NEW YORK: Defending champion New England hosts a Kansas City squad on an 11-game win streak while Seattle’s dream of a third consecutive Super Bowl faces a major test at Carolina in weekend NFL playoff clashes.
The NFL’s last eight seek berths in the January 24 conference finals, where Super Bowl tickets are punched, when Kansas City visits New England and Green Bay travels to Arizona on Saturday and Seattle visits Carolina and Denver hosts Pittsburgh on Sunday.
Three of the contests are rematches of regular-season games, while the Chiefs and Patriots is a rematch of a 41-14 Kansas City romp from the 2014 season that still has Patriots quarterback Tom Brady upset looking back.
“Every time we play them it’s a battle. I’ve had some pretty tough losses against them over the course of my career,” Brady said. “We’re going to have to have our best week. It’s going to take a great effort. They put a lot of pressure on you and if you don’t handle it they take advantage.”
The Chiefs led the NFL in turnover margin and have the speed and size in linemen and linebackers to pressure Brady into mistakes. He has nine touchdowns and seven interceptions in career meetings with the Chiefs.
“When they get turnovers they turn them into points. It kind of creates this snowball effect and the game gets out of hand,” Brady said. “For us it’s just how we’re going to be able to execute at a higher level. There is no magic ingredient. You have just got to go do it.”
New England has battled through injuries in quest of a fifth title in 15 years and a fifth trip in a row to the conference final, something only accomplished by the Oakland Raiders in the 1973-77 seasons.
Brady’s favorite receiver, Julian Edelman, will return this week after missing two months with a foot injury and tight end Rob Gronkowski is always a pass threat. The Chiefs counter with rookie defensive back Marcus Peters, who has made eight interceptions this season, but the Patriots went 9-0 with Edelman this season and 3-4 without him.
Panthers have ‘an edge’
At Carolina, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has enjoyed a stellar season with 45 touchdowns — 35 passing and 10 rushing — and a 15-1 record. But the record most on his mind is 1-2 — his career record in playoff games.
“My record is not what I want it to be,” 2011 NFL Draft top pick Newton said.
Carolina lost 31-17 to Seattle in last season’s playoffs at this same stage but won a regular-season rematch there last October 27-23. The Panthers went on to the NFL’s best record. Seattle took the last wildcard playoff spot.
“We’ve been having that type of season where it’s been hitting everybody in a way that nobody expected,” Newton said. “We have an edge about us right now.”
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who led Seattle to a 2014 Super Bowl win and had a repeat win in hand until last year’s dying seconds, says Newton has been the NFL’s Most Valuable Player this season.
“They have been able to win. And they beat us,” Wilson said. “You have to give them respect for the hard work he put in. He has played spectacular football.”
At Arizona, the Cardinals meet the same Packers squad they thumped 38-8 three weeks ago. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been hammered behind patchwork blocking lines but could have his starting unit healthy for the first time in two months.
Arizona boasts the NFL’s second-deadliest attack powered by quarterback Carson Palmer and a host of speedy receivers.
Steelers seek upset in Denver
At Denver, the visiting Steelers return to the site of their 34-27 comeback victory on December 20. After making the playoffs on the last day of the season, Pittsburgh could be primed for a stunning upset if quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can sparkle despite a shoulder sprain.
The Broncos counter with Peyton Manning, who was sidelined by a foot injury last month, but returned midway through the final game of the regular season to pilot Denver to victory.
However, Manning is 0-5 in the kind of cold conditions expected Sunday.