The 2014 NFL regular season had concluded and the playoffs are officially under way. Here is my preview and predictions for the first four playoff games on Wild Card Weekend.
Saturday, January 3 at 4:35 PM: #5 Arizona Cardinals (+6) at #4 Carolina Panthers
If there is one game that most clearly reveals the flaws in the NFL playoff structure, it’s this one. The Arizona Cardinals, who had the best record in the league for a large part of the season and finished with 11 wins, will have to play on the road against a Panthers team with just 7 wins and a losing record. This should be a low scoring battle since both teams have great defenses, and not much star power on the offensive side. Cam Newton has been injured and inconsistent this season, and with an extremely good Arizona secondary the Panthers will have to establish some sort of a run game with Jonathan Stewart to allow Cam Newton time to throw the ball on pass plays. Third string quarterback Ryan Lindley will be starting again for the Cardinals, and will need to rely on big plays from Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd to gain yardage on offense. Arizona +6
Saturday, January 3 at 8:15 PM: #6 Baltimore Ravens (+3) at #3 Pittsburgh Steelers
Bitter rivals clash in Pittsburgh for the rubber game of the season series in what could be the most entertaining matchup of the weekend. The Steelers and Ravens have met in the playoffs 4 times, all in Pittsburgh, with the Steelers winning three out of four. Once a rivalry based on defense, running, and close games, the 2014 version of the Steelers Ravens rivalry is much different. Ben Roethlisberger has quietly had an MVP type season with nearly 5000 yards passing and Antonio Brown posted the second most catches in NFL history with 129 this year. Complemented with stud running back Leveon Bell, the Steelers have the second best offense in the NFL in terms of yardage. The Ravens have also been stronger on the offensive side this year, since their defense and secondary in particular has been weak. Steve Smith has provided a huge boost while Justin Forsett has filled in nicely following the Ray Rice debacle. These teams traded 20 point blowouts on their home turfs, but in the last month of the season the Ravens have struggled against Cleveland, Jacksonville, and Houston while the Steelers have won 4 straight. This game will be closer than 20 points, but Roethlisberger will shred the Ravens secondary. Pittsburgh -3
Sunday, January 4 at 1:05 PM: #5 Cincinnati Bengals (+3.5) at #4 Indianapolis Colts
This matchup features a pair of quarterbacks with something to prove in the playoffs. Andy Dalton looks to lead the Bengals to their first playoff win in over a decade after going one and done three straight years, while Andrew Luck has 8 interceptions in his three playoff starts with a 1-2 record. These teams met in Indy during the regular season with the Colts crushing the Bengals 27-0. The Colts will be at home again but Cincinnati’s defense is getting healthier and they have been playing better as of late, most notably a huge prime time win over Denver. Andrew Luck has had an MVP caliber season for the Colts, but the lack of a running game has made the offense rather one sided. If Andy Dalton can avoid making critical turnovers, than I think Cincinnati’s defense can slow down Luck enough to make this a close game. Cincinnati +3.5
Sunday, January 4 at 4:40 PM: #6 Detroit Lions (+7) at #3 Dallas Cowboys
Two franchises desperately seeking a playoff win after failures and falling short of expectations in recent years will meet in Big D looking to prove themselves. The Detroit Lions fell just short of clinching the NFC North with a loss to the Packers, while the Cowboys finally won a division title after losing it to each of the other three division opponents on the final weekend in the last three years. Tony Romo, Demarco Murray, Dez Bryant and the rest of the Cowboys are red hot as they enter the playoffs. The Cowboys posted an 8-0 record on the road this year, including a win at defending champion Seattle. The offensive line is healthy and ready to go, while the defense is much improved over last season. One very interesting matchup to watch will be the NFL’s best running back in Demarco Murray against the top-ranked run defense of Detroit. On the other hand, Dallas’ secondary will have to find a way to slow down star wide receiver Calvin Johnson. The Lions not having defensive lineman Suh (update: suspension overturned, will play) or Fairley will not bode well against a strong Cowboys offensive line. Dallas -7
Let me know your playoff picks in the comments down below.
Thanks for reading,