Friday, January 2, 2015

NFL Wild Card Weekend Predictions: Chalk You

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The thing to remember about Wild Card Weekend is that, well, what happens here isn't always critical to who will actually finish the year. There is a huge advantage to bye weeks after the regular season, not to mention home field. Usually when a home team spits the bit, it's because they are a suspect team in a weak division, like Atlanta in past years, or the finesse Patriots when the Ravens just punched them in the mouth. Of the four home teams lying in wait for next week, only Denver ended the year badly and shows any signs of weakness, and going to Denver in January is rarely easy. If you want to imagine the Final Four this year to be 1 v 2 in both conferences, I'm not inclined to tell you that you're wrong. At least, not yet.

So while these four games should be fun, and close, and a lot of entertainment, don't go nuts. Green Bay and Seattle and New England await, and could be going against a .500 Panther team, a Cardinals club with QB3, and whoever gets out of Colts-Bengals also looks DOA to me.  I also suspect that Pittsburgh and Dallas fans are going to be drinking the Mo Mentum Kool Aid that says the bye week is no protection against a Hot Team.

But, well, that's not how you bet.

And with that... on to the picks!

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Arizona at CAROLINA (-6.5)

The case for Arizona:
Very good defense, despite injuries. More experienced, and frankly better, coaching. WR Larry Fitzgerald may be playing his last game in the laundry, and might give us something to remember. Defensive teams generally travel well. Running game has been better than expected in recent weeks, with rookie Kerwynn Williams showing some good toughness. QB Ryan Lindley, 1-5 in his career as a starter, did finally pop his TD cherry last week against San Francisco, throwing for two scores and 316 yards. WR Michael Floyd has been terrible much of 2014, but did explode for both scores and 153 yards in the final (to give you an idea of how his year went, that's a third of his TDs, and a fifth of his yards, for the entire year).

The case against: QBs in Lindley's experience and stat level are 2-4 in playoff games in the modern era. Ever since S Tyrann Mathieu got hurt, this secondary has been giving up a distressing amount of yards. After starting 11-3, they've been exposed in back to back losses, with Seattle and San Fran both taking them out, and the two wins before that (17-14 over KC, and 12-6 over St Louis) aren't exactly confidence inducing, either. They are 2-4 in their last six games, and haven't score more than 18 points since early November.

The case for Carolina: At home and playing their best ball of the year by a wide margin. Utterly housed Atlanta on the road last week to get in. RB Jonathan Stewart has been one of the hottest backs in the NFL for the second half of the year. QB Cam Newton has played better since dodging serious injury in an auto accident, and the team's overall NFL rankings don't look like a team that dropped six in a row. Four straight wins to end the year, two of them by blowout, might be their true level.

The case against Carolina: They are below .500, have one win this year against a winning team and are hosting a playoff game; may we all find opportunities in life to be so abundant. WR Kelvin Benjamin, the team's top outside target, has been inefficient for the amount of total targets, with a number of exasperating drops. Defense can still be had deep, and HC Ron Rivera is prone to spectacular brain farts, especially in late and close situations. Home field advantage isn't particularly strong, and to call the play-calling rudimentary is an insult to guys named Rudy.

The prediction: Lindley has some physical gifts, but he's also a turnover machine, and Carolina is going to get to the QB. It's a shame that Arizona didn't get to bring the team that got them to the playoffs to the playoffs, but that's the NFL for you. Carolina advances, and might not even be done next week, either. Just a ridiculous run of luck for a 7-8-1 team.

The pick: Panthers 24, Cardinals 16

Baltimore at PITTSBURGH (-3)

The case for Pittsburgh: 2nd best passing attack in the NFL, with WR Antonio Brown leading the attack downfield, TE Heath Miller moving the sticks underneath, and WR Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton giving them huge advantages against nickel backs. Winners of five of their last six games, and have scored over 30 points in half of their games for the year. Have home field, which means a lot with the weird winds at Heinz. While the defense has been brutal this year, they've been OK against the run, and were improbably good with backups last week to wrap up the division against the Bengals. QB Ben Roethlisberger might be having his best year as a pro, and as a guy who has won it all, that's saying something. Truly dangerous team; maybe everyone's dark horse in the AFC to win it all.

The case against Pittsburgh: RB Le'Veon Bell is highly questionable with a knee injury, and the team's depth behind him is filled with question marks. RB Dri Archer is kicker-size and a mess in blitz pickup, while Josh Harris is a training camp survivor who has never been in this kind of spotlight before. RB3 is vagabond Ben Tate, on his third team in just the past couple of months. Got punked by this Ravens team in Week 2, and somehow lost games to Tampa, the Jets, and New Orleans to cost them their just due, which would have been a first round bye. HC Mike Tomlin's record in big games is spotty, and when WRs have been open against this team, they've been crazy open. Offensive line is not airtight, which is a major problem in this matchup. As good as they've looked at times, they've looked as bad, which is rarely a formula for success in the postseason.

The case for Baltimore: Best in class defensive front seven that can just take over games. Won five of their last seven to qualify, with the defense holding opponents to 13 or less in four of the five wins. RB Justin Forsett has solved a complete abyss at RB, and QB Joe Flacco has serious playoffs wins in his portfolio. The WR law firm of Smith and Smith are tough and physical, and the combination of Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs have combined for 29 total sacks. NT Haloti Ngata returns from a 4-game suspension, and could have fresh legs and a huge impact in this game.

The case against Baltimore: Got smoked in Pittsburgh just two months ago, giving up 43 in a first-class clowning. Did that because their secondary has been a tire fire for much of the year. Leading WR Steve Smith Sr. is 35 and hasn't cracked 100 yards in a game since Week 6; he also hasn't done much in either game against the Steelers. Having a porous defensive secondary in the post-season without a consistent and explosive offense screams out one and done.

The prediction: These games are usually wildly nasty and close, with the refs having a lot to say about who wins, and the game ending with someone making a field goal. That's certainly how Vegas is seeing it, and with both teams having shaky secondaries, you can see the point. But when push comes to shove, I just like Ben and the Steelers WRs a lot more than Flacco and the Smiths, and think Archer and Harris will be better than expected.

Steelers 30, Ravens 24

BENGALS (+3) at Colts

The case for Cincy:
With Dallas RB DeMarco Murray nursing a hurt paw, rookie Jemery Hill might be the best back on wild card weekend. WR AJ Green is a game breaker, and WR Mohammed Sanu emerged this year as a dangerous secondary target. RB2 Giovani Bernard gives them a quality third down and refresh back. Defensive secondary is littered with high draft picks, and can play up to their pedigree for games at a time; this is the best unit outside of Seattle. Played a wildly more difficult schedule than Indy, and might be due, given how many years they've spit the bit in the playoffs to date.

The case against Cincy: Green isn't 100%, and QB Andy Dalton had his worst year to date after signing a big contract. Dalton has also stunk up the joint in past playoffs, as has his HC, Marvin Lewis. Pass rush is downright poor, which is far from optimal in a road game against QB Andrew Luck. Got absolutely trucked in a road game in Indy on October 19, losing 27-0 in a game where they had 8 total first downs, none in the first half. Like Pittsburgh, hard to put a finger on their true level, given the volatility, but unlike Pittsburgh, did not finish the year playing their best ball, nor can they rely on a QB with a playoff win, let alone a ring.

The case for Indy: Home dome teams in the playoffs are near auto wins, especially if they take any kind of early lead. Won five of their last six, and the loss was one where they pulled the chutes very early against Dallas, having little to play for in terms of seeding. Unlike the Bengals, they've rested personnel and won their way in, rather than coming in the back door with a road loss. Deep pass catching corps, which is why they have the top passing offense, and RB Daniel Herron has succeeded in not being Trent Richardson, which seems to be the only hurdle to pass to get yards in Indy.

The case against Indy: WR T.Y. Hilton isn't healthy and didn't go anything against Tennessee in Week 17; this club is a lot easier to defend if he's not right, especially with the Bengal quality at DB. Luck can turn it over, and the Colt defense has generally been poor this year, with the exception of the Bengal game. The AFC South wasn't nearly as good as the AFC North this year, and the Colts struggling to beat teams like the December 7 Browns is a little bit telling.

The prediction: Most wild card weekends see a home favorite lose, and this is my hill to die on. I've thought the Colts were paper tigers all year, and while Dalton and Lewis have terrible playoff records, it's not like Luck has been bulletproof, either -- only a collapse for the ages from Andy Reid's Chiefs last year is keeping him from being winless in the postseason for his 3-game career, and the 6-8 TD/INT ratio is not exactly tremendous. I think this game is going to be all about Luck, and without Hilton at full speed, and with the Bengals quality at DB, it's going to go badly for him.

The pick: Bengals 31, Colts 24

Detroit at DALLAS (-6)

The case for Detroit:
Well-rounded offense and frequently dominant defense. Won 4 of their last 5 to get in, with the defense holding opponents to 17 points or less in the wins. The best rushing defense in the NFL this year, with opponents not getting to 70 a game. WR Calvin Johnson hasn't been healthy for much of the year, but he's still a terrifying matchup, especially for the suspect Dallas secondary. WR Golden Tate has quietly piled up over 1,300 yards this year in Johnson's absence, and can also move the chains. RBs Joique Bell and Reggie Bush are true 2-threat backs, and combined for over 1,600 yards from scrimmage. Team is relatively healthy, and no one is really expecting them to win this game. DT Ndamakong Suh won his appeal for last week's schmuckery and will play; he's vital in this one.

The case against Detroit: QB Matthew Stafford has never beaten an over .500 team on the road, which just staggers the mind, really. Stafford turns the ball over way too much to win road games against quality opponents. Defense is prone to wearing down after strong starts, and entire team is prone to bonehead penalties that stagger the imagination. Historically, franchise has a remarkable lack of success in the playoffs. In a year where nearly NFL team has had a strong year from their K, they are on their third, and still aren't very confident. DT Nick Fairly will miss the game, which doesn't help at all.

The case for Dallas: At home, in front of a resurgent home field advantage. QB Tony Romo has had his best year, because he's had his best OL, and when the line is cracking, the team has enjoyed blowouts. WR Dez Bryant might be the best in the playoffs, and TE Jason Witten still moves the chains on third down. While the defense isn't great, they've managed to get off the field all year, with good work in the run game helping to limit the number the number of opportunities for the opponent to take advantage of even coverage. Excellent production in the kicking game, with K Dan Bailey having one of the best years in the franchise's history.

The case against Dallas: Poor pass rush, with no one having more than six sacks. DT Henry Melton, a 2-way player and quiet anchor, will miss the postseason with knee issues. WR2/3 production from Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley has been intermittent, especially with such a reliance on the running game limiting their exposure. Detroit's DL is not a good matchup for them, and play-calling has verged so far away from pass-heavy in past years as to be quite predictable. Romo's history in past big games, with just one playoff win and loads of fourth quarter derpery in de facto playoff games, is spotty to say the least.

The prediction: In what's very likely to be Suh's last game in Detroit laundry, Stafford fails again on the road, and Dallas uses their big line to salt it away late. America, you're going to have one more week of unbearable Cowboy fandom to endure. Cowboy Fan, you have more week to tell yourself that you aren't going to need Romo to win a game for you that he shouldn't.

The pick: Cowboys 31, Lions 20

Last week: 9-7

Season: 125-125-4

Career: 613-625-43

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