The Divisional Round is our favorite weekend on the NFL calendar. It's loaded with wall-to-wall football and eight teams that have legitimate title hopes. Last year included an AFC classic (Ravens-Patriots) and a controversial NFC classic (Cowboys-Packers). The weekend is usually good for one big upset, and that happened when the Colts won in Denver last season.
So what will this year have in store for us? We will break down the games in detail all week, but here's our first quick look at the games, with one unstoppable performer in each one.
- Which Patriots team is going to show up? Wide receiver Julian Edelman, offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, linebacker Dont'a Hightower and defensive end Chandler Jones are among the key starters New England is hoping to get back on the field. The Patriots struggled in December to protect Tom Brady or run the ball. Now they have to get it right against the NFL's best scoring defense of the last three months.
- Bill Belichick said the Chiefs have won 11 straight by capitalizing on others' mistakes, and making few mistakes of their own. They have a similar profile to the 2001 Patriots, another team no one took seriously until they won the Super Bowl. Alex Smith is one of the best running quarterbacks in the league, but he's been on a bad streak of ugly interceptions with four picks in his last three games. The Patriots' secondary has been a playmaking group led by Malcolm Butler and Devin McCourty, so Smith needs to be careful.
- The Chiefs famously destroyed the Patriots in Week 4 last season, a loss that seemed to turn the Patriots' season around. Kansas City ran the ball well that night, and it has been on a roll lately with Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West. Ware took center stage in the wild-card round and is more dynamic. The Chiefs' line is better at run blocking, so look for them to try to wear down the Patriots.
Unstoppable Performer: This matchup will feature the best tight end in football (Rob Gronkowski) against the next closest thing: Baby Gronk. Travis Kelce had 128 of the Chiefs' 190 receiving yards in the wild-card round. With Jeremy Maclin day to day with a high ankle sprain, Kelce is the key to the Chiefs' offense. Bill Belichick will do everything to stop him.
- This is a rematch of the nadir of the Packers' season, a 38-8 loss in Arizona in Week 16. The Packers could barely move the ball that day, but we saw during Seahawks-Vikings on Sunday that a regular season blowout does not guarantee a repeat in the playoffs. Green Bay did an excellent job using an extra lineman to help protect Rodgers against Washington and he got the ball out of his hand quickly. It sounds strange, but the Packers would love to slow down the game by leaning heavily on the run.
- When the Cardinals score, they do it in an avalanche. The scary part about the first time Arizona and Green Bay played: Carson Palmer didn't even have a particularly great game in the blowout. Green Bay's secondary was banged up late against the Redskins and they will need to be fully healthy to have a chance against Arizona's deep receiver group. Michael Floyd has evolved into a true No. 1 receiver which makes Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown the scariest No. 2 and No. 3 receivers in the league.
- This is an interesting test for an Arizona team that has passed virtually every test this season. For the first time, they are the playoff favorites. They are the team expected to win at home and justify a juggernaut season. Green Bay's experience in the playoffs could matter here, with some confidence coming off their excellent showing in Washington.
Unstoppable performer: The Packers had no answer for Cardinals defensive lineman Calais Campbell last time out. The stalwart Cardinals defensive lineman had an up and down season but he sets the tone for the aggressive Cardinals offense. If he is busting through double teams, Rodgers won't have a chance.
- This is one of the sneaky best rivalries in the NFL. It's the sixth time they have played since Russell Wilson was drafted in Seattle, and the Panthers always play Seattle tough. It was a huge mental breakthrough for the Panthers to finally beat Seattle this season, when Panthers tight end Greg Olsen caught a late touchdown to win in Seattle. That set up a trend for this Seahawks defense for giving up late, crushing drives in losses. It almost happened again in Minnesota, but Blair Walsh's miss prevented that.
- In many ways, these teams are mirror images of each other. But Carolina's running game is far superior entering this contest, perhaps the toughest running game to prepare for in the league. Jonathan Stewart (foot) is expected to return for this game, while Marshawn Lynch's status is a mystery for the Seahawks. The threat of Cam Newton running and all the looks Carolina gives leads to defenses playing slow.
- The Panthers haven't been to the NFC Championship game since Mike Holmgren, Matt Hasselbeck and friends beat them in 2005. To get back, they will have to continue to throw up the seams against Seattle. Kam Chancellor has been vulnerable in coverage at times this season, including against Olsen. Panthers rookie Devin Funchess also came on late in the year. People think of these teams as defense-first, but they are top five in scoring, too. In short: These are complete teams that can win the title. This would make a great Super Bowl, but we're getting it in the quarterfinals.
Unstoppable performer:Michael Bennett can line up at any position on the defensive line for Seattle and wreak havoc. While the Seahawks have the deepest defense in the league, Bennett is the one Carolina's offensive line should be most worried about. Cliff Avril is also coming off his best season.
- This dangerous Steelers "team no one wants to play" might not be the team we've watched all year. Ben Roethlisberger couldn't throw the ball deep late in Saturday's wild win over the Bengals because of what's believed to be a sprained AC joint. The league's best receiver, Antonio Brown, was knocked out with a concussion. Roethlisberger said he's day to day, and Brown's status is a mystery, and will be the dominant storyline of the week.
- The Steelers were perhaps the only team all season to make the vaunted Broncos secondary look mortal in Week 15. Chris Harris had perhaps the worst game of his career checking Brown. Aqib Talib struggled with Markus Wheaton, at times. The Broncos' defense got plenty of stops in the first half, but Denver's offense gave the ball back to Pittsburgh too much.
- Of course, this Broncos team will look completely different than last time. Peyton Manning will start at quarterback instead of Brock Osweiler. Manning should be well-suited to picking out the weak spots in the up and down Steelers secondary. It's a group that has breakdowns and miscommunications too often. William Gay struggled against Emmanuel Sanders last time out. The Broncos hope DeMarcus Ware will be healthy.
Unstoppable Performer: Can the Steelers be a defense-first team? They can if linebacker Ryan Shazier keeps playing like he did in the wild-card round. His 13-tackles, two forced fumbles and fumble recovery against Cincinnati was a sight to behold. He has rare speed and instincts and could blow up Denver's planned short passing attack. The Broncos had the best defense in the league all season, so it will take exceptional individual efforts from Shazier and defensive lineman Cameron Heyward to outshine them.