After a wild week 17 in the National Football League (NFL) that featured three games with huge playoff implications, the 2014 NFL regular season is in the books. Eight teams will attempt to keep their hopes alive of advancing to play in Super Bowl XLIX on February 1 as wild card action gets underway this Saturday.
The first game of the weekend will feature the No. 4 seed and NFC South division champion Carolina Panthers taking on the No. 5 seed Arizona Cardinals on Saturday, January 3, at 4:20 p.m. EST in Charlotte, North Carolina. The nightcap will be a black and blue battle between two AFC North divsion rivals. The No. 6 seed Baltimore Ravens will travel to the Steel City to take on the AFC North division champion Pittsburgh Steelers at 8:15 p.m. EST.
On Sunday, the first game of the wild card doubleheader will start at 1:05 p.m. EST with the No. 5 seed Cincinnati Bengals traveling to Indianapolis to try and knock off the AFC South division champions and No. 4 seed Indianapolis Colts. The final game of the weekend will see the No. 3 seed and NFC East division champion Dallas Cowboys play host to the No. 6 seed Detroit Lions at 4:40 p.m. EST.
【2015 NFL Playoff Bracket】
Carolina Panthers vs. Arizona Cardinals
The first game of wild card weekend will feature a team that many believe doesn’t even belong in the playoffs. The Carolina Panthers defeated the Atlanta Falcons in the final week of the NFL regular season to win the NFC South division for the second consecutive year. Carolina is looking to prove that they do belong and will for sure be relying heavily on their quarterback Cam Newton to put down the critics. At one point in the season, the Panthers held a record of 3-8-1 but are getting hot at the right time by winning their last four games to get into the playoffs.
It is completely the opposite scenario for the Arizona Cardinals who got off to the best start of any team and held the league’s best record at one point. Despite losing starting quarterback Carson Palmer for the rest of the season, backup Drew Stanton came in and played well for the team. But when he also went down due to injury, the team was forced to start third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley who threw his first career NFL touchdown in the regular season finale. The Cardinals also lost starting running back Andre Ellington to add more woes to their misery as they dropped four of their last six games to close out the season. It is safe to say that the Cardinals will be leaning heavily on their star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald to make big plays and keep their Super Bowl aspirations alive.
Despite having the much better record, the Arizona Cardinals are coming in to the game as the underdog according to「888sport」with Carolina favored to win by 6.5 points on their home turf. Will the Panthers remain hot? Or will Arizona be able to pull out the win despite a handful of key injuries?
Prediction: Carolina Panthers 17 – Arizona Cardinals 13
The Carolina Panthers have gotten hot at the right time of the year while the Arizona Cardinals have unfortunately sustained too many injuries to their key players in order for them to grind out a win away from home. “Coach of the Year” candidate Bruce Arians will have his work cut out for him in drawing up ways for his team to win this game with third-stringer Ryan Lindley under center. Expect this to be a low scoring game as the Cardinals defense has played exceptionally well for much of the regular season. Even though the Cards’ defense will keep the team in the game, they will have their hands full in trying to contain Carolina’s duel threat quarterback in Cam Newton.
I feel Arizona will put themselves in position to have a shot to win in the final minutes of the game, however with Lindley’s lack of experience and Carolina’s defense being much improved of late, when all is said and done, Cam and the Panthers will escape the weekend with a win.
Cam Newton: 1 rushing and 1 passing touchdown
Greg Olsen: leading Carolina receiver
Ryan Lindley: at least 2 interceptions
Panthers Defense: force 4 turnovers
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Baltimore Ravens
This will be the third time this season that these two AFC North rivals will square off but this time the stakes are much higher. The Baltimore Ravens were able to win their last game of the regular season and got some help as the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the San Diego Chargers resulting in the Ravens grabbing the No. 6 seed. They will play a familiar foe in the Pittsburgh Steelers, who defeated the Cincinnati Bengals in the final game of the NFL regular season to secure the AFC North division title and No. 3 seed.
The Baltimore Ravens had an up-and-down regular season but were able to get into the playoffs yet again. Joe Flacco may have been the reason for the Raven rollercoaster ride of a regular season due to his lack of consistency. At times Flacco looked like the quarterback who led this Ravens team to the Super Bowl two years ago, but there were also games where Flacco looked like a third-string rookie. As for Baltimore’s defense, it is nothing like their defense in years past, but they may be able to thrive on the defensive side of the ball in this matchup.
Pittsburgh won the AFC North title, but it may have come at a very costly price. Steelers star running back Le’Veon Bell suffered what seems to be a serious knee injury in the late stages on their game against Cincinnati. The team is still uncertain as to what the status is of their running back for the wild card matchup against the Ravens. If Bell, is in fact, deemed unable to play, the Steelers will be at a huge disadvantage on the offensive side of the ball.
Despite the speculation that Bell could possibly miss this game, Pittsburgh is currently a 3 point favorite at home against Baltimore according to「888sport」. Though the line could change if Bell is ruled out. With the possible absence of their lead rusher, will the Steelers be able to dodge this bullet and pull out the win at home?
Prediction: Baltimore Ravens 27 – Pittsburgh Steelers 20
It is unlikely that Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell will be able to play in this game, which will mark the beginning of the end for Pittsburgh’s season. As such a valuable piece to the Pittsburgh offense, his loss will be too much for Big Ben and the Steelers to overcome. As for the Ravens, which Joe Flacco will show up? Expect Flacco to have a solid game on the road and lead his Ravens to play in the divisional round next week. Look for Baltimore running back Justin Forsett to be the X-factor in this game as he is an important part of the run and pass game for the Ravens. I envision Baltimore getting out to a big lead early as they hold on for the win over the Steelers away from home.
Joe Flacco: 2 passing TDs
Justin Forsett: 200+ all-purpose yards
Ben Roethlisberger: 40+ pass attempts
Antonio Brown: 10+ receptions
Indianapolis Colts vs. Cincinnati Bengals
After what was one of the all-time greatest playoff comebacks in NFL history last season, Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts would rather not make it as hard on themselves as they did last year against the Kansas City Chiefs. For the second consecutive year, Indianapolis won the AFC South division and will host a playoff game. This time they will face a Cincinnati team that has had its struggles in the postseason especially with quarterback Andy Dalton guiding the offense.
Dalton has been questioned over the past year about whether or not he can win the big game and perform when the lights shine the brightest. He will have the opportunity to quiet his critics this weekend against a quarterback opposite of him, who many believe is turning into one of the top signal callers in the game. Cincinnati will likely look to a ground game that features both Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill to make the Bengals passing game more effective.
The Colts had little trouble winning the AFC South and reached the playoffs for the third consectutive season. Luck got his first playoff victory last year after leading a huge comeback in the wild card round against the Chiefs. Luck will try and build off of what was, statistically, a very strong regular season. Indianapolis dealt with a few injuries during the regular season, most notably the loss of running back Ahmad Bradshaw who was a key contributor to the rushing and passing game. Indianapolis leading receiver T.Y. Hilton was banged up in the final weeks of the season but should be good to go come game time.
Indianapolis comes into the game as 3.5 point home favorites according to「888sport」. Will the Bengals defense be able to slow down Andrew Luck and the Colts offense? Will Andy Dalton be able to outpreform Luck? Could we be in for a shootout between these two talented offenses?
Prediction: Indianapolis Colts 34 – Cincinnati Bengals 23
Andy Dalton’s big game woes will continue in this wild card matchup against the Colts. Expect Dalton to make a few costly mistakes to prevent Cincinnati from advancing. Though the Bengals have two talented running backs in Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati may find themselves trailing throughout the game because of Andrew Luck’s ability to put points on the board. In what should be a high scoring affair, expect a big game from Andrew Luck as he will pick apart the Bengals defense and earn his second career playoff win.
Andrew Luck: 300+ yards passing
T.Y. Hilton: 100+ receiving yards
Andy Dalton: 0 passing TDs
Giovani Bernard & Jeremy Hill: combine for over half of the team’s offensive yards
Dallas Cowboys vs. Detroit Lions
This game will feature two teams that have not been accustomed to winning playoff games as both teams have combined to win just one playoff game in almost a decade. Detroit and Dallas exceeded expectations this season and both managed to win over 10 games. Dallas comes in with a strong offense led by quarterback Tony Romo, the NFL’s leading rusher in Demarco Murray, and one of the top wide receivers in the game, Dez Bryant. Detroit has some weapons of their own, both offensively and defensively. Like Dallas, the Lions have one of the top receivers in the game with Calvin “Megatron” Johnson.
Dallas may be the most talked about team in the playoffs. Questions continue to surround Tony Romo, but he and the Cowboys can stop all of the chirping for a little while with a victory this weekend. Dallas shocked a lot of people this season finishing with a 12-4 record and earning the No. 3 seed. The offense has plenty of weapons and will play a top ranked Lions defense especially with their best defensive player, Ndamukong Suh, now cleared for play.
As for the Detroit Lions making the playoffs, this is a rare occurrence. Good news for the Lions is that Ndamukong Suh is back for the team after successfully appealing his suspension for stepping on Aaron Rodgers during last week’s matchup against the Green Bay Packers. Even with Suh back on defense, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is 0-16 on the road against teams with a winning record. Can Stafford guide his team to victory in “Big D” on the road?
Dallas is the favorite at home by a touchdown in this matchup according to「888sport」. Even with Suh suiting up for the Lions, the oddsmakers have Dallas comfortably favored in the final wild card game this weekend.
Prediction: Dallas Cowboys 27 – Detroit Lions 17
The Detroit Lions have not won a playoff game since 1991, and that’s not going to change this weekend with Romo, Bryant, and Murray being across the line of scrimmage. For the Lions to have any chance of winning on the road, Stafford, Johnson, and offensive weapon Golden Tate need to have breakout games. As for Dallas, Tony Romo has been criticized about not being able to win when it counts. This is the game where he silences his doubters once and for all.
Demarco Murray: 100+ rushing yards, 1 TD
Tony Romo: 2 passing TDs
Dez Bryant: 100+ receiving yards
Calvin Johnson: 2 receiving TDs
Matthew Stafford: 2 passing TDs, 2 INTs
The Divisional Round
Whoever can survive this weekend won’t have much time to bask in the glory as next up is the divisional round next weekend with the Packers, Seahawks, Patriots, and Broncos eagerly awaiting. As for which team is favored to meet in Glendale, Arizona, it is looking like the Seahawks and Patriots at first glance. But as it is the playoffs, anything is possible, and that means even a wild card team has as good a chance as any other team to win out for a spot at Super Bowl XLIX.
One thing is for sure, the road to Glendale starts this weekend. Let the NFL playoffs begin!