Dallas’ MVP isn’t Tony Romo. It’s not even the NFL’s leading rusher. The Cowboys’ MVP is their unpredictable and unstoppable force on the outside. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
The Wildcard round of the playoffs is always my favorite. I generally feel I have a good idea who will advance and what games to pick to win money. Not this year. Other than the Dallas/Detroit game, I’m totally grasping at straws. Sorry.
Last Week: 11 – 5 – 0
Season: 167 – 89 – 1
Saturday, January 4 (4:35PM ET)
(5) Cardinals at (4) Panthers
At the start of the season I picked Carolina to be one of the teams to barely miss the playoffs in the NFC. I thought the defense would keep the Panthers winning at a respectable rate while the offense struggled. Though their record was on par with my predication, the defense was atrocious for most of the season. Other than a few solid outings early on, the NFL’s 2nd ranked defense from 2013 was steamrolled. Then, out of nowhere, the Panthers limited the Saints and Falcons to a total of 13 points over the last four weeks. Oh yeah, those games were played in New Orleans and Atlanta, where the Saints and Falcons averaged 25.1 and 29.8 points per game, respectively. While the Saints and Falcons had disappointing seasons, both offenses finished the season ranked among the ten best in the NFL.
If, and this is a big “if” because Arizona will be a tough out, Carolina can advance, they’ll likely travel to Seattle. The Panthers are 0-2 against the Seahawks over the last two seasons. However, they’ve played the Seahawks tougher than most, losing 12-7 in 2013 and 13-9 this year. There are a ton of arguments to be made as to why Carolina stayed close, but we can get into them if they advance.
For now, the Panthers appear primed to wreak havoc in the playoffs. With their defense rounding back into form and Cam Newton looking as healthy as he’s been all season, the Panthers are built for the physicality of the postseason. They don’t rely on big plays. They don’t run an up-temp offense. They’re slow and methodical, relying on converting 3rd and short and grinding away the opponent.
While I think the Cardinals are being written off prematurely, it’s hard to fathom Ryan Lindley delivering a road playoff win even if Bruce Arians is a better coach than Ron Rivera. (Yes, that would be my biggest fear if I were a Panther fan.) PANTHERS If I were Charles Barkley; Panthers -6.5
Saturday, January 4 (8:10PM ET)
(6) Ravens at (3) Steelers
The Le’Veon Bell injury is giving me headaches. Considering the struggles of the Baltimore secondary of late, the Steelers should roll to a victory. However, if Bell can’t go or isn’t healthy enough to be effective, the Ravens can drop more men in coverage and increase their chances of limiting Pittsburgh’s aerial assault. If Bell is healthy, the Ravens can’t stop the run and limit the Steelers’ outside weapons at the same time. Baltimore’s defense simply isn’t good enough right now.
Of course, the Ravens weren’t an elite team when they entered the playoffs two years ago, either. They got hot and wound up winning the Super Bowl. John Harbaugh is probably the NFL’s most underrated coach. I trust the Ravens in big games more than any other team outside Seattle.
I’m rambling. As you can see, I can’t confidently pick this game without knowing what version of Bell will be available. If he’s miraculously 100%, the Steelers will win Saturday and probably next week in Denver, too. If he’s not, the Ravens have a real shot at stealing a victory. I’m at a loss. STEELERS If I were Charles Barkley; Steelers -3.5
Sunday, January 5 (1:05PM ET)
(5) Bengals at (4) Colts
Neither of these teams is very good. The Bengals employ the worst prime time quarterback in the history of football. (Not an official stat.) The Colts are in the playoffs because they played in the NFL’s worst division. Look at Indianapolis’ schedule. Their five losses came to the best teams they played; Denver, Philly, New England, Pittsburgh, Dallas. Of their 11 wins, only two came against playoff teams; Baltimore, Cincinnati. You could argue Baltimore and Cincinnati are only in the playoffs because they beat up the NFC South and the rest of the AFC South and you’d be right. Again, neither team is very good.
Earlier in the season the Colts shut out the Bengals 27-0, so it’d make sense to pick the Colts to do so again. Unfortunately, things are never that easy. The Colts have been somewhat awful over the last four weeks. Despite a 3-1 record, Indianapolis needed a miracle collapse by Cleveland’s defense to squeeze past the Browns and a Ryan Fitzpatrick broken leg to survive the Texans. Then the Colts were crushed by Dallas. Furthermore, in those three games, Luck threw 4 touchdowns and 5 interceptions and posted a completion percentage below 53% two weeks in a row.
That earlier victory over the Bengals also came with AJ Green out of the lineup. Cincinnati hadn’t fully unleashed Jeremy Hill at that point, either. The additions of Green and Hill, combined with Luck’s struggles have me leaning to a Bengals upset. However, Green’s health is still up in the air after a concussion in Week 17. I know Dalton doesn’t win big games, but a one-two punch of Hill and Giovanni Bernard can control the clock and score points at the same time. Though, they’ll need Green to keep the defense honest. I’m taking the Bengals now but that could change if Green is ruled out. BENGALS If I were Charles Barkley; Bengals +3.5
Sunday, January 5 (4:40PM ET)
(6) Lions at (3) Cowboys
As sad as this makes me, I fear Dallas will win Sunday and then take out Green Bay next week. I know Dallas’ defense is weak, but cold weather can act as a neutralizer to elite offenses that throw the ball. Dallas’ offense is built for the playoffs. They’ll pound you on the ground and then beat you overtop. That’s why Dez Bryant is Dallas’ MVP. That offense isn’t the same if he’s not drawing double teams and keeping safeties out of the box. My Eagles played the Cowboys twice in the last two months. I didn’t fear Tony Romo or DeMarco Murray. Bryant gave me nightmares. On Thanksgiving, Jason Garrett played scared and ignored Bryant with hopes of winning the game on the ground to protect Romo’s ailing back. Dallas lost. In the next meeting, Garrett attacked deep early and often to put the Eagle defense on its heels. Philly had no answer for containing Bryant. Detroit won’t either.
I expect the Cowboys to win, but Detroit is better than they’re getting credit for this week. The Lions could win if their defense can force some turnovers because the Detroit offense should have its fair share of success. Dallas’ secondary has its struggles against big play receivers. Jeremy Maclin gave Dallas problems in both games. DeSean Jackson did the same in his two outings against the Cowboys. Brandon Marshall had over 60 yards before leaving with injury midway through the 1st quarter. The weakness is there. The key for Detroit will be limiting Dallas’ strength (ball control) to exploit that weakness. I doubt Matthew Stafford is up to the task. COWBOYS If I were Charles Barkley; Cowboys -7
Last Week: 7 – 9 – 0
Season: 139 – 113 – 3