NFL Divisional Round Playoff preview: Home teams have the advantage
With a crazy, painful and punishing wild-card weekend in the books, here's your first look at the divisional round games next weekend.
Kansas City (12-5) at New England (12-4), 4:35 p.m. ET Saturday (CBS)
Although listed as an early 4.5-point underdog against New England, the Chiefs will travel to Foxboro with confidence. Kansas City's 22-season streak without a playoff victory finally ended in spectacular fashion with Saturday's 30-0 road shutout of Houston. Most of the current roster also was part of Kansas City's 41-14 rout of New England in Week 4 last season that marked the second-biggest Patriots loss since Bill Belichick became head coach in 2000. That debacle against the Chiefs actually served as a springboard for the 2014 Patriots righting their season and eventually winning Super Bowl XLIX.
New England enters the playoffs having lost four of its past six games, which is the franchise's worst stretch at the end of the regular season in Belchick's 16-year head coaching tenure. But by securing a first-round bye, New England should benefit from the return of key injured starters in wide receiver Julian Edelman (foot), left tackle Sebastian Vollmer (ankle) and linebacker Dont'a Hightower (knee). The Chiefs may have suffered a major blow against the Texans if wide receiver Jeremy Maclin's reported ankle injury is serious. No other Kansas City wideout was close to Maclin's team-best 87 receptions for 1,088 yards during the regular season.
Green Bay (12-5) at Arizona (13-3), 8:15 p.m. ET Saturday (NBC)
The Packers return to Glendale trying to erase the memories of a 38-8 blowout loss in Week 16. The odds of doing so are much better after Green Bay got back on track Sunday with a 35-18 win at Washington. For one of the few times during the second half of the season, the Packers were sound rushing and passing the football while the defense was able to effectively pressure Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins with six sacks and a lost fumble.
Green Bay needs to bring the same heat against the Cardinals or risk getting waylaid deep by Arizona's aerial assault. In the last matchup, Carson Palmer completed 18 of 27 passes for 265 yards with two touchdowns and one interception against Green Bay's secondary. The Packers also must do a better job accounting for running back David Johnson, who generated 127 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown in that Cardinals rout.
Seattle (11-6) at Carolina (15-1), 1 p.m. ET Sunday (FOX)
To borrow a pro wrestling catch phrase from long-time Charlotte resident Ric Flair, "To be the man, you have to beat the man." The same applies to the Panthers when it comes to Seattle, which has represented the NFC in the Super Bowl the past two seasons. Carolina ended a five-game losing streak to the Seahawks -- including a road playoff defeat last season -- with a 27-23 comeback victory in Week 6 at CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks caught a break Sunday when Minnesota's Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field in the final seconds of a 10-9 Seattle win.
Seattle can't count on such luck again versus a team as talented as the Cam Newton-led Panthers.
One pregame storyline will be the health of Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, who took himself out of the Vikings game because of lingering effects from abdominal surgery. Seattle has scraps in the running game otherwise. The Panthers should have running back Jonathan Stewart back after he missed the past three games with a foot injury. Although playing on the road isn't ideal, the Seahawks can look forward to warmer conditions than Minneapolis. The weather.com forecast calls for a high of 49 degrees for kickoff.
Pittsburgh (11-6) at Denver (12-4), 4:40 p.m. ET Sunday (CBS)
Plenty has changed since the Steelers mounted a 34-27 comeback home win over the Broncos in Week 15. For the Broncos, quarterback Peyton Manning is back in the starting lineup after recovering from a foot injury that sidelined him for seven starts. Pittsburgh's quarterback situation is more nebulous as Ben Roethlisberger suffered a right shoulder injury during the fourth quarter of last Saturday's 18-16 win over Cincinnati.
Roethlisberger did return for the game-winning drive and is known for his high pain threshold, but his availability for the Broncos game is currently unclear. Roethlisberger also could be susceptible to re-injury if he does play against a Denver defense that led the NFL in sacks (52) during the regular season. The availability of Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams (foot) and wide receiver Antonio Brown (concussion) also isn't immediately known.