Friday, January 2, 2015

Zach's Fearless NFL Playoff Predictions 2015: Wild Card Round

            It is football in January, which can only mean three things: Jesus, girls, and Marcus Mariota. January also means Oscar nominations, and if 2014 NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers and his calf injury doesn't get nominated this year, it will be the snub of the century.  But for those of us who cannot wait until January 12 at 8:30pm EST, there does happen to be an interesting slate of NFL games this weekend which can pass the time without too much anxiety.  So in honor of the greatest football moment this side of the butt fumble, let’s break down this weekend’s Wild Card matchups -- all featuring teams that would probably lose to the Ducks, in my completely unbiased opinion:

Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers (-6)
Saturday, January 3, 4:35pm EST, ESPN.

            Take your pick for the more improbable storyline: On one side, you have a team that finished 2-4 down the stretch, hasn’t scored over 18 points since November 9, was outgained by 800 yards on the season, and is led by their fourth-string QB and second-string RB.  On the other side, you have the second team in NFL history to make the playoffs with a losing record (a team that went 63 days without winning a game), a QB still recovering from a bizarre car crash, and a franchise that hasn’t won a home playoff game in 11 years.
            Carolina actually had a good season – if you conveniently omit October and November from the equation.  Those two months aside, the Panthers went 6-2 and in those six wins allowed a paltry average of 10.1 points.  And say what you will about the pathetic NFC South, the Panthers actually played formidably against quality opponents.  They beat Detroit by 17, tied Cincinnati, and gave up the game-winning touchdown to the Seahawks with under a minute remaining.  In their current four-game winning streak, the running game has come alive, with Jonathan Stewart averaging just over 400 yards per game.  Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen both gained over 1,000 receiving yards on a team that didn’t particularly like to pass, and they can both rumble over even the best defenders.  And while it would be hard to mistake the 2014 Panthers defense for their excellent 2013 unit, Carolina held half of its opponents to under 19 points and only allowed only three 300-yard passers all season.  I somehow doubt that number will reach four after Saturday.
            The case for Arizona is that Bruce Arians is a brilliant coach.  And that’s about it.  Ryan Lindley did look noticeably better against a depleted 49ers secondary last week, but the Cardinals still only scored 17 points and Lindley had three picks.  If that’s the best your quarterback can play, are you really telling me there is no better option?  But the problem isn’t only at QB; the Cardinals were only 4-4 on the road this year with their one impressive victory coming against a Tony Romo-less Cowboys.  Even with Andre Ellington playing 12 games, Arizona had the second-worst rushing offense in football and gave up the fourth-most passing yards.  I imagine it must be tough for Cardinals players to keep composure and focus in the midst of such a collapse; on November 30, when Arizona was 9-3, could they ever have imagined traveling on the road to play 3-8-1 Carolina?
            So the real question is how did Arizona ever make the playoffs in the first place?  They were 6-0 under Carson Palmer, 5-3 under Drew Stanton, and 0-2 under Lindley (which brings his career NFL record to 1-7).  With Stanton ruled out for Saturday’s game, there seems little hope Arizona can muster much of anything.  But you know what?  This isn’t the first time people have said this about the Cardinals.  Remember the 1998 “Cardiac Cards” team with Jake Plummer that won all their games in the last few seconds and snuck into the playoffs?  No one thought they’d do anything, and lo and behold, they stunned Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith in Big D.  Remember the 2008 Cardinals squad which people claimed was the worst team ever to make the playoffs?  We all know what happened after that.  So here we are yet again, with a well-coached Cardinals team that did win 11 games and is a 6-point underdog to a team that won four fewer games and a super-hyped QB who tellingly has yet to win a playoff game. 
            So that’s my best case for the Cardinals – that as a franchise, they’re used to being significant underdogs.  Hell, I still remember thinking that the ’08 team didn’t have a chance against Matt Ryan as a rookie.  I was wrong, and so was the rest of the country.  So keep belittling them if you want to.  But I don’t think anyone’s going to be wrong about this one.

Prediction: Carolina 31, Arizona 10.

Playoff Doppelganger: 2012 NFC Wild Card, Green Bay 24, Minnesota 10.  This was the season where child abuser contrite and honorable Adrian Peterson ran for 2,000 yards and the Vikings snuck in the playoffs with Mr. Samantha Ponder at QB.  Then the Vikings did the most Vikings-like thing imaginable and put in converted WR Joe Webb at starting quarterback against the Packers at Lambeau Field. Because that was such a great idea.  Webb finished 11/30 for 180 yards and the Vikings lost by two scores in a game more boring than a Leslie Frazier press conference.  The only thing I really remember about this game is that NBC inexplicably made this their prime time game of Wild Card weekend.  If we’re living in a world where no one at NBC was fired for that inexcusable move and Ryan Lindley is the starting quarterback of a playoff team, then there really is no hope for humanity.

Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers (- 3)
Saturday, January 3, 8:15pm EST, NBC.

            The obvious candidate for NBC’s prime time game – one of the best modern rivalries in sports, three combined titles in the last ten years, and the serious potential for brawls and punches polite jostling and great family-friendly entertainment.  Inexplicably, the two previous 2014 games where these two teams squared off were outright disappointments – a 20-point Ravens victory in Baltimore on Week 2, and a 20-point Steelers victory in Pittsburgh on Week 9.  These games used to always be close and contentious;
            The “eye test” would certainly seem to favor the Steelers here.  They’ve had a tremendous December going 4-0, with Roethlisberger throwing a lone pick in 137 pass attempts and Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown turning into 2014’s own Marshall Faulk and Torry Holt.  They have some impressive wins on their resume too (besides the Baltimore win): Indianapolis, Carolina, Cincinnati (twice), Kansas City, and Houston.  But when you look deeper, you see some inexplicable losses (Tampa Bay and New Orleans at home, along with the Jets and Browns) and a defense that gave up 4,243 passing yards and 30 TDs.  The Steelers strength is unquestionably their offense, and they are 9-1 when scoring 27 points or more.  But that also means they are 2-4 in games scoring 26 points or less, and with Bell status doubtful for Saturday, suddenly 27 points may seem like a tall order, even at home.
            For a team historically considered so similar to the Steelers (great defense, strong running game, big boring QB), it’s a little remarkable how different the 2014 Ravens’ problems are from the Steelers.  Unlike Pittsburgh, Baltimore has been riddled with injuries all season, not just this past week.  Their offense has been horribly shaky down the stretch.  If you take away their 4th quarter collapse against the Chargers (a game that, with under three minutes remaining, Baltimore had a 99.7 percent chance of winning), here’s how the Ravens offense has fared down the stretch in what should have been a pretty easy December: 28 points against Miami, 20 points against Jacksonville, 13 points against Houston, and 20 points against Cleveland.  Justin Forsett was a nice comeback story for most of the season, but looked downright ordinary in December and has only one touchdown since Thanksgiving. But the defense has played tough (or is it that opposing offenses have been weak?) and the Ravens are one of three teams in the NFL to be in the top ten in scoring offense and defense (the Patriots and the Seahawks are the other two).  Baltimore is 8-0 in games allowing under 17 points.
            I tend to think both of these teams are slightly overrated, due in large part to playing the NFC South and AFC South divisions and having the cache of winning recent Super Bowls.  I don’t see the winner of this game coming away from Foxborough or Denver victorious.  So in light of Baltimore’s offensive woes and Pittsburgh’s erratic play as well as the uncertain status of Bell, this game is pretty evenly matched.  But I’m picking the Ravens in this game, and here are a few reasons why: Baltimore ranked 2nd in the NFL in sacks (49), while Pittsburgh ranked 26th (33); even with Bell in the lineup, Pittsburgh was the definition of a mediocre running team, ranking 16th, while Baltimore was a top-four defense against the run.  And while the Ravens have looked vulnerable against the deep pass, I’d still take Lardarius Webb, Darian Stewart and Matt Elam over Brice McCain, Mike Mitchell, and Troy Polamalu.  Or maybe the real point is, neither unit is exceptional.
            The real reason I like Baltimore? (SPOILER ALERT) I like all the home teams this weekend.  As everyone knows, one of the cardinal rules of NFL playoff gambling is that at least one road team wins in the Wild Card and Divisional Rounds.  The Ravens are experienced, know how to win in Pittsburgh, and certainly look more poised than Arizona, Detroit, and Cincinnati to pull an upset over a Pittsburgh team missing their most dynamic offensive weapon. We all know what happens when Roethlisberger is put under pressure, and if the Ravens’ offensive line can protect Forsett, it’s worth remembering that the Steelers are 1-4 when allowing over 140 yards on the ground.  Plus, as a pessimistic Patriots fan, I really don’t want to see the Ravens in the playoffs again.

Prediction: Baltimore 23, Pittsburgh 20.

Playoff doppelganger: NFC Wild Card Round, 2004, St. Louis 27, Seattle 20.  The 8-8 Rams weren’t really good at much (a -73 point differential and a ridiculous -24 turnover margin), but they did know how to beat the 9-7 Seahawks, and in 2004 defeating Seattle constituted for 1/3 of the Rams’ victories for the season.  It may come as a shock to the Seahawk fan base (for whom nothing interesting ever happened in football or in life prior to 2010), but the St. Louis-Seattle divisional rivalry was once pretty exciting back in the days when the NFC West was terrible.  Surprisingly few people picked the Rams back then and surprisingly few people are picking the Ravens this week.

Cincinnati Bengals at Indianapolis Colts (-3½)
Sunday, January 4, 1:05pm EST, CBS.

            It’s a matchup of the two kings of wild card weekend!  This is the third straight year (and fourth in the last five years) that the Colts play in the wild card round and the fourth consecutive year (and fifth in the last six years) for the Bengals.  Their records in the wild card round since 2009?  Indy is 1-2 and Cincy is, as we all know, 0-5.  Isn’t it amazing to think that without that epic Andy Reid-Alex Smith 28-point collapse last year, these two teams would be 0-8 in playoff games the last five years?
            Considering both franchises’ underwhelming recent performances in the postseason, it should not come as a surprise that of all the games this weekend, this is the one I am least looking forward to.  Simply put, neither team merits that much excitement (I wish I could say that with each of their combined playoff experience the winner is primed for a deep run, but the talent simply isn’t there).  The Colts are the very definition of Bill Simmons’ category of the “good bad team”: A team that beats up on lousy teams (Washington, Cleveland, the Giants) while playing in an even lousier division (Tennessee, Houston, Jacksonville) and loses to good teams (Pittsburgh, Dallas, New England).  And “loses” is an understatement – they lost those three games by a combined 74 points.  We know about Andrew Luck being a spectacular quarterback and even Trent Richardson quietly having a competent season by somehow averaging over 3 yards per carry and only having two fumbles.  When I look at their schedule, I see only two impressive wins by Indianapolis: A 20-13 home victory over the Ravens in Week 5 and (you guessed it) a 27-0 thrashing of Cincinnati at home in Week 7.
            So if Indy beats up on the bad teams but can’t beat the good ones, the only real question of this game is whether Cincinnati is a good team or not.  To help answer this question, I took a trip to the archives, looked at some of my previous previews of Wild Card weekend, and reexamined what I said about the Bengals.  Here is what I found:

2012: “They went 0-7 against playoff teams this year; they haven’t won a playoff game since 1991 and have never won a postseason game on the road; since November 6, they’ve won one road game, and it was against the Rams; they lost to the Texans at home on December 11, and gave up 300 passing yards to T.J. Yates.  Oh, and they’re the Cincinnati Bengals.”

2013: “Are [the Bengals] winning in spectacular fashion?  Not exactly. The offensive line has surrendered 46 sacks, which makes J.J. Watt fans understandably salivate.  But A.J. Green (1,350 receiving yards, 11 touchdowns) is a huge receiving target, and Andy Dalton threw more touchdowns than Schaub, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, and Philip Rivers . . . The “rematch” factor will undoubtedly favor the Bengals, who are still bitter after last year’s 31-10 defeat, and are desperately seeking their first playoff win since 1991 (Andy Dalton is also no longer a rookie).”

2014: “No one has ever really believed in Cincinnati, a franchise that hasn’t won a game since 1991, and is 0-4 in the postseason under Marvin Lewis . . . The Best case for Cincinnati is their 8-0 record at home.  As a Patriots fan who saw home playoff losses in three of the past four years, I can say 8-0 in the regular season doesn’t mean crap.  Since 2005, the recipe for winning in the playoffs has been based around momentum, emotion, the ability to win on the road, and experienced, fearless quarterback play.”

            You’ll have to excuse me for sounding like a broken record.  But you also gotta admit, that last sentence is pretty darn accurate and predicting San Diego to go into chilly Cincinnati and beat the Bengals by multiple scores last January was one of the smartest picks I’ve ever made in this column (crucially en route to my 4-0 record last year’s wild card weekend).  So is there anything to add to this year’s description of the Bengals?  Not really.  Jeremy Hill has looked really good.  Before dropping last weekend’s game in Heinz Field, the Bengals had won four straight road games (albeit against New Orleans, Houston, Tampa Bay, and Cleveland).  Cincinnati is 9-0-1 when scoring 22 or more and 8-0 when allowing under 23 points.  Their only impressive wins were their season sweep of Baltimore and their mildly flukish Monday night win against the Broncos.
            Cincinnati has all the talent to beat the Good Bad Colts, but they won’t because Andy Dalton doesn’t win big games and Marvin Lewis is the Marty Shottenheimer of this generation.  Indy has looked shaky, but let’s remember that they clinched the AFC South practically in September and if you take out the Dallas fiasco, the Colts won five of their final six games.  I get the sense that #ChuckStrong and company have pulled a Dwayne Wade and have checked out for much of the season in preparation for the playoffs (that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll play well).  The best case for Cincinnati is that Andy Dalton likes playing 1pm Sunday games and they have to win a playoff game at some point, right?  Even Susan Lucci eventually won an Emmy. The best case for me is that the winner of this game flies to Foxborough.

Prediction: Indianapolis 37, Cincinnati 21.

Playoff doppelganger: 2004 AFC Wild Card, Indianapolis 49, Denver 24.  The Jake Plummer-era Broncos are the best parallel to the Andy Dalton-era Bengals: A borderline competent quarterback incapable of reaching the next level but buoyed by good coaching, a strong running game and an above-average regular season defense.  And Andrew Luck, like Peyton Manning early in his career, feasted on bad teams and couldn’t beat the good ones like New England and Pittsburgh.  In this game, Reggie Wayne had 10 receptions for 221 yards and two scores; last year in the Wild Card round, T.Y. Hilton had 13 receptions for 224 yards and two scores.  Andrew Luck has both of them at his arsenal.

Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys (-7½)
Sunday, January 4, 4:40pm EST, FOX.

            It wouldn’t feel right watching this game without turkey, stuffing, and gravy, but at the same time, it doesn’t really feel right watching this game, period.  The Cowboys didn’t have another December collapse?  The Lions won 11 games with a 22nd ranked offense and 3rd ranked defense?  Either Tony Romo or Matthew Stafford will emerge from a playoff game victorious?  Something in the universe feels awry.  What happened to the annual Packers-49ers or Eagles-Saints wild card game? 
            The case for the Cowboys: They played December like a desperate Mountain West college team making their case to be in the BCS title game (scoring 41, 38, 42, and 44 points in each game respectively); their offensive line was so outstanding that it propelled Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray into legitimate MVP candidates (why giving a collective MVP to the Dallas offensive line was never a serious discussion confounds me; this is the same league that once gave MVP to a kicker); the Dallas defense ranked second in total takeaways with 31; they went undefeated on the road, something only five other teams have ever done in NFL history.  Each of those teams at very minimum advanced to the Super Bowl.
            This means that, strangely enough, homefield advantage could be anything but advantageous to Dallas.  The Cowboys went 4-4 at home, but two of those losses occurred when Romo was injured and a third was on Week One.  Thus, the only loss that adequately demonstrates Dallas’ weaknesses was their Thanksgiving Day 23-point thrashing at the hands of Mark Sanchez and the Eagles.  So how did Philadelphia win that game?  The Eagles stacked the line of scrimmage and pressured Romo relentlessly, resulting in two interceptions and only 73 rushing yards for Murray (his lowest total of the season when healthy).  Philadelphia’s up-tempo offense converted 8 third downs and ran for 256 yards on the ground. 
            Therefore, the steps to beating Dallas is relatively simple: Successfully run the ball (the Cowboys are 1-3 when allowing over 123 rushing yards); force turnovers (the Cowboys are 3-4 when turning the ball over 2 or more times; they are 9-0 in all other games); and hold Dallas to under 20 points (the Cowboys are 0-4 in such games).  It’s not rocket science.  But the problem is that successfully achieving those things is easier said than done, and Detroit doesn’t exactly appear to be the best team to take Dallas down.
            To be fair, the Lions look surprisingly formidable on paper: They had the third-best scoring defense in football and held all but five opponents under 17 points.  Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush are finally healthy (think for a moment how much more amazing that sentence would have sounded 7-8 years ago) and Jim Caldwell knows how to win in the playoffs.  Furthermore, Tony Romo has inexplicably struggled against the Lions, going 1-3 in his career against Detroit.  In the last two Detroit-Dallas games, the Lions overcame second-half deficits of 24 and 10 points respectively, and Megatron had a total of 425 receiving yards.  And even though Stafford has a record of 0-1 in the postseason, it’s only one fewer win than Romo’s record of 1-3.
            But then you have to step back and look at the most telling statistic of Stafford’s career – a stat which was repeatedly brought up by Joe and Troy in last week’s loss to the Packers: In road games against teams above .500, Stafford has a lifetime record of 0-16. Yikes.  Ben Roethlisberger and Meryl Streep Aaron Rodgers won Super Bowls as 6 seeds.  Joe Flacco and Eli Manning had to make epic road trips to win their titles.  Peyton and Tom, the same (maybe someday the most recent Super Bowl winning QB will actually have to win a meaningful playoff game on the road). The point is this: Dallas and Detroit both possess individual components of what could potentially make a championship team – the Cowboys’ offensive line, the Lions’ defensive line, and Dez Bryant and Megatron.  Both have the ability to clinch a Super Bowl appearance and maybe even win a title.  The difference is that one of these teams knows how to win on the road, while the other team still has not figured it out (and frankly, they haven’t figured it out since the days of Bobby Layne).  Don’t overthink this one.

Prediction: Dallas 35, Detroit 17.

Playoff Doppelganger: 2009 NFC Wild Card, Dallas 34, Philadelphia 14.  You may not remember this, but the 2009 Cowboys also went into the playoffs red-hot after beating the 13-0 Saints in New Orleans and shutting out the Eagles in the season finale.  The only real memorable thing about Tony Romo’s lone playoff victory was dog abuser rehabilitated Michael Vick throwing his first touchdown pass in three seasons.  The excitement over Romo exorcising his postseason demons was short-lived, however, as Dallas went to Minnesota the next week and lost by 31.  I somehow don’t see a repeat of that happening this time.

Thoughts?  Disagreements?  Angry that I did not meet my quota of Tom Brady references?  Write below.

No comments:

Post a Comment