Got a hot topic? Our NFL panel has opinions. The panel includes Sportsnet NFL editor Craig Battle, deputy editor Jordan Heath-Rawlings, staff writer Mike Johnston, associate editor Geoff Lowe and NFL expert Justin Dunk.
Which underdog could you see getting a win this weekend?
HEATH-RAWLINGS: Would it be cheating if I—for the second week in a row—just said “none”? It worked out pretty well for me last week, anyway. There’s perhaps bound to be at least one upset in these playoffs eventually, but I can’t be alone in looking at the matchups and thinking chalk might not be a bad decision. However, there is one potential upset, so I’ll take the Seattle Seahawks (anywhere from +1 to +3 as of Friday, depending on where you look) to bring down the Panthers. As fantastic as Cam Newton and company have been, they’re still untested under real playoff fire, and Seattle is, well, ready for anything when the chips are down. They simply find a way to keep themselves in a position to win most games, and then they seem to get the bounces and breaks needed to seal the deal. It will be close though, and the one key to watch for is how well Seattle defends Greg Olsen. The Seahawks were top-10 in basically every single defensive statistic in football—except for defending tight ends. They ranked 26th at that—and Olsen hung 131 yards and a touchdown on them back in October in a tight Panthers victory. Seattle’s defence has improved a ton since those early weeks, however, and I think it’s fair to say that if they can keep Olsen in check this time, they can steal the win. Win the chips are down between evenly matched teams, I’ll take the one that’s been there before.
LOWE: The Kanas City Chiefs have a good chance of earning the upset in New England this weekend, and it’s not as crazy a prediction as it sounds. Hear me out: no team in the NFL is hotter than the Chiefs. They’ve faced every different kind of obstacle you can think of over their 11-game win streak—which includes overcoming the loss of their best player—to come within one Peyton Manning-led comeback of winning the AFC West. The Chiefs have one of the league’s most dangerous defences (allowing less than 12 points a game since the beginning of November), and while the Alex Smith-led offence won’t be setting the field on fire, it protects the ball better than any team in the game.
The Patriots, on the other hand, may be in the worst shape they’ve been in more than a decade. New England is just 2-4 since Nov. 29, the team’s worst run over a span of six games since 2002. Tom Brady’s biggest offensive weapon, Rob Gronkowski, didn’t practice Wednesday or Thursday due to knee and back ailments, and Julian Edelman still isn’t 100 per cent. And even if those two do suit up, the Patriots’ offensive line remains a hot mess. Over the last month and a half, Brady has been sacked 16 times and hit a whopping 37.
Against a defence with the pass-rushing prowess of the Chiefs (K.C. ranked fourth in 2015 with 47 sacks), Brady might be on his back an awful lot Saturday and that usually means a loss for Bill Belichick’s Patriots.
BATTLE: Likelihood of upset, as far as I’m concerned, in order from best chance to worst: Seattle, Kansas City, Pittsburgh w/o Brown (who is now officially out), Green Bay, Pittsburgh w/o Brown and Roethlisberger (whose status is still up in the air). But I don’t want to write about the Seahawks or Chiefs, so I’ll make a case for the Pittsburgh Steelers, assuming for fun that Roethlisberger can play. Let’s not forget: This team beat the Broncos by a touchdown less than a month ago. Losing Brown hurts, but the Steelers have depth at the position with Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton, making them one of the teams best able to handle such a loss. On the other side of the ball, while Pittsburgh’s secondary is weak, Peyton Manning hasn’t exactly been the best version of himself this season, and there’s no guarantee he’s in great position to take advantage. What’s more, the Pittsburgh defensive front showed last weekend against Cincy that they’re an elite unit—capable both of play-in, play-out strength, as well as big-play ability. (See: Hill, Jeremy.) Despite the lopsided point spread and the untimely injury to their best receiver, I’d say Mike Tomlin’s team has an okay-to-decent shot at removing the memory of that crazy Tim Tebow–fuelled loss to the Broncos from 2012.
JOHNSTON: Kansas City has a great pass rush and the Patriots haven’t been protecting Tom Brady well in recent weeks. This leaves a window open for the Patriots to utilize James White in the passing game out of the backfield or hit Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski on short or mid-range routes. However, with Edelman and Gronk less than 100 per cent, Brady actually has fewer options than it seems. Geoff made some great points above that I won’t bother repeating repeat, but the Chiefs have been the better team since late October and I expect them to be the better team this weekend.
DUNK: Many people are taking Seattle to upset NFC No. 1 seed Carolina, but the Green Bay Packers just might be the team in that side of the bracket who can pull off a stunner. Aaron Rodgers looked like the quarterback that won the NFL MVP award in 2014 in the Packers’ wild-card win against Washington. After going down 11-0 in the second quarter, Rodgers reeled off 35 points by making decisive decisions, throwing the ball accurately and when needed buying time with his feet to allow receivers to uncover for big plays down the field. If Rodgers, who lost two fumbles and tossed one interception in a blowout regular season loss against Arizona, protects the football Green Bay can win.