NFL Wild Card Weekend: 4 Bold Predictions

Tony Romo

The NFL postseason is finally upon us, which means the pressure is now on as 12 teams battle for the right to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in Phoenix next month.

Last week, we ended the regular season with a bang, correctly predicting upsets by the Chase Daniel-led Chiefs and the 49ers, and an MVP-worthy performance by Aaron Rodgers in a Green Bay win.

That was then. This is now.

It’s Wild Card Weekend, so we’re dissecting the four games on the slate. Here are four bold predictions for this weekend:

Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers

The Cardinals have limped into the playoffs having lost two in a row and four of their final six games. The light at the end of the tunnel continues to flicker as it has been confirmed that Ryan Lindley will draw his third consecutive start under center in place of Drew Stanton.

Waiting for the Cardinals is a Carolina team that wound up capturing the NFC South crown after a lopsided defeat of Atlanta on the road. The Panthers won four straight games to end the regular season, holding their opponents to under 11 points per game. Now that ferocious defense is chomping at the bit to get Lindley, who has thrown two touchdowns compared to four interceptions, and has completed 48 percent of his throws.

It’s hard to imagine that at this time two months ago, the Cardinals appeared to be the class of the NFC while Carolina was in the midst of a  six-game losing streak. These teams’ fortunes have completely reversed, and it was the NFC South champions who looked like the dominant team toward the end of the year.

Bold prediction: Since Week 13 when the Panthers switched fifth-round pick Bene Benwikere at left corner and fourth-rounder Tre Boston in at safety, the defense has been among the best in the league. New Orleans’ and Atlanta’s high-flying offenses were held to a combined 13 points. Since that time, Carolina’s limited opposing offenses to 265 yards per game with nine forced turnovers. There’s no question that this team is waiting to feast on Lindley, who has been incapable of filling in for the injured Stanton. Arizona’s best hope is that its defense can come up with some stops and maybe even help put points on the scoreboard, but that’s a lofty task considering the Panthers have found success running the ball with Jonathan Stewart during their winning streak. We’ve all mocked the Panthers for sneaking into the playoffs with a 7-8-1 mark, but they’re going to pull off a first-round win thanks to two defensive scores.

Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers

No other NFL quarterback aside from Eli Manning has been better in the playoffs than Ben Roethlisberger, who in his postseason career has a .714 winning percentage. Big Ben will have to live up to the back of his player card because the Black and Gold could be without Le’Veon Bell, who hyperextended his knee in the season finale against Cincinnati. The Steelers signed former Browns and Vikings running back Ben Tate this week to try and salvage a running game, but it might be up to their dynamic aerial game when the Ravens roll into town.

Baltimore has had a knack for pulling upsets in the playoffs. Since 2000, the Ravens have won eight of 14 games in which they were underdogs going in. However, the Steelers have been a thorn in their side, having lost all three playoff games against their AFC North rivals. Like those other three losses, this one will be played at Heinz Field.

It’s been one of the best rivalries in all of football, and we’re lucky to see it a third time this season.

The Ravens and Steelers split their season series, but the second meeting — the one where Pittsburgh earned a 43-23 victory at home in Week 9 — is more indicative of the teams they are today. The Ravens won 26-6 back in Week 2, as Bernard Pierce shouldered the load offensively and Roethlisberger could manage only 217 yards through the air with a pick. In the second game, Roethlisberger pieced together a six-touchdown effort, while the Ravens running backs combined totaled 63 yards.

Bold prediction: The Steelers have been as hard of a team to figure out as there was in 2014, and as dynamic as they are on offense, they’re equally as vulnerable on defense. Joe Flacco is certainly a quarterback that can exploit those weaknesses and John Harbaugh knows how to beat Pittsburgh. The issue for Baltimore is that the team is also flawed defensively, especially in the secondary. It’s hard not to think Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant can take advantage, and if Bell is healthy enough to play it’s another mismatch in Pittsburgh’s favor. Big Ben won’t throw six touchdowns, but he will throw four as the seasoned playoff veteran gets the job done on the biggest stage in a rare high-scoring game between these two rivals.

Cincinnati Bengals @ Indianapolis Colts

The Bengals fell to Pittsburgh in the regular-season finale, a week removed from topping the Broncos on Monday Night Football. It just goes to show you that like the rest of the AFC North squads, it’s hard to predict what kind of Bengals team will show up.

Indianapolis was not the dominant team it was at midseason when it came to the stretch run. Yes, the Colts ripped off five wins over the final six games, but those wins also came at the expense of Tennessee, Jacksonville, Washington, and Cleveland. Andrew Luck has thrown 12 touchdowns and six interceptions since Week 11, and the offense overall has totaled 15 turnovers during that time.

The Colts went 0-4 against division winners during the regular season, but smacked the Bengals to the tune of a 27-0 shutout back in Week 7.

A.J. Green did not suit up for that loss, and yet again he’s a question mark for this Wild Card showdown. Green continues to nurse a head injury he suffered in the Bengals’ Week 17 loss and is undergoing to league-mandated concussion protocol. Green didn’t practice Wednesday and was limited on Thursday, and without him the Bengals are less formidable threat.

Bold prediction: This could be another lopsided game should Green not be available for the Bengals, who may have to turn to their red-hot defense to stay close in this battle. The Bengals have forced nine turnovers over the final three games, which doesn’t bode well for the suddenly struggling Colts. Luck, meanwhile, has still been able to lead his team to victory despite the rash of turnovers. Though Indianapolis has struggled against superior opponents, teams like the Bengals have not been an issue at all. So long that Luck has T.Y. Hilton at his disposal, Luck is dynamic enough to beat the Bengals with his right arm alone. And a less-than-100-percent Green won’t allow the Bengals to keep pace. Andy Dalton is atrocious on Wild Card Weekend, and his playoff record falls to 0-4 as the Luck-Hilton tandem puts forth one of those dominant performances Sunday afternoon.

Detroit Lions @ Dallas Cowboys

Well, it’s official. Ndamukong Suh will suit up for the Lions when they take on the Cowboys, providing us with the much-hyped battle between Detroit’s dominant front four against the Cowboys’ stout offensive line. But can the Lions overcome their biggest hurdles: Matthew Stafford and history.

Detroit’s quarterback is 0-17 on the road against teams with a .500 record or better. The Lions have not won a playoff game since 1991, when the team defeated none other than Dallas in a divisional game. Detroit has dropped its last seven playoff games, the second-longest streak in NFL history, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Tony Romo, a very viable MVP candidate, is 1-3 in the playoffs, but nothing has gone according to plan for Dallas in 2014. Romo finished with the NFL’s highest QBR in the regular season, and it’s because of how dominant the offense has been running the ball. DeMarco Murray and Dallas ranked first in yards per rush this season, which makes Suh’s presence all the more important come Sunday afternoon when Detroit’s top-ranked run defense tries to slow down the NFL’s leading rusher.

Bold prediction: Defense wins championships, right? Well, we’ve marveled at how Jim Caldwell has turned around Detroit’s defense in 2014 and completely revamped the landscape of the Lions. Murray and Romo are both MVP candidates, but have not seen a defense as dominant as Detroit’s all season long. The issue, however, is that the Lions have not been as prolific on offense as they used to be. So if defense dictates this ball game, do you trust Romo or Stafford to make enough plays to come out on top? That’s what we’re expecting from this game, and that makes me confident Romo gets the edge. This game will come down to a field goal as time expires as Dallas wins, 16-13. Murray is limited to 60 yards or less, but Detroit has no answer for Romo’s late-game heroics.

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Sam Spiegelman
Sam Spiegelman is a native New Yorker covering sports in New Orleans. He likes Game of Thrones way too much. Tweet him @samspiegs.