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Saturday, 16 January 2016

NFL Divisional Round Play Off Picks 2016 (January 16-17)

The NFL season is winding down and we are now just three weekends from the end of the season and Super Bowl 50.

Last week we saw the four road teams win on Wild Card Weekend for the first time in NFL history, but all of those teams will come into this weekend as the underdog against rested opponents.

Injuries are a big factor at this stage of the season as the Championship Games are set over Saturday and Sunday and this looks like being another intriguing round of Football.

Saturday 16th January
The two games on Saturday involve the both the AFC and NFC Divisional Round games after last week which had both AFC games played on Saturday and the two NFC games played on Sunday.

All four games look like they could be fascinating ones this weekend and I can see all teams having their backers for success.

Kansas City Chiefs @ New England Patriots Pick: The first game of the Divisional Round Weekend sees the banged up Kansas City Chiefs take on the formerly banged up New England Patriots. It was a big achievement for the Patriots to earn a bye in the First Round of the Play Offs to ensure their players are ready to return in time for this Round and they have home field advantage as the Number 2 Seed in the AFC.

While New England were resting and making sure their Offensive weapons are ready to go for Tom Brady, the Kansas City Chiefs were blowing out the Houston Texans on the road, pitching a shut out too. However an injury to Jeremy Maclin is likely going to keep the Wide Receiver out of this game and even if he can go, he is surely going to be limited, which will make life much more difficult for Alex Smith and the passing game to move the chains.

Kansas City will need that side of their Offense to be working because the New England Patriots have clamped down on the run and will have key players back to try and take away what Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West are going to be able to do on the ground. Getting the running game is a key for the Chiefs as they not an Offense built to convert third and long situations, while Alex Smith is also capable of making some moves with his legs to covert short yardage situations.

It will also be important for the Chiefs to establish the run if they are going to give their less experienced Receivers a chance in this one. While it has been possible to throw the ball against New England, there is a solid pass rush up front that will put Smith under pressure when in third and long and can slow down the Offense and prevent the Chiefs from moving the chains. With Maclin limited, I also think Bill Belichick will force Smith to look away from Travis Kelce in this one and make another play beat the Patriots.

Smith will feel some pressure, but Tom Brady is likely to also have to make quick throws if he is going to stay away from the pass rush the Chiefs have been able to generate. Brady was left limping after the Week 17 loss to the Miami Dolphins, but he has had a couple of weeks to prepare and will feel a lot better with Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman all expected to start.

There were some doubts about Gronkowski earlier in the week, but others are suggesting his injuries are not nearly as serious as the Patriots would want you to believe so Brady should have a decent day. He has really struggled without Edelman whose return is huge for this team and Brady will need to find the right match ups and not throw the ball late against this ball-hawking Secondary that sparked the win over Houston last week.

It will mainly be down to Brady to help the Patriots win this game as they have struggled to run the ball in their last few games. That is no surprise with the injuries at Running Back, but Kansas City have allowed a big run or two to break through their lines and New England are unlikely to ignore the run all day, but they may use quick passes from Brady to open up those lanes.

I like the New England Patriots to come through this game and win with the cover- I have not really been high on the Kansas City Chiefs all season while they are a team that is just 1-3 against the spread as the road underdog this season. The Chiefs Defensive unit have hidden the poor Offensive output, but Brady is unlikely to hand the game to them as Brian Hoyer did last week and I think Alex Smith will have a difficult time leading Kansas City without Jeremy Maclin and Belichick likely taking away someone like Travis Kelce.

Talking of Belichick, the Head Coach is 15-3 against the spread in games where he is trying to revenge a loss of fourteen or more points as New England suffered the last time they played Kansas City in the 2014 season. With the Offense now looking a lot healthier I think the Chiefs luck comes to a close and the New England Patriots can get to within two wins of defending the Super Bowl they won last season.

Green Bay Packers @ Arizona Cardinals Pick: The Green Bay Packers claim they have found their 'mojo' following a road win at the NFC East Champions Washington Redskins last week. However, it is going to be a completely different level of test for them as they return to face the Arizona Cardinals, a team that blew them out in Week 16 in the desert.

The big question for the Packers is whether they have done enough in the last two weeks to suggest this will be a much different outcome? A home loss to the Minnesota Vikings followed by the win over Washington on Wild Card Weekend is not really enough to suggest Green Bay are as back as they claim, although counting out Aaron Rodgers is a position in which he thrives the most.

Rodgers would have been pleased by the protection given to him by the Offensive Line last weekend, especially as they were playing a Washington team that had generated plenty of pressure up front. He would also have enjoyed seeing his Receivers win their one on one match ups and find the space for Rodgers to exploit, although both the Receivers and the Offensive Line will be tested by this Arizona Defense, even if they are missing Tyrann Mathieu.

As well as the Offensive Line played last week, it won't have been lost that the Arizona Cardinals managed to Sack Aaron Rodgers a lot when they met the first time. The Cardinals will get some pressure up front and their Secondary has also played well enough to think Randall Cobb and James Jones will have their issues finding the space they require. Devante Adams has been ruled out to Rodgers has lost a big time Receiver for this match up, while both Eddie Lacy and James Starks may struggle to find the running lanes they exploited in Washington last week.

It looks like it will be down to Aaron Rodgers and the rejuvenated passing game to win this game for the Packers and they will need to be on form as they take on a high-powered Offense that is being run by Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer. The bye week might have given the team a chance to rest, but Arizona might have wanted to get the taste of their Week 17 blow out loss to the Seattle Seahawks out of their mouths.

Palmer has played to the level of a potential MVP in the League this season, but he may not have to do too much if David Johnson can get things going on the ground. Johnson had a big game against the Packers the first time and he should be able to establish the run which is going to open up the passing game that can be exploited by Carson Palmer.

The Quarter Back has had a big season and he has been well protected by his Offensive Line for the most part. With the running game established, Palmer will have every chance to find the match ups for his Receiving corps whether that be through John Brown, Juron Brown, JJ Nelson, Larry Fitzgerald or Michael Floyd. The Green Bay Secondary has been dealing with some injuries too and it looks hard to imagine them shutting down Arizona's passing game, although the Packers have managed to get some pressure up front.

That might not matter with Palmer likely to be in third and short situations and a Quarter Back that gets the ball out of his hands very quickly. I think that the Arizona Offense is going to have more joy than the Green Bay one when it comes to consistently moving the chains and I believe Carson Palmer can finally win a post-season game which will keep Arizona on course for a Super Bowl appearance.

As much as I don't want to discount what Aaron Rodgers is capable of doing, Green Bay are just 1-4 against the spread as the road underdog being given between 3.5 and 7 points over the last couple of seasons. They have also struggled to earn revenge for blow out losses in that time, going 0-2 against the spread when losing the last game against a team by 21 points or more.

I'd be shocked if Arizona won by thirty points as they did in Week 16, but I think they are the superior team to Green Bay and I expect them to show that again by winning this one by double digits.

Sunday 17th January
Two really good Divisional Round Weekend games have been set for the Sunday, although injuries to the Pittsburgh Steelers have perhaps lessened the intrigue in their game at the Denver Broncos.

The first is the big rematch between the Carolina Panthers and the Seattle Seahawks that really could produce the NFC representative in the Super Bowl next month, even if the other two teams remaining will have something to say about that.

Seattle Seahawks @ Carolina Panthers Pick: The Carolina Panthers might have finished with the Number 1 Seed but they have to feeling a little disrespected that they are 'only' a favourite to win their first Play Off game by less than a Field Goal. That is obvious a testament to the experience and success that the Seattle Seahawks have had in the last couple of years and many might feel they are a team playing with 'nine lives' after the second year in a row they have won a 'miracle' game.

Last season the Seahawks came from a large deficit to beat the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game, but let's be honest and admit Seattle had a lot of fortune in that game. That same element of fortune helped them beat the Minnesota Vikings in the Wild Card Round last week as Blair Walsh inexplicably missed a chip shot Field Goal that would have given the Vikings the lead with seconds remaining.

This is a big game for both Carolina and Seattle- the Panthers have to prove they are a legitimate contender to win the Super Bowl, while the Seahawks are looking for revenge for a home loss to Carolina in the regular season. As well as Carolina have played in the regular season, the Play Offs is a different kettle of fish and it is a big test for Cam Newton and his makeshift Receiving corps to knock of Seattle, even if the game is being played at home where Carolina are 8-0 this season.

It hasn't helped in the past as Carolina have some ghosts to exorcise having lost three in a row at home to Seattle in each of the last three seasons before this one. The Panthers were also knocked out of the Play Offs by Seattle last season so I can understand why the layers want to give the Seahawks the respect they deserve having reached the last two Super Bowls as the NFC representative.

Both teams will feel their Defensive unit is the better one that is taking the field and it will be the team who makes the most plays on that side of the ball that will win the game. That shouldn't be a big surprise to anyone, even if the game in Seattle between them was far higher scoring than most may have anticipated. However the last three games in Carolina have all been very tight and this potentially follows suit.

We all know what Carolina are going to want to do when they have the ball in their hands- they want to establish the run which will open up the passing game and they will take deep shots downfield with Cam Newton hitting the speedsters like Ted Ginn Jr who can stretch the field. Earlier in the season the Seahawks did struggle to contain the run at times, but the Defensive Line has clamped down on that side in recent games and even Newton's scrambling ability won't be foreign to them having seen Russell Wilson in practice.

Surprisingly another weakness that was exposed in the Legion of Boom earlier in the season was being able to throw the ball against them with Cary Williams struggling. However the Corner Back has been cut and Jeremy Lane has come in to make Seattle a little more solid, although I think Greg Olsen can have another decent outing after catching the game winning Touchdown when these teams first met this season.

The issue for Carolina is that I am not convinced Newton is going to find the bust in coverage that he did in the first game if the Panthers are not able to run the ball. This is not an Offense that wants to be left in third and long through the course of the game and it could be a tough outing for Carolina who want to prove they are for real.

Running the ball will be a tough task for the Seattle Seahawks too though although they are going to receive a potential boost with Marshawn Lynch set to return. Lynch was supposedly close to returning last week before pulling out of the game, but 'Beast Mode' is a huge upgrade for Seattle over Christine Michael.

That might not matter if Carolina continue playing the run as well as they have all season with a pair of stud Linebackers in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis able to play the run and get into coverage effectively. The Panthers have shut down the run and will look to put the onus of moving the chains on the back of Russell Wilson who has been in fine form in the second half of the season.

One concern for Seattle fans has to be the struggles Wilson has had at times in games against St Louis and Minnesota in recent games, two Defenses that are comparable to the Carolina one. Wilson might not be able to rely too much on Doug Baldwin who is likely shadowed by Josh Norman for most of this game, but there have been some holes to hit in the Secondary that might be available for Wilson to exploit.

The Panthers Secondary struggled in the last three games, but they should be well rested and able to have a bit more success from the struggles that they had in those games. A couple of those games was against teams that were being forced to throw from a big deficit, but Carolina have to be careful with Wilson scrambling and able to make big plays as he did last week in Minnesota.

Wilson has had better protection of late from his Offensive Line but the Carolina pass rush is well rested and figure to give Wilson some problems.

It looks a very close game to call and I can make a case for both when it comes down to it. The Seattle experience is hard to overlook and their Defensive unit is back to their best, however I think Carolina will feel they are being overlooked and disrespected and their home record can't be ignored as the Number 1 Seed in the NFC knock off the team that has won the Conference two years running.

The Panthers are 6-1 against the spread when they are favoured by three points or fewer at home over the last couple of seasons. The back to back early Eastern Time start has to be an issue for Seattle even if they won in that spot before this season, and I think the Panthers move on to host the NFC Championship Game next week.

Pittsburgh Steelers @ Denver Broncos Pick: It was a brutal affair last week as the Pittsburgh Steelers overcame the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card Round, but it did come at a cost. The most important is that Antonio Brown has been ruled out for this game, while Ben Roethlisberger's status is iffy.

I have no doubt that Big Ben is going to play, but his shoulder has to be feeling banged up and I do wonder if he is able to throw down the field, something he was unable to do in the last drive against the Bengals. He has had eight days to get ready for this game which should keep him in a position to win this game, but Pittsburgh need Roethlisberger to be able to throw down the field if they have any real chance in this one.

The Quarter Back is hurt, the best Wide Receiver has been ruled out and DeAngelo Williams, the first choice Running Back, has also been ruled out for the Steelers. It wasn't going to be easy for Pittsburgh to run the ball anyway, but the loss of Williams hurts, although it gives Fitzgerald Toussaint to have another chance along with Jonathan Todman. Both played well last week, but Toussaint is a capable pass catcher out of the backfield which may be the best way for the Steelers to establish any kind of ground game against a Broncos Defensive Line that has thrived in stopping the run.

Another big problem for Roethlisberger is going to be dealing with a very effective pass rush generated by Denver up front, a healthy pass rush with the week break since their last game. If he is feeling banged up, that pass rush hitting him is not going to feel very good and Pittsburgh have to be worried that they are going to lose their Quarter Back to another injury.

There have been some issues in the Denver Secondary in their last few games that could potentially be exploited, but that is tough without Antonio Brown. The other Receivers have step up their play without their star Receiver, but that isn't always easy, while Roethlisberger has having some issues with Interceptions a particular problem, something that could be a bigger issue with the shoulder problem.

It might be up to the Pittsburgh Defensive unit to step up their play if the Steelers are going to earn the upset here. They have definitely been strong against the run so Peyton Manning is going to have to do more than simply put together a few hand offs as he did in the win over San Diego when returning as Quarter Back as Brock Osweiler struggled.

That has seen Gary Kubiak once again make Peyton Manning his starting Quarter Back, but it will be down to the future Hall of Fame player to win this one with the Steelers likely to clamp down on Ronnie Hillman and CJ Anderson. I wouldn't be surprised if Denver are able to put a couple of big runs together, but I am not sure Denver are able to have a consistent rushing Offense which puts the pressure on Manning.

Over the years Peyton Manning has had many occasions where he has been one and done in the Play Offs so there is some real pressure on him to get it done with his career window beginning to close. If the Broncos are not running the ball effectively, Manning is going to feel some pass rush pressure from the Steelers and that has been something he has found hard to escape in the early portion of this season even when he was 'healthy'.

It has been tough for the Pittsburgh Secondary for much of the season, but they have shown improvement of late and Manning is not exactly going to light them up deep. The Steelers should know what to expect from Manning and will likely dare him to beat them deep, but they have a ball-hawking Secondary that will be looking to create turnovers to help their team set up short fields and win this game.

With the injuries in the Pittsburgh team, it is hard to really believe in them, but they do look like the are getting too many points in this one. Asking Denver to cover more than a Touchdown looks a big ask and I think the Steelers can become the one road team this week to extend the record of road teams that have won in the Wild Card Round from their current 12-3 record against the spread in the Divisional Round.

Roethlisberger might be hurt, but I think the Defensive unit will set him up for a couple of short fields and they have some big Receivers that can make plays for him. I don't particularly fancy Peyton Manning to do enough to cover this spread if the Steelers continue to clamp down on the run and I will take what looks a lot of points.

MY PICKS: New England Patriots - 4.5 Points @ 1.95 Coral (2 Units)
Arizona Cardinals - 7 Points @ 1.91 Sky Bet (2 Units)
Carolina Panthers - 1.5 Points @ 1.91 William Hill (2 Units)
Pittsburgh Steelers + 7.5 Points @ 1.91 Paddy Power (2 Units)

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