Christopher’s Picks: Wild Card Weekend

Now that the regular season has come and gone, it’s time for football fans to switch back into “playoff mode”. In other words, a large part of the NFL’s appeal is its parity.

While the Patriots and any Peyton Manning-led team are a virtual lock for the postseason, the rest of the league is truly impossible to predict. Who truly believed that Dallas could make the postseason? Raise your hand if you thought that San Francisco would return to mediocrity after three deep postseason runs. Or that the most competitive division in the NFL, the NFC South, would be won by a 7-8-1 team. You can’t see these things coming, but they happen every year.

For this reason, playoff results can never truly be labeled “upsets”. The gap between the best and the 12th best team in football is a small one, especially in a single game. A few key things to keep in mind during the next month:

1) Every team is vulnerable

There’s a difference between being the favorite — like Seattle or New England — and being unbeatable. No team is unbeatable. Every team has had a stretch of games this season where they didn’t look like a playoff team.

Seattle (Weeks 6-9): There were early signs of weakness in Seattle after losing to San Diego in Week 2 and nearly blowing a late lead the following week at home against Denver. But things really got out of control in Week 6 after losing back-to-back games to Dallas and St. Louis. During this time, they traded away Percy Harvin out of nowhere and continued to sputter in narrow victories over Carolina and Oakland.

New England (Weeks 3 & 4): Remember how bad New England at the start of the season? They reached their lowest depths in the Monday Night blowout over Kansas City, but the Oakland game in Week 3 was a serious cause for concern as well. Tom Brady‘s was out of sync and everyone had something to say about it.

Denver (Weeks 11 & 12): Many people will point to the last four Bronco games because of Peyton Manning. While he struggled throughout December, the rest of the team was fine. They even found a new running back in C.J. Anderson. But their 22-7 loss to St. Louis and their first three quarters against Miami were cause for concern.

Green Bay (Weeks 1-3): Aaron Rodgers urged Packer fans to relax after their 1-2 start, but it was hard to blame them for panicking. An early loss at Seattle is one thing, but a 21-3 deficit at home against the Jets and a 19-7 loss to Detroit aren’t easy to shake.

Pittsburgh (Weeks 10-13): Weeks 4-6 weren’t great for the Steelers either, but their three-game stretch late in the season was more alarming. Losses to New Orleans and the Jets, plus a comeback win over the Titans? At a time when everyone knew just how bad those three teams were? It’s amazing that Pittsburgh is even playing still.

Dallas (Weeks 8 & 9): Even at 6-1, everyone expected the wheels to fall off at some point. Their OT loss to Colt-McCoy led Washington brought them back down to Earth. Losing to NFC leader Arizona the next week threatened to break them. Their worst loss of the season was certainly Philadelphia on Thanksgiving Day, but this was their worst stretch of the season.

Indianapolis (Weeks 1 & 2): The Colts stumbled out of the gate, losing to Denver and Philadelphia in primetime. It looked like Andrew Luck and company had finally regressed back to the mean, but they quickly bounced back when their divisional matchups came around.

Carolina (Weeks 7-13): The Panthers were winless from October 6-December 6. That’s two full months without notching a victory. It’s a miracle that they’re in the postseason, but someone from the NFC South had to make it.

Cincinnati (Weeks 5-7): The narrative for Cincinnati is that they can’t win big games. While late-season wins over Cleveland and Denver should help dispel that notion, critics will point to their New England and Indianapolis losses by a combined score of 70-17. Their tie to Carolina didn’t help matters either. New England and Carolina were pretty vulnerable coming into those games too.

Arizona (Weeks 16 & 17): The 11-5 Cardinals were once the 9-1 Cardinals. Their road losses to Seattle and Atlanta weren’t great, but their final two games against Seattle (35-6) and San Francisco (20-17) were much worse. Not the way they’d like to end the season.

Baltimore (Weeks 8 & 9): Baltimore’s worst stretch came against AFC North opponents Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. It’s also the reason that they finished third in the division, a game behind the Steelers and a half game behind the Bengals.

Detroit (Weeks 11 & 12): The last three weeks of the season weren’t Detroit’s best, but Weeks 11 and 12 were worse. Losing to two of the league’s best teams by a combined score of 48-15 can have a negative effect on a team’s psyche.

2) Playing at home helps…

Ask Seattle last year. Or the home team whenever Brady and Manning’s teams play. Playing at home in the postseason is a huge advantage. In the last five years, home playoff teams are 31-19. Do you think the 2010 NFC West champion Seahawks, who went 7-9 during the regular season, beat defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans in the Superdome?

3) …but home teams will lose

Still, they happen every year. In every round. Yes, you want to play at home, but realistically, someone is going to lose. Last season, New Orleans — who struggled in all of their road games — traveled to Philadelphia in the Wild Card round. San Francisco had to face Green Bay in a negative double-digit wind chill. Both road teams won.

4) The best teams — not players — win playoff games

This is the most important note. It also explains my picks for the week. No one’s doing it on their own. Joe Flacco had an amazing postseason two years ago, but he isn’t hoisting the Lombardi Trophy if the Ravens defense doesn’t magically appear in January. Even the best quarterbacks in the league don’t have to play great in order to go all the way (see: Tom Brady’s first Super Bowl, Ben Roethlisberger’s first Super Bowl, etc.). They just have to be on the best team.

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Now let’s pick. I stopped picking after Week 10 of the, so I have no idea what my regular season tally was. I’m strangely confident about these four games.

Arizona over Carolina

For all of the jokes that Carolina is getting for winning the division at 7-8-1, they’re somehow favored to beat Arizona. It has more to do with people discounting the Cardinals than them favoring the Panthers, but it’s still a little odd.

The Cardinals have been the league’s most underrated team for the entire season. They started the season 9-1 without three of their best defensive players: Daryl Washington, Darnell Dockett, and John Abraham. But just when people started to take notice, Carson Palmer tore his ACL. In came Drew Stanton, who went 2-4 to finish the season. Now they’ve been written off completely with Ryan Lindley starting under center.

Meanwhile, Carolina returned from a two-month winless streak to batter division rivals Atlanta and New Orleans and sneak into the postseason. The defense is slowly returning to form, thanks to linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, along with surprising contribution from their secondary. Cam Newton is throwing and running like someone who wasn’t in a car accident just weeks ago.

Predictably, this game will hinge on defense. Ryan Lindley isn’t the best quarterback, but he has no problem taking shots downfield. (Who would when you have Michael Floyd, Larry Fitzgerald, and John Brown to throw to?) The defensive line has to get to Lindley early and often enough to give Newton and Jonathan Stewart enough time to establish the run on offense.

Still, I see Arizona’s defense blitzing enough on defense and making enough plays through the air to win. It score won’t be as bad as the five-interception nightmare of 2008, but the result should be the same.

Baltimore over Pittsburgh

Arizona-Carolina was the first example of playoff lessons 3 and 4. But when I wrote lesson four, I had Baltimore in mind. It’s no coincidence that Baltimore has made the postseason six of the last seven seasons. They may not have the best players, but they always field a great team.

2014 was no different. Joe Flacco has flashes of brilliance and ineptitude, but is a capable option at quarterback. Ray Rice‘s legal troubles sidelined him for the start of the season and eventually led to his release. In steps journeyman running back Justin Forsett, who rushes for over 1,200 yards. Mix in 35-year old Steve Smith, the team’s leading receiver, and you have an unlikely, but effective offense.

On a normal day, however, Pittsburgh has a clear advantage on offense. Ben Roethlisberger nearly surpassed the 5,000 yard passing plateau during the regular season. The main reason for that was Antonio Brown, who is the best receiver in the league by my count. But their run game suffered a huge blow though, with Le’Veon Bell on the sideline with a hyperextended knee. Bell accounted for 2,215 of Pittsburgh’s yards from scrimmage. Yes, that’s a lot. They signed former Cleveland castoff Ben Tate this week to help carry the load, but neither Tate nor Dri Archer nor Josh Harris can do for them what Bell does offensively.

And then there’s the defense. This could be where Baltimore wins the game. The Ravens may have the best linebacking corps in the playoffs, with Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil providing pass rush, while Daryl Smith and rookie C.J. Mosley patrol the middle. They’re the core of the defense and should give the Steelers fits all day. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s defense may need another huge day from James Harrison to win. They probably won’t get it from their secondary.

I like Baltimore here.

Indianapolis over Cincinnati

It’s hard to have confidence in the Colts.

For as much talent as Andrew Luck has, he’s still pretty inconsistent. No one does it all on their own, as I mentioned above, but the Colts are the closest exception to the rule. Luck has to succeed for them to succeed on offense. There isn’t a credible running back on the roster that can help take pressure off of him. So don’t expect them to make a Super Bowl run.

But expect them to win this game. The only other AFC quarterback with worse playoff performances than Luck is Andy Dalton. And if A.J. Green (concussion) can’t go, it’ll be an even tougher hill to climb for the fourth-year man. Can running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard do enough to help him?

Cincinnati will have to win this one on defense, but shutting down the Colts isn’t an easy task. If they don’t force Luck to make mistakes early, this one could get ugly.

Dallas over Detroit

Controversy struck the day after Dallas-Detroit became official, when Ndamukong Suh was suspended for stepping on the leg of Aaron Rodgers Week 17. The next day, Suh’s suspension was reduced to a $70,000 fine, which made even less sense than the suspension itself.

Whether he had played or not, Dallas would have their hands full with an underrated Detroit defense. Outside linebacker DeAndre Levy had been great all season and should have made the Pro Bowl. And a suspended-then-fined Suh will be an angry Suh. Dallas’s great offensive line will be tested all day and DeMarco Murray‘s yards on the ground won’t come easy.

Matthew Stafford and the Lions offense will probably need 20+ points to win and while he has a lot of weapons on paper in Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, they haven’t been very potent this season. Stafford’s thrown just 22 touchdowns through 16 regular season games.

If Detroit can’t pressure Tony Romo or bottle up Murray, watch out. Detroit’s secondary benefits largely because of their front seven and they’ll need all the help they can get against Dez Bryant and the rest of the receivers.

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