Friday, January 2, 2015

The Hail Mary - NFL Playoffs: Wild Card Round

NFC Wild Card: #5 Arizona (11-5) at #4 Carolina (7-8-1), Carolina favored by 6 1/2

This game is the red-headed stepchild of wild card weekend. Carolina is hosting despite having a losing record and being 3-8-1 at one point this season. The Cardinals are down to their third string quarterback, Ryan Lindley and second string running back Kerwynn Williams.

Cam Newton has battled through injuries and even car accidents this season but still managed to start 14 of the Panthers 16 games. He wasn't great this season but performed decetly considering the amount of turnover to his wide receiver corps from last year, as well as the constant injuries in the Panthers backfield to Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert. Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin are Newton's most reliable options. Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson will likely draw the assignment of covering the monster Benjamin. Benjamin had a fantastic rookie season but has struggled with drops at times this season. The Panthers allowed 40 sacks this season, but the Cardinals were able to get to the quarterback just 28 times this year. The Cardinals three main threats as pass rushers are Calais Campbell, Frostee Rucker, and the team leader in sacks Alex Okafor. The Cardinals defense was 13th in the league against the run, but they will have problems with Stewart, who has played his best football in years during the Panthers winning streak. Newton will try to pick apart a Cardinals secondary that ranks 29th in the league against the pass.

Lindley looked slightly more competent for Arizona against San Francisco last weekend, but doomed the Cardinals with three interceptions. The Panthers defense has been schizophrenic this season. They started off the season strong, but then during the team's 1-8-1 swoon during the season the defense gave up more 30 points 6 times. During their four game winning streak the defense has allowed a total of 43 points, including holding the Falcons without a touchdown in last week's NFC South clincher. LB Luke Kuechly remains the Panthers best defensive player, while pass rushers Charles Johnson and Mario Addison led Carolina in sacks. Williams has ran decently since Ellington went down for the season, and he will split some carries with Stepfan Taylor. The Panthers defense has more struggled against the pass, and Lindley does have weapons in Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald. Rookie John Brown appeared to be emerging as a threat earlier this season but has really quieted down since the Cardinals quarterback situation became a mess.

I expect this to be an ugly game, that is dominated by the defenses. I think the Panthers will do a better job of converting their opportunities than the Cardinals will, who I expect to be hurt by more Lindley turnovers. Carolina will pull out the win and make teams with losing records 2 for 2 in the wild card round, joining the 2010 Seattle Seahawks.

Prediction: Carolina 19, Arizona 13

AFC Wild Card: #6 Baltimore (10-6) at #3 Pittsburgh (11-5), Pittsburgh favored by 3 1/2

Bitter rivals meet once again in the playoffs. Typically games between these two are all about the defenses, but the rivalry has taken a different tenor this season. Both teams have excelled on offense, with the Steelers passing game second in the NFL, while the Ravens rank 8th in rushing and 13th in passing. These teams split the seasons series this year, with the home team winning each contest. Usually Ravens/Steelers games are closely contested contests but this year both meetings were blowouts. The Ravens won 26-6 in Baltimore, while the Steelers thrashed Baltimore 43-23 in Pittsburgh.

Joe Flacco struggled some down the stretch but had one of the better seasons of his career under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. He finished with 27 TDs and 12 INTs while completing over 62% of his passes. Free agent acquisitions Justin Forsett and Steve Smith both paid huge dividends.  Smith led the Ravens in catches with 79 catches and over 1,000 yards receiving. Forsett rushed for 1,266 yards and 8 touchdowns. He had really slowed down the last three games, until last week against Cleveland when he carried the Ravens to a win with 119 yards rushing. Forsett will have his work cut out for him against the Steelers though, who ranked 6th in the league against the run. James Harrison has had a career renaissance this season. Injuries caused the Steelers to reach out to the retired Harrison and he now has 5 1/2 sacks this year and helped save the Steelers defense from derailing. Steve Smith has played like a man possessed all year, desperate to prove he is still a top flight receiver. The Steelers have struggled mightily against the pass this year, so the Smith's, Steve and Torrey will have a chance to make some huge plays. Injuries have also started to hit the Steelers secondary, as they might be without Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor for this game.

The bigger question injury wise for Pittsburgh is whether or not RB Le'Veon Bell will play or not. Bell was injured in the victory against Cincinnati last week and his status remains up in the air. Bell was awesome for Pittsburgh this year, but after jettisoning LaGarrette Blount, the Steelers don't have any real options behind him. Dri Archer or the recently signed Ben Tate would presumably be the new running back, but whether it is Bell, Tate or Archer, running on the Ravens will be tough with the return of Haloti Ngata for the Ravens from his adderall suspension. The way for Pittsburgh to win is how they won against Baltimore earlier this season, through the air with Roethlisberger and primarily Antonio Brown. Brown has been perhaps the best offensive player in football this year, and certainly the most consistent. He isn't just dangerous as a receiver, he can be used to run reverses and is an excellent punt returner. Bell was second on the Steelers in catches so that means if he is gone Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant will have to step up. Big Ben is known for his penchant of being hard to bring down and he could face serious pressure all night from Terrell Suggs (12 sacks) and Elvis Dumervil (17 sacks).

I do expect to finally get a close Ravens/Steelers battle in the playoffs. Injuries for the Steelers give the Ravens more of a chance, but their offense has been so up and down recently that I am not sure they can take advantage of those injuries. If the Steelers don't have Bell it will hurt, but Roethlisberger can still take advantage of a porous Ravens secondary.

Prediction: Pittsburgh 27, Baltimore 23

AFC Wild Card: #5 Cincinnati (10-5-1) at #4 Indianapolis (11-5), Indianapolis favored by 3 1/2

This playoff game is between two teams with a lot to prove. The Bengals are back in the playoffs for the fourth straight season. They are hoping that this year bring more success than the previous three years have. Andy Dalton has struggled mightily in those losses and if his performance in the regular season at Indy, a 27-0 loss is any indication, he could provide even more negative ammo for NFL pundits and Bengals fans. For the Colts, they won another AFC South title but were outclassed almost every time they played a team with a winning record this season. People think they can beat Cincinnati but I expect hardly anyone to pick them in the Divisional Round should they win this game.

The Bengals were a different team back when they played Indianapolis earlier this year in October. A.J. Green missed this game and Jeremy Hill hadn't yet emerged as the Bengals premiere running back. While Green is expected to miss this game due to a concussion he suffered last week, now Cincinnati has a thunder and lightning rushing attack with Hill providing the thunder and Giovanni Bernard the lightning. The Bengals need to keep this game close and try to lean on Hill because they certainly can't count on Dalton. Dalton's playoff struggles carried over to the regular season this year, as he threw just 19 TDs and had 17 INTs. TE Jermain Greshman and WR Mohammed Sanu are Dalton's other favorite targets, and he should have time to throw to them thanks to the Colts underwhelming pass rush.

Colts quarterback Andrew Luck threw for 40 TDs this season but was still a little too turnover prone, throwing 16 INTs. However, those are pretty amazing numbers considering the Colts complete lack of a running game. The Colts leading rusher this year was Trent Richardson, who finished with just 519 yards rushing this season on a 3.3 yard per carry average. Daniel "Boom" Herron has emerged in recent weeks as the Colts preferred running back and I would expect him to get more carries than Richardson. T.Y. Hilton had a breakout season this year, with 1,345 yards receiving and averaging over 16 yards per catch this season. Tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, along with old man Reggie Wayne and sometimes Hakeem Nicks make up the rest of the Colts loaded receiving corps.

This is a hard game to get a true read on. The regular season matchup doesn't mean a whole lot to me, but the Bengals past playoff failures do. How they start this game will go a long way towards showing how this game will end up. If they start off slow all the questions of past failures will start creeping into their heads and the team will crumble. I don't think they will start poorly this time but and I actually expect them to lose in the playoffs this year because of their defense. The Bengals only have on player this year that can get to the quarterback, Carlos Dunlap. Luck is going to give Cincy fits with his mobility and I expect him to have a huge passing day against the Bengals suspect secondary.

Prediction: Indianapolis 27, Cincinnati 20

NFC Wild Card: #6 Detroit (11-5) at #3 Dallas (12-4), Dallas favored by 7

The Cowboys are back in the playoffs for the first time in 5 years, and Detroit is back after a three year absence. The drama surrounding this game has been Lions DT Ndamukong Suh's status. Suh was initially suspended for stepping on Aaron Rodgers last week. However, it was overturned on appeal as apparently his explanation that Rodgers leg felt no different than the turf was considered believable. Even with Suh, the odds are against the Lions in this one, as QB Matthew Stafford is an atrocious 0-16 lifetime on the road against teams with winning records.

Stafford sucked on the road this year. He played pretty well against Green Bay last week but still was unable to complete even 50% of his passes. He only threw 22 TDs this season, way down from the previous time he got the Lions to the playoffs when he threw for over 5,000 yards. Surprisingly, his numbers are down despite the impact that Golden Tate had this season. Tate turned out to be an excellent addition, leading the Lions in receiving far and away with 99 catches, 1,331 yards and 4 touchdowns. Calvin "Megatron" Johnson still was the Lions leader in touchdowns, securing 8, but has had to battle injuries most of the season. The Lions running game was improved this season but still not at the level it needs to be for the Lions to be true contenders. Reggie Bush can never stay healthy and Joique Bell was unable to reach the 1,000 yard mark. Dallas going 12-4 this year was a huge surprise and the biggest part of that surprise was the play of their defense. After last year's disatrous season, and then the loss of Sean Lee in the offseason people, including myself, thought the Dallas defense would be even worse this season. They did finish 26th against the pass, but were 8th against the run and nearly pitched a shutout of Andrew Luck and the Colts two weeks ago. They have done it with some smokes and mirrors too as the Cowboys don't have a very good pass rusher, as Jeremy Mincey led the team with just 6 sacks. However, LB Rolando McClain provided much needed stability for Dallas at that position and is a leading candidate for Comeback Player of the Year.

Tony Romo had perhaps his best season ever, and not coincidentally did that when DeMarco Murray had the greatest season a running back has ever had in Cowboys history. The Cowboys discovered early that the formula they needed to follow to be successful was to have Murray carry the offense. It made life so much easier for Romo and it paid off huge dividends for Dez Bryant as well who had 16 touchdown catches this season. Terrence Williams emerged as a pretty reliable number two receiver for Dallas, especially in the red zone, finishing with 8 catches this year. TE Jason Witten isn't the player he once was but is still highly reliable and remains Romo's safety valve. It will be intriguing watching Murray go up against the Lions front, as the Lions were first in the league against the run this season, allowing just 69 yards rushing per game. Without Suh, Murray would likely have no problem still racking up yards on Detroit but with Suh in the lineup, it will make life much harder for Murray. Suh also led the Lions in sacks, an amazing feat for a defensive tackle. His presence at least gives the Lions hope in this game, as without him they would have almost no chance.

Even with Suh, I still expect the Lions to get handled by Dallas. Stafford and the offense have such a hard time on the road, and that 0-16 stat of Stafford's is impossible to ignore. I don't think Murray will run wild on Detroit but he will run well enough that Romo will be able to make plays in the passing game. Dallas will get the win and set up a much anticipated matchup next Sunday at Lambeau Field against the Packers.

Prediction: Dallas 31, Detroit 14

Last Week Against the Spread: 6-9-1
Overall Against the Spread: 126-125-4

Last Week Straight Up: 12-4
Overall Straight Up: 177-80-1

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