Happy New Year. Now that the 2014-15 NFL regular season is over, the second season starts. By “second season,” I mean the playoffs, or the tournament. However you want to say it, twelve teams have qualified. This is the most exciting part of the season for me. I love the post-season. The drama gets more intense. The games get much more bigger, and each play is huge. I love writing about the post-season.
The twelve teams that made it to the post-season are, starting with the AFC (listed by seeding, the New England Patriots (1), the Denver Broncos (2), the Pittsburgh Steelers (3), the Indianapolis Colts (4), the Cincinnati Bengals (5), and the Baltimore Ravens (6). On the NFC side, the following qualifying teams are the Seattle Seahawks (1), the Green Bay Packers (2), the Dallas Cowboys (3), the Carolina Panthers (4), the Arizona Cardinals (5), and the Detroit Lions (6). Congratulations to all of these teams for earning their way into the playoffs. One of these teams will be your Super Bowl Champion. They all have interesting story lines. Can the Seahawks repeat? Can the Patriots break through their ten year drought? Can the Steelers win one in memory of the legendary Steelers Head Coach Chuck Noll, who died before the 2014-15 NFL season began?
In this blog, I will be discussing these storylines and more, as I will be analyzing this weekend’s playoff games. NFL fans all know this weekend as Wildcard Weekend. The games for this weekend are Arizona at Carolina and Baltimore at Pittsburgh on Saturday. On Sunday, Cincinnati takes on Indianapolis and Detroit goes to Dallas. This weekend’s games look very interesting, so without further ado, here are my predictions for the 2014-15 post-season Wild Card games.
Saturday, January 3, 2015
#5 Arizona Cardinals at #4 Carolina Panthers
Stadium: Bank of America Stadium
Network : ESPN
Kickoff: 4:35PM EST
This game is going to be a defensive struggle. At first, it looked like Arizona was going to waltz through their schedule and land the #1 seed. After all, Coach Bruce Arians had that team rolling, despite some injuries, especially on the defensive side Problems came when starting QB Carson Palmer went down with an ACL tear. Yes, Palmer had a nerve issue earlier in the season, but backup Drew Stanton was able to hold the fort. The ACL tear to Palmer meant that Stanton was the starter. Well, on a Thursday Night Football game, Stanton went down. Now they are down to Ryan Linley. The team still has a very good defense, and they still have WR Larry Fitzgerald, but I don’t know what they’re going to do with their QB in this game against the Carolina defense.
In speaking of the home team, the Carolina Panthers, is this the best the NFC South could do? I know the entire division stunk up the joint, but to have a 7-8-1 team in the playoffs? Of course, a 7-9 Seattle Seahawks team won their division and won a playoff game. If you think this is bad, wait until the NFL expand the playoffs. It will be even worse.
Despite not winning their last 6 previous games, the Panthers were able to string together two wins at the end of the regular season, and wound up with the division. I am not sure how QB Cam Newton will handle a very good defense like Arizona. I am expecting Arizona’s Patrick Peterson to intercept Newton. I don’t expect RB Jonathan Stewart to have a great day against that Arizona defense. Newton will have to be Superman to win this game.
Prediction : Even though Arizona will be hamstrung by the QB, I think they’re the better team. I think they have the better coach in Bruce Arians as well. WINNER : Cardinals 24-10
#6 Baltimore Ravens at #3 Pittsburgh Steelers
Stadium: Heinz Field
Kickoff: 8:25PM, EST
One of the greatest rivalries in the NFL starts up again in the playoffs on Saturday, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. These teams just hate each other. It shows in the press and on the field. This is personal. As a football fan, I love it. I love the intensity of these two teams. The fan bases hate each other too (not really, but you get the idea).
Let’s discuss this matchup. Many pundits have called Baltimore “the most dangerous team in the playoffs.” Let’s see. They have an excellent defensive front. With the recently suspended Haloti Ngata returning, that part of the defense will get better. Their secondary is not their strong suit. Remember, the team no longer has Ed Reed or Ray Lewis. On offense, the Ravens. Despite all this, the Ravens ended the regular season 8th in total defense. ( http://espn.go.com/nfl/statistics/team/_/stat/total/position/defense) I still wonder how that Baltimore defense let Philip Rivers and the Chargers march down the field and score that last minute game winning touchdown on their home field.
Let’s look at the Ravens offensively. Their quarterback Joe Flacco and the Baltimore offense ranked #12 in Total Offense. ( http://espn.go.com/nfl/statistics/team/_/stat/total) From my observation, the Baltimore Ravens offense was feast or famine. One week, Joe Flacco was kicking butt and taking names, like he did against the Tampa Bay Bucaneers (the same Bucs that beat the Steelers at Heinz Field). Another week, he looks like Joe Who, as he did against the Houston Texans.
Are the Ravens a formidable opponent? Yes. I take them very seriously. I respect all teams here. I’m not sure that they’re all that “dangerous.” As for the game, they’ll give the Steelers fits. I’m expecting a lot of bull rushing from that defensive line, especially from DE Terrell Suggs. I’m expecting the Ravens to turn the Steelers into a one dimensional team in a hurry. I expect Flacco to launch his bombs and hope that either Torry Smith or Owen Daniels catch it.
As for the AFC North Champion Pittsburgh Steelers, they have the #18 ranked defense. ( http://espn.go.com/nfl/statistics/team/_/stat/total/position/defense) What has helped the team on that side of the ball was the brief return of DE Brett Keisel (put on IR due to injury) and the return of LB James Harrison (much to the dismay of Commissioner Roger Goodell). The defense is much more energetic. Harrison is playing at a high level. The secondary is a bit worrisome. Sometimes DB William Gay comes through, and sometimes he makes bone headed mistakes. Who knows when Ike Taylor and/or Troy Polamalu will be back.
On the offensiveside of the ball, the Steelers are #2 in total offense. ( http://espn.go.com/nfl/statistics/team/_/stat/total) Yes. I can’t believe it myself. Ben Roethlisberger has had a banner year. Ben threw for 4952 yards. He had 32 TDs and 9 picks. Antonio Brown stamped himself as one of the top WRs in the NFL with 1698 receiving yards and 13 TDs. Le’Veon Bell had a great season as well. Bell ran for 1361 yards and 8 TDs. I don’t know why it took so long for Roethlisberger to buy into offensive coordinator Tod Haley’s system, but I am glad to see awesome results.
As for the game, the Steelers defense needs to attack that Ravens offensive line as LT Eugene Monroe may or may not be able to play. Joe Flacco must be made uncomfortable. RB Justin Forsett must not get going either. Steelers special teams must play well in this game. They can’t let the Baltimore Ravens offense have great field position.
On offense, as the Steelers will likely not have Bell, The team better hope Dri Archer can get some sort of running game going. Ben Tate will likelybe used in pass protection, it appears. I’m going to guess that Ben will be using a lot of short passes and play action to neutralize the pass rush.
My Prediction: This could be a fairly low scoring game. I expect a defensive struggle. This will be nasty. The referees will be involved. I promise you that. Regardless, some folks are making a fuss about the possibility of rain. I’m of the mind that the best team overcomes any condition. The two teams split their regular season Even WITH Bell, they had a hard time running the ball against the Ravens in both matchups. Overall, the Steelers are the better team. WINNER : Pittsburgh 27-23
January 4, 2015
#5 Cincinnati Bengals at Indianapolis Colts
Stadium : Lucas Oil Stadium
Network : CBS
Kickoff : 1:05 PM, EST
At the beginning of the season, the season, the Cincinnati Bengals were the hottest team around. They were kicking butt and taking names. QB Andy Dalton got a huge contact. Pundits claimed the team to be a Super Bowl team. The first four games certainly proved that to be true. After all, the Bengals were 4-0, and the big bad Patriots were done, finished, kaput, at least according to the talking heads.
That was until Week Five, on Sunday Night Football, when the two teams flipped the script. The Bengals became the Bungles, and the Patriots turned back into the holy terror they usually were. Ever since then, the Bengals became a fairly uneven team. They got blown out against the Indianapolis Colts, 27-0. They managed to sweep Baltimore. They got manhandled on Thursday Night Football by the Cleveland Browns. They were leading the Steelers at home until Big Ben got his offense moving. Even though the Bengals upset the Denver Broncos, on a Monday Night Football game, they went back to not doing well in the big game as they lost the AFC North Title to the Steelers.
The Indianapolis Colts are a great offensive juggernaut. That is not a surprise, given the fact that Andrew Luck is their QB. Luck has great chemistry with WR T. Y. Hilton, WR Reggie Wayne and his other weapons . Luck is a strong, smart QB, and has very good mobility. That being said, the Colts are not all that great on defense. Their best pass rusher, Robert Mathis, is out for the season. He was to come back after a suspension, but tore his Achilles while training privately. A team with a good running game can gash that defense line (Patriots RB Jonas Gray ran 201 yards on them.). The Colts secondary is decent.
As for the game, I am expecting a fairly high scoring game. Since it is in Indianapolis, I’m thinking that the Colts will play better. Andrew Luck and his receivers will have a field day with that fast track of a field. The Colts defense appears to be built to win with a lead. Andrew Luck will provide it. Yes, they did come back against the Chiefs last year, but again, it was at the Lucas Oil Stadium, and Chiefs Coach Andy Reid can be out-coached at times.
The Bengals have a very good defense. I am not sure they can stop Andrew Luck. In the regular season meeting, they gave up 27 points. The offense was not helping either that day. I am not all that confident that the defense can stop Luck on Sunday. No one, as of this writing, is sure if star WR A.J. Green is going to be able to play in this game, so that puts even more pressure on QB Andy Dalton to win the team’s first playoff game in 23 years.
My Prediction : The big question is whether the Cincinnati Bengals can go into a hostile environment and win a playoff game. Twenty three years is a very long drought. I’m not all that optimistic. The Bengals defense somehow have to get to Andrew Luck. They have to hit him constantly. The one weakness of the Colts appears to be that offensive line, as Luck gets hit a great deal. Luck throws a few picks, so guys like Reggie Nelson could have a good day if the defensive front can do something.
Andy Dalton can not make stupid throws. He must take care of the ball. I know he may be playing with or without a couple of targets, but if he has to rely on Gio Bernard, then he has to do that. WINNER : Indianapolis 35-28
#6 Detroit Lions at #3 Dallas Cowboys
Network : Fox
Kickoff : 4:40PM, EST
This game should be a great game. The Dallas Cowboys finally got a couple of monkeys off their collective backs. They did not go 8-8. They also didn’t collapse in December, and qualified for the post-season for the first time since 2009. The Cowboys won the NFC East as well. Now that they are in the playoffs, let’s see how far they will go.
Their opponents, the Detroit Lions were in the running for the NFC North title. They even were in the running for the #1 defense. However, they stubbed their collective toes, as the Seattle Seahawks are the #1 defense, and the Green Bay Packers are at home, getting ready for their divisional round opponent. The Lions also dealt with injuries to key players, such as RB Reggie Bush and DE Nick Fairley. However, the team qualified, despite all that.
As NFL fans know, DT Ndamukong Suh was initially suspended for this Sunday’s game because he walked backwards onto the injured calf of Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers. NFL Appeals officer Ted Cottrell reduced the punishment to $70,000. What saved Suh was that he had not been disciplined in 32 weeks. I think he was punished because of his past. His excuse was ridiculous. He said that his feet were freezing, and he could not feel Rodgers’ leg. He didn’t realize that his body was going up?
That being said, the fact that Suh will be in the game will change the dynamics of the game. Suh, whether you like him or not, is a game changer. That Dallas Cowboys offensive line is now going to have to account for Suh. I’m guessing that a TE will be used for max protection. With QB Tony Romo’s back condition, the last thing Cowboy fans want to see is Suh sacking Romo. Suh will be playing with a chip on his shoulder. I also expect to see quite a bit of play-action to slow down the Lions defensive front. I expect WR Dez Bryant and TE Jason Witten to have a good day. I think the Dallas defense will be put to the test, but I think Rod Marinelli will have them prepared.
As for the Lions, QB Matthew Stafford needs to step up. He has to do better against teams with winning records. I know Calvin Johnson has been his main target, but Stafford needs to learn more about spreading the ball around. Golden Tate is another good target. The running game needs to step up. The cornerstone of the Lions going into the game is the defense. They have a very scary defensive front. They need to get to Tony Romo. The Lions need to interfere with his timing with Witten or Bryant.
Prediction : When Ndamukong Suh was initially suspended, I thought this was going to be a blowout by Dallas. I thought it was going to be easy sledding. Well, now that Suh is IN the game, I’m forced to rethink this. I’m still thinking that the Cowboys are the overall better team, as they’re the most balanced of the two. The fact that Suh is playing makes me think that this will be a closer game. Could an upset happen? It’s possible, but not likely. WINNER : Dallas 37-27
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