The opening round of the NFL playoffs were record-breaking. For the first time in history, all four road teams won. The Chiefs’ win at Houston had 25 million television viewers; making it the third most watched day playoff game in NFL history. And the Cincinnati Bengals saw their promising season end in an epic collapse (ok, not a playoff record but still remarkable). What will the teams remaining do for an encore in the divisional round? There will be plenty of intrigue as we take a look at the AFC’s upcoming games.
Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots
The Kansas City Chiefs were the first road team to pick up a win in the wildcard round by obliterating Houston 30-0. In the process, Kansas City won their first playoff game since 1994 (coincidentally against the Houston Oilers). Alex Smith was efficient against the Texans, going 17-22 for 190 yards and a TD (he also added 27 yards rushing and had a 60 yard run nullified by a penalty). The Chiefs pounded out 141 yards on the ground against a good Texans defense and will look to maintain the ground and pound strategy against New England.
It will be important for KC to establish the run as it will help control the time of possession and limit New England’s Tom Brady’s opportunities to score. It is being reported that wide receiver Jeremy Maclin’s injury has been upgraded to a “mild high ankle sprain” which is a sigh of relief for the Chiefs. The typical timetable for a full recover from a high ankle sprain is at least four weeks. Conventional wisdom suggests that even if Maclin does play, he should be severely limited. With or without Maclin, the Chiefs will need to limit turnovers (their plus 14 turnover margin ranked second in the NFL this year) and continue to play great defense if they expect to win.
While the Chiefs are a long shot on the road, their odds of winning are not insurmountable. Since 2009, the Patriots have been beaten at Gillette Stadium three times (2009, 2010 and 2012). New England finished the regular season losing four of their last six. Three of the four losses were by seven points or less, so it’s not exactly panic time in Foxborough. The Patriots seem to be getting healthy at the right time with offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer and wide receiver Julian Edelman both set to return. Speaking of Edelman, dating back to Week 5 of last season, the Patriots are 22-2 in games that Edelman has played. That’s some serious mojo! While the team is getting healthier, most of the talk regarding the Patriots this week has been about non-football related issues.
Coach Bill Belichick showed up to his press conference with a black eye. An undisclosed source was quoted as saying that he overheard Belichick say, “the first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club!” All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski missed practice Monday and Tuesday; the only player on the non-injury list absent. Perhaps the most bizarre story involves Pro Bowl defensive end Chandler Jones (12.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles on the year). Jones was admitted to the hospital for an undisclosed medical emergency on Sunday night. If Jones is out or limited, that would be a significant loss for a Patriots defense that has slightly overachieved this year. Will these distractions impact the Patriots on the field? Probably not, but its good gossip to ponder.
Prediction: New England over Kansas City, 25-17
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Denver Broncos
Pittsburgh took advantage of an undisciplined Bengals team late in the 4th quarter, and picked up an 18-16 win in Cincinnati last Saturday night. With under twenty seconds left in the game, the Bengals managed to provide the Steelers with 30 yards worth of penalties and allowed Chris Boswell the opportunity to drill a 35 yard game winning field goal.
However, in spite of advancing on to the next round. The Steelers’ win came at a costly price. Already down to their 3rd and 4th string running backs, the Steelers lost Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder sprain and torn ligaments) and All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown (concussion) in a UFC style clash.
Big Ben did return for the final drive and demonstrated the toughness that has defined his career. He is listed as probable for the game against Denver which is great news for the Steelers. Because a semi-healthy Roethlisberger is exponentially better than a healthy Landry Jones. Brown’s injury status is more unclear. As of this moment he has yet to pass the NFL’s concussion protocol and is listed as questionable. If Brown can’t play, there will be more pressure on Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton and the rest of the wide receiver core to pick up the slack. The other piece of good news for Pittsburgh was the performances of Fitzgerald Toussaint (118 total yards, 58 rushing) and Jordon Todman (65 rushing yards, 5.9/carry) at running back.
The Steelers will need to rely on the run game against Denver with an ailing Big Ben behind center. Denver comes into the matchup as the AFC’s #1 seed. In the Broncos final game of the regular season, coach Gary Kubiak benched quarterback Brock Osweiler in favor of Peyton Manning. Manning endured the worst season (statistically) in his illustrious career, but Kubiak is making the right call by playing the veteran in a win or go home game.
The extra week of rest should help Manning as he continues to recover from a foot injury that cost him six regular season games. Denver will be looking to avenge a Week 15 loss to the Steelers, a game in which the Broncos blew a 27-13 halftime lead. These two teams will be playing for the second time in a month and are very familiar with each other in the playoffs, as they’ve matched up eight times since 1977. In the most recent playoff contest (2011), Tim Tebow led the Broncos to a 29-23 win by connecting with wide receiver Demaryius Thomas for an 80 yard touchdown on the first play of overtime. Steeler fans around the world will be looking for a much different outcome whereas the Broncos faithful are hoping for a less dramatic finish.
Prediction: Pittsburgh over Denver: 24-20