NFL Wild Card Weekend 2014 Preview

I want to start off by saying I hope everyone had a very Merry Christmas. The Holidays only come around once a year, and it is nice to be able to spend some time with the family and exchange gifts. I also hope all of you have a very nice New Year celebration and a great kick-start to 2015. With that being said, 12 teams in the NFL are already having a great start to 2015 in the second season known as the playoffs. Having the opportunity to compete for a championship is a huge accomplishment and should be celebrated because other NFL teams with winning records did not make the playoffs. Looking at my last post, I had a decent week, going 11/16 with my picks. I did not predict the Falcons and Panthers game correctly, and the Panthers grabbed the #4 seed in the NFC instead of the Falcons. I also picked the Bengals and Steelers game incorrectly, so the Steelers grab the #3 seed in the AFC and the Bengals get #5. So, the playoff picture in the NFL looks like this:

AFC: 

1. Patriots (12-4)

2. Broncos (12-4)

3. Steelers (11-5)

4. Colts (11-5)

5. Bengals (10-5-1)

6. Ravens (10-6)

NFC:

1. Seahawks (12-4)

2. Packers (12-4)

3. Cowboys (12-4)

4. Panthers (7-8-1)

5. Cardinals (11-5)

6. Lions (11-5)

Obviously, the Patriots, Broncos, Seahawks and Packers all have byes and will not play this week. So let’s take a look at all 4 matchups this week and pick each one. If you feel differently than I do, please leave a comment with your thoughts!

Saturday, January 3

Cardinals (11-5) @ Panthers (7-8-1), 4:30 PM – Bank of America Stadium – ESPN

Of all the playoff match-ups we will see this year, this game has to be the most underwhelming. Not only is this game being hosted by a team that finished under .500 in the Panthers, but their opponent in the Cardinals features an offense with a third string quarterback at the helm. I feel bad for the Cardinals. Before Carson Palmer got hurt in week 10, the Cardinals were set up for a possible Superbowl run. Since Palmer’s injury, the Cardinals are 3-4, have lost 2 straight heading into this game and have started 2 different quarterbacks; Drew Stanton, who got hurt in week 15, and Ryan Lindley. Now they have to go on the road to Carolina for a playoff game with Ryan Lindley as their quarterback. Since taking over for Drew Stanton the last 2 games, Ryan Lindley has 2 touchdowns and 4 interceptions with a 48.4 completion percentage and a 56.8 QB rating (espn.go.com). There is a reason why he is a third string quarterback. The Cardinals defense has also not been its old self as of late, because they find themselves on the field for most of the game and have no confidence in their offense. Saying that the Cardinals last month of the regular season was frustrating would be an understatement.

In the other corner is the Carolina Panthers. I think I speak for most people when I say that no one expected the Panthers to be in the playoffs. I think most of us thought that the Saints or the Falcons would win the NFC South. But the Panthers proved us wrong and are quietly on a 4 game winning streak. The Panthers defense is looking like last year’s unit as of late, holding opponents to 17 points or under in each of those 4 victories (panthers.com). The Panthers also won in convincing fashion last Sunday in Atlanta, blowing out the Falcons 34-3. Now the Panthers find themselves the NFC South Champions for the 2nd year in a row. This Saturday I think the Panthers obviously have the hot hand. Despite the lack of weapons of offense Cam Newton in his last 3 starts has thrown for 5 touchdowns and only 1 interception (espn.go.com). I think Cam Newton will have a nice day against a Cardinals defense that will probably be on the field for most of the game once again. Expect Newton to scramble a lot against the Cardinals front seven despite the injuries he suffered in a car accident a few weeks ago. I think the Panthers defense will give Ryan Lindley a fit and the Cardinals will struggle to move the ball on offense. Even though the Panthers finished with under 8 wins, I think they get the win here. Sorry Cardinals, but your offensive problems scare me. Also, do not worry about the Panthers, because after this week they are not going anywhere whether they face the Packers or the Seahawks in the divisional round.

Pick: Panthers 27, Cardinals 10

Ravens (10-6) @ Steelers (11-5), 8:15 PM – Heinz Field – NBC

I will be at this game Saturday night. It would be an understatement to say that this is going to be a great game to see in person. This will be my first NFL game outside of M&T Bank Stadium, and I am very excited for the trip to Pittsburgh and the game in primetime. The Ravens managed to grab the #6 seed in the AFC with a win over Cleveland and some help with the Cheifs beating the Chargers. The Steelers clinched the #3 seed by beating the Bengals on Sunday Night Football in the regular season finale. This matchup features perhaps the best rivalry in football that is always impossible to predict. Each team has its areas of concern: The Ravens have 5 secondary players on IR and will also be without right tackle Rick Wagner and possibly left tackle Eugene Monroe due to injury (baltimoreravens.com). The Ravens offensive line was a big reason why the Ravens offense struggled for 3 quarters last week against the Browns. Their secondary has been a problem all year (24th ranked pass defense) although Lardarius Webb has been playing better as of late and had an interception late in the game against Cleveland. Rookie defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan suffered a foot injury during the Ravens week 17 win over Cleveland, but they will be getting back Haloti Ngata after serving his 4 game suspension for using adderall. Jernigan played well for Ngata during his suspension, but obviously having Ngata back will be great for the Ravens run defense. The Steelers could possibly be without running back Le’veon Bell and safety Troy Polamalu (steelers.com). Bell hyper-extended his knee against the Bengals and Polamalu did not play in that game due to a knee injury. The Steelers signed running back Ben Tate to help with the run game, because as of now it sounds like Bell will not be able to go, which is a huge blow to the Steelers run game and their game plan. The Steelers secondary has also been a problem for them all year, ranking 27th in pass defense (espn.go.com). Needless to say, each team has had to overcome lots of adversity this year whether it be injuries or weak units on the team.

Looking at this matchup, the Steelers are the easy favorite. Even if they are without Le’veon Bell Big Ben will likely have a great day due to the Ravens weak secondary. I do not think Ben will toss 6 touchdowns against Baltimore like he did in week 6, but still look for guys like Heath Miller, Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant to have a decent if not great game. Baltimore also has the 4th ranked rushing defense (espn.go.com), so even if Bell was playing he most likely would not have a career day. On the other side of the ball, the Ravens offense has struggled to get off to a fast start for the last 4 weeks, scoring no points in the first quarter. Their red zone offense also ranks 24th in the NFL (teamrankings.com). They absolutely have to fix this this week, because if they do not score early Heinz Field will only get louder and they may get desperate to kick field goals, something that is very hard to do at Heinz Field due to how the stadium is built. Pittsburgh may have the 27th overall pass defense, but their rushing defense is ranked 6th overall and James Harrison always seems to play his best football against Baltimore, and he may be facing an undrafted rookie left tackle in James Hurst this week if Monroe cannot go for the Ravens. The Ravens best bet is to throw the ball, but the Steelers have favorable match-ups on both sides of the ball and are also the better team, which is why I am going with them. The Ravens are also 0-3 against Pittsburgh in the playoffs and have lost 2 straight regular season games in that stadium. They also have only 1 victory against a winning team this season (week 2 v. Pittsburgh), so all of these factors shift towards the Steelers and give them a big advantage.

Pick: Steelers 24, Ravens 19

Sunday, January 4

Bengals (10-5-1) @ Colts (11-5), 1:00 PM – Lucas Oil Stadium – CBS

Out of all the games this week, this one may be the hardest one to predict. The Bengals clinched the playoffs for the 4th consecutive year. The only problem with that is they have not won a single playoff game in over 2 decades and head coach Marvin Lewis is his 12th year with the team with no playoff wins to show for his success. Andy Dalton is one of the most inconstant quarterbacks in the NFL and always seems to choke under the spotlight with the exception of the Bengals week 16 win over Denver on Monday Night Football. The Bengals may be without wide receiver AJ Green for this game after he suffered a possible concussion on Sunday Night. On the other sideline will be the Indianapolis Colts, who have also been inconstant. It may not show in the result column, as they have won 5/7 since their bye week, but both their offense and defense have issues. Andrew Luck on the season has thrown 40 touchdowns, but has also thrown 16 interceptions (nfl.com). He has also fumbled the football 13 times this season, and the turnovers are occurring due to the struggles of Indy’s injury-plagued offensive line. Luck has been sacked 29 times and is constantly getting rushed, limiting his time to make smart decisions when passing. Indy also has the 22nd ranked run offense (espn.go.com) and ever since Ahmad Bradshaw got hurt they have struggled to pound the rock. The Colts defense has been pretty average, but their pass rush has been a huge problem, almost being non-existent. That should bode well for Andy Dalton, who will have more time to throw, leading to hopefully less stupid turnovers. He will be assisted by running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, who together have run their way to the #6 rushing offense in the NFL (espn.go.com). They should match up well against Indy’s mediocre rush defense. Cincy’s rush defense is also mediocre, so maybe the Colts will be able to run the ball more than they usually do, but do not expect a great rushing game from the Colts due to their offensive line. Cincy’s pass defense is also ranked #20, so expect a well-balanced attack from the Colts to take some pressure off Andrew Luck. Looking at all of these statistics makes these 2 teams extremely close in regards to determining the better team, but look for the Colts to pull one out here. I just do not see Marvin Lewis, Andy Dalton and the Bengals beating the Colts in a playoff game on the road, especially if they are without AJ Green. Until Dalton proves he can be trusted in key situations, I cannot see them winning a playoff game.

Pick: Colts 24, Bengals 17

Lions (11-5) @ Cowboys (12-4), 4:30 PM – AT&T Stadium – FOX

For the first time in 5 seasons, the Cowboys find themselves in the playoffs. Is this the year that Jason Garrett, Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys finally make a strong playoff run? History would not be in favor of the Cowboys, because so far in Tony Romo’s career he is 1-3 in playoff games. The Cowboys are also 4-4 at home, so will they struggle? I do want to congratulate them on going 8-0 on the road, something that you very rarely see being done in the NFL or football in general. They also went undefeated in December, something many people thought Tony Romo and the rest of the Cowboys could not pull off. The Lions also had a solid 11-5 season, going 4-4 on the road. An interesting story occuring this week is Ndamukong Suh stepping on Aaron Rodgers’ legs during the Lions week 17 loss to Green By. Suh was suspended on Monday but won his appeal to have his suspension reduced to a $70,000 fine (espn.go.com). Here is a video of the incident: 

After looking at the video, I do not think there is clear proof that shows it was intentional, but going off of Suh’s track record I believe that he did in fact mean to step on Aaron Rogers due to the fact that Rodgers was already nursing a calf injury and playing through the pain. This game was for the NFC North crown, so I think that Suh saw an opportunity to knock Rodgers out of the game, which would increase Detroit’s chances of winning the NFC North and getting a home playoff game. That is my personal opinion. What do you think?

So, Ndamukong Suh will be playing this week against the Cowboys. This is great news for Detroit, who will be facing the Cowboys offense that is #2 in rushing in the NFL. Demarco Murray has had a outstanding season and has slowed down the last 2 games after a minor hand surgery. Detroit’s rushing defense is top in the league (espn.go.com), so this is a key matchup on Sunday. I think Dallas has taken a lot out of Murray this season, and he will struggle against Suh and the Lions front seven who have done an outstanding job defending the run this season. Another matchup is Dallas’ passing offense (#16 overall) vs Detroit’s #13 ranked pass defense. With Dallas’ run game most likely struggling in this game, Tony Romo should have a decent day through the air. Looking at Detroit’s offense, it would be an understatement to say that they have struggled to put up points at times. Ranked #19 overall, this offense has had to play without Reggie Bush and Calvin Johnson for large portions of the season, and it has hurt their chemistry as a unit. Dallas’ defense ranks #19 overall as well, so these two units are very evenly matched. Considering this, look for Detroit to throw the ball more than they run it, much like they have for most of the season. I do not think they will score a lot, and that has been a problem for them all season. I think it all comes down to Tony Romo and his decision making. Tony Romo having a good December has finally been accomplished. Now it is time for the real challenge, which is winning a playoff game in convincing fashion. Pressure will be on Romo because this will not be a productive day for Dallas’ running game. In my opinion, I say the Dallas Cowboys get the job done here. I just do not see Detroit putting up a lot of points here, and the Cowboys offense will capitalize. Look for a low scoring, defensive game, and a Cowboys win to finish off Wild Card Weekend.

Pick: Cowboys 17, Lions 13

So, if these games were to play out like this, next week’s divisional games would be:

-Panthers @ Seahawks

-Cowboys @ Packers

-Colts @ Patriots

-Steelers @ Broncos

Other news and notes:

-Kyle Orton retires. He had retired last offseason and the Bills pretty much begged him to help them out at QB, so this isn’t a surprise.

-Jim Harbaugh and 49ers part ways, Harbaugh agrees to terms with Michigan University to become their new football head coach. We all saw this coming. Best of luck to him coaching at his Alma Mater.

-Giants say Tom Coughlin will be back next year. Not surprising. I think they’re afraid to get rid of him and Eli. They have lots of issues though on both sides of the ball. Odell Beckham JR was a big bright spot though.

Black Monday struck again, and several coaches, assistants and general managers were fired.

-Bears fire head coach Marc Trestman and GM Phil Emery. I see them sticking with Jay Cutler for at least one more season. They have to. They paid him last offseason.

-Jets fire head coach Rex Ryan ad GM John Idzik. Now the Jets need a new GM, a new head coach and a new quarterback, as well as more help on offense. It will be a few years before they’re competitive again.

-Falcons fire head coach Mike Smith. It was time. They’re a talented team. Just a few more pieces on defense and a nice new fit at head coach and they will be in a good position to compete.

I think that is about it as of this writing. Any other news that happens this week will be mentioned in my next post next week with the Divisional Playoff preview. I hope all of you enjoyed reading this post, please share this with your friends and spread the word! I really appreciate all the support I am getting for this blog, I love doing this and I hope you learn something from this post! Again, please leave your comments and tell me what you think will happen this weekend! Thanks again, and I wish you a great New Year!

Until next week,

Jake

Here are my seats from the Ravens and Browns game last weekend:

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