NFL Postseason Picks: Wildcard Weekend Edition
Well hello, and welcome to 2015, which can only mean one thing: welcome to the 2014 NFL post-season.
And this year, we have some traditional powers returning to the playoffs after a long drought (well, at least for them), and a game in Charlotte that SOMEONE has to win.
So let's get started...
Last week: 7-9
Final Regular Season Record: 128-128
Arizona Cardinals (11-5) @ Carolina Panthers (7-8-1), Saturday January 3, 4:35/3:35 Central
Line: Panthers by 6.5
Wild card weekend starts in Charlotte where the Panthers host the Cardinals at Bank of America Stadium.
This game is a strange case in that all year long, people just assumed that the eventual champion of the underachieving (or maybe just bad) NFC South would be an easy out in the wild card round despite the guaranteed home game that comes with being a division champion.
But now, with the Cards' offense struggling to move the ball with third-string QB Ryan Lindley, who will be making his first career post-season start in this one, not only are the Panthers, the first-ever back-to-back division champions in the history of the NFC South, favored, but they are heavily favored.
The Panthers won their way into this game by going to the Georgia Dome and laying a 34-3 whipping on the Falcons last week, so despite somehow making the playoffs in spite of going SIX WEEKS between wins earlier this year, Carolina could be at their best coming into this game.
The same can't be said for the Cardinals, who limp (quite literally) into this one with not only a third-string QB, but also injury problems at the running back position as well recently, which means that Andre Ellington, should he play at all, will not be as effective as he usually is.
Much was made of the Panthers' seemingly shipping off every target that Cam Newton had to throw to after the Panthers' unexpected playoff berth (and subsequent divisional round loss to the 49ers in their first playoff game), but Ron Rivera, as he was hired to do in Charlotte, is getting it on done on defense, and it will likely be hard for the Cards to even get on the scoreboard in this one let alone win it.
If you like "ugly" football, this is probably the game for you, although if the eternal question of "good defense" or "bad offense" is asked about this one, the answer will probably be obvious to everyone.
In the only other playoff meeting between these teams, the Cardinals won a 33-13 divisional round game in the 2008 post-season on their way to their only Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
The winner of this one heads to Seattle next Saturday to face the defending world champion Seahawks, unless the Lions win in Dallas the next day, in which case they go to Green Bay next Sunday to face the Packers.
Prediction: Carolina 20, Arizona 6
Baltimore Ravens (10-6) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5), Saturday January 3, 8:15/7:15 Central
Line: Steelers by 3
In the "Saturday Night Special" (Lynyrd Skynyrd reference for the win), the Steelers and Ravens rekindle the NFL's most heated rivalry at Heinz Field.
The Steelers are in the playoffs for the first time since losing the "Tim Tebow Game" in double-overtime in Denver three years ago in the wild card round, and come in on a high note after beating the Bengals last Sunday night in this same building to win the AFC North.
After two consecutive 8-8 seasons, the Steelers are hosting a playoff game for the first time since beating the Jets in the 2010 AFC title game, which is also Pittsburgh's last playoff win, since they went on to lose Super Bowl XLV to the Packers in Arlington two weeks after winning that game.
The Ravens haven't been playing their best lately, and in particular Joe Flacco hasn't, but after sneaking into the playoffs with a late rally in Cleveland last week, will look to stun their fiercest rival in their third meeting of the year.
The biggest question surrounding this game will be the health status of Steelers' running back Le'Veon Bell, who injured his knee last week after a questionable hit by the Bengals' Reggie Nelson and is officially listed as doubtful for this game.
But considering that the once-mighty Baltimore defense is one of two that Ben Roethlisberger has a six-TD game against this year, they can probably win this one just fine without him, especially if Flacco continues to struggle as he has at the end of the year.
This will be the first time that these teams meet in the wild card round, though they have already met in the divisional round and the AFC title game before.
These teams also spilt the regular season meetings, with the Ravens winning in Baltimore in week 2 26-6 and the Steelers winning in Pittsburgh 43-23 in week 9 behind Big Ben's 6 TDs.
If the Steelers win, they head to Denver to face the Broncos next Sunday afternoon, while the Ravens would head to Foxboro to play the Patriots next Saturday afternoon.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 35, Baltimore 17
Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1) @ Indianapolis Colts (11-5), Sunday January 4, 1:05/12:05 Central
Line: Colts by 3
Sunday's action gets started when the Colts host the Bengals at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Bengals are in the playoffs for a franchise-record fourth year in a row with Andy Dalton under center, but have yet to actually have anything to show for it other than three straight wild card losses (two in Houston, and last year's 27-10 debacle at home to the Chargers).
The AFC South champion Colts, meanwhile, are making their third straight appearance in the post-season with Andrew Luck under center, and last year, in the first Colts' playoff game in Lucas Oil history, they came from down 38-10 in the third quarter against the Chiefs to beat them 45-44 before losing 43-22 in Foxboro to the Patriots.
I don't expect either team to face the kind of difficult circumstances they faced in last year's outings in this one, although the Bengals will definitely need to play better than they did in a 27-0 loss to the Colts in week 7 of this year in this very same building.
That performance, while not Dalton's worst of the season, was easily the worst team outing by the Bengals this season, and in many ways typifies most people's perceptions of the franchise, which always seems to be one play away from finally breaking free of their stigma of being the Bengals and making something of themselves, but are never able to actually do it.
If the Bengals are unable to get pressure on Luck, which very few teams do in Lucas Oil, then this could be a very, very long day for them, since that will likely mean a lot of T.Y. Hilton and Reggie Wayne working over their secondary.
A.J. Green's health is of vital importance to the Bengals here, since Dalton's play at times is directly dependent on whether or not his most trusted target and only real deep threat is able to play and stretch the field, and as of this writing, his availability is a big question mark here.
Despite these two cities being only 112 miles apart, this will be the first playoff meeting between the two since the Colts moved to Indianapolis, although they have met once before: a 1970 first-round meeting between the Bengals and then-Baltimore Colts in Baltimore that was won by the Colts, 17-0.
The winner here plays in Foxboro next Saturday afternoon against the Patriots, unless the Ravens win in Pittsburgh, which will send them to Denver next Sunday afternoon.
Prediction: Indianapolis 34, Cincinnati 20
Detroit Lions (11-5) @ Dallas Cowboys (12-4), Sunday January 4, 4:40/3:40 Central
Line: Cowboys by 6.5
Indulge me for a second here before I begin, because I just want to soak in this moment, since I, as a lifelong Cowboys fan, FINALLY have a Cowboys' playoff game to write about.
The final game of wild card weekend takes place in Arlington at AT&T Stadium as the NFC East champion Cowboys host the Lions.
And there is no hotter team in the NFL heading into the playoffs than the Cowboys who ran the table in December, going 4-0 and averaging 42 points a game behind Tony Romo posting the highest December quarterback rating in NFL history.
They will be challenged, however, by a Detroit defense that is the second-best defense in scoring average in the league this year, which makes this a sneakily juicy contest to finish the first playoff weekend with.
Personal feelings aside (and for the record, I don't think he should be playing), no one can deny the positive impact that having Ndamukong Suh on the field for this on will have on the Lions, whose defensive numbers improve greatly with him on the field versus when he isn't.
This is a game that most people will want to turn into a battle of freakishly talented wide receivers, with Dez Bryant on one side of the field for the Cowboys and Calvin Johnson, who roasted the Cowboys' secondary for 329 receiving yards in the Lions' last-second 31-30 win in Detroit a year ago (which is the last time these two teams met), on the other side of the field for the Lions.
But I believe the battle between the Lions' defensive front and the Cowboys' young, talented offensive line will be the determining factor here, because if DeMarco Murray is getting his yards early, it could be a long day for Detroit.
It would help the Cowboys' cause, though, if Rod Marinelli, who has coordinated the absolute living you-know-what out of a defense that was widely expected to be the worst in NFL history before the season, could get a few turnovers out of his former quarterback Matthew Stafford, who will be returning home to the DFW Metroplex for a playoff game for the first time.
The Cowboys are hosting a playoff game for the first time since 2009, their last playoff appearance, when they beat the Eagles in a wild card game 34-14, which remains Tony Romo's only playoff win, while the Lions make their first appearance since 2011, where they lost a wild card game to the Saints, 45-28, in New Orleans.
These two teams have met twice before in the playoffs, a 5-0 (yes, that is the real score) Cowboys' win in the first round in 1970, and the Lions' 38-6 divisional round win at the Silverdome in 1991.
A Cowboys' win sends them to Green Bay to face the Packers next Sunday afternoon, while a win by the Lions sends them to Seattle to face the Seahawks next Saturday night.
Prediction: Dallas 41, Detroit 21 (and that's not a homer pick, I swear...)