The divisional playoffs. The second round. Some might say, "where the playoffs REALLY begin". Wild Card weekend is when the pretenders sort themselves out and whittle themselves down, and where the occasional anomaly amongst them suddenly gets hot, emerges from the pack, and goes on an unlikely deep playoff run. Two years ago we didn't see much of that, as only the San Diego Chargers could really be said to have been a Wild Card-caliber team that advanced past round one. Over in the NFC, the 49ers and Saints were technically Wild Cards, but they were both Super Bowl contenders, as both demonstrated in epic battles with the eventual Champion Seattle Seahawks. Whereas last season what looked like might be a revival of that heretofore ongoing trend with the Baltimore Ravens never materialized, and while the Colts progressed another playoff round, they were never really a Super Bowl threat. So seeding has held almost entirely to form the past couple of postseasons.
This time around is gong to be different. Very different.
I'm about to commit what will probably be seen by many as an act of football sacrilege, but damn it, this needs to be said because it is the pure-d truth: Right now the Kansas City Chiefs are better than the New England Patriots.
Yeah, that's right, I said it. You can see it in my power rankings (for which I have a fully developed numerical formulaic system, so it isn't because I'm sick to death of that team). You can see it in KC's eleven game winning streak, including impressive wins over the Steelers and the Broncos at Mile High. You can see it in the Chiefs' ability to run the ball even without Jamaal Charles and the Pats' inability to run the ball without Legarrette Blount. You can see it in Tom Brady's pedestrian quarterbacking down the stretch versus Alex Smith's actual, genuine elite passing production over that same stretch of games. You can see it in the Chiefs' turnover-forcing prowess. And you can see it in the Patriots' uninspired, near-moribund play over their final six games, symbolized by that not-nearly-as-close-as-the-score-indicated loss at home to the Eagles and the face-plant they suffered to Miami with the top AFC seed on the line.
Everybody is assuming that the Pats will just "turn it on" because it's the playoffs and win going away. Everybody is wrong.
The tale of the tape:
POWER RANKING: Chiefs #2, Patriots #8 (of eight teams remaining)
TOTAL OFFENSE: Patriots #6, Chiefs #27
RUSHING OFFENSE: Chiefs #6, Patriots #30
PASSING OFFENSE: Patriots #5, Chiefs #30
TOTAL DEFENSE: Chiefs #7, Patriots #9
RUSHING DEFENSE: Chiefs #8, Patriots #9
PASSING DEFENSE: Chiefs #9, Patriots #17
New England has to pass, which means the Chiefs will be able to pin their ears back and blitz Tom Brady with abandon. That'll be worth a couple of picks, and believe it or not, Alex Smith will be the better quarterback on this day.
The outcome won't be as lopsided as the last time these two teams faced each other (a 41-14 Kansas City blowout early last season), but the Patriots' undeserved reign as Champions will nevertheless end with a well-deserved whimper.
Kansas City* (+5)
Three weeks ago the Cardinals massacred the Pack by thirty points, running up a 31-0 lead at halftime, sacking and intercepting and forcing fumbles from and making all around miserable one-time league MVP Aaron Rodgers, whose quarterbacking wheels came off all the way back in week eight when the Broncos held him to seventy-seven yards passing. It's been kind of the flip side of Green Bay's problem the last couple of years, in that this year Rodgers has been healthy and everybody else on their offense, it seems, is hurt. Between Jordy Nelson blowing out his knee in the preseason and the offensive line problems they've had all year, you can see why the team that was one botched onside kick away from the SuperBowl twelve months ago finished in the bottom quarter of the league in passing with a future Hall of Famer under center. Ultimately it cost them the NFC North title and sent them the Wild Card route.
And then, last Sunday at Fed Ex Field in Landover, Maryland, a funny thing appeared to happen: wherever the Packers' offense had gone to over the past three months, it came back, especially in the second half, against the Redskins. Now, sure, it was the Redskins, not exactly a defensive challenge to strike fear into Mike McCarthy's heart. But for Packer fans, that had to be a good thing to see.
Another thing they must have enjoyed (even in a looking ahead sense) was the thirty-point pasting we laid on Arizona at the Toaster two weeks ago in a game in which the Cards weren't resting starters (aside from Carson Palmer, and only in the second half after Carolina had already clinched top NFC seed). Maybe they just came out uncharacteristically flat, but in a divisional and rivalry game, the Seahawks administered an ass-kicking even more epic than the beat-down we delivered in Glendale a year ago, when the mighty Ryan Lindley was taking the snaps.
In short, the rematch is going to be a lot closer, and Cheeseheads have reason to hope....but only to a certain point.
POWER RANKING: Cardinals #5, Packers #6 (of eight teams remaining)
TOTAL OFFENSE: Cardinals #1, Packers #23
RUSHING OFFENSE: Cardinals #8, Packers #12
PASSING OFFENSE: Cardinals #2, Packers #25
TOTAL DEFENSE: Cardinals #5, Packers #15
RUSHING DEFENSE: Cardinals #6, Packers #21
PASSING DEFENSE: Packers #6, Cardinals #8
The best team in the NFL over the second half of the season was your Seattle Seahawks. Over the entire season, it was the Arizona Cardinals. And they're too complete a team for the Pack to overcome.
Green Bay (+7)