Saturday NFL Wild Card Round Preview
Playoffs get underway with four games this weekend
Arizona Cardinals (11-5) at Carolina Panthers (7-8-1)
Carolina punched their ticket to the post season after smashing Atlanta in Week 17, earning them back-to-back NFC South Division titles. Despite not winning a game for almost two months, they enter this weekend as only the second team in NFL history to qualify for the playoffs with a losing record.
Cam Newton, a month removed from a pair of fractures to vertebrae suffered in an auto accident, is in the midst of the worst statistical season of his career has had to rely on his defense who has only yielded 43 points in the seasons final month, second only to Seattle (33).
Arizona was the first team to earn a playoff berth, but have had nothing but bad luck since. Days after signing a multi-year extension, quarterback Carson Palmer suffered a season ending knee injury. Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians turned the reins of the offense over to Drew Stanton to kept Arizona afloat until he also suffered a knee injury, leaving Arizona to scramble and struggle. Ryan Lindley by default became the starter, and the offense muddled thru games as they stumbled down the stretch failing to score over 18 points in any of the four December games.
Prediction: Ryan Lindley will catch a lot of the blame, but no offense is the same with the 3rd stringer running the show. Lindley will have his best game as a pro, but that Panthers defense is firing on all cylinders right now. Carolina rolls 26-9
Baltimore Ravens (10-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
Baltimore has only been consistent at being inconsistent, but after winning three of their last four games, they earned a spot in the postseason as one of three AFC North teams to qualify. Despite losing Ray Rice before the season, the Ravens offense got a boost from veteran wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. who quickly became a favorite target for Joe Flacco. Smith hauled in over 1000 yards in 14th season, and as he goes, so go the Ravens. In the Ravens 10 wins, Smith is averaging 14.9 yards per catch and has posted five touchdowns, but in Baltimore’s 5 losses, Smith posted 10.5 yards per catch and one touchdown.
Offensively the Pittsburgh Steelers have been in rarefied air. Ben Roethlisberger tied for the league lead in passing yards, running back Le’Veon Bell led the AFC in rushing, and no one in the NFL pulled in more catches than Antonio Brown. With the historically good Steelers defense starting to show its age, Pittsburgh has needed every bit of its offenses success. After starting the 2014 campaign 3-3, the Steelers ripped off a three and four game winning streak including a four wins against playoff teams.
The biggest key to this game is addition and subtraction. The Steelers will be without Bell due to an injury sustained in the season finale Sunday night against Cincinnati, while Baltimore will get stud defensive lineman Haloti Ngata back from a four game suspension.
Prediciton: Baltimore got smoked last time they stepped onto Heinz Field – losing by 20 points – but this time it will be much closer. The return of Ngata helps stifle the Steelers offense as they will struggle to find a flow without Bell, but it won’t be enough as Pittsburgh will move on. Steelers escape 27-25