We've arrived at possibly the most exciting weekend of the NFL season – the wild card round. Eight teams start their second season, in what they hope is a journey to the Super Bowl. Some of the teams playing on Wild-card weekend barely squeaked into the playoffs after getting help on the final weekend of the regular season. Some teams have known for weeks they would be in the playoffs, and were only playing to solidify their seeding.
Make no mistake – every team has a red flag that can be exploited by the opponent. Some weaknesses are as obvious as Ndamukong Suh stomping on an opponent; other red flags are as subtle as a Larry Fitzgerald double move.
Let's review the red flag for each wild-card team.
Can a 3rd string quarterback lead Arizona to playoff glory?
Even after a couple of starts late in the season, many fans are still saying, "Ryan who?" Ryan Lindley will be making his seventh career start on Saturday ...
On the road ...
In the playoffs.
A 6th round pick by the Cardinals out of San Diego State in 2012, Lindley was signed off the Chargers practice squad when Carson Palmer went down in November. After Drew Stanton also went down, Lindley found himself in the unlikely role of playoff game starting quarterback. The stakes are clear – Arizona was 8-1 with Palmer as the starter, and has gone 3-4 since. In those 7 games with backup quarterbacks, Arizona hasn't scored more than 17 points in any single game.
The Cardinals defense can hold its own, but they can't win if they don't score points. Can Ryan Lindley calm the sudden chaos the Cardinals have at the QB position? If he can deliver, it would be one of the more improbable story lines in recent playoff memory.
Luckily, they face off against another improbable playoff contender, an opponent with a sub-.500 record.
The Panthers look to get hot at the right time – can they?
Carolina becomes only the fourth team with a losing record to make the playoffs, and the first two don't even count – the Browns and the Lions both made it at 4-5 in the strike-shortened 1982-83 season. Of course, the Panthers are hoping to capture the same magic as the last team to accomplish that, the 2010-11 Seattle Seahawks. That 7-9 Seahawks team won at home against a superior Saints team.
If Carolina hopes to move on to the next round, they will have to find a way to beat a playoff caliber team for only the second time this season. They were a dismal 1-4-1 against playoff teams in the regular season. The two advantages they have are a 4-game winning streak to end the regular season, and an opponent starting an unknown at QB. The big disadvantage – the Cardinals still have a playoff caliber defense.
Can Joe Flacco be elite for Baltimore?
Everyone is tired of the debate: Is Joe Flacco an elite quarterback? However, one thing is for sure – he's going to have to play at an elite level on Saturday to beat the Steelers on the road. This is one of the NFL's most competitive division rivalries, and it will be interesting to see how this edition unfolds. The teams split the season series. Baltimore won at home in Week 2, before Pittsburgh got hot – the Ravens only gave up six points. Then the Ravens got smoked in Pittsburgh in Week 9, giving up 43 as Ben Roethlisberger had six passing TDs for the second week in a row.
In his two matchups with the Steelers' defense this year, Flacco has played well – four touchdowns and only one interception. While both teams still play solid defense, neither is as dominating as in years past. Flacco sports a 9-4 record in the playoffs, but if you take out the Super Bowl season of 2012, he's a pedestrian 5-4.
This year's Ravens squad was the last team in, only qualifying for the playoffs after the Chargers choked away their opportunity to punch their ticket. Baltimore was 4-4 on the road, including 0-3 against playoff teams (IND, CIN, PIT). The Steelers have been red hot over the second half of the season, with the number one rated offense for most of the year. The Ravens defensive weakness is in their secondary, so look for Big Ben to light it up. This game may come down to whether or not Baltimore can keep up in a shootout.
Can the Steelers survive without the most dynamic back in football?
Last Sunday night's game was huge – an AFC North matchup with the winner taking the division and the loser getting the No. 5 seed. The Steelers prevailed to grab home field for this weekend, but it came at quite a price – Le'Veon Bell had his knee hyperextended on an open field tackle by Safety Reggie Nelson. Luckily for Pittsburgh, there was no ligament damage. However, there is sufficient worry about Bell's ability to go this Saturday that the team signed Ben Tate this week as an insurance policy.
The loss of Bell would be a huge impact on the ground – their second leading rusher is still LeGarrette Blount, who was cut a month ago. But the effect on the passing game might be more dire. Le'Veon Bell has 290 rushes for 1361 yards and 8 TDs – but he also has 83 receptions for 854 yards and three more TDs through the air. That makes him the second leading receiver on the entire team. In today's NFL, teams run ball control offense as much in the passing game as the running game.
The Steelers lean heavily on the RB position, both in the rushing and passing games. If Bell is unable to go, that will leave a huge hole in their offensive game plan.
Andy Dalton, will you please stand up?
This red flag is really quite simple. It's Andy Dalton's game to win or lose.
Andy Dalton remains an enigma. A second round pick by the Bengals in 2011, much responsibility has been placed on his shoulders. Dalton has shown flashes of development, complimented by times when the pressure was clearly too much to handle. His regular season stats showed good development through his first three years as a starter, but he's regressed badly in 2014.
Dalton steadily increased his yards and touchdowns in each of his first three years as a starter, but this year he went backward. He had 104 fewer attempts this season than in 2013, and he went from 33 to 19 TDs. Most disturbingly, however, he's increased his interception rate each year as starter. In 2011 he threw interceptions on 2.5% of his passes. This year, Dalton's interception rate was 3.5%, ranking near the bottom of the league.
Andy Dalton still led his team to 10 wins and a playoff berth ... and along the way, had the second most game-winning drives in the league (4). This will be Dalton's 4th appearance in the playoffs.
He's 0-3 so far. This game will go a long way toward determining if Cincinnati will trust him to take them to playoff glory in the future.
For Andy Dalton, the future is now. There may not be another chance.
Will Andrew Luck have any help, or will he have to do it all himself?
This game will be a rematch of Cincinnati's visit to Indianapolis in Week 7, won by the Colts 27-0. The Colts have played a couple of playoff teams this year, but they've greatly benefited from going 6-0 against their weak division opponents in the AFC South. The Colts do not have a rushing game to speak of, being led by Trent Richardson's 519 yards and 3.3 yards per carry. The leading receiver is T.Y. Hilton by a country mile; no other receiver came within 500 yards of his total of 1,345. Luck has spread the ball all over the field, which can be an advantage if things are clicking.
However, without a dominant 2nd receiver or running game, the Colts have struggled against quality opponents. Including the Cincinnati game, the Colts are 2-4 against playoff teams. The defense has been thrashed in those losses, and despite Luck's best efforts, the offense just couldn't keep up. They gave up 31 to Denver, 51 to Pittsburgh, 42 to New England and 42 to Dallas. If "Good Andy" shows up for the Bengals, the Colts defense can be had.
Despite Andrew Luck's gaudy passing statistics, he just doesn't have the weapons to keep up if this turns into a shootout.
Can Matthew Stafford beat a good team on the road?
The Detroit Lions have a formidable team this year. The defense is No. 1 in the NFL against the run and 2nd in overall defense. They sport a pair of 1000 yard receivers and a QB in Matthew Stafford with an electric arm. The Lions make only their second playoff appearance in the last 15 years.
Do their fans have any reason to hope for a playoff run?
That all depends on Matthew Stafford. While it's not all his fault, it's well documented that Stafford sports an 0-16 career record against winning teams on the road. When the bright lights shine, Stafford has yet to show that he can respond and lead his team to victory. Much like Andy Dalton, it's time for Matthew Stafford to flip the switch. It remains to be seen if he can do it.
Whether Tony Romo exorcizes his playoff demons will depend on his defensive teammates.
It may come as a surprise to many, but Tony Romo is not the weak link of this playoff team. Dallas sports one of the most high-powered offensive units in the league, with a dominant offensive line that gives Romo the secure pocket he needs. He doesn't have to make panic moves to keep the ball moving. With a dominant run game, a receiving corps that can make big plays and the security blanket in TE Jason Witten, the offense can be measured, consistent and deadly.
It's the defense that remains a question.
Coming into the preseason, many pundits wondered if Dallas would field one of the worst defenses in league history. Under Monte Kiffin in 2013, the Cowboys ranked near the bottom of the league in most statistical categories. Then they lost middle linebacker Sean Lee for the season with a knee injury. Few options were available to them, and they were forced to rely on former draft bust Rolando McClain as their starter.
However, Rod Marinelli was brought in to replace Kiffin, and while the defense is not great, it also hasn't been historically bad. Dallas ranked as merely below average (No. 19) in overall defense, and 15th in scoring defense.
This is the red flag for Dallas – it gives up a ton of yards, especially in the passing game. If the team allows Matthew Stafford to sustain drives and fail to bring pressure, it could turn into a shootout. The Cowboys defense needs to find a way to get off the field consistently on third downs – otherwise, another playoff game could be entrusted to Tony Romo.
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