by Ryan Meehan
Wild Card weekend is finally here. Although we aren’t really going to be treated to four killer match-ups, there are a couple of games which should be well worth the watch. The most exciting week of playoff football will follow the weekend after, but let’s not get too ahead of ourselves and take a look at what we think will go down in the the Wild Card round of the 2014-2015 NFL season.
Arizona Cardinals (11-5) +7 at Carolina Panthers (7-8-1) (38)
It’s a crazy world we live in where you can be on top of the world at 9-1, and then be seven point underdogs on the road in a wild card game six weeks later against a team with a losing record. But that’s the kind of the world that the Arizona Cardinals live in at the moment, and that’s why they’ve lost four out of their last six. Another crazy aspect about the NFL is that all year long up until his injury, critics were seeing Carson Palmer’s somewhat passable numbers as being something that any average to above-average NFL quarterback could pull off given the perks of having Arizona’s defense. Yet the very second that he disappeared, Arizona’s offense seemed to evaporate. Drew Stanton played to par, but par is not good enough to hold on to the gaping lead that Arizona was developing in the playoff race. That lead slowly disappeared as Stanton got hurt and has left the Cardinals reeling to find the end zone, with no luck in sight. So as you might expect, no matter who they play they aren’t going to be the favorite. That’s not to take anything away from the Panthers, who appear to have their shit together albeit momentarily. Carolina may play in the NFC Slouch but they are the first team in NFL history to repeat as champions of that division, losing record or not. Additionally, they’ve won every single game they played in December and they look a hell of a lot better than the Cardinals do at the moment. The Panthers shouldn’t blow this one, but if they want to know how to do that it would be for Cam Newton to test Patrick Peterson. That’s a recipe for disaster, so you know they aren’t going to do it. I understand the spread as it’s been difficult to trust anything good that’s been happening for the Cardinals on offense, but I do not like them to cover. This will not be a game where each offense takes to the skies, and although I can’t sit here for hours on end picking apart Carolina’s depth chart I expect them to win. I never thought that I’d predict Ron Rivera to out-coach Bruce Arians, but sadly I have to take Carolina here. There’s just not enough for me to see that they will outscore the Panthers, so I’m taking Carolina to win but not cover. At 38 the point total appears low…I actually think it’s a bit high but I know Vegas isn’t going to set a line that low.
Panthers 17, Cardinals 13
Baltimore Ravens (10-6) +3 at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) (46.5)
The Ravens are a team that enters this game having been the benefactor of several other AFC teams’ poor play. The Chargers helped them out immensely by not showing up against Kansas City, the Texans helped them to a hearty degree by not showing up against good teams the first half of the season, and the Chiefs helped them out simply by being themselves. None of these things change the fact that at heart the 10-6 Baltimore Ravens are still a very good football team and worked their ass off to get where they are. Given all of the questions he’s likely faced about his brother and that soap opera (thank God it’s finally over) John Harbaugh stayed focused and led the Ravens to win five out of their last seven. I’ll admit, the second I found out that their star running back wouldn’t be playing this year I was a little skeptical. A lot of teams would curl up and die at that point, but he was somehow able to steer the ship and make it work. But it’s hard to argue that they are better than Pittsburgh at the moment, even if they did take them out 26-6 in week two. That Steelers team was much different from the team they put on the field week when they put it to the Ravens 43-23 in week nine, and I would make the argument that the team they are putting on the field now is even better. After watching what the Steelers are capable of on a couple of occasions throughout the year, I can see them keeping this one under control as long as they can get the running game going. If they can’t find a compliment for Antonio Brown’s inexplicably monster season, then they could potentially be in trouble. But that seems like it’s a long shot, even with Le’Veon Bell likely out for this match-up. I can’t see them getting any further then the next round, but this is a game I believe that they will definitely win. I like them to cover but avoid the point total bet for sure.
Steelers 23, Ravens 17
Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1) +3.5 at Indianapolis Colts (11-5) (49)
Most of the attention leading up to this football game is going to be centered around what happened at Lucas Oil Stadium in week seven. The Bengals were handled by the Colts in every single way you could get handled on a football field without filing charges: King Ginger had a 7.9 passer rating and only converted one measly first down out of thirteen attempts. This would lead most to think this game should be easy for Indianapolis. But Vegas has kept the odds surprisingly close, especially given the Colts’ recent struggles in running the ball. I don’t know why they’d have so much faith that Andy Dalton is going to show up big on Sunday, as his previous playoff history. But maybe it won’t be about him after all…If the Bengals have relied on turnovers to both win the Denver game and stay in the Pittsburgh one, maybe that’s what they are going to need to do in order to swing this game in their favor if Dalton can’t make it happen. It would simultaneously disarm Luck, but to what degree? Although with TY Hilton likely to play, the possibility of getting burnt because you’re stretching to make a pick or a strip is very real. So it’s going to be hard for me to see a guy like Marvin Lewis not telling his guys to play tight man coverage in a game like this. Andrew Luck will be on his A game, and he definitely will come to play in front of his home crowd like he did in the second half of the Wild Card game against the Chiefs last year. I like the Colts to cover what will seem like a small line once the game is over, and I don’t like the over on the point total here because both teams have the tendency to disappear completely.
Colts 26, Bengals 18
Detroit Lions (11-5) +8 at Dallas Cowboys (12-4) (48.5)
Lions defensive end Ndamokung Suh was suspended for this game for yet another one of his unintentional but conveniently dickish moves on Monday, but on Tuesday the NFL heard his appeal and overturned the suspension. I will say that regardless of the fact that they probably shouldn’t have suspended him to begin with, it looks bad for a league wish legions of image problems to be making a decision one day and then flipping on it the next as if nothing happened. That being said, I do understand why they did it – it’s going to make the game a lot more competitive. I’m interested in seeing how DeMarco Murray will respond when he faces the number one rushing defense in the NFL. I’m also interested in seeing how Matthew Stafford responds on the road in a huge postseason game, and if he can’t keep his shit together in this one I’m going to have serious questions about whether he can ever do it. We already know that he is going to throw the ball forty or more times, unless Jim Caldwell plans on throwing a huge curve ball at the Cowboys which I don’t see happening. The only way the Lions can pull this off is if Tony Romo just goes out and struggles right off of the bat and it continues to appear as if he’s rattled by the rush. (Or if he gets stepped on…) Every week from this moment forward is the week that the Cowboys have been waiting for, so it’s go time and they better deliver. I look for Dez Bryant to have a big day, and for Romo to flash us more of his trademark “Aw shucks” smirk when he cashes in the W but knows he’s still got three huge games to win. Dallas covers and the point total is going to be close, so you didn’t hear it from me…
Cowboys 30, Lions 17
Enjoy the games!
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