The staff of WTBU Sports are back this week to once again pick the games of this weekend’s NFL Playoff action. The divisional round gets underway after a wild card weekend that featured some incredible performances and collapses. Without further ado, here are your experts and their picks.
On the panel today is Sports Director Zach Halperin, Assistant Sports Directors Marisa Ingemi and Dan Shulman, Senior staffer Alex Greenberg and new WTBU member Brian Cole.
#5 Kansas City at #2 New England
Greenberg: New England
There has been a lot of talk about distractions with the Patriots this week, but as a Pats fan I’m not worried at all. Bill Belichick is the greatest coach of all time and will do his job to get his team mentally prepared for this game with the Chiefs. Kansas City has won 11 games in a row, but that was mostly against poor opposition. Alex Smith won’t be able to do enough on the road in Foxboro, while Tom Brady will feel much more comfortable with Julian Edelman returning to the lineup. It might not be a blowout, but the Pats get the win.
Ingemi: New England
Distractions? What distractions? Ignore the man behind the curtain. And the man showing up on synthetic weed to the police. And the fact that Rob Gronkowski is injured. It’s still Bill Belichick and Tom Brady against Andy Reid and Alex Smith. The Patriots shouldn’t lose this one at Gillette.
Shulman: New England
Things should get a little spicy (sorry Chandler Jones) in New England on Saturday afternoon. To say the Chiefs are on fire is an understatement, as they have won their last 11 games until this point. The Patriots are just the opposite, losing four of their last six by a combined 29 points. But none of that matters now. When it comes to the playoffs, experience triumphs over youth. With Tommy Terrific under center and a rejuvenated Julian Edelman catching passes, the Patriots are about to hit their stride. The New England offensive line is returning to full health, a good sign against one of the league’s top pass rushes. Although Alex Smith is still a pretty good QB, he and his Chiefs are no match for the Patriots. Revenge from last year’s 41-14 rout of the Pats in KC looks to be in order on Saturday.
Halperin: New England (17-13)
Unlike the New England natives you see above, I do not eat, sleep and breathe Tom Brady. But I’ve seen enough not to pick against Brady and black-eye Belichick in Foxborough. Justin Houston and the Chiefs’ excellent pass rush (4th in sacks) will be the key for Kansas City to pull off the upset. And with New England’s banged up offensive line, I do see KC disrupting Brady. But I don’t know how KC will able to guard Gronk. Unless, of course, they call back up assassin Bernard Pollard.
Cole: New England
These two teams have been on very different paths as of late. The Patriots lost four of their last six games, while the Chiefs have been on an absolute tear, winning 11 straight behind one of the best defenses in the league (7th in YPG, 3rd in scoring). However, this week they aren’t playing the dismal Texans. Alex Smith isn’t a “good quarterback,” he’s a game manager (who tends to crumble under pressure like a certain Broncos QB) and he’ll be playing with a hindered Jeremy Maclin. The Chiefs offense just isn’t explosive enough to beat a defense that excels at taking away their opponent’s top threat. The Pats should also be getting over the injury bug that plagued them all year, with Julian Edelman, Dont’a Hightower, and Sebastian Vollmer all set to return. And you would be absolutely crazy to pick against Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in a snowy/rainy Foxboro.
#5 Green Bay at #2 Arizona
The Packers actually looked like the Packers last week. Aaron Rodgers had the best game he’s had in a while, as Green Bay coasted to victory. A lot of that was probably because they played Washington. The Packers still managed to get off to a slow start in that game, and they can’t afford to repeat that slow start in Arizona. The Arizona defense will stifle and put pressure on Rodgers, leading the Cardinals into the conference championship game.
I’m not exactly thrilled with a victory over Washington for the Packers. Maybe Aaron Rodgers has his swag back, but Arizona might be the deepest team in the league. Carson Palmer might be the MVP of this league and he could rip apart the Green Bay secondary.
Congratulations Green Bay, you beat the Redskins. That’s like giving a hurdler a gold medal for jumping over a pebble. The Packers have had an off year and now face a true test in Arizona. Carson Palmer will be suiting up for just his third postseason appearance ever. The Cardinals are skilled and playing in the desert is no easy task. The game will be one for the ages and after a hard-fought battle, the Cardinals, led by Andre Ellington and Larry Fitzgerald, will eke out a victory over the Packers.
Halperin: Arizona (27-14)
Arizona absolutely destroyed Green Bay in week 16 and I haven’t seen a big change in this Packers team. Even without The Honey Badger Tyrann Mathieu, the Cards’ defensive dominated. Their secondary is incredibly deep, with Patrick Peterson leading the way alongside Jerraud Powers, Rashad Johnson, Tony Jefferson, and Justin Bethel. You may not know all these names but this depth is the cornerstone of Arizona’s pass D. And with Davante Adams out for Green Bay, a thin receiving corps gets even thinner. And expect Carson Palmer and David Johnson to carve up this Green Bay D.
Everyone needs to take a step back for a minute with their praise of Saint Rodgers. I’ll give him credit, he did have a great game last week (210 yds, 2 TDs), but that was against WASHINGTON, a team that fell into the playoffs in the second worst division in all of football (no offense Kirk). The Packers have beat 1 team with a winning record since their bye week, and were embarrassed by both Denver, and Arizona. While I don’t think this game will be as much of a blowout as the week 16 matchup, I haven’t seen enough to believe in this Packers team. On the other hand, I absolutely love this Cardinals team. Their defense is incredibly smart, and fast. While losing Tyrann Mathieu was a huge blow, veteran leaders like Calais Campbell and Patrick Peterson make this one of the most formidable defenses in the league. On the offensive side of the ball, John Brown, Michael Floyd, and rookie David Johnson, led by the ever cool and collected Carson Palmer are going to be more than a match for a Packers defense that has drastically underperformed all year.
#6 Seattle at #1 Carolina
No team in the NFL was luckier than the Seahawks were last week. If not for some colossal screw-ups by the Vikings, most notably Blair Walsh’s missed field goal, then Russell Wilson would be at church on Sunday and not suiting up against Cam Newton. Newton will lead the Panthers to a relatively easy victory. Marshawn Lynch coming back should help Seattle, but I can’t understand how the Seahawks defense plans to stop Cam when they struggled to stop Teddy Bridgewater at times last week.
When Seattle made the Super Bowl these past few years, they had home games, and I just don’t trust a Pete Carroll team to keep winning road games. I’ve bought in on Cam Newton and the Carolina defense, and even with Marshawn Lynch back, I don’t see another miracle victory for Seattle.
Will the Panthers make the Super Bowl? I don’t think so, but neither will the Seahawks. Carolina is 15-1 right now, but could very well be undefeated. Seattle played a gritty game on Sunday in the frozen tundra of Minnesota, and really should have lost if not for the holder forgetting that the laces are supposed to face outward. With lingering doubt over Marshawn Lynch’s availability, the Panthers will be able to stop the Seattle run. Offensively, the Panthers will have a tough first few series’ but will settle in and top the Seahawks with a runaway victory.
Halperin: Carolina (23-20)
Carolina proved its worth when these teams played in week 6. The Panthers were 4-0 but they had only beaten Jacksonville, Houston, New Orleans and Tampa. With the come-from-behind victory in Seattle, the public began to realize that this was a formidable team. And, man, did the Panthers continue to dominate, rolling off a 15-1 season, even after losing top wideout Kelvin Benjamin for the season. On the other side, the Seahawks underperformed the first half of the year, but came on strong in the second half. They are lucky to even be here after the Blair Walsh mishap in Minnesota, and even with a healthy Marshawn Lynch, I’m taking Carolina in a close one. Greg Olsen tears it up just like he did in week 6.
#6 Pittsburgh at #1 Denver
I originally had Pittsburgh in this game, but too much went against them despite getting past the Bengals last week. Antonio Brown won’t play and Ben Roethlisberger will be limited by injury. Peyton Manning will have this game closer than people expect, because he’s really not that good anymore. Denver will sneak by but they will get their comeuppance in the AFC Championship Game when Manning’s noodle arm flops about and throws three interceptions.
This game was tough to decide on, because all of my instincts say Denver can’t get it done, but now Antonio Brown is out. I still like the Steelers because I just can’t see Peyton Manning it making it through this game. Pittsburgh’s pass defense is weak, but can Manning get the ball down the field?
The Steelers were lucky to get out of the first round as Cincinnati basically beat themselves. Regardless, Pittsburgh is about to continue their magical playoff run. In what should be a similar game to the one just a few weeks back in Pittsburgh, the Steelers will have a slow start in Denver. Just like the Broncos shocking win of the Steelers when Tim Tebow hooked up with Demariyus Thomas, Big Ben and Martavis Bryant will connect for a couple of scores, as Peyton, his forehead, and his wife’s mail will all be out of the playoffs.
Halperin: Pittsburgh (27-19)
For Denver to win, they’ll need their #1 ranked defense to get after Big Ben. I’d be surprised if Peyton Manning is able to put up big points so the Broncos will need to keep it low scoring. But the Steelers’ offense may struggle too, as they’re once again without DeAngelo Williams and now without Antonio Brown. Still, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton are dependable receivers. Big Ben’s health is the major question right now but in the end I’ll take Roethlisberger over Peyton, at this stage in their careers. Can’t wait for a Steelers/Pats showdown in Foxborough.
When the playoff teams were finalized, this was the AFC game I was looking forward to the most (I assumed the Steelers would beat the Bengals because, well, they’re the Bengals). A rejuvenated Peyton Manning versus one of the most exciting offenses in the league was very enticing. Now, not so much. While I respect Big Ben’s toughness, torn shoulder ligaments are going to prevent him from slinging the ball down the field. On top of that, a disgusting cheap shot by the Bengals leads us to wonder if Antonio Brown, arguably the best receiver in the league, is even going to be able to play. The Steelers will need strong efforts from their supporting cast to have a shot against the stud Broncos defense powered by Von Miller and Chris Harris Jr. While I continue to doubt Peyton’s ability to play at a high level anymore, especially in a cold Mile High, I think he will be able to do just enough to beat a below average Steeler defense.