Wild-card weekend lived up to its name, with the Chiefs winning convincingly, the Bengals and Vikings losing incomprehensibly and the Packers’ offense finding itself at Washington.
But now the heavyweights enter the ring. Rested and ready, next week’s home teams all have real quarterbacks and appear better equipped to defend their turf than this weekend’s hosts did.
So with that in mind, here’s a look at some of our bigger questions as the NFL playoffs spin into their best weekend.
The Patriots are getting healthy … but healthy enough? Julian Edelman should be back for the game against the Chiefs. In contrast, top Chiefs receiver Jeremy Maclin looks like he won’t be able to play. But those guys wouldn’t be guarding each other anyway. The bigger question here is whether the Pats’ offensive line, which has been a mess all season, can keep Justin Houston and the suddenly healthy Chiefs pass rush off Tom Brady. The Chiefs aren’t going to get Brady to go Full Hoyer, but they could rattle him enough to make a critical mistake at a key moment.
Could this just be Kansas City’s year? The Chiefs haven’t lost since the Royals won the World Series. (Technically, they haven’t lost since the Royals were up two games to one in the American League Championship Series.) There could be something in the water in those fountains by the Plaza, but don’t discount the Chiefs’ confidence level. The last time they played the Patriots, they whipped them 41-14 in Week 4 of 2014 -- the game that sparked Bill Belichick’s famous “On to Cincinnati” news conference.
Are the Packers fixed? There’s no truth to the rumor the Packers play rock-paper-scissors in the locker room before the game to decide who starts at left tackle. But it worked out Sunday, and after a rough start Aaron Rodgers woke up and looked like Aaron Rodgers. Was it a case of beating up on an NFC East defense? Or will the preseason favorite keep it going in the desert?
Should Arizona be the favorite to win it all? So many ways for Carson Palmer to go on offense. A rookie running back with fresh legs tearing it up late in the season. Bruce Arians on a mission to crush all those who didn’t think he could coach. The Tyrann Mathieu injury is a tough one that takes some of the scary out of the Cardinals, but who in that Green Bay secondary is going to cover all those receivers?
Is Charlotte the new Seattle? For the past couple of years, Seattle was the place you didn’t want to have to play in the NFC playoffs. But while they don’t have some weird flag-raising ceremony about it before every game, the Panthers’ home-field advantage has turned into the conference’s fiercest. Carolina is on an 11-game home winning streak that includes last year’s playoff victory, and beat its opponents by an average of 33-17 at home this season. The Panthers also beat the Seahawks in Seattle, storming in and swiping the two-time defending conference champions’ home-field mojo in person.
All about that inaction, boss? Will Marshawn Lynch get on the plane this week? Does it matter? The Seahawks are 8-2 without the guy who used to make their offense go, including Sunday’s frozen Houdini act in Minnesota. Thawed out and given new life, Russell Wilson may not care who he’s handing the ball to anymore. He’s just marking time until Doug Baldwin’s open in the end zone.
Will Pittsburgh have 11 players? Joey Porter may actually have to put a uniform on if he wants to get out on the field and talk trash to the other team this week. The Steelers hobbled out of Cincinnati and into a collective MRI tube. Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown were kryptonite in Week 15 for Chris Harris and the Broncos’ defense, with Big Ben throwing for 92 more yards than any other team did against Denver this season. But his shoulder hurts, Brown has a concussion, DeAngelo Williams is still hurting and the Steelers are just happy the game is Sunday and not Saturday so they have a better shot to get some of their guys up and running.
Peyton Manning will start the game. Will he finish it? I kind of liked the way the Broncos did it in Week 17, starting Brock Osweiler, then bringing Manning in halfway through to see if the Chargers would freak out. Which they did. But coach Gary Kubiak’s going with Manning, who hasn’t started since Week 10. Manning says he’s as healthy as he has been all year. The question: What the heck is that worth? Nobody’s going to freak out if they see Osweiler wading into the huddle late in the second quarter, just sayin'.