NFL playoffs wild-card weekend preview

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By PAT RALPH
College Contributor Network

After 17 weeks of incredible football throughout the 2014 regular season, the NFL playoffs are ready to kick off this weekend with the Wild Card round featuring four terrific matchups. While the New England Patriots and defending conference-champion Denver Broncos have claimed first-round byes in the AFC, the defending Super Bowl-champion Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers are automatically through to the Divisional round next weekend in the NFC. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let's take a look at each of the games during Wild Card weekend.

Arizona Cardinals (11-5) at Carolina Panthers (7-8-1), Saturday 4:20 ET ESPN

Not even a month ago, it looked as if the Cardinals were on their way to winning the NFC West and securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. In addition, it looked like the Panthers would not be returning to the playoffs. Flash forward to this weekend and the scenario could not be anymore different. Due to a plethora of injuries and the resurgence of the aforementioned Seahawks during the second half of the season, the Cardinals' 2-4 finish dropped them from their elite perch into a Wild Card-round road game against a sub-.500 division winner. Despite their poor 7-8-1 record and going almost two months without a victory, the Panthers captured the lowly NFC South title for a second straight season by winning their last four games.

The theme of this game may very well be health. While many of the Cardinals' best players have been banged up for the last several weeks, the Panthers are finally healthy now. This can be best seen at the positions where the Panthers hold huge advantages: quarterback and running back. Pro Bowl quarterback Cam Newton looks as healthy and strong as he has ever been and finally seems to be on the same page with his talented, new receiving corps. This is not good news for the Cardinals, who have one of the worst passing defenses in the NFL.

On the other hand, Cardinals' quarterback Ryan Lindley is their third so far this season and is very unproven (especially in a playoff game). The best matchup within the contest could be the Panthers' rushing attack led by a healthy Jonathan Stewart, one of the best in the league, going up against Arizona's strong rush defense. Unlike Carolina, the Cardinals have struggled to run the ball this season. Whichever team wins this battle on the line of scrimmage should be in good shape. Also, expect very few penalties and turnovers in this contest as both teams are two of the most disciplined in the NFL.

While Saturday's game should be a defensive battle rather than a shootout, the Panthers' defense is finally getting back to its elite status from last season behind Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly who lead the NFL in tackles this year. It could be a great opportunity for this defense going up against one of the weakest offenses in the league. The Panthers are without question playing their best football of the season at the right time.

Prediction: Panthers

Baltimore Ravens (10-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5), Saturday 8:15 ET NBC

Looking for a matchup where both teams hate each other? Look no further than when these AFC North rivals clash in the Steel City for the third time this season. The Ravens and Steelers split their first two meetings this season, as both teams clobbered the other by a 20-point margin on their home field. The Steelers, who captured their first AFC North title since 2010 by winning their last four games against playoff-contending teams, return to the playoffs after a three-year absence, while the Ravens return to the playoffs for the first time since 2012, when they captured Super Bowl XLVII. After winning three of their final four games, the Ravens snagged the final playoff spot in the AFC.

A typical Steelers-Ravens showdown is a fight between two outstanding defenses. This year's chapter in the rivalry has a slight wrinkle to it, as the Ravens' top-ten defense will look to slow down the Steelers' second-ranked offense in the league. The Steelers' offense features the "Three B's"; quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell, and wide receiver Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger finished tied for the league lead in passing yards, Brown won the receiving yards and receptions titles, and Bell placed second for the rushing title. However, an injury to Bell in Pittsburgh's season finale could keep the Pro Bowl running back out of Saturday's game. The loss of Bell would all but force Pittsburgh's offense to become one-dimensional and focus entirely on passing, which would not be the worst thing considering Baltimore's weak secondary. The Steelers will have to keep their eyes glued to Ravens' veteran linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, who finished with 17 sacks this season.

On the other hand, there are few teams who can control the line of scrimmage better than the Ravens. A strong running game on the offensive side of the ball, along with a stout run defense and pass rush, make the Ravens a very dangerous threat in the postseason. Ravens' running back Justin Forsett finished fifth in the league in rush yards, serving as the catalyst to the Ravens' rushing attack which ranks in the top ten in the NFL. Because of their struggles defensively this year, the Steelers must be aware of Ravens' quarterback Joe Flacco's ability to make big plays down the field.

If Bell is ready to go Saturday for the Steelers and the Pro Bowl combination of Big Ben and Brown can expose Baltimore's porous secondary, the home-field advantage and momentum could be the difference maker in this contest. But if the Ravens can run the ball to their liking despite Pittsburgh's strong run defense and contain Pittsburgh's high-powered offense, do not be surprised to see this Baltimore team make a deep run in the playoffs.

Prediction: Steelers

Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1) at Indianapolis Colts (11-5), Sunday 1:05 ET CBS

Just a mere two hours away from each other, the Bengals and Colts will clash for the second time this season after the Colts rolled to an easy home victory in their first meeting back in Week 7. The Bengals are in the playoffs for a fourth straight year with quarterback Andy Dalton, while the Colts are in the postseason for a third straight season with Andrew Luck as their quarterback. As the Bengals seek their first playoff win since 1990, the Colts will be looking to pair up their second straight AFC South title with a second straight home playoff win.

Sunday's game will be an offensive battle between air and ground. The Colts' passing attack ranks first in the NFL behind the Pro Bowl-bound Luck who finished third in the league in total passing yards this season. On the other hand, the Bengals have a top-ten rushing attack led by standout rookie running back Jeremy Hill. Despite the fact that Luck has two extremely-talented wide receivers to throw the ball to, in T.Y. Hilton and Reggie Wayne, the Colts' running game is non-existent and could be a huge problem for Indianapolis in the playoffs.

As a result of this, the Bengals' defense can primarily focus upon containing Indy's lethal passing game and forcing Luck to turn the ball over. However, Dalton also has a problem of throwing too many interceptions like his counterpart. Dalton's favorite target and arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL, A.J. Green, has been hampered with injuries all season and could miss Sunday's contest, which would give some relief to the Colts' secondary.

While both teams have good defenses, expect Sunday's game to be a shootout between two very good young quarterbacks. The two important keys to this game should be style of play and turnovers. If the Bengals can run the ball at will and get pressure on Luck to throw interceptions into heavy coverage, Cincinnati could snap its playoff losing streak. However, if the Colts can cut off the Bengals' running game early and create turnovers by forcing Dalton to throw the football more than he wishes, Indianapolis could be in for a big day. Not to mention, home-field advantage could play a pivotal role too.

Prediction: Colts

Detroit Lions (11-5) at Dallas Cowboys (12-4), Sunday 4:40 ET FOX

The fourth and final game of Wild Card weekend will be in Jerry World, where the Cowboys will be hosting their first playoff game since Dallas was last in the postseason back in 2009. The Cowboys were able to eradicate their past December demons by going undefeated in the month this season to dethrone the Philadelphia Eagles for the NFC East title. As for the Lions, Detroit returns to the postseason for the first time since 2010 and will be looking for their first playoff win since 1991. For the curious and wondrous ones reading this, the Lions' last playoff victory came against the Cowboys. Despite winning four of their last five games, the Lions were unable to snag the NFC North title away from the Packers.

Sunday's contest pits a high-octane offense against one of the best defenses in football. Cowboys' Pro Bowl running back DeMarco Murray has been the MVP for Dallas' resurgent offense, as Murray lead the NFL in rushing yards this season. The establishment of a strong running game has allowed Dallas to become less dependent on Pro Bowl quarterback Tony Romo and has lead to Romo having his most efficient and effective season yet. Not to mention, Romo has also had the pleasure of throwing to Pro Bowl wide receiver Dez Bryant.

On the other side of the football, the Lions bring in one of the most stout defenses in the league led by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and linebacker DeAndre Levy who finished second in the league in tackles. Detroit knows how to get after the quarterback and stop the run, and it will need to do continue doing so against Dallas in order to win. The featured matchup in the game will be the young, athletic Cowboys' offensive line going up against the quick, versatile Lions' defensive line. Simply put, the team that is able to control the line of scrimmage will win the game.

Because the Cowboys' defense is not a masterpiece, the matchup should open up scoring opportunities for the Lions' prolific passing duo of quarterback Matthew Stafford and Pro Bowl wide receiver Calvin Johnson. However, Detroit's offense lacks a dependable rushing attack and is one of the most-penalized offenses in the NFL. A strong performance from Stafford, combined with corralling Dallas' running game while forcing Romo to throw more than he pleases, is the recipe of success for Detroit. However, if Murray and the Cowboys' offensive line is able to push Detroit back and open up opportunities for Romo to display his skills, the Lions are doomed.

Prediction: Cowboys

Pat Ralph is a junior at Villanova University. He has a passion for Philadelphia sports, especially the Phillies and Eagles, as well as Villanova Basketball and the New York Knicks. Follow him on Twitter @Pat_Ralph
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