Assuming you watched, on average, two games per week, you’ve watched approximately four days worth of NFL football so far this season. And you’ve spent all that time for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – the playoffs.
So, what have we really learned in the past four months? The Seahawks, Patriots, and Broncos are who we thought they were (link to Dennis Green). Maybe we should have seen this Johnny Football thing coming, maybe not, but when he says “I need to take this job more seriously,” then proceeds to throw a party and shows up late to a team meeting that says all you need to know about his disastrous season. Instead of Odell Beckham Jr. and Teddy Bridgewater, the Browns ended up with Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel – both of whom were suspended for the final game of the season. Cleveland, everybody! We’ve learned that The Washington Football Team is the most dysfunctional franchise in sports today, but I’m still not convinced that RG3 can be labeled as a failure just yet; Jay Cutler, on the other hand, just isn’t that good. Some team is going to convince themselves otherwise this offseason. As it stands now, we have one of the best crops of talented receivers in the league in a long time.
But now is the time to send the coaching changes, franchise mishaps, and prima donna quarterbacks out of the spotlight to focus on the real teams. It’s playoff time, here are your Wild Card Weekend picks:
Arizona @ Carolina:
This Carolina team has emerged defiantly as the cream of the NFC South crop after convincing wins over Atlanta and New Orleans over the last three weeks. To say Cam Newton’s car crash has rejuvenated his season would be misguided because he has actually been consistent over the course of the entire season. The difference has been the emergence of a consistent running game around him, setting up play action. Since being handed over the reins of the running game due to injury five weeks ago, Jonathan Stewart has averaged 5.3 yards per carry, including two monster 120+ yard games. Even if Deangelo Williams is healthy this week, expect Stewart to receive 18+ carries and for the Panthers to make every effort to get him involved.
At nearly every position, the Cardinals are one of the most talented teams in the NFL with one of the best coaches, but unfortunately Arizona will once again trot out Ryan Lindley on Sunday. You can only go so far with poor quarterback play in today’s NFL. I could pile on Lindley with stat after stat speaking to his incompetence, but the reality is Lindley isn’t supposed to be good; the guy is a third-string quarterback. They do still have a chance in this game if they keep the score down and play a field-position game. They will need to win the turnover battle and maybe score a defensive touchdown. If Patrick Peterson wins the battle against rookie Kelvin Benjamin they will have a chance. But Ryan Lindley just isn’t winning a road playoff game.
Carolina 17 Arizona 9
Ravens @ Steelers
This intra-division matchup probably won’t evoke memories of bruising early 2000s Steelers/Ravens matchups of the past. The Steelers are now a pass-first, dominant offense. This game may just come down to a pre-game decision, though, as Le’veon Bell might be the most important running back to his team in the league. Bell is nursing a hyper-extended knee and seems very questionable. According to advancedfootballanalytics.com, Bell leads the league in Win Probability Added (WPA) – a stat that measures each snap and the positive or negative effect a player has on each play – with a 2.0. Demarco Murray is second with a significantly lower 1.3. Bell also leads the league in expected points added and receiving yards from a running back. Safe to say despite how ridiculous Antonio Brown is (his slashline is an absurd 129/1698/13), Bell is more important to the offense.
The Ravens offense, on the other hand is scuffling a bit lately. Justin Forsett has had a very solid year for them, but since Steve Smith’s drop-off, this offense hasn’t been close to the same. Not to mention Joe Flacco is playing his worst football of the season in the past few weeks. It’s been the defense that has kept the Ravens in a position to win lately, averaging just 15.6 points allowed per game (including a 30-point drubbing against the Bengals). The Ravens linebacking corps is arguably the best in the league, with Elvis Dumervil, Terrell Suggs, Daryl Smith, and C.J. Mosely. But if the Steelers are on in this game, the Ravens have little shot.
Steelers: 31 Ravens 13
Bengals @ Colts
It’s the most wonderful time of the year: Playoff Dalton! As a casual fan, nothing is better than Andy Dalton on the road in a national TV playoff game. In three career playoff games, Dalton’s stats are (get ready for it): 56.9 % completion percentage, 1 touchdown, 6(!!!) interceptions, an absurdly low 5.84 yards per attempt, a 56.2 quarterback rating, and to top it off, one loss to T.J. Yates. For years, the Bengals have been “ready to breakthrough” because of their talent, but as we’ve learned quarterbacks win playoff games, and Dalton is still their quarterback.
The Colts are close to the polar opposite of the Bengals. No running game or dominant defense, they rely heavily on Andrew Luck for their success; and things could be worse. The 25-year-old once again had a fantastic season and seems like a mix between Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger. Not to mention that he has 12 game-winning drives and nine fourth-quarter comebacks in his young career. Things could get out of hand early, but if they’re close Cincinnati may just sneak this one out with a late Luck pick; then again the Bengals do have Andy Dalton.
Colts 27 Bengals 14
Lions @ Cowboys
The 2014 NFL MVP is… Tony Romo? Romo leads the league in quarterback rating, yards per completion, completion percentage, and is top five in nearly every other category. If not for a Rodgers career years or JJ Watt having one of the best defensive seasons ever, Romo might just be the MVP. But the Cowboys hang their hat on the running game most of the time. The ‘Boys’ offensive live has turned Demarco Murray into Emmitt Smith and for a team that averaged nearly 32 rushing attempts per game Dez Bryant (88/1320/16) had a pretty ridiculous year. The difference between the Cowboys and every other team committed to winning through the running game is simple: you can’t just take away Murray and expect to coast to victory. Romo is in that “elite” class and Dez Bryant and Jason Witten can still burn you.
Revoking Ndamukong Suh’s suspension gives the Lions a legitimate shot in this game. He will be instrumental in shutting down the aforementioned running game, but I have significant concerns with how the Lions can contain Bryant. The Lions, too, have a weapon on the outside. This game will probably come down to time of possession. If the Lions can maintain possession, at least pin the Cowboys deep in their own territory, and take the necessary shots when the chance is presented, they could win a low scoring game. But the Cowboys are a more well-rounded, consistent team (I never thought I would type that).
Cowboys 24 Lions 17