By Jason Keidel
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You could say the first round of NFL playoffs doesn’t have a lot of pizzazz this year. Or maybe it does and we don’t see it. You can make an argument for all four road teams to win, and isn’t that what we want? The NFL, unlike most team sports, doesn’t treat parity as parody. So let’s dip into this four-game, football buffet in chronological order…
Arizona Cardinals (11-5) @ Carolina Panthers (7-8-1)
When you consider the six points Carolina is giving, its hard to recall that they were once 3-8-1, while Arizona was 9-1. While Vegas rarely gets it wrong, it’s just darn disrespectful to give a touchdown (sans extra point) to a team that elbowed their way to 11 wins with a phalanx of fledgling quarterbacks in the most ornery division in the NFC.
This happens, of course, when you lose your starting quarterback. Arizona was 6-0 with Carson Palmer, and 5-5 with everyone else. Enter Ryan Lindley, who has yet to win a game this year, which means you can’t expect much from Arizona’s passing attack.
What should bother any Cardinals fan, beyond the attrition at quarterback, is the fact that they can’t run the ball, either. Arizona’s ground game was ranked 31st by season’s end. The fact that they have finished the season with double-digit wins speaks to their defense and Bruce Arians’ ability and equanimity.
The Panthers were a train wreck until Cam Newton’s car wreck. He broke two bones in his back and somehow found his mojo. Newton is best when he blasts defenses with his running prowess. In Carolina’s first 11 games, Newton rushed for over 50 yards just once, whereas he’s topped they number in each of the team’s final three games.
Frankly, everything points to Carolina, which is why the pick here is Arizona. Arians has one more slight of hand left this season.
Baltimore Ravens (10-6) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
Notice I just said toughest division in the NFC? That’s because the toughest division in football is the AFC North. With three of the four teams winning 10 games and making the playoffs, no one can dispute the division’s eminence.
Despite the two blowouts between the teams this year, the rivalry is especially biting, bitter, and brutally close. Entering this season, nine of the prior 11 meetings were decided by three points or less. These teams could not be more familiar or contemptuous of each other. It’s become trendy to say this is no longer the rivalry du jour, but it is.
Joe Flacco is generally clutch, unless he’s playing in Pittsburgh, where he and his Ravens have yet to win a playoff game. His passer rating at home versus the Steelers is 102.3, but 78.0 at Heinz Field. But this is probably the weakest defense he’s ever faced in Pittsburgh, with more holes in the Steel Curtain in over a decade. The Steelers have flipped the historical script, eschewing their normal, crunching defense for a more balanced and balletic offense.
The collective question, of course, is what about Le’Veon Bell and the most covered and coveted knee in the sport? No doubt Bell’s hyperextended knee will have some say in the winning score and winning team. But of all the Killer Bs (Bryant, Bell, Ben), it is Big Ben who matters most. His nearly 5,000 yards passing suggests he can use the short pass as a de facto rushing attack. As long as Antonio Bryant, another Bryant (Martavis), and Heath Miller can keep the Ravens defense honest, the steelers can manufacture a enough rushing to squeeze out a typically close win.
Picking against my beloved black & gold feels blasphemous.
Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1) @ Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
With a bevy of coin-flip contests this weekend, this could be the hardest one to pick. You can make six salient arguments for either team.
The Colts are at home, have a better record, and a better quarterback. Despite having the most tenure of any NFL head coach not named Belichick, Marvin Lewis has yet to win a playoff game (0-5). And his quarterback, Andy Dalton, sometimes sardonically called the “Red Rifle,” is 0-3 in January. Both men can cancel out some serious curses in just 60 minutes.
Not only is Dalton winless in burger playoffs, he’s put up a paltry 19 touchdowns and an alarming 17 interceptions. Not to mention the Colts shut him up and shut him out earlier this season, with a 27-0 shellacking in Indy in October. But other than that game, the Colts struggled against the AFC aristocracy, losing to the Patriots, Broncos and Steelers. Playing in the exponentially tougher AFC North has made the Bengals more battle tested, if you believe in such things.
Andrew Luck is the sport’s next monolith. In a league that all but breaks its back to protect the quarterback, Luck is refreshingly old school, often playfully slapping the helmet and complimenting the 300-point behemoth who just slammed him into the ground. He can play in any arena, on any surface, in any weather. Luck is literally unflappable. It’s a good thing the Bengals have two dynamic running backs – Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill – to keep the ball on ground and Luck off the tired.
Distilled, the Colts have the best player, while the Bengals have the best team. Luck has the next 15 years to get his ring. The Bengals have used the last 10 years to prorate for a playoff win. This time they finally break the golden goose egg.
Detroit Lions (11-5) @ Dallas Cowboys (12-4)
Bet you that Cowboys Nation is retroactively ecstatic that the team ripped the remote from Jerry Jones and drafted another Pro-Bowl lineman instead of Johnny Manziel. You’re not hearing too many chants for Johnny Football these days. Amazing what happens when football people are allowed to make football decisions.
Love or loathe the Cowboys, the NFL and the world is a better place when they’re playing playoff football. And, frankly, this is the best Dallas has looked since Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, and Emmitt Smith made a mockery of the league 20 years ago. Sure, they went 13-3 a few years ago, but that was with Wade Philips as their coach and Terrell Owens as their best player. There’s a new world order in Texas – a run-first bettering ram led by the leading rusher in the game (DeMarco Murray) and the best offensive line in the league.
But despite their newfound running prowess, this game is clearly a referendum on Tony Romo, who will forever be mired in some Texas fire or ire until he makes a playoff run. Romo was stellar this season, throwing 34 TDs and 9 INTs. If not for Aaron Rogers going Galactus on the league, Romo would have been a bona fide MVP candidate.
The Lions caught a cosmic break when Ndamukong Suh won his appeal. Despite his televised two-step on Aaron Rodgers’ brittle leg, Suh is playing this weekend. The Lions desperately need him to stop Murray from tiptoeing through the secondary. We keep hearing that the Lions have the best defense in football, but have yet to see them stop the best teams in the biggest games. This Sunday is the perfect time to make their closing argument,
Both teams have ample talent on offense. You could argue that the game’s two best wideouts (Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant) will be on the field. Yet Dallas has gotten much more production out of their pyrotechnic skill players.
You could also argue that Matt Stafford is a younger Romo, wildly talented yet tormented on the biggest stage. For all their offensive talent, the Lions scored over 24 points just three times this year, and never against a team in these playoffs.
In the end, it bothers me that Stafford has yet to beat a winning team on the road. It should bother everyone.
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