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NFL: Wild Card Weekend Preview

football

After all the hype and build-up, the playoffs are finally here. This weekend sees the first knockout round, with the wild card fixtures between the divisional winners with the third and fourth best records and the two non-divisional winners with the best records within both the respective conferences. Some classic bouts are afoot, with teams knowing they are just three wins away from a Super Bowl appearance. With everything to play for and everyone on even footing, we look ahead to the wild card round, and where games will be won and lost.

Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers

The first playoff game of 2015 will be hosted by the team with the worst season record to qualify, as the Carolina Panthers play host courtesy of winning the NFC South. The Panthers look worthy champions though, putting in some confident performances and big wins over their four game winning streak that closed the year out. Cam Newton (and Derek Anderson, when required) has looked composed under center, completing over 60% of his passes in his final three appearances, throwing five touchdown passes against just one pick. He was also only sacked twice, which is a testament to his speed considering the patchwork offensive line ahead of him. With limited options in the passing game, those numbers are not to be sniffed at. He also rushed for an average of 98 yards per game over that stretch, and it is no surprise that a return to the running game, with the Panthers star backs fit once again, coincided with their improving form. Jonathan Stewart rushed for over 800 yards this year, despite only starting eight times over the course of the season. If the Panthers  defense, which is ranked eleventh against the pass and sixteenth against the run, can shut down some third string options for their opponents, then they could easily become the second team to make the playoffs with a losing record and still win a playoff game.

The Arizona Cardinals are still in with a shout of being the first team to play in the Super Bowl in their own stadium. To even get this far has taken a Herculean effort, with star players dropping like flies throughout the season. The team will likely be shorn of their two best options at quarterback with no sign that Drew Stanton can play on Saturday, and Ryan Lindley is facing the biggest game of his career. While he did manage to throw his first two touchdown passes in the season finale against the San Francisco Forty-Niners, he also tossed three interceptions in the loss. Nobody should write off the Cardinals, especially against a playoff team with a losing season record who went one-and-done this time last year, but it will take a tremendous defensive effort to progress. The Cardinals will match up very well against that secondary, but getting the ball out to them will be the difficulty.

Verdict: Carolina

Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers earned themselves home field advantage with a week seventeen win against the Cincinnati Bengals, but it was not without a price, as LeVeon Bell’s status for wild card weekend is very murky, having suffered a knee injury in that game. Ben Tate has been brought in as cover, but someone who was cut by both the Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings in the past month is a poor replacement for one of the league’s most dynamic backfield runners. The hard yards made by Bell forces teams to commit to stopping the run, opening throwing lanes for Ben Roethlisberger and creating space for Antonio Brown and, of late, Martavis Bryant. Against a depleted secondary, this pair could thrive, but not if the Steelers can’t generate a run game. The Steelers secondary needs a big performance two, going up against two top wide outs who have combined for 17 touchdowns in the regular season. As good as the Steelers offense has been, they can’t expect to progress with a defense that has been relatively easy to carve open.

Inter-divisional rivals clashing in knockout football is what the wild card round is all about. These teams have recorded home blowouts over the other in their regular season meetings, so it’s all to play for here. Simply put, if the Baltimore Ravens are to win this game, they must get pressure on Big Ben, with their secondary struggling to put fit bodies on the field. Elvis Dumervil, Terrell Suggs and a rested Haloti Ngata must win against the Steelers offensive line to keep themselves in the game. Joe Flacco has flashed hot streaks when needed, but the Ravens will likely depend on Justin Forsett to move the chains for them from the backfield. Home field advantage is huge here, as the two regular season games show, but clashes between these two are usually extraordinarily close affairs.

Verdict: Pittsburgh

Cincinnati Bengals at Indianapolis Colts

The Indianapolis Colts come in to this game in something of an offensive funk. Despite coasting to their division title and boasting extraordinary depth at the receiver positions, Andrew Luck has seemed out of sync with the playmakers around him towards the end of the season, hence seeing so many snaps in last weekend’s meaningless win over the Tennesse Titans. Yet Luck seems to have a sense for the big occasions (see: last year’s wild card round bout with the Kansas City Chiefs), and you would have to expect this team to put a reasonable number of points up here. The ground game is still a nightmare for Indy, however, and coverage should be pretty severe here. It could well come down to what the Colts defense can do, which is a stunning about-face for this organisation and the way the roster was put together. If they can generate pressure on Andy Dalton and force some turnovers, that could swing the game towards the Colts.

The Cincinnati Bengals are a hard team to get a true gauge on this season, but they have every chance of turning over the Colts on the road here. They have a quarterback with a propensity to throw interceptions in the spotlight and a star receiver who will be, at best, limited. But what they do have is one of the NFL’s best one-two punches at running back, with Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard both making huge plays down the stretch. Facing the NFL’s 18th ranked rush defense, the Bengals should look to control the clock by pounding Indy on the ground, and throwing no more than 25 times, if they can help it. Their own defense can’t generate pressure, ranking last in the NFL with a mere twenty sacks. Yet this secondary boasts six players who were drafted in the first round upon entering the NFL, and they can make life very uncomfortable for the home side.

Verdict: Cincinnati

Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys, the team everyone who follows the NFL has strong opinions about and the darkest of dark horses in 2014, have returned to the promised land of post-season football for the first time since 2009. This team has received many comparisons to the 1995 Cowboys team, the last Cowboys side to win a Super Bowl. With a league-leading ground game from DeMarco Murray and the stellar offensive line, a standout wide receiver in Dez Bryant and a quarterback capable of winning any game in Tony Romo, this is a fearsome Dallas team. But they are ripe to be knocked off in this one, if they aren’t careful. The run game has been their ace in the hole all season long, but they will be facing the NFL’s top run defense here. With one of the better pass rushes in the league and a secondary that has made many opportunistic and game-changing interceptions over the course of the season, the Cowboys will have to be at their very best to emerge from this game with a win. And as impressive as Dallas’ 8-0 road record is, it also means they are just 4-4 in front of their own fans.

The Detroit Lions have the ultimate X-factor in this year’s playoffs in (of all positions!) their quarterback, Matt Stafford. Stafford has been an enigma since he came into the league, with bad habits to beat the band and a tendency to throw interceptions with devastating regularity. Yet he has shown improvement at times this year, with his footwork and mobility in particular a big step up on 2013. This contest will be billed as the clash of the titans in the trenches, with the top run game taking on the top run defense, and it can’t be understated just how important it is to Detroit to get Ndamukong Suh’s suspension overturned in that regard, but typically it is who takes advantages of weaknesses better that win playoff games. And, although the Lions run game is sub-par for this time of year, Stafford is slinging it to Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Reggie Bush and Eric Ebron amongst others, and they should be able to make big gains against that limited Cowboys defense. But only if Stafford gets his act together on center stage of the first week of the playoffs.

Verdict: Detroit

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