Kansas City (+5) at New England: I'm rooting for the Chiefs in this one not because I'm sure they'll win or I've bought into all the hype about the "momentum" from their ongoing 11-game winning streak after a 1-5 start to the season. I'm rooting for them because, like most of America, I cannot stomach the prospect of yet another Brady-Manning SHOWDOWN for the AFC championship. Somebody has to come along and knock these teams off their respective perches, and this year is as good as any.
The Patsies are banged up, and Brady has no true #1 receiver. It's basically him and all-world tight end Rob Gronkowski, and whoever's running the ball this week. New England lost four of their last six regular-season games, including one at home, which is almost unheard of. The thing is, as bulletproof as they are at Gillette Stadium during the regular season, it turns out that in the nine playoff games played there since 2009, the Patriots have lost three of those games, including the 2010 dumper against their arch-rival Jets after a 14-2 regular season record.
Andy Reid is known for his terrible clock management, and the man looks he's never met an enchilada he didn't want to fuck, but he knows how to coach and motivate and coordinate teams. Alex Smith was a washout #1 overall pick with the 49ers, but that's mostly because he had four different offensive coordinators (and, of course, offenses) in four years there. Reid has constructed an offense that works around Smith's strengths, and in their season ender against the Raiders, as well as last week's wild-card blowout over a hapless Texans team, Smith has been finding his receivers and running like the second coming of Randall Cunningham.
The Chefs' real strength is their defense, however. Rookie cornerback Marcus Peters leads the team with eight interceptions, and is a legitimate candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Sack monster Justin Houston will be back. The Patsies never go down easy, but they might finally go down on this one.
Final Score: Chiefs 34, Patriots 30
Green Bay (+4.5) at Arizona: These teams just met two weeks ago in Arizona, and the Cardinals punished the Packers 38-8 (and that was by the end of the third quarter; it could easily have been much worse). After getting off to a 6-0 start, the Packers lost six of their last ten games, including their final two. Their running backs fumble at the worst times. Their defense is inconsistent. Their offensive line is a tattered piece of cheesecloth that might have been used by Vince Lombardi as a napkin.
The Cardinals have suddenly become the best team in the NFC West division, and one of the two or three best in their conference. Carson Palmer just turned 37, however, and if the Packers' defense can get to him early and often, they have a chance. But Palmer was sacked just 27 times in 16 games, while Rodgers was sacked 47 times, and Arizona's defense showed they could overpower Green Bay's o-line anytime they want. Whatever Bruce Arians is doing with this team, he should bottle and sell it.
Final Score: Cardinals 37, Packers 20
Seattle (+3) at Carolina: If you're tired of the insufferable bandwagoneering of Seahawks fans, this should be the game for you. The 15-1 Panthers have dominated their opponents all season long, ending the regular season with a nearly 200-point total differential. Seattle improved over the second half of the season after a lousy start, but they're really only in this game because of sheer luck, and Carolina will want to pay them back for last year's playoff defeat in Seattle. The Panthers have some key injuries on offense, but their defense is in good shape, and will punish Russell Wilson and his receivers and running backs. A Panthers-Cardinals conference championship game would be a matchup of the two best teams in the NFC, and it looks like it should happen.
Final Score: Panthers 27, Seahawks 13
Pittsburgh (+5.5) at Denver: The Steelers' starters at QB (Ben Roethlisberger), RB (LeVeon Bell), and WR (Antonio Brown) are all listed as out for this game. Bell has been out on injured reserve since early in the regular season, Brown is out under concussion protocol after Pacman Jones' nasty hit at the end of last week's wild-card game, and Roethlisberger may actually appear in this game at some point, but is not listed to start. The last time all three starters at those positions were out for a playoff game was 1979, when Houston Oilers faced that predicament, and still managed to beat the San Diego Chargers.
Denver's offense is not really in much better shape. Peyton Manning is listed to start, but his arm is mostly gone, and backup Brock Osweiler has been okay in his starts, but the Broncos have mostly relied on their top-rated defense to keep them in games. This is going to be one of those tedious defensive struggles, even more so if it snows. In the end, it's probably going to come down to the last team to have a short enough field at the end of the game to score a field goal.
Final Score: Steelers 10, Broncos 6
[Update 1/17/16 7:00 PST: And of course it's going to be Brady vs. Manning in the AFC after all, dammit. That's a shame, really, but as Manning is just about done, it is almost certainly the final such matchup. The Packers and Seahawks deserve some credit for making their games a lot more interesting than they should have been, but ultimately the best teams won each of the NFC games. And despite their letting Seattle back into the game after a 31-0 halftime lead, I'm convinced that the Panthers can beat either AFC team in a Super Bowl matchup. You don't need me to tell you that if Tommy Tuck Rule wins that fifth Super Bowl, the massholes will reach Peak Douchebag. It really is best for everyone concerned that the Patsies get shut down finally.]