowl title. While I don’t have super confidence in him, I think he can do just enough, and get plenty of help from the running game and the defense to advance to the AFC title game.
The pick: Broncos 20, Steelers 10
Staff picks and standings
Regular season: 121-130-5, 9-7-1 best bets
Playoffs: 2-2, 1-0
Chiefs Cardinals Panthers Broncos
Regular season: 124-127-5, 8-9
Playoffs: 2-2, 1-0
Chiefs Packers Panthers Broncos
Regular season: 131-120-5, 9-7-1
Playoffs: 1-3, 1-0
Chiefs Cardinals Seahawks Broncos
Kimberley A. Martin
Regular season: 119-132-5, 8-9
Playoffs: 3-1, 1-0
Chiefs Packers Panthers Steelers