Kansas City Chiefs (+4) at New England Patriots: A lot of folks are recounting Week 4 of the 2014 season when the Chiefs crushed the Pats 41-14 on Monday Night Football. It was that evening that some even went so far as to declare the Patriots dynasty effectively over.
Four months later, the Patriots were hoisting their fourth Super Bowl championship in the Belichick/Brady era.
No doubt the Chiefs are the hottest team in the NFL right now having won 11 consecutive games, including last week's 30-0 playoff win over Houston. On the other side, after a 10-0 start to the 2015 season, the Patriots have been downright lackluster, losing 4 of their final 6 and falling to the #2 seed in the AFC.
To me it's pretty simple. If Pats' all world Tight End Rob Gronkowski is healthy, he can't be stopped. But Gronk is battling knee and back injuries going into this game and is listed as "questionable." I'm sure he'll play but his effectiveness may likely be limited. QB Tom Brady suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 17 against Miami, so that too is definitely a concern.
It's hard to pick against a team that has been rolling for the past three months but it's also difficult picking against an elite coach and QB at home in the playoffs.
New England 21 Kansas City 20
Green Bay Packers (+7) at Arizona Cardinals: The Cards appear to be the most well balanced team remaining in the postseason, ranking in the Top 5 in yardage both offensively and defensively. However, they've suffered some key losses on D, losing Safety Tyrann Mathieu and LB Alex Okafor to season ending injuries. Nevertheless, the Cardinals defense will still prove to be more formidable than the Redskins' unit which the Packers were able to overcome last week.
Further hurting the Packers' chances is WR Davante Adams being unable to play due to a sprained MCL. While QB Aaron Rodgers has the ability to make others better around him, it's hard to so when he has little time to throw the ball. The Cards pounded Rodgers and backup Scott Tolzien for nine sacks 3 weeks ago in a 38-8 shellacking. I don't expect this game to be that lopsided again but I also don't believe it'll particularly close.
Arizona 35 Green Bay 21
Seattle Seahawks (+1-1/2) at Carolina Panthers: This is a rematch of Week 6 where the Panthers rallied from a 9-point deficit with less than four minutes to go to beat Seattle 27-23. The Hawks fell to 2-4 after that game and showed very little resemblance to the team which had been in the Super Bowl the past two seasons. But from that point on, Seattle finished the regular season 8-2 and then eeked out a win over Minnesota in last week's NFC wildcard game.
While being downright stingy defensively the first 13 games of the season, the Panthers' D has begun to show some cracks. They allowed an average of 388 yards of offense over the last three regular season games.
In trying to get a handle on this game, I look at the fatigue factor. Seattle traveled to Minneapolis last week and were able to grind out a tough win in miserable conditions. The team then flies back to Seattle, spends a few days there, then travels clear across country to Charlotte, North Carolina. Meanwhile, the Panthers have had time to rejuvenate the past two weeks and are remarkably healthy for this late in the season.
Carolina 20 Seattle 13
Pittsburgh Steelers (+7-1/2) at Denver Broncos: At full strength, the Steelers' explosive offense would have a tough task going in to Denver and beating the team with the #1 defense in the NFL. But when QB Ben Roethlisberger is unable to even throw the ball in practice due to a bum shoulder and his top RB (DeAngelo Williams - foot injury) and top WR (Antonio Brown - concussion) are both out for this game, "unlikely to prevail" would be an understatement.
The most intriguing aspect of this matchup is Broncos QB Peyton Manning starting his first game in two months. While Manning looked OK in the regular season finale against the San Diego Chargers, it remains to be seen how he'll fare in a full 60 minute contest. Brock Osweiler, who usurped Manning as starter the last seven games of the 2015 season, has a bum knee and is considered "questionable." If neither Manning nor Osweiler are available, it would be down to a rookie quarterback by the name of Trevor Siemian. That would be.....interesting.
Denver 28 Pittsburgh 14
Against the Spread: 2-2
Straight Up: 2-2