It is the first weekend of the NFL playoffs and there are four intriguing match-ups. To start, we have a battle of the Cardinals and Panthers. Many people believe that neither of these teams are good enough to make a run at the Super Bowl, but one of them is going to advance to the divisional round. Next up the NFL’s best rivalry is renewed when the Ravens travel to Pittsburgh to take on AFC North Champs in the Steelers. This one should be a bloodbath. On Sunday, the Bengals try their postseason luck on the road with the Colts. Cincy has lost in the Wild Card round for three straight years and are hoping to snap that streak. Finally, two teams that watched their seasons collapse last season only to rebound and post remarkable seasons in ’14 will square off in Big “D”. The story-lines are thick and the action should be great this weekend and the race to Super Bowl XLIX is officially underway! Here are my predictions on these four games.
Last Week: 12-4
2014 Season: 161-101-1
Saturday, January 3rd, 4;35 e.t.
Arizona Cardinals (11-5) @ Carolina Panthers (7-8-1)
The Panthers have been on a roll as of late and they are arguably one of the hottest teams in the playoffs, despite having a losing record. Ron Rivera’s squad finished the year on a four game winning streak plus a takeover of the NFC South crown, in convincing fashion. The defense has rekindled the magic that they had last season when they were one of the top units in the league. This is because the front-four is getting after the quarterback once again. Cam Newton has caught fire and the running game, behind the legs of Johnathan Stewart, has begun to truck up and down the field. Carolina is clicking on all cylinders right now. The same cannot be said about the Arizona Cardinals. This team has gone 2-4 since Carson Palmer went down with an ACL injury in Week 10. Drew Stanton has been okay, and Ryan Lindley has been pretty feeble (although he did have a decent game Week 17 against San Fran). Stanton should get the nod on the road in a game that is going to come down to defense. The Panthers seem like the obvious choice here since they are so hot, but I’m going to lean toward Arizona here. Their defense should be able to shut down the running game of Carolina and I trust Bruce Arians to draw up a game-plan on offense to attack the Panthers’ secondary. The game should go to the team that can make the big play, and I see the Cards doing that.
Arizona 25, Carolina 18
Saturday, January 3rd, 8:15 e.t.
Baltimore Ravens (10-6) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
This game should be the best game of the wild card round. It features two teams that hold a legitimate grudge and opponents that always play entertaining, competitive games in the post-season. Saturday night should be no different. Even though the Ravens barely squeaked into the dance, they are a team that is capable of going on a run behind Joe Flacco. The Baltimore defense has been playing well lately and their task becomes a bit easier in this game if the Steelers are going to play without Le’Veon Bell in the backfield. Justin Forsett had slowed down over the past month, but then exploded again in Week 17 against Cleveland. However, the Browns had the worst run defense in the league. The Steelers are much better. Also, with Big Ben putting up his finest statistical season of the year, it is hard to pick against them at home. Antonio Brown is a full go, and he is a play-maker. I don’t think that there is anybody on the Ravens who can cover him. He goes 10-130-1 in the game. The two teams will brawl at some point in the game as well, just adding to the intensity. Pittsburgh wins on the strength of a late field goal and an interception of Joe Flacco.
Pittsburgh 26, Baltimore 24
Sunday, January 4th, 1:05 e.t.
Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1) @ Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
The Colts will be hosting the Bengals for the second time this season. The first time they were able to blast the cardiac cats 27-0. It took Cincy nine drives before they could manage a first down against the Indy defense. However, this time they have #32 toting the rock in the backfield (at a full clip) and he is rolling right now. I expect the Bengals to put up quite a fight on the road. However, remembering back to the 2013 Wild Card game between the Chiefs and the Colts, it is going to be hard for me to pick against Andrew Luck. the Bengals pass defense has been exposed at different points in the season and this seems like a game where it can be had again. Although, Dre Kirkpatrick has been on fire to end the year; so don’t discount Cincinnati quite yet. That said, the Colts have a more explosive offense, and I expect Coby Fleener to exploit the middle of the field in this one. Meanwhile, the Bengals have A.J. Green on the outside, who is less than 100%. I don’t like their chances to keep up with the Colts, thus I am rolling with the home team here.
Indianapolis 33, Cincinnati 22
Sunday, January 4th, 4:40 e.t.
Detroit Lions (11-5) @ Dallas Cowboys (12-4)
Record-wise this is the best game of the Wild Card round. After getting taken apart by Philadelphia on Thanksgiving, the Cowboys rebounded to finish the year 4-0 and dominated in the month of December. Tony Romo has been playing the best ball of his career, DeMarco Murray has been the catalyst for a very effective offense, and Dez Bryant hauled in an average of one touchdown catch per game on the season. To top it all off, the Dallas defense has been remarkable over the final month. The Lions have had a great “D” all year long but the offense has been inconsistent. That does not bode well for them in a game like this. Detroit has been quite undisciplined over the final two games of the season and probably should have lost both of them. I simply can’t trust them to go on the road to Dallas and play a complete game. Unless Matthew Stafford has a beast of a game, it might be hard for the Lions just to keep up with the Cowboys offense. It will be interesting, though, to see if the Detroit defense can neutralize DeMarco Murray. If they do, it will be up to their front-four to get pressure on Tony Romo. On the road I see them struggling a bit. Simply put, Dallas will have too much for the Lions to deal with on offense and their defense should hold their water for four quarters, giving them the win.
Dallas 31, Detroit 20
Feel free to leave a comment stating what you think will happen in this weekend’s games!