Seattle Seahawks vs. Carolina Panthers
The first NFC divisional match will be a showdown of heavyweights: The 15-1 Carolina Panthers and the 2015 Super Bowl runner-up Seattle Seahawks face off. Although superstar signal callers Russell Wilson and Cam Newton are sure to provide entertainment, the key matchup will be between Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin and Panthers cornerback Josh Norman. In a matter of two months, Baldwin has gone from a middling fifth-year player who’d never topped five touchdowns in a season to a household name with a league-leading 14 scores. Across the line of scrimmage stands Norman, ranked fourth in coverage and surrendering a measly 0.66 yards each coverage snap, per Pro Football Focus. To Baldwin’s advantage, however, has been Norman’s sluggish performance to close out the regular season. If the Panthers hope to avenge last year’s divisional loss, Norman will need to shut down the red-hot Baldwin.
Green Bay Packers vs. Arizona Cardinals
In a repeat divisional matchup from last year, the Green Bay Packers face off against the Arizona Cardinals. Despite high pre-season hopes for quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his squad, the Packers have fallen short of expectations with some unwatchable performances. Conversely, the Carson Palmer-led Cardinals have been firing on all cylinders, finishing as the top-ranked offence in yards and fifth best defence in yards allowed per game. The key matchup in this battle will be between the Packers’ shaky offensive line and the Cards’ stout front seven. Rodgers has been the victim of extreme pressure and a frequently collapsing pocket, evidenced by a league-worst 33 sacks since Week 9, eight of which were in fact dealt by Arizona in Week 16. Led by Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell, the Cards front seven is a matchup nightmare for just about any team and only two running backs have burned Arizona for triple-digit rushing yards. The return of Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga and possibly left tackle David Bakhtiari should help stop the bleeding; nonetheless, slowing down Campbell will be a stiff challenge.
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Denver Broncos
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ wildcard victory could not have been more bittersweet; in a legendary come-from-behind win over the Cincinnati Bengals, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger got temporarily knocked out with a sprained shoulder and torn ligaments, while stud wideout Antonio Brown was levelled by a dirty hit in the closing seconds that knocked him out of the divisional match against the Broncos with a concussion. Big Ben is likely to play through the injury as per usual; as such, it will be essential that the Steelers get their ground game rolling against the Broncos fearsome defence. The Broncos have been by far the NFL’s best defensive unit in nearly every respect and is now back to full health. Steelers running back Fitzgerald Toussaint will have to lead the way in a Pittsburgh backfield that is missing DeAngelo Williams; however, there may be little space to run with defensive backs Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, and Brandon Marshall plugging the gaps.
Kansas City Chiefs vs. New England Patriots
The Chiefs travel to Gillette Stadium as 4.5-point underdogs, fresh after pummeling the Houston Texans. With wide receiver Julian Edelman expected to suit up, the Patriots should be an even bigger offensive juggernaut than they were at times this season. It’s hard to see ultra-conservative Chiefs signal caller Alex Smith keeping up with the Patriots’ NFL third-best 29.1 points per game average. Should the Chiefs emerge as the victor, it will likely be due to their pass rushers. Slowing down future Hall-of-Famer Tom Brady will be no easy feat and can only happen if he is not given the time to cycle through his many passing options. The Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston is tasked with setting the edge and will be going up against Patriots tackle Marcus Cannon. If Houston can disrupt Brady just enough to force him into poor throws, the Chiefs may find a way to pull off the upset.