Cover-Two: Team under the most pressure; toughest road to the title
Questions abound with the playoffs upon us. Who has the easiest road to Glendale, Ariz.? Can the Steelers overcome the knee injury to Le'Veon Bell? Chris Burke and Doug Farrar tackle all the burning topics below.
Team under most pressure entering playoffs
The Broncos were one win away from a title last season. They were active all offseason trying to ensure they did not fall short again in 2015, adding guys like Emmanuel Sanders, DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib.
Everything went swimmingly for a while, but questions about Peyton Manning's arm strength and the loss of home-field advantage to New England will send the Broncos into the postseason with less momentum than they'd like. While Manning already has said he'd like to return next season (and Denver certainly would comply if he holds that stance), how many shots does he have left in him?
The window is closing for a Broncos team reliant on some aging stars.
Doug Farrar: Detroit.
The Lions will have to deal with Dallas' outstanding rushing attack when the two teams face off on Sunday, and they'll most likely do it without their two best defensive tackles. Ndamukong Suh was suspended for the wild-card round after the NFL found his curb-stomp of Aaron Rodgers' leg in last Sunday's loss to the Packers to be out of bounds, and Nick Fairley is trying to return to the field with a knee injury that's had him out since Week 8. That's bad, bad news against a Cowboys' run-blocking line that has been pushing the rest of the league around with alarming consistency, and helped DeMarco Murray set the franchise record for rushing yards in a single season with 1,845 yards. The Lions do have one of the better run defenses in recent NFL history, but without Suh to anchor it, Dallas could more easily run wild -- and run the Lions right out of the playoffs. (UPDATE: Suh won his appeal and will play against the Cowboys.)
Bigger injury concern entering postseason: Le'Veon Bell's knee or Aaron Rodgers' calf
Burke: Bell's knee. The extra week of rest should do wonders for Rodgers, who seemed just fine -- albeit a little hobbled -- in leading Green Bay past Detroit last Sunday. Pittsburgh does not have the same luxury of time, what with a game Saturday night against the Ravens.
We're talking about the player with the second-most yards from scrimmage (2,215, just shy of DeMarco Murray's 2,261). Removing Bell from the Steelers' lineup, even against a Baltimore defense more susceptible to the pass, takes away a critical piece of the puzzle at the worst possible time.
Pittsburgh can lean on Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and the passing attack. Even there, though, Bell's absence or his attempt to play at less than 100 percent will be felt. He caught 83 passes out of the backfield this season and has developed into a steady pass-blocker. The latter point is one to keep in mind with Baltimore bringing Terrell Suggs and a steady rush to town.
Farrar: Bell's knee. Rodgers will have a week off to deal with his calf injury, because the Packers are the NFC's second seed. Right now, Bell can barely walk, according to multiple reports, and the Steelers have signed Ben Tate -- probably not a move they'd make under different circumstances. Pittsburgh can still beat the Ravens' undermanned defense with their outstanding passing game, but the loss of Bell would put a serious crimp in the team's offensive efforts -- Bell is not only one of the game's better pure rushers, but also a major part of the Steelers' pass-blocking and short passing game.
Who has the toughest path to the Super Bowl?
How critical was the Lions' loss to Green Bay? Well, the Packers will be off this week before hosting Dallas, Carolina or Arizona in the divisional round. Meanwhile, the Lions now have to travel to Dallas and, if they manage to win there, still must go through Seattle and likely Green Bay to reach the Super Bowl.
That's an absolute gauntlet.
Yes, Bruce Arians has done an amazing job with a dwindling number of resources at quarterback, but now that the postseason is here, expecting the Cards to advance in a serious fashion with Ryan Lindley under center is a bit of a stretch. The team is hopeful that Drew Stanton can play against the Panthers' ravenous defense on Saturday, but it's not as if Stanton was setting the world afire before he suffered a knee injury. Lindley is a below-replacement level starter at the game's most important position, and there's only so much coaching one can do around that.
Home team on upset watch in wild-card round
Since the Le'Veon Bell injury already has been a topic of conversation in this Cover-Two, there's no need to circle back on it much. Suffice it to say, that storyline alone is enough to make Pittsburgh the pick here.
Beyond that, the Ravens-Steelers rivalry is well-known for its close, hard-hitting ballgames. The two regular-season matchups did not fit the bill -- Baltimore won by 20 in Week 2; Pittsburgh by 20 in Week 9 -- but the playoffs are a different animal.
Both teams have strong run games, issues in the secondary and experienced rosters. Anything could happen, which puts a Baltimore victory firmly on the table.
While we're all aware of Andy Dalton's limitations as a passer, the rest of the Bengals team will come to Lucas Oil Stadium ready to play. Dalton has a solid receiver corps even with A.J. Green struggling with injuries. Rookie Jeremy Hill has been amazing of late, Giovani Bernard provides a nice change of pace in the backfield and in different formations, the offensive line is one of the league's best, and Paul Guenther's defense has shown a lot of improvement in the last month.
The Colts are propped up primarily by three players -- Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton and Vontae Davis -- and any alteration to that structure can be devastating. Witness what happened to the Colts' pass defense against the Steelers when Davis was out earlier this season, and the complete evaporation of the team's offense against the Cowboys when Hilton was hurt in Week 16. Home or not, the playoffs favor depth.
Darkhorse Super Bowl pick
The Panthers' season-ending four-game win streak came vs. three NFC South teams and Cleveland, so perhaps we should pump the brakes a bit. On the other hand, this suddenly looks like a club that has figured some things out, starting with how to put up some stops on defense. That is no minor development. The defense carried Carolina into the postseason last year and allowed just 14.3 points during Weeks 14-17 of this season.
Sure, the Cam Newton-led offense has been up and down. It's still a tough one to gameplan for because of Newton's ability to improvise on the fly. Add in a surging Jonathan Stewart out of the backfield, and the Panthers might have the necessary formula to be successful offensively in the postseason.
They'll be at home this week, against an Arizona team on its third QB. Win there, and (barring a Detroit upset in Dallas) they head to Green Bay, for a game against a Packers defense that has struggled with mobile quarterbacks in the past.
This is a flawed Carolina team -- that 7-8-1 record is no fluke. It's also a dangerous one right now.
I don't like that offense nearly as much without Le'Veon Bell, but if the Steelers can get past the Ravens and the defense steps up, this is a team that presents all sorts of unfavorable matchups to any opposing defense.