NFL Playoff Predictions: Wild Card Round

College Football teams aren’t the only ones playing in post-season games this week.

The NFL playoffs start with two games today, one at 4:20 p.m. and another at 8:15 p.m., and two more games tomorrow.

Saturday will feature the third meeting of the season between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. It will also match a team in Arizona who finished the season with 11 wins against a Carolina Panthers team with a sub-.500 record.

On Sunday, two teams that are accustomed to playoff football square off when the Cincinnati Bengals take on the Indianapolis Colts. Then two teams that haven’t seen much of the playoffs of late play when the Dallas Cowboys host the Detroit Lions.

All will be interesting matchups, so here are my predictions for the first round of the NFL Playoffs.

Arizona (11-5) vs Carolina (7-8-1)

The Cardinals have had a tough season despite a great record. They started the season 9-1 but went just 2-4 down the stretch and lost their hold on the NFC West division.

Arizona lost its first-string quarterback, Carson Palmer, when he tore his ACL against the Rams in a 31-14 Cardinals win. Drew Stanton stepped into the starting role and had mixed performances before he suffered a right knee injury also against the Rams in Week 15.

Ryan Lindley then became the man for Arizona under center and didn’t play well in either game he started, both losses. There was a slight possibility Stanton could start for the Cardinals on Saturday, however, on Thursday it was confirmed Stanton would not be available to play.

Carolina on the other hand did not have a successful season.

The same team that dominated the NFC South last year, performed sub-par this year, much like the rest of the division. Following a tie in Week 6 the Panthers lost six games in a row. However, Carolina then won its final four game of the season, including a 34-3 win over the Atlanta Falcons to take the division crown.

Statistically Arizona was the second-worst team in the NFL this season running the ball, only averaging 81.8 rushing yards per game. However, Carolina was just an average run defense this year.

Even though the Panthers are hot at the moment with their four-game win streak, I think the Cardinals are going to be able to pull out a victory. I see Larry Fitzgerald having a big day and Patrick Peterson and the defense being able to contain Cam Newton just enough.

Prediction: Cardinals win 27-23

Ravens (10-6) vs. Steelers (11-5)

In the two meetings this season between these AFC North foes, Baltimore won by 20 points and Pittsburgh won by 20 points. The two games were completely different.

Defense ruled the first meeting, especially for Baltimore, while the Week 9 matchup was much more high scoring as 66 combined points were put up on the board.

I think this meeting between these two teams will be more like the first one and will be low scoring.

Pittsburgh won’t have Le’Veon Bell due to a knee injury he suffered in the season finale against Cincinnati. His absence will most likely cut down on the explosiveness of the Steelers offense.

And on the other side, you never know which Joe Flacco is going to show up. Flacco is definitely a different quarterback in the playoffs but has struggled against the Steelers in the postseason, losing both playoff meetings in the 2008 and 2010 seasons.

The X-factor for the game will be which team can run the ball more effectively. Whether it’s newly-signed Ben Tate for Pittsburgh, or Justin Forsett for Baltimore, I think whoever sets the tone with the running game will have the best shot to win this game.

I believe Pittsburgh will have a slight advantage because their running game, even though it will be limited with Tate, will be able to set up the passing game better than Baltimore will.

Prediction: Steelers win 20-14.

Bengals (10-5-1) vs. Colts (11-5)

This game could literally go either way.

Cincinnati has not won a playoff game since 1990.

Andy Dalton has led the Bengals to the playoffs in each of his first four years in the NFL. But the first three trips have all resulted in first-round defeats, losing twice to the Houston Texans and last year to the San Diego Chargers.

Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, like Dalton, also has made the postseason each of his first three seasons in the NFL. However, unlike Dalton, he has won in the playoffs. That came last year against Kansas City when Luck and the Colts completed the second-biggest comeback in NFL playoff history.

The two quarterbacks had very different seasons, as well.

Luck threw for 4,761 yards and 40 touchdowns while Dalton passed for 1,500 yards less and less than half touchdowns throughout the regular season.

These two QBs did face off once already this season, a 27-0 Colts victory in Week 7. Luck threw for over 300 yards and two touchdowns while Dalton only threw for 126 yards and zero touchdowns.

This meeting, however, will be different.

Both Dalton and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis obviously have something to prove, Lewis especially, who is 0-5 in the postseason. Many feel Lewis’s job could be in jeopardy if the Bengals lose on Sunday.

That added pressure should light a fire under the whole team.

I still don’t think it will be enough, though.

The Bengals pass defense ranked in the bottom half of the league, which doesn’t fare well on paper against the number 1 passing attack in the NFL. That, along with the fact that Luck’s top weapon on the outside, T.Y. Hilton, is back fully healthy only helps Indianapolis in this game.

What keeps Cincinnati in the game, though, is the fact that Jeremy Hill ran for over 1,200 yards this season and Indy is a below-average run defense.

Prediction: Colts win 38-24.

Lions (11-5) vs. Cowboys (12-4)

The Cowboys’ chances of winning Sunday’s game went from OK, to great, and back to OK in a matter of days due to the suspension, and undoing of that suspension, to Ndamukong Suh.

Suh was originally suspended by league for stepping on the leg of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers last week.

With Suh in the lineup, he anchors the best rush defense in the NFL that is allowing just 69.3 rypg. That is even more significant when going up against the second-best rushing attack in the league in Dallas.

These two teams are nearly identical in record, with the major difference being that four of the Lions five losses came against playoff teams, while only one of the Cowboys losses were at the hands of a team in the postseason.

Both teams, and both quarterbacks, have some history going against them, as well.

Tony Romo is 1-3 in the playoffs but his team has not reached the playoffs since 2009. And while Romo led the Cowboys to a perfect record on the road this season, he and the ‘Boys were just 4-4 at home, including an overtime defeat against the Redskins.

Dallas was picked to finish last in the NFC East this year. After three consecutive 8-8 years, the Cowboys bucked that trend, as well, winning the division.

Matthew Stafford has a disheartening 0-16 record in his career on the road against teams with winning records. And the Lions franchise has not won a game in the playoffs since 1991 against the Cowboys.

That stat is what’s pushing me towards picking the Cowboys.

Whereas Tony Romo has not been his normal “accident waiting to happen” self this year, Stafford has consistently been an “accident waiting to happen” against good teams on the road.

With Suh in the lineup, I think DeMarco Murray’s production will be shutdown some. But I think Romo will find Dez Bryant for at least two scores, which will be the difference on the scoreboard.

Prediction: Cowboys win 31-18.

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