Before I begin talking football, I wanted to say a few words on ESPN Anchor/Host Stuart Scott, who passed away late Saturday night at the age of 49 after a seven year battle with cancer. As someone who rarely watches Sportscenter, my knowledge of Scott’s battle with cancer was limited. However, I remember seeing him on other shows on ESPN like NFL Primetime and Monday Night Countdown and I was stunned when I heard this news. Stuart Scott worked at ESPN since the late 1990’s and brought a hip-hop style to his ESPN broadcasts, something that took a lot of bravely to do at the time considering the fact he was African-American. Stuart also had signature catchphrases like “Booyah!” and “As cool as the other side of the pillow,” and delivered his nightly recaps/analysis with passion and personality. He was truly being himself on camera. His impact at ESPN expanded beyond the television screens and everyone he worked with had nothing bad to say about him, evidenced by the reactions of many current and former ESPN on-air personalities like Rich Eisen, Chris Berman, Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayless, Trey Wingo, etc. This is devastating news because not only did this man die to cancer at the young age of 49, but he leaves behind two daughters who were the sole purpose of why he hung on for so long. At the 2014 ESPY awards, Scott’s speech included the most inspirational quote we would ever hear him deliver:
“When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer,” you beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.”
Whether or not you knew who Stuart Scott was, you should watch this 15 minute video ESPN made on Scott’s legacy. Stuart Scott is the definition of what every single person like myself looking to get into a career in sports journalism should try to be. There will never, ever be another man like Stuart Scott in this industry, and the mark he left on all of us who love sports will never be forgotten. Rest in Peace, Stu.
Wild Card Weekend Recap
I would like to point out that I went 3/4 on my picks for these 4 games. However, I will say that I am glad that I got one of my picks wrong.
-The Panthers defeated the Cardinals 27-16. I did not see much of this game because I attended the Ravens/Steelers game Saturday night, so this game was going on when I was on the bus heading to Pittsburgh. They did show the end of this game on the scoreboard tron at Heinz field, so I caught some of the second half as I was getting to my seat. From watching recaps, the Panthers took a 10-0 lead and the gave it up, so the score was actually 14-13 Arizona at Halftime. The Panthers would get the lead back and capitalize on Arizona turnovers to seal the victory, and now they head to Seattle. If you’re an Arizona fan, I send my sympathy because you deserved a better end to your season. After Carson Palmer’s injury the Cardinals were doomed the rest of the way. Best of Luck to Palmer as he recovers from his torn ACL.
-Le’veon Bell’s injury proved to be a huge loss for the Steelers as they lost to the Ravens 30-17 on Saturday night. Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense got off to a fast start and never slowed down after their struggles in previous weeks. Big Ben and the Steelers settled for field goals up until the fourth quarter when they scored a touchdown and got a safety, but it was not nearly enough as the Ravens defense played perhaps their best football of the season. Big Ben was sacked 5 times and hit all night, throwing 2 interceptions.The Ravens proved almost everyone (including me) wrong as John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco got their 10th career post-season victory (7th on the road) and their first ever playoff win against the Steelers. This is also the first time that a professional Baltimore sports team has eliminated a professional Pittsburgh sports team in the playoffs. The Steelers have not won a playoff game since 2010 and the Ravens will play the Patriots next week. Being at the game was a great experience, as this was my first time being in Pittsburgh. I have nothing bad to say about the stadium or the fans, as I was able to cheer for my Ravens without getting heckled. Here is a picture of my seat:
-The Colts defeated the Bengals 26-10. The Bengals were without AJ Green and Jermaine Gresham. That certainly hurt them but Andy Dalton struggled once again in a big time game. The Bengals kept it close in the first half, as the score was 13-10 Colts at halftime. But they scored no points in the second half and now Andy Dalton is 0-4 in the playoffs and Marvin Lewis is 0-6 in the playoffs after coaching this team for 12 years. You have to wonder if he will be back next season. As for the Colts, they face the Broncos next Sunday as Peyton Manning will once again play his former team.
-Wild card weekend finished up with the Cowboys defeating the Lions 24-20. The Lions jumped to an early 14-0 lead and the Cowboys were playing from behind for the majority of the game, but a controversial no-call (pass interference on the Cowboys defense, where the referee threw the flag, the call was made and then the flag was picked up and the penalty was taken back) and a muffed Detroit punt turned the momentum toward the Cowboys. Then, Tony Romo led them down the field and threw a touchdown pass to Terrance WIlliams to seal the victory. Tony Romo and the Cowboys finally get numerous monkeys off their backs and will face the Packers next Sunday. As for the Lions, they once again fail in a big game and have not won a playoff game since 1991, just like the Bengals.
That wraps it up for Wild Card Weekend, now we move on to the Divisional Round. Let’s preview each matchup and reveal my picks for this weeks games.
Ravens @ Patriots, 4:30 PM – Gillette Stadium, NBC
For the fourth time in six years, the Ravens will travel to Foxborough to play the Patriots in the postseason. In those 3 games, the Ravens are 2-1 and in that one loss still outplayed the Patriots in almost every aspect of the game except the finish (Hello, Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff). In those 3 playoff games in New England Joe Flacco is 47/82 for 580 yards, 5 touchdowns and 2 interceptions (espn.go.com). Tom Brady went 74/132 for 713 yards, 3 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Combined, Flacco has outperformed Brady in these games. As mentioned earlier, the Ravens are becoming one of the NFL’s best playoff teams, particularly on the road. Under John Harbaugh and with Joe Flacco playing quarterback the Ravens have won 10 playoff games, 7 on the road. Also, in Joe Flacco’s last 5 playoff games (1 at home, 3 on the road and 1 Superbowl) he has thrown 13 touchdowns and no interceptions. Outstanding. With all this being said, it will be interesting to see how Flacco and the Ravens offense matchup against the Patriots defense. In Baltimore’s victory over Pittsburgh last Saturday the Ravens passing attack came alive, as Flacco threw for 229 yards and 2 touchdowns. Keep in mind though that this was against the Steelers weak passing defense, and that will be a different story against Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner this Saturday. Revis is the best cornerback in the NFL and Browner is a nice complimentary player to Revis. They will do a better job of covering players like Torrey Smith, Steve Smith Sr and Owen Daniels than the Steelers did last week. The Patriots also have the league’s #9 rushing defense, so do not look for Justin Forsett to have a big game for the Ravens. Hopefully Eugene Monroe will return to the lineup this week to help the Ravens open up holes for Forsett and give Flacco time to throw the ball. Monroe practiced Tuesday and Wednesday, so we will see if he will be ready to go come Sunday.
Another intriguing matchup in this game is Tom Brady and the New England offense vs the Ravens defense. This matchup is all going to come down to whether or not the Ravens front seven can get pressure on Brady and force him to make bad decisions throwing the football. If the Ravens get that pressure and sack Brady multiple times like they did to Ben Roethlisberger last week, they will win this matchup. Tom Brady cannot scramble and avoid sacks like Big Ben can, so that works in the Ravens favor. If the Ravens do not get pressure on Brady and give him time to throw the ball, the Ravens secondary will be exposed, and it will be a long day for the Ravens. I hate to do this, but I am going to pick against my team again. I am confident that the Ravens front seven will perform well and force Brady into some bad decisions. I am not confident that the Ravens offense will be as lethal as it was last week. None of the Ravens receivers are good enough to outplay Revis, so the Ravens passing attack will be very limited, and I think they will struggle to run the ball against this Patriots defense. Don’t count them out, however. They have proven everyone wrong numerous times and are very capable of pulling off another upset here. One thing is for sure, the Ravens are the one team the Patriots did not want to play this week. Expect a low-scoring defensive game here with a Patriots victory, meaning that the road to the SuperBowl for the AFC goes through New England.
PICK: Patriots 20, Ravens 17
Panthers @ Seahawks, 8:15 PM – CenturyLink field, FOX
I think I speak for everyone when I say that this game is very underwhelming for a Saturday night playoff game. Not only is Seattle the toughest place to play in the NFL, but the Seahawks have been unstoppable for the better part of the last two months. They will be hosting the Carolina Panthers, who finished the regular season under .500. Although they won their game last week, it was against a beaten down Cardinals team. This week will be a lot tougher for them to put it nicely. Overall, Seattle has the best defense in the NFL and will be facing a Carolina offense that has a very limited amount of weapons. Wide Receiver Kelvin Benjamin has been very impressive as a rookie, but will have to line up against Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell. Aside from Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen, Newton will struggle to throw the ball against this Seattle defense that ranked #1 defending the pass (espn.go.com). Seattle has the #3 rushing defense, so running backs Jonathan Stewart and Deangelo Williams will struggle to find open lanes.
On the other side of the football stands Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks offense against the Panthers defense. Seattle’s offense has struggled at times throughout the season but has been playing better as of late. What makes this offense so dangerous is the duo of Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson. We all know what Marshawn Lynch can do, but a weapon that really can help Seattle’s run game is Russell Wilson, who’s speed is almost that of a running back. With Carolina trying to contain Wilson on passing downs, look for Wilson to take off for big gains. Seattle’s passing attack has not been overly impressive all year, but the group has developed chemistry and has been playing better lately. Look for Lynch to have a big day and for Wilson to move the chains with both his arm and legs. Carolina’s defense has been stellar lately as I mentioned earlier, but I think they will be on the field for much of this game and will wear out in the second half. Look for Seattle’s defense to cause turnovers and give their offense the ball in Carolina territory, and for Russell Wilson and Seattle’s offense to capitalize on these opportunities and score often, giving them a lopsided victory and a locking up the NFC Championship game at their stadium.
PICK: Seahawks 42, Panthers 13
Sunday, January 11:
Cowboys @ Packers, 1:00 PM – Lambeau field, FOX
I think it is safe to say that out of all the games this weekend, this is the game that most fans have #1 on their must-watch list. This game features the Dallas Cowboys, who are 8-0 on the road this season taking on the Green Bay Packers, who are 8-0 at Lambeau field this season. This game also features two high-powered offenses going up against defenses that have been pretty average at best this season.
On one side stands the Dallas Cowboys offense led by Quarterback Tony Romo, Running Back Demarco Murray, Wide Receiver Dez Bryant and Tight End Jason Witten. As mentioned earlier, the Cowboys offense played the best defense in the NFL last week close until the 4th quarter when Tony Romo led them down the field for the game winning touchdown. This week, they will face a defense that has had its struggles all year, especially with their run defense, ranked #23 (espn.go.com). Dallas running back Demarco Murray has had an incredible season, rushing for 1,920 yards (regular season and post season combined) and is running behind the best offensive line in the NFL. Look for this offensive line to dominate the battle in the trenches. Green Bay’s pass defense is ranked #10 overall, but Dallas has plenty of weapons. Aside from Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, they also have wide receivers Terrence Williams and Cole Beasley. Tony Romo will have plenty of options to go to when looking downfield. Look for a strong running game for the entire afternoon and Romo making key plays when the Cowboys need them. Romo might be asked to put together another game winning drive if necessary, and this year has proven that he is certainly capable of doing it.
The other matchup in this game features Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers offense against the Cowboy defense. One note to keep in mind is that Rodgers has not practiced since he re-aggravated his calf injury in the Packers Week 17 game against Detroit. I know Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL, but going over 10 days without any practice will effect how he performs. I have no doubt that he will play, and it will be interesting to see just how much this injury is bothering him, limiting his ability to move around in the pocket and scramble if he needs to. He certainly has his fair share of weapons, starting with running back Eddie Lacy. Lacy rushed for 1,139 yards this year and will help take pressure off Rodgers as he battles through this leg injury. Throwing the ball, Rodgers has a great target in Jordy Nelson. Nelson is Rodgers’s go-to guy, catching 98 passes for 1,519 yards this season. Randell Cobb is another great receiver at Rodgers’s disposal, and has over 90 catches to his name this season. Rodgers should have time to throw the ball, considering Dallas’s pass rush has not been great this season.
Both of these high-powered offenses will clash on Sunday, leading to a shootout. Many are making quick conclusions on the Packers winning, but I am going out on a limb and picking the Cowboys to win this game. I think the Cowboys offense overall has a better matchup than the Packers offense does. I also think that the lack of practice time for Rodgers will limit his ability to move around and make the big time throws we are so used to see him making. The Packers are 8-0 at home this season, but as I mentioned earlier the Cowboys are 8-0 on the road and are built to win on the road. I see this game being a very high scoring game and going down to the wire, and Tony Romo leading the Cowboys down the field in another game-winning drive.
PICK: Cowboys 44, Packers 41 – OVERTIME
Colts @ Broncos, 4:30 PM – Sports Authority field, CBS
Peyton Manning once again faces his former team in Denver this Sunday, and I think Denver fans have a reason to be concerned for their chances if Peyton Manning plays like he has for the better part of December. In the month of December this season, Manning threw for 990 yards, 3 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. While he may still be throwing for lots of yards, these are not Peyton Manning-like stats. Lots of these yards came on short passes and screens, and Manning looks like he is losing a lot of “zip” on his throws. Denver has had to rely on their run game, led by running back CJ Anderson. who rushed for 849 yards this season. Look for Denver to use a run-heavy attack against the Colts’ 18th ranked rushing defense (espn.go.com). If Denver needs to throw the ball, Peyton Manning certainly has a lot of weapons at his disposal, as we all know. However, after watching him this past month, one has to wonder how much he will be throwing the ball in the cold Denver weather this weekend.
For much of the season, Andrew Luck has been asked to lead the Colts offense. Ever since running back Ahmad Bradshaw got hurt earlier this season the Colts have had no running game. Now at running back is Daniel Herron, who last week rushed for 56 yards on 12 carries, but fumbled twice. Denver has the #2 ranked rush defense (espn.go.com), so the Colts will struggle to run the ball this Sunday. The Colts have two dangerous wide receivers in T.Y. Hilton and Reggie Wayne, so look for a pass-heavy attack in the cold Denver air for Indianapolis. I think this game will be close, and the two offenses in this game will be one-dimensional with the Colts passing and the Broncos running. This game will all come down to whoever will not turn the ball over, and I think Denver wins that battle due to the Colts’ issue with turnovers. Herron has issues holding on to the football and Andrew Luck, despite his successes this season has thrown 16 interceptions. Look for the Denver defense to capitalize on the Colts’ offensive mistakes and get the win at home, advancing to the AFC championship.
PICK: Broncos 17, Colts 14
So, if my picks were to come true, AFC and NFC Championship weekend would look like this:
Cowboys @ Seahawks
Broncos @ Patriots
They say that the Divisional round is the best weekend of NFL football all season long, and it looks like this weekend will be no different! What do you think will happen this weekend? Please, leave a comment or tweet me at @jakemcd95 with your thoughts! Follow my show’s twitter account @WBUQMLBNFLat5 as well. Also, I will be heading back to Bloomsburg on the 17th, so I will update you on when my radio show will be returning on WBUQ! Stay tuned, and enjoy the games this weekend! Thank you for reading, I will be back next week with my Divisional Round recap and AFC + NFC Championship weekend preview!
Until next time,
“Booyah!” – Stuart Scott (1965-2015)