(Alex Smith photo courtesy of the Kansas City Chiefs)
(Tom Brady cover photo courtesy of the New England Patriots)
KANSAS CITY @ NEW ENGLAND, 4:35 p.m. (EST)
The line: Patriots by 4-1/2
The story: This is a mandate on momentum. One team has it here, and it’s not New England.
Nope, the Patriots have Tom Brady. And they may have Julian Edelman … and Sebastian Vollmer … and Chandler Jones … and Dont’a Hightower … and Rob Ninkovich … back from injuries. But Mo? Uh-uh. They atypically lost four of their last six as they stumbled down the stretch, while Kansas City ran the table, with 11 straight wins.
The Patriots have the edge because they’re playoff experienced, they’re home and they have one of the game’s greatest quarterbacks. All that’s missing is momentum, and that’s what is supposed to count this time of year. Except … except, well, look at the teams that won last weekend. All had the better quarterbacks, and this is when quarterbacks matter most.
New England has Brady; the Chiefs have Alex Smith, and the Patriots have an enormous edge there. But not if Kansas City can get to Tom Terrific they don’t. He was hit and pressured again and again down the stretch, and you see what happened.
They staggered to the finish line.
Of course, Brady didn’t have Edelman, one of his two favorite receivers, and stay tuned. He’s practicing and says he expects to go. And having him makes a huge difference. So does having tight end Rob Gronkowski, who’s expected to play but who reportedly has back and knee issues that required attention Thursday. And so does having Vollmer. Because if Brady doesn’t have the time to find Gronk and/or Edelman, he’ll be forced into hurried throws and could make the mistakes that the Chiefs’ Smith usually does not.
This, then, is all about the line of scrimmage, and who wins there wins, period. If the Patriots can protect Brady, it’s over. Yeah, I know, the Chiefs’ secondary is rock solid, but so was Seattle a year ago, and Brady ran through it in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIX. If the Chiefs get to Brady and pressure him … if Justin Houston is OK … the Chiefs can pull the upset.
I mean it. The Chiefs are legit. Over their past 11 games they average 28 points, while opponents check in at 11.6. Of course, none of those opponents was New England. And all but one of them was with Jeremy Maclin, who is iffy for Saturday.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Kansas City tied with Arizona with six touchdowns off returns (four interceptions and two fumble recoveries).
(Photo courtesy of the Arizona Cardinals)
GREEN BAY @ ARIZONA, 8:15 p.m. (EST)
The line: Cardinals by 7
The story: When these two met three weeks ago, it wasn’t close. Arizona torched the Packers 38-8 in a rout so complete that Aaron Rodgers sat out most of the fourth quarter. But that was then, and now … well, I can’t imagine Green Bay lying down again. Then again, I can’t imagine the Packers winning either.
Look, Arizona is a complete team. The Cards can run. They can pass. They play defense. And their head coach is one of the best in the business. Check that, two of the past three years he WAS the best in the business, twice voted NFL Coach of the Year.
Green Bay stumbled to the finish, winning four of its last 10 – including a last-second defeat of Detroit via a Hail Mary – and seemed ripe for an early playoff exit. But then it beat Washington in Washington, and, suddenly, we’re left to wonder: Was that more about the Redskins or the Packers? It was the first time Green Bay looked like … well, Green Bay … in months, scoring 35 or more points for the first time since Week 3.
And that’s great. But the yards that came easily then won’t come easily here. Arizona had nine sacks, including eight of Rodgers, the last time these two met, and the Cards returned two of three fumbles for touchdowns. In short, it was a beatdown. But that protection for Rodgers that was missing then inexplicably returned last weekend vs. a Washington defense that had 17 sacks in its previous four games. Rodgers was sacked once, and the Packers rallied from an 11-0 deficit to win going away.
That’s why I think this could be closer than imagined.
If there’s one X-factor here it’s Palmer. Yeah, I know, he put up career numbers this season, and he’s 10-2 over his last 12 starts at home. But I don’t trust him in the playoffs. Reason: He hasn’t won there. Rodgers has, though he’s just 3-4 since winning Super Bowl XLV. The Packers got to Kirk Cousins last week for six sacks, and if they pressure Palmer as they pressured Cousins … and if they can keep the Cards off Rodgers … we have a game, people.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Of Aaron Rodgers’ four career fumbles returned for touchdowns, three have come in his last two games vs. the Cards at University of Phoenix Stadium.
FIVE GUYS ON SATURDAY’S HALL-OF-FAME RADAR
Kansas City QB Alex Smith. In four playoff games, he’s 2-2 with 10 touchdowns and one interception.
New England QB Tom Brady. He’s 3-0 at home vs. Kansas City, with six touchdowns and one interception.
Green Bay RB Eddie Lacy. He has 12 career touchdowns in 17 games played in December and January.
Arizona WR Michael Floyd. He has five 100-yard games in his last eight starts, including 111 vs. Green Bay in Week 16.
Green Bay LB Clay Matthews. He has 10 postseason sacks, the most in Green Bay history.
HALL OF NOTES-WORTHY
Since the NFL moved to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, the top seed in the NFC is 21-4 in the divisional round, while the top seed in the AFC is 15-10.
New England led the league with 55 points on its first offensive possession, well above the league average of 29. Kansas City was third at 48.
Kansas City has outscored opponents by 180 points during its 11-game winning streak.
Arizona and Seattle are the only two teams to rank in the top five in both offense and defense.
Alex Smith averages 31.1 yards rushing per game and finished third among quarterbacks with 30 first downs rushing (only Cam Newton and Russell Wilson had more). He also had 17 rushes of 10 or more yards in regular-season play.
The Packers and Patriots are the only teams to reach the playoffs in each of the past seven seasons.
Kansas City was 10-2 vs. AFC opponents this season.
Arizona’s Dwight Freeney not only has more sacks (9) than any active player; he tied a career high with three sacks vs. the Packers last month.
New England (11) has the most first-round byes since 1990.
Arizona is 3-0 at home in the playoffs.
Green Bay has the most road wins (11) in playoff history. Baltimore is second with 10.
Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald has nine playoff touchdown catches. With another vs. Green Bay he becomes the seventh to catch 10 or more and would tie for third on the all-time list.
Including the playoffs, Arizona has a 25-6 record outside the division under Bruce Arians, and in three seasons under Arians the Cards have at least one victory over ever NFC team.