Let’s give the NFL a little credit, shall we? Its shabby treatment of St. Louis fans may have reminded everyone just how much money trumps loyalty for the men who run the league, but, at least for now, the NFL gets its playoffs right. Now in the second week, the games are down to the nitty and gritty.
There really isn’t a game you should skip this weekend, as eight teams are whittled to the final four, but, in case that’s too big a time commitment, here’s a quick power ranking with the usual proviso that the game deemed the worst will inevitably be the best.
4: Green Bay at Arizona (8:15 p.m. EST Saturday, NBC)
Did your eyes deceive you? The Packers and Aaron Rodgers regained their footing with a convincing victory over the Washington Redskins in the first round, but was it all a dream? ESPN’s Ron Jaworski thinks so and the memories of the last time the teams met are certainly fresh in Rodgers’s mind.
About that last time: Rodgers was sacked eight times and suffered the worst loss of his career as the Packers lost 38-3 to the Cardinals in Week 16. This time around, the Packers’ offensive line is healthier, but it can still expect to see blitz-heavy packages from Bruce Arians’s team. That’s not good, given that no team allowed more sacks (33) from Week 9 through the end of the season than Green Bay.
Maybe run the ball? Although Eddie Lacy and James Starks ran for 124 yards and two touchdowns in the second half against Washington, they’ll face far tougher going against Calais Campbell and the Cardinals.
Just try to stop them: The Cardinals, like the Panthers and Seahawks, are the healthiest, most complete teams left in the playoffs. Carson Palmer, at 19-3 has the NFL’s best record over the last two seasons and Larry Fitzgerald’s 105.1 receiving yards per game average is the best in NFL history. The last time he saw the Packers, Palmer completed 18 of 27 passes for 265 yards and a touchdown.
Weakness? What weakness? The Cardinals do it all — passing, running the ball, stopping the run, blitzing the passer, blanketing the receivers. A Week 16 replay may be in the offing.
3: Pittsburgh at Denver (4:35 p.m. Sunday CBS)
Whose quarterback is in better shape? Strangely, it’s the 39-year-old, Peyton Manning. The Broncos quarterback has had an extra week in which to allow the plantar fasciitis in his heel to, well, heal. Oh, sure, he still can’t throw the deep ball, but he looks like Cam Newton in comparison with Ben Roethlisberger.
The Roethlisberger conundrum: The Steelers’ quarterback, carted off in last week’s wild first-round game with a shoulder injury, returned to lead the team to a victory (helped mightily by the Bengals) even though he couldn’t throw the ball downfield. This week, he hasn’t practice and said he’s “hour by hour,” but that doesn’t mean he won’t play. He’ll be numbed up and out there, he said, “unless I’m hurting the team.”
The bigger issue? The Steelers need dynamic wide receiver Antonio Brown, who suffered a concussion in that first-round game, because when these teams played four weeks ago, Roethlisberger completed 40 of 55 passes for 380 yards and the Steelers won, 34-27, at home.
The biggest issue? That Broncos defense is going to be rested and, at Denver’s mile-high altitude, it is at a definite advantage.
Something has to give: Denver rushed for a season-best 220 yards the last time it played, on Jan. 3 and the Steelers finished the season ranked fifth against the run.
2: Kansas City at New England (4:35 p.m. Saturday, CBS)
Well, this is odd: Weirdly, this is the weekend’s only game that isn’t a rematch from the 2015 regular season. In fact, these teams haven’t played once another since early 2014, when people were writing off the Patriots and questioning Tom Brady’s future with the team after a 41-14 drubbing in Kansas City. (That was the “on to Cincinnati” game…) The Patriots and Brady, you may recall, went on to win the Super Bowl.
And so is this: This is also the first time since Super Bowl XXXIX that Andy Reid, then with the Philadelphia Eagles, and Bill Belichick have faced each other in the playoffs. Belichick won that one.
Holy DistractionGate: Belichick isn’t saying anything about reports that Chandler Jones ended up in the hospital because of synthetic marijuana. Nor is he saying anything about that mysterious black eye, although he was spotted walking through the locker room with a pair of boxing gloves.
Who’s hurt? Who isn’t? Jeremy Maclin isn’t finished with a knee injury, as he at first seemed to fear, but he does have an ankle injury that could place more focus on Albert Wilson. Not that the Patriots are saying anything, but Julian Edelman is expected to play after having foot surgery and Danny Amendola will play, as well. And Brady apparently is healthy again after having Ndamukong Suh roll onto his leg in the regular season finale.
Hmm: Bob Sutton, the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator, was a member of the New York Jets staff, coaching linebackers, when the Jets advanced to the AFC title game by stunning the Patriots at home in early 2011.
1: Seattle at Carolina (1:05 p.m. Fox)
Who are these teams anyway? The last time they met, on Oct. 18 in Seattle, Carolina moved to 5-0 with a 27-23 victory that came when Cam Newton, the league’s likely MVP, hit Greg Olsen on a touchdown pass with 32 seconds left. Newton was helped mightily by a miscommunication in the Seahawks secondary and Seattle fell to 2-4 on the season. Since then, Carolina has gone 10-1, Seattle went on to finish 10-6.
By the way: Wilson was 18 for 30 for 241 yards and a touchdown in that game and people were wondering if maybe his girlfriend, Ciara, wasn’t too big a distraction for him.
Newton vs. Wilson: Since Week 9, Newton and Wilson have been the hottest quarterbacks in the league. Newton has completed 179 of 280 passes since for 2,314 yards, 24 touchdowns and two interceptions. But look at Wilson’s numbers. He has completed 249 of 289 passes for 2,151 yards, 24 touchdowns and two interceptions. No one is talking about Ciara or whether becoming Newton becoming a father has become a distraction.
Whither the Beast: Will Marshawn Lynch, who hasn’t played since Nov. 19, make the trip to Carolina after passing on the first-round game in Minnesota last weekend?
Flashback: A year ago, the Seahawks waltzed in and knocked the Panthers out of the playoffs. But this is a different Carolina team and a different Newton. Can a hot Seattle team do it again? Somehow these teams knew they’d be back here. “After we played them, we said, ‘We’ll see you again in the playoffs,'” Josh Norman told the team’s website in October. “It’s cool. Fate gives you these chances to prove yourself worthy.”