With only the NFL's elite remaining, it becomes a more difficult task to find any obvious statistical mismatches that could play a key role in a game's eventual outcome. Sunday's matchup between Carolina and Seattle is one example of this. On paper, these teams are evenly matched-it's simply strength vs. strength as there are no discernible statistical advantages.
That's not the case in the other three divisional round matchups. In Chiefs-Patriots, Kansas City holds one big edge that figures to make things a little more difficult for the favored Pats. Meanwhile, favored Arizona has a glaring Green Bay weakness in which to attack; while in Steelers-Broncos, Pittsburgh will have to buck one big statistical mismatch in order to pull off the upset.
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Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots (-4.5)
Chiefs Rush Defense vs. Brandon Bolden
There are respected football people who think the Chiefs can win straight-up in Foxboro, and one reason for this is the Chiefs stout run defense. Kansas City ranks eighth against the run, having allowed 98.2 yards per game on the ground. Now they face a New England team that, while having no ground game to speak of for most of the season, was particularly atrocious in consecutive losses to close the regular season. The Patriots could muster just 133 rushing yards combined in losses to the Jets and Dolphins while averaging less than 3.0 yards per carry. In those games, Bolden tallied just 61 yards on 18 carries.
Obviously, New England has a legend at quarterback who is tough to bet against in January. Tom Brady will be slinging it early and often, especially given the expected return of slot receiver Julian Edelman. The concern is such a one-dimensional attack may not work against a defense that is good all around such as the Chiefs.
Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals (-7)
David Johnson and Andre Ellington vs. Packers rush defense
Johnson has been excellent since being inserted into the starting lineup and Ellington has had two additional weeks off to recover from a toe injury that limited his playing time in recent weeks. The Cardinals boast the league's eighth-best ground attack with 119.8 yards per game, but even better is that they've already shown they can run on Green Bay. In the Cardinals 38-8 thrashing of the Packers in Week 16, Arizona averaged 4.7 yards per carry and finished with 121 rushing yards.
Green Bay has simply struggled to stop the run this season. Teams have had some monster games on the ground against the Packers, including in Week 17 when they were gouged for 151 yards in a loss to Minnesota.
With the dynamic Johnson, and a presumably fully-healthy Ellington, the Cardinals have one of the league's most explosive backfields at their disposal. Green Bay could be in for a long night in the desert.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos (-7.5)
Broncos Rush Defense vs. Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint
Pittsburgh will be without star receiver Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger is dealing with an injury to his throwing shoulder. A productive ground game would certainly come in handy for the Steelers this week, but unfortunately they are facing the NFL's third-ranked run defense in the Broncos. Denver ranked among the league's elite by allowing just 83.6 yards per game during the regular season. Additionally, when these teams met in mid-December-a 34-27 home win for the Steelers-a fully-healthy Pittsburgh could muster just 23 rushing yards.
The Steelers will be climbing in even steeper hill this time. In addition to Brown being out and an ailing Roethlisberger, it was reported that leading rusher DeAngelo Williams is not likely to play. That leaves the backfield duties again in the hands of the duo noted above.
Todman and Toussaint did perform admirably in last week's slugfest victory over the Bengals. Todman tallied 65 yards on 11 carries while Toussaint added 58 yards on 17 carries. However, these youngsters have largely been non-contributors, and that's likely to continue against a defense like Denver's.
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