Happy new year! What better way to get into the new year than with playoff football anyway? As for my final picks of Week 17, I was 13-3. I only missed on Buffalo, New York [Jets] and Pittsburgh. Now this week we get into some wild card weekend predictions with some great matchups.
– Nothing to look into with Buffalo’s win over New England. New England was using the game as a recovery week with nothing to play for.
– The Jets played very well in their send off game for, now former, head coach Rex Ryan. The Dolphins let a good season end on a sour note.
– Cincinnati still can’t seem to eclipse Pittsburgh when the pressure is on. It was a close and well-fought game though, so the Bengals can take solace in that moving forward. The big killer were the injuries to Le’Veon Bell and A.J. Green. Bell is already ruled out and if Green is, Cincinnati could be in trouble.
Seattle, Green Bay, New England and Denver all have byes and await the outcomes this week. This week’s gif is the incredible defensive play from Earl Thomas that resulted in a touchback in Seattle’s favor against St. Louis last week.
Bring on the playoffs.
Saturday, 1/3 – 4:35 pm ET
Arizona Cardinals 11-5 @ Carolina Panthers 7-8-1
Prediction: Carolina Panthers
I personally find this game to be a fascinating matchup. On one hand you have the Cardinals who have somehow managed to finish the regular season at 11-5 in the tough NFC West, despite their first two quarterbacks going down to injury and really fielding little to no run game. The defense carried them for much of the season, but wasn’t enough to win games against more well-rounded opponents. Dropping four of their last six is a little unnerving, but Arizona has dealt with so much, why can’t they overcome the sub-.500 Panthers?
Carolina is on the other end of the spectrum, finishing strong with a four-game win streak and a blowout win, on the road, against Atlanta to represent the NFC South in the playoffs. Cam Newton is playing well and the defense finally seems to be settling in after being awful for much of the season. On paper Carolina seems very beatable, but they are coming in hot, which is often the deciding factor come playoff time.
I have to take the Panthers here. Carolina’s offense will struggle, but Arizona’s is going to be facing an uphill battle on the road. Ryan Lindley has yet to win a NFL start this season and he will be leading the Cardinals from the quarterback position. If Arizona ran the ball better, I might lean towards them. The Cardinals do feature a superior defense, but without a complimentary run game, I’m not sure if I see Arizona putting many points. I’m thinking field goals and maybe a touchdown drive.
Carolina will rely heavily on Newton to run the ball and then create opportunities through the air. The Panthers will use Newton and Jonathan Stewart on the ground with some success, but that may be all they need. I expect this to be a low-scoring game and, in that case, I have to take Newton over Lindley. As always, turnovers will play a huge role in this game, especially with field position being so important. The wild card performer here is Arizona’s punt returner Ted Ginn Jr. While I’m sticking with Carolina as my pick, a returner of Ginn’s caliber could be deciding factor in the Cardinals favor.
Saturday, 1/3 – 8:15 pm ET
Baltimore Ravens 10-6 @ Pittsburgh Steelers 11-5
Prediction: Pittsburgh Steelers
Ahh… it’s only fitting that we have a clash of AFC North rivals on Wild Card Weekend after the season that division has had. The Ravens fought their way into the playoffs, courtesy of a San Diego loss, and the Steelers are coming off a big win – and subsequent division title – against the Cincinnati Bengals. These two teams always play each other tough, but this game will most certainly come down to the wire, but I have to take Pittsburgh.
I would be remised if I didn’t talk about Le’Veon Bell. The AFC’s leading rusher this season won’t play in this one following a knee injury he sustained against Cincinnati. Don’t let my Steelers pick fool you… this is a huge development. Bell is a superstar and the guy who makes the Steelers as explosive as they have become this season. Certainly Ben Roethlisberger has had a great year at quarterback, but Bell’s ability to run the ball with speed and power and then catch the ball out of the backfield is something that will be woefully missed. Pittsburgh will remain balanced in their approach and Josh Harris, the undrafted rookie running back from Wake Forest, will play well, but Baltimore tends to play the Pittsburgh run game well. The bigger issue, as far as the Ravens are concerned, is that I’m not convinced the Ravens are the team to take advantage of Bell’s absence.
Roethlisberger has been fantastic this season. With Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant out wide and Heath Miller remaining ever reliable at tight end, I think Big Ben will play well. Expect Pittsburgh to utilize short throws to stay “on schedule” and keep third downs manageable. Short throws will also take pressure off the run game, moving the ball forward consistently. The Baltimore defense may struggle to stop Roethlisberger through the air because of how Pittsburgh will be able to spread the ball out. If they had to lose Bell to injury, it was a blessing in disguise that it happened before implementing this week’s gameplan as the Steelers were able to plan for life without him.
On the other side of the ball, you can’t ignore Joe Flacco’s erratic play over the second half of the season. Justin Forsett has been a savior at running back for the Ravens all season, but he has slowed down and Steve Smith Sr. and Torrey Smith have the ability to dominate games, but too much of that is dependent on Flacco’s play. That said, we have seen Flacco find a rhythm come the playoffs. This year may follow suit, but given his recent regular season play, I’m not expecting him to make this a shootout, if it comes to that.
I can say all I want about this matchup, but it will be a close one and a physical matchup. The home-field advantage swings in favor of the Steelers and I have to think the Steelers will find a way to pull this one out.
Sunday, 1/4 – 1:05 pm ET
Cincinnati Bengals 10-5-1 @ Indianapolis Colts 11-5
Prediction: Cincinnati Bengals
We have heard this story before… Cincinnati has enough talent to beat anyone (see Denver win), but for some reason they can’t seem to win when the nation watches closely. Primetime games, playoff games, divisional title games… Cincinnati can’t seem to turn it around. The win against Denver two weeks ago seemed to be the tipping point, but then Cincinnati fell to Pittsburgh last week on the road. Cincinnati seems determined to overcome this constant storyline, but you can’t get the media off your back unless you actually go out and win a playoff game.
Indianapolis, on the other hand, is led by an elite-level, young and still improving quarterback in Andrew Luck, who has the ability to win games by himself. Playing in Indy has to play in favor of the Colts, but Indianapolis may be the most vulnerable of the AFC playoff teams, if the Bengals play it right.
I have been burnt by Cincinnati before. I thought they would beat Pittsburgh a week ago and a year ago I thought they would shake the playoff jinx at home against San Diego. Neither of which ended well for me and there is a frightening pattern here for Bengals fans in respect to their team and the spotlight of big games. That said, I think this will be the year. Andy Dalton has been awful in big games and the defense has been inconsistent all year. Heck, Cincinnati was blown out in Week 7 at Indianapolis 27-0. A lot has changed since then though. Jeremy Hill has emerged as a playmaker at running back for the Bengals and the Cincy defense has been playing well in recent weeks. A.J. Green, who didn’t play in Week 7, may suit up this week if he can pass concussion protocol and his presence alone would change the complexion of this rematch.
For Indianapolis, it all starts with Luck. He is a star in this league and if he catches fire, Cincinnati is likely dead in the water unless Dalton somehow keeps pace. Luck’s ability to spread the ball around to guys like T.Y. Hilton and Reggie Wayne will be key with the Colts lack of a run game. That said, Luck hasn’t been perfect this season. He has forced throws at times when under pressure and the Cincinnati front could create problems. The wild card for Indy is their run game. Trent Richardson remains unimpressive, but Dan Herron has brought some speed and decisiveness to the position when he has played. The Colts defense was lights out in Week 7, but since then, they have shown flaws that can be exposed. They can’t seem to pressure the passer with consistency and their secondary has been picked apart by balanced offenses.
Cincinnati will focus on their rushing attack to keep the ball out of Luck’s hands and even keep it out of Dalton’s. They should be able to move the ball on the ground and Hill will play well. Dalton should settle in and make a couple easy throws from their rushing success. As long as he doesn’t turn the ball over, it will be a good game for him. If Green doesn’t play, Cincinnati will need Dalton to make a couple more plays through the air. Against the Colts secondary, I think he will. As for the Colts offensively, I expect the Bengals to bring the pressure on Luck and lock down the run game. Luck will play well, but the Bengals can control this game in the trenches and then limit Luck’s effectiveness. Lucas Oil Stadium will be rocking early and if Cincinnati can weather that first wave of momentum they will be able to settle in and control the game. I expect the Bengals to take the ball out of Dalton’s hands and if he doesn’t turn the ball over when he does need to make a play, I like the Bengals in this one.
Sunday, 1/4 – 4:40 pm ET
Detroit Lions 11-5 @ Dallas Cowboys 12-4
Prediction: Dallas Cowboys
Both of these teams have been a bit of surprise this season. Dallas was supposed to fade into nothingness and regret passing on Johnny Manziel in last year’s draft. Instead, they reinvented themselves, focusing on a power run game and then letting the under-appreciated Tony Romo pick apart opposing defenses through the air. The Dallas defense has been impressive. They don’t have the talent to win games themselves, but if the Cowboys offense is clicking, they are above-average and are currently on a hot streak over the past couple weeks.
Detroit is another surprise coming out of the tough NFC North. The Lions field a high-powered offense behind the raw arm talent of Matthew Stafford and a top-notch defense headlined by their defensive line. Calvin Johnson is still a superstar and Golden Tate is a playmaker in his own right, but there is something about Stafford and the Detroit offense. He is 0-17 in his career against winning teams on the road and, despite his team’s talent, has struggled to jumpstart his offense at times against even losing teams this season.
I like the Cowboys in this game. Dallas plays a style of offense that is hard to stop and even harder to pull away from. Dallas has the best offensive line in football and will be able to run the ball, at least to some extent. Being able to run the ball allows Dallas to control time of possession and keep the ball away from Stafford, Johnson and Tate. Turns out it is hard to score the football if you don’t have it. If Dallas can run the ball, it opens up the passing game and allows the Cowboys to dictate the game. I think Dallas is able to do just that and, while DeMarco Murray may not find the running space against the elite Detroit defensive line he has found most of the season, Romo is more than capable of moving the ball through the air.
Detroit will need to lean heavily on big plays from Johnson, Tate and Reggie Bush as I don’t think Stafford has been playing well enough that this game on his shoulders. Johnson is too good to be stopped entirely, but the Cowboys defense has been playing incredibly well in recent weeks, so I don’t think Detroit will suddenly put up 40 this week. The key here is if Dallas finds success offensively. The more time their offense is on the field, the more rest the Dallas defense has. That is the recipe for Dallas this postseason. They can beat anyone with their run game, Romo and a defense that plays sound football. I think Dallas is a very scary team and they should be able to show that against the Lions this week.