Kansas City Chiefs (12-5) at New England Patriots (12-4)
Coming off a 30-0 blowout of the Houston Texans, the Kansas City Chiefs will get perhaps their biggest test in years, facing the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. While there is no team hotter than the Chiefs, who have won their last 11 games, the Patriots have a week of rest, far more recent playoff experience, the higher rated offenses and defenses, and have won five of the last seven meetings.
However, the last time they played it was a blowout … for Kansas City, which won 41-14 in 2014 with Alex Smith throwing for 248 yards and three touchdowns with a 144.4 passer rating. Despite that, Tom Brady continues to be one of the most productive quarterbacks in the league with 4,770 yards passing, a league-leading 36 touchdowns and only seven interceptions in 2015. Smith has about 1,300 fewer yards and 16 fewer touchdowns on the season, but he is 2-2 in playoff appearances and has registered a passer rating of 97 or higher in each of them.
But the matchups will determine the winner.
The Chiefs could be without their top receiver, Jeremy Maclin (ankle), giving Patriots coach Bill Belichick even more leeway to blitz Smith and force the issue. New England’s defensive strength is stopping the run, and if the Chiefs don’t have Maclin it would make it even more difficult for their 30th-ranked passing attack.
The best matchups, however, will be when the Patriots have the ball. Who will attempt to cover TE Rob Gronkowski, whose 1,176 yards receiving led the NFL among tight ends? Will Justin Houston and Tamba Hali be able to break free and apply pressure on Brady? Will CB Marcus Peters, who tied for the league lead with eight interceptions, be assigned to Danny Amendola, who has 42 catches for 454 yards and two touchdowns in his last five playoff games?
Belichick and Brady have the most playoffs wins, 21, of any coach-quarterback duo, so dethroning them as the defending champs will be a tall order, but if the Chiefs have Maclin it could be interesting matchup.
Green Bay Packers (11-6) at Arizona Cardinals (13-3)
The Green Bay Packers have won three of the last four games against the Arizona Cardinals, but that one loss was convincing and occurred with the current personnel, a 38-8 drubbing in Arizona on Dec. 27. Carson Palmer passes for 265 yards and two touchdowns and Cory Redding and Jerraud Powers both had fumble recoveries for touchdowns as the Cardinals pressured QB Aaron Rodgers into submission.
Palmer has been the high-powered triggerman for Arizona with 4,671 yards (second in the NFC), 35 touchdowns (tied for first in the NFC), 11 interceptions and a 104.6 passer rating (third in the NFL). His year-long presence and 100-plus passer rating in 11 games this year has helped the revival of Larry Fitzgerald, who was second in the conference in catches (109) and set the franchise record, and was third in the NFC in receiving yards (1,215), adding nine touchdowns. And Fitzgerald is far from the only receiving threat – John Brown and Michael Floyd each had more than 800 receiving yards this season.
Combined with the emergence of rookie running back David Johnson, the Cardinals have a well-balanced, top-ranked attack – eighth in rushing and second in passing. Johnson led all rookies with 13 touchdowns and joined Gale Sayers (1965) as the only rookies in NFL history with at least eight rushing touchdowns, four receiving touchdowns and a touchdown on a kickoff return.
Like Arizona is now, Green Bay was once known for its deep receiving corps, but the loss of Jordy Nelson in the preseason has cut deep. Rodgers hasn’t had a 100 passer rating in his last 11 outings, and Arizona’s top two receivers each have more receiving yards than any Packers pass-catcher. Randall Cobb (829) and James Jones (890) were both held under 1,000 yards this season, and third receiver Davante Adams is unlikely to play because of a knee injury.
Green Bay’s rushing attack has been fairly evenly split between Eddie Lacy and James Starks, but neither has surpassed 800 yards, with both averaging 4.1 yards per carry. The Packers might not be able to keep up with Arizona in shootout, so their sixth-ranked pass defense will have to contain the likes of Palmer, Fitzgerald and company. The Packers already have the most road wins in NFL postseason history. Can they extend it on Saturday?