There’s always a change this time of year. As the calendar turns, and the regular season officially transitions to the playoffs, everything we have come to know is cut off, as well.
The trends we love to follow, when picking games, mean less now. There are fewer upsets – in the true sense of the word – as there are even fewer ‘letdown games.’ Every team comes to play with its entire season on the line.
The break between the regular season and postseason is not only felt by those of us picking games, however. The teams, themselves, now face the biggest hurdle of all: proving whether or not the sixteen previous games have portrayed the proper embodiment of each combatant.
Are the Cowboys really that good? Are the Bengals finally going to have postseason success? Are the Panthers the 0-6 team we saw in the middle of the season or the 4-0 team we saw at the end?
Everything changes when the stakes are raised. With only eight teams playing this weekend, only four will be able to respond appropriately.
Below are predictions for each game against the spread. Spreads have been taken from various websites and are subject to change. The spread in parenthesis denotes the selected team.
*Confidence Picks: 2-6 (Season: 61-46-2)
All Picks Against Spread: 7-9 (Season: 141-111-4)
Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers (-6)
There could hardly exist two teams playing at levels further from their records than the Cardinals and Panthers. Arizona, an 11-5 Wild Card team, will be forced to travel in its first playoff game – sorry, Arizona, you’ll get no sympathy here, as you held your fate in your hands – due to a late-season collapse aided by injuries to two quarterbacks. The Cardinals are a shell of their former selves, and their 2-4 record to close the season indicates how far they have fallen from the 9-1 squad that looked like it would run away with the NFC West.
Carolina went in the opposite direction. Winning their first two games, the Panthers looked like they would carry some of last season’s momentum into 2014. One win, one tie, and eight losses later – including a six-game losing streak – 2013 quickly began to look more like a fluke than the foundation for a future. That was, until the Panthers tore off four straight wins, won the division, and now will host the team with the weakest player at the most important position – the third-string quarterback.
Carolina earned its division crown by winning four consecutive games to close the season, and some faith has been restored in the franchise. But it would be naive to ignore the fact that each of the opponents the Panthers beat along the way had losing records over the course of the season. In that regard, it may be dangerous to take anything the Panthers do at face value.
What is clear, however, is that Cardinals quarterback Ryan Lindley has shown nothing to lead one to believe he is capable of winning a road playoff game. In his three appearances this season – two of which were starts, and losses – he has thrown two touchdowns and four interceptions. The Cardinals may be a complete enough a team to get by with Lindley at the helm at certain points during the year, but the playoffs are built for quarterbacks to succeed. While Panthers quarterback Cam Newton may have a tough day against a fantastic Cardinals defense, he has the pedigree and experience to put up a big game at any given time.
Considering the Panthers haven’t allowed more than 17 points in any of their last four games, and that the Cardinals’ high watermark for points scored since Week 11 is a mere 18 points, there is no reason to believe the Cardinals can keep up with a Panthers offense that appears to finally be firing on all cylinders.
Carolina wins by two touchdowns and covers.
Baltimore Ravens (+3) at Pittsburgh Steelers
The National Football League struck gold when three teams from the most tightly contested division in football – the AFC North, which once featured all four of its members with seven wins and no more than four losses – clinched playoff berths. Even more fittingly, one of the best rivalries in the sport gets renewed when the Ravens travel to Pittsburgh to take on the division champion Steelers.
As evidence for how closely matched these two teams are with one another, each home team won its game against its rival by exactly 20 points. The Steelers scored the seventh most points this season; the Ravens scored the eighth most. The Steelers tout a top-ten passing offense while the Ravens have a top-ten rushing attack – both of which are true for both yards and points in their respective categories.
With their positions within the AFC North apparently suggesting which team is ‘better’ – at least, on paper – the Ravens’ inability to win the division was affected as much by an odd schedule as it was key losses. Baltimore had played five of its six divisional games by Week 9, and only won two. Surely, it was the Ravens’ responsibility to take care of their own business, but the key to note is that the team hit its stride after it was too late to benefit from it. With a 5-2 record in the games that followed the Week 9 loss in Pittsburgh, the Ravens closed out the season on a high note, and still have unfinished business with their AFC North foes.
While Pittsburgh spent most of the year trying to find its footing, Baltimore has proven to be resilient, staying alive in a crowded division despite the aforementioned oddity in the scheduling. Each time it seemed like the Ravens were buried, they rose to the occasion and survived.
In addition, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had one of the great postseason stretches in 2012, when the team ultimately won the Super Bowl. Flacco and the Ravens will not be intimidated in Pittsburgh. The Ravens win by a field goal and beat the spread.
Cincinnati Bengals at Indianapolis Colts (-3)
While the Panthers and Cardinals highlight a matchup of ‘teams reversing course,’ the Colts and Bengals are the epitome of the ‘show me something’ Wild Card game.
Each year, the Bengals are asked to prove their worth – especially when the playoffs come around – yet they consistently fail to deliver. This season, with multiple opportunities to secure the division crown, it seemed like Cincinnati was on its way to silencing its doubters. Until they failed to do so.
Capable of beating the Broncos in convincing fashion, Cincinnati couldn’t follow up the victory with a win in Pittsburgh that would have given the Bengals the AFC North title. Now, as a result, they go to Indianapolis to face a Colts team who has made a living feasting off the weaklings of the AFC South.
Indianapolis, largely forgiven in recent years for the inexperience of quarterback Andrew Luck – despite the acknowledgement that he is already one of the best in the league – is reaching a point where excuses will quickly be squashed. Their grace period is now over. Going just 4-5 against teams with winning records this season, the Colts have more to prove than a typical 11-5 division winner.
This is, therefore, the potential start of the book on Andrew Luck. If the team fails, he will likely receive the brunt of the criticism, and will fall into the same category as Peyton Manning in the early stages in his career – prolific passer without a championship. If Luck succeeds, he may be on his way to a breakout postseason campaign.
The likelihood is that, in a league where the aerial attack reigns supreme, the third-best yardage quarterback with the highest touchdown total of the year has all the tools necessary to beat a Bengals team that simply refuses to make the best of its opportunities.
Indianapolis wins by ten and covers.
Detroit Lions (+7) at Dallas Cowboys
Sometimes the planets align and greatness ensues. Other times, the planets align and the only possible outcome is disappointment.
The Cowboys couldn’t secure a first-round bye, despite having the highest win total in the NFC. They couldn’t have snuck into the playoffs as the sixth seed, either, flying under the radar as a potential ‘dark horse.’ They couldn’t draw the Packers, a powerhouse that could have lost to Detroit and reshuffled the playoff picture, making a loss on Sunday more acceptable. And they couldn’t be playing on Saturday afternoon.
No, the 12-4 Dallas Cowboys, ‘America’s Team’ will be front-and-center for the week’s spotlight game with absolutely nowhere to go but down. Imagine the stories that would follow the next day if the Cowboys, mathematically the heaviest favorite of the week, were to lose a home game with everything going for them.
Now, imagine how this franchise, with nearly a decade of late-season woes – anyone remember the fumbled field goal attempt in Seattle? – can suddenly grow the gene that yields clutch success. That, or the Cowboys are still the same team we have come to know over the past few years.
The Lions have had their share of struggles against better teams, but they still hold a top-five defense and a handful of weapons on the offensive side of the ball. They have a knack for late-game comebacks, and hardly appear too far gone in any given contest. Furthermore, the Cowboys have relied heavily on high point totals in recent weeks – their lowest scoring output in the past four games was 38 points – but they were facing the Bears, Eagles, Colts, and Redskins. When Philadelphia was able to run a successful defense, it held the Cowboys to a mere 10 points on Thanksgiving Day – again, don’t overlook how the national spotlight affected Dallas there, as well.
The Cowboys may be putting together one of their best seasons in recent memory, but they may have been declared ‘cured’ a bit prematurely. They still have yet to indicate that their regular season campaign will drive momentum into January, and not hit a wall with a new year. In essence, Dallas may be exactly the same team as most people have come to expect, just with a few more wins in December, this year.
Detroit, completely being overlooked, goes into Dallas and wins by six, beating the spread and re-opening the conversation of whether or not this Cowboys regime could ever win a Super Bowl.
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