The first round of the NFL playoffs provides a mixed bag. Some teams, like Dallas, Carolina, and Pittsburgh, come in hot, while others, like Arizona and Baltimore, limp into the postseason.
While all eight teams in action are feeling a lot better than the 20 who failed to reach the postseason, those playing in Wild Card games face an uphill climb to the Super Bowl. New England, Denver, Seattle, and Green Bay all get to rest this weekend as they prepare to host divisional games next week. The four teams that emerge from the Wild Card round will all be road dogs against the big four two weeks from now.
That being said, six Wild Card teams have gone on to win the Super Bowl. Which teams are going to take one step closer to making it seven? Let’s take a look at all the games on this week’s slate.
Arizona (11-5) at Carolina (7-8-1) – Spread: Panthers -6
The Cardinals, who started the year 9-1 and won six straight at one point, are significant road dogs against a Panthers team that finished under .500, and did not win between week 5 and week 14.
Arizona lost two straight and four of six to conclude the season thanks, in large part, to the loss of quarterbacks Drew Stanton and Carson Palmer. Stanton remains questionable with a knee injury. If he can’t go, the listless Ryan Lindley will start his third game of the year. Lindley has two touchdowns and four interceptions this season, and has completed just 48% of his passes.
Arizona went 11-5 against the spread and 5-3 on the road in 2014. Their only two losses against non-playoff teams this year came in Atlanta during week 13, and at San Francisco last Sunday.
After four straight wins to wrap up the regular season, Carolina became the first team ever to win back-to-back NFC South division titles. The Panthers beat all three of their division rivals and added a win over Cleveland during December. Their other three wins came at Tampa Bay in week 1, against the Lions in week 2, and versus Chicago in week 5. During the four-game winning streak, the Panthers allowed just 10.8 points per game.
The Panthers struggled with injuries all season, in particular to running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. But the team will be at nearly full strength come Saturday. Williams is listed as questionable with a hand injury, but the latest reports are that he should be able to suit up, giving Carolina that potent one-two punch in the run game that it was missing for much of the year.
Carolina went 8-8 against the spread and 4-4 at home this year.
Baltimore (10-6) at Pittsburgh (11-5) – Spread: Steelers -3
One of the best rivalries in the NFL, the Ravens meet Pittsburgh in the playoffs for the third time in the last seven years. The Steelers beat Baltimore (23-14) in the AFC title game in 2009, and Pittsburgh beat Baltimore (31-24) in the Divisional Playoffs in 2011. Both of those games were played at Heinz Field.
This year, the Steelers and Ravens split their season series, with each team winning at home (43-23 for the Steelers in Pittsburgh and 26-6 for the Ravens in Baltimore). Pittsburgh is 15-7 all-time at home against Baltimore, but the teams have split the last six meetings.
Baltimore has not beaten a playoff team since stomping on Carolina in week 4. They struggled in wins over Jacksonville in week 15 and the Browns last Sunday. The Ravens also lost at Houston, 25-13, in week 16, in what felt like a must-win. Baltimore ranks fourth in the NFL defending the run and may catch a break this weekend, as Pittsburgh RB Le’Veon Bell suffered a knee injury in week 17 and is questionable for Saturday.
Pittsburgh earned the AFC North title by beating Cincinnati 27-17 on Sunday. The victory was the fourth straight for the Steelers. Pittsburgh has the second-best passing offense in the NFL, but the injury to Bell could have a big impact on the passing game. Bell is not only a good pass catcher, but his presence demands that defenses don’t focus too much personnel on the pass.
The Steelers went 9-7 ATS and 5-3 at home in the regular season. The Ravens were 7-8-1 against the spread this year and 3-4-1 away from home.
Cincinnati (10-5-1) at Indianapolis (11-5) – Spread: Colts -4
The Colts shoutout Cincinnati at home (27-0) in week 7 and hope for a similar result in this one. Andrew Luck shredded the Bengals for 344 yards and two scores, while Andy Dalton completed just 18 of 38 throws for 126 yards. While the Colts running backs had 34 carries and averaged five yards per, the Bengals backs had just 12 carries for 32 yards as Cincy played from behind all game. Indy held the ball for nearly 40 minutes in the win.
The Bengals won five of seven down the stretch to earn a playoff berth, including a week 16 victory over Denver which clinched a spot in the postseason. However, Cincinnati lost at Pittsburgh on Sunday and dropped the AFC North title in the process, forcing the team to travel on Wild Card weekend.
After limiting opponents to less than 16 points a contest over a five game span, the Bengals allowed 55 points the final two weeks of the year. The team will be hoping for more from the defense on Sunday, as the offense may be shorthanded: A.J. Green, the Bengals leading receiver, was injured in week 17 against Pittsburgh (concussion) and his status remains in doubt.
Cincinnati went 8-7-1 against the spread and 4-4 on the road this year. Of Cincinnati’s five losses and one tie, only one came against a non-playoff team (Cleveland). This is the Bengals fourth straight playoff appearance, though the team is still looking for its first win since 1990.
After starting the year 0-2, the Colts have dropped just three games and all three came against division winners. They have not beaten a playoff team since a week 7 skirmish with Cincinnati, and only defeated two playoff squads all year. Only Carolina’s strength of victories was worse than the Colts among playoff teams.
Indy boasts the top-rated passing offense in the league this year, though, and was able to pull out a playoff win last season on the strength of Luck’s arm (45-44 over Kansas City).
Indy went 10-5-1 against the spread and 5-2-1 at home on the year.
Detroit (11-5) at Dallas (12-4) – Spread: Cowboys -7
Winners of four straight and six of seven, the Cowboys host a Detroit team that saw their four game winning streak stopped in Green Bay on Sunday. The Lions will be without defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh after he was suspended for stomping on the leg of Aaron Rodgers last week.
Neither the Lions nor Cowboys have had much postseason success recently. Detroit has not won a playoff game since 1991, while Dallas has just one victory since 1996.
Four of the Lions five setbacks this year came against playoff teams and they beat just one squad that is still playing. Though they won four of five to end the year, two of those wins came against a Chicago team that fired its coach, and one win was over Tampa Bay, which finished last in the league. Detroit was the top-ranked rushing defense in the league this year, but it remains to be seen how that unit fares against the league’s top-rusher, DeMarco Murray, without Suh in the fold.
The Cowboys, on the other hand, were the second-best rushing offense in the NFL this year, averaging 147.1 yards per game. They won their final four games of the year to claim the NFC East title, but lost out on a first round playoff bye because of tiebreakers.
The Cowboys competition was not overly tough down the stretch; they played just one playoff team over the last seven (beating Indianapolis, 42-7, in week 16). Though they did face two other playoff teams earlier in the year, beating Seattle and falling to Arizona (without Tony Romo).
Both teams were good in the turnover department this year; the Cowboys forced 31 turnovers this year, second-best in the league, while the Lions were +7 in turnover margin, tied for sixth in the NFL. The team that takes better care of the ball on Sunday stands a good chance of prevailing.
The Cowboys went 10-6 against the spread but just 3-5 at home. The Lions went 7-9 against the spread and 2-6 away from home.
(Photo credit: Keith Allison (originally posted to Flickr as 112606 121) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo has been cropped.)